Thursday, June 14, 2012

Re-imagining Children’s Museums

In the midst of reimagining children's museums

Reflect, Revisit, Reimagine
Looking far into the future, the Association of Children’s Museums has launched a three-year leadership project, Reimagining Children’s Museums. Sponsored by the Met Life Foundation, Reimagining Children’s Museums is an exploration of what experiencing a children’s museum in the 21st century means.

In March, four interdisciplinary design teams were selected to produce concepts for the field to use as springboards to new ways of thinking and operating children’s museums. In May, at a day-long conference in Portland, OR preceding ACM’s annual InterActivity, thought leaders, members of the interdisciplinary design teams, and leaders within the children’s museum field came together to collectively launch the exploration. As part of preparing for the gathering and bringing varied perspectives to the question, participants were asked to submit a thought piece on experiencing children’s museums in the 21st century. 

For me this exercise was a welcome opportunity to reflect. It was also a challenge to decide where to focus, consider what isn’t obvious, and to gauge how far to squint into the future. In exploring, I kept returning to a set of perspectives that grounds me in children's museums, informs my work now, and pushes ahead.
  • My children’s museum experience over the past 30 years;
  • Work in and with children’s museums across the country, and a few internationally–ones starting up, expanding, and reinventing themselves;
  • Museums, libraries, community and learning organizations that are recognized and valued assets in their communities;
  • Research about what makes a positive difference in the lives of children, families, and communities;
  • Related experiments that are working or, if not working, are worthwhile;
  • Children’s museums that are not only at the table, but the other players know why they are there; and
  • The long-term best interests of children.
Change on Many Fronts
Children’s museums will change on many fronts throughout the 21st century, as much or more than they have over the last century. Change will, undoubtedly, accelerate as they respond to new forces. These changes will also interact with the on-going process of children’s museums’ maturing as a field and individually.

Over the last 30 years, the growth of children’s museums has been rapid on many fronts. Children's museums have been the fastest growing type of museum. There are not simply more children’s museums. Many have substantial physical footprints of 50,000 and 100,000 square feet. More cities have multiple children’s museums and more museums are opening in smaller cities, towns, and regional hubs. Along with more museums and maturing museums, new children's museums engage in more sophisticated planning and apply lessons learned from their peers; they are opening on a "higher rung" of the ladder of organizational development. Many children's museums are learning from other museums, community partners, the broader non-profit sector, and business.

One result is an increasing variation among children’s museums from community to community as they become more locally-tuned, add new platforms for delivering services and experiences, open satellite locations, extend the age range to both older and younger children, and restructure. These changes mean a shift from a “cookie cutter” approach towards increased diversity and variety. Significant implications for children and families, for staff, volunteers, trustees, and partners, for funders and supporters follow from these shifts.

What Unifies Us
As children’s museums grow, evolve, and differentiate themselves, how are they going to remain children's museums? How will they identify themselves as children’s museums and be recognized as children's museums in their communities and in the museum field? 

Beyond having “children” in their names and primarily serving children, children's museums can be for and about children and committed to making a difference in their lives. Children’s museums have an opportunity to become active  and innovative as centers for advancing an understanding of the pursuits of childhood, the value of play in children's thinking, learning, and well-being. Children’s museums can:

• Develop and test research, evaluation, and documentation methodologies appropriate for children, respectful of them, and aligned with informal learning environments.
• Generate and contribute new knowledge about children’s play, thinking, and literacy development in informal play and learning environments.
• Translate research into practice; integrate research results into the design of exhibit, environment, and program experiences.
• Make children's thinking and learning visible to them, to their parents, and to their teachers in exhibits, environments, and programs.
• Disseminate new knowledge and ideas through multiple channels to parents, educators, and policy makers for them to be strong advocates for children and childhood.
• Become play central with a recognized capacity and credibility to articulate the value of play in childhood and its connections and pathways to learning.
• Conduct research showing the long-term value and impact of children’s museums on children, families, and communities.
• Serve as think tanks and research sites for current and emerging issues on children’s growth and development and childhood.

This work will change children’s museums in small, large, and thoughtful ways, with significant opportunity to expand their reach to new audiences and increase their impacts. These changes have implications that span the entire museum in: 
  • Developing significant internal staff capacity in research and evaluation; 
  • Building recognized expertise in early childhood, youth development, and parent engagement; 
  • Incorporating current and new knowledge about young children into the work, outlook, and skills of all staff; 
  • Partnering with colleges and universities in the US and abroad;
  • Shaping organizational structure and aligning positions;
  • Creating flexible spaces appropriate for “thinking out loud” in conducting research and evaluation, prototyping, and documenting both children’s and the museum’s learning; 
  • Developing a shared understanding of the opportunities and potential as a center for learning; 
  • Building stakeholder awareness about children’s museums’ potential as sources of new and valued knowledge about children’s well-being; and
  • Reworking business models to support and benefit from this work. 
The forces of change are at play. The invitation to reimagine children's museums has been extended. What future possibilities intrigue you the most?  

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