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 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 its 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 (www.search-institute.org) 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.

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