MARQUETTE — Not everyone spends their work day surrounded by a miniature train, reptiles, and a giant stomach with an intestine that doubles as a slide.
Nheena Weyer Ittner does. At least for now.
As executive director of the Upper Peninsula Children’s Museum at W. Baraga Ave. 123, Marquette, Ittner has spent decades making the popular museum — home to many programs like the Second Thursday Creativity Series — what it is today.
However, she recently announced her retirement and while a replacement is being sought, her emptiness will no doubt be felt.
Ittner founded the museum in the 1990s.
“The idea of founding a children’s museum actually came to me after the birth of my second child, and that was in 1987.” She said.
At the time, Ittner was part of the Kellogg Youth Initiative Partnership where she was learning about leadership and children’s needs, and was a teacher in Ishpeming.
“I’ve always dreamed of a place like this where you can take your kids and talk to other parents.” said Ittner. “And I’ve been to other children’s museums across the country.”
Living in a small town like Marquette didn’t stop her from following her dream.
“Why not?” said Ittner. “In the ’80s, Marquette was a different place, a completely different place. Back then, there wasn’t much for kids in Marquette, not much at all.”
As an educator in Ishpeming, Ittner said she tried to open the world to children through art.
So she started making notes about what might happen if she opened a museum.
“I’m thinking about it now and I think I was so reckless.” said Ittner. “I was so brave.”
Glad she had those qualities.
Ittner pitched service clubs to promote her idea, despite encountering negative feedback.
“Sometimes you have to look within yourself, so I gathered a few friends around me and talked about it and started the process.” said Ittner.
The museum incorporated in 1990 and received its 501(c)(3) status, with planning occurring from 1992 – when she became director – through 1997.
“But one of the coolest aspects of our planning is that we made the actual design of the museum a program.” said Ittner.
This meant getting input from children to help shape the museum.
That made sense considering the museum needed to appeal to young people.
However, she noted that money from the Kellogg Foundation helped fund the programming and the building was constructed on a basic contract basis.
Lots to do in the museum
Since then it has grown.
The museum is a feast for the eyes and actually for all the senses. The Bunny Gift Shop is on the lower level, but a visitor walking up the stairs to the main exhibits may be greeted by the cooing of real pigeons. Further inside the floor is a miniature train, a play mine and sand area with toy trucks, the Safetyville station with first responder gear, a mock merchant, a bee exhibit, a kitchen area where yummy treats are made, and the Creature Kingdom where visitors can see turtles touch, interact with reptiles and much more.
Other attractions include the Over the Air exhibition gallery, where youngsters can pretend they are pilots in the cockpit of a real jet.
There’s almost too much to see in one trip, but the museum isn’t going away anytime soon, even with Ittner’s retirement.
The fun will most likely still be there too.
“Little Children Can Laugh” She said. “We’ve watched generations of kids grow up here and then bring their kids with them. It’s just a cool thing.
“I just love that it’s a place where kids can learn and let their imaginations run wild.”
Ittner, a self-confessed creative, continues this passion.
At a recent team meeting, she noted that the discussion centered on a new energy exhibit and creating it in an appropriate theme.
“I said, ‘Why do you want to match it?’ “I’ve always said that imbalance creates interest. Make it a different kind of wall.” said Ittner.
Why is Ittner retiring?
“I think it was mostly going through a pandemic and all the unknowns and hardships,” She said.
Ittner managed to keep the museum going financially, staff continued to be paid and bills processed.
However, she has also had health problems recently.
“I think it’s time to just see what life has to offer.” said Ittner. “I have no idea what I’m going to do.”
However, the name of Nheena Weyer Ittner extends far beyond the walls of the UP Children’s Museum. She was instrumental in bringing the Marquette Skate Plaza on East Fair Avenue to town and is hard at work on another youth project: the new Kids Cove playground at Mattson Lower Harbor Park.
Marquette City Commissioner Sally Davis, who has been active in many civic activities, had this to say about Ittner.
“Nheena had a vision over 25 years ago that many in the community did not believe would be realized.” Davis said in an email. “Through their passion, creativity and perseverance, we have a wonderful children’s museum.
“She is the spark that has ignited many other community projects and we can all thank her for her talents and dedication.”
So Ittner is unlikely to remain idle. Ittner said the ideal is to find a new general manager in the fall and work with that director.
“I’ll be done after that” said Ittner. “I have this dream that that person would be someone who would like me and get my ideas and talk to me about what life was like and then hug me when they see me at the museum or invite me to lunch or so.
“But I would never step on their toes.”
Jim “Mr. Jim” Edwards, education coordinator and program and museum manager, was with the museum from its inception and even before and helped design the building for four years before it opened on March 22, 1997.
He is not overly concerned about the fate of the museum after Ittner’s departure.
“She has a plan” he said.
Meanwhile, Edwards is busy with the museum’s many exhibits and animals. In fact, on Wednesday he showed Ittner a male reptile, a uromastyx nicknamed Daniel Craig, and explained his coloration. He also showed her a new pigeon egg.
“It was a great journey” said Ittner. “Have a good trip, however.”
She has another dream.
“I dream that this place is here forever and ever” She said.
Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Your email address is email@example.com.