Sunday, August 17, 2014

Perspective on Professional Reading

Several weeks ago on his ExhibitTricks blog, Paul Orselli sent us off with his reading recommendations for the beach or a long sit in an Adirondack chair.

Soon after, the August 2014 EdCom Newsletter arrived with a list of what several EdCom members are currently reading. Included on this list were: Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement (Anne Bergeron and Beth Tuttle); Excellence in Practice: Museum Education Principles and Standards (developed by EdCom); The Museum Experience Revisited (Falk and Dierking); and Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Eco-system (AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums)

Whether you work in a museum or with many museums, recommended reads for the beach each summer is part of keeping up and being inspired. It’s also a natural complement to reliable, go-too museum books within easy reach. I would add a third type of reading to summer reads and core museum references: reading a variety of museum journals, articles, and blogs.

Keeping up with a variety of museum journals, articles, and blogs is a high priority professional *best* practice for everyone in and involved with museums.

As a field, our purpose centers on learning and we are ever more engaged in understanding the museum experience through research. Equally important, museums are constantly challenged to navigate complex and dynamic external environments and characterizing their impact on their communities. Being well read is critical for museums’ growth, sustainability, and long-term public value. The selection of relevant books, journals, articles, and blogs on all aspects of museums has been increasing over the last few years. But we have to convert the potential value of that information into real value for our visitors, museums, and communities.

I often suggest a regular diet of professional reading to museum colleagues and clients. Typically, the response is, "there's no time". Time is absolutely a huge issue. Museums have multiple and competing priorities. Yet, museums are fully committed to other priorities such as assuring safety and security that also take time in training, preparation, and staffing. No one would ever suggest demoting safety and security as a priority because they place demands on the scarce resource of time.

Close behind protecting scarce time is demurring that keeping up with journals and studies is the domain of museum education. Few assumptions could more effectively limit a museum’s sharpening its understanding of its interests and marshaling its resources than declaring any single department as the sole domain of thinking and learning. What, then, guides other museum staff in contributing to its overall impact? How does this invite participation?

A third explanation for professional reading not being a higher priority is that the museum is small. If there’s a simpler or better way for a museum to expand its resources than for its staff (and board) members to learn about what museums in other cities are doing, learning, and researching, I have no idea what it might be…after 3 decades in this field.

Reading, talking, thinking, learning, and revising ideas and practices are critical to a museum building its capacity, fulfilling its enduring purpose, and inviting others to invest in it. Internal as well as external reasons demand that museums expose themselves to new, roomy, and challenging ideas. Museums can fortify themselves with regular and varied professional reading across (and a bit beyond) the boundaries of the field in four ways.  

Nourish Yourself: Read Regularly
I consider my professional reading to be a great benefit of my museum planning practice. It is a source of pleasure that keeps me going on the treadmill at the gym, makes hours of travel time fly by, and is a distraction and a balm during challenging times. While I am often behind in my reading and could be reading a Winter 2014 volume in the heat of July, I eventually get to it and am glad I did.

Even if your museum does not subscribe to many publications, it probably does receive one as part of its membership in a museum association. The three I receive, enjoy, and read regularly give me an overview of what’s going on in the field, resources (people, research, and funding), and a close-up on a topic like exhibits or accessibility and universal design.  

Read Across Your Area
Museum journals and articles discuss ideas, share models, present studies, and share insights on visitor satisfaction, exhibits, learning, community engagement, looking across types of museums and countries. Look for articles on topics related to your museum’s priorities: Creativity? Science learning? Play? Families? Engaging diverse cultural communities?

I like an eclectic mix of topics and views: research, theory, and practice; strategic planning and organizational culture; where different types of museums are headed; what’s working, what’s not. All of these (and more) are critical aspects of museums’ work. Daily they interact with one another and bring an essential perspective to each museum's mix. Stepping away from what is most familiar, finding distance from the usual assumptions and rhetoric, and exploring a co-worker’s area is invigorating, if not downright informative. Six journals I subscribe to, along with the Interesting Blogs and Websites listed on this page, provide a great mix for me. I would be missing something without each one of the following.

Venture Outside Your Area
I like to make connections between ideas, to import something from another context that promises to address a persistent problem. Subscribing to several journals “outside” my area has supported this. 
I came to appreciate this practice almost 20 years ago when the strategy team at Minnesota Children’s Museum decided to expand into areas a bit afield from museums. Each of us subscribed to a different journal from: business, technology, education, children’s literature. Doing so exposed us to new ideas and more rigorous approaches; we saw concepts and practices like the Triple Bottom Line and scenario planning migrate from business to museums. These days, I am more likely to find the work of institutes and foundations like the Harwood Institute, Strive for Change, and the Skoll Foundation that focus on community learning and large-scale social change to help catalyze my thinking.

    Spread the Word
    Talking with others about what you are reading deepens and extends engagement with a report, a case study, the authors, a project, or an approach. Ask colleagues what they are reading, what they think about it, and what ideas are most helpful to what they are doing. Every article is not a direct hit for your museum. For those that seem promising, however, talking (and writing) are helpful in examining the conceptual framework, making connections with your museum’s strategic plan, looking up cited studies, reframing your thinking, or adapting practices to current museum projects. This serves to make more people in the museum carriers of ideas and possibilities for change.

    Writing my blog posts is frequently the process that helps me understand what I have read or why it is relevant. This is also one way I share professional reading that has made a big impression on me and that relates to work and challenges I see being tackled at multiple museums. Recommending articles and studies to current and former colleagues and clients is an extension of my professional reading. I share copies and send links. It becomes a valuable opportunity for me to listen to others and hear their ideas. I am delighted when the article has already been read; pleased when it is welcomed; and disappointed when the publication, let alone the article, is unknown to the museum. 

    Onward with reading, sharing, and spreading the word on professional reading. What are regular and important parts of your professional reading?

    Related Museum Notes Posts

    Tuesday, August 5, 2014

    Playing With … Words

    It is the self becoming the word, the word becoming world.”

    Six-year-old Victor points to himself and says, “Victor is mine.” and grins with satisfaction. A girl runs up to her grandfather, saying, “Papa, do you know that sock, clock, and tock rhyme?” A boy carefully steps and pauses on each of the large brass letters that spell Center for the Performing Arts. Three sisters repeat, “Sudikudivita,” laughing at the word they have invented together for their made-up language.

    No one who has been around children would wonder at children’s delight in discovering the joy of playing with words; many could easily add to the list. Sometimes adults find themselves gleefully reciting catchy words and phrases from their childhood–Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious or a question in pig Latin–with little or no prompting. Here’s ample evidence of the persistence as well as the power of childhood wordplay. The repeated sounds of a baby’s babbling and glee at the silliness of Seuss are both expressions of the joy of wordplay that captivates children (and adults) and instills a love a language.

    Children’s acquisition of their primary language is a remarkable achievement in its universality and the speed at which it occurs. The complexity of language and anxieties about test scores, graduation rates, and future careers unfortunately lure us into thinking we must sit children down, teach them words, drill vocabulary, and review punctuation. In fact, playing with the sound, shape and meaning of words is an important part of how children learn language. They encounter the world not only through their eyes, but also through sounds and words. Playing with language is a joy, a way to strengthen what children know about language, and a portal to the world.

    Playing With Language
    Play and language are natural partners for children. Children both play with language itself and use language as a tool in play.

    Babies enjoy moving their tongues and lips to play with sounds and create various vibrations. Toddlers repeat intriguing words and syllables, even creating a chant such as fun-un-un-un. Preschool and kindergarten are the most fertile years for playing with words when children insert catchy rhyming phrases such as easy peasy lemon squeezy at every opportunity. Wordplay extends through the elementary school years when children adapt rhymes, tell jokes, and narrate stories. Typically children play with aspects of language they have recently mastered so the nature of wordplay changes across childhood. For instance, it shifts from delight with words that make no sense–or nonsense because the child can’t understand the double meaning–to the pleasure of making double or unexpected meanings.

    As a tool to further play, wordplay is used in various ways. The words what if…let’s pretend…let’s say… allow children to plan, imagine, and pretend. Children stretch their language skills when they make up and act out stories. They draw on words needed in a particular context and talk as a character would. A child might use words associated with the role of a mother, a robber, or a queen. They might adopt storybook language or use words to talk about language, You said you love raspberry tea. Language enhances children’s games as well being part of the play of games like I spy with my little eye. As children become older, pretend play becomes more verbal. Language rather than action defines the play of older children, perhaps one reason we think they have stopped playing.

    Playing with words, symbols, sounds, letters, structure, and meaning­ does contribute to children’s acquiring and consolidating reading and writing skills. But is recognizing, selecting, and manipulating sounds, shapes, words, and structure actually play? The self-motivated, satisfying, and innovative activity of children playing with and changing words and language to amuse themselves precisely fits accepted definitions of play.

    Wordplay takes place everywhere, in backyards and the backseats of cars; on the way to school and on the playground; in the dress-up corner and in the bathtub; on bicycles and in the grocery cart. And, at museums which are word and language rich settings. With high sensory contexts, immersive settings, and intriguing phenomena; varied activities, props, tools, and objects; and the dynamic social interactions among family members, other visitors and with staff, museums are amazing places of wordplay everyday.

    Often opportunities for wordplay for children in museums involve story time with favorite Seussian rhymes or the repetition of Ruth Brown's A Dark, Dark Tale. In going beyond stories and a round of ABCD, museums might incorporate Burma-Shave signs, codes, jingles, knock-knock jokes, limericks, pig Latin, rebuses, riddles, rhymes, and tongue twisters. Occasionally a language-based exhibit like Storyland: A Trip through Childhood Favorites ignites rampant wordplay.

    This is where museums typically go when they start with their ideas of language and wordplay.  Children are, however, lexical vacuum cleaners, pattern analyzers, and joyful experimenters and extraordinarily competent and original at discovering found opportunities for wordplay in museums.

    Lexical Vacuum Cleaners
    Children are ‘lexical vacuum cleaners,’ according to linguist Steven Pinker. They inhale new words at a remarkable rate. For toddlers, this rate is a word about every two waking hours­… everyday. Where do these new words come from? Not from vocabulary lists. Children learn words by mimicry. A 3-year old using an unlikely word like actually or usually has picked it up from an adult or older child. Once tested, probably may be used frequently for the pleasure of its sound and the reaction it elicits. Children also guess a word’s meaning from context; they get the overall gist of what they are hearing (reading, or seeing) from a nearby object, an adult’s gesture, or other references.

    Just as children inhale and exhale dinosaur names with great ease and pleasure, they pick up names and terms for what fascinates them. The parts of a suit of armor, a coalmine, or a Madagascar hissing cockroach capture their attention offering new words to play with. And while a child will not understand each term in a volcano demonstration, a rainforest exhibit tour, or maker activity, a program presenter or docent can deliberately intersperse rich, interesting language. Wordplay-worthy vocabulary is animated, uses precise terms for tools and materials rather than these, stuff, things; sprinkles synonyms for materials (like glittery, glinty, glitzy, sparkle, shiny); pairs familiar and less unfamiliar words; and draws on context for cues to the meaning of new words. When staff invites children to describe the motion and sounds of a kinetic sculpture, children will mimic, invent, mix, and repeat alliterative, rhyming and onomatopoetic words that capture the rolling, clicking, popping and dropping sounds of balls.

    Pattern Analyzer and Predictor
    Chicka Chicka Boom Boom in Storyland
    The same pattern finding and predicting that assists children in acquiring a primary language in a relatively short time period is also a source of pleasurable verbal play with noises, sounds, and structure. From Mother Goose to Dr. Seuss, from counting chants to rolling refrains, rhythm and rhyme are pleasurable and powerful assists in children developing a feel for language. Catchy rhythms, rhymes, and repetition help children detect sound units, anticipate what comes next, build vocabulary, and tune into regularities in grammatical structure. Wordplay is physical, social, cognitive, and emotional. Children find tangly talk, ridiculous rhymes, and unending repetitions to be irresistible invitations to move, bounce, dance, skip, and hop, alone or with a group. The Hokey Pokey for 1 is, well, kind of “hokey” but for 100 it is hilarious.

    Rhyming time at the museum takes many forms. Port Discovery’s Tot Trails uses exhibit labels in rhyme. Some familiar rhythms and rhymes are so compelling they become the soundtrack during play in and out of exhibits. In Storyland both children and adults moved to the strong, familiar rhythm of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, chanting it under their breaths with great expression; some families kept up a chicka chicka boom boom call-and-response as they cranked letters up the tree.

    Pattern finding is not just for young children and children's museums. The Getty invited visitors to write a Haiku poem about a selected drawing that used negative space.With multiple examples from the curator who had used Haiku, an unrhymed three-line poem, for label copy, visitors composed Haiku of 17 syllables in lines of 5, 7, and 5  syllables each. 

    Writing Haiku at The Getty
    Roaming museum staff can captivate new riddlers by carrying a poem in their pocket, a riddle up their sleeve, or tongue twister on the tip of their tongue. They can recite a well-known rhyming couplet and ask a child–or a group–to complete it. 

    Joyful Experimentation
    From babyhood through the elementary school years, children’s fearless experimentation with sounds and meaning generates invention, delight, and information about language. Sometimes happy accidents and sometimes intentional, playful experiments with noises and sounds spawn new words like splutter or lasterday. In my childhood brune and breen were used for brown-blue and blue-green, respectively. Children combine words to make a new one like eleventeen. They use old, familiar words in new ways to describe something new. A choice word here and there is also helpful in making incredible things happen in play. Just declaring that the sand in the bucket is poison has a powerful effect on the course of play.

    Inspiration for children’s playing with words is everywhere, even a new word picked up from others. Teacher and storyteller Vivian Paley, captures a lively play sequence among 3- and 4-year olds as they make sense of a new word one of them had brought to school. A single word, waterbed, elicited questions, puns and rhymes in a dramatic play sequence that showed up over several days. Invention and possibility are not bound by what exists, but by what is real, imagined, or even contrary. Children love to name and make up names for objects, people, quantity, places, and colors. Mislabeling or intentionally assigning a wrong name to a person or object is a game of humorous incongruities.

    Walk through an exhibit and sound effects are coming from children using their mouths, lips, tongues, and cheeks to create a helicopter’s whir and whap-whap-whap, a dinosaur’s roar, or the loud sounds of feigned injuries acquired during a knight’s fierce battle. Museum staff, parents, grandparents, and caregivers can amp up the playful tone with words and phrases remembered from childhood from jum-jills to Heffalump to slithy toves and listen in for the birth of new words.

    Group wordplay multiplies the joy. At Minnesota Children’s Museum, a voice over the sound system announces a group’s departure and ends with “…and come again s-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-n!” In seconds, children of all ages, throughout the galleries and in the atrium leap and croon letting out sounds of, s-o-o-o-o-o-o-n!

    An "M" for Mulan written in blocks
    The “lexical vacuum cleaners, pattern analyzers, and joyful experimenters that enter our museums everyday are extremely capable of directing their own wordplay. They don’t need an ABC rug or written labels for door or chair. Their natural fascination with language and the world, along with their imaginations and ingenuity, ensure they will make meaning out of (and with) everything. Children will count, chant, and dance as they step on a tree cookie, a spiral maze, or brass letter shapes. They will form letters and words with sticks,stones, clay, mud and sand. Write their names with chalk, blocks, and light writers. They will recall the names of shells in a discovery drawer, tools on a makers bench. 

    Museums can and should play along.

    Related Museum Notes Posts

    Wednesday, July 23, 2014

    Engaging the Child’s Potential

    Few words are roomier or more full of optimism than potential. It is the wide-open territory of what is possible but not readily visible. We apply it liberally in many contexts, as an adjective, “potential funder,” and as a noun, “a possibility something might exist in the future.” Potential allows us to anticipate what might happen in economic growth, businesses, medicine, media, politics, and education. When it comes to specifics, however, things get vague. Potential sinks into easy clichés, often about the general unrealized ability of the individual as if mentioning it activates it. Potential is one of those words, it seems, that gets by on the optimism it exudes rather than on the clarity and specifics it offers.

    If we value potential and believe, in particular, in the child's potential, we need ways to engage it readily and easily. We can do this through relationships, interactions, experiences, and environments, indoors and out; in museums, zoos, libraries, schools, afterschool programs and clubs. Without taking a closer look at the child’s potential to first understand it, we will invent and apply strategies with little avail.

    Believing in children’s potential relies, above all, on taking them seriously–not casually or superficially–but fully taking into account their remarkable capabilities in making sense of the world. Being impressed with children’s strengths and resourcefulness is not at all difficult. Be unhurried and listen to children at the store, on the bus, in the back seat, at the park, or at the museum. They ask questions, find patterns, make new connections, and express fascination with what they see, hear, touch, and smell. Notice as a child lets a butterfly rest on her fist, talks with the butterfly, and follows it as it flits away. Follow a child’s joy in testing a hunch and expressing a discovery. Pay attention to the empathy contained in small gestures even young children display towards others.

    The more we pay thoughtful attention to children, the more we discover extraordinary strengths and capabilities, rather than finding weaknesses and limitations.
    …there is strong evidence that children, when they have accumulated substantial knowledge, have the ability to abstract well beyond what is ordinarily observed. Indeed, the striking feature of modern research is that it describes unexpected competencies in young children, key features of which appear to be universal. (National Research Council. Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers)

    Many Potentials
    We refer to the child’s potential as if it were a single, undifferentiated realm. Even an individual child’s potential is a complex network of promise and possibilities, capabilities, innate interests, and talents. The concept of The Hundred Languages advances a view of potential that is not confined just to one language or way of learning. Potential is expressed through playing, speaking, listening, dancing, imagining, and thinking; to symbols, images, colors, movements, and sounds. Clearly potential crosses domains of a child’s  social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. We can also think of various potentials such as play potential, creative potential, or relationship potential. A museum’s learning framework might also highlight aspects of the child’s potential of particular interest. 

    Potential is not only elusive when we view it as one large undifferentiated quality, but is also difficult to engage as a large positive mass. Vygotsky’s, zone of proximal development (ZPD) provides one glimpse of engaging the child’s potential. ZPD is the distance between the levels of capacities expressed by children and their levels of potential development that are achievable with the assistance of someone who is more competent in those areas. The help provided goes just slightly beyond the child’s current competencies to what is possible, but not yet fully actual. An adult or a more advanced peer can provide that nearby competence to allow the child to stretch a bit farther.

    A child’s potential does not exist in a vacuum nor does it spring forth without an intriguing invitation. Rather, potential unfolds over time in response to a wide range of opportunities children can follow as far as their motivation, agency, and resourcefulness will take them, which is undeniably far. If we are interested in engaging children’s potential, we must be open to recognizing additional capabilities and resources in children than we expect to see or we risk never glimpsing what the potential might be. We must not only hold an image of the child as curious, capable, competent, and rich in resources, but also not allow ourselves to be limited by a view of the child as needy, incomplete, and inadequate. We must listen and observe with active and open minds and hearts, and avoid assuming we understand too quickly.

    Alive and Responsive to the Child’s Potential
    Besides a better understanding of the child’s potential, one we must continuously work to evolve and deepen, we need to sharpen our awareness of opportunities to support and engage it. In museums–as well as schools, libraries, playgrounds, zoos, afterschool programs, etc.–we have abundant opportunities to create experiences that respond to the unknown but fresh questions, interesting ideas, and lively imaginations children bring to any encounter.

    Everyday children reveal their remarkable capacities in countless ways in the varied experiences, rich environments, inviting exhibits, and supportive interactions and relationships we offer. As we plan program activities, design exhibits, wander through galleries, observe and evaluate projects, and interact with children, we should be wondering and asking ourselves about how we are engaging children’s potential. For instance:
    •   How does the sky-high climber build on the child’s confidence and allow them to set–and reset–their own challenges?
    • How does the light lab support and extend the child’s taking her ideas further, and in unlikely ways? Provide clues for about her capabilities?   
    • How do materials in the studio allow children to express and represent ideas they are grappling with? Do these materials change in response to their investigations? Do they make processes visible?
    • How does the grocery store or market reflect back to her insights about who she is? Widen the range of interactions with other children?
    • How does the ball coaster allow children to seek out novelty and newness? Invite questions? Test, try, and revise ideas? See evidence of their resourcefulness?
    • How does the animation station allow the child to plan? Follow interests? Make choices? Become absorbed in noticing and wondering?
    • How does a staff person’s pausing, observing, and engaging with a child allow that child to stretch a bit further? Accomplish something until now only imagined? Allow her to accomplish something?

    There are countless considerations in creating experiences and interactions that engage the child’s potential. Whether the child is making, building, climbing, digging, blowing bubbles, reading, drawing, or dancing, we are more likely to engage their potential when we:
    •  Allow time for children to approach, explore, and become absorbed in activities and spaces. Building, unbuilding, and rebuilding take time. Doing and understanding take time. Growing capacities takes time.
    Photo: Tom Bedard
    • View children in a future context as well as the present moment. Rather than offering activities to keep children busy now, shape experiences that grow a sense of possibility and efficacy.
    • Are nimble in making possibilities available. We must pay attention; be open and responsive to children’s strategies for exploring; rejigger the experience; step out of their way; and let them follow their agency and resourcefulness to some place we have not imagined for them.
    • Engage our own potential. In order to create a mindset of possibility for children, we must be open and ready to learn from them and reach our currently unrealized abilities.
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    Saturday, July 12, 2014

    Polishing the Mission

    There are many museum trends to watch and I certainly don’t track them all, or even most, of them. Nevertheless, I have a pretty strong sense that museum mission statements are generally getting more robust. Admittedly, this is based on an informal sample of museum mission statements. But it feels solid enough to explore it aloud.

    I come across fewer mission statements that link predictable and well-worn phrases together and that could be interchanged with any number of similar museums. Fewer missions rely on simply stating that a museum “collects, preserves, and interprets” or “creates hands-on exhibits” for their audiences. Conversely, I see more attention to the serious business of describing the difference for a community a museum is marshaling its varied resources to make.  

    A few possible reasons for stronger missions occur to me based on my museum planning work, professional reading, and observations. Museums are learning organizations; no doubt some have learned from the shortcomings of their latest missions or have been impressed by what a solid, hard working mission has accomplished for a peer institution. I am also guessing that museums have realized that the same type of mission that works for large corporations does not work for smaller non-profits with a learning at its core. Museum specialists like Randi Korn & Associates have focused on impact planning, often in relation to a museum’s mission. Finally, tough times can be good teachers. Navigating increasingly complex environments, often with declining resources while also demonstrating impact, has, I think, pushed museums to probe what being both nice and necessary means. This process involves clearly expressing a museum’s intention to be indispensable to its community in its mission. A harder working mission is a power tool in this effort.

    Mission 101
    Stated simply, a museum’s mission expresses its enduring purpose. Along with a vision that addresses the future and values that are beliefs guiding a museum’s actions, a mission centers a museum’s driving principles. This threesome gives meaningful direction to where a museum is headed, how it will act, and its intended impact. Among the driving principles, however, mission is the leader. Everything else–strategy, policy, practice, and program–directly or indirectly, is an extension of the mission.

    Mission statements are aspirational about what a museum wants to accomplish, even if it will take decades; and meaningful change will take decades to accomplish. A mission statement answers what the museum does, for whom, how and why in a way that distinguishes the museum from other organizations that serve a similar audience in a similar way. These four elements–what, for whom, how, and whymust be aligned and work together powerfully, be relevant to the community, and position a museum to act.
    What the museum does, expressed more in terms of a vital necessity than a list or activities.
    For whom identifies who the museum must serve in order to fulfill its purpose in a meaningful way. For instance, “families of all backgrounds” designates more intentional beneficiaries than “the public.”
    • How points to the meaningful change a museum believes it can help accomplish.
    Why this is important relates the museum’s intended impact to community priorities

    Because museums and their communities change, missions change. At its origination a museum needs to create a mission. Momentous as this step at the start of a museum’s life is–and setting a thoughtful course is momentous–this mission will be revisited and rethought multiple times. If museums are useful and relevant, they will evolve. Their missions must also evolve to reflect this change and bring greater clarity to serving the community more effectively.

    Rethinking a mission is likely when a museum engages in institutional planning, applies for accreditation, or decides on mission level change: a change in the audience, being free, or expressing a clear intention to contribute to the common good. Often museums need a mission check using the context of their current reality and strategic ambitions. More of a thoughtful review and less than an overhaul, the outcome of a mission check is an affirmation or adjustment that adds or strengthens parts.   

    Burnishing and Buffing
    Polished wood (Colossal)
    Whether a museum is shaping its mission for the first time, rethinking it for a major expansion, or revisiting it through strategic planning, polishing the mission is an important, often overlooked step. This kind of polishing is less about shine and sparkle and more about deep honing. As with any quality material–brass, stone, wood, or silver–buffing and burnishing bring out highlights, reveal important contours, capture light, and add luster. For missions too.
    Polished marble chips

    I’ve seen museums including the Kidspace Children’s Museum (Pasadena) polish their missions. Following a thoughtful, extended, and inclusive process of revisiting its mission during its master planning, the Museum took time for one more step. Polishing involved additional internal discussions, several informal reviews by museum colleagues and friends, and an explication of each key part of the mission statement.
    In reworking its mission, Kidspace moved from a statement that expressed a broad concern with education, a generic reference to the audience, an all-purpose outcome, and a suggestion of how the change might occur. 
    Our mission at Kidspace Children’s Museum is to promote education and enrich the lives of children, families, and the community through interactive experiences in science, art, and the humanities. (2012)
    The Museum arrived at a mission that centered on children. It identified specific and meaningful outcomes for them, committed the Museum to serve all children, and assigned itself a concrete role in helping to accomplish this together with the community.
     “Kidspace provides opportunities for kid-driven experiences in order to build a community that nurtures all children’s potential.” (Late 2013)

    By itself, this new mission elevated the Museum’s interest in impacting children’s lives with clearer direction for how it would distinguish itself from other groups. In polishing its mission, Kidspace chose to take more direct responsibility for engaging children’s potential, shifted its concern for children’s futures as joyful, active learners, and further focused on outdoor experiences–still keeping it concise. 
    Kidspace nurtures the potential of all children through kid-driven outdoor experiences, inspiring them to become joyful, active learners. (Early 2014)

    In getting to a crisper and more powerful mission statement which will serve it well in shaping strategic platforms, developing policies and practices, guiding discussions, and informing resource allocation Kidspace also:
    • Strengthened and aligned the big ideas which shape its work
    • Developed deeper understandings and shared appreciation
    • Prepared for the next steps

    Strengthening and aligning the big ideas. Big ideas must also be strong, durable ideas that are well aligned. The right-big ideas are ones that demand that a museum push beyond its current capabilities and aspirations in areas it has experience, expertise, and assets and consistently excels. In the territory where a museum has significant potential to deliver value and where its community has priorities, a museum will find a productive tension that advances it on multiple fronts.

    During intense discussions of missions, forceful ideas can fly up and hijack dialogue, silencing new ideas and dismissing areas where a museum has long-term interests. While compelling ideas are important, they should also be challenged with question such as: Are these the right ideas? Why? Are they us? How do we know? Do we have a recognized track record? Do we have credibility in this area? Do solid ideas stand behind our bold language?

    For Kidspace, kid-driven experiences emerges as a big idea. It is roomy and serves as a container for a set of related ambitious ideas around being child-centered, recognizing children’s competence, allowing them to act on choices, inviting children to explore their talents and interests, and encouraging them to leave their mark. Kid-driven experiences also distinguishes the Museum from other organizations serving this audience.

    A mission statement is stronger when one big idea engages firmly and clearly with another big idea and connects parts of the mission: what, for whom, how, and why. Nurturing all children's potential connects to kid-driven experiences in several important ways. It further distinguishes the Museum’s kid-driven experiences, grounds them in long-term value in children’s lives, and emphasizes a commitment to all children regardless of background.

    Developing deeper understandings and a shared appreciation. Whatever its mission, a museum’s fundamental challenge is practicing its mission and realizing it everyday. To meet that constant challenge, a mission’s meaning must be clear among its key internal stakeholders–staff and board–whether they have lots of history with the museum or are new to the organization.

    Understanding the mission’s deep meaning comes from knowing not only its words, but also their sense, significance, and shades. After a mission has been composed, unpacking its language and parts thoughtfully and collaboratively builds agreement around what the museum does, for whom, why, and how. Explicating the ideas and language of the mission develops a shared appreciation for the words that have been chosen and an understanding about those that have been omitted. Time taken to make the mission transparent helps everyone internalize it, find ways to inhabit it through their role at the museum, believe in the mission, and practice it everyday.

    Some of this exploration and discussion occurs through internal reviews by committees throughout the process, listening to new perspectives from across the entire museum or from museum friends, and thinking about how to present the mission statement. It is also an opportunity to highlight connections to a museum’s past, articulate its relevance to its community, and include language or supporting ideas not included in the mission statement proper. In recording its process and completing its master plan document, Kidspace expanded on four elements in its mission statement.
    -        Nurture the potential of all children
    -        Kid-driven experiences
    -        Inspire joyful active learning
    -        Relate to the community

    A back-up document valuable for staff and board orientation, background for grants, and selection criteria for initiatives and projects, these write-ups can be updated with evolving insights and current examples. 

    Preparing the museum for the next steps. A museum’s mission is a platform for all it does, how it organizes for work, who it hires, and how it engages with the community. Implications of a solid mission cascade across the museum, from revising documents in order to reflect the new mission; to prioritizing programs, activities, and partnerships; to considering new impacts and measures.

    Inevitably, a museum must align its mission with its work. If the previous mission statement focused on tasks such as collecting, preserving, interpreting, the museum is likely to be organized for work and results around these tasks. The same task-oriented organizational structure, teams, and working groups–as familiar and comfortable as it is–will hamper the museum when it adopts a new audience-centered mission.

    Polishing the mission assists in probing the opportunities and challenges a museum will face in wholeheartedly living its mission. Kidspace must challenge itself to probe deeply what children’s potential means and to present authentic  kid-driven experiences. It must become practiced in making subtle but meaningful distinctions among experiences that truly are kid-driven and those that are superficially so. It will also need to be prepared to advocate for kid-driven experiences in the face of adults discomfort with mess, risk, and failure.

    Polished petrified wood (Photo: Fox Marble)
    Growing internal capacity is essential to making any progress towards a new mission. Does this museum have the capacity to be a crossroad of culture and everyday life? to connect artists and individuals? to strengthen the bonds of community? Polishing the mission is an opportunity for a museum to recognize the critical areas in which it must build internal capacity by investing in staff, building new systems, and developing new practices.

    Every museum has a mission statement and virtually all have received thoughtful input and discussion from people who believe in the museum’s purpose. Few missions, however, receive the full and final polish they deserve, a buffing and burnishing that illuminates the work ahead, and transforms the museum into a gem.

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