February 24, 2020

Esther Netter on the Value of Play and Santa Monica’s New Children’s Museum

Photo by Lee Photography Cayton Team

Esther Netter is perhaps best known as the founder and leader of the museum known as the Zimmer Children’s Museum. (The Zimmer closed earlier this year.) This past summer, Netter, 61, became CEO of the new Cayton Children’s Museum. Located on the third floor of Santa Monica Place, the colorful, hands-on museum is designed for children from infancy to 10 years. The Journal spoke with Netter about her life’s work, why a mall location was chosen for the Cayton and how children’s museums can make the world a better place.

Jewish Journal: How did you end up working in children’s museums? 

Esther Netter: I studied informal education. It’s the power of summer camp, youth groups, travel, arts education … experiential learning. And my journey to the world of children’s museums was paved with many summers at summer camp, in particular Camp Ramah in Ojai. I’m a summer camp girl. And a day in a children’s museum is like a day at summer camp, where kids are in charge.

JJ: Is there a relationship with the now-closed Zimmer museum and the Cayton? 

EN: For the last 20 years the Zimmer was housed at the Jewish Federation building. Before that we were My Jewish Discovery Children’s Museum that was birthed and grew at the Westside Jewish Community Center. The Cayton is standing on the shoulders of all the creative and generous donors of the past 30 years who got us to this moment. And the Cayton is about teaching children, youth and families how to be a mensch; how to be the best version of themselves; how each of us is responsible one for the other and how we each have the ability to make a difference in this world and the responsibility to do so. 

We are grateful to Andrea and Barry Cayton for their generosity and belief in us. Their gift to us was made to honor the memory of Andrea’s father, Jona Goldrich, who was a significant philanthropist in the Los Angeles community. He was a Holocaust survivor and he believed that each of us is responsible one for the other.

JJ: Unlike the Zimmer, the Cayton is not a Jewish museum, correct?

EN: Perception I would say is key here. Up until we became the Cayton, we were always housed in a Jewish building. So the Zimmer, when we incorporated as our own 501(c)(3), was an arts and culture institution, a children’s museum focused on reaching families with young children and was anchored in teaching the lessons of menschlikite. Our mission is to support families in raising kids to be their best version of themselves, which is the same as being focused on teaching menschlikite. One’s in Yiddish and one’s in English.

JJ: Can you talk a little about the mall location? 

EN: The move to Cayton was predicated on needing to expand our hours and expand our footprint to expand our accessibility. With that came this opportunity to be a part of Santa Monica Place, which has welcomed us with open arms. We have triple the exhibit footprint. There are two city parking lots that flank either side of the urban center and we are a stone’s throw from the Metro. We were looking for how can we be more accessible and visible. At the Federation we had 31 parking spaces and limited hours and limited square footage.

“Our mission is to support families in raising kids to be their best version of themselves, which is the same as being focused on teaching menschlikite. One’s in Yiddish and one’s in English.”

JJ: The tagline for the museum is “Playing Our Way to a Better World.” How does that work? 

EN: The way kids learn is through play. So the context of all of our exhibits and programming, when they play at rescue, they’re imagining what it’s like to help someone. When they dress up as a veterinarian and take care of animals that’s when they practice what it means to take care of something else, and then that becomes a behavior that they can apply in the family. When kids dress up in costumes, that’s how children lay the tracks for empathy and compassion. When you put on bunny ears and start hopping, you’re imagining what it’s like to be a bunny and that helps you imagine what it’s like to be the new kid in school who is scared, and when you feel that, you are more likely to go to that new child in school and ask them to come eat lunch with you.

JJ: Do you have a favorite part of the museum?

EN: I have three favorites. Our “courage climber,” has perspective windows. You get to experience being like a human drone. It’s the way kids can practice seeing things from a different vantage point and imagine how someone else feels. And then I love “in tune with nature.” The wishing wall is beautiful wood shapes and Jerusalem stone. So that’s building on the wall we had at the Zimmer. Across from the wishing wall is that little dark room with the [projected] butterflies. (It’s butterflies during the day and fireflies at night.) That back area is part of our exhibit called “reflect on,” which is counterintuitive in a children’s museum. It’s about being reflective, being still, being quiet, slowing down. The third thing is the “hello booth.” That is a nod to the telephone of the wind in Japan. Thousands and thousands of visitors make pilgrimages to the telephone of the wind to speak to people that they can’t speak to or access in real life. So as we were thinking about this museum and wanting kids to practice rescue, to practice cooperation, to have fun climbing and take risks, we thought if we’re here for families raising kids most families don’t have access to clergy, because most families are unaffiliated. Not everybody is connected to extended community, when everyone experiences loss and challenge. So why not have magic phones that are available for families who visit?