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.
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.