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Originally published Friday, March 16, 2012 at 11:58 AM

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New Olympia children's museum taking shape

The Hands On Children's Museum is expected to move in the fall into a new building with new and much-expanded exhibits.

The Olympian

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Sliding down nearly three stories from an interpretive eagle's nest to an artistic rendition of the Puget Sound. Shooting Nerf balls up a maze of tubes with bursts of air. Building a race car and racing it on special tracks.

These are all things children will be able to do at the new $18.5 million Hands On Children's Museum, which is expected to open this fall in Olympia.

Executive Director Patty Belmonte said crews will begin building exhibits in the next couple of weeks. The outside of the building (at Jefferson Street and Olympia Avenue) is substantially finished.

The museum ( had been scheduled to open this summer, but that has been delayed for a number of reasons, Belmonte said. Officials had hoped that exhibits could be built at the same time that other interior furnishings were added, but that didn't work, she said.

There also was concern about shutting down the current museum during the busy summer. The museum's current location, on 11th Avenue next to the Capitol Campus, now will close in September, Belmonte said.

Belmonte got to show off the museum's three stories and 28,000 square feet of space Thursday and point to an additional 30,000 square feet of exhibit space outdoors, which is set to open next year.

Visitors will enter through glass doors to polished floors and the sight of timbers donated from forestry giant Weyerhaeuser, among many donated products in the building. Near an admissions desk, there will be a large cedar tree fabricated of concrete and resins that will stretch to the next floor.


The Puget Sound Gallery will dominate the first floor, including a cargo ship, model tide pool and boat-building area. A gallery of changing exhibits is nearby.

Upstairs, galleries include Build It!, Our Fabulous Forest, The Pier and Snug Harbor. It's the place to walk through a 10- to 12-foot nurse log, Belmonte said. Children can discover tree habitats and design a story pole. There's plenty of wood throughout.

"This whole building is about sustainability," Belmonte said, "and wood is a sustainable product."

The architectural centerpiece of the second floor is a big dome that recalls a water tower, the place to race the car a child just built or blow the Nerf balls around.

The big slide also begins in The Pier gallery, with a tall caged perch just inches from the second-floor ceiling that recalls an eagle's nest. To climb there, children will have to navigate a rope bridge, Belmonte said.

Snug Harbor is a nautically themed place for the toddlers, where they can watch their older siblings play while they have age-appropriate things to climb on. One surface, inside an interpretive oyster shell, is like a water bed for babies, Belmonte said.

The third floor will be home to the museum's 42 employees and a check-in station for volunteers, she said.

Then there's the outdoor space. Belmonte said it will include a water feature that children can get into, move stones around, float boats they build and make mud pies. The building is a partnership between the City of Olympia and the museum. The city budgeted $8.9 million to construct the exterior shell of the museum, purchase the land and develop the grounds. The city owns the building and leases it to the museum for a negligible amount.

The children's museum is raising the rest of money to finish the interior and the exhibits. Belmonte said all but about $3 million has been raised now, and the museum is reaching out to big donors as well as the larger community.

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