The bubbles are coming back to Gilbert House Children’s Museum

A visitor marvels as blocks float to the top of a wind tube in the Up Up and Away exhibit at Gilbert House Children’s Museum (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Gilbert House Children’s Museum is bringing the bubbles back.

Museum leaders expect to open a new bubbles exhibit in a greenhouse-like structure outdoors in May as part of a series of changes to celebrate its 30th anniversary.

The museum, named for Salem native and toy inventor A.C. Gilbert, opened in 1989 in a historic home near Riverfront Park. Until 2012, it had a prominent exhibit where children could play with bubbles.

“People really associate Gilbert House with the exhibit,” said executive director Alicia Bay. “Just about everybody played in it.”

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The museum has since expanded to include a second neighboring historic home and a large outdoor play area.

But the bubbles exhibit went away after flooding from the water had damaged the historic home.

Museum leaders began raising money a year ago with a goal of raising $800,000 to recreate the bubble exhibit out in front of the historic homes, as well as other changes that’ll be phased in. They’re about 80% of the way there, Bay said.

Gilbert House’s exhibits are geared toward children ages 2 to 10, focused on helping them learn through play.

“Sitting at a desk isn’t the whole experience for a child developing,” Bay said.

Alicia Bay, executive director of Gilbert House Children’s Museum, speaks about changes coming to the outdoor play area in 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Inside, kids can built a blanket fort, examine stuffed animals in a vet’s office, learn about lift by watching blankets float over vents of air, drive a bus, work in a doctor’s office, play a marimba or do art projects.

“As a kid your imagination is huge and so these exhibits become this larger-than-life reality,” said board member Jessica Kreitzberg Schultens during a recent speech at a museum event.

Schultens, now a Salem architect, recalled her grandparents taking her to the museum as a child. The bubble exhibit was a favorite, she said. She enjoyed standing on a platform using a hula hoop dipped in bubble solution to encase herself in a bubble.

“If you went too fast the bubble would break and if you went too slow it would kind of slide up against you and pop so you had to just do it slow and steady and get it just right,” she said.

She now takes her two-year-old daughter to the museum regularly and said it helps her learn patience and cooperation.

“She has to wait her turn to be the bus driver or pilot because those are very coveted positions,” Schultens said.

The new version of the bubbles exhibit will have a platform where kids can put themselves inside a bubble. It’s designed to encourage cooperation, with one kid standing on the platform while others raise the bubble around them.

The platform will also be wheelchair accessible so all visitors who want to can participate.

Existing ramps to the front door of the historic home will be replaced to make the museum better accessible.

“We’re anticipating a very busy summer,” Bay said.

Plans for new additions to Gilbert House Children’s Museum (Courtesy/Gilbert House Children’s Museum)

A second phase to replace much of the wooden outdoor play structure with a more open, nature-focused exhibit, will begin in the fall, Bay said.

“Right now we’re seeing concern about ‘Are kids playing outside enough?’” she said. The new area will have spaces to play with sand and water, a mechanical workshop, a wooden train and more.

Last week, the effort got a boost from the Oregon Community Foundation. Volunteer Ellias Villegas, who’s also dean of Chemeketa Community College’s Woodburn campus, presented Bay and board members a $30,000 check toward the effort at a 30th birthday party on Dec. 21.

“My children grew up here playing in the outdoor discovery area,” Villegas said.

Since they’ve announced the plan, Bay said she’s heard stories from museum supporters who have fond childhood memories of the original bubbles exhibit and are eager to bring their children.

“We’re really excited to bring this to a new generation,” Bay said.

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 116 Marion St NE. General admission is $8 per person, including children.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.