Monday, June 27, 2011

Collective Wisdom for Starting and Growing Museums


Skyline at Chicago Children's Museum (Eileen Ruan Photograhy ©2011)
A great new tool set is now available and on-line to help power dreams of starting museums for children. It’s the Association of Children’s Museum’s Collective Vision Toolkit for Starting and Sustaining a Children’s Museum.

I can only imagine how starting Madison Children’s Museum might have progressed 30+ years ago had we had had the Collective Vision Toolkit. I’m pretty sure it would have been easier and faster and we would have gotten some things right sooner. That’s probably true as well for other efforts to start hundreds of children’s museums across the country and around the world over the last 30 years.

The Collective Vision Toolkit is a priceless on-line resource of collective wisdom from people who have started museums, lead new museums, and grown museums to become recognized and valued community resources. While I’ve helped start a children’s museum, work as a museum planner with emerging children’s museums, and worked on this Toolkit, I’m still finding new and useful resources and learning new things inside the toolkit.

The idea for an on-line resource that could provide the basics for every start-up came from an anonymous donor and a true friend of children’s museums. In 2008 the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) began thinking about possible content and format. The next year, it handed off development to Mary Maher, Editor of Hand To Hand and Collective Vision, John Noonan, Executive Director at GreatLake Children’s Museum , and me.

The Toolkit is an ACM members only resource currently available on a demo site for ACM’s new website and available through the summer. Check it out at: www.childrensmuseums.org


Getting to Know the Toolkit
The Toolkit is accessible, conveniently organized, and multi-layered. Toolkit topics are just what you would expect and, perhaps, more important, would hope for in navigating new territory with a group of friends or a fledgling board to plan a museum for children. Topics range from the nitty gritty of getting tax-exempt status to a more philosophical meander through learning in museums. Topic titles such as Site Selection and Marketing are straight-forward. When a topic like Founding Governance does require some unpacking, it’s expanded: Gathering the people and building the structure to govern your museum.

Twelve topics move in a general sequence from the earliest glimmer of, “Let’s start a children’s museum” to opening the doors and considering what comes next. Steps are a clear, intuitive organizing principle. As a step-based approach the Toolkit is still both process oriented and flexible. Reinforcing this, Mary encourages both a beginning-to-end pathway and a pick-and-choose approach in her Toolkit introduction. The Case Studies in the final section, Opening the Doors, demonstrate this in being valuable for a museum at any stage of the process.

Each topic has three sections: an overview, common questions, and resources. The overview starts with highlights of what a museum has typically accomplished when it is at this step. It’s followed by a checklist for moving forward and by some of the sub-steps and issues likely at this point. This is a great set-up for the resources that follow: templates of standard documents, sample letters and policies, links to more online resources and organizations, and a bibliography. The FAQ’s handle perennial questions and address complicated or sensitive situations that arise over the course of any journey.

While valuable for starting any museum, these materials are customized for children’s museums. This is helpful in the somewhat specialized areas of early learning and hands-on exhibits.


Collective Wisdom
Something may seem amiss in calling this blog entry: Collective Wisdom for Starting and Growing Museums. After all, Collective Vision is the well-known title of ACM’s 1997 publication. Its collected advice from those who have created children’s museums addresses a full range of considerations for others on a similar path. In 14 years it has become a touchstone among museum leaders, more than a few of who have used it as a resource to start or expand a museum. 

This same collective wisdom and more is present in the Toolkit. Questions posted on ChildMus and years’ of helpful responses are covered. Should we hire professional fundraisers? Or, someone has offered us a great space for free in a mall/other location; should we take it? A synthesis of current thinking and practice provides background on and orientation to topics like fundraising, budgets, and staff and volunteers.

As an on-line resource, however, the Toolkit is even more a product of collective wisdom. Links to BoardSource, Guidestar, the Kellogg Foundation Communication Toolkitand dozens more organizations connect to their focused wisdom.

Within a rich range of resources are what I consider working tools: ready-to-use templates, like “Board Phone Log for Donor Thank You Outreach” and “Museum Trustee Evaluation” (with a place for a museum’s logo). They have been road tested by John Noonan who most generously has shared sample documents, templates, and forms. His collection has justifiably been called a goldmine. At past Emerging Museums Pre-conferences John provided templates on a CD. These CD’s were such great resources that afterwards he continued to not only get requests for them, but also received e-mails thanking him for them.

Starting Museums
Besides providing valuable content for starting a museum, the Toolkit is a helpful guide about the nature of the start-up process itself. Although steps in starting a museum are sequential, they are not automatic. The case studies illustrate this with variations in the sequence of a fairly standard process. Site selection, for instance, may happen earlier in the process as an opportunity or later when many pieces are in place and having a location is needed for fundraising to really kick in.

“At this point there is…” followed by a list of key accomplishments relevant to each step actively reaches out to folks navigating this new territory. I was delighted when John introduced this format. It orients and provides a simple diagnostic of whether this is the right step and whether the museum is ready. Is there a board ready to carry the mission to the next level? Are the articles of incorporation filed with the state? Is there a letter confirming your existence? If these and a few other conditions are met, it’s the right time to take the step. On the other hand, if many or most of these conditions aren’t completed, the museum isn’t ready. A close look at those conditions helps determine where to place effort.

“At this point” and “key accomplishments” often refer to other steps in the Toolkit and reflect the inherent interconnectedness of decisions. The checklist for “Moving Forward” extends a helping hand by addressing important accomplishments to focus on at each step. In Staff and Volunteers, a museum is advised to use the strategic business plan and museum master plan to determine the key positions to fill and in what order. Equally important, suggested actions point to the value of thinking of ahead: “Lay the foundation for a positive organizational culture and climate.”

The Collective Vision Toolkit has a strong and natural connection to ACM’s Emerging Museums Pre-conference at InterActivity. Both are ACM services to start-up member museums. Some Toolkit material was prepared for and presented by John, me, and others at past pre-conferences. The Toolkit also has significant potential value as structure and content for the Emerging Museums Pre-conference. In turn, the Pre-conference can become a vehicle for developing and gathering more and current resources, and updating the Toolkit annually.


Growing Museums
The Toolkit is not just for emerging museums. Even experienced executive directors leading museums of every size need to re-ground in areas over the years. Filing for non-profit status happens just once in an organization’s life. But board development and reviewing the mission statement is needed every year-or-so. Revisiting exhibit planning can be valuable before any large project. The Toolkit helps in getting oriented, finding resources, and preparing for work. 

Links to other ACM resources also broaden the Toolkit’s usefulness to more kinds of museums and museums at different stages of development. Building and Exhibits links to the ACM Product and Resources List, to Green Exhibits, and to Healthy Kids, Healthy Museums publication. Staff and Volunteers links to ACM’s HR Support Toolkit.

Established museums share similarities with start-up museums at different times. In preparing to grow or change in a significant way, a museum needs many of the same resources that a start-up museum needs. As a museum explores relocating, expanding at its current site, launching a capital campaign, or rethinking its exhibits, it faces many of the same questions, processes, and challenges as a museum starting up. When a major project is complete, that museum is inexperienced in its new context very much like a new museum.  Having worked with museums that are expanding and reinventing themselves, I know the Toolkit has relevant resources for guiding and strengthening them as they navigate change.

The Toolkit is full of spot-on advice for museums preparing for change, increasing capacity, or trying to meet annual goals. One piece of advice tops my list: “Though different people have different roles, fundraising is everyone's responsibility.”  

Toolkit With a Future
The Toolkit was designed with a flexible format. Individual sections and forms can be updated and added. Updating is not only standard in an on-line world, but also reflects the reality in which museums start and grow. Museums interact with a dynamic environment; practices evolve; established museums take risks and learn; and new tools like ACM’s Benchmarking Calculator are developed. These and other changes can and should be integrated with the Toolkit. New case studies should highlight emerging trends.

When Minnesota Children’s Museum built its new building in 1993-1995, I read and re-read (and re-read) a 1986 draft of a case study of Boston Children’s Museum moving to Museum Wharf in 1976 - 1979 by Elaine Gurian. I think the Toolkit is that kind of resource for others. And more.  As an on-line tool, it’s fast, current, updatable, with direct links to vast resources. Those qualities and the possibility of children’s museums for more communities will make The Toolkit the must-have, often-used, and ever-referenced resource.

The more the Toolkit is used and added to, the stronger, more useful it becomes. I encourage you to visit the Toolkit. Think about and share with me, ACM, and others, your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions.

Add to the collective wisdom.
•                  Are resources you have found helpful included in the Toolkit?
•                  What resources would you like to see added?
•                  Do you know of any resources that are specific to children’s museums to add?
•                  Are there sections that can it be stronger?
•                  Are there more ways the Toolkit can relate to the other tools, such as Collective Vision?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Ready for Play



“Do you want to make mud with me?”

I was flattered at this invitation from a four year old girl at the recent opening of the nature play area at Tamarack Nature Center in White Bear, MN. It was just one of many expressions of enthusiasm, excitement, and delight from the hundreds of children, parents, grandparents, and neighbors who welcomed the addition of a regional resource for outdoor play.

Located about 20 minutes north of downtown St Paul, Tamarack Nature Center is in the process of transforming itself from a traditional nature center to a community resource in the region’s well-being infrastructure. This has come about through a fundamental rethinking of experiences in and with nature that Ramsey County Parks and Recreation has undertaken over the past 7 years. The nature play area, occupying approximately half an acre of the 320-acre nature center site, is the first of several planned destinations for discovery.

Work starts immediately on gathering stones and damming the water.
This is a kind of “nature’s backyard” where children can play freely, explore the outdoors, and connect with the natural world. These play environments hearken to the wood lots, fields, stream edges, and rocky outcroppings where generations of children have played and that now surface in  environmental autobiographies. The area’s stream system, rock walls and caves, logs and hollows, gardens, and (naturally) mud play was designed by MIG, a Berkeley CA firm that plans, designs, and manages children’s environments and programs.

The space isn’t perfect. It’s not entirely natural; it’s not completely finished; and the first year plantings haven’t taken hold. But as a nature’s backyard it works. It is a great big invitation to children to play. As I watched them explore the areas, children were up to their elbows and knees in all forms of nature play and loving it, in spite of the unseasonably cool weather that morning. And while adults worry that children aren’t playing and don’t know how to play, these children were active and engaged. They explored, took risks, got dirty, and completely soaked. They worked with other children, tried out ideas, and had fun.

These children showed they know how to play. Given our concerns about how children are playing outdoors, we might follow their cues about what happens when the get outside and play.

Water–pumping, pouring, swishing, sprinkling, splashing
Sand, dirt, and water call to children. The 4 year-old girl that I met probably doesn’t often spend time in or with mud. But she knew what she wanted: mud. Children are drawn to the feel of water, the brush of sand, and the squish of mud. The roll of gravel, the heft of rocks, and the rough of bark are inviting, interesting, suggestive textures. They are qualities that  define the loose parts that children roll, move, lift, carry, pile, and stack. They enhance the possibilities of objects and they multiply the possibilities of play.
A climbing adventure physical, imaginary
Place matters in play. Outdoors or in, children’s play is grounded in a place. Children shape spaces, name places, spin stories, add details, and navigate prominent features. In nature’s backyard, children quickly responded to place-making features and set about transforming places. They changed the stream’s flow, used the rock ledge for lookouts, balanced on logs and leapt into imaginary lagoons. Varied environments afford varied types of play, play that is suggested by landmarks, inspired by great vantage points, incorporates interesting vegetation, hides in enclosures, and conquers open spaces with running. 
Toddler smarts and persistence control water flow.
Children are smart about play. Watching toddlers and tweens and in betweens scamper across the streamscape, it was apparent that they were alert to where to find rocks, handfuls of gravel, sticks, and leaves to float. An 18 month old toddler figured out in-no-time-at-all how to activate the water flow (and flood the sand pit) by tapping on a domed valve. Children’s observations, repetition, trial and error, and cooperation relocated dirt, flooded areas, and got things done.
Play connects children with children. Connections between children and across ages happen during play. Undoubtedly some of these children knew each other beforehand; some were siblings. But many moments I observed involved children meeting up and starting to play. Two boys started to create a dam in the same place in the stream; they started working together. A younger boy couldn’t move the pump handle and some tweens gave him a hand. Two toddlers rushed to the giant bucket and dragged it through the sand. Older children watched out for younger children. 
Logrolling grandma and her fans.


Play inspires talk and stories (and literacy) One grandmother thrilled her grandchildren by challenging them to stand on a big fallen log so she could rock them off the log.  As she did so, she explained the finer points of log rolling. Her grandchildren begged her to repeat not only the description of logrolling but trying to roll them off. Stories and scenarios took shape along the stream and at the mud table. I overheard children saying “I know what this could be…”, “Let’s pretend we are lost,…” and “Have you found the magic stone?”
Ready for play.
Children complete the landscape. A few woodsy edges remain in this newly created and recently planted play area. While planting the site had been going on over the last two months and intensified just before the opening, plants had barely taken hold. What had looked like a sparsely planted area before the gates opened became lush and full of life when children filled in and animated the landscape with movement, flashes of color, and a symphony of sounds.  

Children are ready for play. They may not be getting as much open-ended and outdoor play as we would like for them. But from what I saw, children know just what to do in a loosely structured, material rich, wide open outdoor space. 

An acre is not necessary. Neither is a completely wild place, nor is a comprehensively designed environment. But children do need ready access to a place and a time to play outdoors. And they need frequent opportunities to do so. It could be their own backyard or the neighbors’, behind the garage, under a tree, or in a big puddle.
With reluctance I passed on the tempting invitation to make mud with the friendly 4 year old but not before I introduced her to two 13 year-old girls who were enjoying the mud themselves.

Resources
• Children and Nature: www.childrenandnature.org/
• Progressiveearlychildhoodeducation.blogspot.com/2011/06/
ideas-for-adding-natural-elements-to_18.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&
amp;utm_campaign=Feed%3A+LetTheChildrenPlay+(let+the+children+play)
• Children in Nature Collaborative: www.cincbayarea.org/

Monday, June 13, 2011

Literacy at Play




Sometimes, a very few words paired together just right can open up a very big idea. This happened for me when I read Lucy Calkins’ statement:
The foundation of literacy is talk and play.

Calkins, a reading and writing teacher at Teachers College at Columbia University (NY), may not have been thinking about museums when she paired talk and play. In doing so, however, she drew together what is the foundation for success in school and life, what children do naturally, and what distinguishes museums from other settings for children. Museums, and children’s museums in particular, offer object rich, multi-sensory, experiential, and social environments that invite conversation and questions, build print and word awareness, and give words substance.

Literacy starts early with talking, listening, noticing and asking questions.
Early Literacy
Early literacy is what young children know and learn about reading and writing before they can actually read and write: speaking, listening, reading, writing, and viewing. These parts of language are all interrelated and are developing at the same time.

Babies start to learn language from the day they are born. From the talking, cooing, smiling, and laughing of parents and caregivers, babies develop meaningful speech. As babies grow and develop, their speech and language skills become increasingly complex.

Everyday children see and interact with print around books, magazines, even grocery lists, long before they start elementary school. A child's growing appreciation and enjoyment of print comes through in recognizing words that rhyme, scribbling with crayons, pointing out street signs, and naming letters of the alphabet. Gradually children combine what they know about speaking and listening with what they know about print and become ready to learn to read and write.

An active, informal learning process emerging from a child’s experiences and experiments with language in everyday, real life settings literacy development continues through about 8 years of age.

Success in School and Life
Early literacy lays the foundation for reading and, consequently, for success in school and life. Before a child can master other subjects or communicate what she’s learned, she needs an ability–as well as interest–to read and write. Evidence indicates three factors play a role in strengthening children’s literacy and language development.
•                  Experience with a more capable literate person. Talking builds literacy. But more language– wider vocabulary, talking about things, and being listened to–is key to positive literacy development. Parents especially are in a position to encourage language. They can point out words in the environment, answer questions, and explain the meaning of words. They model the importance of reading, the value of questions, and how to find answers.
•                  Direct engagement with a wide range of experiences and contexts while young. By interacting with varied materials, objects, and processes, children develop first-hand knowledge that is the basis for understanding what they read. A wide range of contexts–home, school, museum, zoo, library, outdoors, friends’ houses–with a wide range of materials allows children to incorporate new ideas into existing understandings about the world.
•                  Something of interest and that serves the child’s purpose. Something must be worth exploring, discovering and talking about. Something novel, something favorite, something beautiful, or something unexpected generates excitement, invites more words and new words; stimulates questions; invites answers; and urges children to look things up.

Museums for Talk and Play
Museums don’t teach reading; and it’s hard to find authentic interactive experiences related to punctuation, spelling, or writing reports. Museums are, however, very fortunate to combine the conditions that encourage literacy and language development for the young learners they serve.

A love of language, stories, and books is easily shared.
Children’s love of and growing competence with language are undeniable assets. Think of a baby’s delight as she points at and names objects. Who hasn’t joined the fun as a child rhymes words? Or been astounded by a child’s use of big words, dinosaur names, or the technical terms for construction vehicles? Parents often relate a child’s vigilance at a skipped word while listening to a favorite book. Or think about children making up words, developing codes, or making signs for forts. Naming objects, rhyming words, print and word awareness, and comprehension are all literacy skills children delight in and play with.

•                  Museums are social settings with a large contingent of capable literate people. Staff, volunteers, parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers, and older siblings have a high presence in exhibits and programs. In fact, probably the adult - child ratio in a children’s museum is higher than in any other setting except an infant care environment. During a museum visit, members of family, school, and community groups describe and name objects, listen, offer definitions, share information, read text, and look up information, demonstrating a wide range of literacy skills.
Physical and narrative scaffolding is helpful during play.

If a museum intends to encourage literacy development among its visitors, it can find ways to engage adults (and older playmates) with developed literacy skills. Step one is building literacy awareness and an understanding of literacy development among staff and volunteers. Training in literacy behaviors prepares staff to encourage literacy during play: describe objects in rich language, ask open-ended questions, define terms, record children’s words, and introduce vocabulary that children can use. Prepared staff can scaffold (provide support for children’s use of vocabulary, use literacy elements like signs during play, etc.) and model scaffolding for parents and caregivers.

Print everywhere in unexpected places (Minnesota Children’s Museum)
•                  Museum environments are dynamic, visually rich, and offer diverse opportunities for engagement with words and language. They are also full of environmental clues that convey that language is important, that words communicate messages, and that what words say is interesting. Upon entering the museum, children and adults find prominent print announcing exhibits, museum hours, and prices. Signs give directions pointing to restrooms, elevators, and stairs. There are places to sit, watch, and talk, to read or look at books. Walls may be embellished with quotes or floors may carry messages. Museum need to choose their words carefully.

Exhibits are often places where language is at work and play. Children explore bookstores as well as grocery stores; work at the printing area; or stop at a post office. In these and other areas literacy materials inspire activities: deliver the mail to stores; write letters; and check grocery lists, recipes, and daily specials. Literacy materials extend play in the building area: paper, pencils, stickers, books, pictures, rulers, posters, popsicle sticks, other sign-making materials, and construction drawings. Every area is an opportunity for carefully selected props and objects­–scoops, funnels, sieves, mirrors, molds, and magnets–to give targeted words, concepts, and ideas substance and meaning.

Text Rain (Camille Utterback)
The expressive possibilities of language come through in children’s artwork, installations that invite motion like Camille Utterback’s Text Rain, and the delights of book inspired spaces like the stairwell at Minnesota Center for Book Arts . In addition to wall panels with text, signs may rhyme as they do in Tot Trails at Port Discovery. Word play can take many forms from silly songs sung at Big Fun, during preschool Tuesdays, or in a spontaneous game of Simon Says.

•                  Most people agree. Museums are interesting places with unusual and sometimes rare objects that spark curiosity and invite exploration (as well as discussion). Multiple spaces, varied exhibit settings, diverse topics, unusual structures and activities, and changing programs enable children to explore preferences, pursue interests, make choices, and build on previous experiences.

For a young child a growing sense of “me” drives many preferences: my name favorite color, my favorite foods, story, or animal. This interest inspires shopping in the grocery store and naming favorite foods or playing with the bunny (puppy, or bird) puppet. But for all children, what they know and like that serves their purpose during play has meaning and value. Children’s interests provide ample and important cues for the museum to select activities that allow children to shape their play experiences.

Imaginative (aka fantasy and creative) play is important for a rich experiential mix. In child-directed imaginative play, children’s use of language is central to creating pretense. As they discuss what will happen and how each person will act out their role, they create pretend scenarios and play scripts in which objects and children “stand for” the role of someone or something else. While, considerable oral language is involved, the significant literacy event is children’s ability to use words, gestures, and mental images to symbolically represent actual objects, events, and actions. A child transforms a block into a radio or pretends to knock on a non-existent door. A length of fabric stands for a river, a box becomes a treasure chest. Abundant and varied objects, non-specific props, environmental clues, space, and a time to imagine invite many possible pretend scenarios.

Adults and bigger playmates have a role in this play. Initially they may provide some support as a scenario takes off; they may introduce new words about possible roles and what characters can say; and they may suggest making signs or other importing text devices children are familiar with.   


Language also unfolds as children explore materials, investigating the properties and possibilities of materials such as light, clay, wire, paper, and plant materials. As children shape, combine, and transform materials, they talk about, describe, ask about, and discover similarities and differences. Scaffolding with questions and parallel language, probing for details, and helping children draw connections, adults can build on and guide children’s interests, advancing exploration with richer language. This may include writing down children’s words. Children are fascinated with the process of having their words written down on paper and discovering that writing is “talk” written down.

Making an Impact
With concerns about literacy in many communities and basic literacy a designated 21st century skill, the talk and play match-up points to a significant opportunity for museums to be recognized and valued resources their community. Museums have a ready starting point: the presence of literacy conditions, an audience of children who love language, and parents and caregivers deeply invested in their children’s future successes. 

Museums can capitalize on child’s growing competence with language and encourage specific literacy behaviors and language skills. Making an impact on literacy development, however, requires a museum's firm commitment–but a worthwhile one. By broadening and deepening its knowledge of literacy development, developing an expertise in talk and play, and building on its existing strengths, museums can expand and enrich the literacy options for many of the children and adults they serve and their communities.

Some resources for getting a start follow.


Resources
•                  Hart, B. and Risley, T.  (1995) Meaningful Differences in Everyday Parenting and Intellectual Development in Young American Children. Baltimore: Brookes.
•                  Nicolopoulou, A., J. McDowell, and C. Brockmeyer. (2006). Narrative play and emergent literacy: Storytelling and story-acting meet journal writing. In Dorothy Singer, R. Michnick Golinkoff and K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.) Play=Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. Oxford University Press: New York.
•                  Paley, V. (2004). A child’s work: The importance of fantasy play. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
• Pickett, Linda. (1998). Literacy Learning During Block Play. Journal of Research in Childhood Education. Vol. 12 No. 2. Association for Childhood Education International: Olney, MD.
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•                   Stone, S.J. and W. Stone. Symbolic Play and Emergent Literacy. Retrieved June 12, 2011 at www.iccp-play.org/documents/brno/stone1.pdf.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Playing with ….. Mirrors

Stores get it. Preschools get it. Dance and exercise studios get it. Some restaurants get it. Museums don’t seem to get it. Museums don’t quite seem to get how to use mirrors as tools for enhancing experiences for children and adults as they explore exhibits and environments.
Museums often have funny mirrors, mirrors in dress-up areas, mirrors for face-painting, and walk-in kaleidoscopes. The Exploratorium plays well with mirrors in its exhibits. It has developed large and small cylindrical mirrors, the anti-gravity mirror, and all the mirrors in the Reflections exhibit. Some art exhibits focus on mirrors like Mirror, Mirror Then and Now at The Art Gallery at the University of Sydney. Anish Kapoor’s public sculptures use mirrored surfaces to play with place and light. No doubt about it, there are lots of mirror exhibits and exhibit activities.

Mirrors often are the subject, or the what, of an exhibit. What about using mirrors for the how of exhibits?

Rarely, it seems, do museums employ mirrors as a kind of experiential and interpretive strategy to strengthen an exhibit experience or goal in targeted–and hard-to-get-at–ways. I’ve been interested in this for many years and have suggested possibilities countless times when visiting museums. Nevertheless, I can find few examples from museums to share. Among my photos of 96 museums, I have found about 5 examples of mirrors being used to extend, complete, or enrich the experience.

Personally I am fascinated by infinity boxes and kaleidoscopes; by angled mirrors and writing or drawing while looking into a mirror; with illusions like “shake hands with yourself”; and with the spherical mirror that reflects an upside-down image. I virtually always see children and adults highly engaged with these exhibits.

To the collection of mirror exhibits let me add some less recognized possibilities of mirrors as interpretive and experiential strategies. Mirrors can help accomplish exhibit goals, act on what developers and designers intend, what text writers would like to mention; or what a well-prepared and experienced facilitator might highlight on-the-spot. Mostly, they are very simple ideas.

New Perspectives
Mirrors bring a new perspective to a place or an activity. They catch a new angle or introduce a new view that hadn’t been obvious before. A mirror hanging above a building platform offers children who are stacking and arranging blocks to grow a tower, build a castle, or lay-out a design a very different sense of their structure and what it looks like. Children almost certainly will notice an overhead mirror; the novelty of the perspective will take it from there. No sign asking how this structure would look from above is needed, nor must a staff person or volunteer be stationed at the build platform.

An overhead mirror makes two types of views possible, a plan view and elevations. These views can be related to one another; features apparent in one view can inspire building choices. The overhead view might prompt a question about why a tower that grows taller floor-by-floor doesn’t look different in the overhead mirror but looks very different from the side?

Similarly, mirrors around the perimeter of a building area also offer new views. How does the city or structure look from straight on? From the back? From the side?

Many years ago I walked into a larger banquet room with my then 4-year old nephew. The room looked out from a bluff above a lake and a lakeshore drive filled with traffic. The room’s ceiling was covered with mirrors. Immediately on entering the room, Matthew said, “Wow! Cars driving on the ceiling!” He was thrilled and fascinated by this amazing view which held his attention; he looked down at the cars then up at the ceiling mesmerized and for far longer than he would have looked at only the cars on the drive below. 

Children at the sand and light table captured in the overhead mirror 
(Chicago Children's Museum)
 An overhead mirror hung in many locations would introduce a new, different, and interesting view and, by its very presence, invite observations, prompt questions, suggest possibilities for play, and make concepts accessible. Imagine a mirror hung over a light table, sand, or water tables, or over train tables, or bringing in the view from the street below the museum.                                                              
Completing the Experience
Years ago when I visited The Exploratorium, I climbed up on the giant chair as my husband photographed me sitting there. Several weeks later (i.e. pre-digital camera days) when the photo was developed, I finally could see how I looked as Goldilocks or Edith Ann. This March I was at the Science Museum of Minnesota to observe prototypes for the Math Moves exhibit. I sat in three chairs of different sizes–each with a mirror opposite it. Placement of the mirror completed the experience for me, giving me first-hand and immediate feedback about size relationships I couldn’t otherwise have. 
In the Earth World gallery at Minnesota Children’s Museum that magical moment of becoming the turtle just wouldn’t happen for a child without the mirror opposite so she can see herself as a turtle. It may be great to imagine this, but seeing your own face craning out of a giant turtle shell is there for others to see as well. 

To become the turtle, you must see yourself as the turtle (Minnesota Children's Museum)
Mirrors underneath showing the sewer system beneath the 
lake and nature area (Lakewood Nature Center)
Have you ever looked at an object, a beautiful bowl, for instance and wondered what it looked like from below or behind? I have seen that done only once–and wish I had a photo of it. It suggested the feeling of the volume and the fullness of the bowl. Thoughtful exhibit designers took something like that into account when they created a model to show how storm water gets to Wood Lake in Richfield, MN. A mirror underneath shows all the pipes and culverts that aren’t visible and provides information about the complex network of pipes that a sign never could convey.


Making Learning Visible
By their nature, mirrors make things visible, such as learning, developmental changes, and insights about others.

Friendly playmate? or Me? (Portland Children's Museum)
People often ask whether a baby knows that she’s looking at herself in the mirror. We often do see babies playing in front of mirrors in museums. In fact, a mirror can reveal an important shift in a child’s identity development. From 6 to 12 months, a baby looking at herself in a mirror simply sees another baby. At about 18 months a baby usually begins to recognize the reflection in the mirror as her own. This change can be observed by putting a dot of cream or lipstick on a baby’s nose. Babies younger than about 18 months will try to wipe the mark off the nose of the baby in the mirror. Six or so months later, recognizing that the baby in the mirror is “me” a baby will try to wipe the mark off her own nose. Besides being an engaging place for a toddler to play (see, point, pat, turn around, look at, etc.), playing in front of mirrors can make an important developmental milestone visible to parents, grandparents, and caregivers, as well as museum staff.

Getting to know children getting to know materials (Art Sparks)
Mirrors can also reveal insights about how someone goes about solving a problem, explores materials, or makes choices. Imagine a mirror placed along the back edge of a table, a work surface, or an activity station in an exhibit. Positioned this way, a mirror would reflect the face of a child or adult at the table to someone sitting behind. From there a parent or other adult can observe a child’s facial expression as she concentrates; does she stick out her tongue? Furrow her brow?  Is there a moment when she’s about to get frustrated when a helpful suggestion would be well-timed? Perhaps the child is approaching a completely new material. How does he go about it? Does he jump in or approach it cautiously? These are insights parents or a teacher would be eager to have about a child in order to be able to customize experiences, find challenges, remove obstacles, or just know and enjoy their child.

Looking Into Mirrors
Why does this use of mirrors feel so important? Exhibit planners have many worthy and often ambitious goals that can be difficult to accomplish especially through direct, first-person engagement. Too often, in the end, an unrealized concept is slapped with a text panel or, as available, a staff person at that spot on the exhibit floor.

Mirrors are a smart and simple way to increase exhibit resources and exhibits as resources. Mirrors are relatively inexpensive and are very versatile. They reveal views and introduce perspectives in countless ways. At the same time, they support intentions and beliefs museums value. They readily multiply interactions between people and objects, between objects and their settings, and among people. And, mirrors ensure that everyone will see themselves reflected in the museum. 
More to the story (Greenspoon Day Care)

Look into this.
• If you walked through your museum, where might you find places to put a mirror that would accomplish something you have been trying to do but couldn’t do well? Think about placing mirrors overhead and down low; change the view or the context with mirrors. Experiment with the location and size of the mirror and what you see and don’t see.

• Do you have any examples of mirrors being used in ways that extend and enrich an exhibit or program experience? Make something otherwise invisible visible? Complete an experience? Or another way in which mirrors help fulfill the intentions of exhibit planners rather than using text or facilitators? If so, please share and spread the word.