Built from Scrap


Javier Guerrero ’95 (BA) quickly combs his fingers through the sand, revealing the tip of a duck-billed dinosaur as he glances over his shoulder at the glass doors leading out to Base Camp, a simulated dig site at the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum in Escondido, Calif. “This place is about to come alive,” he says, a mere six minutes after the museum opens. “I can leave this exposed; the kids are going to come out here and they’ll go nuts.”

And he’s right. The chatter is muffled at first, then electrifies the air as tiny patrons burst through the doors to the outdoor discovery garden, each station a natural world of its own. Beneath whimsical twists of sailcloth for shade, the under-10ers become archeologists — that duck-billed herbivore is cast from an actual dig — engineers at the water table, botanists in the native plant and pollinator gardens, and urban farmers in the aquaponic garden.

The emphasis is on authentic materials and experiences intended to make the senses — and the imagination — come alive. “We are creating the experience, but we are not dictating the experience,” says Guerrero, executive director of the museum, who together with his creative staff design and build every exhibit in the museum. “For the magnification station, we got the microscope and screen donated. And then everything else (at the station), we built from scrap. Literally from scrap.”
Inside the museum, a nation of flags flutters from the ceiling over the global village, the interactive science stations and an imagination zone featuring instruments, puppets, costumes and a stage. A life-size ship, handcrafted by the museum’s artisans, dominates one corner and morphs with the museum’s evolving global theme — as do all of the exhibits — into a vessel from the culture du jour.

In many ways, the museum reflects Guerrero’s childhood, which was packed with hands-on art, culture and travel. Born in Mexico, he hopscotched around the United States from his mother’s native New England to Seattle and Dallas, with frequent stops in San Diego and Mexico to visit family. He is a citizen of two nations himself and speaks four languages. At USD, Guerrero majored in anthropology and volunteered at the Museum of Man, which eventually led to a long-term position after graduation.

Guerrero was in the midst of a career-shift to international health development four years ago when a small children’s museum in Escondido called with an opportunity to create a world of wonder. At the time, the 4,000-square-foot museum in the California Center for the Arts served 7,500 visitors. Today, the reimagined 13,500-square-foot facility is located two blocks east and on target to serve more than 100,000 patrons this year.

Key to this success is Guerrero’s insistence on creating accessibility by keeping admission costs low, by offering scholarships and free programming onsite such as parenting classes, and by developing partnerships with cultural and arts organizations such as the San Diego Symphony and the Old Globe Theatre.

Programming encourages children not only to learn about the world through exploration, imagination and experimentation, but to expand their horizons through creative play.

It can have a lasting effect, Guerrero says. “Hopefully, this will inspire (the children) to do something great or to become something great.”

Future growth for the museum will be on wheels. A van parked out front will transport exhibits — all built on casters — to schools and other public spaces so families in more communities can experience the museum. This is not driven by mercenary measures, says Guerrero, an Eagle Scout, but rather by a commitment to do the right thing.

“I believe everybody should have access,” Guerrero says. “It should not be limited. I don’t want to be the biggest nonprofit or the biggest museum. I want to be the best-run nonprofit in terms of our values, our practices and how we care for the community.” — Trisha J. Ratledge