The long-awaited reopening of Hands On! Children’s Museum by children and adults alike Friday reveals months of a concerted effort, during a state-mandated COVID-19 closure, to revamp the museum in its overall look, feel and safety measures to promote engaged learning in the midst of a pandemic.
The nonprofit museum, which will operate at 50 percent capacity as mandated by Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, opened Thursday morning to members only and today to the public.
“I can’t think of anything better to share with the community than a refreshed Hands On! The museum has been closed for six months, which is unprecedented in the world of nonprofit children’s museums, so we are grateful to be in the position to reopen,” said Joseph Knight, executive director. “We are thankful for the generosity of this community, especially our small business and corporate partners. Their generosity is why this museum can reopen.”
During the six-month closure, it has been all hands on deck to install new flooring, brand-new and socially distanced exhibits; upgrade the bathrooms and handwashing station; install a new dishwasher to sanitize Legos; and make modifications to already existing exhibits, like the popular grocery store exhibit.
The grocery store is still undergoing construction and is expected to be completed within two weeks.
“It’s going to look different. There are a lot of new things that are going to be out; we’re excited about our revamped grocery store exhibit, brand new camping exhibit and of course our new dentist exhibit that was only open for a month prior to our closure,” Knight said.
“We will also have extra Legos to be able to properly sanitize them throughout the day.”
The addition of exhibits will be met with the retirement of others, especially features and play areas that don’t allow for proper sanitization or safety measures, such as the rice table, playdoh area and the performance stage and costume attire.
The exhibits formerly in the West wing are now in the East wing, including Terry the Triceratops, as the West wing is closed to allow for a higher concentration of staff in the main building.
The museum’s reopening will include the debut of local artist Patricia Sweet-MacDonald’s underwater mural, which covers the entirety of the birthday party room walls.
“I thoroughly enjoyed converting what was a plain room into an underwater experience. I want the children to enter the room and feel as though they themselves are sea creatures in the depths of the ocean,” Sweet-MacDonald said of her work.
“The challenge of incorporating existing elements into the mural was the most enjoyable part for me, such as including the door handles into the claws of the crab, the wiring cover as a telescope rising from the submarine and painting an exotic island hut over an outlet.
“The sweet faces on the dolphins and whales represent the protective and loving relationship between child and parent,” she said.
In an effort to reduce person-to-person contact and long lines, members and other visitors to the museum will now reserve one of four daily “play session” time slots in order to gain entrance to the museum — another new feature. Only 40 visitors will be allowed for each time slot.
Hands On! will also close for one hour midday in order for staff to deep clean and sanitize.
All museum memberships that were active on March 16 will be extended six months.
“We’ve had to re-imagine how we operate as a children’s museum due to the pandemic,” Knight said. “Our first priority is that all children, adults and staff can be safe at the museum, so we have evaluated every single exhibit to meet those guidelines.”
Upon entering the museum through its new double doors just off Main Street, all visitors and staff will be screened through a contactless temperature check and verbal health screening, and everyone age 2 and up will be required to wear a face covering while in the museum.
Adults and children will be required to wash hands or use hand sanitizer prior to entering the museum exhibit galleries.
“Hands On! is going to be one of the safest indoor destinations for families in Western North Carolina. We want to foster an atmosphere that’s not only educational and fun but safe,” Knight said. “We want people to understand what we’re doing so that they can feel comfortable coming to the museum.”
Year-long memberships as well as tickets for play sessions can be purchased online at www.handsonwnc.org or by calling 828-697-8333.
Hands On! will be open to the public Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with a daily midday closure from 12-1:30 p.m.