Sunday, October 30, 2011

Essential Experiences: Where Museums Can Matter

Museums want to matter. They want to matter to their communities and to their visitors in large and small ways. Those hopes are expressed in their missions; they guide museums in framing the future and in making major decisions. Museums work to build connections with their communities, place visitors at the center of their thinking, and find meaningful ways to engage children and adults in exhibits and programs in order to matter.

Yet, a vast expanse of territory exists between intending to provide meaningful experiences and actually doing so. Missions are typically lofty and aspirational; they don’t readily translate into experiences for learners or something a family can do on a visit. Conducting audience research about whether a museum’s experiences are meaningful is ambitious, if not out-of-reach of most museums. Exhibit goals can miss the mark as well by being narrow and primarily focusing on cognitive areas such as thinking skills and knowledge.

Museums can, however, be deliberate in delivering a set of essential experiences that make a difference in people’s lives and, eventually, in the collective life of their community. Essential experiences are valuable opportunities that build on and contribute to the potential of the visitors in areas that move a museum towards its mission and achieving its impact. While museums alone cannot change life outcomes, they can focus their expertise, efforts, and resources on creating and delivering root experiences in areas that matter. 

At the Convergence
Most museums have a handful of opportunities that would be a starting place for a set of essential experiences. Perhaps a favorite phrase or powerful image surfaces and is repeated. “Frequent and positive experiences with nature,” “a time and a place to be children”, or “coming together as a family” might galvanize teams and resonate strongly as experiences your museum values.

A museum’s essential experiences emerge from its mission; on behalf of its audience; and from opportunities afforded by its strengths and distinct features.

Essential experiences are where a museum needs to deliver over time in order to act on its mission and reach its stated outcomes. A mission gives direction about what experiences matter: people discovering and valuing nature; the role of science in everyday life; children’s well-being; understanding works of art; or sustaining our community. These are clues about how children might succeed in life, how a community might be healthier, or what a brighter future might look like. Essential experiences build on these hopes and beliefs. 

Essential experiences are for the audience, building on their potential, and considered from their vantage point. They can be developed for priority audience groups such as children, youth, or families and might be tailored to an age cohort or interest group. Essential experiences focus on and are inspired by potential, by an image of vibrant, competent, curious children, connected youth, motivated educators, engaged citizens, or involved parents. For Louisiana Children’s Museum’s Early Learning Village, positive outcomes for children, families and the community inform the essential experiences. Robust, healthy children become responsible, caring adults who, in turn, contribute their strengths to their children and to their communities in the future.

A museum’s advantage in contributing significant experiences and influencing outcomes is where its strengths complement what other organizations and agencies offer–and don’t offer. As informal learning environments, museums are social settings, where participation is self-motivated, guided by learner interests, voluntary and personal, contextually relevant, collaborative, and non-linear. In these attributes are opportunities during out of school time, for families, bringing people together, and using rich objects and environments. A museum’s particular valued contribution is in its partnerships, its collection, its site, and its story.

Framing Experiences
Similar to building blocks, essential experiences support internal resources, positive developmental processes, and protective factors. While they emerge from the mission and connect with strongly held organizational values, they are also grounded in research, supported by theory, and reinforced by community wisdom. Enjoying many of these experiences is associated with a firmer toe-hold in life, with flourishing, and helps advance well-being, strong families, engaged citizens, or increased social cohesion.

A set of experiences will not, and need not, be exhaustive. They should, however, be rich and varied. Building block experiences span domains, tapping into the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional dimensions. They are holistic and inclusive, accommodating children and adults from a wide variety of backgrounds. For some parts of the museum audience, essential experiences reinforce a good start or provide an extra boost; for others these experiences serve as protective factors against challenge and risk. Delivering these experiences alone will not change life outcomes. Doing so, however, represents a well-informed step towards building on capabilities and intentionally adding positive factors to members of the community.

Children and adults should enjoy essential experiences regularly with their family, friends, peers, and new members of a group at the museum, as well as in other settings. More than an activity like problem solving or reading, essential experiences are opportunities with long tails. Close observation of the world; experiencing wonder, beauty, and awe; and following interests and motivations to explore personal questions are experiences that contribute to a long-term experiential bank, enhancing internal assets.

Essential experiences may be framed by a museum team or with community members as part of many museum-planning processes. They can be identified in planning a new museum as the emerging Children’s Museum of Sonoma County did or as Louisiana Children’s Museum has in planning its early childhood campus, the Early Learning Village. Tamarack Nature Center designated essential experiences when it reinvented itself through its master planning process. These platform experiences can be identified during exhibit master planning as The Family Museum has. Providence Children’s Museum has developed Avenues of Play Experiences for its Play Power initiative. In every case, essential experiences need to emerge from a museum’s core interests and be easy to communicate to staff, board members, and partners.

Naming Experiences
Essential experiences are an invitation to capture, name, and cultivate assets that we hope children, youth, adults, and members of our community enjoy. Rather than focusing on skills, communicating exhibit content, or interpreting principles, these experiences emphasize what happens for the person. Solving a problem for someone else, being at the spot where a view is revealed, or transforming materials for new uses draws on internal resources and contributes to a solid foundation for life.

Describing an experience in a way that is more poetic than clinical makes room for interpretation and insight. While clear and backed up by evidence, these experiences are not narrow, nor are they necessarily tangible. Finding respite in nature, being touched by art, connecting with place, or making the most of everyday moments fuses thinking, feeling, and doing with a generative quality.

The Early Learning Village focuses on offering essential experiences that cultivate: a robust sense of self; supportive relationships; a sense of well-being; making sense of the world; and a child’s expanding sense of the world. These five areas reflect what matters to the ELV’s target age range in the Greater New Orleans area and highlight adults’ critical roles. They work as a set, strong in all domains. Each is a platform supported by more specific experiences. For instance, a robust sense of self is supported by Pursuing appropriate risk and experiencing disappointment and failure in a safe environment and four other related experiences which are all supported by many and specific activities and moments. The ELV’s essential experiences have guided facility and exhibit design and are the areas in which it is building capacity.

Each and every encounter with exhibits, programs, events, take-homes, on-line activities, or walking through the museum door, offers children and adults an opportunity to engage in a rich, experience that matters and contributes to their individual resources. Museums support building block experiences when they are intentional in many and everyday ways.

A museum’s commitment to its experiences guides planning, revisiting and recalibrating an outdoor site, exhibit component, family night, badge project, or professional development workshop. In which part of the site do visitors connect with nature through all the senses? How does this particular component help a learner reduce uncertainty by seeking and gathering information? In what ways does someone enjoy a sense of well-being here? How is our staff prepared to provide attention, guidance, and support to parents? to children? to seniors? Considering questions like these and finding ways to intentionally support and strengthen experiences that matter for visitors is foundational work for museums that matter.

Remembering Peter Benson
As I have been thinking about essential experiences, I have been remembering Dr. Peter Benson, a great champion of youth and what it takes for them to thrive. Until he passed away October 2, Dr. Benson led the Search Institute ( in its remarkable work on positive youth development work that has made a difference to children, families, and communities across the country.

Museums have used assets for healthy development for understanding what children and youth need, as tools for planning exhibits and programs, in interacting with visitors, and as inspiration for essential experiences. In 2010, Dr Benson accepted the Association of Children’s Museums’ Great Friend to Kids Award on behalf of the Search Institute.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Convivial Conference

An invitation to the dance
The recent ASTC Conference in Baltimore was a convivial gathering. It held together with a quality highlighted in Wendy Pollock’s and Kathleen McLean’s session about their book The Convivial Museum.

I hesitate to use the term convivial. The rush to use a fresh and evocative phrase or image soon flattens and dulls it. I so like their idea of being alive together. A range of offerings, an invitation to be open to new ideas, and a spirit of collegiality came together at the conference.

We come to professional conferences to step back and recharge our batteries; to have our sense of the possible expanded; to connect with friends and colleagues; and to mark changes in our profession’s growth. We find that some ideas have blossomed over the year and others have faded. We discover useful connections between our work and that of our colleagues. We expand our understanding of how to be helpful and valued in our communities. We take away more than we realize in ideas, thoughts, connections, inspirations, and probably business cards. If we are fortunate, this harvest will perplex and nourish us in interesting ways over the next many months.

Thumbing through my conference notebook, I catch phrases, fragments, quotes, and ah-ha’s that are underlined, *asterisked*, and bolded. I like rereading them again now, recalling what was said before and after, thinking about why they struck me at the time, and focusing on ways they sharpen and consolidate my thinking. They are all over the place: macro and micro with both bottom up push and top-down energy. Many have an elegance and a brevity in spite of their yoking together seemingly mismatched elements. Thoughts I’ve carried away and will noodle on follow in no deliberate order.

         A playful mindset. Karen Wilkinson, Tinkering Studio Director, used this wonderfully evocative phrase to describe the Exploratorium’s approach to encouraging interdisciplinary inquiry and materials exploration in its Learning Studio

Working with a playful mindset in the exhibit hall
         Art is essential; people are primary. Betsy Adamson, from Explora gracefully negotiated the seemingly competing priorities of a museum’s works of art and its audience by valuing both in different ways in her presentation in The Convivial Museum.

         Logical necessity is an experience we are not told, but that we know. Ricardo Nemirovsky engaged participants in experiencing his meaning in physical demonstrations and movement exercises in Learning Math With Your Body. I liked the primacy of direct, first-hand experience in knowing.

         Planning for imagined audiences. In one of the early sessions, Reinvention Redux, a young woman who expressed a strong interest in cultural theory made this astute observation. I take as a caution that we often assume we know more than we do about our audience, the people we should know the most about and be learning from.

         If you don’t give parents something to do, they might not do anything. Lorrie Beaumont, Evergreene Research, made this simple, straightforward connection in Assessing Caregiver-Child Interactions in Museum Exhibits. We know how critical parents are to children coming to science centers and museums, to scaffolding and extending their learning, and to taking experiences home. And yet, we fall short in finding ways to fully engage parents in exhibits and programs. 

         You can’t judge what happened in the past by what we’re capable of today. Michael Specter, keynote speaker and author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives farmed this basic and critical idea: managing multiple, and sometimes conflicting, perspectives at the same time.

         The only visions that take hold are shared visions—and you will create them only when you listen very, very closely to others, appreciate their hopes, and attend to their needs. Ace Everette from Randi Korn & Associates shared this from, “To Lead, Create A Shared Vision” by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (Harvard Business Review). Developing and acting on a shared vision–a vision of a museum’s future, a shared understanding of learning, or a shared commitment to the audience–is an everyday best practice at all levels of an organization.

         The maker movement feels like a transition point from being a consuming culture to a producing culture. This seemingly targeted observation made by Eric Siegel from NySci is, in fact, a very big idea with enormous opportunity for museums.

         Conversing with phenomena. Karen Wilkinson quoted Hubert Dyasi Professor of Science Education and Director of the Workshop Center at CUNY. This rich image captures the poetry in play and science expressed in the 100Languages of Children and explored in Playing With… Paper.

       We know it. Why don’t we do it? KathyMcLean posed this question in talking about creating convivial museums. It insists on the obvious and we could–and should–do in evaluating alternatives, making choices, allocating resources.
Viewing, wondering, and laughing high atop the Maryland Science Center

The thinking and sharing, conversations and questions at a conference are revisited and drawn on throughout the year and over the years. This engagement serves as a strong point for our work. It moves us forward in many ways including towards creating museums as places for being alive together. What words, images, and questions engage you and will push your thinking and practice forward?  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Playing with ….. Paper

Tower cut from one sheet of paper: Peter Callesen Papercut

Paper is so everyday, ordinary, and ubiquitous. Its basic properties are so familiar they seem unimpressive, but somehow, that just seems to increase paper’s possibilities. Even when paper is used, it can be re-used and sometimes it's up-use is even more astounding.

Something remarkable about paper and, for that matter, other familiar materials such as water, clay, wire, fabric, sand, paint, wood, light is:

Paper has two lives. First, getting to know paper. Later doing something with it.

At virtually any age–baby, toddler, preschooler, children, tween, teen, and adult, and including, artists, designers, engineers, scientists, cooks and bakers, sewers, fix-it guys, plumbers, fabricators, sculptors (I’ll stop here)–first explore a material to find out how it behaves, responds, and changes. Information from messing about sparks connections and ideas and shapes a goal to reach for.

Learning About Paper
Exploring paper may begin with any of these actions:
Bend, braid, burn; coil, color, crimp, crumple, curl, cut; dissolve; fold, flip; glue, grease; mold; layer; paint, pleat, pierce, press, print, pulp; recycle, rip, ruffle; scratch, shred; soak, stack, stitch, stuff; tear, turn, twist; weave, or wrap.

Paper loves verbs and in many combinations. What happens when I crumple this big green sheet of tissue paper? It makes a quiet, rustling sound; it feels soft, dry, crinkly. How small does it get if I crush it tighter? It’s small, round like a ball and hidden in my hand. Open my up and smooth out the sheet. It’s big and flat again, but now with criss-crossing wrinkle lines. Like roads. There’s a tiny tear on one of the roads. How does the paper tear? It tears every-which-way in one direction. It tears in long straight lines in the other, tearing fast or slow. One big sheet of tissue paper is now 8 long strips. Folding a strip in the middle; twisting and twisting. Folding it in the middle again and twisting more. Let go of the ends and it doesn’t untwist. Tie the crumpled, smoothed, torn, twisted tissue paper in a knot. Spread the ends flat between the thumb and forefinger. One end is much longer; tear that off. 
Crumpled, wrinkled, flattened, torn, twisted and tied
One green sheet of tissue paper carries all this information; and it’s not even written on the paper itself. It is released through the research of a child or adult wondering, touching, testing, noticing, questioning what will happen if and what happened when. Introducing paint, glue, tape, water, or using a scissors or a hair dryer extends the investigation into paper’s properties. 

Then there are the explorations of many other types of paper: cardboard, acetate, Letter or A4 paper, butcher paper, cellophane, magazines, newspaper. What might sound like a preschool activity easily moves into classrooms, workshops, studios, exhibits, and maker faires.

Playing with Paper, Exploring Ideas
Paper’s second life relies on knowing how paper behaves, responds, and changes. Children and adults enjoy greater control with this knowledge in work on projects or activities: making shapes, constructing 3-d forms, investigating structures, or exploring motion.

Adding a twist and a touch to the paper helicopter
Familiarity with paper shifts the emphasis to doing and thinking about what’s going on with paper flying machines. Flat, lightweight, easily foldable, crisp creases, paper’s attributes suit it for paper airplane design and construction. Trim the paper plane to get it to float gently down; toss at different speeds and angles. Vary the design to test flight times and distances. Other paper flyers like helicopters also draw on paper’s properties. Dropping them from over head (or from a chair) suggests questions about why they spin as they fall, how air pushes up against the blades, bending them up a little and pushing sideways on the two blades. Paper and many paper products are familiar and inexpensive materials, like small paper cups. They work for quick, iterative experiments with moving air: snip the edges, toss above a blowing fan. Observe the falling, floating cup; now think about new ways to snip and bend the strips. Follow with a succession of quick redesigns. 

 Visiting Cardburg

Children and adults work with cardboard's properties–stiff, sturdy, springy, strong in one direction, and weak in another–to build at a large scale, create BIG constructions, and change the environment; these are experiences with merit but not often provided in museums. Crawling into and through boxes; opening them up and flattening them; stacking boxes, building walls and bridges... these activities and others support explorations with spatial reasoning, gravity, balance, and strength. Add tape to the project or Makedo connectors to join units and construct cardboard cityscapes. Few, if any, structures become as elaborate as Cardburg. But there’s always hope.

Everyday familiarity with paper, cardstock, or cardboard applies as well to creating automata, those quirky, appealing mechanical toys. Stories, nature, or imaginations inspire these crank-driven moving sculptures powered by combinations of simple machines. Cams, cranks, gears, ratchets, levers, and pulleys produce a range of movements–up, down, around– that bring blooming flowers, celestial events, and flying fish to life.

Learning New Lessons
Familiar, friendly, and unpretentious, paper is an entry point for a wide, wide range of skill levels, thought processes, and interests. For toddlers and young children, the hand and finger action involved in reaching, gripping, tearing or twisting paper or rolling a cardboard tube reflects brainwork. 

Moving up the age range, explorations of paper are a bridge to complex thought processes: ordering, sequencing, and patterning; exploring cause-and-effect, sparking connections; asking questions; naming and describing materials, ideas, and processes; relating 2 and 3 dimensions; and taking different perspectives. Exploring paper is actually part of a larger dialogue, sometimes with others and always with past experiences. The possibilities of abundant quantities of paper, varied and novel types of paper, or paper in unusual forms, like pulp, support and extend these and other investigations.

In the Paper Factory at Minnesota Children’s Museum, a giant pulper continuously produces paper pulp for making paper by hand or pressing paper medallions. To make medallions, children scoop pulp onto a drawer of a small press, place a carved mold on top, and push in the drawer. Turning a wheel applies pressure that squeezes water from the pulp. Reversing the wheel releases the pressure; the drawer can be opened and the medallion removed. A gentle nudge dislodges a 2" diameter (genuine) pressed medallion. On one of my visits, I overheard 11-year old Joe say, “I could do this for a living when I grow up.” Indeed, he did make medallion production his afternoon’s work: scoop, press, release; dry the medallion; choose a mold with another design; repeat; add glitter or a sprinkle of confetti. Line up the medallions and carefully package each one.  Joe’s concentration was impressive as was his evident pride in medallion production.
Following in Joe's footsteps: an avid medallion maker
Perpetual paper pulper at Minnesota Children's Museum

Paper’s Third Life
If exploring a material can delight toddlers as it does in the You-tube video of a laughing baby tearing paper as well as inspire Peter Callesen to create Papercuts and Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave to make 18th century fashions out of paper,  well, it is not too much to concede that playing with paper has enormous possibilities

So, maybe paper actually has three lives. First, getting to know it and how it behaves. Then doing something with it. Finally, fully exploiting paper with inspiration and imagination. How does paper inspire you?

Paper Info, Museums, and Exhibits
• Robert C. Williams Paper Museum:
• Cardboard Institute of Technology at the Exploratorium:
• Smithsonian Institution’s Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, Turn:

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Dance: Informal & Formal Learning

Just one example of informal learning in its many dimensions

For years, I viewed the relationship between formal education and informal learning as a kind of dance. Two partners move in relation with one another inspired by a shared goal of educating students and serving the public. This image fit when I worked in public education in professional development and when I moved to museums. At Minnesota Children’s Museum, school visits and field trip programs were a high priority. Our long-term school partnerships reflected local school priorities and they grew. Curricula and kits that we developed, whether on geometry or water, were hands-on, for small group or family learning, and place-based. Yet they always reflected topics, skills, or resources where teachers expressed a need for support. Along with others, I described museums and informal learning as enhancing
, complementing, or supplementing formal education.

Finding Our Stride
Verbs matter. Enhancing, complementing, or supplementing are following verbs. For years, informal learning in museums was following formal education.

Learning, or at least our understanding of it, has been undergoing a transformation. Virtually all people of all ages and backgrounds are, at some time, engaged in informal learning, characterized as self-motivated, guided by learner interests, voluntary and personal, contextually relevant, collaborative, and non-linear. Opportunities for out-of-classroom learning through media, museums, zoos, libraries, nature areas, recreational activities, hobby clubs, community programs, on-line courses and resources (+ big etc.) are abundant and increasing. An estimated 80% of a child’s learning between the time she enters kindergarten and graduates from high school happens outside the classroom

Currents of change have placed informal learning in a pivotal role in life-long learning, classroom learning, and the broader educational infrastructure.

Given a persistent achievement gap, an inadequate supply of scientists and engineers, and the US slipping internationally in education, the promise of informal learning environments grows. That potential has also been at the heart of thinking, research, discussions, studies, and reports including the National Research Council’s Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits (LSIE). In many ways the 2009 IMLS project Museums, Libraries, and 21stCentury Skills also lays the foundation for museums and libraries to assume a larger and pro-active role in bringing informal learning environments to the forefront of a dynamic 21st century learning society. More recently, a posting on the Center for the Future of Museums raised the question of museums as major players on a completely new educational landscape that is on the horizon.
Not Entirely There
Returning to the dance metaphor and working it a bit harder: Museums need to pay closer attention to the music and how good at dancing they really are. At least weekly I encounter cases where, unwittingly, museums follow, and sometimes mimic, formal education ignoring the tremendous assets available in their own informal learning environments.

Several years ago I started noticing museum annual reports with color photos of children eagerly raising their hands; photo captions mention how the museum serves schools. Perhaps these photos had long been there and I finally woke up to the disconnect: representing children’s enthusiasm and learning capabilities in a dynamic, object rich and free-choice museum environment using a trite symbol for traditional and teacher-directed learning.

Just this past week I came across two examples of how formal ed frames perspectives in museums. A statement on a museum resource website said, “Museums enable us to supplement the formal, structured, curriculum-driven model encountered in classrooms.” In a recent and otherwise excellent article in a professional journal, science centers and museums were referred to as 3-dimensional textbooks of science. Do we ever refer to textbooks as 2-dimensional museums?

More classroom, less museum
A formal ed mindset is strong as well in designing and outfitting non-exhibit museums spaces. With few exceptions, classroom spaces in museums are replicas of school classrooms, with tables and chairs replacing desks. In fact, these spaces are generally called classrooms on the building directory. The creative thinking and fresh design that shape multi-sensory, flexible, contextual, and sometimes immersive exhibit environments manage to  leave workshop, studio, and lab environments completely untouched.

More museum, less classroom

While I feel impatient, there are understandable reasons for not yet having full traction. In a session at the Visitor Studies Association conference Joe Heimlich highlighted one reason. Most educational theory and frameworks have been developed using formal education with captured audiences and time frames and treatments useful to schools. Without fully registering this difference, we generalize from formal ed with captive audiences, individual cognition, and text-based approaches to settings where learning is voluntary, sparked by personal interest, contextual, social, and object based.

Learning New Steps
Transitions take time, especially transitions from a following role to stepping out and leading. Evidence of the shift that is occurring is gratifying and insightful. For instance, the 2006 Tamarack Nature Center (MN) master plan noted how environmental education professionals had allowed formal educational policy and standardized tests to determine the focus of programs, teaching methods, and the commitment to informal learning experiences–at the expense of a lasting connection to nature. In a recent Museum Commons blog, Gretchen Jennings reflected on how she had brought her public school perspective to museums, over time arriving at new ways of thinking about museum learning independent of formal ed.

Museums need to actively own and advance their learning territory and do so with a sense of urgency. Changes in the world of learning are unfolding right now; and they are changing in the direction that resonates with the very attributes that distinguish informal learning environments from formal education. They are self-directed, personal and social, evidence rich, with engaging physical contexts. Museums can amplify their contributions to a more robust and extensive learning landscape across communities and the lifespan. 

A common framework for informal learning independent of formal ed is needed. And while multiple theoretical frameworks exist, they have yet to be integrated, a task made more challenging by the need to recognize perspectives of different fields and a wide range of settings. Initiatives like Falk and Dierking’s 2007 In Principle, In Practice explore and make explicit connections among research, evaluation, and practice in museum learning. Frameworks such as the proposed Ecological Framework Across Places and Pursuits from LSIE pick up the challenge as well.

Advancing the potential of informal learning happens as well in the everyday work of creating learning experiences and environments. Museums serve learners across a wide age range, across generations, and across the community. Their array of interactive learning and experience strategies and methods is rich, varied, and enviable. They enjoy significant potential for engaging learners in meeting personal goals, museum learning interests, and community priorities. As they explore, articulate, and study these strategies, methods, practices, and impacts, program developers, educators, prototypers, designers, and evaluators can build a shared vocabulary, test new approaches, learn informally themselves, and inform the larger discussion.

Let the dance continue. Informal learning environments can be both partners with formal education and, it appears, lead the next dance.

Some Related Resources
•            In Principle, In Practice: Museums as Learning Institutions. (2007). John H. Falk, Lynn D. Dierking       and Susan Foutz (Eds.).
•            Lessons Without Limits. (2002). John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking.
•            Perspectives on Object-centered Learning in Museums. (2002). Scott G. Paris (Ed.); Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.
•            Learning in School and Out. (1987). Lauren Resnick. Educational Researcher; 16-30.