Sunday, October 13, 2019

Vision, Process, and Position for the Big Museum Project

Second in a series on Growing A Museum; originally posted June 2012

A changing American Swedish Institute reflects a changing Twin Cities

Once in a museum or science center’s life, if it is fortunate, it is able to reinvent, redefine, or renew itself on a major scale.  It may re-craft its mission, vision, and values. It may expand its current home or create a new home.

The impetus for such a major change may come from a strategic plan that points to growth. Evidence of a need for more space to serve a growing audience or to provide additional services and amenities may come from attendance data, stakeholder input, and industry benchmarks. Perhaps a long-awaited opportunity to be part of downtown redevelopment ripens. Funder interest may be more promising than usual. Typically a combination of these factors converges to set the stage for a museum’s next iteration and move it into its future. In these major projects, the thrust of cumulative choices may emphasize greater civic prominence, an impressive architectural presence, or deeper engagement with a changing community. A museum’s transformation may change the local cultural and civic landscape of its city or town.

Regardless of the factors that converge, the scale of the enterprise, or the gathering momentum, bumps are inevitable during the course of a large project. Some are simply due to the nature of a complex effort. Others result from external conditions that would have been difficult to anticipate, like the 2008 recession. Still others come from prematurely launching a project without the key pieces being in place.

Yes, it is important to do a market analysis, a fundraising feasibility study, identify campaign leadership, select an architect, and hire on exhibit planners. Conventional project planning and management, however, kick in later in the process than is often recognized. The earliest stages of a project are difficult to visualize, but they are truly formative. The early swirl of questions and possibilities can be hard to manage and consolidate; but they must be addressed. The desire for a set of concrete ideas of the future and actions for getting there can be very insistent.

Before firing up the board and staff and reinvesting in its future, however, an institution needs to step back, re-examine its past performance, its current status, and its core purpose. It needs to engage in repeated consultation and clarification prior to developing definite plans, concrete steps, and long-term commitments.

The outcome of this critical period of exploration is clarity around a vision that will guide and inspire the project; a process that will support and deliver on that vision; and the position the museum hopes to assume in its community and among its stakeholders.
This sounds simpler than it is. Not only are board and staff eager to get going, but this stage of planning requires both patience and focused attention on institutional planning practices. Perhaps more challenging is how vision, process, and position entwine and interact; they can easily lean into, meld with, and be confused with one another. Yet they are decidedly separate and make distinctly different contributions to the endeavor. To confuse them can cause problems and require course corrections along the way. Clarity around vision, process, and position often distinguishes two equally ambitious projects from one another.

Vision Leads
Contrary to numerous examples, a project vision is not a list of superlatives: the best, the most, the premier, or world classBig is not a vision, nor is having concepts for five galleries. Like a museum’s strategic vision, a project vision is a compelling response to community priorities and recognized needs based on what a museum does consistently well and is recognized for. In short, where it matters.

Creating a vision is a prelude to uncovering opportunities and developing future plans. A museum must look out at its community and connect those priorities and challenges with its own mission and assets. This phase explores questions such as: What are present and future challenges to the quality of life in our community? What are community priorities for the audience we hope to serve? How might we respond to these needs? In the past, what have we done especially well? What does the community see as our contributions and our assets? What is our current and likely future strategic context? What else is on the local cultural and learning landscape?

To explore these questions, a museum will engage a range of stakeholders  including members, donors, parents, voters, politicians, other organizations, educators, and business leaders to assure varied perspectives from across the community. Some people are able to imagine and articulate the existing and emerging community needs a museum might respond to. Others will share their interests and motivations for using services. Information and perspectives are gathered through interviews, focus groups, visitor panels, environmental scans, and readily available needs assessments.

Pushing hard on what will distinguish a museum and help it flourish is invaluable. By connecting the big, pulsing dots between itself and its community, a museum can make its vision for the project both more compelling and more responsive to needs. To draw others to the project and engage their support, a museum's vision must be roomy enough for others to find a home for their hopes and aspirations. Such a vision also integrates internal and external factors: the museum’s interests, capacity, and conditions and those of the community. As such, a vision is a durable guide for board and staff in planning, making decisions, assessing choices, and brokering priorities.

Process Supports
A major museum planning project is a matryoshka doll of processes, nesting at successive scales yet all in service to realizing the vision. The visioning process moves from gathering and distilling stakeholder perspectives and information; to finding synergies among priorities, interests, assets, and opportunities; to bundling significant threads in compelling ways; and finally to testing, refining, and adopting a vision. Not only is this where opportunities and innovation are to be found, but arriving at a vision through a broad, inclusive process removes a great deal of risk for a project. If well conducted, it ensures the plans that do emerge will be robust, appealing, and have community support to see them to fruition.

By defining the nature and magnitude of likely change–relocation, a new building, a strategic level change in audience, a focused role in workforce development–this initial process lays necessary groundwork for charting successive master planning steps. It must be completed before launching the parallel, intersecting master planning processes of exhibit-experience-program planning, architectural-facility planning, fundraising planning, business planning, etc.

These intertwining master planning processes help realize the vision by shaping the building, cultivating resources, building awareness, and operationalizing the vision. At the very heart of what a museum hopes to accomplish, however, and at the head of the queue for getting there, is planning the visitor and learning experiences in exhibits and programs. Without a well-developed, attractive image of the museum’s transformational change, what it will look and feel like for visitors, and what it will mean for the community, experience and exhibit planning are challenged to move forward in a meaningful way. A list of topics, hope for attracting a broader age range, and ideas about a "wow" experience is a limited alternative to a full and inspiring vision. Other decisions and processes build on how exhibits will fulfill the project vision and look to a clear and shared vision as well.

At any scale, a process choreographs steps that engage players and their expertise and perspectives. It allocates resources for accomplishing tasks in concrete ways that help move towards and realize the vision. A museum’s internal capacity in experience planning, operations, finance, development, and leadership is as critical to any process as multiple perspectives, coordination among steps, time, and accountability to assure the museum moves forward with the process.

Position Follows
A solid position in a community and among stakeholders is invaluable for a museum embarking on the multi-year process of major institutional growth and change. Position, how a museum is recognized, viewed, and valued in the lives and minds of its visitors, donors, and decision makers, reflects what it accomplishes for its community and itself.

A secure position builds on where a museum has consistently delivered value and been successful, rather than on what it finds attractive among its peers’ positions, locally or nationally. Sometimes a museum will over focus on how it wishes to be viewed on the local cultural, learning, and social landscape or with a particular stakeholder group without realistically considering its own history, actual capacity, or the current context. Claiming a position that involves going toe-to-toe with a local museum already well established in that spot is a costly and risky proposition. A museum wants to be confident its position is one it can actually and effectively assume over time.

Recognizing its value from the standpoint of others offers insights that can challenge a museum's view of itself. Questions about itself and potential position might ask: Is this position true to our deeper purpose? Is it validated with our distinct products, experiences, and expertise? Does it enable our growth? Does it bring something to the community that is missing and valued? Is it already occupied by another organization? A realistic assessment of a museum’s distinct contribution to its stakeholders and a track record it can point to with confidence (if not great pride) strengthens its position.  

For these and other reasons, a museum’s position benefits from a clear, strong vision grounded in hearing community voices about what they need and want that is not being provided and which aligns with a museum’s mission territory. At the same time, attention to position can strengthen a vision, a major project, and a museum over its lifetime. Focusing on position can sharpen a project’s vision by considering it from both internal and external perspectives. It can help coordinate a complex project by pointing to a common aim expressed across multiple dimensions of this remarkable opportunity. Finally, it can set a museum up to increase capacity, invest resources, and build a track record that will continue when the project ends and the next phase begins.

Working Together
Regardless of how a museum goes about its early stage of a major project, its vision, process, and position have to work together. Vision should lead, process should support, and position should follow. Allowing these to get out of balance or confused one with another can slow down planning, use resources, and erode morale and credibility.

Launching a process without a solid project vision is setting off on a voyage where little is known about the purpose of the journey or its destination. With the enthusiasm that characterizes most beginnings, a museum will gather expertise, form teams and committees, make-up timelines, and start activities. Before long, however, teams will be revisiting the same questions and encountering obstacles that require inspiration and direction from a vision to resolve them. Multiple starts, lost time, and frustration characterize a process leading the way and untethered to a vision.

When position assumes too great a priority, especially too early in planning, a museum tends to focus on what’s new, now, and wow rather than on its mission, strategic interests, and strengths. For instance, a museum might claim an attractive niche without understanding it well or without the track record, reputation, or related capabilities required to occupy it fully. Without a clear vision for guidance, a museum, in fact, assumes an image or a posture rather than a meaningful position grounded in actual relationships and accomplishments.

Pressure from many sources to get the project going nearly assures that a museum will not focus too much on vision or for too long. Occasionally, however, a museum does become enamored with crafting a vision for its project. Lingering around the vision can keep a project on too lofty or aspirational a plane, allowing the vision to become too grand, precious, or simply unrealistic in scale.
Reinventing, redefining, or renewing itself on a major scale is a huge opportunity for both a museum and its community; it is a reinvestment in their futures. The early stages of exploration set the stage for great possibilities. It is the time to shape a compelling vision that can guide and inspire a process for realizing that vision and can help the museum assume the position to which it aspires.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

In the Primordial Ooze of Early Planning

Originally posted in April 2017 and now the first in a series on Growing a Museum

I love the primordial ooze of early planning for a big museum project. It may be a new museum, an expansion, or reinventing a museum. There is no near or far in the midst of primordial ooze; no fixed or firm center; no visible shore. In this early stage everything oozes into everything else. Potential is enormous, vision is fuzzy; possibilities bump and meld into one another.

Not every member of a team or planning task force, however, enjoys this murky phase. Avoiding it, however, is virtually impossible. Museums find different strategies for navigating the thick mass of shadowy possibilities. Typically museum leadership or founding board members look for guidance from other museums, master planners, and their own related experience. They visit museums that are strong examples of what they aspire to become and attend museum planning conferences.

A project definition, a set of well-tested planning steps grouped into phases with project milestones help bring order to the early steps in the process. But, at some point, there is inevitably a stutter in a process this extensive and complex. A key team member moves on or joins the team; planning money is hard to find; the “perfect” site doesn’t come through. The team regroups, the process slows, and sometimes, the project is resized.

It is one thing to have a planning process laid out, but how does a museum team ready itself for the unavoidable ups-and-downs of the intense, often life-changing, journey they are beginning? A few realities about the process have emerged from the experience of countless museums that have started up, expanded, or reinvented themselves. It's helpful to keep them in mind.   

• This is not actually a linear process. Not. At. All. Project planning, especially, in the early stages, is a discovery process. While perhaps a disciplined discovery process, it is nonetheless exploratory, opportunistic, and has a life of its own. Laid out on charts, the process looks orderly with a clear beginning and end. Planning, in fact, starts long before building size is determined or design begins. It often runs on parallel tracks and moves forward at different rates. Trial and error and false starts are inevitable. And, what appears to be the end of a project is actually a new beginning. The museum opens, meets reality, and is on a new learning curve.

• Everything connects with everything. This is especially and emphatically true at the beginning of a project! The vision connects to the community and to the mission; both connect with audience. Audience informs the target market and attendance. Community size and projected attendance are closely related to building size and exhibit square footage. Thinking about a building without considering the location is unproductive; will the site draw audiences? And everything connects to funding which connects to vision, mission, staff, and the community. 

• There’s no single model for a museum, plan, or project. Every project is distinct from another because every museum is distinct. Even two projects underway in the same town at about the same time differ in material ways. A journey is shaped depending on whether a museum is mature or a start-up, renovating or building new, its size, in a museum-going community or not, starting off during lean or boom years, has an experienced or inexperienced capital campaign team. Museums certainly should borrow and learn from other museums, projects, and planning processes–of course! But they should also borrow with an awareness of the particular parameters of their project, audience, and community and adapt accordingly. 

• The museum field has not only enjoyed a building boom but also has a track record of sharing its lessons. Insider insights into a capital project by a science center in the east are regularly passed on to an art museum expanding in the west and a children’s museum starting up in the south in conference sessions, blogs, and journals. Take comfort and take advantage of others having blazed the trail before and having insights others want. Reach out to leaders at museums that have recently expanded, renovated, or opened a completely new museum. Be respectful of their time and play this generosity forward and help other projects coming along.

• Preparation, preparation, preparation. Planning and preparation help develop shared expectations among planning team members, the board, across the museum, and with partners about the vision and what lies ahead. Understand the necessary steps, what needs to be accomplished during each, and who should be involved. Decide how decisions will be made and start learning a new vocabulary and terms. Implement and track practices that are helpful in guiding the discovery, wrangling orderliness throughout the process, and reinvigorating staff and board. It is unlikely a team can do too much preparation and planning.

Actively collecting resources to serve as a bookshelf for the project will be useful in navigating murky moments throughout the process. A dog-eared article may be the just-in-time information or needed perspective when facing a tough decision. Others' reflections of their experiences can bring comfort at a challenging moment. Sharing a blog post can lift a pesky question into the open for a lively discussion.

The following selected Museum Notes blog posts address some of the inevitable questions, challenges, and realities that surface in the long meander of process. How do we build support for the project? Should we start off in a permanent site or grow site-by-site? Who should our partners be? Can’t our audience be "everyone"?

• Stakeholders + Engagement. “Stakeholders” is a term a museum might not think about early in its planning process. Stakeholders play a key role at every step along the way. They are partners, supporters, members, gatekeepers, staff, and board, and decision makers who can become friends. Thinking about the museum’s stakeholders, who they are in its community, and how to involve them in meaningful ways throughout the process will favorably impact the project. 

• Vision with a View to Impact. A clear and powerful vision is necessary for the journey ahead. At the same time, a hard working vision is not always the first choice of a group setting out on a long, complex process and feeling the need to accomplish everything all at once. A hard working vision connects with impact and emerges from knowing the community, connecting the community’s and museum’s assets, and describing the positive change the museum believes is possible. 

• Audience, An Area of Enduring Focus. Nothing is more central to a museum’s existence and aspirations than its audience. Understanding audience is never complete, but is especially key in starting up or planning for dramatic growth. Museums learn about their audiences in many ways: identifying primary, secondary, and emerging audiences; surveying visitors; analyzing attendance data; conducting audience research; engaging with the audience. This focus on audience serves to remind staff and board that the people and communities they hope to serve are the highest priority, at the center, and at every step.

• Planning Out LoudPlanning out loud makes a museum’s thinking, testing, and learning visible to itself and its stakeholders. Bigger than a prototype, louder than a focus group, and unfolding over months and possibly years, planning out loud uses long-term, deliberate testing of multiple aspects of a museum by engaging the community: from testing hours, staffing, and how much mess; to community partnerships; to programming schedules, and how to communicate with stakeholders.

Good luck on the journey ahead! 

Photo credit: A glimpse of the primordial soup courtesy of the Large Hadron Collider's Alice Experiments  

Monday, September 16, 2019

Do We Want Parents to Play With Children?

Originally posted in May 2018

Playing or teaching?
I have no idea what the answer is to the question, should parents and caregivers play with their children? I am, however, quite certain there’s more than one answer. Moreover, I think we don’t have an answer because we are not even asking the question.

Recently I have posed this question to friends and colleagues in museums, in early childhood programs, and to parents. There’s no hesitation in their responses, at least initially. Whether they say, yeswhy, or no, they pause and inevitably shift directions. Well, of course! might be followed by Why not? An emphatic No, they just get in the way might be followed by a pause and, I get bored playing with my kids. I always enjoy being asked, But, you do think play is important, don’t you?

Wanting parents and caregivers to play with children seems like a gem of an idea. We believe in the value of play and with the recent decline in opportunities for children to play, we are eager for more play opportunities. We know the parent and caregiver relationship with the child has life-long significance; that bond could be cultivated during play. In museums and on playgrounds we might also think, what else do these adults have to do anyway?

So, why isn’t adults playing with children such an obviously terrific idea that everybody gets?

It is, as they say, complicated. Realistically, sometimes adults as playmates advance these broader interests and sometimes they detract from them. For instance, if we view play as child-directed, then adults entering the play frame can crimp joyous child-directed unfolding play. Even if they don't intend to, adults will hijack play or pre-write the script; they may remember their own play. It can be difficult for a 6-year old to accommodate a parent’s fully scripted delightedly repeated childhood memory of “Little House on the Prairie.”

If as research shows that play is a valuable way for children to be with other children and figure out ideas with peers, then parents as playmates may be limiting development of valued social skills. And, when play becomes a duty for either the parent or the child (“I can’t disappoint dad, he really wants to play with me”), play loses the spontaneous, freely chosen quality fundamental to its spirit. Furthermore, if one person’s play is motivated by obligation and the other’s by the sheer joy of stacking sofa cushions to make a snake pit, then play is sorely imbalanced. 

In general, children make better playmates for other children than do adults. Even across a wide age range, children share interests, energy levels, current references, and a sense of humor.  Parents–adults in general–may not be able to pick up the child’s cues during play, which evolves constantly, incorporating new ideas that sweep in from the edges of the play frame. The castle has become an underground cave; the block is a phone, a shoe is a candy bar. The rules of play that are important for children to negotiate may not be recognized at all by adults as worthy rules. But to children they are and they may also need to be broken immediately to advance the play.

On the other hand, if we value parent and caregiver involvement in the child’s learning (and play is one of the ways children learn), then playing with their children may be a valuable opportunity for parents to get a closer look at their child’s learning.

So, do we want parents and caregivers to play with their children? Of course there is no simple or single answer. In which setting? Museums, home, school, backyards, playgrounds? One answer doesn’t fit all settings, all museums, or even one museum all the time. Children of what age? What kind of play? What’s the context? What else is going on?

These are not idle questions. With relatively few opportunities for children to engage in extensive play that they direct, it is important to expand, not limit, play opportunities. Making it easy for children to play freely with other children is important; it's not filling the void with adults pressured or being guilted into play.

What might help? By exploring the larger question with others and pursuing new questions, we may be better navigating this territory, even if we don’t arrive at one place or stay there for long.

What roles are adult taking? There is often a hidden agenda when adults play with children. They may be directing large motor play out of caution so children won’t get hurt. Involvement may be motivated by making play more valuable, for learning academics. Pressure, however, is no friend to play.

Who's playing now?
If adult involvement in play is to correct or bring order, that’s a problem. I recently visited a “play and ingenuity” magnet school for kindergarten through 6th grade. In the 90 minutes we were introduced to the school’s approach, it became apparent that play was used for group management. It was fun and well done, but it was not play. The point of play is that there is no point, no agenda, no pre-determined outcomes.
In play, blue blocks become a lava flow become an obstacle course
Can adults really join the play without changing it? Without some attunement to children’s play, adults may not really get the flow of the play or the rules. Adults may alter the play context with their suggestions, normalize the story lines, and extend or cut short the play. On the other hand, if adults follow the child’s lead and engage in playful interactions with them, they may move the play along, as an older peer might.

Whose play is it? Even when the child is leading and telling the adult what to do, it might not be play. Bossing ruins play processes fueled by negotiation and figuring things out together. In play, children may deal with the crying baby, the angry mother, the scary robber, or the super hero in quick succession. Are adults able to keep up with that and negotiate with children in good faith?

Who gets to decide whether adults playing with children is a good idea in this setting or situation? In play, children can choose not to play. If the adult–parent, teacher, timekeeper, and general boss–is the play partner, can the child walk away and call it quits? If not, the play set up is probably not a great idea.

Should we expect parents and caregivers to play with their children? If we are serious about the benefits of play for children, we must get seriously better at providing more opportunities for child-initiated, directed, and unscripted play with adult-free options. This doesn’t mean that adults need to disappear, but they may need to step out of the way. Here are some thoughts of what this might look like.

• Parents and caregivers can do many wonderful things with children that are not necessarily play but do enrich and extend play. They can read to children, tell stories, listen to them, observe them, answer their questions, create a place to play, find props, tolerate mess, and be OK with risk taking. That would be big.

• More public, free access places where children can direct their play are needed. There are parks and playgrounds, museums, and schoolyards. It’s striking that the list isn’t longer. What about empty lots and alleys, backyards, the courtyards of buildings, school playgrounds after hours?

Playing with? Together? Along side of?
• Museums can offer times and places for children to play with supervision but without adults joining in. A museum for children should be able to have a place that is just for children. Could a museum field trip offer extended, play rich experiences instead of a program much like a classroom lesson? What if parents and caregivers accompanying children to the museum or playground could observe, listen, talk with each other, talk on their phones, or take photos? Would that be such a bad idea?

• Museums, libraries, preschools, parks departments, afterschool programs, and schools might consider playwork training that supports playwork principles. Playworkers balance many considerations around children’s play: a space to play, risk, and development in a role that enables children and young people to extend their play, not to play with them.

This is not to say that parents and caregivers can’t lean into children’s play now-and-then and provide guidance to help their child be aware of others’ feelings. Parents and caregivers are present in children’s lives. They know their children and they themselves play. Parents and caregivers will play with children, but it’s not their job and not always a good idea. Museums, parks, playgrounds, schools, along with early childhood educators, and parents have a role in play. Make it easy for children to play with other children. Give them the time and place to play, but don’t write the script.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Engaging Parents and Caregivers

Updated from a July 2017 post.

A short history of viewing and serving parents and caregivers in museums might go something like this. For decades, many museums, art and history museums in particular, were for adults as off-duty parents and caregivers. In children’s museums, parents were viewed as drivers and pocket books that brought children to the museum. Caregivers of many different kinds accompanying children to museums were lumped together with teachers and parents. 

More recently, parents and caregivers, aka parental adults and caring adults, are recognized for their interest in family spaces in art museums, science centers, and children’s museums and their roles and value in extending and supporting children’s experiences. In some parts of the country serving multi-age, multi-generational families is a high priority. 

While recognizing the value of the parental adult has grown, clarity about their role and how to support them in museums has not similarly increased. Comprehensive approaches with related strategies for engaging and supporting parents and caregivers in extending children’s explorations and having a satisfying museum experience themselves, are lacking.

I have some observations about the nature of this challenge from my involvement in several studies with parents and caregivers, master planning for expansion, developing learning frameworks, reading professionally, and making countless museum visits observing caregiver-child interactions.

Parents and caregivers in museums comprise a very diverse group. They are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nannies, baby sitters, neighbors, day care providers, camp counselors, scout leaders, field trip chaperones, and teachers. They are also museum staff and volunteers. They are stepparents and foster parents; new parents and experienced parents; parents of one child and of many children. They are first time and frequent visitors.  

Some have a long-term relationship with the child while others have met the children in their field trip group minutes before boarding the bus. Yet, they also have a few things in common: an interest in the child and confidence in the museum as a safe, interesting place for children. Still, it’s quite a mix.

The parent and caregiver role in museums is complex and dynamic. We have only to think about the 
homeschooling adult who is both teacher and parent to recognize how intermingled and constantly shifting adult roles are in a museum. Some recognizable roles have been identified by Lorrie Beaumont in her research in children’s museums. The Adult Child Interaction Inventory identifies 6 roles: the Player, Facilitator, Interpreter, Supervisor, Student of the Child and Co-learner. This is a helpful perspective, but parents and caregivers also chaperone, hold coats, monitor, observe, manage conflict, push strollers, accompany children to the restroom, and comfort them. They are often multi-tasking. In an interview conducted recently, a mother of 5 children in a science exhibit in a public library described what she was doing as observing, answering her child’s question, and changing a diaper.      

Parents and caregivers want to do well with and for their childrenParents and caregivers have every intention of doing their best on their children’s behalf. Multiple factors, however, can overwhelm their best intentions to engage actively and intentionally with their child during a museum visit as well as in the everyday moments of life. In any one setting, parent and caregiver engagement with children will assume many forms with individual and cultural variations in playing out. Parents and caregivers observe, sit back, listen, take photos, talk, grab a moment of respite, check email, or direct the activity. They praise, cajole, and challenge. Depending on the moment, a parent or caregiver’s interaction may be misconstrued as disinterested, controlling, or intuitive.

Whatever a museum’s caregiver goals and strategies for engagement are–and they vary from one museum to another–they need to build on an assumption of good intentions, strengthen the adults’ position, and support their relationships with their children.

Parents and caregivers help museums accomplish their goals. Often the ways they do this are barely visible to museums. Parents and caregivers have valuable information about their children that is relevant to exploring exhibits and activities. They know the child’s passionate interest, a favorite activity, how she responds to new situations, and the signs of mounting frustration. A visit to the museum is also an opportunity to act on goals they have for their children, to encourage their child to try something new, persist when something is difficult, deal with failure, or feel a sense of accomplishment.

When they observe, monitor risk, and step in to avoid mishaps, parents and caregivers contribute to a safer museum environment. Their conversations about what’s happening, modeling how to do something, and reading instructions advances the museum’s learning agenda. We know that in museums children engage more and in more complex ways in exhibits with adult involvement. By asking questions, making connections with previous experiences, and adding information, parents and caregivers enrich and deepen the experience. Just as they make connections with what happened yesterday, they extend the experience afterwards, at home, at the store, on a family trip, or reading a bedtime story.

The parent and caregiver relationship with the child is a third presence to serve. Besides the child and the adult, there is their relationship as a third and very important entity. While this may be true of every dyad in museums, it is especially significant for adults and children. At any moment 3 agendas are at play: the child’s, the adult’s, and the long-term, on-going, powerful relationship between them. (To top that, there may be more than 1 child in this set of relationships.) From research and experience, we know the role of parents and caregivers is critical in children’s lives, prenatally, right on through life, at home, school, and in museums.

This relationship may be a close emotional bond between parent and child or a supportive connection between a child and key adult. In either case, such relationships are important for emotional development and fostering a healthy sense of belonging, self-esteem, and wellbeing. Relationships are based on trust, nourished by time together, and deepen familiarity. Built on shared experiences from other settings and times together, connections are strengthened by opportunities to explore and discover new ways of being together. Conversations that take place in the museum may have started weeks ago and may continue for months ahead. Those minutes or hours in a museum are just a part—but a very important part—of a longer-term and critical relationship.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

What Do We Want of Parents and Caregivers?

When I first wrote about parent and caregiver engagement in museums in 2011, it felt like a new topic. Of course, it wasn't, at all. But at the time, I think there was only a fuzzy understanding of the critical role parents, caregivers, and other adults play during museum visits with children. Since then, parent engagement has become an explicit priority in schools,  education circles, out-of-school programs, and research on children's learning and development. Some of the fundamental questions about the role of parents and caregivers in museums, however, are still alive and important to revisit.

What Do We Want of Parents and Caregivers in Museums?

blog post by Marianna Adams during her summer residency at the Gardner Museum provided just the right spark to some thoughts and questions rumbling through my mind. In writing about what museums convey to adults when they engage families in programs, she wrote about how we sometimes keep doing the same thing over and over, neither questioning the underlying assumptions nor paying attention to what’s actually happening. Soon after that, a query on CHILDMUS asked if any museums had figured out how to discourage parents from using their cell phones excessively while at the museum. It went on to say, "We get a lot of complaints about parents not supervising their children and typically it's because parents are on their phones.” About the same time, the agenda for an IMLS project advisors’ meeting I attended included engaging adults. The nature of the comments shared about parents and caregivers was all that was needed for me to wonder: What do we want of parents and caregivers in museums?  

Comments and complaints about parents and caregivers are surprisingly consistent across museums: parents sit, talk on the phone, ignore their child, and take over their child’s project. Staff members are preoccupied with keeping parents off their cell phones and not wanting them to take over their child’s activity which Susan McKay at The Opal School at Portland Children’s Museum aptly characterizes  as a bipolar preoccupation with parents: too involved and not involved enough with their children in museums. There’s a whole lot of territory in between. What do we want parents to do?

In children's museums, adults often comprise 50% of a museum’s visitors. It follows that museums have every reason to think that, if  these adults have chosen this museum as a place that provides an experience they value for their child, then what can the museum do to ensure a great experience for them. 

When museums have expectations that contradict one another about an audience group, that are so vague they aren’t actionable, or that are not shared among front-line staff, security, educators, and designers, it's a problem. The fact is, museums need parents and caregivers to meet their audience goals, museum experience goals for families, and learning goals for children. And while every museum does not want the same thing for parents and caregivers who visit (nor should they), every museum should have a shared framework for understanding parents and caregivers and how to serve and engage them.

True: Not all parents appear ready to be engaged
Serving an audience group well starts with understanding who they are. In this case, they are parents, step-parents, foster parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts; teachers, daycare providers, baby sitters, and nannies; group leaders and day camp counselors. First time and frequent visitors, they may range in age from 20 to 50 or 60 to 90, when grandparents and great grandparents are included. They may accompany a child ranging in age from newborn to 12 or 15 years; operate solo with one or multiple children; or be in a clutch of three relatives hovering over a new grandchild.
Parents and caregivers serve as chauffeur, chaperone, pocket book, navigator, coat holder, stroller pusher, diaper bag holder, referee, and occasional tie-breaker. They are readers, navigators, coaches, role models, and timekeepers. Museum goers in their own right, they are likely to be a learner, a co-learner, or a player. They may be tired, charged with energy, craving coffee or distracted by a problem on the home or work front. Clearly one definition cannot possibly stretch to cover parents and caregivers nor will a single strategy for engaging them serve all.

While every museum intends to serve parents and caregivers well, being prepared to do so goes far beyond good intentions. To offer a positive, supportive, engaging experience for parents and caregivers, a museum needs a planned and organizational approach, developed over time, actively supported and valued, and renewed and refreshed. An ongoing process, a museum may begin by fielding a series of discussions among staff across the museum around four questions.  
  • How Do We View Parents?
  • Are We Building on Parents’ Strengths?
  • What Do Parents Want?
  • How Do We Support Parents? 

How Do We View Parents?
How a museum views the parents and caregivers it wants to serve influences how it shapes experiences and engagement strategies for them and their children. A museum may see them as friends and allies or as foes and obstacles in serving children. In some cases, parents are more or less invisible or incidental to the experiences museum offer. Parents and caregivers are both individuals with interests and preferences as well as adults engaged in a life-long relationship with their children. Is the museum prepared to both engage them as adults as well as in their parent role? Does it intend for them to be active participants in museum experiences or bystanders? 

To address the underlying assumptions about parents and caregivers that are inevitably diverse and complex, a museum needs to make explicit its view of parents and caregivers for its staff. Does the museum see them as learners, co-learners, facilitators, playmates, or tour guides? Perhaps an invented name for the role best captures the image and fits the museum’s experience style and brand: co-creator, play-and-learning partner, or explorer. Or museums may ask parents to name the roles they feel they are playing. A name for the role or cluster of roles brings into focus other attributes of parents and caregivers a museum wants to encourage and engage.

Are We Building on Parents’ Strengths? 
Our contradictory and sometimes negative ideas about parents and caregivers can overshadow the assets and strengths they bring to the museum with their children. Their love and commitment to exposing their child to varied and engaging experiences walks through the doors with every one of them. They bring an invaluable understanding of their child’s interests, skills, and previous experiences that is integral to children benefiting from the rich exhibit and program experiences. 

An essential question is whether the museum is recognizing parents’ competence and valuing that they want to do their best on behalf of their children? Sometimes, a change from a negative to a positive image is necessary. Awhile ago General Mills produced a You Tube video, How To DadIn this video the awesome dad image replaces the stereotype of the dumb, inept dad familiar in commercials and TV shows. A museum doesn’t have to produce its own video, but it may want start looking about and noticing what parents already do well; and where, for instance, the museum unwittingly gets in the way of parents playing their best role. Museum staff may want to learn what, for instance, parents are doing with their cell phones. Perhaps they are photographing or making a video of their children’s or families' experiences to revisit later, something many museums would encourage.

What Do Parents Want? 
Increasingly museums work to engage their visitors in dialogue through focus groups and visitor panels to learn what they want. The studies and plans I am familiar with, however, ask parents about family visits, overlooking the opportunity for critical information about what parents and caregivers want for themselves in a visit. While parents do consider the needs and interests of their children, they are not unaware of their own needs and interests at the museum.
If parents and caregivers pay more attention to their cell phones than their children's explorations, museums might ask if what they are offering is more interesting than  cell phones. Listening to what they want will help attune the museum to parent concerns. Do we know what parents want to get out of a museum visit? What they want for themselves? What signals to them that their participation is encouraged? What does support and encouragement look like to them? Where might a parent want to be during a demonstration or a story? What works for parents as her child climbs through a tree house or ant tunnel? In developing a new exhibit, does the museum ask what interests them about the topic, materials, design, or objects?

How Do We Support Parents?
A shared view of parents and caregivers, built on strengths and shaped by their input requires support in many forms: the physical environment, staff interactions, materials and design. Every museum engages in practices in all of these areas, but they are not necessarily aligned. A shared view can guide museum staff in assessing and tweaking existing practices and cultivating new ones that reinforce a guiding image of the parent and caregiver. How, for instance, does this view and what parents and caregivers say they want translate into:

·       Staff prepared to greet, support, and respond to parents and caregivers as they arrive, get involved, make choices, and, eventually, prepare to leave. Besides a museum’s own customer service training, a program like Wakanheza can prepare staff to support parents handling a difficult moment with their child in public. How does staff scaffolding experiences for children draw parents in? What, as Mariana Adams ask, does having parents stand at the back of the room with their children seated in front tell them about participation in a family program?

·       Environments, exhibits, and programs that take into account what parents and caregivers are concerned about like safety and security, comfort, easy visual access into and across spaces. Where's the seating in relation to activities? How does the high climbing structure that invites children up and away from their adults assure adults of safety and offer them a way to interact?

·       Tools like the Adult Child Interaction Inventory are helpful in exhibit development and evaluation and are related to the adult's role in exhibits.

·       A consistent message delivered in a positive, respectful tone across multiple platforms: greetings, text panels, announcements, publications, wayfinding, and program activities. Parents, like the rest of us, can tell when they are being talked down to or are not included.

·       An approach to cell phone use and devices that is informed, realistic, and in the spirit of what the museum hopes happens for the parents and caregivers it serves, for their children, and for staff.