Friday, June 29, 2012

Vision, Process, and Position for the Big Museum Project

A changing American Swedish Institute reflects a changing Twin Cities

Once in a museum or science center’s life, if it is fortunate, it is able to reinvent, redefine, or renew itself on a major scale.  It may re-craft its mission, vision, and values. It may expand its current home or create a new home.

The impetus for such a major change may come from a strategic plan that points to growth. Evidence of a need for more space to serve a growing audience or to provide additional services and amenities may come from attendance data, stakeholder input, and industry benchmarks. Perhaps a long-awaited opportunity to be part of downtown redevelopment ripens. Funder interest may be more promising than usual. Typically a combination of these factors converges to set the stage for a museum’s next iteration and move it into its future. In these major projects, the thrust of cumulative choices may emphasize greater civic prominence, an impressive architectural presence, or deeper engagement with a changing community. A museum’s transformation may change the local cultural and civic landscape of its city or town.

Regardless of the factors that converge, the scale of the enterprise, or the gathering momentum, bumps are inevitable during the course of a large project. Some are simply due to the nature of a complex effort. Others result from external conditions that would have been difficult to anticipate, like the 2008 recession. Still others come from prematurely launching a project without the key pieces being in place.

Yes, it is important to do a market analysis, a fundraising feasibility study, identify campaign leadership, select an architect, and hire on exhibit planners. Conventional project planning and management, however, kick in later in the process than is often recognized. The earliest stages of a project are difficult to visualize, but they are truly formative. The early swirl of questions and possibilities can be hard to manage and consolidate; but they must be addressed. The desire for a set of concrete ideas of the future and actions for getting there can be very insistent.

Before firing up the board and staff and reinvesting in its future, however, an institution needs to step back, re-examine its past performance, its current status, and its core purpose. It needs to engage in repeated consultation and clarification prior to developing definite plans, concrete steps, and long-term commitments.

The outcome of this critical period of exploration is clarity around a vision that will guide and inspire the project; a process that will support and deliver on that vision; and the position the museum hopes to assume in its community and among its stakeholders.
This sounds simpler than it is. Not only are board and staff eager to get going, but this stage of planning requires both patience and focused attention on institutional planning practices. Perhaps more challenging is how vision, process, and position entwine and interact; they can easily lean into, meld with, and be confused with one another. Yet they are decidedly separate and make distinctly different contributions to the endeavor. To confuse them can cause problems and require course corrections along the way. Clarity around vision, process, and position is often what distinguishes two equally ambitious projects from one another.

Vision Leads
Contrary to numerous examples, a project vision is not a list of superlatives: the best, the most, the premier, or world class. Big is not a vision, nor is having concepts for five galleries. Like a museum’s strategic vision, a project vision is a compelling response to community priorities and recognized needs based on what a museum does consistently well and is recognized for. In short, where it matters.

Creating a vision is a prelude to uncovering opportunities and developing future plans. A museum must look out at its community and connect those priorities and challenges with its own mission and assets. This phase explores questions such as: What are present and future challenges to the quality of life in our community? What are community priorities for the audience we hope to serve? How might we respond to these needs? In the past, what have we done especially well? What does the community see as our contributions and our assets? What is our current and likely future strategic context? What else is on the local cultural and learning landscape?

To explore these questions, a museum will engage a range of stakeholders  including members, donors, parents, voters, politicians, other organizations, educators, and business leaders to assure varied perspectives from across the community. Some people are able to imagine and articulate the existing and emerging community needs a museum might respond to. Others will share their interests and motivations for using services. Information and perspectives are gathered through interviews, focus groups, visitor panels, environmental scans, and readily available needs assessments.

Pushing hard on what will distinguish a museum and help it flourish is invaluable. By connecting the big, pulsing dots between itself and its community, a museum can make its vision for the project both more compelling and more responsive to needs. To draw others to the project and engage their support, a museum's vision must be roomy enough for others to find a home for their hopes and aspirations. Such a vision also integrates internal and external factors: the museum’s interests, capacity, and conditions and those of the community. As such, a vision is a durable guide for board and staff in planning, making decisions, assessing choices, and brokering priorities.

Process Supports
A major museum planning project is a matryoshka doll of processes, nesting at successive scales yet all in service to realizing the vision. The visioning process moves from gathering and distilling stakeholder perspectives and information; to finding synergies among priorities, interests, assets, and opportunities; to bundling significant threads in compelling ways; and finally to testing, refining, and adopting a vision. Not only is this where opportunities and innovation are to be found, but arriving at a vision through a broad, inclusive process removes a great deal of risk for a project. If well conducted, it ensures the plans that do emerge will be robust, appealing, and have community support to see them to fruition.

By defining the nature and magnitude of likely change–relocation, a new building, a strategic level change in audience, a focused role in workforce development–this initial process lays necessary groundwork for charting successive master planning steps. It must be completed before launching the parallel, intersecting master planning processes of exhibit-experience-program planning, architectural-facility planning, fundraising planning, business planning, etc.

These intertwining master planning processes help realize the vision by shaping the building, cultivating resources, building awareness, and operationalizing the vision. At the very heart of what a museum hopes to accomplish, however, and at the head of the queue for getting there, is planning the visitor and learning experiences in exhibits and programs. Without a well-developed, attractive image of the museum’s transformational change, what it will look and feel like for visitors, and what it will mean for the community, experience and exhibit planning are challenged to move forward in a meaningful way. A list of topics, hope for attracting a broader age range, and ideas about a "wow" experience is a limited alternative to a full and inspiring vision. Other decisions and processes build on how exhibits will fulfill the project vision and look to a clear and shared vision as well.

At any scale, a process choreographs steps that engage players and their expertise and perspectives. It allocates resources for accomplishing tasks in concrete ways that help move towards and realize the vision. A museum’s internal capacity in experience planning, operations, finance, development, and leadership is as critical to any process as multiple perspectives, coordination among steps, time, and accountability to assure the museum moves forward with the process.

Position Follows
A solid position in a community and among stakeholders is invaluable for a museum embarking on the multi-year process of major institutional growth and change. Position, how a museum is recognized, viewed, and valued in the lives and minds of its visitors, donors, and decision makers, reflects what it accomplishes for its community and itself.

A secure position builds on where a museum has consistently delivered value and been successful, rather than on what it finds attractive among its peers’ positions, locally or nationally. Sometimes a museum will over focus on how it wishes to be viewed on the local cultural, learning, and social landscape or with a particular stakeholder group without realistically considering its own history, actual capacity, or the current context. Claiming a position that involves going toe-to-toe with a local museum already well established in that spot is a costly and risky proposition. A museum wants to be confident its position is one it can actually and effectively assume over time.

Recognizing its value from the standpoint of others offers insights that can challenge a museum's view of itself. Questions about itself and potential position might ask: Is this position true to our deeper purpose? Is it validated with our distinct products, experiences, and expertise? Does it enable our growth? Does it bring something to the community that is missing and valued? Is it already occupied by another organization? A realistic assessment of a museum’s distinct contribution to its stakeholders and a track record it can point to with confidence (if not great pride) strengthens its position.  

For these and other reasons, a museum’s position benefits from a clear, strong vision grounded in hearing community voices about what they need and want that is not being provided and which aligns with a museum’s mission territory. At the same time, attention to position can strengthen a vision, a major project, and a museum over its lifetime. Focusing on position can sharpen a project’s vision by considering it from both internal and external perspectives. It can help coordinate a complex project by pointing to a common aim expressed across multiple dimensions of this remarkable opportunity. Finally, it can set a museum up to increase capacity, invest resources, and build a track record that will continue when the project ends and the next phase begins.

Working Together
Regardless of how a museum goes about its early stage of a major project, its vision, process, and position have to work together. Vision should lead, process should support, and position should follow. Allowing these to get out of balance or confused one with another can slow down planning, use resources, and erode morale and credibility.

Launching a process without a solid project vision is setting off on a voyage where little is known about the purpose of the journey or its destination. With the enthusiasm that characterizes most beginnings, a museum will gather expertise, form teams and committees, make-up timelines, and start activities. Before long, however, teams will be revisiting the same questions and encountering obstacles that require inspiration and direction from a vision to resolve them. Multiple starts, lost time, and frustration characterize a process leading the way and untethered to a vision.

When position assumes too great a priority, especially too early in planning, a museum tends to focus on what’s new, now, and wow rather than on its mission, strategic interests, and strengths. For instance, a museum might claim an attractive niche without understanding it well or without the track record, reputation, or related capabilities required to occupy it fully. Without a clear vision for guidance, a museum, in fact, assumes an image or a posture rather than a meaningful position grounded in actual relationships and accomplishments.

Pressure from many sources to get the project going nearly assures that a museum will not focus too much on vision or for too long. Occasionally, however, a museum does become enamored with crafting a vision for its project. Lingering around the vision can keep a project on too lofty or aspirational a plane, allowing the vision to become too grand, precious, or simply unrealistic in scale.
Reinventing, redefining, or renewing itself on a major scale is a huge opportunity for both a museum and its community; it is a reinvestment in their futures. The early stages of exploration set the stage for great possibilities. It is the time to shape a compelling vision that can guide and inspire a process for realizing that vision and can help the museum assume the position to which it aspires.

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?  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Good Mess

A beautiful mess at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Spilling, splattering, strewing, scattering, slopping, dropping, dripping, and piling. There’s just no end to the way children–and adults–can make a mess. But, it can be a good mess.

What would you call a good mess? Are any messes good? Are some messes better than others?
Is a good mess the sort of contained, practical, and well-used mixture that indicates a person is deeply immersed in their work? Does a good mess need to be tidied and rearranged, at least every so often? Or is a good mess something to be lived with, even enjoyed?

Daily, even hourly, a continuous and sometimes fierce skirmish takes place around messes in museums, classooms, and preschools, in homes and backyards. A very active push-and-pull occurs between the value of tinkering and being absorbed and the value of having things orderly, predictable, and not too inconvenient for others.

Children are almost always in the middle of the melee around mess. We tend to think children are intentionally making a mess. But, often there’s simply a mess when a child engages in a process of exploring what is acceptable and what is not; of finding what will happen by squeezing harder on a plastic catsup bottle; or seeing how painted green arms look. Sometimes a mess is not a mess, it’s an experiment.

To be perfectly clear, a good mess is not intentionally misbehaving. It is not willful disregard for order, or an excuse to thoughtlessly leave stuff around for someone else to trip over or pick up. A good mess is, on the other hand, about exploring, playing, creating, and learning.

Who Wants a Mess?
In the mix and the mess, just the right piece
Parents don’t want a mess. Recently I interviewed art educators at a half dozen art museums around the country about their programs for families with young children. One of the questions was, “What do parents want the museum to be, or what role do they want it to play for their kids?” In general, responses were varied: parents want their children to learn about art, parents want to be creative themselves, parents want a safe place for their child. One response, however, was a constant. Parents want the art museum to handle the mess, the mess from their children being creative as well as the mess from their own art projects.

Museums don’t want messes either. Taking care of messes is never-done work: picking up loose parts, returning stuff to its “right” place, keeping floors cleared. Last year, during a planning meeting for a collaborative exhibit project among four science museums, a hot debate simmered about including loose parts. One evaluator spoke up saying, “That kind of a mess is not going to happen in our museum.”

I have even heard board members of a museum-in-planning say that they want their museum to handle the mess for them. 

Years ago I was on a site visit to a museum in an early stage of planning and visited a mother-museum educator-board member at her home. When I walked into the dining room, Robin's three children were finger painting on a plastic tablecloth covering a lovely formal dining room table. The children were happy and she was happy too. While this wasn’t quite a full-fledged mess, it was clearly a place where the possibilities of messing around were expected, tolerated, and appreciated.  

I have also heard executive directors say they wish their staff were more tolerant of messes and understood the value of a good mess.

A big mess at The New Museum

The Value of a Good Mess
The value of a good mess is worth considering particularly in settings that are material, object, and information rich–at the project table or in a maker space; in an enchanted forest or in a construction zone; on a chalk-covered sidewalk or in a grocery store exhibit. Any place learners learn through their senses, curiosity, and questions, materials and tools are valuable and necessary sources of information. In those places (and there should be many) a good mess is likely. Play is messy. Learning is, or should be, messy. As spaces for play and learning, museum exhibits and programs, preschools, art rooms and classrooms, playgrounds, and community programs should be more on the messy side.

Children play at the boundaries of their sensory exploration. They explore the possibilities that pass before their eyes, through their hands, and around their bodies. A child may explore playfully by mixing substances or perhaps dropping and breaking something. Such investigations are sources of information and also of messes. Adults, on the other hand, are able to play with and within the boundaries of their own thoughts and those of others. They can explore possible worlds and fantasies; they can mix, blend, and bend conceptual spaces. They can stretch, twist, and break up ideas, and hop around in humor and absurdity. All without breaking or spilling things.

For a child, being in the middle of a wonderful idea, pursuing a burning question, or testing a hunch is often being in the midst of a mess. This is how we explore, play, and create. Permission for a level of mess encourages concentration and follow-through on a project, idea, or a step in a process. Order is not required for completing every task.

People have a good time when they don’t have to worry about a mess, or if they are making one.

Messing about at The City Museum
 Possibilities Live Here
Underneath a good mess is a thoughtful structure, one that anticipates what might happen here based on the interests and backgrounds of these children or those adults. Thoughtful organization and preparation of a space anticipates possible questions and where they might lead. It considers how the materials presented might provoke and extend explorations of materials to reveal their properties or to express a child’s thinking.

Yes, a good mess rests on structure, but not on too much. Structure should leave room for a child, or for anyone, to shape, direct, and complete the experience. A step-by-step activity that is all planned out with materials allocated and assigned to each place at the table squeezes questions, spontaneous manipulations, backing up, and starting over. In the rich space between structure and an utter mess, the maker-creator-artist-learner is in control. A certain kind of mess may also recognize that a child or adult has a different sense of order, or even that another order is possible. A mess can reveal beauty as well as a new order.

A  really good mess  at the Phoenix Children's Museum
A good mess spills with possibilities. The shifting array of materials, parts, and tools that occurs while a group intently works on something, inspires new possibilities. Novel combinations of colors appear, unlikely pairings of materials are suggested, or an accidental association between disparate objects now makes sense. In a good mess, someone else’s discards jump-start thinking or spark the problem solving that navigates around an obstacle. Picking through or picking up after a lovely mess can suggest ways to order, group, and categorize, can highlight similarities and differences, or prompt a new idea.

A mess is often evidence that things are happening, often the very things we want to have happen. Only we cringe when they really do happen because of the mess. Tom Bedard is an astute observer of this in his Sandand Water Table blog, often referring to corn kernels flying or sand spilling as children wonder, test and discover. 

Mess can equal possibilities or it can simply be chaos. It can be something no one thought about that makes a really big difference. A good mess stops just short of being disastrous.

Flying, spilling corn at Tom Bedard's sensory table
 Whether it’s flying corn and spilling sand, puddles, dirt, or dough; cardboard tubes or pom-poms; sticks, tops, or hose; LEGO bricks or wooden blocks, plastic pipe or clothes; sheets of foil, plastic wrap; fabric lengths or bows;  boxes, wire, washers, pliers, knobs, or pillows, children need to be able to enjoy a really good mess every now and then.