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History of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis was founded in 1925 through the stewardship and inspiration of Mary Stewart Carey (1859–1938), a citizen of Indianapolis. After visiting the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Carey was determined to create a similar museum for Indianapolis. With the help of several civic-minded women and contributions from children in nearby neighborhoods, the museum sprang to life. Over the course of 95 years, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has grown in size and stature to become the biggest and best children’s museum in the world.

The following is a timeline of major events and milestones in the museum’s history. 

1925 The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is founded (December). Its first home is the Carriage House of The Propylaeum on the city’s Old Northside.

1926 The museum moves to the Shelter House in Garfield Park. Arthur B. Carr (1872–1956) is named museum director.

1927 The museum moves to the former home of its founder, Mary Stewart Carey, at 1150 N. Meridian Street (known as the Carey House).

1933 The Children’s Museum Guild is formed. This all-volunteer organization contributes time, money, and service to the museum. 

1937 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visits the museum to see a collection of dolls made by WPA workers employed by the museum.

1946 The museum moves to what becomes its permanent site at 30th and Meridian Streets, purchasing the limestone mansion known as Parry House for $63,500. Grace Golden (1899–1966) is named director following the retirement of Arthur B. Carr.

1950s–1960s During this period the museum begins acquiring properties adjacent and near Parry House and presents larger and more ambitious exhibits, including The Hall of Man and a Transportation Gallery. 

1964 Mildred Compton (1917–1993) is named museum director following the retirement of Grace Golden.

1964 The Children’s Museum Guild creates its first Haunted House, a successful annual fundraising event that still thrives today, more than 55 years later.

1965 An iconic 9-foot polar bear comes to the museum on a long-term loan from trustee Harry D. Tousley. The specimen was formally donated to the museum in 1986 by the Tousley family.

1968 The iconic Reuben Wells, a steam engine built in 1868 to push trains up the steepest railroad grade in the nation (located in Madison, Indiana), comes to the museum on loan. It is housed in a custom-built train shed built on the museum’s grounds. 

1971 The museum is among the first two dozen museums in the nation, and the first in Indianapolis, to be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.

1973 Museum director Mildred Compton, board president George Varnes, and Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar break ground for an all-new new museum building at 30th and Meridian streets. 

1976 The Children’s Museum opens its new, 5-story dedicated museum structure, becoming the world’s largest children’s museum at 225,000 square feet (a designation it still holds). In addition to galleries, the new facility includes the Ruth Allison Lilly Theater.

1982 Peter Sterling (1935–2016) becomes the fourth director of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis following the retirement of Mildred Compton.

1984 The museum’s collection nearly doubles in size with Frank and Theresa Caplan’s gift of more than 50,000 toys and folk art objects from 120 countries around the world.

1985 Mysteries in History opens, featuring life-size re-creations of structures from Indiana’s past that visitors could explore.

1986 Passport to the World opens, a permanent exhibit featuring the Caplan Collection.

1988 The museum expands, opening its first Welcome Center and two special exhibit galleries. The Welcome Center features the Sunburst Window and Bernard Gitton’s iconic Water Clock. 

1989 SpaceQuest Planetarium opens.

1990 The Eli Lilly Center for Exploration opens—a gallery aimed at 10- to 18-year-olds and meant for exploring topics in depth.

1996 The museum opens the 310-seat Cinedome to showcase large-format films, as well as Allen W. Clowes Festival Park, an area in front of the museum for special outdoor events.

1997 The Children’s Museum receives a transformative $40 million gift from the estate of Enid Goodrich. 

1997 The museum receives its first National Medal for Museum and Library Services in recognition of its commitment to the surrounding neighborhood and the Indianapolis community.

1999 Dr. Jeffrey H. Patchen is named president and CEO of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. 

2000 Carousel Wishes and Dreams opens, showcasing the museum’s Dentzel Carousel.

2004 The museum unveils the immersive experience Dinosphere: Now You’re in Their World. The creation of the exhibit fundamentally repurposes the existing (former Cinedome) structure. Parking Garage construction is also completed. 

2006 Fireworks of Glass, a permanent glass sculpture installation by artist Dale Chihuly, is unveiled.

2007 The Power of Children: Making a Difference® opens, an exhibit examining the stories of three children—Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White—who became heroes of the 20th century by overcoming hatred, racism, and fear. 

2009 The museum opens the current Welcome Center and the Skywalk over Illinois Street. Exterior additions include the installation of massive brachiosaur sculptures and the creation of Anne Frank Peace Park.

2009 The blockbuster Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs is featured, and the museum unveils Take Me There: Egypt—the first in the Take Me There exhibits series.

2011 National Geographic Treasures of the Earth opens

2013 The museum reimagines its popular Playscape® exhibit. 

2014 China’s Terra Cotta Warriors: The Emperor’s Painted Army is showcased in tandem with the unveiling of Take Me There: China.

2014 The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is awarded its second National Medal for Museum and Library Service—the nation’s highest honor for museum service to the community.

2015 The museum organizes the groundbreaking exhibit National Geographic Scared Journeys

2016 Beyond Spaceship Earth opens, an exhibit comprising an interactive re-creation of portions of the International Space Station, the Schaefer Planetarium and Space Object Theater, and the Indiana Astronaut Wall of Fame.

2016 Corteva Agriscience ScienceWorks opens, offering new immersive experiences.

2016 The museum’s Old National Bank Mid-North Promise Program awards its first scholarships for college tuition and workforce training.

2017 The Galleries for American Arts and Popular Culture, featuring the permanent exhibit American POP and a gallery for temporary exhibits, opens. 

2018 The Children’s Museum unveils its largest expansion in 40 years—the 7.5-acre Riley Children’s Health Sports Legends Experience. Featuring 12 outdoor sports experiences and three indoor galleries, it is a new national model for family learning in fitness and health.

2019 Organized by the museum, Treasures of Ancient Greece introduces families to the myriad contributions of ancient Greece to the modern world. The exhibit is presented in association with the opening of Take Me There: Greece.

2021 Jennifer Pace Robinson is named president and CEO of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.