The History of Please Touch Museum

Portia Sperr didn’t set out to revolutionize Philadelphia’s museum industry. It just worked out that way.

The year was 1976. Pet rocks, bellbottom pants, and disco were all the rage. In Philadelphia, as the nation gathered to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with spectacular Bicentennial festivities, Please Touch Museum opened its doors to the public. On Sunday, October 2, in a 2,200 square foot space tucked away in a small corner between the dinosaur skeletons and wooly mammoths at the Academy of Natural Sciences, a dozen parents, educators, and artists led by Sperr, a Montessori educator, came together to offer over 400 visitors, patiently waiting in line, a new kind of museum—a hands-on environment in which “learning was child’s play.”

 

Please Touch Museum was a pilot project, with a small staff and a small budget, but it was the first museum ever dedicated to serving children ages 7 and under. For three short hours, children played, weighed and, of course, touched their way through exhibits that engaged their senses and ignited their imaginations, while parents fought the instinctive urge to warn, “Don’t touch that!”

In a matter of a few weeks, the museum’s visitation grew so rapidly that additional staff was hired and families had to come through in shifts. It quickly became evident that 2,200 square feet was just not enough for this popular little experiment. By 1978, Please Touch relocated to a larger space on nearby Cherry Street. Hours of operation were Tuesday through Sunday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday morning hours were added after children and parents staged a mini-protest.

During the next four years, the museum commissioned local artists to create works for children to enjoy, consulted scholars from several disciplines to add intellectual content to the museum’s exhibits, and developed culturally diverse programs designed for young audiences. Just like the children it served, Please Touch seemed to grow bigger and bigger with each passing year.

In 1983, Please Touch, faced again with long lines of children waiting to play, decided the time had come to find a permanent location. With the help of many generous donors, Please Touch Museum purchased and renovated a three-story, 30,000 square foot building in the heart of Philadelphia’s museum district at 210 N. 21st Street. In an interactive environment scaled to young children’s developmental needs, Please Touch was now able to unite the arts, sciences, and humanities in multidisciplinary experiences that encouraged children and parents to play and learn together. 1983 was also the birth year of Artie the Elephant, created from toys and found objects by Philadelphia artist Leo Sewell. From opening day in 1983 to 1993 the museum’s attendance grew 70%, memberships increased 52%, full-time staff increased from nine to 37, and the operating budget more than tripled.

In the following years, Please Touch made leaps and bounds in the areas of exhibits, educational programs, collections, and community involvement. In 1985, Please Touch awarded its first Book Award, the only award of its kind to honor the publication of quality books for young children. The award is given annually to two books in categories based on the age of the museum’s visitors, kids under the age of seven. 1986 was marked “Please Touch Museum Year” by a Philadelphia City Council resolution, and by 1988, Please Touch Museum was accredited by the American Association of Museums.

And after 12 years of outstanding leadership, founding director Portia Sperr passed the reigns in 1988 to Nancy Kolb, who became the museum’s new Executive Director.

Please Touch Museum introduced the “Great Friend to Kids” (GFTK) Awards in 1996, honoring individuals and organizations with ties to the Philadelphia region that have made outstanding contributions towared enriching the lives of children. Past GFTK winners include the Philadelphia Eagles, Sheryl Leach- creator of Barney, Alex Scott- Founder of Alex’s Lemonade Stand, local television performers Captain and Mrs. Noah, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, and others.

Seven years after the move to 21st Street, even the new building started to become cramped. An opportunity to purchase an adjoining building opened, and the museum moved quickly to secure it. As a result of a $4 million capital campaign to fund the purchase of the new building, Please Touch introduced 40% more exhibit space.

At its 21st Street home, Please Touch was home to nine interactive exhibits and featured daily gallery activities based on science, art and music, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The SuperMarket, Sendak, Barnyard Babies, Story Garden, Move It!, Kids Construct, Recycled City, Kids Creations, and a variety of temporary traveling exhibits.

In 1998, as the museum’s audience kept on growing, Please Touch looked to grow again, this time to a new facility at Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River waterfront. However, in 2002, when the waterfront development plan failed to materialize, Please Touch was yet again faced with having to find a new home. Disappointment would soon be replaced by opportunity!

Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park presented itself as the perfect new home for Philadelphia’s Children’s Museum. Please Touch Museum agreed to an 80-year lease on February 14, 2005 after receiving final approval from the Philadelphia City Council and the Fairmount Park Commission. On December 15, 2005, Please Touch broke ground on an ambitious renovation and expansion of Memorial Hall. This National Historic Landmark provides three times more exhibit space, a connection to other family destinations like the nearby Philadelphia Zoo, and the opportunity to rehabilitate the centerpiece originally built for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.

From 2005-2008, construction work was in full force at Memorial Hall—from excavating grounds and giving the building a well-overdue bath to building a carousel house and installing new exhibits along with a huge “monument to play”—a 40-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty’s Arm and Torch in Hamilton Hall. Please Touch Museum’s construction crew made big strides in returning this Philadelphia landmark back to its original glory just in time for the museum to move in and open its doors to generations of children to come at its Grand Opening on October 18, 2008.

Over three decades and more than a million visitors later, Please Touch Museum is still bringing knowledge, fun and a whole new world of excitement to young children and their parents who make the trek from all over the country to this revolutionary museum. With the Grand Opening of Please Touch Museum at Memorial Hall, an 11-year dream was finally realized. While utilizing the grandeur of Memorial Hall to bring together the past, present, and the future, Please Touch Museum stays true to its mission of “enriching the lives of children by creating learning opportunities through play.”