Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Following the Thread of Practice


Practice describes what we do everyday in our professional lives; what we do regularly and hope to do well. We refer to museum practice, follow best practice, and recognize promising practices. Familiar, well-used, and versatile, practice is also a vague and sometimes confusing term.  

Evidence that practice is of significant interest across our field comes through in multiple projects and initiatives that explore practice. At the same time, each project, study, and journal issue uses differing approaches and contexts. Sometimes practice is virtually interchangeable with standards. For instance, a set of practices is covered in a manual for professional standards for art museum curators. Similarly, EdCom’s Excellence in Practice: Museum Education Principles and Standards lays out broad ways in which principles and standards define practice in three areas. The July 2012 issue of the Journal of Museum Education focused on professionalizing practice as a way to explore recent professional history and better inform present practice. Initiatives like In Principle, In Practice have focused on connections between research, evaluation, and practice as a way of enhancing the value of informal learning. The National Association for Interpretation has developed standards and practices defining and distinguishing among good-better-best practices in dozens of areas.

This limited sampling reflects the great and undifferentiated territory between the broad umbrella of museum practice as a profession and a specific practice such as greet every visitor. Practice is applied as readily to the museum field as to a particular museum; to a 4,000 or 400,000 square foot museum. In one breath, practice encompasses how museum educators, exhibit designers, curators of community engagement, playworkers, and evaluators execute their duties and responsibilities everyday, and does so without really ever defining practice.

So what does practice actually cover? Practice might be the internalized professional knowledge that guides choices and behaviors and is applied consistently to a museum’s important work. Practice can also be the accumulated small gestures related to timing, space, materials, and relationships in which specific content is secondary. Practice is sometimes referred to as praxis, the “process through which theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, practiced, embodied, or realized; or engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practicing ideas”. 

Practice may not need to be defined precisely, but differences should be clear between a practice shared across the field, like reflecting a community’s diversity in staff and board and a museum-specific practice such as using materials and vendors within a 100-mile radius. Pursuing, comparing, replicating, or improving a practice is difficult when it is aspirational in one museum, a standard in another, and a policy in still another.

Viewing practice as doing is easy. It is also a limiting view. Without knowing and thinking, without connecting to a larger purpose, a practice lacks direction, leans into habit, and has a narrow impact.  

The value of practice, or a body of practice, expands when it is clarified,  connected to a museum’s larger purpose and philosophies, shared among colleagues, and revisited often and collectively.

Cracking Open Practice
Opal School at the Portland Children’s Museum has a practice of “cracking open words” to get at the worlds within words that each child, even the very youngest, has. Cracking open practice gets inside the sometimes dense assumptions, elements, and relationships that may be unrecognized, overlooked or taken for granted in pursuing practice. Unpacking shared and valued practices within a museum brings with it a deepening understanding of them; the opportunity to elaborate on, strengthen, and revise them; and the energy needed to sustain them.

Shared understanding. While practices may be implemented by individuals, they are stronger, with greater impact, and more likely to be sustained if the perspectives of many are engaged and their efforts are aligned. Developing a shared understanding might start by co-constructing a shared definition of practice, or an area of museum practice, in areas that members of a group are interested and invested. The group might also consider which practices are core (and why) and shared across the museum or which principles and practices defined by professional groups are valuable and to be adapted.

Connected to a larger set of ideas. Practices need to be connected. When too granular or isolated, they float, they lack heft and direction. Practices need to be tethered to something larger. It might be a museum’s purpose; a positive image of the community’s future; a view of learning; or an understanding of the learner. Practices also need to be related to other practices, to mutually support and strengthen one another. Asking open-ended questions, for instance, is a practice that benefits from a practice of careful listening to others, listening to thinking, in particular. A practice of listening is strengthened by a practice of reflection and bringing meaning to an experience.

Possibilities put into action. Practice is an expression of what we anticipate the difference a set of related actions might make when implemented. Ideas might be about how material, space, time, gesture, or guidance can extend exploration, increase interaction among family members, or encourage persistence. In this respect, practice is testing a hunch. Although often contrasted with theory, practice is, in fact, a temporary, or provisional theory, one put into everyday, real-world use. Carlina Rinaldi, President of Reggio Children says, “There is no theory except in practice. Practice is not real if it is not infused with and grounded in theory. They don’t exist without each other,

Reflected on and documented. Gaps between our hopes in enacting a practice and what actually happens when we do implement it are inevitable. Practice is a constant dynamic between what we want to do and are able to do, with each replication successively narrowing the gap. Reflection, a practice in itself, helps in seeing more clearly into the nature of the gaps and navigating them. Through reflection, engaging in lively dialogue, listening, and questioning–especially with others–practice deepens everyone’s understanding, generates new insights, and helps in developing new possibilities for practice.

What have you and your colleagues found when you cracked open practices, clarified, shared, applied, and revised them?

The Continuity of Practice
Practice is a thread that connects everyday actions and choices with what is of enduring importance. Reaching in many directions, the threads of practice run through aspirations for our communities, the interests of our museums, what we do to advance them, and even how we see ourselves as practitioners. In thoughtfully and deliberately exploring powerful ideas, in co-constructing meaning with colleagues, and in taking action, we are fully inhabiting our practice. Through this extended and on-going process, practice evolves, we grow as a community of learners, and we arrive at places of new perspective and possibility.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

More Than Collegial

For more than 20 years I have been attending InterActivity, the Association of Children’s Museums’ annual conference. I have appreciated the why of the conference: strengthening children’s museums by building a shared identity and increasing capacity across the field. I have also really enjoyed the what: a three-day gathering of colleagues from across the world exchanging ideas, accomplishments and enthusiasm in formal sessions, casual gatherings, and evening events. And I have enjoyed the how of the conference, a collegial gathering of people serving the field as trustees, directors, educators, visitor services, marketing, fundraising, finance and design; from within museums and without; seasoned professionals, and newcomers.

Friends and professional acquaintances from other fields have often commented to me, and somewhat enviously, about how collegial children’s museums are as a field. Strong relationships, personal connections, and inclusive informal networks; mentoring; generously sharing ideas, resources, and lessons learned; and extending appreciation and recognition of others’ successes and accomplishments.

Like most years, I reflected on the collegial feel of the conference this year. I began to consider ways in which it was, perhaps, more than collegial and was, in fact, also congenial and amiable. The warm-hearted welcomes and big-hearted hellos are generously extended to friends, past co-workers and partners as well as to new attendees from Naperville, East Aurora, Charleston, and Portland. ACM board members took the time to greet participants at the entrance of sessions. They also walked through the Marketplace and greeted each vendor individually. Hotel staff was friendly, responsive, and helpful. Meredith at the Wyndham was extraordinarily helpful in resolving a colleague’s hotel room issue. Moreover, she was gracious, as if correcting the problem was her pleasure. Tech staff, I heard, was very good. Hotel housekeeping greeted me every morning cheerfully and warmly.

This is not to imply that the conference or field is roses and rainbows, brittle with politeness, or lacking in divergent perspectives. Several colleagues have recently raised questions about the Reimagining Children’s Museums initiative. At the same time, they have expressed appreciation for the initiative's intent and the team's effort and left open the possibility that there might be something not yet coming through in the designs. This is in the spirit or more than collegial.

Small Question, Big Heart
On the last morning of the conference, picture writer Eric Carle received the 2013 ACM Great Friend to Kids Award that recognized Carle’s lively and prolific picture books, his generosity in sharing techniques and papers, and his contribution of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. An interview with Eric Carle by Larry Berger of The Saturday Lightning Brigade Radio following the award ceremony opened with a great question. It not only echoed the Great Friend award itself, but also revealed a broader expression of kindness. Larry asked Eric Carle, “Who was a friend to you when you were a child?” The careful construction of “who was a friend to you” rang with the implication of friendship as an investment in a child.  Eric Carle’s list of such friends was long and started with Miss Fricke his teacher (and others) who noticed Carle’s spark. Larry Berg also suggested that everyone in the audience had a friend who took an interest and had opportunities to be a friend to children.

This is the kind of moment that defines a congenial and amiable field and one it should enjoy and promote often and in many ways. With a focus on play that often starts with attunement play, children’s museums have every reason to be more than collegial. We have Michael Spock to thank for clarifying that children’s museums are about people and for someone–children.

Pervasive-Everywhere Conviviality
We talk about a pervasive-everywhere children’s museum. The lovely ways in which children’s museums are warm and welcoming, congenial, and amiable could only be better if these qualities were also pervasive.

Everyday children’s museum’s welcome children, very young children who are out on their first big adventures in the world. These children can find friends, kindness, respect, cordiality, and responsiveness at the front desk, in the elevators or on the stairs, at the facepainting cart, the top of the climber or the water table. The father of 4-year son Linus said that from visiting the children’s museum, his son knew that there are 7 people who greet him at the front desk, know him by name and think he has ideas worth listening to. This has done more than anything to fill Linus with confidence and joy. The 7 people at the front desk are being a friend to Linus.
Personal and professional risk-taking is not at all at odds with a gentle, gracious, and amiable professional context. I also love strategy and future trends. Learning by the seat of my pants keeps me on my toes. Being off-kilter is invigorating. Hope, as much as strategy, can and should guide and inspire our museums to be valuable and sustainable across many dimensions. We can gauge our value as much by generosity as by metrics. I am pleased that children’s museums are places where joy just might be one of those metrics.