Monday, March 28, 2011

The Well-used Advisor

Last week I spent 1-1/2 days as an advisor at a partner and advisor meeting for Math Core at the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM). A collaborative project funded by the National Science Foundation, Math Core for Museums is intended to provide rich, engaging, long-term experiences and environments for children and youth 6 through 12 years old and their parents. Approaching the end of its second year, the 4 partners, SMM, Museum of Science (Boston, MA), ¡Explora! (Albuquerque, NM), and Museum of Life + Science (Durham, NC) have developed working prototypes about ratio and proportion to stimulate mathematical imaginations and builds mathematical abilities and:
•                encourage children to acquire deep understanding of math concepts;
•                make the practice of math skills surprisingly enjoyable; and
•                help children identify success with math as personally relevant and rewarding.]

A long-term exhibition will open at each partner museum bringing several innovations:
•                open-ended and planned discovery experiences that engage children and their caregivers with ratio and proportion repeatedly over many museum visits;
•                exhibition design approaches that involve visitors in verbalizing their mathematical reasoning, going beyond simple empirical observations to reach more general conclusions; and
•                the use of kinesthetic experience and design arts as a major area of application and insight into the nature and use of ratio, proportion and similarity.
Advisors Wanted
As we think of them in museums, advisors bring expertise, experiences, and perspectives that are otherwise difficult to access. Even if a museum had all the expertise it needed in-house, being self-contained would not produce the same healthy vibrancy that engaging colleagues as advisors does. With backgrounds in other museums, in non-museum settings, and in the community, advisors contribute a fresh dose of the outside world. Advisors may have specialties that complement or extend available internal specialties. Often their participation serves as a valuable capacity building opportunity for staff. Whether bringing a critical perspective to long-term museum strategy, providing more extensive experience on a project than is currently available in the museum, or contributing an expertise such as science or literacy, advisors are important among a museum’s stakeholder groups as I’ve written about before.

Over the years I have had the good fortune to be a well-used advisor on several  projects. Looking towards the other end of the advisor spectrum, I have also been invited to be an advisor and provide a letter of support; perhaps I heard when the project was funded but then heard not a word about the project. When I have been a well-used advisor, I have been put to work productively on a project’s behalf. This last week’s project was definitely such an invigorating and rewarding opportunity. Over the course of two terrific days, I thought about what was coming together to produce a highly successful meeting that significantly advanced the project and justified the considerable expense involved. While this is a large project that is well-funded, the underlying thinking that applied here can also work for smaller projects and in smaller museums.

My observations and perspective are as an advisor and are also informed by comments from other advisors and partners. They cluster in a few areas.

Making the Most of Advisors
Three consideration make the most of advisors and partners coming together in one place over a period of time to be highly productive.
Relevant and deep expertise about a topic or topics. A wide range of expertise is required for any complex project.  I certainly think collaboratively creating an interactive exhibition about mathematics for children and youth (at 4 locations) qualifies as complex. As people introduced themselves and shared observations, it was clear that the assembled expertise reflected the full dimension of the project, fuller than I had first realized. It was varied, deep, and relevant. Various types of expertise were present, for instance: in accessibility, mathematics, embodied cognition, new media, visitor research, math education, and prototyping. In some cases, the expertise of a partner or advisor was quite specialized and just what the project needed in a particular area.
A mix of perspectives. Perspectives, while informed by expertise are also shaped by experience and background bringing different lenses and filters to a topic or project. Perspectives criss-cross and intersect in interesting ways to open up a question, tackle an issue, or find a solution. Some similar but distinct viewpoints were apparent among internal and external and museum researchers as well as mathematics researchers; mathematics and science educators; educators from formal and informal learning settings; museum and non-museum informal settings.  Viewpoints on how messy exhibit activities could be varied among partner institutions . 
Gathering input on moving ahead
Lively discussion. Thoughtfully selecting advisors and partners for expertise and perspective would be utterly lost without a comparable commitment to engage, connect, and mix people and perspectives in various ways. This does not mean encouraging polite conversations and high levels of agreement. To the contrary, it means creating a shared sense of purpose, valuing different voices, guiding with questions, and providing time for open conversation and reflection. In fact, it’s likely that somewhere in the course of the meeting there will be messy moments, a productive tension, and (if I might be a touch dramatic) the triumph of a collaborative spirit.

A Productive Gathering
An unimaginable amount of thought, planning and pre-planning goes into any meeting, let alone a meeting that brings dozens of people together from a dozen states, is highly accountable to the outcomes of a significant project, and is respectful of people’s time. I thought several of the features of the meeting really contributed to its value.

Great gatherings start with thoughtful advisor and partner selection. Besides selecting for expertise and perspective, advisors have to be interested in the project and value the opportunity to contribute. This means a willingness to make time on their calendar, to participate actively and turn-off phones, and to believe fully that what others have to contribute is as, or more interesting, than what they have to say. After you have the group of partners and advisors you want, the following come into play.

•                Advanced preparation. People are busy. Get dates on the calendar early with clear information start and end times and travel arrangements; give a progress report on the project; set and share meeting goals. Send the agenda and any reports.
•                Project goals and commitments at the forefront. Nothing serves keeping on track as well as re-visiting project goals at each step of the process. While goals are bound to morph somewhat, they are the best accountability tool and centering device I know of. When a meeting brings together people who have not been working everyday on this project, opening with goals brings everyone together and focuses their expertise on the same set of important ideas.  There were several points in the meeting where returning to the goals moved us forward. 
•                Create an environment in which everyone can participate. Somewhere between extending a friendly invitation and setting a firm expectation, make it clear that the full range of experiences, perspectives, and expertise are welcome, valued, and needed. This practice is established early in a project’s history. At the first partner and advisor meeting, advisors were all asked to make a presentation about a similar project they’d been involved in and its lessons for Math Core.
How does this work? A question for learners and prototypers
•                Experience what the visitor will experience. It’s easy to assume we know more about the experience we are planning for visitors than we actually do. Even if there aren’t resources to do extensive formative evaluation, for instance, there are ways to get into the act. In an advisors meeting, time experiencing what the project will offer is essential. Twice we were able to spend time in the Museum with well-developed exhibit prototypes, once for ourselves along with school groups and once observing family groups.
•                Ample time for sharing. This meeting was well-paced with time for the whole group together, sharing results of a research study, a preliminary evaluation report and the preliminary accessibility report, along with large group discussions and reflections. There was also time and place for side conversations which was built into a “non-conference” exercise that built on side-bar conversations.

Playing it Forward
I think the meeting met its goals (and then some). Partners and advisors left feeling they had accomplished a lot and were eager to get going on the next steps. For me, great, interesting ideas and insights from partners and advisors boiled up from a quick 22 hours that I will be noodling on, working with, and writing about probably for years to come. Five seem particularly engaging.
• The value of learning, or of an experience, is how meaningfully it comes to live in a future behavior or experience. Thanks to Paul Tatter, ¡Explora!
• Children aren’t afraid of problem solving but we have to give them the materials and problems to solve to make it easy for them to see the underlying math (or other concepts) involved. Thanks to Dr. Hyman Bass, University of Michigan.
• Gestures–pointing, moving arms, making shapes in the air–as evidence of what kind of an experience a person is having. Thanks to Ricardo Nemirovsky and Molly Kelton from San Diego State University.
• Parents take their role as their child’s teachers very seriously. Their only role model, however, is the classroom teacher. How can we model, or coach, parents in informal teaching?
• Create experiences for learners to make it easy for them to move from messing around, to fluency, to improvisation.

My Thanks
Partners and planners
The presence of so many people made this gathering wonderfully engaging as did the hard work of many more I probably never saw. When I drew up a little table plan to help me remember the names of people, I counted 36 people around the tables. I can’t thank everyone but I must thank J. Newlin who gave great care to planning this, and to the project itself. J. encouraged just the kind of conversation and exchange that made it productive and an example for using advisors wells. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

More Varied Places for Children: A Gentle Plea

Kindergarten space in Germany

My interest in children’s museums in the late 1970’s came from a hope for more and varied environments for young children. Even then there was a concern about the lack of play opportunities for children.

In the late 1970’s the presence of tire-cargo-net-and-telephone pole playgrounds–rambling and somewhat untidy alternatives to the metal pipe-and-swing playgrounds–was growing. Robin Moore and Herb Wong transformed an elementary school playground in Berkeley into the Washington Environmental Yard bringing children to outdoor adventures and growing plants. Day care programs, which were relatively new, sprouted up in no-longer used elementary schools and church basements inviting impromptu solutions for places for young children. The adventure playgrounds I studied in London demonstrated an amazing variety of child-shaped play environments. There was even a journal, Children’s Environments Quarterly  with research, studies, and thought pieces from the US, the UK, and Europe. One of my interests in helping to start Madison Children's Museum in 1980 was to add variety to the environments where Madison's children could explore, change, and grow up.  

With the growth of children’s museums across the country during the 80’s and 90’s, the promise of rich, interesting, and varied places planned with children in mind seemed great. Discovering how the environment as teacher is integral to the pedagogy of the municipal schools in Reggio also seemed hopeful. The schools I visited on a study tour to Reggio inspired me and others with places for children that are lovely, dynamic, and luminous.

Reluctantly, I have come to an unwelcome conclusion. It is a conclusion expressed by others who are concerned about a loss of childhood, about diminishing time and places to play, about children forgetting how to play, about environments as products, and about a dreary ubiquity from one play environment to another.

The value of children’s environments is not being fully realized.

My hope for a wonderful array of varied environments for children from birth on up; places indoors and out that invite them to play and explore; settings that are public and private, small and large, found and planned, has not materialized. In spite of seemingly more spaces for children, there is a notable swell of sameness among children’s environments, across children’s museum exhibits, libraries, shopping malls, themed bookstores, Gymboree, and even some home furnishings for children. An unproductive convergence in the environments that children experience has resulted in limited experiences for them.

Simply more environments are not able to accomplish what more varied environments are able to accomplish for children. Children have strong relationships with environments, the containers for the everyday moments that matter to them. Until about 10 years when a child’s world opens up to abstractions such as far away and long ago, a child’s world is immediate and tangible. They explore it and know it through their senses and movement.

The qualities of the settings where children spend their time is critical for two reasons. First, young children’s developmental domains–physical, cognitive, social, and emotional–are closely related. This means that physical development is cognitive development. Falling down is gravity. Second, different environments afford different understandings. Experience with texture, weight, movement, temperature, shape, enclosure, scale, perspectives, views, light and dark, up and down, sounds and smells, cause-and-effect, are critical to a child’s making sense of their world and to having a sense of well-being and security. In a very real way, the environment serves as teacher, constantly.

A plea for more varied environments is about at least three types of variety.

Types of environments differ in substantial and meaningful ways from one another. From the classroom to the art room or museum studio; from the playground, to the museum climbing structure; from the library story corner, to the bookstore or book nook, settings should distinguish themselves more fundamentally through their opportunities and experiential spirit and style. I suspect there are far more forms and variations on forms of environments than we have yet considered: nature playgrounds, shadow gardens, neighborhood forests. These to-be-discovered forms can stake out different experiential territory in order to offer a full range of complementary experiences that, together, provide a full rich menu of experiences for a child.

Adventure playground in Århus, Denmark
Children vary environments themselves, and in significant ways. If children are allowed to be environment changers, environments will, in fact, be more varied. This means children have loose parts, open space, and extended time to make choices about resources, to make and un-make things, to succeed and fail, and to see their impact. Environmental transformation is not just temporary change with everything put back immediately, erasing evidence of their thinking and creating. Varying the environments transforms the grocery store into trading post; re-engineers the sand lot; uses tree rounds as wheels, tables, horses, or building units; and knocks down the fort. It is arranging something beautiful for others to find. Children need to be able to transform a setting with their imaginations, a task much more difficult with over-defined forms that dictate meaning. A rocket ship climber, 3 bears playhouse, and rain forest café toddler area define the setting compared to more open-ended, abstract, suggestive forms.

Tree canopy walk at Morris Arboretum by Metcalf Architects and Design
Each setting is noticeably distinct because it is wholeheartedly rooted in its local context. Children’s environments should have identity, not be identical. Even the same type of environment, like a museum grocery store exhibit, should be just plain different from one city or town to another. Unless we thoughtlessly conceal them, place variations always exist as inspiration for design of experiences and spaces: the quality of light and the color of the sky, architectural styles and local building materials, seasonal migrations, plants and growing seasons, names of familiar objects and local place names, cultural traditions and heritage, and the faces and work of local children. The spirit of place should come through every space. Museum, exhibit, library, outdoor room, atelier, nature center should be a specific solution to a local priority, a museum mission, or this group of children. Imagine the possibility of a vernacular form or a local accent for children’s environments.

In order not to limit children’s imaginations and capacities, we should not limit our own. Often with the best of intentions, designers, teachers, museum educators, librarians, architects, parents, grandparents, landscape architects, and other helpful people create spaces that aspire to being exceptional yet deliver a limited experience. It is understandably difficult to escape a strong bias towards an adult view of the world. As a result we, and I include myself here, are likely to assume that what is good for us, is also good for children, what we have a feeling or is engaging will be engaging to children as well.

This is not a call for greater novelty or more cleverness. That could, in fact, simply compound the situation by investing more of less value in these environments. While there are various well-intentioned but unhelpful adult contributions to children’s settings, Danish Landscape Architect, Helle Nebelong recognizes several, "… it is an adult idea, created by misunderstanding, that everything to do with children must be openly amusing and painted in bright colours."

An adult view doesn’t need to be final. And a plea for more varied environments for children does not to suggest that we abandon our role as responsible adults. This is, however, an open invitation for design with a light touch. This means design that allows children to direct and complete experiences themselves rather than fill-in as allowed.
Children building at Minnesota Arboretum

A goal of more varied environments for children would be enormously advanced by cultivating an awareness of children’s considerable strengths and capabilities, their zest for testing and trying, their capacity for empathy, and even their aesthetic appreciation. In creating spaces for children, we would do well to be guided by their interests and spirit of discovery, paying careful attention to their willingness to entertain possibilities, develop theories about the nature of things, and their exuberance. Through this approach, we can appreciate how very much we need children to create the spaces we want them to explore. 

Reggio-inspired studio space
If we feel it is important enough, we can create places and spaces that children enjoy, explore, and prefer to other activities. Just as the environment is a resourceful teacher, it also serves as a positive and motivating force for experience. It can encourage relationships, develop abilities, open possibilities, and invite reflection. A small number of environments with such motivating, animating force are recognized by educators, museum-goers, designers, and architects. Some I’ve been reminded of recently are:
• The one-of-a kind City Museum (St. Louis) and Exploratorium  (San Francisco) 
• The child-centered schools and classrooms in Reggio
• The outdoor rooms of the Santa Fe Children’s Museum
• The secret places of the Patrick Dougherty willow sculpture at Bay Area Discovery Museum 
• Place-making installation of Riveropolis 

What these spaces seem to have in common are four not-very precise qualities.
• They assume a competence and capability of the user, child and adult, in exploring the space as well as shaping the experiences. Children and adults are essential to completing the experience.
• They are less finished spaces and places, and unapologetic for being so. They share similarities with found spaces, wild places, in between places, unfinished spaces. They are spaces supplied for possibilities and discovery, and open spaces where children can invent their play.
• They have a definite sense of place-ness, are one-of a kind places, highly local or site specific.
• While sharing a set of qualities, they do so quite distinctly: high multi-sensory environments that are surprising, messy, suggestive, (yet) detailed, secret, and beautiful.

Tapescape at Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota
It may be counterproductive to highlight these places as if to suggest they should be copied or to reduce them to a list and diminish their vitality. I do so in the hope of inspiring more people to wholeheartedly take on the challenging work of bringing more varied places to children’s lives.

I’ll be coming back to the topic of more varied environments for children, indoors and out, planned and found, large and small. It’s been in my bones for 30 years and seems unlikely to go away. Please join the conversations and share your thoughts on more varied environments for children.

• What examples do you think of as contributing to more varied environments for children?
• What qualities do they share that distinguish them from other places?
• Where do you see opportunities for more varied places for children?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Learning Frameworks

Learning frameworks have become my tool of choice for getting at the convergence of a museum’s strategic and learning interests. Where and how these interests intersect intrigues me as has finding ways to open up that territory to explore with people and perspectives from across a museum.

Often a museum’s public value, or the positive change it hopes to be recognized for contributing to its community, is tied up in its learning value. Regardless of how it defines learning, a museum needs clarity on what learning means for its community, for its audience and internally for itself and where it will concentrate its resources for intended impact. 

A learning framework consolidates a museum’s most important ideas about its learning interests and its potential to create value, in particular, learning value for its visitors and the community.

A framework’s strong set of foundational ideas is aligned with a museum’s mission, vision, and values. In a framework these ideas engage to form a sturdy platform that supports planning and evaluation efforts across all of a museum’s learning services: exhibits, programs, collections, film and multi-media, research, a school or nature center, and on-site, off-site, and on the web.

Basic framework parts: Community, learners, learning, and experience
Four components of a learning framework are basic, though specific elements can and do vary.
• Community context highlights priorities related to learning. A community’s priorities might be related to a readiness gap for young children; a fall-off in reading skills among fourth graders; available out-of-school time for middle schoolers and teens; 21st century skills; graduation rates for non-majority students; or workforce capacity. A synthesis of these issues, whether presented as highlights or an in-depth exploration, becomes the learning backdrop to which a learning framework responds.
View of the learner focuses on the museum’s audience in ways that are relevant to their learning and to the community’s priorities. Learner groups can be clustered using age-related development, identity-related motivations, a family-learning model, or a museum’s own audience segmentation. With a focus on its audience as learners, a museum can identify impacts or outcomes it will focus on and support with relevant programmatic options and learning strategies.
Learning focus highlights the learning territory a museum occupies. Typically informed by a pedagogy, educational theory, or research, a museum’s learning focus usually covers one or more content areas such as STEM, history, or art; related processes such as inquiry, or Visual Thinking Strategies; or an approach such as interdisciplinary, family learning, or play. 
Experience explores learners’ first-hand engagement with real objects and phenomena, in real time in a museum’s rich, varied learning settings. Those experiential qualities that a museum chooses to highlight distinguish it from other venues that serve a similar audience, whether it is another art museum, a nature center, a creative bookstore, or Rainforest Café. The experience component of a learning framework connects qualities of an informal, or free-choice, learning environment or a museum’s brand experience with learning opportunities.

A learning framework’s value emerges from exploring driving ideas and doing so through a lively, open, and interactive process that engages perspectives from across the museum. The process will take many forms, involve different groups of staff, and extend over weeks or months to suit each museum’s culture and timeframe. But it is through dialogue among thinkers, learners, and practitioners that a museum creates shared meaning around significant ideas. What does life-long learning mean for our community and in our museum? How does inquiry look for 3-5 year olds? for children 5-7,  7-10 and 10-14 years old? What does an interdisciplinary approach accomplish for our learners that multi-disciplinary connections does not?

Collectively exploring ideas, examining subtleties of meaning, and tracking how ideas connect and work with one another deepens everyone’s understanding of them. The process moves away from a sprawling collection of attractive ideas to which some people adhere and others less so. It moves towards a working set of shared ideas with clarity about the relationships among them to forge a more capable tool. The process strengthens the group of people who have created the framework, who find their ideas and passions central to the museum’s work, and who work together to accomplish a greater good for the community. It is this rich kind of exchange and exploration that builds powerful, influential pedagogies like those in Reggio Emilia.

The benefits of a learning framework accrue to a museum and its stakeholders. Developing a learning framework takes considerable time and hard work that could otherwise be put to many good uses in a museum. Consequently a return on this investment is essential.

The framework team at the new Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota
For the museum, the framework externalizes and makes plain what it values. A tool for getting everyone on the same page, a learning framework points to where contributions of staff, trustees, volunteers, partners, sponsors, and funders are needed and where resources will be allocated for greatest impact. For museum educators, developing a learning framework is an opportunity to take a visible leadership role in increasing the public value of a museum. For trustees, a learning framework provides confidence that the museum is intent on building public value. A framework can also invigorate their messages about the museum’s public good that is crucial for cultivating support for a capital campaign and during tough economic times. For an emerging museum, a learning framework shows community leaders the museum intends to step up and contribute.  A community benefits when a museum understands and acts on local priorities.

Developing a learning framework can tackle organization issues. Typically a process clarifies what a museum’s multiple learning platforms (exhibits, programs, a planetarium, nature center, or a preschool) share that can be obscured by their different attributes. It highlights what each accomplishes for the museum that is distinct and necessary. This can resolve tensions around learning platforms by assuring that all are valued, complementary resources. A  framework shared across the museum encourages a set of practices shared among education, curatorial, audience development, visitor services, and communication staff.

Flexibility is just one of the qualities that makes learning frameworks valuable. I have developed frameworks in a variety of settings: in museums as well as libraries; with museums starting up, expanding, and reinventing themselves; and with very small and very large museums. Frameworks are adaptable as well. A learning framework can include learner impacts, a research agenda, learning goals, and a stakeholder map as part of its original manifestation. These or other elements can be added later to reflect the framework’s evolution, shifts in organizational emphasis, or emerging community priorities.

Frameworks do not require a high level of detail. Rather, they rely on clarity and alignment of critical ideas. This, along with a participatory process with multiple reviews and revisions, means staff internalize a framework relatively easily. Frameworks tend not to sit on shelves.

A learning framework guides planning and evaluation for all of a museum’s learning services or resources. The direction it sets helps balance priorities. Are we offering enough for this age group? Should we offer more math and science experiences? Are we making it easy for parents to connect with other parents? In a similar way, a framework can also help assess new opportunities whether it is a strategic partnership, a grant opportunity, or a choice on how to use outdoor space. A learning framework is equally useful in identifying impacts for an initiative as it is in assessing the impact of the museum, a program, or an exhibit on targeted learner groups.

The most common application of a learning framework tends to be developing an exhibit plan. This is helpful when an emerging museum conceives of its first round of exhibits, when a museum is expanding, or when it is fundamentally rethinking its exhibits. In a similar way, a museum can use a framework to remediate a teacher institute, or develop a multi-partner project aimed at impacting citizen behaviors.

A learning framework is a use-dependent tool. The more it is read, discussed, referred to, tested, or applied, the stronger a framework becomes. Use clarifies ideas and gives them new and deeper meaning across a wider range of contexts. Successes and challenges, shifts in audience, community trends, changes in staff, and new research bring new information and perspectives to the framework and point to new, applications, questions, and practices.

Please share how the learning interests of your museum, or museums you know well, are being clarified.
  • How has your museum worked at consolidating its learning interests?
  • Where did the impetus to do so come from?
  • Who has been engaged in this process? 
  • How has this effort engaged and been shared with people across the museum?
  • What changes have you noticed in your museum as the result of having a shared learning framework?
  • How has the framework changed with use?

Thanks to several colleagues, in particular, who have listened, thought about, and shared ideas that have helped me shape learning frameworks over the years: Jim Roe; John Jacobsen, White Oak Associates; Rhonda Kiest, Stepping Stones Museum for Children; Andrea Fox Jensen

Monday, March 7, 2011

Museums and Libraries

Minneapolis Central Library public opening

When museums and libraries were brought together in one departmental home at the Institute for Museum and Library Services in 1996, the increased value of their pairing escaped me. Less than two decades of partnerships and collaborations have revealed the enormous potential in bringing these two sibling institutions together.

The numerous museum and library pairings that came across my desk and screen last week serve as a kind of snapshot of the two siblings at 15 years. On Monday, the Queens Borough Public Library sent a progress report on Science In The Stacks interactive exhibits in their Children’s Discovery Center. A CHILDMUS posting, also on Monday, queried about designing indoor and outdoor learning spaces for children in a brand new university library. On Wednesday, Maeryta Medrano explored the convergence of museums and libraries on Gyroscope’s Museums Now blog. At last Friday’s meeting of our Twin Cities Museum Collaborative, examples of museum-library partnerships across the Twin Cities and the state were highlighted.

This sampling in just one office suggests that museum-library partnerships are active, varied, and productive. The architects of a federal institute for both museums and libraries recognized the potential of this pair of civic stalwarts to accomplish more together. Recently IMLS leadership has deliberately encouraged this with projects such as the 21st century skills project. Local bases, institutional variety, extensive resources and expertise, shared agendas, and a commitment to increase access fuel a range of activities and public good. In the process, museums and libraries themselves are changing.

A quick scan of museum and library activities suggests clusters in three areas: partnering for impact, cross-pollinating, and exploring new territory. Not crisp-edged clusters, they nevertheless invite reflection and provoke thoughts on the next 15 years.

Partnering for impact
In joining forces, museums and libraries act on institutional goals and address community priorities. Bringing together complementary approaches, expanded resources, and overlapping networks, they focus on increasing community access to information and cultural resources to enhance social cohesion and develop 21st century skills.

  • Encouraging museum and library usage. Library systems across the country offer museum passes to check out at branch libraries. In Chicago, Boston, Manchester (NH), Tacoma (WA) and many other cities, library users can check out a museum pass for free or reduced admission at local museums, zoos, nature centers, and aquaria. Pass programs encourage library users to get a library card and use the library; they reduce cost barriers to visiting local arts and cultural attractions. The Museum Adventure Pass in the Twin Cities extends the museum experience with an invitation to pass users to share a story about their museum adventure on line.       
  • Building public value. Museum-library partnerships form to increase public value by building social cohesion and meeting local challenges. The Salinas Public Library and the National Steinbeck Center partnered with other Salinas (CA) organizations on a project aimed at reviving the community’s civic life. ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center (Burlinton, VT) partners with Vermont and Upstate New York Library systems and the Vermont Center for Folklife to facilitate public engagement to change personal behavior and reduce human impact on regional water quality. As part of a national Age in America project, museums and libraries in Hartford (CT) have developed a framework for understanding and engaging their changing community through art and oral history.
Book-based math in Go Figure!
  • Growing 21st Century skills. Museum-library projects like Go Figure! help both museums and libraries accomplish significant outreach goals as well as advance 21st century skills. In partnership with the American Library Association, Minnesota Children’s Museum created an interactive book-based math exhibit. Two versions of the exhibit, a larger one for museums and a smaller one for libraries, toured the country. Seventy libraries, many in small, rural communities, hosted their first exhibit; virtually all libraries hosted their first interactive exhibit.

The complementary approaches that traditionally have distinguished museums and libraries have also become qualities each institution has borrowed from the other to enhance its value. In the last decade, museums have grown their book-based assets. Libraries, especially children and youth divisions, have rethought experience and environments, taken a look at developmental approaches, and increased programs.
  • Creating an environment. Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University introduced Bookscape, a children’s library space and reading gallery around 2000. Sensory rich with life-size (and larger-than-life) characters, objects, and story settings, it shares similarities with the immersive environments, interactive components, props, and costumes in many children’s museums. With an interest in engaging children in play and exploration, as well as looking at and borrowing books, other children’s libraries, including Bloomfield Hills (MI), Toledo (OH), and Fairfield (CT) re-thought the environment’s role in sparking children’s interest in language, stories, and books. 

Fairfield, CT Children's Library; design and photo by Argyle Desing, Inc.
Many library projects show how the lively, experience- based design in museums is informing the design of public library spaces, especially for children and teens. Interactive science exhibits will be integrated with books on the same topics in the Children’s Discovery Center at the Queens Library. Play and Learning Stations (PALS) at the Rancho Cucomonga Library (CA) were designed by Gyroscope as self-contained activity centers among the stacks to bring play into the library . At the Evanston Public Library (IL) ArchitectureIsFun worked with teens’ design ideas to reinvent an underutilized space and create Teen Loft.
  • Adding a developmental perspective. When Minneapolis Central Library started to plan its new building in 2002, it also chose to rethink its children’s library. On that project, I worked with the children’s librarians and Michael Joyce of Argyle Design, Inc. to build a master plan around children’s literacy development and the critical role adults have in modeling, nurturing and supporting literacy–even with infants. The master plan and literacy development framework guided design of the children’s library in the Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects project.
  • Libraries in museums. On the flipside, museums have been adding book-based spaces as strategic assets since at least the early nineties. In 2000 The Children’s Museum (Indianapolis) opened InfoZone, a branch of the city-county public library. The Parent Resource Library at Children’s Museum of Houston is a branch of the Houston Public Library. In addition to these more extensive book-based assets are book nooks, designated reading areas with children’s book nooks, and more extensive resource areas like Boston Children’s Museum’s Center for Community Learning

Amsterdam Library's children's area
These examples suggest a kind of migration, perhaps the convergence that interests Maeryta. The best example of this I have seen is the new Amsterdam Public Library. In addition to the inviting stacks and computer stations, the Library also includes a café, art work, comfortable reading areas, craft rooms, and natural history objects including a giant stuffed Polar bear. 

Exploring new territory
Partnering produces changes for partners and for their communities. Deepened institutional relationships, shared agendas, sharpened knowledge about the community and its priorities, and awareness of trends and societal shifts point to new ways libraries and museums can join forces and create value on behalf of their communities.
  • Becoming the Third Place. Socially-oriented institutions, museums and libraries are places where people meet and connect, access and share information. This is what Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place has called the Third Place, a public space neither home nor work, where people gather for social interaction and engagement. While museums and libraries somewhat readily exemplify the Third Place, their communities need them to be deliberate in deciding how to develop into the Third Place of the future.
  • Invigorating education. Museums and libraries are positioned on the learning landscape to be more visible players in the learning lives of children and youth. Attractive as informal learning settings with programs and camps and providing access to technology and homework help, museums and libraries contribute to out-of-school learning that supports in school learning as well as life-long learning.
  • Forming hybrids. Continued cross-pollination of museums and libraries is likely to produce greater convergence. Museums and libraries may be conceived of and planned differently to respond to changing community priorities. These may not simply be expanded partnerships, but actually incorporate a third or fourth component such as a lab, a think tank, a school, or a theater, or an, as-yet, unknown unit.

The territory ahead is wide open. It is as vibrant as the institutions themselves; as varied as their cities and towns; and as new as imagination and inspiration makes it. IMLS is thinking ahead about the future of museums and libraries …and so are museums and libraries. What about you?
-        What changes have you seen in your museum-library partnership(s) over the last decade?
-        Where do you see possibilities emerging for greater impact?
-        What new territory ahead inspires you?