To say that Cortney Hurley visits the North Shore Children’s Museum in Peabody often would be a bit of an understatement.
“There was one week, I believe, a month and a half ago, where I went three times in about a week,” she laughs, including going as a chaperone for her daughter’s firstgrade field trip.
She says her three children, ages 7, 4, and 3, love the museum for its engaging, hands-on exhibits, like an oversized Lite-Brite that covers an entire wall; a construction corner with tools and blocks for building; and a storybook room with dress-up clothes, a puppet theater, and felt storyboards.
“It’s exciting to see them build something and be really excited about building it,” she says.
Hurley and her kids aren’t alone in their excitement. The North Shore Children’s Museum opened in October, and by February, it had already welcomed nearly 10,000 people from 127 towns, says executive director Ali Haydock.
“We knew there was a need for this on the North Shore,” she says.
Indeed, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have some wonderful museums for children, including the Boston Children’s Museum, the EcoTarium in Worcester, The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, and the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire in Dover. However, none are located on the North Shore, and most require long drives (and sometimes expensive admission and parking) to visit. That’s changed, thanks to the North Shore Children’s Museum.
“We’re the only museum of this kind. We’ve been selling out, and families are just so happy that we’re here,” Haydock says.
The museum is notable in a number of ways.
First, it’s actually owned and operated by the city of Peabody. It started out as CuriousCity, a pop-up children’s museum from the Peabody Cultural Collaborative to test the concept of having a children’s museum in Peabody. It was housed at the George Peabody House and Peabody Leatherworkers museums and was originally slated to be open for just three months. It was so successful that its run was extended to a full year; it shut down only at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We wanted to test this out to see if it was something that could work in our downtown. In order to make the big investment . . . it was good to have a kind of test trial run,” says Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt. “We had great numbers during that year.”
Now, the original vision for a permanent and fully operational children’s museum in the heart of downtown Peabody has come to life. Instead of using pop-up space in other museums, the new North Shore Children’s Museum has its own dedicated space right on Main Street. It’s housed in a former bank—complete with a vault and teller windows, which is perfect for kids’ imaginative play—and offers 13 exhibit spaces, a gift shop, a rentable party room, workshops, a lactation and baby-changing space, and other areas for kids and families.
Among the exhibits are those dedicated to bugs and bees, the ocean and fishing, a doctor’s office, a STEM lab, comics, trains, outer space, stories, farms and food, gross motor skills, and a bank. Some are permanent while others will rotate, but each is dedicated to fun, play, and learning.
“We’re all about hands-on, interactive play. That’s really how kids learn,” says Haydock.
The museum is also dedicated to inclusion. For instance, a dimly lit and relaxing sensory room provides space for kids who need a break from all the excitement. In addition, dedicated “low sensory days” offer reduced sounds and lights, “so kids who may not want to come when we’re very busy can come then,” Haydock says.
The museum is also all one level—meaning that it can be accessed by everyone, even those with walking disabilities—and all the signage is in three languages, English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
“Peabody as a whole is very diverse, so we want to make sure that our space is accessible for everyone,” Haydock says.
The museum also offers $3 admission for people with EBT or WIC cards, as well as passes at several local libraries that give discounted admission, and special free admission days for nearby towns. It’s also prioritizing field trips from local schools.
“We’re in a lower income area, and it’s our top priority to make sure that the people who live here can come here,” Haydock says.
The exhibits also highlight the museum’s special partnerships and relationships with local people and organizations. In addition to businesses that sponsor some of the exhibits, the museum also partners with local artists, including Meg Nichols, Pasquale Minichillo, Jr., and others, who’ve painted murals and created 3D art; nonprofits like Raw ArtWorks and Northeast Arc; and Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical School, whose students will be building a “command center” for the museum’s space room.
“There’s just so much talent on the North Shore,” Haydock says. “Whether it’s artists or people in education, we’re just so much better when we all work together and we have other people contributing ideas and their talents.”
The city hopes that kids and families will be able to enjoy the museum as it grows and evolves for years to come.
“We’ve exceeded expectation,” says Bettencourt. “My hope and the intention is for this to be part of the long-term operation for the city.”