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.

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