Monday, April 25, 2016

The Designated Reader


Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Twenty years ago, somewhere near mile marker 187 in Glacier National Park, the alternator on our car went out. After hitchhiking to the nearest gas station and having the car towed to Kalispell, MT, we learned that the closest alternator supplier was 250 miles away in Spokane, WA. Since it was the start of the Fourth of July weekend, the part would arrive in 4-5 days. Our stay in the area turned out to be much longer, however, because the wrong part was sent the first time.

For several reasons, the holiday wait was not a disaster. One reason was the great quantity and variety of reading material where my husband and I were staying. That’s when my husband was anointed as the Designated Reader. He did and still will read nearly anything: the Economist, Guns and Ammo, old New Yorkers, National Geographic, Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Mechanics, Fine Woodworking, Readers’ Digest, and Sunset Magazine. He will also read cookbooks and sailing manuals, how to build hay bale houses, and anything about the history of the English language.

From years of experience, I know it’s great to have a designated reader in the house. I regularly enjoy a constant flow of articles, links, book reviews, travel tips, and new studies on museums, gardening, travel, birding, literacy, old houses, book arts, and more. 

Not surprisingly, I also believe every museum should have at least one designated reader. Museums operate in a dynamic community, educational, and economic context. Subsisting on a ideas re-circulated internally is hazardous to a museum’s health. To stay current, be prepared for inevitable bumps, and challenge themselves, museums must have a steady diet of ideas, information, and perspectives from in and outside the field. Every museum needs staff and trustees who think, see, and read beyond the museum walls, carry forward what’s visible in the rear-view mirror, and look past the horizon. Learning individually and collectively as a museum must be fully integrated into the DNA. Designated readers contribute to a vibrant learning life for a museum. 

Years ago Minnesota Children’s Museum’s CEO, Ann Bitter, came up with a related idea. Our Strategy Team (a.k.a. the STeam Team a.k.a STeam) became, in effect, the designated readers for the museum. We added some subscriptions to what the Museum already had and assigned one magazine to each STeam member to read each issue, select, and distribute interesting and relevant articles to others on STeam as well as across the museum. Those articles became fodder for discussion, leads on new technology, challenges to our thinking, and sources of new strategy. In addition to museum publications, we covered business, education, technology, children’s literature, and family leisure. I still have a article, The New Work of the Nonprofit Board” from Harvard Business Review (1996) that I refer to even now.

With her monthly Museum Education Monitor, (MEM) museum educator, consultant, and editor Christine Castle has been the designated reader for museum education for 11 years. The final issue of her on-line subscription service was in December 2015. MEM’s goal was to enhance the development of theory and practice in the field by both academics and museum workers. Each month, Christine invited readers and subscribers to contribute research and resources in museum education worldwide on a related theme such as Adults and Older People, and Science, and Internships. Each month the publication delivered resources including on-going research, blog postings, on-line journals, print journals, new books and media, and professional development. Citations, links, abstracts, and author contacts for each entry made the material easy to access as well as extensive and perfect for designated readers at museums everywhere.

I take my own role of sharing articles, resources, studies, and blog posts very seriously and I enjoy it. Perhaps somewhat like a designated reader myself, I pass out articles and send links to colleagues and clients in areas related to a project: strategic planning, stakeholders, engaging parents and caregivers, or documentation. Sometimes I give a book to a museum at the end of a project to continue the discussions and contribute the museum's library. An issue that several museums are dealing with often becomes the starting point for a Museum Notes post that’s  likely to include links to articles, studies, or reports.

There is, however a limit to how much a single reader who visits only occasionally can cover– especially compared with the varied interests and perspectives that a dozen readers in a single museum who talk and work together everyday can generate. Moreover, a disposition to read is needed in every museum all the time.  A museum that aspires to be a learning organization needs–and deserves–multiple strategies to advance this. The designated reader is one strategy to activate and support. 

From observing the reading and learning lives of museums, I think instituting a designated reader strategy is helped along in a number of ways.

                Start with 2 designated readers, and possibly more depending on the size of the museum. Float the idea first to get a sense of staff’s interest and response. Invite and encourage people to volunteer to be designated readers; the enthusiasm of a natural-born designated reader is invaluable. Be ready, however, to assign the role to get started. Integrate the designated reader into the organizational, team, and working group structure as STeam did.

                Align with the museum’s priorities. Every museum has multiple priorities, the topics, or interests, highlighted in the strategic plan, improving quality, or stepping up to community challenges. Making these explicit helps a museum. These are the areas a museum needs to build capacity, provide professional development, develop a shared understanding. These are areas for the designated reader. Sustainability? Access and inclusion? Community engagement? Family learning? Performance measures? Social entrepreneurship? 

And yet, as important as aligning reading with museum priorities is, …

                …Read widely and stretch. Create a richer reading mix with both familiar sources and more adventurous finds. In addition to reports from the field like TrendsWatch 2016 or IMLS's Brain-Building Powerhouses, read the LEGO Foundation’s Cultures of Creativity, and check-out reports on museums worldwide. Find readings in other sectors: healthcare, business, technology, education, as well as arts and culture. Read current research and museum classics by John Cotton Dana and Stephen Weill. Select different, even contrary, approaches and perspectives on a particular topic–free admission, social justice in museums, branding, docent training, or museums' role with schools.

                Shape a process for reading and sharing. A process for reading, sharing, and discussing is likely to evolve with time based on a museum’s practices and own learning style. But thinking through an initial process built on what generally works well at a museum will help set a smooth course. • Who’s involved and in what ways? • Should readings be distributed to those whose work relates most closely to a topic or does an interesting article or report on a tangentially related topic serve as a friendly provocation? • Would a protocol for discussion be helpful? • How can we actively engage people with the ideas? Through a structured discussion or an informal conversation at a staff meeting? • Do we want to connect threads and themes? Apply ideas to our work? • Should discussion be facilitated by one person? What metabolism for reading can we maintain?

                Commit resources to the designated reader effort. Reports, blogs, plans, needs assessments, research, and sometimes journals are available on line and free. It is, however, unlikely that all of the key areas a museum intends to dig into will be available for free. Subscriptions are a good and, relatively speaking, small investment in the museum’s future; budget for subscriptions. Anticipate and support the time that is necessary to read and discuss articles and studies. Create a kind of museum library, in binders, on the server, or in an alcove.

                Expect everyone to read. Keeping up with information and ideas is not the domain of one department, usually the education department. Besides, museums are emphatically places of learning. They expect their visitors to read labels and learn. So why wouldn't all staff, volunteers and trustees be expected to read and learn?


Related Museum Notes Posts

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

This Week, I Like…


 
Raise/Raze (Photo Credit: Hou de Sousa Studio)
Dezeen, a daily on-line architecture and design digest, often includes, “Today we like…” This edited selection of spaces, places, and objects may include bookshops, architecture in Wales, or design with chocolate.

On most days, a comparable slice-through with crisp thematic edges of what interests me is less obvious. There’s no, “This week I like…” exhibit moments that last a lifetime, or logic models that knock your socks off. Still in my weekly random, associative wonderings through journals, presentations, blog posts, museum visits, book covers, or landscape design, I do come upon images, ideas, phrases, frameworks, definitions, or designs that are intriguing, fresh, provocative. Something promising, if not thematic. Something that turns out to be the missing piece for a long-percolating post or sparks a new exploration. Something fresh and helpful for project work with a museum. Or perhaps some of all of these like these recent finds.

1. A view of learning. I was delighted to come upon a definition of learning in an article on tinkering and learning at the Exploratorium–and such an interesting one too. Staff in the Tinkering Studio drew on constructivist, constructionist, and socio-cultural theories of learning and their own experiences developing, implementing, and studying tinkering in the Studio. Their view of learning is a “process of being, doing, knowing, and becoming.” It takes into account various dimensions of learning including the connection between doing and knowing and the time necessary for learning. While this may not be the view of learning for every museum, every museum can construct a view of learning for its setting.
Related Museum Notes Posts:  Making and Tinkering: The Missing Piece

2. Anything Goes is an exhibit at the National Museum in Warsaw curated by a group of 69 children. Ranging in age from 6 to 14 years, children were selected on a first-come basis. They searched the collection, developed 6 themes, designed the exhibit, and worked on audio guides and collateral materials. The museum showed a high level of interest in the children’s ideas and perspectives as well as confidence in their capacity to work collaboratively. On the other hand, the article about the exhibit unwittingly minimizes the children’s accomplishment by noting what they don’t have–degrees and experience–and primarily casting their work as fun.
Related Museum Notes PostsMore Than Fun and Cute

3. Raise/Raze is the proposed exhibit for the Dupont Underground in Washington, D.C. scheduled to open in April 2016. A kind of double re-purposing, the exhibit will occupy a new cultural center inside a disused trolley station underneath Dupont Circle. Raise/Raze transforms light-weight balls from the ball-pit ocean of The Beach exhibit that ran at The National Building Museum in summer 2015. Those half-million balls will now cover surfaces and be reassembled into light-weight cubes that become building blocks for structures, sculptures, and installations. Delightfully open-ended for visitors too.
Related Museum Notes Posts: Abundance

4. Children’s Environments Research Group. Housed at the Center for Human Environments at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, CERG brings together “…university scholarship with development of policies, environments, and programs to fulfill children’s rights and improve the quality of their lives.” Active in theory, policy, and practice, CERG has a strong commitment to understanding children’s own perspectives on their lives. The team of researchers is headed by Dr. Roger Hart, a leader in theory and research related to children’s relationship with the physical environment. Dr. Hart’s study of children’s out-of-school lives in a New England town in the 1970’s is the basis for a longitudinal study of the changing lives of children in that same New England town. CERG's focus complements the work being done in museums to understand the long-term impact of museums.

5. Social Cartography. Fascinated by maps, I am alert to where they can be brought into an exhibit, a nature trail, museum site, or book. The term social cartographynot surprisingly–jumped right off the page in an article in ASTC’s Creating Great Cities issue of Dimensions (Jan. - Feb. 2016). Adaptable to a variety of purposes, social cartography is a tool that empowers communities to analyze social issues. It is also a strategy for emerging museums and museums rethinking their role in the community to hear from communities themselves. In mapping neighborhoods, their relationships to places in nature, or local issues, community members make their knowledge visible, identify problems, provide important perspectives, and communicate with decision-makers.
Related Museum Notes Posts: Place Matters 

What do you like this week?

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Rewind: Planning to Plan




Any major planning effort, like a strategic plan, master plan, or a facility plan can feel daunting. Maybe it’s the first major plan for the museum since opening; perhaps board and staff have changed significantly since the last major planning effort. Or this could be a young museum’s very first plan. Whatever the conditions, a critical first step for any major planning effort is preparation. Preparation for planning is a bit like the planning process itself: engaging people in considering what must be accomplished, how best to do it, with whom, and with what resources. Four steps will prepare a museum for a solid planning effort.

§     Get people on board and build ownership. Since the planning process will involve others, start talking with them: staff, board, partners, and funders. Gathering ideas and drawing on other perspectives will build ownership from the start. Conversations can be informal or more formal as “job number one” of a planning task force. Ask others what they hope the plan will accomplish, issues they see facing the museum, planning challenges, who should be involved, and the kind of planning expertise needed. Talk with key supporters early on. It’s an opportunity to show you’re proactive on behalf of the organization’s future. You can also explore possible support for the planning process itself or for some aspect of implementation. Lay the groundwork for sharing the plan when completed.

§     Learn from experience–yours and others'. How you approach the next round of planning is influenced by previous planning. Do a quick assessment of past planning efforts, of what worked and didn’t work so well. Did you get the plan you wanted? Did staff and board feel they were included and informed? Did the plan seem too generic? Too much of a stretch? Did people feel the plan sat on a shelf? How could implementation have been better?

You can learn as much from other museums’ planning efforts as from your own. Ask about the planning work museums comparable to yours have done recently. Identify museums of comparable size and type in other parts of the country as well as similar local organizations that have done recent planning. Consider asking about how long a planning process took, who participated, whether it was facilitated internally or externally, what information they gathered, how much it cost, what they wish they’d done differently, and how pleased they were with the plan. Ask for a copy of the plan or a table of contents to see what the plan covered. All of this will help in determining the plan’s scope and can help in deciding whether to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for planners and what the RFP might include.

§     Shape the scope. Figuring out the nature and the scope of the plan starts with placing your planning needs in a larger organizational and community context. Has it been five years since your last strategic plan? Is another museum expanding their services to reach your audience? Are funders asking tougher questions about the museum’s impact? Is it time to rethink your exhibits? Every plan is not necessarily a standard strategic plan, master plan, or exhibit plan. Typically a plan must be focused to reflect a particular time frame (i.e. five-to-six years or annual); an organizational focus (capacity building, learning impact, community engagement, etc.); or a focused area of change on an existing strategic platform (relocation, sustainability, etc.).

Considering potential stakeholder involvement helps determine the scope. Is significant community input important? Should you be reaching across sectors of the community? Is internal alignment on core activities critical? Factors such as external deadlines and a compressed timeline can affect a plan’s scope as can cost. Since a plan can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, get a realistic idea of what the type of plan you want is likely to cost.

§     Match the resources to the plan. Reviewing all the gathered information will give a clearer idea of the resources your plan requires. Resources generally include time, expertise, and funding which are inextricably intertwined. Based on what you hope the plan will accomplish, think about the skills and expertise required: planning expertise, facilitation skills, and museum knowledge.

Local non-profit strategic planners know strategic planning. They know your community and bring an objective perspective. Less often do they know museums, their current issues, and standards. A board member who is a strategic planner will know the museum, but may lack objectivity.

While museum expertise can be valuable in strategic planning or financial planning, it is necessary in developing education plans and exhibit plans. Specific expertise may, or may not, be available locally so getting to know the local, regional and national landscape will help in deciding potential planners and likely travel costs. Sometimes a plan’s authority is linked with a particular type of expert; sometimes its credibility comes from expert local knowledge. In every case, skilled facilitation is critical to engaging participants and moving the planning process forward and can be provided by someone from inside or outside the organization with the right skills and enough time.

A combination of internal and external players can be a good choice. In the end, the right team always brings together expertise and local knowledge; is compatible and interested in producing the best plan; and fits a museum’s price range and schedule.

Preparation for planning does take time. It also makes a real difference. Preparatory work develops a shared understanding among key players about what’s ahead and removes a few of the inevitable obstacles. It helps bring the right players together; manages expectations about the process and the resulting plan. All aspects of preparation help set a planning process on a smooth course.


--> Related Museum Notes  Ready? Set? Plan  
• A Pocketful of Planning Notes  
Public Value: From Good Intentions to Public Good 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Open-minded Questions and Empathy


Photo credit: InnerOuterPeace

Some of my most satisfying thoughts have come from misinterpreting the written or spoken word. (And, admittedly, many have not.) One recent misreading has led me through a satisfying reflection.

I have been struggling to write a blog post about caring, compassion, and empathy in museums. Museums have both a responsibility to their community to exhibit empathy and compassion and a range of opportunities to tap into care and compassion among visitors, staff, volunteers, partners, and the community. How might museums foster a kinder society? Create the conditions to encourage kindness, caring and compassion? Help raise moral children?

Others have taken on this complex topic in thoughtful blog posts and articles. Gretchen Jennings has written about the Empathetic Museum here. Rebecca Herz has explored how museums can foster empathy in Museum Questions. The Empathy Museum is an “experiential arts space dedicated to helping us all look at the world through other people’s eyes” that travels internationally. The Opal School at Portland Children’s Museum has worked on defining what the school means by empathy.

With these and more provocations to consider, I’ve asked myself, what useful perspective I might bring to this topic. Uncertain, I have put away a working draft for awhile. That is, until a few days ago when I enjoyed a moment of creative misreading.

I misread a column heading in a museum publication, as “They are asking open-minded questions.” In fact it said, “They are asking open-ended questions.” The second and actual version explored the results of a study. The first, and more intriguing, launched me into thinking about what “open-minded questions” might be and what they might contribute to museums cultivating caring, compassion, and empathy.

Open to the Possible
Questions are powerful tools for exploring, thinking, and learning. This is certainly true for open-ended and open-minded questions. Both help us stay in curiosity. Questions rather than conclusions, assertions, or statements engage interest, fire up thinking, solve problems, and invite creativity. Open-endedness taps into what someone knows, encourages thinking, and yields more information. The open questions we are familiar with invite possible answers rather than brief yes or no responses.

In spite of the overlap between both types of questions, they differ in where they lead. For instance, while concerned with thinking, open-minded questions help us imagine other ways of thinking, feeling, believing, or connecting that are generally not typical of open-ended questions. Here lies the source of their capacity to cultivate empathy, caring, kindness, and compassion, to make room for acceptance and inclusion.

Open-minded questions create openings for connecting with others. When we ask an open-minded question, we are exhibiting an interest in the other person, a curiosity about their perspective, a willingness to hear their ideas. When someone asks us an open-minded question, we sense their readiness to recognize who we are and connect with us.

As much as open-minded questions lend themselves to conversation and listening, they do so in a way that invites us to push further, listen harder, and dig more deeply. They signal a willingness to move us beyond well-known assumptions and conclusions that can limit listening and conversation. In facing new directions we can find ourselves in challenging territory yet responsive to possibilities and giving fair consideration of the unfamiliar.

Open-minded questions help us understand others and ourselves better. In posing an open-minded question, we can imagine ourselves in the other person’s situation, expose ourselves to the possibility she might have a better idea, or consider revisiting cherished ideas.

We may be called to caring and compassion as our open-minded questions convey concern about someone’s well-being. We may set in motion a call to action, to reach out and respond to another person and their hopes and needs. Open-minded questions invite the change we both seek and fear

Cultivating Compassion
In interactions across, within, and beyond the museum, open-minded questions help nurture compassion, empathy, tolerance, and connection. Our open-minded questions can open us to listening to co-workers more intentionally, suspending our certainty, and strengthening our interconnections. With partners, open-minded questions can convey a genuine interest in another’s perspective, in their well-being, and in their experience that challenges the museum’s view. In interacting with visitors and learners in the museum’s exhibitions and programs, open-minded questions help shift from a focus on the museum’s interests to the visitor’s, and from the obvious to the unknown.

Everyday and everywhere individual's open-minded questions help grow the museum’s capacity to cultivate care and compassion beyond the walls and beyond now. 

Framing Open-minded Questions
Developing a really good question is difficult. This is especially true in trying to understand open-minded questions and how they might move us towards greater connection. We might start by asking: 

What might this other person be experiencing?
How can we better understand what someone else might feel?
How can I grow my relationship with someone whose ideas are different from mine?
What interests you about how someone else thinks, or thinks differently?
What did people take away that was different from what I thought or hoped they’d take away?
What did you hear in that voice that spoke to you?
What did you discover about yourself?
How can we act for others?
What can I learn from this person? 
What am I not hearing?
What would make you feel more welcome?
What will we discover about ourselves through this experience?

What open-minded questions do you bring to your museum conversations?

Related Museum Notes Posts
 

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Museum Entry Experience



Terry Haggerty installtion, Norton Museum of Art,West Palm Beach

On a walk while on vacation recently, I came upon the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach (FL) and I stepped into its lobby. Brilliant candy red ribbon-like lines raced across the lobby’s walls, climbed the ceiling, stretched, bent, wrapped, and folded in on themselves. An installation by the British artist, Terry Haggerty, this striking optical graphic, immediately inside the museum, activated the entire space and stopped me in my tracks. The Norton Museum of Art experience had met me at the door. 

Since that brief but highly satisfying encounter I have been thinking about the museum entry experience as a gift for the visitor and an opportunity for a museum to announce early and emphatically the nature of the experience it intends to offer its visitors.

Part architecture, part exhibit, the museum entry experience is a full gesture delivering a condensed version of the museum’s DNA. It is more than a preview of activities and objects or a replica of T. Rex skull. Entry experiences might be prior to the lobby or after the lobby and before the exhibit halls. Nevertheless they occur very early in the visitor experience and with great impact. A sweeping staircase is not sufficiently grand or distinct, nor is walking between giant letters that spell out the museum’s name, nor is a gorilla bursting through a building’s exterior. What may be briefly arresting quickly becomes a cliché. Something in the character of the museum entry experience must promise to surprise, but not just once.

Entry experiences driven by lobby functions are altogether different. Stanchions funnel visitors into lines for membership or tickets, towards the store or café. Information about upcoming exhibits flashes  on screens and lists of longstanding donors cover the walls. While serving decidedly important functions, these entry sequences could be anywhere. And they are.

An entry experience is a place, a moment–one that sometimes engulfs the visitor, challenges perceptions, and often connects to enduring human themes. The museum entry experience is not only memorable; it also builds anticipation and fosters a receptiveness in the visitor for the museum’s offerings.

World War I Museum, Kansas City (Photo credit: The New York Times)
At the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City (MO), visitors cross a glass bridge between the admissions desk and the exhibits. Below is a field of 9,000 bright orange poppies. The visitor doesn’t need to know that each poppy represents 10,000 deaths in World War I to be struck by the profusion color and sheer number or to be reminded of John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders fields, the poppies blow… A powerful moment has captured the visitor before entering the exhibits.
Kidspace Children's Museum, Pasadena

Entering Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena, visitors walk through the tall, white arched entryway of a classic parks building. The bright sunshine makes the low, narrow tunnel that follows seem even darker. Reflective surfaces on all sides and overhead catch light from colored spots below, sparkling with jewel colors. The passage to the museum’s plaza is enchanting. Separating the outside world from what comes next, it invites visitors to dwell and explore reflections, textures, and shimmery effects. It heightens the sense of possibilities to come that begin to appear as the tunnel opens onto the museum’s plaza.
Bridge of Glass, Venetian Wall, Tacoma

The Chihuly Bridge of Glass is a 500-foot pedestrian overpass connecting the Museum of Glass to downtown Tacoma (WA). Pedestrians pass two 40-foot crystal towers, walk under a glass-topped pavilion populated by Chihuly forms, and move between two walls displaying over 100 glass sculptures. Crossing the Bridge of Glass, pedestrians catch the glow and blend of colors of glass illuminated by natural light from outside and above. The Bridge of Glass plays both to the city and to the museum.
Front Page at the Newseum, Washington, D.C.

The Dalî Museum, St Petersburg
There are also more contained gestures attuned to the larger museum idea that can help launch an entry experience. The trail of small ants familiar in Salvador Dalî’s paintings march through the doorway into the Dalî Museum in St Petersburg FL creating a very Daliesque moment. At one time, the Newseum posted front pages from approximately 80 newspapers daily along the Pennsylvania Avenue facade of its building. Passing the prominently displayed page-one news from newspapers worldwide and all 50 states introduces the complex stories about the press that the museum wants to cover. 

The Orangery, Dumbarton Oaks (Photo: Dumbarton Oaks)
I have also thought that there are entry experiences in search of museums. One excellent example is the Orangery at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.  A Patrick Dougherty willow sculpture is a promising start for a compelling entry experience at various museums–if there isn’t one already.  
Perhaps if we are more alert to the museum entry experience and how it captivates visitors, museums might be more inclined to create highly engaging experiences that reach out and bring visitors into the museum experientially as well as physically.

•What is the museum entry experience at your museum? 
• What museum entry experience stands out for you?
Patrick Doughtery, Eastern Tennessee State University, Johnson City TN
                                                                                      

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Paradoxes of Play


Penrose LEGO by Erik Johansson

When something seems familiar we often assume we already know just about everything about it. We don’t bother looking hard or thoughtfully to reacquaint ourselves with it. Instead we gloss over gaps in our understanding and the hidden complexity. We are inclined to keep things simple.

Play is like that. We think we know what it is. Play is fun, what kids do, a child’s work.

As pervasive as play may be, understanding it is not easy. On the one hand, children everywhere and all ages seem to know how to play and what it means to play. On the other, adults struggle to relate it to work, pleasure, learning, or ritual to understand it. We contrast it to work and learning in its apparent lack of structure, material consequences, and productivity.

Play is variously viewed as the release of tensions, mastery over anxieties and conflicts, preparation for life, consolidating learning already acquired. It integrates several dimensions, each with potentially significant implications for development, learning, and wellbeing. Play seems simple, but is complex. That’s just one paradox of play.

More than merely difficult to define or categorize, play is full of paradoxes inhabiting its very core. They are not just variations among how experts and theorists define or explain play and they are not oversights of the considerable benefits of seemingly inconsequential play. More than interesting inconsistencies, they are aspects of play that are actively at variance with itself.

I am not the first to be struck by the disjunctions that characterize play. Brian Sutton-Smith explored this in The Ambiguity of Play in which he suggests that there is both a push towards and a resistance to orderliness in play. An interview with Thomas Henricks in the American Journal of Play highlights several examples of paradoxes in play as he explores how play helps cultivate who we are. In “The Paradox of Play” Ann Hulbert suggests that with the recent campaign to restore play in the lives of children, we run the risk of decreasing the very playfulness we are eager to increase.

But there are more. Below are 6 paradoxes of play that draw on the work of  theorists and researchers concerned with play: Doris Bergen, Stuart L. Brown, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, George Forman, Thomas Henricks, Johan Huizinga, and Anthony Pelligrini.

Rules, Risk, and the Roots of Later Experience
Play is order making and order breaking. It both honors rules and encourages breaking them in order to advance play. In play we land on an idea and develop it, try out suggestions, and transform it along the way. We work with our imaginations before acting on ideas, but in following suggestions, play is likely to change. A scene may change from a distant planet to a jungle, to inside of a cave. We develop rules for tossing a ball back-and-forth and change them to make the game more interesting or challenging. Play at building structures can become play at knocking buildings down–with equal delight. These transgressive acts extend and enrich play.

In play we take risks without being excessively risky. Whether building a block tower, zooming down a zip-line, or climbing a tree, play allows us the freedom to spontaneously explore, to push limits, build confidence, and feel mastery over few real-world realities. Even in rough-and-tumble play that looks violent, children are testing physical competence, interacting cooperatively, and engaging in social problem solving. George Forman describes play as problem solving without risk. By being able to assess risks and take risks, we learn to manage risk.

Play seems carefree, but it also helps us confront and manage unpleasant experiences and related emotions. In play we can change our relationship to what we have experienced. Imagination, creativity, and humor may help in working through and dealing with fears, frustration, and feelings of being left out, scared, or uncertain. A change in the story line, charging like T Rex, or invoking super powers may allow us to practice positive feelings and transform negative feelings.  

The learning benefit of play is not because it is a way of teaching specific skill sets, but as a medium for development and learning. Less concerned with what we are learning, play is about how we learn. Play is a search for knowledge, a form of agency, a vehicle for constructing meaning, a means for understanding physical and social relationships, and a way of conveying ideas. For young children, play is the primary medium for learning, but it is also a learning medium for future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

Play nurtures skills that can only be acquired early in life, but that we need later in life. Life-long dispositions and skills are deeply rooted in early experience, including play. Play demands focus, collaboration, negotiation, and preparing for the unexpected. Without play, we have difficulty regulating appropriate emotions, interacting socially, and responding to the unexpected. In play, we improvise in response to changing conditions, discover our strengths, find choices, and respond to the world’s responses in creative ways.

In play, we both lose ourselves and find ourselves. Frequently we become so deeply involved in play that we reach a level of experience called flow and lose track of everyday concerns such as time and place. This happens when the player’s skills engage perfectly with the situations in which they find themselves. Sometimes at play, we are intensely in the moment and, at the same time, transported to another time or place.

The Promise of Paradox
Play is easily minimized because it falls so visibly in the world of young children. Furthermore its self-rewarding nature and apparently purposeless engagement is an anomaly in a world that values goals and impact. It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss it so readily. Play is not just for the early years, but is pervasive throughout life and extremely important to human functioning.

Play is filled with paradoxes at its core. While not a new idea, these paradoxes are often overlooked or ignored. Certainly they make understanding play elusive. They interfere with defining it neatly; unpacking it in simple, convenient units; and measuring their value. Regardless of how we characterize these paradoxes, they matter. Separately and collectively, they hint at play’s richness, potential, and enduring value. They hold a key to understanding play as a powerful force in children’s development and clues to unleashing it.

Related Museum Notes Posts

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

City Museums – Museums About the City


Heritage Museums and Gardens, Sandwich MA
I am drawn to city museums. I like a city museum when I travel. The City of Amsterdam Museum helped me get oriented, explore the city, and dive deeper into the city and its patterns. I like a city museum for where I live. The Mill City Museum located where St Anthony Falls, the Stone Arch Bridge, and mill ruins meet, the museum is about this place, where and how I spend my days. Still I wish there were more city museums to invigorate cities, connect citizens, welcome visitors, and for me to visit.

Michael Spock’s characterization of children’s museums as being for someone makes me wonder why more museums don’t also see themselves as being for (and about) someone: for and about us, residents and citizens of this city. When I read, Happiness, Design, and the Future of Museums, on the Center for the Future of Museums blog a few months back, I felt my hope for more city museums was closer to being realized.

Recently, when staff I was meeting with began describing how they saw their museum’s future, I couldn’t help but envision a city museum for them. Their reimagined museum is for children, youth and families, residents and tourists. It intends to put down roots in its current location, a transitioning neighborhood at the edge of two very different but old neighborhoods; one is home to immigrant families new to the region and the other is home to established and more prosperous families. The views out the museum windows frame the harbor and bridges in one direction and hills in the other. These views are livelier and more direct connections to the beauty, industry, history, culture, sports, and place of the city than the chosen list of focus areas: STEM, arts, literacy, and history. They were describing a city museum.

Collaborating for the Future
Every city has its challenges. Competing demands on limited resources, population changes, employment shifts, environmental pressures, and diverse perspectives change a city or town. However, a city or community with engaged citizenry and strong connections, can weather these challenges.

Communities also have libraries, museums, cultural organizations, artists, activists, designers, enthusiasts, and advocates with knowledge of, love for, and aspirations on behalf of their community. When museums see themselves as serving a community, they can be part of transforming a city into a better, possible version of itself by collaborating with cultural, civic, and learning partners.

City museums know that people make cities. Certainly, different versions of the city exist for its many inhabitants. Yet, the city is also a strong, shared context for people of diverse backgrounds and experiences and container for their lives. Inspired to find ways for community members to express how they see themselves in the city and in the museum, city museums focus on connecting people, not only on collecting objects. They facilitate people finding personal connections, sharing stories, revealing hidden heritage, and interpreting place. For city museums audience, citizens, participants, and visitors are the same.

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

Museum in the City, City in the Museum
A city museum is not a replication or imitation of parts of the city, a display of its economic activities, or a showcase of cherished landmarks. Rather it is an interpretation, investigation, or even an unwrapping, of the city that reveals its personality and promise through the eyes, experiences, lives, hopes, and connections of its citizens and visitors.

A city museum is as much about the present and the future as it is about the past; as much about the change it hopes to realize as the changes that have occurred over the decades. A city museum is where traditional heritage and contemporary heritage meet and mix. It is where the community meets and mourns a tragedy and gathers to celebrate a victory.

An occasional exhibit or program is inadequate in distilling and defining the city and engaging members of the community in meaningful ways. But exhibits, projects, programs, installations, events, social media, and partnerships can be ways to open the museum to the city and its people. With partnerships, participation, and creativity from across the community, these exhibits, events, programs, and installations may be created in schools, community centers, and on the street and offer a decidedly original turn.

The city museum is inescapably local and decidedly place-based. If an exhibit is about bridges, it’s about that bridge seen through the window–the High Bridge, the Aerial Lift Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge. If an exhibit is about water, it’s about this river or lake, its currents, its flooding, its water quality. Neighborhoods organize for the local bird and bug counts. The artists and makers that are showcased are from many neighborhoods. The weather exhibit is about the lake effect snow the city knows well or why it’s cooler by the lake.

The city museum has all the challenges of being inclusive, diverse, and accessible that every museum does–and more. It issues louder invitations to participate and it challenges itself to listen to, amplify, and learn from more and new voices. This is a museum that organizes itself to be guided by the creativity and ingenuity within the community. This museum’s everydayness makes it extraordinary.

Taking on the City
Some museums are taking on the city the way Jane Jacobs took on the city in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities They shift their visions; incorporate a strong contemporary perspective into an historic focus; open their doors, and explore contemporary heritage. The Museum of Vancouver has issued a bold vision, “To inspire a socially connected, civically engaged city.” When the Historical Museum Rotterdam became Museum Rotterdam, its one-word name change reflected a major shift in focus following extensive and deliberate effort.

The Museum of Art and History has been working thoughtfully, actively, and nimbly with its Santa Cruz community on creating opportunities for citizens to bond and bridge and developing a theory of change for their vision. The Museum of the City presents a very different model, a virtual model, for a city museum. Several other city museums are visited in a 2013 issue of Journal of Museum Education on Urban Design and Learning. A related perspective is explored in Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, by Gail Lord and Ngaire Blankenburg.

These are some of the city museums finding ways to be of greater use to their city contributing to its resilience, sustainability, and vitality. One city museum may be combining scholarship, stewardship, and sustainability; another may become part of the city infrastructure for wellbeing. As their journeys reveal, museums can re-imagine themselves without abandoning their core. In identifying and strengthening connections to their cities, they shift slightly, gradually, and strategically. Such shifts are not limited to history museums. A children’s museum, a science center, an art museum, or natural history museum can be a museum of, about, for, and with the city.

Perhaps these stories of change and possibility will inspire more museums in being deliberate about opening up to the city, letting it in, both reflecting it and shaping it.


Related Resources
City Museums and Urban Learning, Journal of Museum Education. Vol. 38, N.: March 2009

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