HAMILTON - The University of Montana SpectrUM Discovery Center in the Missoula Public Library is a space for kids to learn and explore, but if you don’t live in Missoula County, it can be an inaccessible space.
Anita Wotkyns recognized the need for a children’s museum in the Bitterroot Valley, so she took it upon herself to start one. Beginning from ground zero, she hopes to eventually provide an exploratory, educational experience to Ravalli County kids.
“Our kids in this community, unfortunately they don’t have a lot of the same resources as kids in bigger cities might have," Wotkyns says. "We need to really step up to the plate and be able to support them so that they’re not falling behind from where their peers in other communities might be.”
Wotkyns — who spent many years as the director of a children’s museum in Utah — moved to Hamilton two years ago and immediately got to work bringing the same programming to her new home.
“I was really passionate about sharing that with this area when we moved up here,” she says. “So, one of the very first things I did was start to put my feelers out there for other people that might be interested, or partners to get something like that at least on the radar.”
After finding local interest, Wotkyns was able to recruit a team of board members about a year ago. The board is filled with parents and community members who are equally passionate about seeing a children’s museum in their town.
“I myself don’t have children, but I have friends that have children and I was a child myself, and some of my favorite memories growing up was when my parents would take me to the children’s museum’s interactive displays and exhibits,” board member Courtney Hartelius says. “To me, that is really important for engaging students into being interested in education, interested in learning, and in turn making education and learning fun and captivating.”
Hartelius joined Wotkyn’s and the project this past spring, and she’s happy to see community support.
“It’s exciting to hear that other organizations are already in support of this vision that Anita brought up,” she says. “Almost everyone that I’ve said ‘I’m involved in it’ or other people that have heard about it are like ‘this is something that we need’.”
Recently, the Bitterroot Resource, Conservation and Development decided to fiscally sponsor the Bitterroot Discovery Children’s Museum. This allows the museum to register as a 501c under the Bitterroot RC&D umbrella and begin fundraising early.
“When we got the approval from the RC & D to become an official, recognized non-profit, that was a huge win,” Hartelius says.
Pam Gouse, executive director of the Bitterroot RC&D, says it wasn’t a hard decision to support Wotkyns’ vision– the vote at RC&D was 100% for supporting the project
“It’s a big undertaking, definitely, but I think she’s got the engine to do it,” Gouse says. “You know the background in St. George, as I said, that’s a great help to her. It’s not like she’s just having an idea and thinking it would be cool. She knows what she’s doing.”
Wotkyns will draw some inspiration from the SpectrUM Discovery Area in Missoula, as well as her own past experience. Although, she hopes to target a younger audience than the area in Missoula.
"This isn’t something that we’re creating from scratch, we’re modeling this after several other highly successful children’s museums that are found nationwide,” she says. “It’s just very inclusive, hands-on, exploratory play in a very nurturing environment for everybody involved.”
Wotkyns hopes to help both educators and parents by not only providing a new space for learning but by giving them ideas for activities they can do in the classroom or at home.
“Giving them jumping-off points of how to take that fun and bring it with them once they leave the museum,” Wotkyns says. “Really, this is just something we are designing, not just for the kids in the area, but for their families, their caregivers, the educators in the area, the community as a whole.”
A local museum will make exploratory learning more accessible for all families.
“There are an awful lot of people in this valley who can’t afford to travel to places like Missoula, even, that have museums,” Gouse says. “We’ve got a really great historical museum. This is more of an interactive learning experience that would help children of all ages and their parents and caregivers.”
Plus, by remaining a non-profit, families won’t be charged for using the museum.
“We believe that education shouldn’t have a price tag that’s attached to it in any way shape or form,” Wotkyns says.
The Bitterroot Discovery Children’s Museum has a long way before completion, but the board is taking small steps toward a promising future. They are currently looking for a facility location to house the museum and are continuing to spread the word and raise money.
“We’re starting from the ground up, and it does seem like a lofty goal, but I just know that the more people know about it, and the more they learn and become invested in it personally, the more opportunity we have, the greater chance we have to actually see it come to fruition,” Hartelius says.
Wotkyns and the board will be hosting a meet-and-greet ice cream social at the Ravalli Fun Center on Sept. 14, 2023, from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m.