“What if JFK had said, ‘Let’s build a rocket to the moon,’ and right away it had worked?” asked Jennifer Alexander ’88. “What if we got there and we met aliens, and they liked us, and we liked them, and they started coming to Earth on vacation, and we started to steal their technology, retrofitting our cars so that they ran on bubbles, selling fog at restaurants because that’s what aliens ate, selling flying saucers at car dealerships? What would Route 66 in Nevada look like?”
This was Alexander’s explanation for the logic of an exhibit at the Kidcity Children’s Museum on Washington Street, which she founded in 1998.
When she first set foot on Wesleyan University’s campus in 1983, Alexander had no idea that she would settle in Middletown for good. Eleven years later, when she began planning the Kidcity Children’s Museum on Washington Street, she never imagined that it would eventually attract 100,000 visitors each year, 90 percent of whom had traveled to the museum from beyond Middletown.
A cornfield, Main Street, a reading room, a medieval castle (under construction)—these are the concepts that comprise Kidcity, designed by an art team led by Scott Kessel ’89.
Situated between Main Street and Saint Sebastian’s Church, Kidcity occupies a nineteenth-century building that once served as the church’s monastery. Few University students venture inside.
Alexander explained that this sort of project was only possible in a small, tight-knit community like Middletown.
“Middletown runs on social capital, not on financial or even political capital,” she said. “In New York City, if you wanted to start a children’s museum, it might be overwhelming. It might never happen. Here, it wasn’t a big formal process. It was running into people in town and talking about it, year after year.”
Alexander had been a community organizer in Middletown for years, and her husband, Mark Masselli, founded the Community Health center—which has gone on to become the largest health care provider for Connecticut’s uninsured and underinsured—when he was only 19. But the mother of four said that starting a family was what really inspired the museum.
“When I started having babies, it became harder to be engaged in the community,” she said. “You always have to choose between being engaged in the community and getting a babysitter, or being with your kids. And every two years, everyone I knew would move away. There wasn’t enough to keep them here. I had a visceral urge to make Middletown harder to leave. I wanted to create something that would give people pause before they considered moving to other places.”
The museum itself is a three-floor labyrinth of interactive, handcrafted structures and murals, each organized into elaborate, fantastical, unspecific themes. Parents stand talking in small clusters, erratically orbited by meandering children, ages zero to five.
According to Alexander, one exhibit was designed to show “what would happen if mermaids were building found-art in caves with bubble channels.”
Other exhibits were inspired by similar scenarios, such as, “What if there were a fish processing factory run by children, where all sorts of vessels brought the day’s catch up to the dock, and what if some of those vessels were clipper ships and igloos on rafts, and what if there were conveyor belts going everywhere, and there was a sign that said, ‘For your primary fish needs,’ because the fish were all primary colors?”
Alexander said the exhibit’s web of chutes and conveyor belts, along with the colorful fish that they carry, are designed to coincide with the “tote, dump, and carry” phase of child development.
One exhibit’s meaning was based more specifically on Alexander’s experience.
“This room is my unfinished Wesleyan thesis,” she said, in reference to a large space that envisioned world instruments—Javanese Gamelan included—as play structures. “When I dropped out in the middle of my senior year, I was trying to write a feminist perspective of a medieval Icelandic saga from a woman’s point of view, for the College of Letters. That’s when I dropped out to become a dishwasher.”
Alexander eventually graduated, and at the 2009 commencement she received an honorary degree.
“How hard it is to be a parent is something that’s hard to fathom when you’re a college student,” she said. “You have a constant sense of failure. You can be great for 12 hours and still have time to do some damage before bedtime. I just wanted this to be a place where you could always do something right. Where you could be with your kids and talk to adults in a place that doesn’t insult your intelligence. People really need it. And the reason the museum is here is to make Middletown a more vital place. The fact that 90 percent of the visitors aren’t from here lets us have more interesting restaurants on our Main Street. What I’m working hard on is drawing more people to live in Middletown; people who view this as a place where they can do their best work.”
Some university students find jobs at Kidcity, which participates in the University’s work-study system.
“Wesleyan students know of [Kidcity], but they don’t know anything about it,” said Charlie Ellis ’13, who has worked at the museum since September. “It’s nice to interact with people who are part of the community. And the art is really cool.”
Jennifer Eigo, from Rocky Hill, Conn., said her three-year old and five-year-old both “love the museum, especially the fish room.”
None of the toddlers or young children would sit for an interview, but they all seemed to agree.