Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Parent Voices, New Insights

Like many museum professionals, especially in children’s museums, I think understanding and engaging parents  is critical to a museum’s achieving its mission and accomplishing its goals. My sense of parents’ interests has been informed by three decades of working in and with museums: doing programs, responding to comment cards, observing parents, conducting focus groups, and exploring exhibits with them and their children.

Now after spending 4 days listening to parents in several children’s museums as part of a research project, I am happy to upgrade my already positive assessment of parents to one even more positive and better informed by their voices. Parents, regardless of their child’s age or gender, are thinking about and providing for an amazing range of considerations about their children and their museum visit. And I am very impressed.

Some of what I heard was gratifying and on target with museums’ intentions, but was not necessarily surprising. Parents consistently mentioned the variety and originality of structures, materials, toys, and props in the museums. They pointed out recent exhibit and activity changes and additions. They appreciate staff and view them as friendly and helpful. They highlighted their child’s concentrating, pretending, and sharing with other children as something that enhanced their children’s experience and was enjoyable for them to observe in their children.

They valued the level of independence and related freedom the museum environment affords a child without parental hovering. Knowing that other children are supervised by their adults and knowing the museum has limited and controlled exits are critical for parents and grandparents to feel at ease as their children explore. Yet, even when parents appear to be sitting back and uninvolved, they are tuned into their children and focused on the serious work of being good parents and grandparents.

• Parents note and mark their child’s developmental progress over time and in relation to museum activities and exhibits. Unprompted, parents I talked with mentioned how a child’s use of a component has changed over several months; an increasing attention span; doing more activities on her own; or experimenting with materials in new ways. Parents also express a certainty that a child will be into something new in a few months.

• Parents deliberately use what they know their child does naturally–watch them closely and imitate them–in service of larger goals. A mom will turn a valve in a way that allows her daughter to see how it works so she can try it herself.  An aunt uses the word patterns and notices whether her niece uses the word on her own. A mother presses a series of buttons deliberately for her son to see she was making music not just randomly pushing buttons.

• In turn parents are paying close attention to cues their children give as they explore. They note what fascinates a child, the emergence of an interest in music, new concepts their child is picking up, and in which places the child asks more questions. Parents mention the signals they look for that their child wants to interact with them or be with other children.

  Parents are thoughtfully taking advantage of the museum and visits there to help them accomplish their goals for their children. They visit so their children can socialize with other children. They talk about building their child’s English-speaking skills; they interpret behaviors that are appropriate for different age groups and settings. They make connections with what’s going on in other parts of the child’s life–a doctor’s visit, getting mail at home, or family pets.

It’s difficult to know how representative these parents are of those who bring their children to museums; these interviews are part of an exploratory research project with a focus on play. I did talk with parents and grandparents who had visited before so they know their museum well. Still I am inclined to think that these are not anomalies. The 30 interviews were conducted at 3 museums in 3 different cities. The parents and grandparents were of varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds, some with limited English skills. Parent responses suggested varying levels of education and knowledge of child development. Nevertheless, every parent had a personal and vibrant way of describing the activities they and their child engaged in at the museum.

What was happening in these interviews that I have overlooked for 30 years? The interview questions were good, but not remarkable. Four qualities of the interviews do come to mind that may have contributed to the thoughtful, insightful responses. The questions were open ended; parents were asked to talk about their experience; someone was there to listen; and there was time to do these, even if only 15 minutes.

I can’t help but think that these 30 parents, like many–if not most–parents, are thoughtfully and actively engaged in being great parents and doing so in ways that should thrill and impress museums, schools, citizens, and community leaders.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Trouble With SWOTs

In my family, we say, it’s not really a party unless the M&M’s are in a bowl. For some people, strategic planning is not really strategic planning unless there are SWOTs. Two frequent questions when a strategic planning process is being considered or is underway are, “Do you do SWOTs”? “When are we going to do a SWOT analysis?”

Although casually flung about, people often don’t know what SWOT stands for and what the analysis (or matrix) is intended to accomplish. A SWOT analysis evaluates the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats affecting an organization.
• Strengths are characteristics of an organization (or project) that give it an advantage over other organizations.
• Weaknesses are characteristics (or limitations) that place an organization at a disadvantage relative to other organization.
• Opportunities are external chances to improve an organization's performance.
• Threats are elements in the environment that could cause trouble for an organization.
Strengths and Weaknesses are internal to, and areas in which an organization has control. Opportunities and Threats are external areas in which an organization is able to exercise little control. Strengths and Opportunities are helpful factors while Weaknesses and Threats are harmful. A SWOT analysis is a way for an organization to capitalize on strengths and opportunities, be alert to weaknesses and threats, and avoid them or soften their impact by leveraging its strengths and recognized opportunities.

I appreciate the symmetry of a SWOT analysis, consideration of internal and external factors, and an equal focus on helpful and harmful factors. But unless a SWOT analysis is conducted with rigor and unless Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats are selected carefully, the tool is weak

An understandable tendency is for a group to generate as many positives, either Strengths or Opportunities, as possible. Equally understandable is the scant appetite most groups have for naming the negatives associated with efforts and enterprises to which they give their time, money, and passion. Wanting to ignore looming threats that could quash hopes or demand more of volunteers is a reasonable impulse, but not a helpful response.

A SWOT analysis was requested as part of a strategic planning retreat for a museum board not long ago. To focus the analysis, I developed a strategic backdrop that synthesized readily available information about the museum’s audience, community and stakeholders, facility, leadership, exhibits and programs. In the retreat the board was going to sort through the critical strategic and operational issues into strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats facing the museum.

“A great staff” was proposed as the first strength. It was followed by a long list of activities the museum had worked on and was proud of: weekly programs, a partnership with the library, a workday to clean-up exhibits, adding a new corporate sponsor, the community. Nothing was said about the board president who was a bit of a bully or the fact that the facility was obviously inadequate in several key respects.

Perhaps my facilitation allowed the strengths and opportunities to be overly extensive, the weaknesses and threats to be skimpy, and at least one issue to be proposed for all four quadrants. I know from other retreats and talking with other planners who use SWOTs, however, this is not unusual.

That’s the trouble with SWOTs. They end up as four lists with somewhat different emphases but no real sense of priority. When a board lacks the practice, shared understanding, or political will, a SWOT becomes a list that leads to flabby goals and a casual commitment to executing the plan. Anne Ackerson recently wrote about precisely this on her blog, Leading By Design.

That’s why I thought my strategic planning buddy, Andrea Fox Jensen was particularly brilliant the other day. She said, we need to ask, ‘Where are you hitting a home run that you really need to?’ and 'Where are you not hitting a home run that you really need to?’ Asking about completed home runs frames a question to get precise, honest answers about how the museum has done in key areas. This question goes directly to achievement and shifts away from intention. Good intentions and even the best of intentions are not results. There are no sort of or almost home runs. Answers to this pair of questions helps distinguish what areas to change and what not to change.

Imagine such an approach as an alternative to a SWOT analysis during a strategic planning retreat with the following questions.
• Where are you hitting a home run with your stakeholders? (Prompt: aligning with community priorities, strong relationships, a sought after and trusted partner) Where are you not hitting a home run with stakeholders that you should be?
• Where are you hitting a home run in serving your audiences? (Prompt: on-going understanding of your audiences, great visitor service, accessible services) Where are you not hitting a home run in serving the audiences that you should be? 
• Where are you hitting a home run in creating extraordinary experiences that are valued and effective? (Prompt: developed with visitor input, engaging to priority audience groups, show evidence of impact) Where are you not hitting a home run in creating extraordinary, effective experiences?
• Where are you hitting a home run with a diversified funding base? (Prompt: its change over the last 5 years; how you compare to similar museums; areas of growth) Where are you not hitting a home run with diversifying revenue that you should be?
• Where are you hitting a home run as a valued community resource? (Prompt: a great reputation, distinct capacity or asset, create value through research, teacher professional development, etc.) Where are you not hitting a home run with as a valued community resource?

The focus of these questions is by no means limited to the areas above. For one museum communication, collections, and facility might be critical areas to explore in meaningful ways. For other museums, governance and internal capacity might be critical. Focusing on areas that matter and in ways that seriously need to be understood is what is important. So play ball!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Growing Site By Site By Site

Minnesota Children's Museum today
Should we focus on opening our museum in a permanent site with the space and amenities we really want or should we open sooner in a smaller site and assume we’ll move later?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions from groups starting a museum. Mostly I hear it from children’s museums, but it is no different for virtually any new museum. One would think that being asked this question repeatedly over 30 years that I, and other museum planners, would have a good answer. Nope. There are no simple answers to this question. In fact, no single answer could fit every, or even many, museums’ circumstances.

The question itself reveals the complexity and various trade-offs involved in making a decision with far-reaching implications. Realities of capacity and readiness must play a role in whether a museum is able take on a large, permanent home or is better suited to grow site by site. Often opportunity and even serendipity have a deciding, if invisible, hand in what site shows up, where, when, and with what strings. Inevitably, the relativity of time distorts the meaning of permanent. Three years is forever in the life of a 5-year old organization but merely a pause in a 30-year organizational journey.

First Site
Whether a museum operates with no walls, borrowed walls, or permanent walls, in the end each answers the question of it first site its own way. In my experience starting in an unbelievably small space, moving onto a somewhat bigger second space, and then landing in a good-sized third or fourth space is not unusual. Madison Children’s Museum where I was involved during its mobile years and its first two spaces has grown through multiple moves as has Minnesota Children’s Museum where I worked in its second and third sites. Growing site-by-site characterizes how a number of established museums have grown.

Austin Children's Museum (TX) operated as a museum without walls from 1983 to 1987 when it moved into a 5,000 square foot (s.f.) space. Ten years later it opened in a 20,000 s.f. space in downtown Austin. In May 2012, the Museum broke ground for a 40,000 s.f. building in a mixed-use development northeast of downtown.
Bay Area Discovery Museum (Sausalito, CA) opened in a 2,500 s.f. pilot site at a shopping center in Marin County north of San Francisco, in 1987. In 1991 the Museum relocated to a 7-1/2 acre campus at Fort Baker (under the Golden Gate Bridge) and occupied 21,000 s.f. In 1993 and 1999, additions increased the space to 31,000 s.f. and then 31,500 s.f.  New construction on an entry building with classrooms and performance space, improvements on interior spaces, and development of exterior play areas took place between 2003 and 2005 increasing indoor s.f. to 52,000 plus 1.84 acres of outdoor exhibits.  
Chicago Children’s Museum opened in the hallways of Chicago Public Library in 1982 and moved to a 7,000 s.f. space in Lincoln Park in 1986. A move to a 21,000 s.f. space in North Pier followed in 1989. The Museum opened in its current home of 57,000 s.f. at Navy Pier in1995. Plans are underway for an expansion.
Explore & More Children’s Museum in East Aurora (NY) opened in 1994 with 500 s.f. of exhibit space in a school and added 500 s.f. more in 1997. In 2000 the Museum relocated to a 6,500 s.f. space in an office-park building in a residential neighborhood. Currently planning is underway for new construction of 25,000 -30,000 s.f. of space in a multi-use development at the western terminus of the Erie Canal in downtown Buffalo.
Madison Children's Museum's first walls
Madison Children’s Museum (WI) shifted from traveling exhibits in public venues to a 500 s.f. basement space in the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters in 1980 and was open on weekends and school holidays until 1985 when it moved into a 5,000 s.f. space in the garden level of an old factory building at the edge of downtown. In 1991 the museum opened 8,000 s.f. of space in a renovated bank building on State Street. Twenty years later, it moved 58,000 s.f. in a renovated a 1929 Montgomery Ward Building right off the Capitol Square.
Minnesota Children’s Museum opened in 1981 in a 6,000 s.f. space in the Itasca Warehouse along the Minneapolis River front. In 1985, it relocated to an 18,000 s.f. historic railroad building midway between Minneapolis and St. Paul. In 1995 the Museum moved into a newly built 65,000 s.f. building in downtown St. Paul. Recently, the Museum announced a 14,000 s.f. addition to its current building and reconfiguration of interior spaces.

Madison Children's Museum 2012
The earliest spaces these museums called home were modest. Some were so small or incidental–like the hallways Chicago Children’s Museum occupied–they were not even measured. Some early spaces received minimal preparation and others were renovated. Getting from a first space to a “permanent” home can take 10 years or 30 years. As these timelines illustrate, even when a museum is in its “permanent” home, its physical footprint is likely to change by growing and reconfiguring space. Facility and site changes are a reality; they reflect museums’ responses to changing contexts and to serving visitors whose interests and priorities change.

Bigger Steps
Site by site growth is not the only model for growing a museum. There are fewer, but increasingly more, museums that open “full-size” in a permanent home. Betty Brinn Children’s Museum (Milwaukee, WI) opened in a new 25,000 s.f. space in 1995 without incubating in a previous site. Creative Discovery Museum (Chattanooga, TN) opened in a new 42,5000 s.f. building in 1995. Stepping Stones Museum for Children (Norwalk, CT) opened in a new 19,000 s.f. building in 2000 and opened a 22,000 s.f. addition in 2010.

In 30 years, the arts, culture, and education landscape where museums position themselves has changed across the country. Children’s museums have become more familiar in towns and cities and are relatively established in the lives of American children and childhoods. Making the case for a children’s museum or science center doesn’t have to start with an introduction to an unfamiliar museum concept.

With the growth of museums, the start-up and expansion process has consolidated and become somewhat formalized. A group starting a museum will often find and identify their own “benchmarks,” museums in communities of similar size or with a similar vision; they will know their histories and growth. Sharing and developing resources for starting museums have also occurred on several fronts. The Association of Children’s Museums published Collective Vision in 1997. It sponsors an annual emerging museum conference and launched Collective Vision On-line Tool Kit in 2011. The Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums has offered an annual Building Museums symposium. In 2012, Minnesota Historical Society published Building Museums: A Handbook for Small and Midsize Organizations by Robert Herskovitz, Timothy Glines, and David Grabitske.

Navigating Site Questions
The site-growth question is not only common, but is also bound up with other long-term strategic choices a museum faces at an early stage in its development when it has few procedures and precedents for guidance. Site questions will always interact with larger questions of a museum’s vision, process, and position. Site and facility are more tangible ways for a board to approach larger, more abstract issues of mission or what the museum is and will become. The very concreteness of site’s size, its address, and expense can mean greater comfort in finding a site than exploring intangibles like experience, quality, or learning value.

Finding a first site–or perhaps any site–also requires distinguishing among size-related considerations like location, quality, or vision. For some museums, questions of site and facility are actually a proxy for other issues like fundraising goals (modest or ambitious?); personal or professional relationships in the real estate, construction, or development sectors; or values related to diversity and access. Finally a sense of urgency to find a site can be so insistent for founders and board members that it dominates the other business of starting a museum, overshadows other possible ways the museum could pursue growth, and at times actually derails a museum project.

Learning from Experience, Proceeding with Confidence
There is no formula for finding the right site at the right time in a relatively simple process. A few guidelines do emerge, however, from scanning the experiences–successful and otherwise–of other museums that have wrestled with finding a site.
Vision: Maintain a roomy vision for the museum, even if it will take a long time to physically grow into that big vision. Keep the vision.
Discuss. Engage in lots of lively discussion about site and size. Bring new questions and new information to the discussions. Be honest and respectful in discussing the museum’s capacity to successfully raise funds, create an outstanding experience, and effectively operate a site.
Evaluate. Develop a really solid set of site selection criteria to help frame what is required of a site and to compare sites. Revisit the criteria periodically because circumstances change. This does not mean changing the criteria every month. It does mean bringing new information, perspectives, and questions to the criteria to test, refine, and strengthen them and the candidates. This builds a strong, shared sense of what they mean–and don’t mean–for longer-term and newer board members. When the real site decision comes up, things can move very fast. 
Compare. Build a strong list of promising sites well informed by an understanding of the real estate market, neighborhoods, zoning issues, and the health of other culturals. Visit the sites. Always–always– look at multiple sites and compare and contrast.
Realism. Be realistic about the museum’s challenges and capacity. Be aware of committing to a larger facility than the museum will be able to support financially and will have the capacity to operate well. At the same time, avoid frequent moves. Relocating is demanding. It takes a lot out of a museum staff; it can be challenging to bring visitors along to a new location.
Setbacks. It’s not unusual to find an “ideal” site that then falls through. In hindsight, the site turns out not to be as good as it seemed at the time: the area didn’t take off or a site of a better size came along.
Caution. Even the best-managed site processes can become enmeshed in controversial issues that initially seem minor. Be alert to the early signs of a pubic fuss arising about a site, especially if the museum is associated with it. Contact museums that have had to navigate similar situations and learn from their experiences.
Opportunity. Keep an eye out for opportunity. Listen for the knock.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Playing with ….. Mud


I have long loved mud. It is a messy and joyous medium full of great possibilities. As a child I molded “fruit” from the mud excavated from around the foundation of our newly built house. I built nests out of mud and dried grass and sat in the woods to watch which mud-grass nest design birds would choose. Hearing e.e. cummings’ phrase, “…when the world is the mud-luscious…” for the first time in college, the ooze and joy of mud play and the deep, dark pungent mud smell from childhood engulfed me.

The scooping and sculpting, digging and dunking, concocting and cooking, mixing, making, and sitting in mud has long been part of childhood. Just as I remember sculpting with mud, a friend recalls a spring mud ritual in New Hampshire. When the snow was almost melted and the dirt-covered playground softened, eager boys hurried outside and scooped out snow to play marbles in the mud. Christine Maestri wrote in the Star Tribune some years back about her year old niece choosing mud to explore over an entire whole farm. Passing the barns, animals, garden, toys, grass, the toddler walked directly into the mud puddle and sat down where she stirred and squished the mud in her fingers and played with it for nearly half an hour. 

Childhood without mud play is sanitized in too many respects. This is more than adult nostalgia, a romanticized vision of childhood, and my personal fondness for mud. Given mud’s great learning value as fascinating content and inspiration for varied experiences, mud play has a limited presence in most children’s lives. Clay and sand are great, but mud is better. It is local, plentiful, versatile, and somewhat forbidden.

And Then There Was Mud
Mud is a world-making medium. The world was covered with primordial ooze, mud, at its very origins. Mud in its many forms, hot and eruptive has contoured the world; cool, slimy or thick, it has been a habitat for critters.

Just as mud was at the beginning of the world, it is also a universal medium for children to explore, discover, and use to shape their world. It is elemental, putting children in touch with the earth. The pressures of a small hand or the push and poke of even a tiny finger can sculpt mud and shape a world. Mud is not only local, it is also intensely seasonal.

Anything a-la-mud
Mud lends itself to cooking, painting, sculpting, building, and full body slathering. Children can create mudloaf, mud pies, mud lattes, and anything-a-la-mud in muffin tins, pie pans, ice cube trays, cake molds or cookie sheets. Do not forget the scrapers, pancake turners and spatulas; the stirrers, spoons, sticks, and brushes for mixing, mushing, spreading and stirring. In short, set up an entire mud kitchen. And the birthday candles. Leaves, seeds, and sticks make any mud creation better. Equip a mud patch with hand shovels and trowels for digging; buckets and tubs for filling; hoses, watering cans, and cups for adding water and making sure the mud is “just so.”

Mud play is inevitably child-directed. Few adults want to get in there and take over a mud activity. We do not need to teach children to investigate mud or how to do so. Investigations with mud start in many ways. Not surprisingly, children’ investigations of mud begin with touch, a finger, a toe, a hand, a foot, whatever the moment (and supervising adult) will allow. Deeper immersion will follow.

When I have watched children play with or in mud, they are either extremely intent and serious or are playful and exuberant. If intent, a child is alone in thought, observing closely and with great concentration as if measuring with her mind how much she must press this mud patty before the mud fills in. Or a child might watch how the mud drips form at the lip of the cup. A child might concentrate on a muddy finger and drag it across a stone, a bare arm, or a piece of paper and notice how mud paints.

If joyous and spirited, children crow, cajole, and compete with one another about their mud related accomplishments. They might be stringing together mud-inspired rhymes in a sing-songy voice, serving mud lattes to imaginary friends, or applying face paint to scare others. Their imaginations transform mud to oobleck, to lava, to chocolate. Children join forces to sculpt mud worlds with castle outposts, great walls, towers and moats.

 This is just the kind of lively participation in the world–physical, natural, social, sculptural, aesthetic–we so want children to enjoy. We seldom, if ever, see the same excited questions, deep absorption, extended discovery, and elaborate play narratives emerge from an exhibit on sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks with fixed specimens, labels and photos.

Learning from Mud
Attractive to all ages, the mud table at Discovery Hollow
Considering mud is so prevalent and versatile, so joyously accessible, there are surprisingly few opportunities for children to explore mud in museums, classroom, and camps. Occasionally a children’s museum or nature center will boldly embrace mud. Tamarack Nature Center added an enormous mud table in Discovery Hollow. Yet, one museum asked me to take “mud pies” out of the final draft of the exhibit master plan. Visions of muddy-fingered children disturbed board members.

Mud is quintessentially interdisciplinary. Is mud science, solids suspended in liquid? Is it art, a plastic medium with expressive qualities? Is it humanities, a universal building material providing shelter the world around? Yes. No. Mud is mud.

While exploring mud is often unstructured and open-ended, it is also an entry point for children to explore and learn about big and sometimes complex ideas and often with a degree of authenticity that is valued.

Making bricks at the Santa Fe Children's Museum
Children are able to make adobe bricks at the Santa Fe Children's Museum. Outside, under the trees, children mix the soil (typically a sandy clay loam) and water, find the right proportion to get a stiff mix; fill and compact the wooden forms; and then remove the brick from the form and let the bricks dry in the sun. In the play and work of brick making are centuries of building knowledge, a feel for the native soil, the heft of wet and dry bricks. This can be repeated in other locales with wattle and daub methods using an underlying structure with twigs and sticks, mixing cut grass or straw into the mud, and ‘plastering’ it onto the structure beneath.
The clay house at Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
As part of the summer 2012 exhibit, Dirt-O-rama: Intriguing Tales of the Underground at Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, children worked with artists to create a clay house in front of the Arboretum Learning Center. Starting with an underlying straw bale structure, a coat of clay from the local brickworks was plastered over the spiral structure. Nearby, the Mud Kitchen was open for play on weekends.

Backyard bubbling mud at Pittsburgh Children's Museum
In addition to the indoor clay studio and the outdoor sandbox at Pittsburgh Children’s Museum are vats of beautiful, bubbling mud in the Backyard. Children can dip their hands and arms into the roiling ooze that suggests the Earth’s origins, feeling its temperature and consistency and sensing how it coats and clings to the skin. In Animated Earth by artist Steven Eisenhauer, children can add air to the mud vats. Turning the handles adds air pressure to change the surface, the size of the bubbles, and the music of the mud.

In an ode to the medium of clay, Denver Art Museum’s 2011 exhibit, Marvelous Mud: Clay Around the World explored clay’s range and versatility as a mark of human interaction with the earth. The show features a great sweep of ceramic arts through human history and around the world, with antiquities and contemporary arts from the museum’s collection. Artists, asked to create specific works for the museum, stretched the possibilities of mud and ideas about clay. In the Mud Studio, children and adults explored clay as an inviting and forgiving sculptural medium that invites experimentation, permits mistakes, and allows reworking. 

Mud play doesn’t have to be outside or full body, although that is a terrific way to enjoy mud. Mud can be scooped onto a cookie sheet, fill up the sensory table, top off a plastic swimming pool, or be discovered in a mud puddle. It can turn an outdoor kitchen area into a mud kitchen. But I have to say that watching children at the Arboretum play in the mud, that the one having the most fun and on whom all eyes were directed was the boy sitting in, covered with, and lolling about the mud patch.  Oh, there is an International Mud Day, June 29th. But I think any day can and should be a mud day.