For more than four decades, the Please Touch Museum, the children’s museum that occupies Fairmount Park’s Memorial Hall, has featured a “market” exhibition that gives kids a sense of what a food store is for and how that box of noodles makes its way to the dinner plate.
While Please Touch has been closed since March because of the coronavirus, and will remain so through at least the end of the year, administrators have been planning how to revitalize the museum experience beyond the fun of pushing around a cart in the Healthy Me Market and Bistro.
A measure of change will come Thursday, Sept. 24, when administrators announce a $1.2 million grant from Giant Co. that will help bring the market into its next, as-yet unnamed existence.
The gift also kicks off a $5 million campaign, dubbed “Creating the Future of Play,” designed to assist the museum, which has laid off most of its staff, through its reopening sometime, probably in early 2021.
“The recent decision to remain closed into 2021 for public health was the right one but certainly, agonizing," said Patricia D. Wellenbach, Please Touch president and chief executive. “As we made that difficult decision, we did so with confidence knowing that the Giant Co. shared our vision for ‘Creating the Future of Play,’ and wanted to take a leadership role in shaping it.”
Gecko Group is working with Giant and Please Touch to design, develop, construct, and rename the market exhibit, now in the conceptual phase. It will aim to promote healthy eating and the significance of food in family and cultural celebrations, Wellenbach said.
It will also address topics like agriculture, food insecurity, and recycling.
“Giant was interested in supporting something that was big thinking and forward thinking and not just a supermarket, although there is a supermarket experience embedded in the entire exhibit,” Wellenbach said. “In late January they called us and said, ‘We want in, we want to commit to this project with you. We want to give you the capacity to double the footprint. We want to give the museum the capacity to really expand the learning modules internal to the exhibit, and really put a stake in the ground on the future of this museum.’"
Please Touch’s program and exhibit staff met with Giant at the beginning of March, right before the pandemic shutdown.
“It was amazing,” said Wellenbach. "We talked about what does food mean. How does food connect us to family and to community. How is food the piece that brings everyone together in joy, and in sorrow. What does it mean in a very big city that has big pockets of poverty. I mean we just spent a lot of time talking about it.”
Nicholas Bertram, Giant president, said the experience of the pandemic focused the company’s attention.
“Over the past several months, we’ve seen firsthand that families have recommitted to spending time together, cooking together, and learning together, and it’s inspired us as a brand to do all that we can to help strengthen the families and communities we serve,” he said in a statement. “In collaborating with the Please Touch Museum team, we’ll redesign this treasured exhibit to capture these experiences in a fresh, new way, and one that honors our shared promise to the families we serve.”
Giant has also become involved with the Parkside neighborhood nearby Please Touch. When the museum eventually reopens, the company will subsidize free admission for families during the first weekend.
Construction for the new market is slated to begin in late 2020 with an expected opening in fall 2021.