Monday, February 28, 2011

Being Local: Not Just For Food

Fresh from the garden; Edible School Yard at Greensboro Children's Museum

Examples of how important fresh and local has become for food are as abundant as zucchini in a Minnesota garden in August. They are absolutely everywhere. Grocery stores have local produce sections. CSA’s (community supported agriculture) are popular and growing more so. Cookbooks focus on locally foraged food. Some restaurants advertise local and seasonal menus (a bit challenging in Minnesota in winter). Farmers’ markets apply more qualifiers to their fare: locally grown, seasonal, sustainable, and organic. Friends rhapsodize on the eggs from Donald Popps’ happy hens. House guests arrive bearing gifts of huckleberry jam from western Montana.

If being local instills pride, pleasure, and a sense identity around food, does it have a comparable value for museums? To a certain extent any museum is bound to be somewhat local. Can it be expressly and intensely local? Is there an equivalent terroir–the special characteristics that geography, geology, and climate of a certain place bestow upon particular varieties of grapes and sometimes are applied to other foods–for museums?

Being Local Matters for Museums
Museums need to matter. We can go back to John Cotton Dana who pronounced that, “A museum is good only in so far as it is of use.” Stephen Weill insisted that museums matter in his books, essays and articles. Emlyn Koster and others have lent their voices to a call for relevancy.

If museums need to matter, it follows that they need to matter in the places where they are located; they need to matter locally. Otherwise, why would a museum exist where it does in the first place? How does being local matter? What does being local mean? And what are the many forms that being local takes?

Locals Walking Through the Doors
It’s hard to overlook attendance as a very basic factor in why being local matters. Because of proximity and drive times, a museum’s local market is usually its greatest source of on-site visitors. At many museums residents are more than 90% of visitors. For school groups and families with young children, proximity is an even more relevant consideration in visiting a museum, zoo, or aquarium. Once at the museum, a visitor's experience may be enhanced by seeing a friend, neighbor, or former neighbor or recognizing the friendly cashier or museum director.

Attendance is also the source of members who contribute to earned revenue by purchasing memberships and, in some cases, by contributing as donors. Visitors feed traffic to museum programs, events and films. Attendance provides customers to the museum store and to the restaurant or café. Visitors are also the source of word-of-mouth advertising responsible for getting the word out to potential visitors. Not surprisingly, the very local nature of weather also affects some patterns of attendance, for instance, bumping up attendance in the north during cabin fever days and in the south during stretches of high temperature and humidity. And finally, what can a museum do without the people who step forward to contribute to their community by volunteering?

Local Dollars
For some museums, local funding comes from city or county budgets or grants from school districts to support field trips or teacher professional development. Some cities provide annual financial support to their museums. In communities like Denver, funds from a voter-approved city tax district are distributed to museums to strengthen them and to increase museum access for residents. In Phoenix, a voter-approved bond fund helped with the purchase and partial renovation of a historic school for the Children’s Museum of Phoenix’s new home.

Museums not currently receiving city or county funding persist in the hope they will. Building a successful case requires clearly conveying how the museum matters locally, how it aligns with community priorities, makes an economic impact, or contributes to local quality of life. Especially during a time of economic challenge, recognition of being locally valuable becomes even more critical.

Learning on the Spot
Learning is local in very real ways. As infants, we are all learning in very immediate and direct ways–with mouths, touch, and the grasp of tiny hands. While most museums are not hosting thousands of infants, direct sensory experience continues to nourish learning for children certainly through eight years old. Age-related development affects children’s understanding of concepts like place and time. Seven-to-ten year olds begin to grasp faraway and long ago, but they have difficulty learning about both at the same time. Throughout childhood, learning remains local for children.

Simply by virtue of their daily lives, adults are well-informed about what is “here.” They constantly use everyday and every-season information that is deep, personal, and experienced. They develop and use mental maps with short-cuts across town and potholes to avoid. Seemingly specialized knowledge like the average date of last frost and when the smelt run is second nature even in cities. Locals don’t need an app to know the best view of the river, where the eagles nest, or where to find the most spectacular maple tree in October.

Most of us like to feel smart. When we encounter something we know in our hometown museum–that the only place the Mississippi River flows east-west is through the Quad Cities–we are pleased with ourselves. Local knowledge gives us the confidence to stretch to less familiar territory. Novelty may keep us involved, but familiarity is the start we need for exploring more broadly. 

Doing Good Locally
It may be evident that a museum matters locally because a city, metropolitan area, or region is the source of its audience and, hopefully, funding. A museum also matters because it contributes to the community becoming stronger and safer, or it makes an economic impact, or it helps build social cohesion.

Museums, historic sites, and nature centers that are fundamentally about a community asset have a basic connection to being local and are also sources of identity and pride. They draw from a physical connection to a local place, person, event, or a unique environmental or landscape feature. By their very presence and location, they are about here: objects found, made, or used on this spot. They change with these seasons, grow what grows here, and gather stories about here, shared by locals.

Many museums without inherently local roots, however, find being local a compelling direction to follow. They actively pursue ways to contribute to community good. Aligning resources, strategies, and partners, they build a sense of community, increase social interaction, and increase civic engagement.

Working towards greater community impact Pittsburgh Children’s Museum and its partners have been collaborating to create a “vibrant, attractive, accessible” Northside through The Charm Bracelet Project. In countless other communities, museums help educate school children in their area by taking active roles in the local education system. They sync their school field trip programs to local curriculum standards and provide professional development in STEM for teachers. McWane Science Center (Birmingham, AL) conducts science labs that are part of the required city-wide high school curriculum.

Being local is also a way for museums to live out their values and express their identities. Madison Children’s Museum, California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco) and ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center (Burlington, VT) are just a few of the museums known locally (and nationally) for well-developed local-only, green, or sustainability policies and practices. The mission, educational, as well as financial motivations for being green also advance the museum’s whole-community thinking.

Being grounded in and connected to a community also help a museum accomplish its broad organizational and strategic goals. Effective stakeholder engagement relies on deep and varied local connections. Knowing the audience or, more important, being known and trusted by residents, neighbors, and visitors, can help build community traction and reach underserved and non-traditional audiences. Bringing learners and citizens into a planning process or involving them in exhibit and program development brings diverse local perspectives, shares local stories, and enriches museum experiences with lived knowledge of the community for other visitors.

This is a very basic start to exploring how being local matters. I’m hoping it might set the stage for exploring some related questions on this topic. Do you see other ways in which being local matters or do you have a different take on being local?

I am also interested in several other questions. I hope you will comment, suggest, or contribute your thoughts to a continuing discussion on being local.
  • How do you define being local?
  • What are some of the many forms that being local takes in museums?
  • How can being local bridge with national or global issues or interests?
  • Can being local become a value model, perhaps with economic benefits, that being local has become for food? 
  • How will the importance of being local change as museums become more connected in more ways on-line?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Exploring Geometry Playground

Exploring the Gyroid

Geometry Playground is unusual in at least two respects. First, it focuses on math, a topic that is underrepresented in museum exhibits. Second, it’s a traveling exhibition committed to integrating a highly experiential approach. Produced by the Exploratorium and funded by the National Science Foundation, Geometry Playground was at the Science Museum of Minnesota in January 2011 when I saw it just before it traveled on. 

As an advisor on the project I was inclined to like it. I had been fascinated as I  watched exhibition ideas and components evolve over several years. Yet, I was impressed by how well project goals about geometry; social interaction; learning through immersion; and playground design came together coherently and strongly. In the playground spirit, Geometry Playground (GP) is physical, playful, and social. And it does it with geometry.

Stack of Stars
Mind and body work together all the time to provide us with information about the world. In GP, minds and bodies work together to explore familiar and novel geometric shapes at multiple scales. Children climb on, squeeze through, and peek into the tunnels of the 12-foot tall Gyroid structure. They clamber up and over and perch on the Stack of Stars climbing structure. This experiential, immersive exploration provides children with direct, first-hand experience of shapes, features, proportions, and scale. Moreover, it does so while maintaining in-tact physical and spatial relationships basic to understanding geometry. As a result, the super-sized Stack of Stars and Gyroid structure are not just a fun call to children and tweens to scramble and stretch across a novel structure. Spatial skills as well as social and motor skills are being exercised when a child shouts to others, “Come on! I know a short-cut to the top.”

Developing a whole-body appreciation of the stars (stellated rhombic dodecahedrons) comes from climbing on them and squeezing through openings between them. At the edge of the structure’s platform are also sets of smaller stars producing a side-by-side comparison of scale and new perspective on both units. As hand-held manipulables, the stars can be lifted, rotated, and fit together in Space Filling Blocks giving a concrete sense of how the star’s features fit together. Alternative ways to explore space-filling shapes extend beyond scale. Diagrams show how these not-so-familiar stars are formed from another shape by manipulating features. Nearby, turning the wheel at the Stellator shows a dodecahedron transform into a stellated dodecahedron. In addition, along the climber’s platform, photos of everyday space-filling shapes place them and geometry in the context of daily life.

In keeping with an experiential approach to geometry, exhibit messages are integrated into surfaces and structures and are encountered by moving in and through space. Text on the floor in front of the giant Distorted Mirror reassembles miraculously into instructions. Text on the face of the Projected Puzzle becomes readable when the puzzle pieces align. Challenges for exploring the Gyroid follow the smooth curving surfaces of the tunnels precisely where children will–and must–look as  they reach and climb. 

Playful Exploration
Projected Puzzle proclaims, "Look Here."
A playful, minds-on exploration of shape, perspective, distance, and distortion complements the lively navigation of the innovative climbing structures. Lining up with the pieces of the Projected Puzzle prompts several tilts of the head to read, “Look Here” and finally gets a smile. The distorted mirror changes our relationships with familiar objects and makes them look surprising or funny. Variations on the geometry of looking into a distorted mirror produce perplexing results.  A conical mirror flips images inside out. A foot-tall cylindrical mirror transforms a radial pattern into a grid so drawing letters on the grid produces scrunched and scrawly letters to (stifle a) laugh at. Then there is the tall cylindrical mirror that wondrously squishes an elongated chair and the people on it to normal proportions. 

Distorted Chair reassembled in the mirror
Geometry as Social Space
Living large ...inside a globe
Several classes of students 11 or 12 years old seemed to enjoy themselves and each other as they scampered up, across and over the Stack of Stars; they talked, called out, and chatted with one another. Tweens perched on the Gyroid and wormed through its tunnels. In both cases, the structures were social space, a kind of space often absent from their settings. The novelty of this structure made hanging out on a playground cool or, perhaps, irrelevant. Here they moved, they talked, and they teased on a pile of geometry. At the hexagonal Distorted Drawing table members of a class shared tips and laughed at slip-ups. Classmates squeezed into and chatted inside a familiar object–a globe–experienced in a not-so familiar way, at a giant scale and from the inside. 

"You just find these four corners."
Workstations with seating located along the railing of the Stack of Stars platform invited exchanges among visitors, including me. Eleven year-old Mohamed paused to fit a space-filling block in a tray. Not immediately successful, he seemed ready to take off. Pointing to the block he held in his hand, I asked him about the four pyramids on one side. Just enough of a clue, it turns out. He fit the block into the tray with only a try or two. Fitting in the next few blocks went faster. I heard Mohamed say to himself, “It gets easier and easier.” When Abdullah, a classmate, stopped by, Mohamed gave him a tip: “You just find these four corners and the block fits. Like this.” The two boys worked together fitting in several more blocks so there was no wasted space. When Mohamed’s teacher passed by she asked, “Mohamed, would that be a tessellation?” Mohamed paused and answered, “It’s a tessellation. Yes! There are no gaps. Yes! I filled it up!”

… and Beautiful
Geometry Garden
Those not called to explore the exhibition’s geometry with exuberant physicality, might be attracted by its beauty. One area, Geometry Garden, is a cabinet of geometric curiosities–everyday objects, natural, sculptural, topological models, spirals. They call attention to geometry’s presence everywhere, in many forms, and often beautiful. The cases create almost a room-like space with a quiet, contained feel for lingering and appreciating the thoughtfully selected, artfully displayed and wonderfully lit objects.  Highlighting the beauty of the geometry comes through in many, smaller, more subtle ways in all parts of the exhibition as well. The space-filling blocks literally glow as they rest in back-lit trays. The lighting also illuminates the blocks’ faces, accentuating the surfaces and features.  The imposing scale of the Gyroid and Stack of Stars and selection of materials make them more like sculptures. The smooth, polished surfaces of the wooden Rotating Squares (ovals and triangles) work as striking sculptural pieces as well as artful seating, and an irresistible crawl-though tunnels.

Geometry Playground lives up to its name as a playground for geometry. 

 During my visit, toddlers through tweens in school groups and family groups filled Geometry Playground. Children were all over and inside the climbing structures. Class and family groups clustered together to build a Sculpture That Moves, design at the Tile Designer, Geometron, and draw at Distorted Drawing. Pairs of students and adults worked at the stellated rhombic dodecahedrons. Small groups of adults as well as students and teachers strolled among the lighted cases of Geometry Garden.

The lay-out at SMM seems to suggest that finding enough space for a floor-plan that builds on geometry is a real challenge. At 5,500 square feet with 12-foot tall structures, Geometry Playground is a big exhibition. It requires both significant volume as well as a huge area; it won’t fit into just any space. The solution at SMM was to locate parts of the exhibition on two separate floors. The exhibition’s flow was interrupted and many visitors likely spent time on only one floor.

The exhibition is the major part of a bigger project that included two visitor research studies, the addition of some geometry structures on playground in San Francisco. The exhibition will travel to The Ruben H. Fleet Science Center (San Diego, CA) for summer 2011 to summer 2012.

For more information visit Geometry Playground

Monday, February 14, 2011

Playing with ….. Loose Parts

Inspired by the hand-made felt food I saw in the diner at Madison Children’s Museum, I suggested to my friend Nina who has a family day care with her sister that we make some felt food for their brood’s dramatic play. Nina thought for a moment and politely shook her head. The children, she said, enjoyed such rich play with a changing assortment of objects used for food: pine cones, stones, bottle caps, and knobs. She wouldn’t want them to lose that. The felt food I’d seen was so appealing it was hard to let go of the idea, but I knew Nina was right.

The Theory of Loose Parts
Designer Simon Nicholson first proposed the theory of loose parts in the 1970’s at a time when adventure playgrounds in England were inspiring a rethinking of the aged and static design of American playgrounds. Nicholson believed that the loose parts in an environment offer enormous possibilities and invite creativity unlikely in settings with fixed elements. Environments are richer places for children’s play with loose parts that include everything from sand and water to sticks, plastic crates and buckets, hoses, tubing, and more. I still have my worn mimeographed  (c. 1976) copy of Nicholson's Theory of Loose Parts on goldenrod paper in my archives. Recently the idea of loose parts has begun to catch on with early childhood educators, play experts, and playspace and museum designers.

… and Found Objects
I have an addition to make to Nicholson’s Theory of Loose parts. The best loose parts are objects children find and make their own. Traveling close to the ground, eyes wide open, and fingers outstretched, children notice, pick up, and become proud owners of dropped, discarded, and forgotten objects. Pebbles, sticks, plastic caps, pencil stubs, washers and slugs, wheels from toy cars, keys, and more become their treasures. Children store and stash them in pockets, backpacks, drawers, and ziplock bags where they can find them, use them, and re-use them in new ways. Just check the bottom of any child’s backpack.

When children find objects themselves, objects adults have rejected or overlooked, they enjoy a feeling of ownership they seldom have about toys or school supplies given them by parents and other adults. No doubt they value their toy cars, doll suitcases, and paint brushes. But they have a special relationship with their own finds. They are the bosses of pencil stubs, empty thread spools, a rusty bolt, and a pinecone. They can collect, sort, trade, forget about, and even lose their found objects. They own them and they decide what to do with them. I imagine this is a sweet feeling of control for someone learning to share and understand rules of property created by others.

An Openness to Objects
A child’s deliberate or casual search for found objects is a true child-directed activity, a goal often sought and not necessarily fully realized. Their curiosity about and openness to the potential of materials extends their self-directed exploration. Sticky pine cones, a sparkly button, and a cork bobbing in water deliver first-hand information about the world. As children investigate an object, they wonder why it does “that”, where it came from, and what they can do with it. They have ideas. Children’s questions, imaginations, and previous experiences allow them to make connections, go further than the information given to them, and to create something new and original for them.
Attractive, enticing, and beautiful, found objects have important attributes–fist sized, mobile, and undefined–that allow children to invent, follow, and finish an experience in personal and unexpected ways. An object can become anything a child wants it to be. Chestnuts can become cooking props, bricks in a dump truck, or boulders in an avalanche. Objects invite conversation and inspire stories; they become game pieces, construction units, a puppet, or a precious addition to a collection of similar objects. Found items are not only fascinating to children, but they also stimulate children’s personal interests in rocks, vehicles, stories, tools, and tinkering. Loose parts and found objects lead children everywhere and anywhere on their ways to the future. 

Time, Abundance, and Variety
Children need time and opportunity to become fluent in materials. For most children, the more limited environments of their daily lives, the more limited their access to loose parts, and, especially, to found objects. Surely there are treasures to be found between car seat cushions on the way to school, but how do they compare to a daily 15-minute walk to and from school?

Hands-on museums do offer loose parts as props and tools in outdoor environments, and indoor exhibits and studio spaces. They can, nevertheless, give loose parts and found objects a much greater presence by spreading varied and abundant objects and their benefits across exhibits, throughout programs, and into public areas. Museums might just use some of the interest and imagination children bring to loose parts and found objects in doing this. They can also follow the work of educators from Reggio Emilia (IT), how some preschools and museums are exploring and adapting material exploration; and a few starting points below.  

 Grow the variety of loose parts and found objects. Start gathering! Loose parts can be natural and manufactured and can come from any room in the house or shelf in the garage; from the museum’s fabrication shop or food service vendor. Increase variety by inviting contributions from staff and board; work with local businesses and museum sponsors. As important as quantity is, interesting qualities (textures, shape, rigidity, color, finishes, etc.) are essential. Be selective; consider safety. Be a participant, exploring materials yourself and with other staff. Try a few materials in activities and notice children’s questions and how they use them. Search with new eyes; feel with new fingers.

Be on the look-out for: Spoons, keys, plastic caps, driftwood, beads, cord, paper rolls, ceramic tiles, wire, marbles, postage stamps, bark, shells, feathers, acorns, corks, knobs, s-hooks, puzzle and game pieces, buttons, rubber washers, ribbons, leaves, seeds, pods, fabric, ribbon, etc.

Sort through loose objects around a possible experience. A possible experience is somewhere between casually putting out a bunch of stuff and setting up a structured, supervised activity. Being both intentional and open to possibilities of how children might explore, experience, use, and combine materials is a good starting place. A child may, or may not, use objects as you intend, but may follow another direction. Some objects might suggest making faces, others building towers, others creating symmetry. To shape a possible experience, imagine what a child might do with a set of objects: arrange, sort or seriate them; build with them or trade them; make up a story or make a game.   

Puff ball explorations. Photos by Monica Malley
A meaningful and inspiring space. Search for a wonderful place for wonderful exploration. Consider unexpected, incidental, places, as well as the usual places like the recycle center, the messy corner, or the studio. Children could encounter and explore objects and materials where natural light shimmers and bounces, a window frames a view, or a mobile floats overhead. Places should be out of the traffic and oriented away from distractions. A child might find intriguing objects on a light table in a quiet corner, at a “story table,” laid out under a suspended branch, or in an alcove. Add mirrors for children to view themselves and their creations from different perspectives.

Presentation. Play around with how to present materials so they are attractive and help control mess. Preparation is key as is making adjustments to find the right mix. Create an inviting order: materials that provoke curiosity, help children make thoughtful choices, and make it as appealing to take objects out as to put them back. In the spirit of found objects, re-use interesting containers such as baskets, trays, boxes, and bowls. Think through the supplies children will need and remember, great explorations are possible without glue or scissors. Work surfaces, seating for children and adults, easy reach to containers and shelves, and display of children’s work are central to presentation.  

Reality Check. There are very real challenges in creating opportunities that encourage child’s exploration of and facility with materials. Storage is always a challenge and back-up storage will be needed. Also:
  • Great care and good judgment is a must when collecting and using materials with young children because of potential choking hazards.
  • Involve staff. Take time to develop a shared understanding of the value of material exploration with all staff that will be affected: finding, arranging, facilitating, and picking up materials. Respect their concerns and also invite them to find solutions to display, mess, replenishment, and storage. Be sure to engage them to exploring materials to awaken their memories of discovering and delighting in objects as children and  to renew their pleasure and interest in materials.
  • Keep it playful. Keep it playful. Keep it playful. Keep it playful. Keep it playful.
I must admit that I haven’t lost my childhood fascination with found objects. When I work in the garden and come across a forgotten object, I keep it and place it in a bowl on a windowsill. There is a marble, a square nail, a plastic toy figure, a rusty key, and a ceramic tile. It helps tell my garden’s story.

For more inspiration and guidance:

Monday, February 7, 2011

Stakeholder Mapping

Every museum I know has a long list of partners critical to reaching it audiences, delivering solid content, getting its message out, and raising funds. Among the partners, friends, supporters, and sponsors are schools, arts organizations, media, libraries, business clubs and social clubs, community centers, colleges and universities, and hospitals.

While having lots of partners is considered a standard, if not best, practice, few museums have a shared, systematic, and strategic way of knowing, and managing them. At best, a museum has a working list of its partners. Maybe it has a list of partners and constituents pulled together for interviews and focus groups early in its strategic planning process. More likely a museum has a mix-media creation of lists of active (and dormant) partners, current sponsors, a few paragraphs from grant proposals, and a roster of advisors

Regardless of how they are organized or referred to, partners, sponsors, advisors, and friends are among a museum’s stakeholders. These are the people, groups, constituencies, and institutions who are likely to affect or be affected by a museum, its plans, or projects.

A stakeholder analysis assesses the likely effect of stakeholders on the success of a proposed action that might be a project–or a museum. David Ebitz recently presented a stakeholder analysis for museum educators in the Journal of Museum Education. Another approach is a practical stakeholder-mapping tool that I have used with several museums. It’s basically a stakeholder analysis for an entire museum with some additional features. Here are the basic steps for stakeholder mapping.  Tips on the process follow a walk-through of these 6 steps.
  • Identifies the museum’s internal and external stakeholders;
  • Clusters stakeholders with similar interests;
  • Characterizes the nature of their interest in the museum;
  • Represents stakeholder groups in relation to one another and the museum;
  • Develops stakeholder messages to guide and align communication; and
  • Selects approaches to stakeholder engagement.

Identify the museum’s internal and external stakeholders. Bring out lists of existing partners, supporters and friends, both individuals and groups that are likely to effect or be effected by the museum. Think about partners that are programmatic, project, or strategic; that are local, national, or international. This is not a brainstorming exercise to make a longer list, but an exercise to make a better list. Consider stakeholders from across sectors such as health, arts, business, media, and education. Be sure to add internal stakeholders including staff, trustees, volunteers, members, and the museum’s audience. You will have a mix of specific people and groups (museum members, the Public Housing Authority, the Chamber of Commerce, etc.) and categories (private schools, parks, etc.). Once the list is fairly complete, review it, talk about who’s on it. Think about stakeholders who could be in more than one group; are superintendents “education leaders” or “educators”? 
  • Move on when the list of internal and external stakeholders relates to the museum’s accomplishing its work and reflects the community.

Cluster stakeholders with similar interests. Begin the big sort. Think about the needs, concerns, wants, and authority of stakeholders. How do these interests converge with the museum’s? This question helps connect the museum’s benefit to the stakeholder’s interests and brings, at least modestly, an external perspective on these relationships. Create about 5-7 stakeholder groups based on similar interests within a group and on distinct interests among groups. Focus especially on  groups that share strong interests with one another. More extensive and detailed analysis of stakeholders is possible, but not necessary or probably realistic. Still, this is a good point to ask what additional information the museum should have about stakeholder groups to understand and engage with them more effectively. 
  • A typical stakeholder group might be staff, board, and volunteers.
  • Move on when most or all of the stakeholders fit into 5-7 groups.

Characterize the nature of their interest in the museum. Working with the preliminary clusters, zero in on the nature of each stakeholder group’s interest. These are likely to be relationship based, and are less likely to follow existing partnership categories such as programmatic or media. Stakeholders might cluster around an interest in opening doors, providing opportunities; being advocates or champions; or simply being “wonderful friends.” Make meaningful distinctions among the interests of all the groups. Since clustering stakeholders is related to interests they share, revisiting clusters may be helpful; shifting specific people or groups from one cluster to another is to be expected. 
  • A stakeholder group might be the “Museum Team” including board, staff, committees and task forces, and volunteers. The interest of the Museum Team could be: contributing personal interest and expertise to advance the museum. 
  • Move on when the stakeholder groups feel firm and identifiable, their interests are explicit, and they have names based on their interests.

  • Represent stakeholder groups in relation to one another and to the museum. Assess the possible impact of each stakeholder group on the museum and the museum’s impact on that group. Think of sorting stakeholders according to primary or secondary groups by assessing the impact, or influence, of the interest. Roughly characterizing the size or intensity of the impact is one way to do it. Locate each stakeholder group in one circle of a set of concentric circles according to their impact. This is an opportunity for lively discussion on where stakeholder groups should be placed and why. Should the museum’s core team or its audience be at the center? A variation in this step is for several small working groups to each locate stakeholder groups on the map; then compare and discuss. 
  •  In the Museum Team example, this group is placed at the center of the stakeholder map because its interests are inextricably linked to the museum. This group has the most responsibility and greatest impact on the museum. 
  • Move on when stakeholder groups have been located on the map.

 Develop stakeholder messages to guide and align communication. With stakeholder groups formed around their interest, named, and mapped, compose a message to highlight their significance to the museum. Messages convey a high value on all stakeholder groups; they provide guidance and consistency across the organization for approaching and interacting with members of stakeholder groups. Be clear, complete, and concise. Try to frame the message for each group in parallel ways. Consider voice; the message might be in the second person, “Your ,…” 
  • In the Museum Team example, its message is, ”Your skills, expertise, perspectives, and commitments shape and improve the museum’s thinking, practices, and offerings and expand its resources.” 
  • Move on when a message has been composed for each group.

Select approaches to stakeholder engagement. A stakeholder map could simply be a diagram if it didn’t point to actively and intentionally engaging  strategic group members on behalf of their, and the museum’s own, mutual interests. The last step focuses on developing and strengthening relationships between the museum and its stakeholder groups, and their members. Engagement strategies work to benefit both the group and the museum and draw on what the museum already does well interacting with a group. Going forward, a museum’s plans, strategic and project, annual development, program, and marketing plans, should reflect an understanding of the stakeholder groups. Using the engagement strategies from the stakeholder map, each plan lays out specific ways to connect with stakeholder groups critical to the plan's success. 
  • Before moving on, think about how to make this tool even more useful to the museum's purposes. For instance, could setting a target or outcome for each stakeholder group help?

A Few Tips on Process
  • If possible, connect stakeholder mapping to a larger context or purpose: the museum’s strategic planning, gearing up for an expansion, reorganizing the structure, branding the museum, etc.
  • Bring together a mapping team of about 7 people from across the museum.
  • Plan on 2-3 sessions of 1-1/2 to 2 hours over several weeks. Extending much beyond that could end the process.
  • Between sessions, share the mapping process with staff; incorporate their knowledge of stakeholders and build ownership.
  • The mapping team  might find itself weeding out stakeholders at any step. Early on individuals or groups who are listed might turn out to be inconsequential. In firming up the groups, ask whether these are key stakeholder groups and key groups and individuals within them.
  • When completed, share the stakeholder map with all staff and with the board. Walk them through the purpose, the process, and how departments and teams can and will be expected to use it.
  • Members of the mapping team should conscientiously use and refer to the stakeholder map to help themselves and others across the museum internalize it. 

Mapping Stakeholders for Museums at All Stages of Development 
The Children’s Museum of Sonoma County (CMSC) developed a stakeholder map to help build awareness, develop interest, and cultivate support as it planned for a children’s museum in the Santa Rosa area (CA). In developing its map, CMSC recognized individuals and organizations that also work with and on behalf of children and families as stakeholders in the museum’s vision. In thinking about locating stakeholders on its map, CMSC decided that children are at the very heart of the museum, its vision, and mission. The museum placed them at the center.

A disposition to actively engage the community on behalf of young children is a hallmark of the Early Learning Village (ELV), a project of Louisiana Children’s Museum (LCM) in New Orleans. At the core of the ELV is a network of committed, long-term, strategic partners with a shared interest in children’s healthy social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development. Other stakeholder groups are essential to building capacity, deepening the ELV’s community knowledge, inviting new perspectives, and delivering varied experiences. A stakeholder map was not only able to display and organize this complex array of stakeholders around New Orleans and across Louisiana, but it also provided the ELV partners with a shared map for actively reaching out to and working with the community.

Since opening in 2000, Stepping Stones Museum for Children (SSMC) (Norwalk, CT) has viewed itself as a steward of the community. At every stage of its growth, SSMC has worked to grow and to align its community partners with its strategic interests. Understanding and appreciating their interests and perspectives has been essential to engaging and approaching them in effective, appropriate ways whether it is enlisting their expertise, cultivating support, or helping to reach and engage underserved children and families. Stepping Stones identified five constituencies that assisted it with its recent 22,000 square foot expansion and renovation and in stepping ahead.

Map It
Museums have and need stakeholders. To accomplish their goals and serve their communities well, museums must know and grow the individuals and groups who share and influence their interests. While museums are interested in increasing their stakeholders, expanding the variety, and cultivating relationships with them, they also must be concerned with managing them in targeted and strategic ways that are respectful of a stakeholder’s time and interest and also protect the museum’s image and resources. Stakeholder mapping is one tool. If you have used a different tool to manage your museum’s stakeholders, I hope you’ll share it. If you use stakeholder mapping, please let me know how it works for you.