Monday, May 30, 2011

Nice + Necessary



In last week’s Museum Notes about InterActivity, the recent children’s museum conference in Houston, I highlighted a session, Nice to Necessary. Judging from the interest of the three presenters, Rhonda Kiest, Stepping Stones Museum for Children (SSMC), Julia Bland, Louisiana Children’s Museum (LCM), and Sarah Orleans, Portland Children’s Museum (PCM), the large turn-out, and the many comments afterwards, the topic addressed interesting and challenging territory many museums are trying to navigate.

Originally, the session title was longer, Children’s Museums Step Out: Moving From Nice To Necessary. Over the year it contracted to Nice To Necessary, and even N2N. More discussion with Rhonda, Sarah, and Julia and preparing our presentations took us to the heart of the issue. Museums must be nice and necessary. Museums must both align their missions with community priorities and remain welcoming, compelling, and delightful places to visit.

The Importance of And
Abandoning the mutually exclusive nice or necessary option was a giant and productive break-through for us. Museums in general and children’s museums, in particular, are no strangers to the false and time-consuming dichotomies of “fun or educational” I know. I was preoccupied by this for some time. I was relieved when someone pointed out that a pencil can be long and red. It is no less long because it is red and no less red because it is long. Museums are no less fun because they are educational, and no less educational because they are fun. They are no less necessary because they are nice and no less nice because they are necessary.

They must, however, do an outstanding job of both.

Being Nice
Basically museums are very nice. They are pleasant places. Their concern is expressed by their missions and they are careful with resources. Children and families, and school and community groups, visit museums, have a really good time, and want to return.

Children celebrate their birthdays at their children’s museum. Teachers bring their students for a field trip that they know will go smoothly and will sync with the curriculum. Children rejoice at their accomplishments in an exhibit and at showing their parents what they can do.  Parents discover something new about their child, perhaps a new interest. Families come to celebrate a not-so-spooky Halloween or other traditions; they feel good about being together as a family. Parents count on signing their children up for museum summer camps. Families bring friends and relatives who visit to the museum for a special occasion.

Museums offer all of these experiences and more. Museums are–and should be–unwilling to let go of being nice.

Being Necessary
Being necessary is more challenging. Its meaning is harder to pin down than being nice. But our planning and their museums’ work points to a few factors that are basic to being necessary.

Oriented to the Community’s Priorities
What’s necessary is relevant to each community. A museum may not be necessary in the way a fire department is, but it can address community priorities in recognized and valued ways. When a foundation reported that a lack of continuing professional development for educators was a major factor in the decline of quality education in Oregon education, the Portland Children’s Museum established the Center for Children’s Learning (CCL). The CCL conducts research documenting children at play at the museum and in Opal School, the Museum’s K-5 public charter school. CCL also establishes best practices for organizations serving young children and makes research, recommendations, and best practices available through workshops, symposia, and publications.   

Not only is the meaning of being relevant specific to each community, but it can and does change over time reflecting changes in a region, city, town, or neighborhood. The LCM board committed to a major initiative for family well-being in the weeks before Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  In the months after the hurricane, the true magnitude of need for support for young children and their families in the Greater New Orleans area became starkly apparent. From that new perspective, LCM developed the concept of the Early Learning Village, a comprehensive project supported by an extensive network of long-term committed partners to change life outcomes for children.

Demonstrating that a museum is necessary takes time and a disciplined, sustained focus. Stepping Stones Museum for Children has been committed to being a steward of its community since its 2000 opening. In its first decade, SSMC grew its understanding of its community and audience and contributed to collaborative efforts in Norwalk, CT. The Museum has acted deliberately to become necessary on several fronts. It has been working with a network of community leaders and organizations to proactively identify and resolve issues that prevent a child’s growing up healthy, safe, smart, and successful at home, school, and in the community. Forty organizations have aligned and organized to work towards three strategic outcomes focusing on a scorecard that tracks indicators; each organization defines its unique contribution to supporting outcomes.

A Leader of Some Capacity
A museum that is at the table occasionally is nice. A museum that is called to the table or that convenes others at the table is necessary. A museum must be a leader in some capacity to be necessary. In the examples above is evidence of how each of the three museums has shaped a leadership role for itself among other institutions to serve community priorities. With the Center for Children’s Learning, PCM has positioned itself in a leadership role around understanding how children play, learn, create, explore, and interact. The Center’s documentation panels offer insights into children’s natural learning strategies and invite inquiry into their thinking and predictions about effective teaching and exhibit planning.  In developing and sharing this research approach with teachers, researchers, museum educators, parents, and other education experts, PCM through its Center is a national and, increasingly, international resource on children’s learning.

LCM’s Early Learning Village is an on-site network of resources for children and families including museum exhibits and programs. It has cultivated long-term strategic partnerships with existing organizations who have recognized expertise and are successful in related areas child and family development. With LCM's vision, long-running literacy and well-being initiatives, the Museum is, in fact, the convener of major organizations such as Tulane University’s Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health and Louisiana State University’s AgCenter.

SSMC’s leadership role in the partnership, Norwalk ACTS, emerged from clarity about its role as a community steward, extensive experience in various networks, and an understanding of outcome-driven models. A member of the network’s strategic planning team, SSMC leads in shaping a nimble, aligned network with a strong focus on three outcomes and supporting indicators.  

Accountable to Long-term Outcomes
Intending to make a difference is nice. Being able to show that a museum has made a difference in the lives of children, families, and the community is being necessary. Achieving and measuring results is an extremely challenging part of the work. It is also where participants in the InterActivity conference session had questions not all of which were easy to answer. 

Each of the three museums recognizes the importance of being accountable to long-term outcomes and is working diligently in that direction. Each is doing so in its own way and, understandably, at different rates. All, however, are progressing along similar paths. Each has connected a community priority with outcome areas where it hopes to make a contribution: improving the futures of children in the community, contributing to a continuum for support for children, or providing insights into children’s thinking to guide teachers and exhibit designers, etc. They are identifying what is relevant and can be measured, defining measures of success, and finding methods of assessment and evaluation capable of assessing the changes. To build capacity in relatively new areas of museum practice, the museums are also are working with partners, including colleges and universities.

This is an area of continuing, interesting, and important work

Finding the Right Mix
As important as being necessary is, it is essential that the joy not drain from the experiences offered at the museum, presented in the community, or available in schools. Bubbles, birthday parties, face-painting, and teddy bear picnics should not disappear from children’s museums. Rat basketball should not be nixed from science centers. Nor should Halloween haunted houses be abandoned. Every museum must bring its passion creativity, and, yes, understanding of its community to uncovering their mix of nice + necessary. 

A tool for exploring the nice - necessary dynamic is posted at the right of this page as is another related resource, Connecting the Dots. Check out a previous blog entry, Public Value: From Good Intentions to Good Work which includes additional resources.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Museum Conference and Car Parade: In the Rear-view Mirror

The Museum Car: Mapping Houston's museums

I just returned from InterActivity 2011, the children’s museum conference, in Houston this year. The Association of Children’s Museum’s annual gathering of about 800 people began for me on Wednesday at the emerging museums pre-conference and ended with watching Houston’s art car parade on Sunday. (Technically, it ended with a delayed flight, mechanical difficulties, cancellation, an extra stay-over, and a detour to Minneapolis through Cincinnati.)

Like many others, I’m processing the conference and all its attendant possibilities. I expect I’ll be doing so over the next year. To push my processing forward, I skim my notes, sift through sessions and conversations, and share with others what stands out for me.

Emerging Museums Conference
Launching the Collective Vision Toolkit was a highlight of the annual pre-conference. (Look for a link on the ACM website s-o-o-n.) This on-line resource will make the exciting, life-changing, often attenuated process of opening a museum if not easier, at least less mysterious. Having worked on this resource for starting, or strengthening, a museum with John Noonan, Executive Director of The Great Lakes Children’s Museum and Mary Maher, editor of Hand To Hand and Collective Vision, I know it’s really strong in the basic steps and areas for opening a museum. It also draws on the real-life experiences of many museums that have planned and navigated passions, realities, challenges, and opportunities. The templates included are really helpful and as are links to a wide range of resources. One smart suggestion I heard was to use the toolkit as the structure and core material for next year’s emerging museums conference in Portland, OR.

 A Community of Learners
Many of my friends and professional contacts from outside children’s museums have often noted that our network is unusually strong and connected. They’re right. Every year, these qualities are a tonic for me as I meet and connect with others from distant towns, cities, and countries; keep up over many years; and listen in on new and interesting work. In a few short days, I am able to catch up on the start-up efforts of museums in Oslo and Sonoma County; learn about new projects and satisfying accomplishments; continue conversations started previous years, perhaps on the bus to an evening event; and meet people, like Elizabeth Merritt, whose thinking challenges me. It’s almost too much to absorb in such a short period of time, but I don’t want to miss it.

 Food for Thought
Ideas from several sessions and speakers seemed particularly relevant and intriguing. I anticipate following them as they engage with other ideas, intersect with interests, and raise new questions, probably writing about them on Museum Notes.

•                   Early in the conference Nice to Necessary generated thoughts and questions pertinent to discussions that surfaced in later sessions. Exploring how museums align their missions with community priorities while remaining welcoming, compelling, and delightful places to visit, three museum leaders, Rhonda Kiest, Stepping Stones Museum forChildren, Julia Bland, Louisiana Children’s Museum, and Sarah Orleans, Portland Children’s Museum shared their museums’ progress from nice to necessary. A downloadable tool for exploring the nice to necessary dynamic is posted at the right on this page.

•                   Jeri Robinson VP of Early Childhood and Family Learning at Boston Children’sMuseum extended an invitation to explore The Future of Early Childhood in Children’s Museums. Over 80 participants engaged in discussing a set of questions on how children’s museums can be stronger by working collaboratively with children’s museums in other communities to become recognized voices for early childhood locally. Jeri and I will be following up with participants on their responses to these questions and tracking their interests and opportunities.

•                   I was impressed with the thoughtful, honest exchange about risk-taking in museums in a session using an innovative (and somewhat risky) fish-bowl format. Museum leaders from a variety of museums–start-up, expanding, established, poised for change, recently opened–moved in-and-out of the fish bowl to share, reflect, question, and rethink professional and organizational risks. Nearly all session participants actively engaged in sharing how taking risks has stimulated growth and innovation. Facilitator Kathy Gustafson Hilton of Hands On! knew when to let the exchanges take their course.

•                   Education Nation author, Milton Chen, offered a promising idea in response to a question after his keynote address. He was asked how museums might deepen and extend their relationships with children and families to increase their impact in ways libraries and schools do. Along with several general comments, Chen suggested that projects that are bigger than your own museum might be provide the cumulative contact and continuity. I’m not at all sure where this idea will lead. I think, however, it has the potential to leverage museums’ assets and existing collaborative efforts to more fully engage members of the community in exploring, thinking, learning, and taking action and, consequently, expanding museums' impact.

A Night at the Museum
The big party, Texas BIG, was at The Children’s Museum of Houston.  For many, this event was also the first visit to the Museum since its major expansion which added 39,000 square feet of exhibits and workshop space (designed by Argyle Design, Inc) and opened in March 2009.  Party-goers were especially mesmerized by FlowWorks and the giant cauldron that fills, and fills, fills with water until it spills, spills, spills. 

Museum representatives from Jordan, Norway, Russia, China and friends
An International Gathering
The growth of children’s museums around the world was 
more apparent than ever at the conference this year. The
presence and interests of these museums was reflected at the Saturday morning “regional” breakfasts. In spite of a very short time together, the group recognized some shared interests specific to their museums: managing rapid growth, building capacity in their regions, growing philanthropy, and getting royal endorsements.

Art Car Parade
Last, but by no means least, was the Art Car Parade Sunday afternoon, an annual Orange Show event. Just about everything covered in InterActivity was represented in car art at the parade: recycled and re-purposed materials, creativity and imagination, health and healthy kids, literacy, science, art, schools, simple machines, marine biology (sort of), people working together, making things, fun, and then some. 

My Great Thanks
Many people and organizations work for months to make InterActivity a successful mix of new thinkers, core ideas, and a great get together. My great thanks go to the staff at the Association of Children’s Museum, the ACM Program Committee, and, of course, The Children’s Museum of Houston.

Now, mark your calendars for the next children’s museum conference: May 10-12, 2012 in Portland, OR.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Environmental Autobiographies: Remembering Childhood Places

Even now when I get together with my brothers and sisters who are in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s we often talk about the places we played when we were children.

The backyard woods was our everyday play place and a world in itself. Unlike the surrounding backyards, this ¼ acre on our lot had been left as it was when it had been farmland. Here we created imaginary worlds under the Mayapples, named landmarks in the woods, and left notes in the hole of the Burr Oak tree. We built and rebuilt forts and each earned its own story. When spring snow melt filled the low area at the woods’ edge, ducks nested there and raised families. Enthralled, we conducted our own kind of duck and bird count annually.

Our memories of the woods and our other places, like the nature area at the school, are abundant and vivid. They are just the kind of memories of childhood and its places that an environmental autobiography often evokes. This exploration is a written and mapped memoir of significant places in one's own life with an emphasis on environmental and sensory aspects.

I first learned about environmental autobiographies as I explored the new behavior-environment paradigm in the 70’s. Clare Cooper Marcus was associated with this as were others. I also found similar work being done in teacher centers and through Prospect Archives in the early 80’s. The interest was similar: to tap into what people know about where and how they learn and play.

For over 30 years, I have used environmental autobiographies in professional development, design, and planning work. Whether I have used this with infant and toddler caregivers, museum administrators, board and staff planning teams, elementary teachers, or staff development specialists, this simple exercise has been a powerful force for tapping into details of long ago places, playmates’ names, the smell of soil, vague secrets, and a color of light that were seemingly left behind for decades. The experience produces the rewarding sense of a self-discovery and a bit of the fun of party game. But it is also valuable in bringing children's perspectives and feelings about the places they inhabit to the center of planning. It is rich in generating useful ideas for environments and exhibits for children. More and more it makes me think about the power of place and play in the lives of children.

Think of a Place
In this exercise, adults are asked to reenter a childhood environment and related experiences. They are asked to think of a place where they spent time when they were young that they liked or went to frequently. Calling this place to mind and walking through it mentally, they are asked to think about it both objectively and subjectively.
As they revisit this place, they are asked to capture and record it in some way. Using basic materials–paper and pencil or pen–they might draw a simple map of it and add labels and notes. They might write a narrative description. They can work at a small or large scale. Whatever is comfortable and productive works. In thinking of a place, they might:
•  Describe it objectively thinking about:
– Where it was
– How old they were
– What it looked like
– How big it was; what its surfaces were made of
– Who else was there - human and animal
– What they did there
– What they could see and hear from there

•  Describe the place and the experience of being there subjectively:
– What were its smells? Colors? Textures?
– How did it feel to be there?
– What qualities of that place were strongest?
– What feelings, positive or negative, do they recall about the place?
– What strong memories do they have about that place?
– Did they have a name for it? What did they call it?

A favorite childhood place can come to mind quickly for some while finding it can take a bit of wandering for others. As they work on their environmental autobiographies, people are intent and quiet. Some memories arrive unbidden, some need to be tugged at a bit, and some emerge very slowly. There’s no definite stopping point. Turning attention from being in that childhood place to the present day and to a group of colleagues is a bit like returning from a far country. Each person tells about the place they remember and revisited. Following an initial description of the place and how old they were, strong, specific sensory memories emerge along with the significance of the experiences the place afforded and lots of details.

Small, Tucked in Nature, Invisible to Adults
While every environmental autobiography is unique, patterns do emerge. Over the years I have found natural clusters among the nature of the places, the activities and the play that were important then and are remembered so now.
•                  Recollections of childhood places are very positive. Many are joyous. Often there is a sense of the profound centrality of those places in the lives of the children; “That’s where we learned everything!” Even though many memories touch on risks that were taken, memories surprisingly do not end with, “well, we all got into trouble,” “we shouldn’t have been there,” or “he fell and broke his arm.”
•                   Outdoor settings and natural areas are recalled often and vividly. They may be truly wild places or just brushy abandoned spots within more manicured areas. In any case, children are attracted to unstructured areas that are often unruly and unclaimed by others. Even corners of the barn or the basement are just slightly outside the rules and control of the house and adults lives.
•                  Particular locations within a place are specified and these distinctions are significant. In citing a barn for instance, the haymow (or hay loft) is an important designation. In a wooded area, it is “where the trees were down.” In the park, it is among the crab apple trees. 

•                  Precise sensory content and detail persist across time. Even after 4, 5 and 6 decades, people access amazing detail in recalling their childhood places: the feel of the concrete water trough, the smell of hay at a certain time of the summer, or where the stream was narrowest.
•                  Some amount of control over the places is often expressed. It may be physical, but not always. Children gravitate towards small spaces, a degree of enclosure that provides some concealment, an out-of-the-way place under adult radar, or a high place that offers a vantage point. These attributes provide a kind of ownership, independence, or invisibility; sometimes under the radar is a fort under the table or on the floor of the linen closet.
•                  Childhood play places shelter an incredibly rich variety of activities. Every significant childhood activity I can think of has been mentioned over the years: making up games with rules some games extending over months; climbing trees, balancing on logs; running and chasing; building and changing the area with sticks, found lumber, car parts and furniture; gathering flowers, fruit, leaves and seeds; digging up clay and molding it; creating objects from found and natural materials; making up stories, poems and plays; and developing friendships.
•                   A strong sense of personal relationships comes through. The significance of the place and the experiences there flow through personal relationships: “It was our family home for centuries;” “I loved being with granddad;” “the three sisters always played there together.”

An Enduring Impact
Listening to individual environmental autobiographies and memories is fascinating. There is always something for everyone to take away personally and for the work they do such as planning experiences for children. It usually wakes up some dormant memory of my own childhood places as well. Just as important, however, is what these memories reveal about the value of play, the importance of compelling environments, and of childhood itself.

First, along with an appreciation of the value of rich and accessible play places and experiences is a concern for their absence in the lives of so many children today. I can’t help but wonder what the future environmental autobiographies of children today will be. There are many urban children and busy suburban children playing indoors, on teams, or perhaps not all. Rural children have greater access to open spaces.

For all children, there are, fortunately, still sofa cushions to stack and make caves; blankets to drape across chairs; and out-of-the way places such as under the steps. Children’s museums, parks, and nature centers add something to this variety. But I am extending my gentle plea for more varied environments. But children also need unstructured time to discover, shape, and become attached to these places and make them their own.

I am also struck by the enduring impact of early experiences and environments. After a Head Start director told about the empty lot she played in and how it was under the flight path of the airport so airplanes figured in their play, she announced, “And today I am a pilot.” This inspired me to follow up with questions about the presence of these places and experiences in adult lives. Identifying connections between childhood places and activities in their adults lives has needed little prompting. I have heard, “I now raise animals on a small farm;” “I count things for a living;” “I make toys for a living.” “I’m a scientist.” 

Writing Your Environmental Autobiography
Have you  tried something like an environmental autobiography? What was useful and interesting about it? Did you discover a connection to what you do now as an adult? Please let us know if you have done one tried one after reading this. You might also be interested in:

•  Children’s Special Places by David Sobel (2002); Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

•  Secret Spaces of Childhood by Elizabeth Goodenough (Ed.) (2003). Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

• Getting to Know City Kids: Understanding Their Thinking, Imagining, and Socializing by Sally Middlebrooks. (1998). New York: Teacher College Press.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Local & Happening Now

Seed Bearers (Photo by Bruce Silcox)

Maybe because winter lasts so very long in Minnesota, we relish the celebrations that say a final farewell to winter. This year, especially, winter has stepped aside oh-so reluctantly for spring

Sunday May 1st crowds braved chilly 30-degree temperatures and a fierce wind to watch the 37th annual May Day Parade sponsored by the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater (HOBT). In spite of this year's wintry weather, this is a local tradition to welcome  spring. The mile long parade down Bloomington Avenue in Minneapolis ends in a pageant in Powderhorn Park where a larger-than-life puppet representing the Tree of Life emerges from the darkness of winter, this year represented by a crow. 

From the crow...
... the Tree of Life emerges. (Photos by Liz Welch)

Clearly, this seasonal celebration is not bound by the calendar that says spring arrives March 21st. That’s the
point. We share a celebration of  Earth Day across the country on April 22nd. But some celebrations like Arbor Day–celebrated in January in Florida and in May in Alaska–are seasonally timed. This decidedly local quality interests me.

The Parade is produced by neighbors, school groups, community organizations, friends, and artists in a way that also manages the long wait for spring in these high latitudes. Preparations begin months in advance. Groups and individuals, newcomers and veterans come together regularly in the social and creative environments of the HOBT workshops. Here, they transform cardboard, paper bags, found and natural objects, and, of course, duct tape, into the masks and costumes for the parade. They help construct 20-foot puppets and floats that punctuate the parade and star in the pageant. Finally, neighbors, friends, and students become the celebration of spring, dancing down the street, pounding on tambourines, walking on stilts, pushing carts, and carrying floats.

The sun carriers
Considering the unspring-like weather this year, crowds were surprisingly strong. People appreciate and want to be part of what the celebration represents, even if the weather doesn't deliver.

Not all local celebrations must be big, take months to put together, or use multiple colors of duct tape to be meaningful. Sometimes the most touching ones happen at a very personal scale and on the next block.

Old Man Winter is put to bed.
A celebration of spring was also held last week. Preschool-aged children at the Greenspoon Day Care down the street put Old Man Winter to bed. In a May ritual that has evolved over many years, a dozen young children rushed out from the corner of the house to find Old Man Winter (an obliging husband). Waving their hands to make ribbons flutter at their wrists, they covered Old Man with a quilt. 
Standing over him, they let out great cheers and joyfully tossed seeds into the air. They then moved to claim their winter’s projects to take home: soft dolls they had patiently created  over several months. Very local, very small, and tailored to the audience of appreciative parents, grandparents, neighbors, and day care alums. 

In fact, this celebration almost didn’t happen; some of the littlest children just weren’t sure they could face Old Man Winter. That’s how happening now this event was

Dolls created over the winter are now ready to go home.


Monday, May 2, 2011

Engaging Audiences Strategically

Awhile back I had a conversation with Jeri Robinson from Boston Children’s Museum about the changes the Museum was noticing in its audience: fewer school visits, more younger children, a softening at the upper end of their age range. The Museum was looking at these audience shifts as part of its strategic planning process.

That wasn’t the first or only conversation on this topic I’d had about changing museum audiences. Sometimes these conversations are part of a planning project and naturally focus on the ages of the audience. Other times I hear in the midst of a conversation that the museum’s audience never really was who it thought it was. For children’s museums this often means that the audience has been younger than thought. For many art museums, the audience has often been older than thought.

This issue is wide-spread and not just pertinent to conversations I’m having. The just-arrived ASTC Conference flyer asks, “Have you been working to engage older audiences?”

Museum audiences aren’t static but are affected by changes in the external environment. A few related trends I’ve heard of recently are: introduction of universal pre-K; increasing costs for busses to bring students for field trips; decreasing money for field trips in school budgets; expectations for museum visits to map tightly onto school curriculum; baby boomers hitting the bulge; demographic shifts in ethnic groups; and population shifts between suburbs and cities.

Let me pause to acknowledge that a well-developed understanding of audiences is not a snap. For many years I certainly didn’t get it. I tried to be a good advocate for the audience’s learning interests. I didn’t recognize, however, that this was only a piece of the picture and of limited value in knowing how to reach the audience. Fortunately, two colleagues, Andrea Fox Jensen and Barb Plunket, were helpful and patient in expanding, shifting, and deepening my understanding of audiences. Still, after many years, I work to appreciate the complexity of the audience, their interests, and ways the museum can engage them. 

Audience at the Center
Audiences are central to a museum’s purpose and sustainability. Attendance numbers matter and attendance shifts can hardly be taken lightly. Every museum needs a sound and shared understanding of who it must serve to achieve its mission. Museums go about this in many ways and on an on-going basis: identifying primary, secondary, and emerging audiences; surveying visitors; analyzing attendance data; and sometimes conducting audience research. Together these practices contribute to an audience-centered museum capable of engaging its audience strategically.

But, just what does engaging the audience strategically mean? It is not planning exhibits and programs for the entire audience and hoping they will come and like what they find. To the contrary, it is intentionally using museum resources–staff time and expertise, museum spaces, and information on and from the audience–to maximize the possibility of effectively serving those who will most use and benefit from the services.

A focus on engaging audiences strategically is especially valuable when the presence of audience groups at the museum is increasing or decreasing; information surfaces that a group hasn’t been served well; or when a museum rethinks its audience during strategic planning.

Deciding how to serve museum audiences is challenging. Usually one challenge emerges early and persists. Because no museum can offer everything to everybody, choices must be made. While this seems obvious, making distinctions about serving audience groups is difficult; it is not unusual to feel a group is being overlooked or excluded. To help manage this tension, keep in mind and repeat often:

A museum must serve all parts of its audience well. It must serve priority audience groups fully.

Describing the Audience
Planning for specific groups is more effective than planning for one large undifferentiated audience. There are many ways to describe an audience. I have written before about viewing the audience as customers, learners, and citizens and there are many others. Engaging the audience in the museum’s programmatic offerings means considering specific attributes and qualities that are salient to involvement with exhibits, programs, and events. Four attributes I find relevant are age, interests, availability, and grouping. They admittedly interact with one another but are also worth considering separately.
Age of children is relevant because age-related development drives other important considerations: how children of different ages explore, play with, and learn from objects, activities, and spaces; how they interact with family and peers; and related roles for adults. 
Interests may be personal like dinosaurs, sports, engineering, music, nature, or art. Interests may also be related to development such as a preschooler being interested in what her parents is doing and a tween being interested in peers. For adults interests may be related to careers and hobbies.
Availability depends on other options or commitments on someone’s time. This includes school and jobs for most people from 5 to 65 years; school vacations; more open schedules for retirees.
Grouping relates to whether children and adults are likely to visit in groups (school, family, or community organizations), or as individuals.

Accessibility (how easy it is to get to the museum and cost) is a very important factor that tends to be addressed more effectively in subsequent rounds of planning and logistics.

Meaningful Audience Groups
Creating audience groups, or segments, benefits from a variety of perspectives, and multiple sources of information. Create a museum team from education, exhibits, marketing, and visitor services. Gather as much information as possible (and realistic): attendance figures, program numbers, surveys, and staff observations. This is a good time to note what information is not available but would be helpful; this could be information to start gathering for future tracking. Multiple sources of evidence will increase confidence in decisions as well as make it easier to share the thinking behind the work. Information is also helpful because myths around the presence of audience groups are not uncommon. Get going.

1.     Describe the audience as a whole in a meaningful way. This should be easy by stating the museum’s targeted audience. For instance, children six months through 16 years, their parents, grandparents, teachers, and other adults, in the (geographic) area.
2.     Identify smaller groups, or segments. An audience segment shares similarities with one another that are salient to how they are likely to use the museum and what the museum hopes to offer. These attributes distinguish each segment from another. Segments for this targeted audience might be:
6 months - 2 years: Infants & toddlers
2 - 5 years: Preschoolers
5 - 8 years: Kindergarteners, 1st & 2nd graders
8 - 11 years: 3rd, 4th & 5th graders
11 - 14 years: 6th, 7th & 8th graders
14 - 16 years: 9th & 10th graders
Parents, grandparents, and caregivers visiting with children
Adults (visiting without children)
The age groups reflect typical developmental differences among children, relate to grades, and (should) align with museum programming. They will naturally vary from museum-to-museum. There’s no set number of groups, but having many groups can get cumbersome, especially because many groups could be present at the museum in various groups. Engagement strategies could take that into account as, for instance:
5 - 8 years: Kindergarteners, 1st & 2nd graders in families
5 - 8 years: Kindergarteners, 1st & 2nd graders in school groups
5 - 8 years: Kindergarteners, 1st & 2nd graders in organized groups

3.     Prioritize audience groups. Using the gathered information, characterize the current and potential presence of each segment at the museum. First, think about whether each segment currently has a low, medium, or high presence at the museum: year round, for exhibits, programs, and events. Use observations, attendance data, enrollment in programs, classes, camps; field trip numbers, etc. Designate their presence at the Museum as L (low), M (medium), and H (high).

It quickly becomes clear that all groups cannot have a high presence. A museum’s sweet spot has a high presence; usually the upper and lower ends of an age range have a lower presence. This is a great place to pause and remember: A museum must serve all parts of its audience well. It must serve priority audience groups fully. High priority audiences should have more offerings compared to segments with low and even medium current presence: more exhibit real estate, more program topics and time slots, more events, more of everything.

Now consider where potential exists to increase the presence of some of these segments at the museum. Before deciding to increase the potential presence of all segments, keep in mind that a crucial dynamic exists between segments a museum intends to serve and those actually willing to be served. For instance, a museum might WANT seniors to come, but are they interested? Where else might they go? This is equally true of tweens, toddlers, and families. There are, however, factors over which a museum has some control and, if put into play, could increase the presence of a segment at the museum.

For instance, if a segment is well-represented in the area population but is under-represented at the museum, increasing its presence is possible. This segment might respond to more offerings, the museum better understanding its expectations, or more convenient scheduling. Not every segment could have a high potential presence at the museum, but usually at least some segments can move from low to medium or medium to high. (Perhaps some engagement strategies are coming into focus.)

Now decide whether each segment could have a potential presence at the museum that is L (low), M (medium), or H (high). An audience segmentation might look like the following. Comparing current and potential presence for segments, opportunities for growth appear.

Current Presence
Potential Presence
Engagement Strategies
6 months - 2 years: Infants & toddlers

2 - 4 years: Preschoolers

5 - 8 years: Kindergarteners, 1st & 2nd graders

8 - 11 years: 3rd, 4th & 5th graders

11 - 14 years: 6th, 7th & 8th graders

14 - 16 years: 9th & 10th graders

Parents, grandparents, and caregivers visiting with children


Adults (visiting without children)

Documenting information about each segment is helpful at this point. Elaborate on interests, availability, and, for children, tolerance of or need for adults. For instance: low attendance for preschoolers during naptime; 5 - 8 year olds are coming with field trips; summer camps are filled with 8 - 10 year olds but fall off at 11; the museum gets requests for youth development programs for high schoolers, etc. The age at which children get involved in team sports in a community is often the age at which their weekend or afterschool presence at a children’s museum or science center falls off. It’s hard to impact their availability.

Questions related to segments will surface and the museum won’t have information. This is an opportunity to gather that information. Talk directly to the audience; ask parents whether they are looking for more summer camps or how ages of their children affect decisions to visit the museum. Sub-segmenting to characterize the current and potential presence of segments visiting in family, school or community groups is helpful; this may reveal that the presence of a segment is due primarily to particular visitation patterns. Build on the museum’s knowledge of the age groups it serves by using books like Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4 - 14 by Chip Wood to get at some interests typical of children in this age range. Incorporate information about community priorities that maps onto audience segments: local needs for more out-of-school time, or under-served audience groups.

Finally, important members of the museum’s audience may not have a high, or even medium, current or potential presence at the museum. But they are valued members of the audience and important to achieving the museum’s mission. Non-traditional audience groups may be included as part of other groups, for instance, as students in kindergarten - grade 6th visiting with school groups or community groups. Increasing their presence might also be possible through specific engagement strategies.

Engagement Strategies
Most people are all-too-ready to start with engagement strategies. Without the previous steps, however, finding ways to increase the presence of a segment is chancy. Using information about what is and isn’t working for specific audience segments and problem solving, tweaking, and expanding programmatic formats can lead to more fully serving high priority segments and, very likely, serving all segments well.

Most museums have a set of programmatic options they’ve developed. Some are fairly common while others are less so. Often these are variations of program format (camps, workshops, parent-child sessions, special events, etc.), topic (school standards, personal interests, career threads, etc.), scheduling (school days, school holidays, weekends, evenings, etc.), and use of space.

Engagement strategies are ways a museum delivers varied experiences to its audience groups that are responsive to their interests and availability. They are programs, exhibits, and events but selected and developed in ways that:
• Build on an area in which it is already and reliably excellent;
• Avoid areas in which a segment is currently being served well;
• Respond to documented community needs or priorities;
• Anticipate relevant trends and shifts. 

I’ve clustered opportunities into five areas. In exploring them, keep in mind those segments with a low presence or even a slipping middle presence.
1. Take advantage of the availability of segments to increase their presence at the museum.
Consider more summer camps for 5 - 8 year olds and 8 - 11 year olds. Most parents of children in this age range (8 - 11 years, especially) are looking to create full summer schedules. For the same reason, consider camps during winter and spring school holidays for these same groups and consider after-school programming. Preschool-aged children who are not enrolled in regular programs are available during the morning for special toddler times, or mommy and me programs.
 2. Follow children’s interests to increase the appeal of museum offerings.
Many exhibit and program topics emerge from school subject areas and what adults want children to know. This is not necessarily what is of high interest to children. Talk with and observe children to learn about their interests, especially children at the upper end of the age range. Often sports, music, and technology make the list. So will making things, inventing, becoming competent with tools, and learning feats like juggling. Fill gaps in what’s available elsewhere in the community; intrigue and challenge children; and keep to the mission.
3.  Make finer distinctions in developmental shifts.
As children become more interested in peers, opportunities for social interaction become increasingly important. Programs are conducive to social interactions and can be a more effective way to engage children eight years and up in scout and after-school programs; on over-nights in the museum; or as apart of junior volunteer or youth development program.
Older or younger audience groups may not have a high presence at the museum, but serving them very well might maintain their presence. Tailor spaces for these (or other low-presence) segments distributing activities throughout the exhibits. In some children’s museums, areas for toddlers are set aside and distributed throughout exhibits. This option can be used for 8 - 10 year olds. But it does take attention to understanding what is of particular interest to them. This is a mini-research project. Count where children 8 - 10 year olds currently have the highest presence in exhibits; ask them what they like about that area and why; build on their interests, add an activity layer, expand text, etc. Create a magnet for that segment.
Families with preschoolers are looking for age-appropriate ways to celebrate holidays. Tailor not-so-spooky Halloween, New Years at Noon, Valentines Day, and Earth Day for toddlers. 
4. Strengthen events that serve families with children across the age range, including the upper end of the age range.
There are events families share together even as children seemingly age out of them. Increasingly “cool” children and youth can make an exception for family activities as parts of traditions. Some of these traditions are museum Halloween events, the gingerbread house c=design contest, or New Years celebration.
5. Bring existing content and expertise to new segments and sub-segments.
There are audience segments within segments a museum already serves that it may be able to serve better. For instance, if a museum serves children 2 through 14 years, it very likely can also serve that age group with special needs. Many museums already have set times for children with autism or immune deficiency. There are many families and school groups looking for great experiences for their children with special needs.
Museums have valuable expertise in informal learning that can supplement strategies and approaches teachers use in the classroom. Museums can bring an understanding of the value of play, hands-on learning, early literacy development, or inquiry to teachers in professional development workshops, institutes, or academies.

A Way of Thinking and Planning
By no means is this a complete list of engagement strategies and not all of these changes will produce high volume changes. Every museum can expand engagement strategies for its audience groups by being intentional in delivering varied experiences to its audience segments that are responsive to their interests and availability. 

Developing engagement strategies is not easy. Implementing them doesn’t happen in a snap. But I also know there is no silver bullet. With tight resources for the foreseeable future and a growing interest in sustainability, museums will continue to operate in an environment of accountability. Well-honed engagement strategies, however, have the added benefit of serving a museum’s audience more fully. 

Please share! What engagement strategies have you found successful at your museum?