Friday, August 3, 2018

Challenge Your Thinking, Change Your Museum


As a field, in an organization, and among friends, we tend to get comfortable with our thinking and our practices. This is who we are. We’ve always done it this way. We do that really well. That’s what we’re known for.

We say this about ourselves and our organizations, who our audience is, what our visitors like about us, and how we are valuable to our community. We look for evidence to confirm these beliefs. Sometimes we say it so often, that we believe it.

But when we think of thought leaders, people we admire, and agents of change, we don’t see people patting themselves on the back. They are not sticking to familiar scripts, comfortable assumptions, and cherished beliefs. Rather, they are asking bold questions; pushing limits; taking a provocative stance where it counts. They are willing to shake things up in favor of new possibilities, a stronger museum, and a thriving community. They are willing to challenge themselves and change their institutions to spark transformative change.

Can only just some people do that? And only in just some museums? Or is this something more of us can do? If so, how do we do it?

First of all meaningful change is not a solo act. Positive museum or community change depends on moving ahead with others. It depends on thinking and learning together, drawing on different perspectives, bringing in fresh ideas from related contexts, making hard choices. Heavy lifting is involved.

While a strong team is essential, bringing about substantive change can be slow and frustrating without guidance. A process like strategic planning can provide guidance, although as a process it is suited to focusing rather than expanding possibilities. On the other hand, a strong set of questions can move us beyond the familiar, push our vision outwards, and stretch our thinking.

What are some questions that are catalysts for expansive thinking? Questions that are open-ended; that sidestep easy answers; that run the gamut from a museum’s purpose; and that keep people at the center.

Below is one set of questions a museum might explore to challenge its thinking. Not surprisingly the questions intersect with one another keeping the inquiry rich and moving it along. All of the questions may not fit one museum at the same point in time. Some questions may be more have more traction with tweaking.

These questions, or a version of them, can be explored across a museum: in the leadership team, small group conversations across the organization, or at a board retreat. Over a period of time, shared work on these questions can embolden a museum in its purpose, help inspire trustees with the importance of their work, give staff a role in growing the museum’s value, and bring the community into the life of the museum. Capturing and sharing these conversations in notes, photos, reflections, and mind maps will enrich this process, making ideas visible, and putting them in play for a new future.

In what ways can our museum strengthen our community? This question is about a museum finding and inhabiting a visible public role and civic responsibility, one tailored to its mission and to its community.

Strengthening a community relies on having a deep, well-informed, and constantly updated familiarity with the hopes, promise and challenges of a community and its citizens. A museum discovers possibilities when it opens itself to what diverse groups feel is valuable, learns what matters across a community, and imagines where it has the capacity and will to make a difference. Greater potential investment in the community will come from considering multiple possibilities, articulating the rationale for action, and identifying benefits.

Helping a community fulfill its promise takes place over time, across multiple platforms, in small and large ways: community programming; providing space for, perhaps, an immunization clinic; or hosting civic events. The Worcester Art Museum linked its civic role with its community that has long welcomed settlers and immigrants to the area when it became a site for a naturalization ceremony in 2017, noting, “When we became the community, the community became us.”

Bristol Museum: "I Belong Here"
Whose museum is this? This question is about sharing power and expanding a sense of community ownership in the museum.

Increasingly, museums are aware of the importance of being for and of the entire community, not just for people who already feel welcome and comfortable in museums and who have always visited them. But for everyone. While building public trust and broadening a sense of ownership plays out differently in each community, the processes and the strategies are similar: engaging actively and often with community members; co-creating its vision with them, as well as with the board and staff; and cultivating inclusive relationships that lead to new conversations. The museum works to develop processes for reciprocal engagement, finding new ways for new friends and participants to bring the museum to life in their way.

Bringing a solid understanding of these processes, Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has recently launched OFBYFOR ALL, a framework for transforming cultural and civic organizations to be inclusive and responsive to their communities.

What can our role as a leader in learning in our community be? This question is about a museum fully occupying a meaningful role around informal learning, and what that means.

Being a recognized leader in learning in its community may seem obvious for museums. Museums, however, often don’t see themselves in a role as leaders in learning nor do their communities. Schools are understood to be about learning that occurs through instruction. Formal learning, however, is not the driver of developmental change in early childhood, nor does it characterize learning occurs across the life span, nor has it been a catalyst for a community learning together. As places of learning through choice, exploration, discovery, and action, museums have remarkable opportunities for filling gaps on a community’s learning landscape, expanding local learning assets, and doing so in sometimes innovative ways.

In 2008, TheWild Center, a museum in Tupper Lake, NY, in the Adirondack Park began developing an indispensable role in building community. It convened a succession of dialogues bringing together diverse stakeholder groups to explore questions of climate change in the Adirondacks. This process of facilitating dialogue and developing consensus has moved the community toward climate action planning and shaped The Wild Center itself. 

Looking into Eastern State Penitentiary
What is worth discovering? This question is about understanding what is compelling, meaningful, and valuable to people in the community and what they care about.

Ideas for museum projects–exhibits, programs, initiatives–are typically generated from within the museum: director’s choice, curator-driven questions, donor interest, and, sometimes, public policy issues. When museums test exhibit ideas with visitors, they ask, “what topics would you like to see,” presenting a list of fairly standard topics: the environment, health, space. Visitors respond with what they think they should say. For meaningful answers, a museum needs new questions for community–not just museum–members. What is fascinating to them? What do they wonder about? What do they care about as a family?

When a museum invents or reinvents itself, it has an opportunity to find new questions for understanding what is fascinating, compelling, and worth considering. In the long-abandoned cellblocks of the country’s most historic prison, EasternState Penitentiary Historic Site opens up spaces to explore difficult questions about incarceration in order to deepen discussion around criminal justice. 

What happens at this museum? What’s it about? This question is about understanding what the museum makes possible for its visitors and community.

In their values and brand statements, museums work to express what they want to promote. Their websites, banners, and e-blasts promote their content (science, contemporary art, natural history); their products (exhibits, collections, films); and their particular story (the oldest, biggest museum).

But how do the visitors experience the museum? How do they describe what actually matters to them in their lives–and in their words? When 6-year old Michael left Minnesota Children’s Museum after a long afternoon of exploring, he wondered, “Why is this a place where you can do things?” Clearly, this was an expression of delight. It was also a fundamental expression of what happened for Michael in the museum. Simply because a museum says so, it is not necessarily about hands-on activities, family learning, or ancient art. Rather, a museum is a place where people feel good about meeting and connecting with others; where they can be who they are; where they are inspired to consider courageous questions and take action because that's what happens in a meaningful way for them.

In what ways can our museum encourage and extend meaningful interactions and connections among people and out into the community? This question is about creating and supporting interactions that reach out in multiple directions, across time, space, and people.

As social spaces, with design expertise, intriguing objects, and large numbers of people, museums have a great opportunity to create meaningful ways for visitors and community members to gather, interact, and connect. An interest in designing winter sports gear may be sparked by a visitor’s interaction with a visiting scientist explaining the physics of sliding on ice. A docent’s story about the struggles of a family who lived in these small rooms may inspire someone to work resettling immigrants. A connection with a community resource may come from an incidental conversation with a parent about their child’s developmental challenges.

Museums forge many new possibilities by bringing people together through placemaking, events, activities and services. They create connections that last beyond an initial purpose or encounter that ripple out into the everyday world. A group of dads met at the science center for children where they went on weekends with their preschool-aged children. After casually bumping into each other several times, they started planning on meeting there regularly. During the 1970's, 3 women volunteered weekly at The Milwaukee Public Museum. For 13 years they worked in Research & Collections. Into their mid 90's, those weekly visits remained vivid, pleasant memories for them. Connections generated by a museum can be more far reaching than we imagine.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Child-friendly Cities, Museums Taking a Role

Museums care about their cities. They want to and need to. Whether small or large, urban, suburban, exurban or rural, a museum’s city is where its audience lives and visits and where its cultural, civic, and educational partners are based. As a museum’s wider civic, social, and cultural context, a city’s quality of life, economic wellbeing, workforce, and reputation affect its choices, actions, and fortunes.

Future trends indicate that increasingly, the world’s population will live in cities. By 2030, 60% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas. Currently more than a billion children live in cities worldwide with children comprising about 50% of the population in urban areas. Soon the will make up 60% of the urban population growth.   

What will these cities be like? Will they be vibrant with populations across the life span, with engaged citizens? Healthy places to raise a family? Rich with opportunities for successive generations to find work? Places where people of different backgrounds–ages, economic, cultural, ethnic, and racial–meet and connect? Or something quite different?

Perhaps more than ever, the prospects of the world’s cities and its children are closely intertwined prompting cities and civic groups to ask, “Are we creating the future, and future city, we want our children to grow up in?” To address this question, these groups, including museums, are working to create children-friendly cities.

Our Cities Seeing Our Children
It’s easy to dismiss children-friendly cities as a “nice” idea concerned with providing playgrounds or showing happy children on billboards and municipal websites. But, imagine a city without children. Not just a city without the sounds of children at play in parks or their chalk drawings on the sidewalk, but a city without young families, schools; without young trick-or-treaters ringing doorbells on Halloween. A city that does not address the needs of children and families becomes hollow; families move away. A city without children is a city without a future.

Cities that improve children’s lives, however, improve everyone’s lives and in many ways. A child-friendly city is also a family-friendly city. A city that is friendly and supportive of older adults is often friendly to invisible groups. Jane Jacobs, American-Canadian urban theorist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, recognized 50 years ago that, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Including children and youth.

According to Nihdi Gulati, an architect and urban designer with Project for Public Spaces, “A city that is designed with its youngest residents in mind can be transformational for its social and fiscal future.” This is echoed by Ali Modarres, Director of Urban Studies, at the University of Washington, Tacoma, who says children who are cared for are place loyal. Children with a strong sense of attachment to their hometowns stay in these towns, invest resources in it, apply for civic jobs, and run for office.

Becoming a child-friendly city is a rich, complex process. Like any large-scale, long-term change, it relies on a wide range of players and partners working together towards a shared vision, collaborating on projects and policy. In some cities the vision may be improved living conditions for children and youth or expanding opportunities for more children. In other cities, the vision may be everyday freedom for children to play, walk to meet friends, be outdoors, and be safe.

While the vision and the process are invariably local, the work involves co-creating the future of the city with and for children and the people who live with and take care of them at a scale that meets the needs and addresses the challenges cities face. Children are at the center of this work. The strong connection between children’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive wellbeing and the physical design of cities and towns is recognized and informs policy formation. Children are valued as part of the city’s vitality. Their interests are in the mix with transportation and business issues. Active participants in city planning projects, children's voices are heard along with those in city hall.

Like-minded, and sometimes unlikely, partners interconnect across sectors around a compelling vision and across a range of strategies. Community-led projects, child-friendly policies, and private sector partners providing services and programs to support broader civic and city efforts advance the agenda of a child-friendly city. Projects at all scales build momentum and public support, from short-term doable projects that produce quick wins to reimagined housing policies that change life outcomes.

None of this will happen, however, unless children and childhood are a shared community value.

Building a Child-friendly World, One City at a Time
Around the world, efforts are underway to create child-friendly cities. Typically these projects are inspired the UNICEF Child-Friendly Cities Initiative grounded in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Initiatives to make cities livable for children take many forms.
8 80 Cities believes that if, “everything we do in our cities is great for an 8 year old and an 80 year old, then it will be great for all people.” 8 80 Cities has identified 21 case studies in 16 countries recognized as great for an 8 year old and 80 year old. 
• The Bernard Van Leer Foundation’s Urban 95 Challenge to improve public space for children under 95 cm tall has invited creative ideas and projects that promote the well-being of young children in cities.
• The City of Leeds in the UK has committed to a bold vision to be a child-friendly city, the best city in the UK, and the best city for children and young people to grow up in.
• Streets are often the focus of child-friendly city efforts because of their ubiquity, safety concerns, and their impact on children's mobility. Projects like Playstreets and woonerven(living streets in Dutch) are among some of the ways cities are transforming public spaces.
• Tim Gill, author of Rethinking Childhood has been touring and writing about child-friendly city policies and practices in Northern Europe, the UK, and Canada.

Museums have a role in making cities more attractive and livable. Players on the local cultural and learning landscape, they are grounded in their communities. Committed to being nice and necessary and contributing to placemaking, museums also engage with other nonprofit organizations and agencies to amplify their collective impact. 

Some museums like Pittsburgh Children’s Museum see themselves in an urban planning role, committed to creating a family district in its Northside neighborhood. Others, like Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, see themselves as community agents place where community members can leave their mark.

Thinking Small to Create Big Change
The Children’s Museum of Tacoma (WA), has made a whole-hearted commitment to creating a child-friendly city. This relatively small–10,000 square foot–museum lives by its mission that begins with, Everything we do begins with our image of the child.

Inspired by their visit to a child-friendly city on the 2013 museums study tour in Reggio Emilia, the delegation of museum staff, trustees, local educators, and designers returned committed to helping Tacoma become a child-friendly city. With guidance from Executive Director Tanya Durand, the Museum has engaged local partners across sectors and worked at multiple scales to create a city culture that values children and childhood.

A series of annual symposia is just one track of this important work in Tacoma’s becoming a child-friendly. In September 2014, the Museum hosted its first Symposium On Our Youngest Citizens at a half-day event with nearly 300 participants around the theme Building a Child Centered Community. Its fourth Symposium, ThePower of Thinking Small, on April 12, 2018 invited participants and speakers to think about the many and small ways everyone has as individuals to help realize a child-centered community with everyday choices and opportunities.
Invited to facilitate an exercise around the image of the child we each carry, I had the great good fortune to be present at this remarkable gathering. Individually, the keynote speaker, lightning talk speakers, and panelists were impressive and inspiring. Together they offered a truly extraordinary example of connecting a city's assets: its children, families, policies and institutions, and place. 
Drawing from the arts, urban education, the university, non-profits, community engagement, and city government, these rich, compelling stories highlighted the role of developmental relationships in children’s lives, children as valuable sources of knowledge about the city, innovative services for children, and public spaces as social spaces for children and families.

Cheryl Mayberry, Vice President of Improvement Science at the Search Institute shared research on supportive youth-adult relationships, sparks...the interests and passions that animate children’s and youth’s development, and thriving. Children, Cheryl reminded us, grow in relationships, not in programs.

Valuing the contributions of even young citizens, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards Skyped with fourth graders at Fawcett Elementary School listening to what’s important to them, their favorite places to go in Tacoma, and how the City might be improved.

Matt Kelley described a multidimensional Action Mapping Project at the University of Washington-Tacoma. This youth-led community mapping initiative produces an annual set of maps that reflect the everyday lives of middle and high school aged youth that are used by city planning-oriented agencies to improve the livability of Tacoma area neighborhoods.

For the past 20 years, Jon Ketler has been leading a team of community members, teachers, students, and parents to co-create innovative, place-based schools within the Tacoma Public Schools. He highlighted how these schools such as SAMI, an outdoor Science and Math Institute high school located in the Tacoma Metro Parks, draw on place-based assets and community partnerships to develop students’ interests and passions.

Additional perspectives were shared by Tiffany Y’vonne, Community Cultivation Practitioner who spoke about community parenting; Tanisha Jumper, Interim Media and Communication, City of Tacoma, who explored how place matters in the life of the community; and Ali Modarres, Center for Urban Studies University of Washington-Tacoma, who talked about the economics of child-friendly cities.

Five Child-centered Community Grants awarded by Children’s Museum of Tacoma were announced. “Book to Barbershops” received an award for the work of Black- and Hispanic-owned barbershops in Tacoma to share children’s books and strategies that support healthy reading habits for children–in the barber chair.

Thinking in new and sometimes “small” ways, collaborating and connecting with partners across Tacoma, and making children visible, the Children’s Museum of Tacoma has set a bold course for helping to create a vibrant, child-friendly Tacoma.

If a relatively small museum in a mid-sized city of 200,000 can inspire partners and players across the city to think small, then doesn’t any–every–city and museum have the potential to be child friendly?

How is your city doing as a child-friendly city? What is your museum doing to help?

Related Resources
Children as Natural Change Agents: Child-friendly Cities as Resilient CitiesDerr, Victoria, Chawla, L. and Van Vliet W. (2015)

Related Museum Notes Posts

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Do We Want Parents to Play With Children?

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, yes, why, 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 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, 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 children learn during play), 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?

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–not filling the void with adults pressured or 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 get the flow of the play or the rules. Adults may alter the play context with their suggestions and extend or cut short the play. On the other hand, if adults follow the child’s lead and engage in playful interactions with children, 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, watch 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.