Friday, February 15, 2013

Museum Notes From the Road

Recently, I have been traveling a lot, even more than usual. In just under two weeks, I visited museums in 4 states from coast to coast. Along the way, I spent time in 7 museums in different roles, attended a national project advisors' meeting, and walked New York City's High Line, something I have long wanted to do. I was headed for three more museums and a planning meeting before deciding to make a quick exit ahead of last week’s East coast storm. I sure am glad I did.

Observing the vitality and listening to what’s happening in so many museums–large and small, in towns and cities, across the country–and in quick succession is quite amazing. The variety and intensity alone require many deep breaths, time to thumb through notes and photos, and moments to recall, reflect, and share. Before too much fades away and with a reminder or two about where to explore more, here are some notes from the road.

Partners in Play
Three Seattle area children’s museums have been conducting exploratory research to look at how parents and caregivers see their children’s activities as play and their own role in extending and supporting it. Last fall, Lorrie Beaumont of Evergreene Research and Evaluation, and I interviewed caregivers and trained interviewers at the Children’s Museum of Tacoma, Imagine Children’s Museum, and KidsQuest Children’s Museum to conduct interviews. I wrote about some of my early impressions on an earlier post, Parent Voices, New Insights. Now, using the results of nearly 100 interviews, the three museums are beginning a new round of research. Three action research projects are ramping up and exploring questions that emerged from the exploratory study. Action research is an iterative, reflective process looking for improvements, or action, around everyday, real situations. More often used in school settings, it is well suited for museums and other informal learning environments. It's a great approach for exploring questions related to practice or emerging from research and is an excellent professional development tool. Look for a future post on action research as well as for dissemination of this work by the museums at conferences and on-line.

Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), Seattle
When I hear someone propose developing a scavenger hunt for a museum, I am drawn to the idea. I like to imagine pairs of children or family groups combing through a gallery, alert for possible clues, furrowing brows about another way to read this clue, and exchanging ideas. I also tuck it away, wondering how well it will actually work in the bustling museum setting and for whom. I was pleasantly surprised on my visit to MOHAI to be paralleling the trail of two 8-ish year old boys enthusiastically scavengering their way through the museum with a set of cards. I noticed their intensity, listened to their conversation, and rejoiced in their sense of accomplishment when they yipped, “Yay! We built a railroad” after pounding in spikes. A few exhibits later, I heard one say to the other, “We have to ask questions.” The other replied, “Yeah! Gotta have questions.” The imperative captured my attention and that of others around us. This is precisely the enthusiasm and immersion we hope for and, in this case, in somewhat older children. While only a sample of 1 (or maybe 2), their enthusiasm reassures me of the potential for children to be actively engaged and excited in searching and discovering.   

Children’s Museum of Boston
It’s been more than 30 years since my fist visit to Boston Children’s Museum and I have been many times since. On this visit, I was impressed by how much the Museum has stayed the same even as it has changed. Approaching on foot from the T’s South Station, I navigated the streets by feel and was delighted to see the big white “Hood” Milk Bottle from across the channel, welcoming and guiding me. Changes in the neighborhood and on the Museum’s plaza made the milk bottle seem different and the same, a dynamic that persisted throughout my visit. A new entry experience flows into a familiar hive of activity around the four-story climber. Legacy exhibits including Construction Zone, Japanese House, PlaySpace connected by a wide corridor of activities for Chinese New Year. Bubbles and Raceways enjoy a new context in Science Playground. One thing that had not changed was the number of highly engaged parents in PlaySpace, including dads, many comfortably occupying the resource room; I noticed they do seem younger than 30 years ago. This mix of enduring and new BCM experiences is fitting for a museum celebrating its 100 birthday.

Math Core
As an advisor for Math Core for Museums, an NSF-funded project of the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM), I participated in the project meeting at the Museum of Science (Boston). This project has an interesting focus and structure. Its four museums (SMM, Museum of Science, North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, Durham, and Explora, Albuquerque) have been developing a set of interactive exhibits that engage learners, especially middle school students, in experiencing and understanding ratio and proportion physically as well as cognitively. The project has an interest in long-term math environments and repeat visits. Selinda Research Associates is conducting a longitudinal evaluation of the project and at the meeting, Deborah Perry provided an overview of the evaluation that is underway.
Like past advisors’ meetings, this gathering of evaluators, exhibit developers, researchers, and advisors generated  lively discussion, valuable observations, and questions about the project and about museum practice and learning experiences more generally. Why, for instance, has repeat visitation been studied so little? Children’s tendency to build towers and houses with blocks before and often instead of focusing on the intended math activity was noted several times. The thoughtful, succinct, and quotable Paul Tatter observed that, “Learning is not an event,” yet we plan and evaluate learning as if it were. The idea of designing for persistence was thrown out inviting thoughts about what that might look like. Conversations from the advisors’ meeting are continuing.

Children’s Museum of the Arts
This New York children’s museum is not as well known as its New York peers, but deserves to be. It’s a fresh iteration of the Children’s Museum of the Arts I last visited about 20 years ago. Reopening in October 2012 after a relocation and expansion in a new SoHo location, it’s a smart hybrid of a children’s museum and art museum with a thoughtfully playful and seriously arty style infused into both its experiences and design. I am impressed. Still compact at 10,000 square feet, CMA uses its children’s art collection, artist-in-residence programs, artist-led programs, hands-on explorations of art materials and exhibits, and extensive outreach programs to children from a wide range of backgrounds. It’s committed to highly facilitated experiences by artists in its art labs, media lab, clay bar, and video-making and animation station. I especially loved the giant, highly utilitarian, octopus-like sink-and-water station in the center of the art lab that is inviting and visible from the street.

New York Historical Society/Jon Wallen
New York Historical Society
This was my first visit to the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library (NYHS) across the street from the American Museum of Natural History and Central Park. The set of interactive touchscreens in the newly designed Robert H. and Clarice Smith New York Gallery of American History were fascinating and as elegant as the gallery itself. Fortunately I had been alerted to the new DiMenna Children’s History Museum in the Jan-Feb 2013 issue of Museum. History exhibits for children are challenging and, until recently, there have been few, if any child-centered, interactive exhibits. As this recent NYHS exhibit, Chicago History Museum’s Sensing Chicago, and Minnesota Historical Society’s Then, Now, Wow! seem to indicate, the moment for children’s history exhibits has arrived. Since I plan to write soon on history exhibits for children that I have seen, I’ll leave that until later.

Loving the High Line
A public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side, the High Line might be prettier and softer when green and warmed by sunshine than in the bleak mid-winter. It could not, however, be any less amazing as a brilliant found opportunity to open up the city and rediscover public space. Meandering through the 1-1/2 mile park high above the street, following old tracks, moving between plantings, and walking along paths punctuated by art is a novel, joyful feeling. Openings between buildings afford amazing views to the Hudson River. On the High Line, the city does not just close in up above and over head. It also spreads out down below and far into the distance.

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