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.


  1. Thanks for posting, Jeanne. I wasn't able to go this year so it's been great to be able to read about happenings. Sorry to miss you! XO

  2. Look at all those cars! They all look stunning! What makes them even cooler is that they're made from recycled and re-purposed items. I applaud everyone who joined in this parade. They are definitely one creative bunch!

    -Saundra Gorder