Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:13 pm
Inside the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum’s new temporary workshop at 2422 Clybourn St., an old warehouse overlooking the Menomonee River Valley in Milwaukee, extension cords snake around power tools and the wooden legs of large work tables.
Two projects are beginning to take shape.
There’s a large, wooden diorama of an ambulance with shelves of fake medical equipment and a stuffed doll laying on a white platform built to mimic a stretcher. Behind it is a chain-link fence surrounding a series of collapsible batting and pitching cages.
By the end of September, the ambulance will be on its way to the Connecticut Science Center in downtown Hartford. The batting and pitching cages, part of an interactive baseball exhibit called “Big League Fun” that museum leaders plan to begin renting out to museums and science centers around the country in January, will debut at Betty Brinn in downtown Milwaukee in November.
Since 2005, the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum has been padding its revenue stream by building kid-friendly, interactive exhibits and selling or renting them to museums, libraries and science centers throughout North America.
Though there are many exhibit-building companies, such as Ohio-based Roto Group LLC, or Minneapolis-based KidZibits, that dominate the regional and national markets for kid-based interactive exhibits, Betty Brinn has been able to carve out a stable niche in the industry over the past decade that has been accounting for a larger and larger chunk of its annual revenue.
The museum’s exhibit-building business, referred to as its Exhibit Development Initiative, is projected to pull in roughly $665,000 this year.
That number represents 29 percent of the museum’s total operating support and 36 percent of its total earned income, according to museum spokesperson Kristen Adams.
“In the early 2000s we were renting exhibits from other organizations and bringing them in for our community, and we just felt that given the expense and the educational content that was in some of those projects that we could do the same, if not better,” said Betty Brinn chief operating officer Carrie Wettstein. “We started developing what we call our exhibit development initiative in 2005. Our first project was a Brio train replica. That was our first tour product starting in 2006. We’ve grown since then, and it has become increasingly successful.”
Since Betty Brinn began renting out its first traveling exhibit in 2006, its exhibit development staff has grown from two to 10 employees — roughly a third of the museum’s staff. They attend three or four museum trade shows each year to market their exhibits and also build custom exhibits for permanent installation.
“Durability is really key,” said Dan Grunst, director of fabrication. He builds the exhibits Betty Brinn rents and sells with the help of exhibit services manager Joe Pariso.
Every two years or so, Betty Brinn’s traveling exhibits circulate back to Milwaukee for a pit stop; they get touch-ups and repairs to remove the wear and tear caused by millions of children playing and interacting with them.
In total, the museum has built 52 permanent exhibits that have been installed at locations around the country. Five traveling exhibits Betty Brinn has designed and built are currently circulating around the continent. Each time an exhibit is sold or rented, Betty Brinn sends members of its exhibit development staff to help install it.
“Some startups, they don’t have a lot of support, so for them that’s great,” Adams said. “We’ve built a good reputation.”
Wettstein said the business isn’t showing any signs of slowing down in the years ahead, and Betty Brinn is in search of a permanent home for it to use as a workshop to build future exhibits.
As the operation has become more sophisticated over the years, the exhibit-building team has outgrown its old workshop at the museum.
For a while, they used space at the Milwaukee Enterprise Center at 2821 N 4th St. However, since that building is about to be converted into apartments, the museum was forced to rent temporary space at the warehouse on Clybourn Street through December 31 to complete this year’s orders.
“We’re looking for a more permanent home,” Adams said. “If there are people out there who’d like to donate some space in-kind, we’re seeking that.”
“I think where we’re getting now is kind of a critical mass,” Wettstein added. “We really do have a loyal client base. The demand for outreach services is not slowing, and we take that very seriously, so we’d certainly like to expand it if we feel that we can. It’s a really small staff.”
Click here to see what the ambulance exhibit will look like once completed in September.