Saturday, March 30, 2013

Creativity and Museums

Rashad Alakbarov
Creativity is an area of significant interest and importance to museums and to the museum field. 

We view creativity as enhancing our quality of life and prosperity as individuals and as a society. Considered a critical human resource, creativity provides us with skills we need to navigate the present and adapt to the future. Everyday we are exposed to messages about how the next generation’s success hinges not only on what they know, but also on their ability to think and act creatively as global citizens.

Museums reflect this importance and give it visibility with creativity in their names, missions, and brands. Museum missions aspire to develop creativity in our citizens, nurture creative thinkers, and inspire creative thinking. The works of artists across many forms inspire exhibits. Artists themselves facilitate participants in exploring the creative process. Visitors celebrate their creativity with the projects they make. Position titles highlight staff responsibility for creativity and innovation in exhibits, education, and programs. Museums see creativity as a way of being relevant and attracting visitors.

An interest in creativity is also evident across our field. AAM’s Brookings Paper on Creativity in Museums invited papers that "describe examples of creativity in any aspect of museum operations, from collections, programs and exhibitions to finance, marketing and administration–or anything in between." Independent museum professionals, Linda Norris and Rainey Tisdale, are writing a book on creative practices in museums, sharing the process on their website and blog, Museums and Creative Practice.

Museums are exceptionally well positioned to cultivate creativity in visitors, learners, staff, volunteers, and even across their communities. They are rich in objects that often have emerged from the creative energies of artists, inventors, and innovators. Delightful and intriguing combinations of objects are presented in their innovative and compelling settings. Museum experiences allow learners to engage in open-ended and self-directed exploration of settings and exhibits based on personal choice and interests. In fact, museums regularly and often do creative things through the work of creative people.

Aligned for Creativity
The need, interest, and capacity for museums to be agents for creativity seem to be present and well aligned. Yet, in spite of this, I have found little evidence of the underlying work that provides the clarity and accountability for museums to promote themselves as centers for creativity or their offerings as cultivating creativity. What conceptual frameworks are providing the philosophical or research backdrop to support and guide a museum’s wholehearted commitment to creativity? Are museums with creativity in their names, missions and values also articulating the nature and extent of their interest in creativity, its value to their community, and connecting their response? Are museums with centers for creativity or programs that build creativity confidence or offer creativity resources for teachers guided by creativity frameworks grounded in research, that articulate their specific approach, describe what creativity looks like for their audiences, or identify their intended impact?

Where I am able to find evidence of this kind of background work, it is interesting and focused. Given the emphasis on creativity across so many museums–history, art, natural history, science, and children’s–including museums of creativity and innovation, however, the examples feel slim.

Since the early 1950’s creativity has been central to the pedagogy of the Municipal Infant-Toddler Centers and Preschools of Reggio Emilia (IT). Based in theory, reinterpreted through various perspectives, and alert to myths surrounding creativity, the schools value creativity as emerging from daily experience, a characteristic of thinking, knowing, and making choices. For more than 60 years, the schools have been following a set of ideas to understand how they might be revised and how they might be expressed through children’s creative thinking and creative behavior. These ideas, while evolving, are touchstones for significant work.

The Bay Area Discovery Museum (CA) has an expressed commitment to nurturing childhood creativity that is stated in its mission. The Museum’s rationale for focusing on childhood creativity, its definition of the creative process, perspective on creativity, and related research are posted prominently on its website. The relationship of creativity to other key ideas, including child-directed play and place-based learning, is clarified in the Museum’s Interpretive Framework and is woven throughout.

Addressing the question of clarity and accountability about creativity in another way, a group of researchers in the UK have been exploring the gap between the significant potential of exhibits to stimulate children’s creativity and an actual design methodology that fosters children's creativity.

Addressing Creativity
Museums are well positioned to be catalysts for creativity in the lives of their visitors and communities. Realizing those opportunities, however, rests on considerable work that integrates significant ideas into the life of the organization. An initial step is likely to be a set of lively conversations among staff and trustees and with partners about why creativity is valued and how it is integral to the museum’s mission, vision, and values. Informing these discussions and choices might be a literature review or a white paper on about creativity in informal learning settings. Before going very far, a museum is likely to find helpful a working definition of creativity and a shared vocabulary, even if they change with time. A museum seriously interested in advancing its interest in creativity might explore the following questions.
  • How does creativity relate to other organizational priorities like science learning, art, nature, play, or natural history?
  • What work on creativity is currently being done by local colleges or universities?
  • What myths of creativity persist and might interfere with creativity in your museum?
  • How does your museum currently encourage creativity?
  • What does creativity look like in your museum–for different age groups and visitor groups (i.e. school, family, community)?
  • How might staff interact with children and families around creativity?
  • What partners could leverage and add value to your museum’s efforts in creativity?
  • What could creativity look like as part of your museum’s everyday experience?
  • What areas of intended impact around creativity are of greatest interest to your museum?
  • What should a framework for creativity with related practices cover?
  • How might a wholehearted commitment to creativity change your museum, its staff and culture?
  • How deep is your museum’s commitment to stand for creativity?
Moving Ahead
In 2005, Chicago Children’s Museum completed a two-year study to develop Standards of Excellence in Early Learning: A Model for Chicago Children’s Museum. That process and the resulting document created significant changes at Chicago Children’s Museum by consolidating the Museum’s interests in early learning, grounding its work in research, and engaging important sectors of the local and national early childhood and children’s museum communities. Perhaps equally as significant, the project generated ripples of change in practices across children’s museums by setting an example of what articulating a deliberate focus on a community and museum priority requires.

Now, almost 10 years later, could this be the time for a similar project on creativity in museums?

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