Monday, April 23, 2012

Slender Threads from the Past

Founders' reunion: Jeanne, Kay, and Caroline
It felt like a class reunion, except the 1980 founding class of Madison Children’s Museum included only four people and we never graduated. We just passed the torch to people who came after us to grow an outstanding children’s museum.

Coming from New York, Minneapolis, and Madison three of the four founders met in Madison on April 19th to take part in Story Corps interviews that accompanied Madison Children’s Museum’s 2011 National Medal of Honor award. The award, given by the Institute of Museum and Library Services to five museums and five libraries recognizes extraordinary civic, educational, economic, environmental, and social contributions that demonstrate innovative approaches to public service and community outreach.

The Story Corps interviews came as a gift with MCM’s 2011 National Medal for Museum and Library Service. Story Corps is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to recording, preserving, and sharing the stories of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs; it’s known for its weekly interview excerpts that air on NPR’s “Morning Edition” on Fridays.

The Museum has taken this gift seriously, arranging 36 interviews over three days. MCM has been also intent on developing its organizational archives including the history of its current building. While renovating the current site, John Robinson, Exhibits Developer, researched Block 99 where the Museum, a former Montgomery Wards store, is located.

The Slender Threads of a New Beginning
Four of us had joined forces in 1980 and worked together until 1987 when I moved to Minneapolis to work at Minnesota Children’s Museum. Kay Hendon moved to New York City to work on behalf of services for children. Caroline Hoffman was active in disability advocacy in Madison. Our fourth co-founder, Allen Everhart, worked with a national epilepsy organization and has passed away.

Over the years, I have had flashes of panic when I recalled how very little we knew about starting a children’s museum. In 1980, there were several dozen children’s museums in the country. Among our group of four we had visited perhaps three or four of them. I had visited Boston Children’s Museum and the Children’s Museum of History and Science in Utica, New York. The photos I had taken of exhibits pretty much represented what I knew about children’s museums. For everything else we could only dream of something like ACM’s Collective Vision: Starting and Sustaining a Children’s Museum that came to the rescue for start-ups in 1997.

We had some knowledge of non-profit organizations and serving children and families, but knew very little about museums, except as visitors. We had networks of family, friends, and colleagues to draw on, and we certainly did. Some of our first board members brought critical experience including museum experience. Judith Strasser came on board with experience organizing a capital campaign. Karen Dummer Robison, a local museum professional, developed processes and procedures and led us in hiring our first executive director, Georgia Heise who served an amazing 11 years before finding her way to the Exploratorium.

While we didn’t know much about museums, Caroline, Kay, Allen, and I came together with a strong belief in the fundamental importance of early experiences for all children. Practitioners knew then what research would demonstrate. Early experience and development have a life-long trajectory, contributing to the developmental outcomes we want for our children. The talking and laughing, touching and rocking babies receive build the trust, curiosity, sensory knowledge, and eagerness for exploring an expanding world. Museums, we believed, could have a vital role in nurturing positive, supportive relationships; sharing intriguing objects and materials; and creating engaging environments where children could experience the joy of exploration and wonder of discovery.

Thinking about the interview, I wondered if I could squeeze out a new clue from an early memory or make a useful connection from the last 30 years of experience working in and with children’s museums. The easy memories, signature moments, and funny stories had been harvested. I have often surprised people with the unbelievable response from an insurance agent in 1980 when I tried to get coverage for a temporary exhibit. He said, “We don’t insure children doing surgery in shopping malls.”

The Story Corps interviews were a great moment for the Museum. For a generation, it has been in the hearts and lives of children, families, and the Madison area. It has been recognized for leading practices among museums. Now, what might be helpful to the Museum about what endures and becomes assets for the next future?

Slender Threads
After Kay and Caroline completed their interview, I joined Brenda Baker for ours. Brenda has been MCM’s Director of Exhibits since 1991 and was hired by Ann Arneson, MCM’s board president at the time, to create exhibits that could only be in Madison. Over 40 minutes, Brenda and I explored the slender threads from the early days, threads that have proven to be strong. MCM has worked diligently and creatively to work with and carry them forward, bringing great resourcefulness to innovative environments, exhibits, programs, partnerships, initiatives, and practices.

I described MCM’s very early exhibits. Regardless of topic, they all had several things in common. They were literally made of cardboard (Tri-wall and Sono tubes) in people’s driveways and garages. We made everything up as we went along, borrowing tools, collecting found objects, and getting props donated. We drew on community expertise–a teacher who had just returned from Ghana, an architect who had been in Guatemala rebuilding after an earthquake, the Buddhist scholar who understood stories for children. These same humble beginnings characterize many children’s museums’ first exhibits. Maybe we did things somewhat differently. Perhaps we kept children at the center of our thinking more than most new children’s museums do or focused more on what was fascinating to them. I would like to think so.

What Madison Children’s Museum has done remarkably well over three decades is to be both steadfast and innovative, both dedicated to a set of core ideas and probing their deeper purpose.
-        The best interests of children
-        A partner with the community
-        The power of place

In working these ideas intentionally and intently, the Museum has consistently played out new possibilities, not only staying current but also leading, especially in green and cultural exhibits. When a new issue or hot topic has appeared on the horizon, MCM has not pivoted and dashed in new directions. Rather, it has looked harder at its core ideas, found new connections, explored how they work together, and followed them deliberately and creatively.

The best interest of children is a sound principle, rich with meanings related to play, early literacy, and developmental design. Safe, healthy environments for children, free from toxins is central to MCM. Pushed to open its State Street location in just six months in 1991, MCM opened an updated version of its 1986 Toddlers’ Nest exhibit. When an opportunity to rethink Toddlers’ Nest came along in 1999, Brenda and her team did so with thorough attention to natural materials and created First Feats. Concentrating resourcefulness across museum areas, MCM explored the benefits of healthy environments and researched green products, gradually expanding green practices to operations and exhibit planning for its recent renovation. This included a sustainably designed Wildernest built with materials from within a 100 mile radius of Madison. A comprehensive set of practices developed over two decades backs up MCM’s Sustainability Commitment.

A sketchy exhibit development process left from the early days was one slender thread that has evolved into an inclusive, organic process for engaging the community in many aspects of museum, exhibit, and program planning. Before its Hmong at Heart exhibit which engaged Madison’s refugee Hmong community in curating the exhibit, MCM had been moving from being a partner with the community to being a catalyst for collaborating with the community. The Museum engaged students in developing a Kids’ Field Guide to Local Culture for Hmong at Heart and in conducting historical research for the 1840’s Wisconsin log cabin on its site. Integral to renovating its new home were collaborations with an increasing number and variety of partners:  mosaics created by 13,000 local students; a dozen benches and an alphabet of wall quotes produced by countless local artists; and sustainably harvested wood gathered from rural landowners.

With each opportunity and encounter, MCM has advanced the ways in which it explores and expresses, the power of place in its building, exhibits, and practices. At its State Street location, MCM reworked the popular children’s museum grocery store exhibit into a farmer’s market, mirroring the enormously popular and beautifully situated farmers’ market around the Capitol Square, just one block away. The now retired Leap Into Lakes inspired by Madison’s unique location on an isthmus will inform a new inquiry-oriented exhibit floor focusing on pollution and water quality in Madison’s four lakes. MCM’s Only Local initiative carries multiple messages about place in ways children can sense, adults can appreciate, and both can engage with: the story of local materials converted into experiences, the past life of the building as a Montgomery Wards store with olden clothes to try on, and an enormous, refashioned building table squarely stationed in front of the window that faces the State Capitol.  

One Last Question
I didn’t give a second thought to what I figured would be Brenda’s last interview question. How has Madison Children’s Museum affected you and your life? Answering that question was easy. Madison Children’s Museum changed my life in the best imaginable way. Only I couldn’t have imagined it if I’d tried.

Monday, April 16, 2012

ReWind: Planning to Plan

Maybe a brightening economic outlook or the arrival of spring explains it. Recently I’ve had more than the usual number of conversations about planning projects. Some people are starting to think about moving ahead on a project that had been put on hold. Others are feeling the impact of steps they had skipped as they raced to open a museum or complete a strategic plan. Others are ready to move forward on a bold plan that’s been incubating. Together, these conversations have brought me back to an early post on Museum Notes. If you are considering some serious planning, I hope Planning to Plan helps in your preparation.

Any major planning effort, such as a strategic plan, master plan, or a facility plan, can feel daunting. Maybe it’s the first major plan for the museum since opening. Perhaps board and staff have changed significantly since the last major planning effort. Or this could be a young museum’s very first plan. Whatever the conditions, a critical first step for any major planning effort is preparation. Preparation for planning is a bit like the planning process itself: engaging people in considering what must be accomplished, how best to do it, with whom, and with what resources. Four steps will prepare a museum for a solid planning effort.

•     Get people on board and build ownership. Since the planning process will involve others, start talking with them: staff, board, partners, and funders. Gathering ideas and drawing on other perspectives will build ownership from the start. Conversations can be informal or more formal as “job number one” of a planning task force. Ask others what they hope the plan will accomplish, issues they see facing the museum, planning challenges, who should be involved, and the kind of planning expertise needed. Talk with key supporters early on. It’s an opportunity to show you’re proactive on behalf of the organization’s future. You can also explore possible support for the planning process itself or for some aspect of implementation. Lay the groundwork for sharing the plan when completed.

•     Learn from experience–yours and others'. How you approach the next round of planning is influenced by previous planning. Do a quick assessment of past planning efforts, of what worked and didn’t work so well. Did you get the plan you wanted? Did staff and board feel they were included and informed? Did the plan seem too generic? Too much of a stretch? Did people feel the plan sat on a shelf? How could implementation have been better?

You can learn as much from other museums’ planning efforts as from your own. Ask about the planning work museums comparable to yours have done recently. Identify museums of comparable size and type in other parts of the country as well as similar local organizations that have done recent planning. Consider asking about how long a planning process took, who participated, whether it was facilitated internally or externally, what information they gathered, how much it cost, what they wish they’d done differently, and how pleased they were with the plan. Ask for a copy of the plan or a table of contents to see what the plan covered. All of this will help in determining the plan’s scope and can help in deciding whether to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for planners and what the RFP might include.

•     Shape the scope. Figuring out the nature and the scope of the plan starts with placing your planning needs in a larger organizational and community context. Has it been five years since your last strategic plan? Is another museum expanding their services to reach your audience? Are funders asking tougher questions about the museum’s impact? Is it time to rethink your exhibits? Every plan is not necessarily a standard strategic plan, master plan, or exhibit plan. Typically a plan must be focused to reflect a particular time frame (i.e. five-to-six years or annual); an organizational focus (capacity building, learning impact, community engagement, etc.); or a focused area of change on an existing strategic platform (relocation, sustainability, etc.).

Considering potential stakeholder involvement helps determine the scope. Is significant community input important? Should you be reaching across sectors of the community? Is internal alignment on core activities critical? Factors such as external deadlines and a compressed timeline can affect a plan’s scope as can cost. Since a plan can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, get a realistic idea of what the type of plan you want is likely to cost.

•     Match the resources to the plan. Reviewing all the gathered information will give a clearer idea of the resources your plan requires. Resources generally include time, expertise, and funding which are inextricably intertwined. Based on what you hope the plan will accomplish, think about the skills and expertise required: planning expertise, facilitation skills, and museum knowledge.

Local non-profit strategic planners know strategic planning. They know your community and bring an objective perspective. Less often do they know museums, their current issues, and standards. A board member who is a strategic planner will know the museum, but may lack objectivity.

While museum expertise can be valuable in strategic planning or financial planning, it is necessary in developing education plans and exhibit plans. Specific expertise may, or may not, be available locally so getting to know the local, regional and national landscape will help in deciding potential planners and likely travel costs. Sometimes a plan’s authority is linked with a particular type of expert; sometimes its credibility comes from expert local knowledge. In every case, skilled facilitation is critical to engaging participants and moving the planning process forward and can be provided by someone from inside or outside the organization with the right skills and enough time.

A combination of internal and external players can be a good choice. In the end, the right team always brings together expertise and local knowledge; is compatible and interested in producing the best plan; and fits a museum’s price range and schedule.

Preparation for planning does take time. It also makes a noticeable difference. Preparatory work develops a shared understanding among key players about what’s ahead and removes a few of the inevitable obstacles. It helps bring the right players together; manages expectations about the process and the resulting plan. All aspects of preparation help set a planning process on a smooth course.

Monday, April 9, 2012


The Noodle Forest, Phoenix Children's Museum

Years ago, I went to a party to celebrate a friend's retirement. I remember nothing of the dinner, but I will never forget the dessert. It was a spectacular mound of fresh grapes on a huge, 2-foot diameter brass platter. That dessert has stayed with me and framed a guiding idea.

One thing in great abundance

Cooks, artists, gardeners, makers, designers, builders, and teachers are attuned to and inspired by the possibilities of materials and objects in vast quantities. Like my well-remembered great grape dessert, many of the experiences, encounters, and places we recall and reflect on, admire and experiment with in museums, gardens, and studios are inspired by and accomplished through the potential of one thing in great abundance.

This is not about extravagance or being wasteful with materials. In fact, often the objects are simple, humble, or discarded. Toothpicks, sticks and LEGO bricks; blocks, socks, and sticker dots; seeds, sand, and rubber bands; plastic caps and bubble wrap; paper clips and Styrofoam bits.

When we are used to seeing objects in pairs or by the dozen, a marvelous quantity of one thing captures our attention. A migration of Monarch butterflies is awe-inspiring. Thousands of frogs hovering on lily pads in the picture book, Tuesday open our minds to absurd possibilities on an ordinary day. Dozens of Dale Chihuly glass anemones on the 140-foot Mendota Wall at the University of Wisconsin’s Kohl Center make us pause. One hundred thousand sticky notes covering a wall in Vanderbilt Hall in New York’s Grand Central Station dramatically shifts our sense of what a 3’x3’ square of paper with a sticky edge is and can be used for.

Recently I walked into Tom’s Toys on Market Street in Charleston after seeing sets and sets and sets of KAPLA blocks through the window. More gallery-like than store, Tom’s displayed blocks built into marvelous structures along the walls. Many more were spread out across a big blue rug. Building projects at different stages of construction, showed traces of others’ building experiments, imaginations, and memories of structures. The block sets being bought and taken home looked incomplete compared to the active building site in the store.

Besides the jolt of seeing magnificent quantities, interacting with them engages us in new ways, for longer, and often at a deeper level. The City Museum in St Louis (MO) is fascinating in part because it brings together a great array of objects–wooden rollers, bowling balls, terra cotta tiles, doorknobs–in impressive quantities. It uses their functional, and design qualities in inventive ways to create a remarkable and memorable environment that engages visitors in extensive exploration and discover.

Multiplying Possibilities
Messing about with an unusually large quantity is a whole lot richer than making do with modest portions. Several years ago I saw a video of a small group of toddlers exploring three 25-pound blocks of clay introduced one block at a time. For more than 45 minutes, the toddlers intently explored the clay and its properties using no tools except their bodies. With very little toddler talk among them, they pushed up against, patted, poked, and pinched the block of clay that stood about as tall as they were and much more solid. The addition of the second and third block of clay extended the toddler’s curiosity, exploration, and testing the material and what it might do in response to their actions. No hand-sized hunk of clay could have come close to the holding power of the clay mass for these toddlers or for most adults.

Assembled quantities of one object or material can reveal its properties and afford new possibilities and experiences that often are very different. Sitting on one small plastic ball is downright uncomfortable. Sitting among thousands of plastic balls, however, we are immersed; we sink, we slip, we slide over, and swim through the balls.  Balls roll over and under one another, shifting under our weight. A paper cup becomes a plane when massed and connected as Aphidoidea–a collaborative think tank of designers based in Los Angeles–does. Suspended from the ceiling it becomes an undulating wave.

Scott Weaver's Rolling through the Bay
The slim proportions of a single toothpick are not impressive as a building material. Yet, one hundred thousand toothpicks when bundled, joined, arranged, and glued create Rolling Through the Bay, a 9’ tall, 7 ‘ long and 30” wide kinetic sculpture. Artist Scott Weaver’s ingenuity and 3,000 hours of dedicated work manipulated the toothpick’s structural and sculptural possibilities to shape familiar San Francisco landmarks and pathways that also allow ping-pong balls to roll across the Golden Gate Bridge and down Lombard Street.

Our perceptions of an object and its context change when experienced in enormous quantities. Even the simple sticker dot is transformed. The artist Yayoi Kusama invited children to “obliterate” a completely white environment with colorful sticker dots in her installation at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. With dot after dot and layer upon layer, the figure ground relationship of the room reverses; a pointillist effect emerges. One testimony to the power of abundance is the countless times this fascinating installation has shown up and been noted on FaceBook. One image appears on the cover of the Spring 2012 Journal of Museum Education. 

Photo: This is Colossal
Vast quantities of something seem to confer permission to explore freely, take risks, and make mistakes. A generous supply of cardboard and duct tape allows us to follow our ideas and show our thinking to ourselves and others. We can fiddle with and keep active alternative ideas about spanning distances. We can test and compare two designs for reaching great heights. We can try out this hunch for correcting a tilt, and then that one. We can move ahead with one idea while thinking about how to reduce the wobble. We can incorporate the results of our small experiments into one structure or the other. We enjoy the luxury of backing up and starting over because the materials are there and are plentiful. 

A kind of social space forms around impressive quantities of materials. Eager to explore the materials, we work solo, parallel, in pairs, and in groups. We connect with others, letting the imaginations, traces of previous experiences, and quick experiments of others rub off on us. Ideas spread. The lively building activity at the National Building Museum LEGO room provides a glimpse into this dynamic fed by abundance. In Building blocks: What LEGOs can teach us about rebuilding our cities Alex Gilliam notes the thousands upon thousands of LEGOs and the consistently diverse groups of people that engage in building. He also observes and describes a collective building pattern. Visitor-created structures inspire other visitors’ building, apparently a much more robust force than the museum-provided images, challenges, and cues.

The Possibilities of Abundance
Young children find big numbers fascinating. Five and six year olds search eagerly for the biggest number in the world. They delight in tossing around words for unimaginable quantities: a gadzillion, a bjillion. They feel clever in saying infinity plus one. Vast quantities invite children to follow this interest and experience large numbers directly and pleasurably in relation to their bodies. Wrapping their arms around bundles of suspended swimming noodles, standing up against towers of blocks, and laying down in pools of balls, all these complement direct instruction in counting, sorting, dividing, measuring, and estimating.

The power of quantity can express what words alone cannot. 6 Million + Every Person Counts, an art installation of 6 million buttons at Ripon Cathedral (UK) each representing someone killed in the Holocaust, makes conceiving of the massive loss of life slightly more possible.
Photo: TwoForOneBlog
Abundance pushes and pulls us out of our usual mindsets. It may carry a solemn reminder, convey a challenging concept, bring people together, or deliver a joyful surprise. The great potential that marvelous quantities of everyday and novel materials have to attract us, hold our attention, and extend our exploration works naturally with goals and outcomes of countless exhibits and programs for audience groups across the life span, in museums around the world. Abundance can come from anywhere. It can be as easy as clearing out the local grocery store’s shelves of toothpick boxes and mini-marshmallows. It can 100 boxes or what's inside 100 boxes. It can be folding a thousand paper cranes, the buttons and what the buttons mean.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Big Idea, Small Museum

To boldly go...       (Photo: Children's Museum of Tacoma)
A bold idea began taking shape at a Children’s Museum of Tacoma (CMT) board retreat in January 2010. In the thick of developing a strategic plan and in the midst of an expansion involving a move, Executive Director Tanya Andrews presented her board with seven big ideas. Big Idea #3 was going to a pay as you will, or no admission, fee.

To contextualize their decision-making, Tanya shared information from a community scan. Pierce County where Tacoma (WA) is located is one of the poorest counties in the state. In numerous areas within the city children experience multiple risk factors; two military installations, one of which is a mega-base are located in the County. Tanya asked, “If I told you that all you had to do is replace $50,000 in earned revenue and CMT could drop admission, what would you choose to do?”

It was, Tanya said, the quickest vote ever. The board decided to adopt a pay as you will plan.

Being Free
Being accessible to audiences regardless of economic, educational, and ethnic backgrounds, is something museums value and strive towards. Like the Children’s Museum of Tacoma, they also value and strive for financial stability. Balancing the two is a real challenge. Many museums have weekly free days and reduced admission for school or community groups. Blue Star Museums offer free admission to military families. Access programs with free memberships or free admission for low-income families are distributed through partner organizations.  Designated funds within the annual fund,  gala income, and sponsorships such as Target Foundation’s free days grants help address the financial stability side of increasing access.

Working with its funders, CMT had been offering Free Fridays, library pass, and free Market Play Days following the Farmer’s Market. About half CMT’s guests were visiting the museum for free or reduced fee. That, however, didn’t add up to access.

The idea of free museums has long been a topic of discussion. Elaine Gurian has championed dropping the charges. In her 2005 article, Free at Last: A Case for Museums Eliminating Admission Charges in Museums, in Museums, Gurian argued that, “…general admission charges are the single greatest impediment to making our museums truly and fully accessible.” Free admission, however, is not unknown. The Smithsonian Institution is free to visitors as are national museums in the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Museums like the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that receive city tax revenue have free daily admission; government support helps make this possible.

In choosing to drop admission, in this case without government support, CMT committed itself to a bold idea, something Anne Ackerson recently wrote about on Leading by Design. In “The Powerful Force of a Big Idea,” she rightfully point out, “Big ideas are critical fuel for the nonprofit engine.” Children’s Museum of Tacoma is running with a big idea that is fueling its new future.

Seeing Things Differently
CMT is much larger in its ambition to be accessible to its audience than its physical footprint might suggest. From 1996 through 2011, CMT’s home was a 4,000 square feet storefront in Tacoma’s Theater District. In January 2012, CMT opened in a renovated 8,000 square feet (SF) facility with 6,000 SF of exhibits. The museum is now much more visible in the Museum District, an area the Mayor calls the “front porch of the community.” Located on Pacific Avenue, the downtown’s main drag with the University of Washington-Tacoma at the end of the block, the museum is steps away from a stop on the free light rail.

At its previous site CMT served 45,000 visitors annually; half paid reduced or no admission. Annual admission income was $50,000; this was part of CMT’s 30% earned/70% contributed income ratio that compared to the roughly 50/50 mix for many children’s museums. CMT has always struggled with earned revenue, Tanya says.

As part of its 2010 retreat, the board focused on finding a new way to balance the challenge of earned revenue, a goal of financial stability, and a commitment to serving low-income families. It interpreted the high rate of free admission as evidence of serving low-income families, rather than as low earned revenue. It identified barriers to access where the museum might have some control; cost was one.

The board also looked at opportunities presented by the capital campaign CMT was conducting for its expansion project. Building on the six million dollar capital campaign, the board decided to raise another million dollars to make up for the admission revenue the museum would forgo with Pay as You Will admission. After considering several scenarios, the board decided to pay a fixed monthly amount to cover the museum’s rent from its million-dollar fund, drawing it down over ten years.

Setting Things in Motion
Groundwork for this initiative included research and talking with funders. Tanya checked with Janet Rice Elman, Executive Director of the Association of Children’s Museum and with other museums to learn about free museums. She found some public museums that are free; CMT was the only private museum going free.

A conversation with a funder, Key Bank was critical in moving the plan forward. Key Bank had been funding the museum’s library pass program and was looking to have a greater impact. Over the course of two years and multiple conversations, Key Bank came on board with a gift of $250,000 towards the million-dollar goal.

Tanya honed a set of talking points merging mission, values, a sense of experimentation, and gut feeling. Although resistance to the idea was slight, she was prepared when a lead donor pushed back on the concept. He understood free days, but didn’t agree with museums giving things away for free. Why should he support this? Tanya explained, “When low-income families come on Fridays during free times, it further segregates our community. But when Mom A and Mom B are here and they share a love for their child, they have that in common. If any museum should be free, it should be children’s museums.” (The donor did give a large gift to the capital campaign which Tanya thinks he was going to do anyway.)

Equally bold as deciding on Pay as You Will admission, the museum decided to increase its earned revenue contribution from 30% to 70% of the budget. Contributing to that increase would be membership, more birthday parties and programs, and café revenue.

With Pay as You Will, CMT recognized membership needed to be attractive. In revising its membership program, the museum decided to appeal to two segments. Some families would purchase memberships from a philanthropic stance of wanting to help others.  Others would be interested in purchasing convenience and exclusivity. CMT enhanced membership benefits with member-only play times, free parking, and express entrance that bypassed orientation.

The museum works hard so visitors know about Pay as You Will admission. Callers hear about Pay As You Will on the recorded telephone message with hours and directions. Multiple screens explain, mention, and highlight CMT’s admission policy on the website. Yet, in spite of publicity generated by CMTs opening and free admission, many families still don’t know about it. Staff is prepared for a conversation when visitors arrive. Proud of being a free museum, all staff have their own story about Pay as You Will that might go something like, “Our museum is special; you can pay as much or as little as you want.”

Good Results and Counting
Across the board, indicators suggest the plan is working. Results from 10 weeks of Pay as You Will not only meet, but exceed CMT’s target, an intentionally conservative one. The museum had budgeted $10,000 from voluntary admission donations for the 20 weeks from January 14 to the end of its fiscal year, May 31. In half that time, the museum has received five-times as much–$50,000–in admission contributions. One-in-four general visitors (almost 90% of non-member visiting families) contribute an average of $11/family or $2.82/person.

Projected attendance for the first 12 months was set as a range from 100,000 to 125,000 visitors. Based on attendance so far, CMT is on track to serve 160,000 to 175,000 visitors in the first 12 months. Membership has almost doubled above projected.

Equally important, the museum says it is welcoming families from more ethnically and economically diverse backgrounds in the area. A zip code survey, now underway, will provide additional evidence of what neighborhoods are represented.

Every museum that opens or re-opens is challenged to estimate how long the initial benefit period will last. A combination of being new and being bigger-and-better typically generates greater attention. CMT must also distinguish between the effect of Pay as You Will and a new venue in a bigger facility in a more visible location. Donations, membership, attendance are likely to drop off; when is a question yet to be answered.

Every new or expanded museum also must work with all new benchmarks in planning its first budgets. CMT is doing so currently in developing its FY13 budget. January - May actuals provide real, but still anomalous figures in place of pre-opening projections. Museum leadership has the opportunity to decide how to allocate January-May surplus and project earned revenue for FY13.

Learning as You Go
Big ideas should be appreciated and monitored for their experimental spirit. Tanya views Pay as You Will as a work-in-progress. I consider CMT’s bold move a strategic experiment. Calling for or wanting free admission is one thing. Figuring out how to do it and making the transition to a completely new way to serve the community is quite different. Many things must align: values, getting board and staff to commit; funder understanding and support; a revised business model; and an implementation plan including marketing and staff training.

CMT’s commitment to Pay As You Will is five years, and hopefully 10. After five years, the board intends to review the broad initiative and decide whether and how to renew it and ramp up for the next five years.

I plan to check-in with Tanya in the coming year. I look forward to hearing about and sharing what CMT is learning, how donated admissions keep up, and how it allocates its contributed admissions. I invite you to come along.