Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Strategic Planning Notes

Recently I responded to a query on ChildMus about strategic planning and suggested a link or two from past Museum Notes posts. Scrolling through the list of posts a dozen seemed relevant and I forwarded them. A few days later I thought this same set of posts might also be helpful to other museums setting out on strategic planning. Below are those posts, grouped into typical strategic planning steps.

Preparation: Preplanning gives a solid boost to the process; it helps right-size the scope, gets the necessary players in place, and removes some of the bumps that are inevitable in planning. Start with:
Community Context All planning takes place in a larger context. In strategic planning, awareness of the community context is critical for understanding relevant environmental forces, how the museum might respond, and the role it might play in the community.
Vision Statements: My approach to vision statements is decidedly externally oriented rather than internally oriented. The promise of this approach just keeps getting stronger as I see how it works with more museums, including ones of differing sizes and at various stages of development.
Mission and Values: Museums are guided by a shared sense of a deeper purpose that is made explicit in mission statements and expressed in the beliefs that guide behavior and work of the organization. If a museum is able to capture its distinctive value in its mission, other parts of strategic planning–and its work–will be easier.
Stakeholders: Internal and external stakeholders are the people likely to affect or be affected by the museum, its plans, and projects. Audience is a key stakeholder groups, central to a museum’s aspirations and its reason for being.  A sound and shared understanding of stakeholders and audience will assist stratgeic planning.
For Good Measure: At its best, strategic planning invites solid strategic thinking. But not everything that seems to be strategic actually is and not every strategic planning tool supports strategic thinking. Become familiar with the various meanings of strategic that your team might be bringing to the process and look critically at how to get better thinking out of a familiar planning exercise.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Growing a Field-wide Research Agenda for Children's Museums

With support from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the Association of Children’s Museum (ACM) and the University of Washington’s Museology Graduate Program (UW Museology) convened The Learning Value of Children’s Museums Research Agenda Symposium September 10-11 in Washington, DC.

Emerging areas of study
Children’s museum executive directors, trustees, and education directors; museum, university, and independent researchers and evaluators; and representatives from allied agencies and associations from the US and international organizations brought varied perspectives to what a field-wide, evidence-based research agenda might include. Working with a review of research and evaluation efforts related to learning value in children’s museums and referring to research agendas from other museum segments, practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers engaged in a collaborative, emergent process to identify and prioritize areas of study needed to articulate and demonstrate distinct learning impacts of children’s museums.

Research activity in children’s museums has grown more slowly than in other parts of the museum field. Research was not part of the originating mindset for this newer museum segment, one not based in collections or grounded in a studied discipline. Children’s museums’ grass-roots and significant growth in the last 30 years along with concentration on establishing an identity within their communities and the museum field have, perhaps, redirected some of the energy that otherwise might have advanced research on audience, learning, impact, and value as well as made room for more evaluation of exhibits and programs.

Anticipating the Symposium prompted me to reflect on changes in research and evaluation in children’s museums that I have seen in the last 3 decades.

Treasured ancient scanned photo
I can’t account for the nature or extent of research that occurred before 1980. In fact, I wasn’t really aware that what we were doing to start Madison Children’s Museum (MCM) in 1980 could possibly be considered research. From about 1980 and through the following decade, research took the form of visiting and closely observing what other children’s museums were doing in exhibits, programs, and kits. Like others starting a children’s museum in those years, MCM’s board visited the few-and-far between children’s museums. We took photos and kept notes; we also begged for photos of exhibits from people we knew had visited the few museums we were aware of. I still have treasured photos from Boston Children’s Museum, the Children’s Museum of Denver, Los Angeles Children’s Museum, and The Children’s Museum of History, Science, and Technology in Utica (NY). This collegial approach of learning from (and copying) other museums has continued and evolved. Thirty years later, children’s museums use ACM’s Benchmark Calculator and Metrics Reports with data on facilities, square footage, exhibits, programs, attendance, membership, staff training, etc. for a range of purposes, planning and improving experiences.

For the first 3 years I was at Minnesota Children’s Museum, I couldn’t imagine how we could possibly conduct research when merely planning exhibits and programs consumed us. Fortunately a research opportunity came our way. The late Herb Pick Herb, a professor at the Institute for Child Development at the University of Minnesota (U of MN) was a regular at our monthly Behavior-Environment Lunch group of architects, landscape architects, museum developers, designers, and university faculty where we shared projects and research. Herb introduced us to his colleague, the late Dr. Allen W. Burton, a professor in the School of Kinesiology. In 1990, Dr. Burton conducted research on toddler’s motor development in Habitot, the Museum’s infant-toddler environment. Other children’s museums have also served as a context for research conducted by others and have been recognized as a source of valuable information of high interest to allied fields of psychology, child development, cognitive development, etc.

In 1992, Minnesota Children’s Museum kicked off planning for construction of a new 65,000 s.f. facility by conducting 10 focus groups with educators, parents, cultural leaders, and representatives from diverse communities. In addition, each of the gallery teams was expected to field several focus groups or conversations with children. This front-end evaluation (although we didn’t call it that then) felt new at the time and offered a rich source of first-hand information from visitors, community members, and children that became touchstones for shaping the Museum's 5 galleries.

Two issues of Hand To Hand expanded our world and our thinking about learning in museums and the role of research and the more prevalent evaluation. (Thank you, editor, Mary Maher!) The Winter 1989 Hand To Hand issue focused on research and evaluation with articles on the nature of research and evaluation in children’s museums, who should do evaluation, and learning about learning, along with several case studies. The Summer 1996 issue of Hand To Hand included a research review on museum-based learning in early childhood. Looking back, I can glimpse a culture of research in children’s museums, while small and scattered, beginning to emerge with some of these efforts focusing on areas in the children’s museums.  

In 1997 I began working as an independent museum planner (and sometimes evaluator and researcher) with many museums. Working with science centers and museums across the country afforded me a broader view of research and evaluation activity at a time of growing expectations for museum research, increasing activity, and expanding capacity. This role also exposed me to emerging areas of study, networks including university partnerships, independent research and evaluation practitioners, and museum-friendly research methods. I was often able to gather and share research and evaluation activity from one museum with another.

Increasing research in museums, science centers, zoos, and aquarium, was gradually finding its way into children’s museum. A children’s museum study in 1997, Project Explore, conducted at Please Touch Museum with Harvard University’s Project Zero, researched how children 4 and 5 years old engaging with exhibits might lead to learning. An increasing awareness of the potential of research to deepen understanding of the value of museums also prompted inclusion of developing a research and evaluation agenda as an objective in Minnesota Children’s Museum’s 2000 Education Plan. In 2005 Chicago Children’s Museum developed a set of research-based Standards of Excellence in Early Learning: A Model for Chicago Children’s Museum, a synthesis of best practices that supported the Museum in reaching its goals.
Symposium participants, including Dr. Wood
Reflections on early threads of the emerging research agenda for children’s museums also played out in a reunion and conversation I had at the Symposium with Elee Wood. Now Public Scholar of Museums, Families, and Learning at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis  and Associate Professor at IUPUI, Elee was fresh from Macalester College when she became  Program Manager at Minnesota Children's Museum. From recent college grad in 1994 to Dr. Wood today, conducting research on the learning value of children's museums, Elee's path parallels that of the children's museum field and suggests that, along with doing research, children's museums are growing researchers.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Early Learners Becoming Lifelong Learners: New IMLS Report

Portland Children's Museum (OR)
I very much hope you have seen the latest policy report from the Institute for Museums and Library Services Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners.

Developed and published in partnership with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, the project involved representatives from libraries and museums along with policy makers, practitioners, experts, civic leaders and public and private funders who have made early learning a priority. The report brings into focus the capacity of museums and libraries to reach and serve young children and highlights where they are filling gaps and expanding early learning opportunities in their communities.

From A Call To Action at the beginning to Recommendations for Action at the end, the report looks at young children’s potential, museums’ and libraries' capacities, and community priorities through research, policy, and strategic filters. In building a case for a greater role that libraries and museums can play in early learning, the report:
  • Explores museums and libraries as community anchors, connectors, innovative learning specialists, stewards, and digital hubs.
  • Grounds the urgency for young children, particularly those living in poverty, to access the resources of museums and libraries in time-sensitive early cognitive as well as social-emotional development that is critical for later academic performance, mental health, and sound relationships.
PlayWorks at CMOM
  • Plays out the implications of a changing learning landscape that increasingly requires learners to be self-directed and engaged. Critical to becoming engaged and self-directed learners are foundational skills that children develop before ever entering school. Without these skills and dispositions, children continue to fall behind and the opportunity gap between poor children and affluent children widens.
  • Locates the challenge for realizing positive outcomes for children and families in broad-based, community-wide cross-sector efforts that include museums and libraries as essential community partners.
  • Lists ten ways museums and libraries support community efforts, addressing the multiple reinforcing factors that are critical to effective early learning efforts: supporting development of executive function and “deeper learning” skills; engaging and supporting families as children’s first teacher; and creating seamless links across early learning and the early grades.
  • Draws on and profiles museums and libraries across the country to illustrate the roles they play, how they support community efforts, and their contributions as key partners in community early learning efforts.
  • The report concludes with More To Be Done and Recommendations for Action that focus on the roles that need to be filled at every level: federal, state, and local; and across stakeholder groups: schools, districts, and early learning programs; museums and libraries; parents and grandparents; and funders.

 Being Essential, Becoming Visible
A great fan of both museums and libraries in my personal and professional life, I have looked forward to this report since I heard about it from Marsha Semmel, until recently Director of IMLS Office of Strategic Partnerships and Julia Bland, former IMLS board member and Executive Director at Louisiana Children’s Museum. When I saw the announcement on AAM’s weekly update and Museum magazine, I was very pleased. To be completely honest, I felt appreciation tinged with frustration about what took so long? Young children are, again, the last audience group to be considered.

Little, if any, new content is presented in the report, which is not problematic. I see Growing Young Minds as less about content and more about a larger platform from a new voice to a broader audience. Coming from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and Campaign for Grade Level Reading, the report is a call to action beyond a circle of committed early childhood specialists and dedicated museum and library professionals. The report highlights key elements: young children, the role of families, the capacities and track records of museums and libraries, and the need for cross-sector collaborative efforts.

In particular, the report emphasizes vulnerable children who experience multiple risk factors. The disparity of access to learning resources for children from low-income and more affluent families is a reminder that poverty is also a poverty of experience. These disparities in access and varied experience are a source of the readiness gap that becomes a knowledge gap and an opportunity gap.

Museums, libraries, zoos, aquaria, and botanical gardens do create an extensive, diverse infrastructure of informal learning. To realize community level change for young children and families, however, this network must also be connected and aligned with collaborative, cross-sector efforts with a common agenda, mutually reinforcing activities, and shared outcomes. Moreover, museums and libraries, their local, state, and national associations, alliances, and agencies must be bold in acting on their implicit and explicit commitments to young children and families. They must be prepared to lead as they shape their strategic and research agendas and be creative in recognizing, leveraging, and optimizing existing and new resources.

Minneapolis Central Library
To the factors the report rightly highlights, I would add or emphasize, a few others. 
• Meaningful change unequivocally relies on sustained effort. Long-term, committed vision must be paired with on-going support capable of producing lasting results. 
• Our very best efforts are limited when we view children (and their parents) through a lens of deficiencies: what they can’t do, should be doing, or will hopefully do in the future. On the contrary, there is enormous benefit to children in our seeing them as capable, competent, active agents in their own learning. 
• Finally, very little will change without radically new ways of engaging parents; support is not enough. Serving the family as a robust, on-going learning group must also be integrated into these strategies.

If we value young children and a vibrant future for them–as we so often say we do–then we must go well beyond compelling rhetoric and good intentions and do whatever it takes to create dramatically different early experiences and life outcomes for significantly more children.

IMLS Director Susan Hildreth’s introduction to the report ends with, “With this report IMLS is deepening and expanding its commitment to the youngest and most at-risk children in the United States.” I applaud that and look forward to seeing it play out. 
Go Figure! Library Exhibit on Tour