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

Related Museum Notes Posts

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Messaging With Parents and Caregivers in Mind

MoMA
Some years ago, I was writing text for a science exhibition for young children–well, actually for their parents and caregivers. I wrote, “Play is joyful exploration. Add a spirit of inquiry and building play becomes science play.” After reading it, a colleague asked whether this elegant turn of phrase was what parents were interested in reading as they watched their child hustle to the top of the climber or build ramps. His question hit home and I hit the delete button.

So often we write labels and text for what we want to say or how we like to write. While an obvious starting point, it’s one that excludes the very crucial audience for whom we are writing. Writing text is tricky. Presenting the right amount of digestible content with an appropriate and engaging tone and without jargon is a challenge compounded by considerations of length, font size, and design.

While true for every museum, for museums serving children, the challenges multiply. For instance, while adults are the ones reading text panels, they are reading for both themselves and their children. Only some of those children are readers themselves, but all are active, mobile learners and curious explorers. An adult reading a label is very likely also keeping an eye on a child–or several children of different ages–following each, alert to their safety, and making sure everyone is having a great time.

Clearly parents and caregivers play a crucial role in their children’s museum experience. Labels and messages are integral to this complex choreography. In spite of all our cherished hopes of how a label enhances an experience, it may also distract an adult’s attention, be ineffective delivering information, intimidate a parent or caregiver, or encourage an adult to launch a lecture.

Effective ways to message to parents and caregivers has been drawing the attention of exhibit developers and designers, educators, visitor service staff, and researchers working in and with children’s museums and science centers. An important element in advancing museum missions and meeting their goals for children, this focus also supports one of 8 areas in the Association of Children’s Museums’ research agenda: understanding and supporting adult–child learning.

A group of museums I have been following have been exploring how to communicate with and engage parents and caregivers in order to support and extend their child’s exploration. They listen to parents and caregivers about their expectations and needs and act on what they hear. Building on what others in the museum field are doing and learning, they engage in their own process that generates new questions and experiments. Often they are developing a larger toolkit of experiences and activities, images, staff training, and media to support parents and caregivers. Through this process, they find themselves refining their own pedagogy, approach, and thinking.

Inquiring Museums
                Partners in Play has been a collaborative research project conducted by 3 Washington children’s museums, Children’s Museum of Tacoma, Imagination Children’s Museum (Everette), and KidsQuest (Bellvue). The 2013-2014 study Lorrie Beaumont and I conducted for the 3 museums focused on learning from parents and caregivers how they view their child’s play at a children’s museum and their role supporting it.

Interviews with 96 parents and caregivers visiting the 3 museums with children 2-7 years provided interesting glimpses into play and the parent and the caregiver role. Across the 3 museums, parents and caregivers saw play primarily as learning, imagining, and creating. They characterized their roles in supporting their child’s play in a wide variety of ways (observer, supporter/facilitator, family role, friend/playmate, teacher and supervisor/guardian); at the same time, they saw that they had a role to play. In playing these roles, parents and caregivers saw themselves as extending learning, creating an intimate bond with the child, and providing safety and security. Each of the museums subsequently conducted an action research project probing parent and caregiver perceptions based on the research results.

                Chicago Children’s Museum (CCM) and Gyroscope, Inc. designed SKYLINE, (2007) an exhibit offering free-form construction experiences designed to engage families in social learning. One intention of the project was to explore approaches for increasing caregiver involvement in children’s informal science learning.
Skyline Chicago Children's Museum
One strategy in particular addressed this objective. A set of graphic panels on the exhibition walls provided examples of what a caregiver might say as part of an interaction. Using photographs of real visitors in the exhibit and actual quotes in both English and Spanish, the signs were huge. Text was kept to a single line, readable at a glance.

The approach was grounded in observations of how often families model from each other. Without lecturing or being didactic, the signs also allowed the museum to indirectly provide tips on how to use building materials. Finally, by mirroring conversations they might have with their children and modeling interactions, the panels suggested that caregivers have an important role in supporting their children's learning.

Another focus of the project, creating a research platform that could contribute new understandings of family learning to the field, is still in process as the museum looks to research how the exhibit functions with and without the signs.

                In 2013, The Children’s Museum, Indianapolis (TCM) drew on CCM’s work to test approaches to signage in their new Playscape exhibit for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. In 2 focus groups, mothers were asked to consider 3 approaches to signs they might find in the exhibit, which approach would be most helpful to them, and how. One was a kind of parent tip, or suggestion for a parent or caregiver to think or talk about in the exhibit. Another offered basic information about child development. The third, using the CCM example, had a sample question or comment a parent or caregiver might use, noting that quotes would be paired with a photo of a parent and child playing together.

Playscape, The Children's Museum, Indianapolis
Both focus groups were unhappy with the first approach; the label copy inferred that parents didn’t know what to do with their children. The second approach received a mixed review because of text length and information available online about developmental milestones. The third approach received a positive response. Participants said they read this as a suggestion, rather than a direction, offering something concrete to use or say while playing with their children.

                In 2015, Kentucky Science Center (KSC) opened Science In Play, a 11,000 square foot early science learning space. Designed with Hands On!, the new permanent exhibit built on what KSC and Hands On! learned from two 5,000 square foot experimental versions. These versions allowed the collaborators to test and expand on concepts like the Shapes & Stuff Store and explore communication strategies.

Science In Play, Kentucky Science Center
The exhibit iterations allowed KSC to explore and try different approaches to communicating with parents and caregivers. More than just different drafts, this approach involved substantial rethinking and evolution. The first round focused on connecting science and play, as in, “Play is joyful exploration. Add a spirit of inquiry…”

KSC heard from parents that they “didn’t care” about science. Rather they were interested in how to build on their child’s play behavior and support the learning embedded in it. In the next round, text focused on a child’s activity in terms of school readiness skills. This approach took a friendly tone as if an experienced friend were standing by, modeling and scaffolding interactions and conversations with a child. A conversation between the executive directors of these organizations describes the process of developing the communication strategy.     

                Providence Children’s Museum (PCM) has been engaged in a succession of investigations into the connection between play and learning for children and adults. Interested in developing new ways to support adults’ awareness and appreciation of children’s learning through play, PCM has looked at what caregivers understand about learning through play and translated this into exhibit text.

Play Power, Providence Children's Museum
A formative evaluation focused on signs in the Play Power exhibit that describe play’s value for various aspects of children’s development. Caregiver interviews revealed that signs were perceived as somewhat vague; they reinforced existing beliefs without conveying novel or interesting information about play’s value. And even as many adults believed that children did learn through play, they were uncertain about whether children really were learning at the museum and what was learned. Furthermore, while caregivers did notice behaviors in their children that they viewed as indicating thinking or engagement, they didn’t necessarily link play behaviors with learning without prompting from a staff person.

Guided by input that indicated caregivers were interested in why behaviors they had seen in their own children were important and what these behaviors could show about children’s learning, PCM edited its signs. Play Power signs shared a consistent structure that:
Began with, “Through play…” and identified one skill that children learn or practice by playing.
• Placed “kids” as the subject of every sentence and used active verbs.
Used thinking behaviors that were observable in children’s play and recognized by caregivers.
Linked a specific behavior with what children gain from it.

In a follow-up set of interviews, revised text elicited much richer responses from caregivers than the original signs had.

Worth Noting
These are the briefest of overviews of informal studies done for different reasons at museums of different sizes. All their implications can’t be discussed here. Furthermore, the focus of each study is somewhat different and none, as far as I know, have been adequately researched to really test these approaches.

Yet, a few observations are worth noting. First, consistent among these studies is a stance of being highly responsive to parent and caregiver perspectives. Also there is an interesting convergence among the findings. They cluster into 3 areas that work well together, if not actively support one another.

Parents and caregivers are interested in connections between children’s play and learning being made explicit. Both PCM and KSC heard from parents that they were interested in why behaviors they had seen in their own children were important and what these behaviors could show about children’s learning. One implication is that parents and caregivers appear to be less interested in content, such as science or child development, than is often assumed. This also came through at both KSC and TCM. By making connections between play and learning, thinking and learning, or a behavior and a readiness skill, museums are providing something both valued by parents and caregivers and hard for them to find elsewhere.

Parent and caregiver roles and interactions are supported by a clear, overarching message. Trying to communicate too many messages can interfere with communicating any one of them effectively. One basic, distilled message powerfully delivered can support multiple cues and hints. Chicago Children’s Museum’s overarching message may be: there is a role for parents and caregivers in children’s play and exploration. At the same time, CCM layered several ideas into its wall panels. Realistically, one idea, or message, will be presented and supported in many ways–written, verbal, images, and media–in briefer and more complete versions.

A corollary to this finding, supported by the interviews in the Washington study, is that parents and caregivers appear to want a role to play. Roles for parents and caregivers should be planned for and clear.

Parents and caregivers need highly readable signs. Signs are in the fiercest of competition with children for parents’ and caregivers’ attention. Adults may be reading while moving, comforting, at a distance, and (or) in a nanosecond. At their best, signs claim some of that attention, distracting them as briefly as possible. Highly readable signs need to be short and quickly read as both CCM and TCM noted. A consistent sign structure like PCM’s facilitates parents’ and caregivers quickly accessing information assisted by a predictable format. Positioned for readability places signs high on walls, as at CCM, or where children spend more time (because adults are also more likely to spend more time), as at PCM. CCM’s signs were huge which made a single line of text easy to take in. Dual language text, for instance, English and Spanish, makes messages accessible to more parents and caregivers–and also doubles the amount of text–to underscore the need for brevity. Finally, tone matters, as the two TCM focus groups indicated.

This important area of inquiry for museums serving children is undoubtedly engaging other museums. I invite other museums exploring similar questions to share their word and where they have landed. On similar findings or something different? What’s working and what isn’t?

Related Museum Notes Posts

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Uneasy Relationship Between Play and Educational Outcomes


Among the queries on ChildMus in 2015, one in particular caught my attention. A museum educator asked for suggestions in dealing with a funder request. The funder wanted to support exhibits with specific measurable educational outcomes for at-risk children at his museum, a museum geared towards play and primarily serving 4 and 5-year olds. A rumpled copy of my reply resurfaced recently. That, along with recent work on outcomes, impacts, and a logic model for an art museum, reminded me of how museums struggle with similar versions of this expectation.

A push to close the achievement gap and show results is frequently at odds with a value on children’s play in museums, preschools, kindergartens, and at recess. While there’s no simple way to reconcile these well-intentioned interests, it would be a mistake to abandon play in favor of measurable educational outcomes. Similarly, it would be irresponsible not to work at making visible the value of play for children in museums and other settings. The need to move beyond a collision of these perspectives is imperative to serve the interests of children, museums, and their communities. What follows is the core of my response on ChildMus with some changes for flow and clarity.


The situation you describe around play vs. measurable educational outcomes is one we can all relate to and one that is frustrating. I agree with some of the responses you’ve received about play and educational outcomes. And I would go further, laying out an approach that explores what play can deliver in the spirit of play and equivalent to outcomes. The organization that wants to support exhibits with specific measurable outcomes for at-risk children is well intentioned but misunderstands some basic realities about learning, museums, and play.

The Nature of Learning
Learning does not occur through a single episode, a well-structured brilliant lesson, or even one-on-one tutoring on a specific concept. Not in museum exhibits, programs, and not in schools. That’s not the nature of learning. 

Learning is the accumulation of experiences a learner has, connects with, and makes meaning of through sensing, reflecting, thinking, and talking. That’s largely true regardless of age, setting–school, museum, program, or exhibit, library, playground–or strategies such as reading, playing, moving, or experimenting. Without the agency of the learner, relentless repetition, revisiting past experiences, time, and social and physical interactions with objects, materials, people, and the environment, learning does not happen.

Professionals in museums and other informal learning environments need to be clear about the nature of learning themselves as well as educate stakeholders, partners, and supporters about this. Clearly others are doing a better job of insisting on educational outcomes for play than play advocates are at communicating the value of play.  

As learners we construct our understanding not from a single experience or source, but from a variety of episodes over a stretch of time and often in relation to others. Regardless of their learning approach, museums serving children can take advantage of this. Children will learn about the world–or the slice of the world an exhibit invites them to explore–by engaging, comparing, experimenting, watching others, asking questions, trying and failing, moving, and making connections among objects, tools, materials, and environments. Without museums setting any measurable learning objectives for them, children will learn in rich, engaging museum environments. It happens through play.

Play, A Powerful Learning Strategy
Play is a powerful strategy for learning. From infancy on, children are readily drawn to play in its many forms: sensory, exploratory, construction, physical, imaginary, and dramatic play. Understood as freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated, play embodies qualities critical to learning as well as to children’s well being.

This, however, is what makes meeting a request for outcomes difficult. The learning that occurs through play is unlikely to resemble the kind of learning we think of in schools. Active, fluid, joyous, play crosses domains and disciplines. Isolating moments as evidence that math or science learning is taking place or a child has learned a particular concept is elusive (and illusive).

While play’s benefits do not appear as tidy measurable learning units, they are no less valuable. Their value is of a different nature. Learning is unlikely to occur without motivation. The curiosity that characterizes play is an urge to find out more, reduce uncertainty, and get at more complex or inaccessible aspects of the world. In play, learning crosses affective, emotional, physical, and cognitive domains. Children gather information about materials and test their properties through play. The capacity to think counterfactually, connect facts not ordinarily viewed together, emerges spontaneously during pretend play. In building tall and wide, climbing and testing physical abilities, taking on a role, and negotiating story ideas, children’s competence and confidence grow. Through play, children learn what is essential for life that others cannot teach them.

The uneasy relationship between play and measurable outcomes is also visible here.

Articulating Play’s Benefits 
While museums for children may be passionate about the value of play, they have generally not been diligent in articulating play as a productive strategy for learning and its benefits. A convincing case for play cannot be made with simple statements such as, “Play is learning,” but must be constructed and fully integrated across museum experiences. A solid understanding of skills, concepts, dispositions, or awarenesses important for children now and in the future is essential. It must draw on relevant research, be supported by observations of how this appears in a particular museum. Without this clarity, we simply chase after others’ priorities, are limited by personal preferences, and fail to follow-through.   

When we can’t point to the change we believe is possible for our visitors, we are not able to intentionally contribute to those changes, advance play as a credible strategy, or cultivate support among funders and friends.

An approach to building a convincing case for play starts with a museum identifying particular skills, attitudes, and dispositions where it believes it can contribute to a positive change for the child through play experiences at the museum. These are dispositions, knowledge or skills that research indicates emerge from play. Not facts, math problems, calculations, or the direct results of activities, they are recognized as possible dividends, benefits, or impacts of play. These benefits could include, persistence in getting desired results; becoming more precise in using a skill; enlarging a working vocabulary by describing materials; trying a new skill in a different situation; communicating coherent narratives; or feeling a sense of well-being and optimism.   

While this may be a fine list of possible benefits of play in a museum, a museum can’t simply import it from here, a recent study, or an admired museum. Skills and dispositions must emerge from a museum’s larger purpose, knowledge of its audience and community, and its own expertise and capacity to create engaging experiences likely to impact children in desired ways.

Developing a deep understanding of a set of skills, dispositions and understandings is neither quick nor easy. It involves delving into research and what these experiences look like in this exhibit, at that component, or in this program. • Observing how mastery of a material or tool looks for a 3-year old or 7-year old child. • Developing a shared understanding of how what an enhanced vocabulary might be for children with fewer experiences and more varied experiences. • Considering how these dividends might benefit parents and caregivers and a community.

Delivering Play’s Benefits to Children
We are accustomed to think of a museum’s work as creating exhibits and programs and managing collections or archives. Those activities, however, are in service to larger purposes. For museums focused on play, the larger purpose relates to delivering play’s benefits to children and through them, to the community. Exhibit and program experiences and staff engagement create the conditions for play: engagement, interactive experiences touching on multiple play patterns, and prolonged play episodes connected to the play benefits of greatest interest. The better aligned those play benefits are with specific components, activities, images, materials, and caregiver, staff, and volunteer interactions, the more likely children will benefit. 

Connecting what the museum does to the impact it hopes to have is its theory of change. This describes how and why it expects desired changes associated with the opportunities offered in its exhibits, programs, and events. For a museum with a play approach, this theory of change suggests that more children spending more time in rich, connected play will enjoy those benefits. It can also touch on how these changes might benefit parents and caregivers and the larger community.

While not the same as measurable educational outcomes, specific play-related benefits laid out in a theory of change and, hopefully, a logic model demonstrate comparable interests, efforts, and rigor. Connecting the pieces logically also provides the necessary foundation for being more precise about what those changes look like for children, their parents and caregivers, and community. Furthermore, a theory of change provides a museum with a plan for action. The focus, connections, and reasons for believing change is possible will lead to identifying outcomes that could be characterized as measurable. No less important, these are the steps allowing a museum to clearly communicate the value of its work to others–including funders that want to support its work. 

 Resources on learning in museums, skills, dispositions and executive function
• Deborah L. Perry. (2012). What Makes Learning Fun. Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press

Related Museum Notes Posts

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Rewind: A Good Mess



A beautiful mess at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Spilling, splattering, strewing, scattering, slopping, dropping, dripping, and piling. There’s just no end to the way children–and adults–can make a mess. But, it can be a good mess.

What would you call a good mess? Are any messes good? Are some messes better than others?
Is a good mess the sort of contained, practical, and well-used mixture that indicates a person is deeply immersed in their work? Does a good mess need to be tidied and rearranged, at least every so often? Or is a good mess something to be lived with, even enjoyed?

Daily, even hourly, a continuous and sometimes fierce skirmish takes place around messes in museums, classooms, and preschools, in homes and backyards. A very active push-and-pull occurs between the value of tinkering and being absorbed and the value of having things orderly, predictable, and not too inconvenient for others.

Children are almost always in the middle of the melee around mess. We tend to think children are intentionally making a mess. But, often there’s simply a mess when a child engages in a process of exploring what is acceptable and what is not; of finding what will happen by squeezing harder on a plastic catsup bottle; or seeing how painted green arms look. Sometimes a mess is not a mess, it’s an experiment.
 
To be perfectly clear, a good mess is not intentionally misbehaving. It is not willful disregard for order, or an excuse to thoughtlessly leave stuff around for someone else to trip over or pick up. A good mess is, on the other hand, about exploring, playing, creating, and learning.
In the mix and the mess, just the right piece
Who Wants a Mess?
Parents don’t want a mess. Recently I interviewed art educators at a half dozen art museums around the country about their programs for families with young children. One of the questions was, “What do parents want the museum to be, or what role do they want it to play for their kids?” In general, responses were varied: parents want their children to learn about art, parents want to be creative themselves, parents want a safe place for their child. One response, however, was a constant. Parents want the art museum to handle the mess, the mess from their children being creative as well as the mess from their own art projects.

Museums don’t want messes either. Taking care of messes is never-done work: picking up loose parts, returning stuff to its “right” place, keeping floors cleared. Last year, during a planning meeting for a collaborative exhibit project among four science museums, a hot debate simmered about including loose parts. One evaluator spoke up saying, “That kind of a mess is not going to happen in our museum.”

I have even heard board members of a museum-in-planning say that they want their museum to handle the mess for them.

Years ago I was on a site visit to a museum in an early stage of planning and visited a mother-museum educator-board member at her home. When I walked into the dining room, Robin's three children were finger painting on a plastic tablecloth covering a lovely formal dining room table. The children were happy and she was happy too. While this wasn’t quite a full-fledged mess, it was clearly a place where the possibilities of messing around were expected, tolerated, and appreciated. 

I have also heard executive directors say they wish their staff were more tolerant of messes and understood the value of a good mess.
A big mess at The New Museum
The Value of a Good Mess
The value of a good mess is worth considering particularly in settings that are material, object, and information rich–at the project table or in a maker space; in an enchanted forest or in a construction zone; on a chalk-covered sidewalk or in a grocery store exhibit. Any place learners learn through their senses, curiosity, and questions, materials and tools are valuable and necessary sources of information. In those places (and there should be many) a good mess is likely. Exploration leaves a mess. Play is messy. Learning is, or should be, messy. As spaces for exploration, play ,and learning, museum exhibits and programs, preschools, art rooms and classrooms, playgrounds, and community programs should be more on the messy side.
Children play at the boundaries of their sensory exploration. They explore the possibilities that pass before their eyes, through their hands, and around their bodies. A child may explore playfully by mixing substances or perhaps dropping and breaking something. Such investigations are sources of information and also of messes. Adults, on the other hand, are able to play with and within the boundaries of their own thoughts and those of others. They can explore possible worlds and fantasies; they can mix, blend, and bend conceptual spaces. They can stretch, twist, and break up ideas, and hop around in humor and absurdity. All without breaking or spilling things–or trying not to.
 
For a child, being in the middle of a wonderful idea, pursuing a burning question, or testing a hunch is often being in the midst of a mess. This is how we explore, play, and create. Permission for a level of mess encourages concentration and follow-through on a project, idea, or a step in a process. Order is not required for completing every task. People have a good time when they don’t have to worry about a mess, or whether they are making one. Equally important, a good mess can be inviting and forgiving for the novice or reluctant.
 
Messing about at The City Museum
  Possibilities Live Here
Underneath a good mess is a thoughtful structure, one that anticipates what might happen in a space or at a table based on the interests and backgrounds of these children or those adults. Thoughtful organization and preparation of a space anticipates possible questions and where they might lead. It considers how the materials presented might provoke a question, extend explorations of materials to reveal their properties, or express a child’s thinking.
Yes, a good mess rests on structure, but not on too much. Structure should leave room for a child, or for anyone, to shape, direct, and complete the experience in any one of a myriad of ways. A step-by-step activity that is all planned out with materials allocated and assigned to each place at the table constricts questions and tempers spontaneous manipulations, backing up, or starting over. In the rich space between structure and an utter mess, the maker-creator-artist-learner is in control. A certain kind of mess may also recognize that a child or adult has a different sense of order, or even that another order is possible. A mess can reveal beauty as well as a new order.

A  really good mess  at the Phoenix Children's Museum
A good mess spills with possibilities. The shifting array of materials, parts, and tools that occurs while a group intently works on something, inspires new possibilities. Novel combinations of colors appear, unlikely pairings of materials are suggested, or an accidental association between disparate objects now makes sense. In a good mess, someone else’s discards jump-start thinking or spark the problem solving that navigates around a pesky obstacle. Picking through or picking up after a lovely mess can suggest ways to order, group, and categorize, can highlight similarities and differences, or prompt a new idea.

A mess is often evidence that things are happening, often the very things we want to have happen. Only we cringe when they really do happen because of the mess. Tom Bedard is an astute observer of this in his Sand and Water Table blog, often referring to corn kernels flying or sand spilling as children wonder, test and discover.

Mess can equal possibilities or it can simply be chaos. It can be something no one thought about that makes a really big difference. A good mess stops just short of being disastrous.
Flying, spilling corn at Tom Bedard's sensory table
Whether it’s flying corn and spilling sand, puddles, dirt, or dough; cardboard tubes or pom-poms; sticks, tops, or hose; LEGO bricks or wooden blocks, plastic pipe or clothes; sheets of foil, plastic wrap; fabric lengths or bows;  boxes, wire, washers, pliers, knobs, or pillows, children need to be able to enjoy a really good mess every now and then. 

Related Museum Notes Posts
• Managing Materials for Making and Tinkering 
Abundance
Dialogue With Materials