The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire Celebrates A Big Year

The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire (CMNH) turns 40 in 2023, while its chosen city of Dover, NH celebrates its 400th anniversary year. The museum, one of the most visited family attractions in the state of New Hampshire, will celebrate its 40-year legacy with fun events, a nostalgic look back on how much things have evolved over the years, and by starting work on a new expansion project. CMNH is grateful for the support from Kennebunk Savings Bank, who is the exclusive sponsor of all 40th Anniversary Year celebrations.


Today, families in NH have a plethora of fantastic Museums to choose from when looking for activities for their children. But 40 years ago, in the early 80’s, these kinds of spaces and experiences were few and far between. The kids tagged along to grown-up activities and made their way in spaces not designed for them, but around them. Two mothers from Portsmouth had a brilliant idea to change that, and out of their industriousness, creativity, vision and ingenuity sprang what is now known as the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire.

 The museum first opened in Portsmouth on Saturday, July 30, 1983 as the Children’s Museum of Portsmouth located in the old South Meeting House on Marcy Street. Co-founded by two mothers and educators, Ona Barnet and Denise Doleac. “There were very few Children’s Museums back in 1981 and those few were in large cities,” shared Denise. “So creating the Children’s Museum in a city of 24,000 people was an interesting adventure indeed.” 

After two years of planning, permits, fundraising and educating people about what a Children’s Museum was all about, the museum welcomed 400 children and their grown-ups to its grand opening. Anna Goldsmith, who was 9 at the time and quoted in a Foster’s Daily Democrat article written by Peyton Fleming, said “I think this is really neat because there is already enough stuff for adults. Grown-ups already have bars and discos. But finally they’re creating something for the kids and I think that’s good.” When asked about what she remembers from that day, Anna now says “I was just so excited that there was finally something nearby that was just for kids. I wasn’t great with long car rides – I would get car sick whenever we’d try to go to the Boston museum. So having something right in New Hampshire was perfect. I don’t remember this, but according to my Mom and the reporter, I grabbed the microphone to give my little speech, I was that excited!”

That first year, the museum welcomed 27,000 visitors. The original exhibits included the Yellow Submarine, built by Architect Christopher Clews, three Commodore 64 computers, a hospital room with equipment provided by the Portsmouth Regional Hospital, a factory assembly line where children could create leather bookmarks, a video room, and a small radio station dubbed WFUN.

A Museum for New Hampshire

Over the next 25 years, exhibits changed, membership grew, and a constant stream of innovative programming attracted larger and larger crowds to the tiny South Meeting House. “Around 1995, Museum Trustees and our founding Director Denny Doleac began considering the idea of expansion,” shared Jane Bard, current CMNH President. “Although we loved the charm, history and location of our home in Portsmouth’s South Meeting House, we simply didn’t have enough space for exhibits, classrooms, visitor amenities or parking. Our staff worked off-site in a separate rented space and there were often long waiting lines to enter the Museum when we reached the building’s capacity.”

After a decade-long search in Portsmouth and subsequent meetings with city officials in Dover who recognized the benefit of locating the Museum in a soon-to-be-empty Butterfield Gym in downtown Dover, it was decided that the Children’s Museum of Portsmouth would move to Dover and become the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire.

A newly rebranded CMNH opened on July 26, 2008. The former Butterfield Gym was converted into two floors of accessible, interactive, hands-on exhibits that not only reflected the exhibits that had become childhood favorites, but also expanded to embrace the new museum’s natural and historical environment as well.

“It was a hectic but exciting time for all of us,” shared Jane Bard. “I was looking through museum photos recently and came across one of us touring the Butterfield Gym during construction, and it was 7 weeks before we would open as CMNH, and it looked like there was still so much to do!”

The new Children’s Museum of New Hampshire embraced its origins in the new building, with some twists. In Portsmouth, the “Yellow Submarine” took over 3 levels of the building, and encompassed a variety of exhibits. In Dover, it was redesigned to mimic a research submarine with a working sonar, a listening station, working periscope, and control panel where kids can “navigate” the sub through the waters of the Gulf of Maine. A new favorite, the Cochecosystem exhibit overlooking the Cocheco River explores the interchange between the natural and industrial environment of the Cocheco River and specifically examines how “engineers,” both human and animal, use the river. And thanks to an expanded exhibit workshop area in the new Dover museum, exhibits that couldn’t make it out onto the floor for the opening, were kept safely stored for future use. “When we opened the outdoor Play Patio exhibit, we pulled out our wonderful Tube Tones that we had crafted and displayed in the Portsmouth Museum, and were able to make that a permanent part of a new space,” said Jane. “So if you visited us when you were a child, and return now as an adult with your own children, chances are you will see many nostalgic elements!”


“We love to embrace the fact that many of our visitors have a long history with us,” said Jane. Sometimes that’s adults returning to the museum with their own children or grandchildren to show them their favorite exhibits from years ago. Sometimes it’s a volunteer or intern recognizing a CMNH educator that taught them in a class when they were preschoolers. “That’s my favorite!” laughed CMNH Education Director Xanthi Gray who has led countless classes for the 32 years she has worked at the museum. “And sometimes its people commenting on a photo we share on our social media that shows their now grown children playing in the museum,” said Communications Director, Neva Cole. 

“That long history in a community means many, many stories are out there floating around in people’s memories, just waiting to be told,” said Neva. CMNH plans to try to capture those memories with a photo submission contest through its website, coming soon. “We’ll also be digging deep into our archives to share some fun photos, stories, and videos of our own! So you may just spot yourself as a kid fishing from the Portsmouth museum Lobster Boat, or communicating with Earth in the Space Shuttle exhibit, or visiting Dracula in the museum’s old clock tower on Halloween,” said Neva.

“We know we have a lot to celebrate,” said Jane. “It’s been a tough few years for everyone, and we’re happy to look back on our history, while at the same time, keep planning for our future.”

Celebrating & Looking Ahead

After 40 years of innovative programming, artistically designed exhibits, and engaging with literally millions of visitors, the Museum is looking ahead to what will come next. Some things will remain the same, like the museum’s commitment to early learning to build healthy brain architecture, S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math), access for all children and families, and its founding principle that kids thrive when given the space to explore and discover.

CMNH has also grown beyond its physical presence in many ways. While inviting families inside the magical space of the museum is an important part of CMNH’s mission, it isn’t the only way the community benefits. “Play-based learning is the idea that kids learn best through play,” shared Xanthi Gray, CMNH Director of Education. “And it also happens to be what we are all about. When kids play in our exhibits, they are learning all kinds of things that are important to their development. But play-based learning can happen anywhere, and that’s why we’re so excited to have been awarded a prestigious and competitive IMLS INSPIRE! Grant for small museums to help us spread our knowledge about play-based learning around to NH libraries, childcare centers, and family resource centers!”

CMNH wanted to use their institutional knowledge and skills to help the overburdened childcare system in New Hampshire in the best way they could. Thanks to the IMLS grant and an additional grant from the Evelyn S. and K.E. Barrett Foundation, CMNH has embarked on a series of play-based learning initiatives. “So far, we’ve sent over 80 kits of high quality play-based learning manipulative kits, along with monthly activity guides to participating centers and libraries across NH that will eventually reach 9,000 children,” shared Meredith Brustlin, CMNH Content Specialist who curated the play-based learning kits. “We’ve hosted an open house at CMNH for over 100 childcare providers, launched three new weekly drop-in programs at the museum for families with preschool-aged children, and are offering free admission to licensed NH childcare providers.” These efforts have been well received by project partners. Cheryl Ingerson from the Elkins Public Library in Canterbury, NH said “Wow! We just received the PBL (play-based learning) kit…WOW! I can’t wait to add these to our programming and am looking forward to the monthly activity guides!”

New adventures are being planned right now, as well. “In an effort to use every single bit of space we can, we’re planning an expansion into an area above our current Dino Detective exhibit,” shared Jane. “We’re in the planning phase with architects and structural engineers, and are brainstorming with staff, visitors, and community members to decide what kind of experience will be added to that space. Will it be an area for rotating exhibits? Will it be a space for active play and physical movement? Will it be an exhibit that will help support children’s emotional wellbeing?” The museum will announce more details about their plans for this space soon.

Special Events

A sneak peek at CMNH’s plans for special events throughout 2023, exclusively sponsored by Kennebunk Savings. More to come!

Dover Resident’s Day
Saturday, June 24, 9am-Noon or 1-4pm
CMNH will be offering $1 per person admission (which was what the museum charged when it first opened in 1983) for all Dover residents on this special Saturday!

Family Fun Day at CMNH
Saturday, July 22, 9am-Noon or 1-4pm
CMNH will offer $1 per person admission to all!

CMNH’s 40th Birthday Party
Saturday, September 23, 9am-Noon or 1-4pm
Come celebrate our birthday with play time, art projects, science experiments, and of course, cake!

40 Years of Play
Special exhibition inside CMNH’s Gallery 6

October 3, 2022 – January 28, 2024