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New children’s museum aims to be catalyst for revitalizing downtown Wausau

Children’s Imaginarium Executive Director Julie Bollmann emphasizes desire to expand access to the museum located at site of a former mall

A child looks at a wind tunnel exhibit at a children's museum in Wausau
A child looks at a wind tunnel exhibit at the Children’s Imaginarium, a museum in Wausau that opened in December 2023. Photo courtesy Children’s Imaginarium

A new children’s museum at the site of the former Wausau Center mall is hoping to offer more than an opportunity for kids to expand their understanding of science, technology, engineering and math.

The museum will bring families to Wausau’s downtown and boost tourism efforts by offering another stop for visitors in central Wisconsin, Children’s Imaginarium Executive Director Julie Bollmann said recently on WPR’s “The Morning Show.”

“The revitalization effort here in downtown is so exciting,” she said. “If you could see out our beautiful glass windows, you would see that there’s tons of opportunity.”

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The downtown area is exciting and inviting, Bollmann said while pointing out various places to get lunch, dessert or drinks.

“Lots of buzz and excitement down here,” she said.

The Wausau Center mall closed in 2020. The city wrestled over what to do with all that space, a problem familiar to many other cities across the state and country with shuttered malls.

The new children’s museum opened in December, becoming one of the first entities to join the former mall’s space after the mall’s demolition. Museum co-founder Maggie Gordon said building in that space helped the museum avoid higher overhead costs. 

“We wanted to establish a sustainable model from the beginning and have the flexibility to direct more resources to other essential areas,” Gordon said in an article last year from Greater Wausau, a group that works with the local chamber of commerce.

A child plays with an exhibit called the Splash-A-Ma-Jig
A child plays with an exhibit called the Splash-A-Ma-Jig in the Children’s Imaginarium in Wausau. Photo courtesy Children’s Imaginarium

On “The Morning Show,” Bollmann said Children’s Imaginarium needs to create fresh experiences for visitors if it hopes to keep the momentum it’s gained over the first few months.

She said the museum recently celebrated the International Day of Women in Science. The museum taught children about how to engineer bridges through the story of Emily Warren Roebling, who helped build the Brooklyn Bridge. The museum also shared coding lessons through Grace Hopper, a pioneering computer scientist in the U.S. Navy.

The museum features a tree where the acronym STEM stands for stupendous, tremendous, experimental machine rather than science, technology, engineering and math, Bollmann said. The tree is a nod to central Wisconsin’s natural resources.

“We want to provide those opportunities that kids can expand their learning beyond the school day,” she said. 

Bollmann desires to provide opportunities for all children. She previously worked with the Wausau School District and Title I programs, which are schools with higher amounts of low-income students.

Children’s Imaginarium aims to offer an “access-for-all program” in the future with reduced admission and membership prices, Bollmann said. One community-based grant is allowing the museum to develop Title I family nights, for example. The museum is also working with the Salvation Army to help families at shelters visit the museum, Bollmann said.

“Our museum is just not for a select few,” she said. 

Staffing is one of the museum’s challenges. Bollmann wants Children’s Imaginarium to work with local universities on offering youth apprenticeships and with other organizations on offering internships. 

“We’re trying to find all different opportunities to find workers here so that we can expand those hours and provide more opportunities for families here,” she said. 

Bollmann’s goal is to become the top community partner for visitors to learn about science, technology, engineering and math. The museum could be a space for local schools or a family coming from elsewhere to visit, she said.

“We want them to keep coming back. We want them to be learning more,” she said. “From a personal lens, I want those kiddos to be sparked with something that just makes them want to pursue something more in those fields.”

Correction: This story has been updated. The Wausau Center mall closed in 2020. It was demolished in 2021.

READ MORE: Wausau demolished its mall. Could what comes next be a new model for small-city downtowns?

A ripped poster that says "WAUSAU" on it can be seen on a white tile floor inside of a mall.
A sign is left on the floor of the Wausau Center mall during demolition Friday, June 4, 2021, in Wausau, Wis. Angela Major/WPR