“Honey, we really do have to leave!”
You hear that a lot at Imagination Station.
Each parent’s voice sounds pleasant enough at first, but soon they become more and more impatient until it ends up sounding something like this:
“We’ve. Got. To. Go… NOW!”
You really can’t blame the kids, though. If you found a little oasis in the middle of a park, a place where you can repair things or plant plastic flowers in the window boxes of a two-story house within a house, nurse a teddy bear back to good health, read a book or create an artistic masterpiece, would you want to leave?
Located in the Patricia Rigsby Daniel Recreation Center in Hickman Park on the Hill, Imagination Station does a lot within the confines of 1,000 square feet.
There’s the aforementioned fixer upper, a house containing a leaky sink, magnetic countertop tiling and broken furniture, and the teddy bear clinic, where tiny doctors can check their patients’ vital signs and learn about what goes on inside their bodies. There’s also a sensorimotor station with activities for visitors 0-2 years old, a pre-literacy room that contains puzzles, books, puppets and more, and an art studio.
“We try to make all our exhibits interactive. This isn’t like a history museum; this is an interactive e museum,” said Imagination Station co-founder and stay-at-home dad David Hartmann. “Here in the art room, you can kind of see some of the suggestions by our artists. In places, we have information to educate the parents: here are some things you might want to try with your kids.”
“Well, we kind of put together our skill sets,” Hartmann said. “I’m a handyman, so I did the fixer upper. I built it, although I had help. And then two of our steering committee members are artists, so they put together the art studio.”
“My wife, she specializes in child development,” he continued. “She’s a professor at GRU and she teaches child development, so she focused on the sensorimotor corner, which is that touch and feel safe space for kids and moms. Young kids. We had one of our steering committee members who teaches medicine at GRU, so she put together the teddy bear clinic. A couple of our other members were involved in education. One teaches language, she teaches Italian, so they inherited that bit, that room over there.”
As many great ideas do, it all started simply enough. Hartmann was attending story time at the Appleby Library with his daughter Ada when he and some other parents began talking about a favorite topic: things to do with their kids.
“We were talking about the fact that Augusta doesn’t have a children’s museum and, you know, we were looking for things to do, like every other parent, and that was just a void,” he said. “We thought, ‘Well, maybe we can do this.’”
They may have been half-joking, and they may have had no experience, but they began by answering a few questions. What do we want? How are we going to run it? Where are we going to house it?
Hartmann said they knew they wanted whatever they created to be interactive and educational. They also knew they wouldn’t have enough money to staff it, so it would have to be parent-run. And they all lived on the Hill, so they decided to stay in their own neighborhood.
Imagination Station was almost housed at Hill Baptist Church, but then the city of Augusta made them an offer they couldn’t refuse, which really got the ball rolling.
“So the city is letting us have this building; they lease it to us for a dollar a year,” Hartmann explained. “We pay the electric bill and the water bill and we had to set up insurance for the museum. That’s one of our bigger bills, actually, is liability insurance. And so once we got our place and we kind of had our vision down, then we had to get people to sign up and have enough faith in us to donate some money to the cause. So we ran a Kickstarter-style campaign. It was an all or nothing campaign for a month. Our goal was to raise about $8,000 and we made it. So we had enough money to start.”
The founders — Hartmann, his wife Quentin and Valerie Mirshak — then gathered the steering committee and the members who signed up during the campaign and put the museum together. And ever since they opened last August, it’s been run and staffed by their members. There’s a staff person on hand whenever the museum is open, as well as when it’s rented out for a party. Families can sign up for memberships based upon their availability and, if they’re really just too busy to staff the museum, there are other options.
“Every member is a busy parent, so we try to make it as flexible as possible,” Hartmann explained. “If they can’t come in and work, they can maybe run a program or they can help out in other ways. We have a couple of members who are helping out with the scheduling of the whole staffing business and then another one that handles the renting of the museum.”
Staffing the museum, however, is hardly a chore. Member Ashley Bartley staffed the museum on a recent day, and brought her son, James Gregory, along to play.
“Technically, you’re here a little bit before it’s open and a little bit after it’s closed. We do a little bit of cleaning up at the end,” she said. “And there’s also other options. There’s a lady who does story times, someone came up with a craft project one time. So instead of working a shift, she came in on a Saturday morning when we were open and did a craft with the kids.”
“I do work, so it’s a little harder for me to get down here sometimes, but I’m definitely down here once a month when I’m doing my work and James is coming down,” she continued. “It’s enough that, in the two and a half hour time period we’re open, he doesn’t really get bored. He comes in to do an art project and then he’ll end up in the house or down here doing something else.”
Imagination Station celebrated its opening last summer with a huge picnic in the park and repeated it this past weekend to celebrate its first birthday.
Hickman Park was filled with families, who were enjoying the park and the museum together. That togetherness, Hartmann said, is part of the reason they began Imagination Station.
“Part of our vision is that this will be a place where the parents are little bit more involved with their children as they experience the exhibits, instead of a typical museum where you might walk in and just let the kids go,” he said.
And if parents are anything like the kids, they’ll never want to leave.
Imagination Station, an interactive children’s museum geared toward those ages 0-6, is located at 965 Hickman Road in Augusta. It is open Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays from 9:30 a.m.-noon and on Thursdays from 2:30-5 p.m. Museum visits are free for members and $10 for up to three children for non-members. For a list of upcoming programs, information on how to join and more, visit imagineaugusta.org.