Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Place Matters

Place matters. It matters to children and families, to communities and regions, and so–too–to museums and what they offer.

An attractive but complex concept, place is more than physical setting, more than precise coordinates, or geography, weather, or historical markers. Place is something we experience directly, physically, and intensely through our senses. Place is also intangible, carrying the spirit of a physical setting that emanates from the shape and the feel of the land; from ground and vistas and how they meet; and from the quality of light and blue of the sky.

Describing, or defining, place can be difficult because we are surrounded so continuously by it. We might not notice until it changes or until we change our place.

Place Matters
Place is an important way in which we make meaning of the world. We mark our lives according to place. We live at an address, navigate using GPS, and share information with friends on Four-Square. Fundamentally, place is where we come from, where we feel alive, and where we find the past in the present moment. We want to know and be where we are. We share places with others, return to places that hold meaning, and remember and tell stories brimming with place.

Pipestone, MN
Many believe there is an instinctive connection between people and places referred to as a sense of place, place making, and the power of place. Place-people connections take many forms: experiencing smells, warmth, moisture, pungency particular to a place; identifying personally and deeply with it; feeling a bond or attachment to a place; and fiercely and proudly sharing a sense of place with others.

Some places have a greater degree of identity. A spectacular landform that has acquired meaning for many people over time distinguishes one place from others. A remarkable place often gains power from the intersection of the natural environment, culture, and technology–where people have invested labor, ingenuity, and perseverance in working land and resources. Power builds on power when a place of significance resonates with people, pulls and draws them to it because of what happened there over many years.

Place Matters to Museums
Place matters. It matters to children discovering who they are, exploring their world, and finding their place in it. Place matters to families growing and deepening connections to their communities. It matters to communities staying vibrant and being resilient. And place matters to visitors and newcomers who want to know and feel a place and what makes it distinctive.

The mill traces that powered the flour mills
Museums want and need to matter, to be meaningful and valued by the people and communities they serve. Their presence at powerful or distinctive intersections of the natural environment and human environments often establishes their relevance. At the water’s edge, in a park, or on a promontory; in an historic house, mill, or lighthouse; at a landmark, site of an engineering feat, or where a plesiosaur was discovered, museums, zoos and nature centers capitalize on local assets and pride. They are in a strong position to engage people in exploring, understanding, and connecting to the unique character of their surroundings.

Museums often view themselves as a commons, town square, or crossroads. Being grounded in place serves them in this role. It strengthens their connection with audience and community. Place counters a growing separation from the land that has been occurring. The emotional bonds to and knowledge of a place that visitors often bring offer a starting point for engagement, alternative perspectives, and new relationships. For those already familiar with the noteworthy and distinct qualities of a place, a museum’s rootedness can build on existing ties and heighten a sense of belonging. The appeal of something that only happens right here or with resources found exclusively here can attract experience samplers and collectors of novel experiences. Interpretation of engineering feats like the greatest direct driven power the world has seen in the mills at St Anthony Falls in Minneapolis now builds on local pride and interests in alternative energy. Place is always in process, evolving naturally, in memory, and meaning over time; inviting residents, neighbors, and tourists to return, reflect, and reconnect.

A place-based and local approach can also welcome in new and different audiences. Meaningful settings and engaging scenes may serve as an easy entry point for novice museumgoers. Shared heritage, contributions of historically underrepresented groups, or exploration of a local environmental issue can extend relationships with the museum. Reweaving the fabric of dispersed communities and sharing forgotten stories on place as the The Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York city do reach out to new audiences.

The Wing Luke Asian Museum (Photo: AIArchitect)
Being place-based is being local. As daily life becomes more global, being local becomes increasingly valued. We are not likely to be flooded with emotion or memories when we step into a chain grocery store, restaurant, or hotel that could be in any city or along any highway. But we do experience time and human capabilities intensely when we look onto the ruins of old mill buildings or step onto a stone landing where hundreds of thousands of new immigrants first arrived in their new land. Obscure, local details about place are intriguing. Local terms for landforms fascinate: knob, gap, holler, cove, bald, coulee, glen. Often–but not only–food carries the mantle of being local. Landscape, music, architecture can feel intensely local and certainly weather does. Morning fog and evening mist give a sense of local time to space.

Place Matters to Museums In Creating Experiences
Some museums draw strength and identity from their place and fully inhabit it–historic houses, maritime
St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum: views of history
museums, natural history museums, forts, and lighthouses. Several varied examples are described in the Museums Now blog by Janet Petitpas to which I would add a few of my favorites such as Shelburne Farms, Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, St. Augustine Lighthouse (FL), and Aldo Leopold’s Shack on a worn-out farm along the Wisconsin River outside of Baraboo. 

While some museums may be less obviously grounded in place, any museum can dig in and find place-based connections to what its audience finds distinct, and meaningful. How do museums not blessed with an intrinsically powerful place create and convey a sense of place for visitors? Museum planning is a major avenue for deliberately exploring place in the context of a stretch of river, waterfront, or watershed, of views of bluffs or a nearby quarry, or in relation to an art colony or regional hub. At every organizational level, planning is a tool: for exploring and framing vision and mission, understanding the valued aspect of place, and engaging learners and placemakers across the lifespan.  A museum can consider how to use its resources, expertise, and creativity to influence and be influenced by its neighborhood in thinking about the following.
  • Distinct and meaningful qualities related to location, area history, natural environment, cultural, and industrial past
  • How to bring a broader perspective to specific features and their interaction in shaping lives and community
  • How children and adults can experience a sense of place within and around the museum to connect with their interests and lives
  • The varied and engaging experiences can strengthen place-based connections

Becoming Place-based and Place-filled
Tacoma waterfront meets the Museum of Glass
Museums can bring meaning to a place by making connections and relationships between people and place visible and active. Buildings, bridges, boats, shacks, gardens, and, even ruins carry the ambience of a place along with materials, plants, light, and stories. Windows may frame a view that says, “I’m home,” feature a local phenomenon, or capture changes in season, weather, and time of day. Materials that are local and locally sourced ground a museum in its own place. For example, the Baraboo-based Leopold Foundation used trees that Leopold himself had planted to construct its new building; Madison Children’s Museum used virtually all re-purposed materials in its exhibits that came from within 100 miles of Madison. Stone quarried locally and brickwork and the work of stonecutters and masons highlight a museum’s geology. Design references may be local as well, with elements reflecting vernacular or outstanding examples of architecture like the Flynn-Batagglia building for the Naval and Military Park at Buffalo’s Canalside.

Community engagement in planning, curating and interpreting place weaves understanding with meaning over time and from distinct and valued perspectives. Deep knowledge, varied experiences, and a sense of ownership of both natural and cultural environments can contribute understanding, memories, stories, and artifacts. Community voices speaking from direct experience, knowledge, and attachment narrate how a museum grew out of a particular place, keep memories of Borrum’s Woods vivid, and renew the museum’s relevance.

Creating Place-based Experiences
Window view and graphic at MOHAI, Seattle
The rich, tangible, and intangible qualities of place played out across three-dimensions are critical in creating meaningful place-based experiences in and around museums that explore, "you are here." These experiences build on the attractive and compelling qualities inspired by landforms and natural resources, views and stories, and the ingenuity and persistence pioneers and passersby invested in a place.

Museums bring their own creativity and ingenuity to connect visitors with place. Adjacencies and attention to scale; artifacts, real materials, and traces of past activity; tools to use and objects to touch; navigation with media; and opportunities for play carry the fullness of place. Even without re-enactors and replicas, visitors can become immersed in a place and its meanings as explorers, builders, placemakers, and creators themselves. At build platforms they build and rebuild cities, bridges, and houses; they finger topographic maps and models of the canal or mill traces. They dig for fossils or bones or play at a river exhibit located overlooking the real dig site or river, making comparisons, tracing perimeters, and pointing to identifying features. They stand between a current trolley and an image of its 20th century counterpart. 

Playing with place
Standing within a picture frame of a view or joining statues posing at a scenic overlook, visitors play with place, smile and imagine. Using new technology in unusual places, visitors experience New York’s Central Park through QR codes, listening to a concert played in this band shell or viewing a clearing as it was 100 years ago.

 Place-based Learning
Whether or not a museum is located on a noteworthy site, it can relate to the forces that shaped the past, are relevant to the present, and are affecting the future. Place-based learning is sometimes implemented museum-wide but is also familiar in museum programs, nature and environmental centers, and in school settings. This multi-disciplinary approach emphasizes learning through participation. Learners at every age are viewed as active agents and creators of knowledge.

Islandwood, Bainbridge Island
Place-based learning engages students and community members in exploring local cultures, landscape, or  environments. Projects are concrete, specific, and current, connecting local issues with participants’ daily lives and personal experiences. Some projects are of significant scale in participation and scope like the Sperm Whale Project­, an ocean conservation initiative carried out by the entire Homer (AL) community through the Pratt Museum. This and other projects presented in the Fall 2007 issue of the Journal of Museum Education highlight the variety of place-based learning in museums. 

Grounded in place themselves, museums actively harness the power of place to strengthen their relevance and value to their visitors and communities. Looking to the sweep and roll of the land, where water and land meet, and to the blue of the sky, museums create place-based experiences and environments for children and families, residents and tourists. With collections, interpretation, media, design, immersive environments, interactive experiences, docents and guides, and responsive customer service, museums engage, animate, interpret, and reveal connections and perspectives about its location and the experience of being there–whether there is the Immigrant Steps at the Erie Canal, on Main Street in Winona, MN, or on the waterfront in Tacoma.

Knowledge of a place–where you are and where you come from–is intertwined with knowledge of who you are. Landscape, in other words, shapes mindscape. - David Orr, Center for Eco-Literacy 

Milwaukee Art Center lifts off on the Lake Michigan lakefront

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Growing Value, Harvesting Impact

For those of you in museums, zoos, libraries, or nature centers who are drawn to but daunted by demonstrating impact with the same or even diminishing resources, the universe has been paying attention. Recently, your colleagues have been sharing examples, challenges, and insights in their work to build public value and contribute to public outcomes.

I find this activity to be exciting and full of promise. The projects shared recently in journal articles and at conferences are ambitious in scope and scale, pointing to the range of ways museums are finding to work with and engage their communities, build on community strengths, and contribute to shared public life. This work represents an important shift from thinking and planning to doing, taking risks, assessing, revising, and trying again.

  • At the recent Visitor Studies conference in Milwaukee, outgoing president Dale McCreedy's opening remarks asked conferees about conversations they are having in their institutions being nice and necessary. Heads nodded; some of the sessions including a keynote address picked up and carried forward possible responses to this question.
  • The on-going public value work of 11 children’s museums is profiled in the Spring 2013 issue of Hand To Hand, edited by Mary Maher for the Association of Children’s Museums. Projects range from transforming a city neighborhood to workforce development to strengthening the teaching force. The scale of the projects and the focus of their impacts vary significantly but all are active in the convergence of community priorities and museum interests, in areas of committed expertise. A great addition is a commentary on each museum’s work provided by a project partner or parent. This piece brings not only a community perspective but also underscores the critical role of long-term committed partnerships in broad, coordinated efforts intended to achieve community-level change.
  •  The May-June (2013) issue of Informal Learning Review (ILR) includes 2 articles on public value. “Follow The Money to Community Success,” adapted from a presentation at the 2013 American Alliance of Museum conference by John Jacobsen of White Oak Associates, Inc. uses the lens of public value (support revenue) and private value (earned revenue). John’s thinking aligns in an interesting way with an article of mine in the same issue, “The Nice and Necessary of Museums.” In a recent email, John noted that, “nice generates earned revenue by providing private values, and necessary generates support revenues by providing public value.” John and Peoria Riverfront Museum CEO, Jim Richerson, also present a case study of this perspective in the ILR January- February 2013 issue.
  •  Clearly not a museum, but nevertheless a truly exciting organization, Growing Power is a 20-year old national non-profit based in Milwaukee with a vision of building a sustainable food system one community at a time. Founder, farmer-in-chief, and MacArthur Foundation “Genius” awardee, Will Allen shared the history, accomplishments, and impact in a keynote session at the Visitor Studies conference. With varied and extensive partnerships; three farms, training sites in 5 states, and international outreach; Growing Power is definitely large-scale (and growing bigger) with significant impact–including training, feeding 10,000 people, and sourcing food to Milwaukee public school children. Something I found fascinating was that Allen’s rapid-fire presentation of approximately 1,100 slides, mapped out beautifully on a logic model, from Needs across to Impacts and Outcomes, with many and specific examples every step of the way.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Climbers: Hanging Around and Listening in at Grainland

Grainland entrance at Minnesota Historical Society
Climbing structures are not just for playgrounds and parks anymore, if they ever were. They are not just for children’s museums. In fact, some of the interesting vertical sprawling climbing-crawling structures that I have come across recently have been at art and history museums and zoos.

As much interest as there seems to be in adding climbers to more settings, there also appears to be scant information about what actually takes place in and around climbing structures. In the last year I have been in master-planning sessions where a museum wants a go big or go home climber. Surprisingly, little more than an expectation for an exciting, 3-story climbing structure in a highly visible location backs up the request.

Considering how such a structure can dominate a space visually, kinetically, operationally, and financially, a list of questions, a set of criteria, or a collection of lessons learned form other museums seem invaluable, if not critical. But like children scooching through a small opening in a climber and disappearing, climbers themselves seem to be prone to gaps in standard experience planning. They schooch right past planning steps for framing goals and criteria.

One of the few–if not only–explorations of museum climbing structures and the experiences they offer is on  Museums Now. In When is a climber more than just a place to climb?, Justine Roberts considers location, look-feel, design, and navigating climbers. She notes some of the challenges and opportunities of considering the many dimensions of the climber and concludes,  Because the design of a ‘climber’ supports very specific behaviors, it also supports very specific outcomes. Backing up from the strong image of a vertical climber set in the entry adjacent to the main stair may be a difficult shift - but it may also be an opportunity.” Justine captures the magnetism climbing structures exert and how they manage to evade careful scrutiny. 

Over the years I’ve watched children and parents explore several generations of climbing structures, from Brookings to Boston; Pittsburg to Phoenix; Madison to Memphis, Saint Paul to St Louis; and Tampa to Tulsa. Yet, besides knowing that the areas are active and seemingly popular, and having overheard a handful of comments, I know very little about what is actually happening for children and adults in these structures. For example:

• Who’s in there? What ages of children are finding this an engaging experience?
• What, besides the obvious and assumed climbing, are children actually doing in the climber?
• What do children notice about the structure itself and what’s inside?
• When climbing structures embed content–the water cycle, pathway of grains through a grain elevator, the life cycle of ants–is any of it coming through for explorers and learners?
• How do children and adults interact up-around-under-and-through, inside-and-out of the climber?

I realize I might help fill gaps in what we understand is happening in climbers. It seems as simple as hanging around climbers and listening in as I visit museums. These are not likely to be formal investigation–no purposive sampling or control groups here. But I can pay attention to who’s using the climber and how; what’s happening; how adults are engaged. I can pull together, summarize and share some observations as I do below.

Grainland: What’s Going on inside
Recently I visited and observed Grainland, a climbing structure at the Minnesota History Center (MHS) in St Paul. A few days later, I returned for a second observation. Both were afternoon visits, one each on a weekday and a weekend day in July. One was 30 and the other was 60 minutes. The information I gathered is admittedly limited, but an interesting and richer than expected start.  

Some background: Grainland opened in 1992 when MHS significantly expanded its presence. In the past year, Grainland has been incorporated into a new exhibit, Then, Now, Wow, an exploration of Minnesota from past to present. Designed to look like a 1930’s style grain elevator, Grainland is on the third floor of MHS and in a large, approximately 1,500 square foot space accessed from both the hallway and Then, Now, Wow. I didn’t bring my tape to measure so can only estimate the structure’s dimensions: approximately 20 feet tall, or about 2 stories; about 12 feet deep; and about 35 feet across.

Grainland looks like a weathered grain elevator that's familiar across Minnesota. The tower’s profile and parts loosely map onto this climbing structure. As children climb, crawl, and slide through stairs and tubes (the elevator’s arms), they become the soybeans and corn moving up to the elevator’s head, down into bins, to the boxcar and the dump.  A graphic panel at the entrance shows the parts of a grain elevator with photo icons that correspond to chutes and bins along the way.

Who’s in there?
Children from about 2 years to about 10 years were exploring the climber with most about 5 to 7 years old. In choosing to enter the structure through one of 3 tubes or one of 2 sets of stairs, most chose to go up the stairs, including the youngest for whom a “Smaller Grains (toddlers) enter here” sign designated a starting place for them.

Over the course of the approximately 90 minutes I was observing, about 30 children were exploring the structure in 19 family groups. Some stayed for less than a minute and others for as long as 45 minutes. Although I did not time all of the children entering and exiting the structure, for those I did and in scanning my notes, children who explored with someone else–a parent, sibling, or friend–were staying longer, than those who explored alone.

What’s going on?
Grainland is about moving–up, down, around, and through. Its height, stairs, platforms, spiraling tubes, and spaces that are visible but not directly accessible–invite a range of large motor activity and physical play. Children and adults climb up and down stairs. They reach, stretch, and pull themselves up to the next platform or crouch down and squeeze into a chute. They stretch out and slide; they crawl and scoot on their behinds through tubes and across platforms. They twist and turn to fit into small spaces. 

As children–and adults–move, they are navigating space, playing games, and having conversations. They navigate through the structure following arrows and photographic corn and soybean icons, announcing, “I’m going up to the corn” (Girl, 5 yrs.). Aware that there are multiple trails, some children express an interest in trying another one. Children get an occasional assist from parents such as, “Come through here, then go down there.” Some groups, a sister and brother, a father and son, and a son and his mother explore by following-the-leader.

In this and in other ways, Grainland supports the backyard games and play of many childhoods. There are games of chase with challenges of, “You’ll never catch me!”(Boy, 6 yrs.). Children count to 10 to give someone a head start. Families play monster that may involve being a monster “I’m a monster” as well as pleading for mercy, “Don’t scare us, Mom.” (B. 4 yrs.)

Exploring offers a sense of discovery, “We found another entrance. (B. 6 yrs.); a feeling of confidence, “It wasn’t scary at all.” (B. 6 yrs.); and a sense of accomplishment, “I know how to get to the top of the boxcar.” (B. 6 yrs).

Conversation and content
We often wonder if signs are read. In Grainland, the “Do not enter” signs invited more discussion than the rules, directional signs, or content panels, all of which attracted some attention. I heard children in 4 of the 19 groups talk about these signs including, “They have real do not enter signs.” (B. 5 yrs.) and, “On second thought, we shouldn’t go into the  Do not enter tube.” (B. 6 yrs.)                                                                   Several children stopped at the graphic entry panel showing the grain elevator, looked it over and followed the graphic with their fingers. Back-lit photographic icons of corn and soybeans and interesting facts punctuated the tunnels and chutes so children encountered them as they climbed, made choices, entered tunnels, slid, and exited. References to agriculture, soybeans and corn, and the functions of the grain elevator come through in comments and conversations of 5 of the 19 groups. An 8 year-old girl pointed to the wheel and told her father, “That controls where the grain goes.” Two boys, about 6 and 7 years, read and interpreted signs for each other: “More than half the corn grown in Minnesota is fed to animals.”  

What’s in it for adults?

Grainland is a climbing structure for children and for adults who are a bit adventurous. Its adult-friendly design offers high visibility around the base and through the net panels for a good portion of the structure. Steps and platforms are easy to navigate and give adults the choice of being in proximity to or following their child closely. In about one-third of the family groups I saw, the adult entered and explored the climber with their children. One mother climbed and slid through with her son for about 20 minutes. Parents seem to be the source of information, reading signs, and answering questions. Children also call out to parents from the railing, “Hi Mom!” (B. 4 yrs.) and reassure them of their whereabouts, “You’ll see me come out there…look.” (B. 6 yrs.). Checking in with one another goes both ways with a father calling, “How’ya doing?”

Roughly half of the accompanying adults seem to take an interest in and explore the structure to some extent, including two couples with no children. Of the adults who were not exploring, several spent time at the touch screen while their children were climbing and exploring; 2 talked on their cell phones. One of those was a mother who later climbed through the structure for 20 minutes with her son–a reminder that determining whether a parent is engaged can be a premature conclusion.

How Active?
Grainland is lively. I suspect it is relatively active for this museum and, at the same time, tame compared to other climbers. Not a criticism, this is an observation about a climber's context. The structure was never really crowded. At most about 8 children and 2 adults were distributed here-and-there. It was not thrumming as it might with 20 more children.

Many children left reluctantly, refusing a mother’s inquiry if they were hungry or needed to go to the bathroom. There were promises to parents they would leave after “…just going through one more time.” (B. 7 yrs.) One 7-year old boy announced on leaving that the ladder was his favorite part.

What Do You Know About Climbers?
This exploration of climbing structures is a start. Where to go in the future can depend on your suggestions and questions. For instance:
  • What other aspects of climbing structures, and the experiences and explorations do they support, do you think are important to consider that might I, or others, look at in the future?
  • Do you have observations about children and adults exploring and interacting around museum climbing structures? If so, please send your observations?
  •  What climbing structures would be particularly interesting for you to know more about?