TAMPA — The new CEO of the Glazer Children's Museum swerves around hordes of children at play as they push buttons and lift levers. Wearing a solar orbit necklace with gems representing the sun and planets, she points out her current favorite exhibit, a play farm on the second floor.
Kids are milking a plastic cow, and there's a pretend garden where they can plant vegetables in cloth waves of fabric. Sarah Cole, 41, likes what this farm exhibit says about the museum staff. It shows they listen.
Cole, who took charge of the sprawling interactive museum in downtown Tampa on April 1, remembers when she last saw this exhibit seven years ago. It was "a challenge," and not very popular. But museum staff paid attention.
"What kids loved the most before it was redone was planting flowers in the flower boxes of a house under construction. So they watched that. They took notice. They watched what kids enjoyed and then they went back and recrafted it instead of saying, 'Well that didn't work, let's give them something else.' "
Retooling based on observations, she said, "speaks to honoring the child."
The new boss is a familiar face at the Glazer museum. Cole was the director of education when the museum opened in 2010. She created the content for what was then 17 exhibit spaces and more than 150 interactive stations. She left in 2012 for the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and then Chicago's Adler Planetarium, America's first planetarium. She was vice president of guest experience there when the Glazer Children's Museum came calling.
She didn't have kids when she was last in Tampa, but back then she started a program called Sunshine Sunday, a special monthly event that is still going on. Admission is only $5, and children with special needs can explore the museum with lights and sounds turned down and community resources are at their fingertips.
Now she's here with a special needs son of her own.
She and her wife, a stay-at-home mom, have twin 6 year olds, and their son is on the autism spectrum. Meanwhile, her daughter takes after Cole and her nerdy perfectionist ways. The twins have given Cole a "master class" on how kids the same age can be completely different.
"It's like the universe was prepping me," she says. "'I had to spend time learning about autism and special needs and what the museum needed to address. While it's a challenge, it was pretty great that I was able to go into this knowing something about it already."
Last September, the museum's board forced out Jennifer Stancil, its chief executive since 2015, after some board members, particularly Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, questioned how she had been running the museum.
That's when Cole said she was contacted, and she was flattered.
In the seven years since she left, the Tampa Riverwalk has been completed and new restaurants have popped up. She's amazed at the downtown transformation.
She was born in the Indiana college town of Terre Haute and backed into the museum field after dropping out of medical school and taking a job at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, the world's largest children's museum. That sent her to the Purdue campus of Indiana University to pursue museum studies. She spent nine years at the Indianapolis museum, rising to manager of special and temporary exhibits when the Glazer education director job opened up in 2010.
She is resisting the urge to intrude on the education team since that's her wheelhouse, she says. Instead, she's on a "grand listening tour."
The museum turns 10 next year and as it enters its tweens, she's asking both her staff and the community to talk about what the next 10 years should bring. She won't commit to any announcements or new programs yet, but says it's time for a refresh.
The private, nonprofit children's museum operated on $4 million in revenue in 2018, up from $2.45 million three years ago. Hillsborough County will contribute $264,840 in public money to the museum this year. The city of Tampa chipped in $24,000 in 2018.
Free Tuesdays, the popular monthly free admission day, isn't going anywhere, she says. The museum has also partnered with the Children's Board of Hillsborough County in Learn & Play Tampa Bay, a school readiness initiative at five sites including East Tampa, Seffner-Mango and Thonotosassa. With a goal of 10 sites total, the program offers free 90-minute play sessions twice a week aimed at enriching early literacy.
As a museum aimed at ages 10 and younger, school readiness seems like a natural mission says Murman, a county commissioner since 2010 and a museum board member since before it opened.
No school district in Florida has more schools on the state's low-performing list than Hillsborough, where only half the third-graders who took the state's reading test last spring passed it.
By picking a known quantity like Cole as CEO, Murman expects her to get off to a brisk start.
"Have you seen her resume?" Murman says. "She has all those elements to make us the number one children's museum in the Southeast."
Cole calls what they do more "life readiness" than school readiness.
"We have a great opportunity to provide the tools that will eventually create the generation that's going to take over this planet. No pressure there, right?" Cole says. "But how could we not want to do the best by these kids? They are going to be the ones dealing with the planet that's changing so rapidly. We can provide them with the confidence to move forward and the compassion to deal with each other."
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @SharonKWn.