On a recent afternoon, the George Peabody House Museum & Peabody Leather Workers Museum stood empty of its permanent collection to clear room for an experiment.
The old paintings, glassware, business letters, and leather-making machines were temporarily removed from the 18th-century farmhouse where the dry-goods merchant, banker, and philanthropist George Peabody was born in 1795.
Instead, for three months beginning Sunday, March 31, the historic property at 205 Washington St. in Peabody is home to CuriousCity, a pop-up children’s museum.
Exhibits include an augmented reality sandbox—as children sculpt the paper pulp inside a digital projection magically transforms it into the orange mountain tops, green hills and blue waters of a topographic map. The CuriousTales room offers a 7-foot-tall storybook with pages painted by Yetti Frenkel of Newburyport, plus costumes and puppets to act out the tales. There’s a walk-in bank playhouse—in honor of George Peabody—in the GenerousCity room where children can play teller and customer while learning math and money.
Peaceful City encourages visitors to try yoga and walk the labyrinth rug. Tiles across the floor of the CozyCity room are filled with colored liquids that squish when you step on them. Kids can play with colored tiles on glowing light tables. Bubbles rise up a tower of water that keeps changing colors. And children can make themselves cozy in a closet nook, a tent or an inflated canoe.
The leather museum has been temporarily filled with building toys, hard hats and a blower that floats scarves into the air. Dirk Tiede of Beverly created cartoon posters that enliven the exhibits.
The pilot children’s museum is the creation of the Peabody Cultural Collaborative, a nonprofit coalition of the city government, Peabody TV, the Peabody Historical Society, the city’s Peabody Institute Library, banks and Northeast ARC.
“We have this common goal in sight,” Peabody Institute Library Director Melissa Robinson says, “which is making Peabody a better place to live and visit.”
The pop-up kid’s museum follows in the footsteps of Breaking Grounds Café on Main Street. The coffee shop began as a downtown
revitalization initiative from the city in 2016, first as a pop-up for a weekend, then six weeks, and is now run long-term by Northeast ARC to offer job training to people with disabilities. The city followed up with pop-up pubs.
“It’s a model that has worked well for the city,” Robinson says. “So I thought why not a pop-up children’s museum. The goal is to really see if it will work.”
“Children’s museums are a really interesting concept because they bring families in,” Robinson adds. About five years ago Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt took a group of people to scout out the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire in Dover. “That really revitalized their downtown.”
“There isn’t a children’s museum north of Boston,” says Tim Brown, Director of Innovation and Strategy for Northeast ARC, which helps people with disabilities become full participants in the community. “It’s just another reason to come into Peabody. Peabody is a really family-oriented community. A lot of activities are based on what families want to do together.”
Then along came the Essex County Community Foundation’s Creative County Initiative, supported by Boston’s Barr Foundation, aiming to mobilize North Shore artists, arts organizations and community and business leaders to enhance life in Essex County. “We had all the research and background. We were ready to go at that point with the concept of what we wanted to do,” Brown says.
CuriousCity is one of 12 cultural projects funded by the initiative that will be launching in 2019.
“This is a perfect combination of everything I love: art and kids,” says Sheila Billings of Salem, a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher in Salem and art teacher in Beverly. She created the museum’s rainforest, desert, oceans and the Arctic play area in the CuriousWorld room. She also painted a mural in the EpiCurious play kitchen, an area planned in conjunction with the Essex Agricultural Society to teach the importance of a fresh, healthy diet.
Among Billings’s contributions is a puzzle that children can put together however they like “so they can make their own world. They can make it the way they want it to be. Because they don’t get to do that very often. Usually, people are telling them what to do.”
CuriousCity’s pop-up format allows the Peabody Cultural Collaborative to determine if the museum can attract enough audience to become a long-term enterprise. “Without investing a ton of money,” notes Camille Bartlett, executive director of Peabody TV, the city’s community media center, and chair of the Peabody Cultural Collaborative.
“Ideally, we would like to be in the downtown area,” Brown says. “The city does own a piece of property that would be ideal. It needs a lot of work. We’re hoping through this we can prove it will be worth the investment.”
As children tried CuriousCity out one recent afternoon before the public opening, Billings said, “I bet Peabody would have loved this place He was a man of vision. He was generous. And his bank is here for the kids to enjoy.”
For more information or to buy tickets please visit curiouscitypeabody.org