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.

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