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The Children's Museum in Costa Rica

On March 16th, the Spring Break Costa Rica trek by HBSers came to a brilliant finale with a visit to the Museum de Los Ninos – the Children’s Museum – in San Jose. We were guests of former Costa Rican President Rafael Calderon and his wife, the museum’s director, Mrs.Gloria Calderon. With their son Rafa a section mate to most of the party in the trek, the setting was informal and cordial. However, we were blown away not just by the warm welcome and brilliantly orchestrated evening. It was the Museum itself that impressed all of us – by its ingenuity, relevance and purpose.

The Museum is housed in what used to be the central penitentiary. With a heritage of centuries of human rights abuse etched in its stony walls it had been left empty for several years, a monument to an era best forgotten. During her husband’s tenure in office, Mrs.Calderon wanted to build something that would be a legacy to the future generations in Costa Rica. She envisioned a museum for the children, a place where they would learn via interactive exhibits and absorb the history and culture of their country. As she frantically searched for a place to house this dream she came across the decaying castle that was the prison. Eighteen months of renovations followed, and the castle transformed into a beautiful museum. Since its opening in 1994, the museum has hosted countless numbers of children.

We were especially impressed by the emphasis the museum puts on building self-confidence and national pride in its young visitors. The Space Hall has a robot of Franklin Diaz – the famous NASA astronaut who recounts his humble roots in Costa Rica and throws the challenge of chasing a dream and succeeding. Other brilliant educational exhibits include a simulated earthquake floor, replicas of Costa Rica’s fauna and unique ecosystems, history of its coffee plantations and even a 10-foot sculpture of a human mouth, where children are taught about dental hygiene and get free checkups by university dental students.

Another exhibit features an animated wax figure of Dr. Picado, who explains his invention of penicillin – a claim filed by Costa Rican government but not recognized internationally. Asked about funding, Mrs. Calderon explains how they call up competing corporates and ask them to sponsor particular halls and exhibitions, as the Costa Rican government is not able to provide sufficient support. She is highly appreciative of individuals and corporations who have recognized and supported her work and foundation.

Museum Executive Director tells our group about how Mrs. Calderon always watches out for any assistance and help she can get for the museum. The old army helicopter is something she spotted abandoned in an airport hangar and quickly arranged to requisition. In a similar vein the museum has procured a fire engine and a train!

The museum flourishes thanks to corporate, private and government financial sponsorship but also thanks to the devotion and altruistic participation of volunteers from schools and universities. The team at the museum is fired up about the trips to the museum they arrange for economically disadvantaged children from the country’s interior. In one case even, to instill confidence in a group of youngsters invited for a visit, Mrs. Calderon sent her son Marco to fetch them, also providing them clothes and shoes so they would not be ashamed to visit their country’s capital.

The visit left us and the whole HBS team very impressed and resolved to aid the museum’s growth in whatever capacity possible. We left Costa Rica not only stunned by its natural beauty, taken in by the warmth of its people but also inspired by the difference that a single dedicated vision can make.

April 23, 2001
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