Gilbert House Children's Museum on Friday, March 12, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A ghostly ping echoes off the walls inside the Gilbert House Children’s Museum.

The historic home near Riverfront Park would normally be filled with the sounds of children calling a friend to join them in a blanket fort or applying glitter glue to an art project. 

But for the past year, executive director Alicia Bay has worked from her upstairs office in near silence as the museum shut its doors due the pandemic and laid off most of its staff.

The ping from the sonar device inside the model submarine exhibit has served as a reminder that one day, kids will come back.

“There’s kind of this latent charge that’s waiting in the houses,” Bay said.

Now, the reopening is at hand.

Starting March 22, the museum will welcome families back by appointment only to play in Bill’s Bubble House, a new outdoor exhibit constructed last year. Five families per day will visit for up to an hour. Appointments opened first to members, then filled up within a few days once they were available to the general public.

“We sold out really fast,” Bay said.

The following week, reservations will be open to let kids and families enjoy the new outdoor play area, with up to 25 people visiting during a two-hour window. By April 9, some indoor areas of the museum will be open. Reservations will allow up to 40 people at a time to visit in two-hour blocks to preserve distancing between groups. Children five and older will be required to wear masks when visiting.

Bay said the past year has been a financial challenge, but Gilbert House’s long-term prospects are strong.

“We’re not in danger of closing,” Bay said.

The children’s museum is a nonprofit organization and gets about 80% of its revenue from memberships and admissions, Bay said. Closing the doors shut off most of the museum’s income overnight.

With layoffs and a mix of federal and state aid, including two federal Paycheck Protection Program loans totaling $115,000, Bay said the museum has survived the past year without dipping into its financial reserves. 

A team of 17 employees before the closure was cut to just four full-time staff by the fall.

Now, they’re back up to seven as they prepare to reopen, she said.

Museum leaders decided to forge ahead with a 30th anniversary renovation, knowing it would be months before any children got to enjoy the new spaces. Bay said funds had already been raised, though the closure allowed for more time to finish a new exhibit and make changes to the outdoor play area.

Bill’s Bubble House, an enclosed structure in front of the museum, replaces a family favorite exhibit that flooded the historic home in 2012. Inside, kids can enclose themselves in a bubble and learn about the physics that make it possible.

The homes also have new ramps in front, making them accessible to people with mobility issues and wheelchair users. The outdoor play area has been redesigned.

Some activities and changes inspired by the pandemic will remain in place even once restrictions are lifted, Bay said. The museum held a successful “Gizmo Trick-or-Treat” Halloween event in the fall where kids on the sidewalk surrounding the museum had candy ferried to them by elaborate machines.

The design was meant to promote physical distancing, but was so much fun that the museum plans to bring it back, Bay said.

Also staying is a storybook exhibit on the west side of the museum campus, where a picture book is displayed sequentially across about a dozen plastic-enclosed kiosks, allowing passersby to read the book as they walk.

Reservations for visits past spring break aren’t yet available, but information about visiting hours and appointments will be posted on the museum’s website.

Meanwhile, employees are putting finishing touches on regular exhibits to get them ready for the first children to come back.

“It feels like moving day,” Bay said.

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

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