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Children's museums provide a pure learning experience, and Lisa Shull ('85, '91M) and a powerful team of volunteers brought the experience to kids throughout the Shenandoah Valley
By Martha Bell Graham
Lisa Shull ('85, '91M) organized a confederacy of dream builders and made the Explore More Discovery Museum a reality.
A volunteer at the Explore More Discovery Museum corrals children asking, "Who wants to make snow?" Together, the group measures, pours and stirs. Voila! Cold, feathery snow. The children are enthralled. "Can you eat it?" one asks. "Is it cold?" "Yes, feel it," the volunteer says. She lifts the bowl in the child's direction. Elsewhere on a stage replete with curtains, costumes and a row of padded seats for an audience, two young girls ply their theatrical skills while a boy in a sound booth produces sound effects ranging from howling winds to waves crashing. Somewhere in between, two boys make their way to the loft of the big red barn. Nearby two siblings scale a gigantic structure and then delight in knocking it down.
It feels like chaos. It sounds like a playground. But it's the purest kind of learning children can do. And it goes on daily at the Explore More Discovery Museum (formerly the Harrisonburg Children's Museum), a place that provides an innovative learning space for thousands of children throughout the Shenandoah Valley.
"Children learn by doing, and play is essential to healthy development. A children's museum is the perfect environment," says Lisa Shull ('85, '91M) the museum's executive director and a driving force behind its institution. "It's a place where children can follow their own interests, set their own pace, interact positively with parents and caregivers and discover new opportunities and talents. They get the chance to try things out without the risk of failure. Every child succeeds."
Shull, formerly an elementary school teacher and supervisor of student teachers for JMU's College of Education, and her husband Brian, economic development director for Harrisonburg, discovered children's museums with their own two children.
Then, they wondered about Harrisonburg. "My husband and I decided that we were going to gauge interest in starting a children's museum. It just wouldn't go away. The passion was so strong," Lisa Shull says. "We invited people we knew with varied interests and skill sets." Together they formed a confederacy of dream builders who made it happen.
In 2002 the museum began as a traveling show. "Our first week, we hosted an exhibit called Sheep to Sweater, at the library," Shull says. "Kids could spin and dye wool and there was even a sheep shearing demonstration. "I recall our uncertainty on opening day. We had no idea how many participants might show. Much to our delight, there was a line winding down the street before the doors were open," she remembers.
At the beginning no one — not even the Shulls — knew if the dream would grow wings or how much work it would entail. "I did know that it would be essential to pull others with varied talents together to make it happen and that our museum should be a reflection of our community," Shull says.
By 2003, the museum opened on Court Square. Seven years later, the Explore More Discovery Museum is hosting more than 35,000 annual visitors, including curriculum-driven field trips in conjunction with many area schools.
Last year Shull embarked on another adventure almost as daunting as creating the museum. In the fall, the museum moved to a renovated Main Street building. Phase one of a three-phase renovation to transform the building into a Mecca for children is complete.
The new 36,000-square-feet location will increase the museum's usable space six-fold when all phases are complete. Phase one doubled the museum's space and, for the first time, provided sufficient storage and administrative space, as well as generous space for innovative displays.
The new museum contains a two-story Discovery Tree complete with seasonal lighting and a tree house facade to capture the imagination of visitors young and old. While the new museum reprises some of its most popular attractions, it has added a science lab, television studio, super service center, early childhood area and a full-sized ambulance to anchor the health exhibit. It features party rooms, an expanded Creation Station, a new facade and signage for the building's exterior that will further enhance the community's impact and involvement.
Shull's big dream has big rewards for the children who relish the museum experience and in the process learn how to innovate, create and solve problems. Those skills will come in handy in their futures. Right now, they're having fun.