The Austin Children's Museum was founded in October 1983 by a grass-roots group which successfully developed partnerships with civic, business, and community organizations seeking to expand the cultural and educational opportunities for Central Texas youth and families. Founders surveyed community groups (libraries, schools, preschool parent groups, educators, artists, and cultural groups) who expressed strong support for a resource which would build on a child's inherent curiosity and provide concrete opportunities for creativity and inquiry. They drew up a four-phase museum plan whose timeline included the presentation of exhibits throughout the
community, opening an initial facility, consolidating museum approaches and resources, and finally creating a full-size facility for ongoing programming.
In the fall of 1984, the first museum-developed exhibit, The Magic of Faces, opened in a library in a low-income minority neighborhood in the city. During the museum's first phase, 1984-87, it established a solid reputation for creating and sponsoring exhibits, family festivals, workshops, educator programs, school-based programming, and collaborative events with other community groups. Museum events in schools, parks, libraries, shopping malls, museums, and neighborhood centers attracted visitors throughout Austin. Museum-designed exhibits began traveling statewide, on loan to cultural centers, universities, and other museums.
In October 1987, the museum opened a 5,000 square-foot facility in downtown Austin. The site served approximately 1,500 visitors weekly. The museum has created galleries and touring exhibits, developed programs for target audiences, evolved a community-responsive exhibit design process, implemented a broad-based volunteer program drawing on youth, college interns, and community volunteers, and established a popular traveling exhibit program. Exhibits about music, masks, food ways, home-building, jungles, space sciences, bats, weather, clothing,
functional art, and puppetry offered opportunities for multidisciplinary learning, creativity, and appreciation of culture and heritage.
In 1991, the museum became the first children's museum accepted into the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Advancement Program, which provides strategic planning assistance and special funds to 40 arts groups annually. In 1993, the museum added science corps to its community programming. The following year, the museum began sponsoring teen multi-media productions. In 1995, the museum began a program to involve local artists more actively in exhibit design and production.
In 1996 Austin Children's Museum launched a $5 million Expansion Campaign, and in December 1997 opened the doors of the 20,000 square foot facility at 201 Colorado Street. Exhibits about inventions, trees, textiles, growing up, time, bats. Today annual attendance has grown to 140,000.