It was a busy Thursday at Marbles Kids Museum.
Wake County schools were closed for Rosh Hashanah, leading to an influx of families to the downtown Raleigh play space. Once inside, the children sought the hula hoops, the pirate ship and the pollinator garden. They made race cars, clambered through the climbing structure and painted pictures.
Ten years ago, these kids wouldn’t have had this option on a day off, Marbles CEO and President Sally Edwards says.
It’s easy to see why Edwards is approaching Marbles’ 10th anniversary – which kicks off Sept. 29 with an array of activities – with the same bright-eyed excitement as the kids playing in the museum.
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“It’s two digits, so what’s special about that?” she asks. “You’re turning 10, so you get to stay up late. We’re staying open until 10 at night on our birthday. How fun is that?”
If a 10th birthday is a significant milestone for a child or a business, that same timeframe is notable in downtown Raleigh’s recent history. In 2007, when Marbles opened, downtown was a far less happening place. There was no Raleigh Convention Center yet, and destination festivals like Hopscotch Music Festival or this week’s Wide Open Bluegrass were still years in the future.
Thanks to the timing of the museum’s opening and its heart-of-downtown location, Edwards says Marbles was able to incorporate children and families into the growth of increasingly desirable downtown Raleigh. Bar and restaurant scenes are expected to be part of this kind of growth in any city, she says. But what’s rare is to find youthful energy and exuberance in a hip downtown.
Edwards wants Marbles to continue to infuse downtown with vibrant color and give area families a place of their own, even as Wake County’s desirability and population climb.
“Sixty-four people move into Wake County every day,” Edwards says. “It’s really hard to wrap your head around how many people will be playing here in 10 years.”
So Marbles must grow, too. The museum recently purchased the 17,000-square-foot building next door. Edwards said she can’t comment on Marbles’ plans for that space because she doesn’t know what they are yet. Ask again in a month, she says. But she does like the flexibility and expansion potential a second building affords.
“We know on busy days we have to utilize every inch we’ve got,” says Chris Alexander, director of exhibit design and production.
Indeed, Marbles is one of the busier museums per square foot nationwide, Edwards said, as well as a major tourist attraction. So the museum maximizes its current 39,000 square feet of exhibit space by building exhibits in unlikely places. One underused stairway, for instance, was painted to look like a piano in 2016. Now, thanks to sensors on each stair, the Stepnotes exhibit plays notes as you climb.
Once those stairs no longer looked so utilitarian – that is, once they became fun – they got more use, which alleviated congestion on the main stairwell. Beyond that, Alexander and Edwards knew families wanted more music at Marbles. Additionally, if a set of stairs can be a source of fun, that may entice more Marbles guests to walk than take the elevator. As Alexander puts it, the Stepnotes exhibit idea served multiple functions.
Maximizing space also means nimble, responsive planning and design. There’s no sense in being stuck with exhibits that don’t appeal to kids, Edwards says. Alexander and Edwards know children can interact with an exhibit in a completely different way than its designers expected. So if something doesn’t work or doesn’t appeal to children, it gets changed – simple as that.
“We consider everything we build and install a working prototype,” says Alexander.
While Marbles’ exhibits are designed for those 10 and younger, not all its events are. The children’s museum can be rented for weddings, for instance, while the 21Marbles events (the next of which is Nov. 17) are 21-and-older opportunities that invite younger adults who don’t have families to come see what play at Marbles is all about.
“That’s where our community is responding to our style,” says Edwards. “The unique footprint, the unique nature of this pace – everything we do contributes to and is a reflection of our DNA as an energetic and playful and vibrant institution.”
This downtown impact can also be seen in the presence of nearby children’s bookstore Read With Me, she says, or in the visibility of families visiting downtown restaurants after a Marbles visit. They’re still wearing their green or blue admission stickers. They’re tired, but happy, and they’re contributing to Raleigh’s vibe because there’s a place designed specifically for families like them right in the center of the city.
“Downtown is seen as a family-friendly environment, and we’d like to think a lot of that is because Marbles is an anchor down here for families,” says Alexander. “A lot of cities can’t say that.”
What: Marbles 10th Birthday
When: Sept. 29, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Where: Marbles Kids Museum, 201 E. Hargett St., Raleigh
Cost: Marbles admission is $5 per person. Children under 1 and members get in free.
Info: Daily schedule at marbleskidsmuseum.org/Marbles10
By the Numbers
Here are some facts about Marbles
▪ Marbles is the sixth most visited attraction in North Carolina.
▪ Number of visitors since 2007: More than 5.1 million
▪ Celebrities who have played at Marbles include Will Ferrell, Sean May, Cam Ward and Eric, Marc, Jordan and Jared Staal
▪ Number of marbles in Marbles’ 3-story wall of marbles: More than 1 million
▪ Number of glue sticks used in a year: 2,000+
▪ Number of pizza boxes used in a year: 600+
▪ Size of screen at Marbles IMAX: 70 feet wide and 52 feet tall
▪ Number of green balls needed to open the Moneypalooza piggybank: 175
Courtesy of Marbles Kids Museum