Thursday, May 22, 2014

Documentation: Looking Again

When I think of “the Image of the Child” I believe that if Reggio thinkers had not invented it, children’s museums would have had to. Stated so affirmatively, this compelling idea is central to children’s museums’ aspirations. It is the North Star for children’s museums to view all children as capable, competent, rich in ideas and potential; to be viewed as strong in spirit, active agents in their own learning.

I think of documentation in much the same way. A fascinating, complex process, it is a practice well suited to children’s museums, their settings and purpose.

Documentation, however, is not an immediately clear and obvious process. For instance, it is not showing your passport or drivers’ license to identify yourself. It is not timing-and-tracking visitors through an exhibit. Nor is it accountability and using an activity checklist to verify a child does or does not display a skill in an exhibit.

Documentation does, however, follow the child, looking at what she does in order to glimpse how children think and learn. Documentation captures and gives visibility to what is present in children’s activity, interests, ideas and thinking that we are not yet seeing or hearing.

Bringing Visibility to Children’s Potential

Moved by our curiosity and questions, documentation is shaped by focused observations, enriched by other perspectives, and fueled by new insights to further engage children’s potential.

We can describe documentation as a shared, iterative, and reflective process that involves gathering information and interpreting traces of children’s work and words. Unpacking this definition is not simple. Like Reggio philosophy in general, the parts are interconnected. But let me try.
  •  Documentation is a process– noticing, following, and focusing on children’s conversations and questions, their drawings and movements. It’s a process fueled by a question about children’s interests, their thinking, what fascinates them, how they experience a phenomena and express their ideas.
  •  It involves gathering information about children’s work and words. We observe children’s exploration of materials; listen in on their conversations; record their questions; follow their process and where it leads; notice how they represent their ideas; capture traces of their work and words. We take photos, write notes, video, and collect the work itself.
  • Documentation is shared.  Rarely is documentation a solo endeavor. At its best, it involves multiple points of view in dialogue with each other. When photos have been sorted, notes transcribed, museum educators, designers, teachers, parents gather to look at what has been collected and to wonder, discuss, and ask questions among themselves about what this might mean. What thinking do others imagine was behind this gesture, the group’s interest in snails, the rhyming game?
  • Iterative: Documentation is more a spiral than a straight line. It’s a process that revisits itself and the initiating question. Engaging around the documentation draws in new and varied perspectives on observations; distills them into fresh insights; and suggest possibilities about where to go next. Backing up to revisit something glossed over is not unusual and usually yields a new awareness. 
  • Reflective: The exchange among these co-researchers invites thinking about a child’s choice of a word, use of a material, the fascination with the tree bark. Co-researchers wonder where else this exploration might go next. What is the child saying with her words, play, representations, or body language? What other possibilities are contained here? Through reflection we make meaning from what we have seen–and see again. 
  •  The process continues through more iterative cycles, generating more questions, suggesting where this learning can go next, framing how we might relaunch an exploration. How might changes to this activity or component extend children’s explorations of bicycles? How can we learn more about children’s fascination with tape? How can we enrich the experiences and environments we create and facilitate for children? What new questions do we have?

Documentation and Children’s Museums

I am particularly struck by 4 ways in which documentation is a critically valuable tool for children’s museums to do their work better. First, documentation maintains the continuity, integrity, and richness of what’s happening in the space and in the moment. It preserves the flow of activity, cohesiveness of the context, and operative social and physical relationships for children and for adults.  More narrative than checklist, documentation does not extract a word or action from its context and isolate it. Documentation is alive–just as alive and lively as children and their thinking and learning.

Children’s museums are process-oriented in their values and practice. We value the pathways of doing and learning children engage in: what’s involved in getting to the top of the climber, trying varied strokes to squeegee paint on Plexi, placing one block on another just so, and approaching the giant ant with new confidence. Museums also rely on processes such as exhibit development and prototyping to create experiences and environments for children and to engage their potential. Especially noteworthy is that documentation occurs during the course of a project or development of an exhibit. In paralleling and intersecting with the child's process rather than being added at its conclusion, documentation easily informs what comes next in a project or how to improve an experience.

Third documentation is research. While it may not rely on control groups and random samples, it is a research approach grounded in our questions and observations of children and pursued with intention. It focuses on their engagement, experiences, and expressions in ways that advance our understanding of children. Currently, children’s museums draw on research and evidence about children’s thinking and learning as part of planning and evaluating experiences, programs, and environments. Through documentation, children’s museums are actively engaged in building a body of knowledge about children’s thinking, ideas, and learning in settings for play and exploration created for them. 

Finally, documentation makes more than just children’s learning and thinking transparent; it also brings clarity to our thinking and learning. Our knowledge building about children’s thinking and exploration parallels their research and knowledge building. Through documentation we become co-researchers and co-learners with children, and, for that matter, with parents and caregivers. This iterative process inspires more learning and reflection. Just as we are inspired to revisit our work, children who see their own work and thinking documented may be inspired to revisit their experiences and go deeper into their ideas.

Just as Reggio-inspired practice looks different in different communities and contexts, documentation is different in different settings: in Reggio and in the US; in schools and in museums; from one museum to another. Documentation may occur in the context of a classroom project, a project with a community partner, exploring children’s ideas about a topic or question, prototyping for a new exhibit, creating a pop-up experience, or because we have questions about children. In any case, documentation is a process that can and should occur in the everyday life of the museum and children.

While still new in museum settings, documentation is happening more and more. Do you have examples of documentation projects in museums? If so, let’s share them. I would love to hear from you.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Book Sculptures

 "There is no Frigate like a Book, 
to take us Lands away,..." 

For the ingenuity, beauty, and delight books bring and the unexpected possibilities they offer in their many forms:

Books for hiding 

… for relaxing 

… for play 

… for the garden 

… for the garden wall 

… for fashionistas 

… for celebrating

… for contemplation 

Some of these creations I have come across on my walks and travels. Some have been sent to me by friends and colleagues. A few have shown up as design precedence for projects. All suggest possibilities.

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Framing Experiences

Held Within What Hung Open and Made to Lie Without Escape (Gregory Euclide)

Exhibitions are the primary way in which museums fulfill their educational purpose. Increasingly, more museums are developing exhibitions that provide experiences: senses-on, minds-on, and hands-on engagement with people, spaces, situations, and objects. Captivating, absorbing, and memorable for visitors, exhibition experiences leverage the object and material rich environments of museums and their social settings that engage interests and invite choice,  extending even to the impressions we take away and incorporate into our lives daily.

Experience-based exhibitions are familiar in science centers and children’s museums. Increasingly they have a presence in research- and collections-based museums as well. With greater attention to the public’s interests along with a growing body of research on learning in museums, museums are gradually shifting from a focus on subject matter and objects to a focus on visitors and to experiences that interpret content through the senses, emotions, physical engagement, and conversation rather than through text.

No simple definition categorically differentiates experience-based exhibitions from those that are not. They are, however, less likely to be flat, static, didactic, and predictable. As some of the following examples illustrate, exhibitions with a high experience quotient tend to insert the visitor into a moment or a different space, reducing the membrane between being outside and inside something intriguing. Experiences immerse visitors in phenomena, technologies, or stories; create a sense of the past in the present moment; take the visitor on a journey; challenge assumptions and perceptions. Often experience emerges from physical sensations of being up high, glimpsing dramatic views, sensing motion or being in motion, being swathed in light. Experiences have spirit or a spirit and often are memorable in their beauty.

Thermon Statom's Untitled at the Telfair
 • Light, glass, color, and shape create an airy, buoyant sensation in Therman Statom’s Untitled intriguing glass house installation at the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah. The enclosures, openings, flow of spaces, and transparency of materials allow the visitor to see images overlap and float almost magically.

Open House: If These Walls Could Talk at Minnesota History Museum uses a powerful organizer–a single St. Paul address and the lives of 50 families who lived there over 118 years–to draw visitors into exploring stories of new immigrants becoming citizens in a changing city.

• Temple statues at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena mounted on a long run of parallel pillars create a sense of being in a temple. By referencing their original location, this striking installation creates context, maintains relationships of scale, and interprets content through experience rather than, or in addition to, text.

• Perched at an unimaginably high position far above the Mississippi River flowing below is the Charles E., a full-size Mississippi River towboat in the Mississippi River gallery at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Visitors stepping up to the controls in the pilothouse, have a remarkably expansive view of the River and valley below.

Noah's Ark at the Skirball Cultural Center
• In the giant Anthill in Minnesota Children’s Museum’s Earth World, visitors enter the Anthill as their normal size compared to tiny ants covering the walls. Spiraling into the anthill, the size of the ants grows and grows until deep in the tunnels, a 6-year old is the size of the giant queen ant. 

• Extraordinary pairs of animals populating the massive boat in Noah’s Ark at the Skirball Cultural Center are captivating. Made of coiled rope, fly swatters, chopsticks, purses, and oilcans, these whimsical, full sized, approachable creatures invite play, wonder, and interaction. Both strange and recognizable, they add a modern twist to an ancient and familiar story. 

Countless more examples could be cited, from the simple delight of standing inside of a giant bubble; to being in the elements–water, rain, wind or fog; to feeling re-embodied by green screen technology; to feeling favored by the butterflies in a butterfly pavilion. As varied as they are, these exhibition experiences share similarities. They offer visitors an opportunity to immerse themselves in a distinct feeling of place or time, change their perspective, and connect through their senses and sensibilities. Very likely the teams for these exhibitions set out on their tasks somewhat differently, took some side trips along the way, and made choices that transformed the exhibitions themselves. 

Planning for Experiences
Developing exhibitions that are strong experientially requires a shift from exhibitions-as-usual. This is true regardless of the nature of the experience a museum is interested in offering for its visitors. Essential to a successful move is a museum backing its exhibition team in taking risks. In parallel, an exhibition team needs to modify perspectives, planning approaches and tools. This new territory requires new words, more verbs, shared definitions, expanded visual vocabularies, and more experiential strategies. Team members must find new space in which they can throw out wild guesses, become friendly provocateurs to colleagues, and look for new sources of design precedence. As a team, they must develop fluency in questions such as, “how could this be more of an experience?”

An experience is for someone, while an exhibition is about some thing. This change in perspective ripples in small and large ways through planning, throughout the exhibition itself, and even through the value visitors take away. Two significant shifts occur. First, the visitor moves to the center of planning. The focus becomes serving a person or people rather than an idea or abstract concepts. While subtle, an image of a person who is engaged and capable replaces a view of someone in need of help or waiting to be taught something. Clearly, every visitor brings abilities, interests, relationships, and a bank of life experiences to an exhibition. These are resources along with curiosity, feelings, and recollections that a team can build on in shaping experiences.

The Bubble Building (Dezeen)
Here is the second shift. With the visitor in mind, an exhibition’s value to the visitor is not just through the mind. Well-constructed experiences offer something that is not possible to learn through verbal messages and written text. Exhibitions that are strong as experience move from delivering content to engaging visitors in exploring, co-constructing, and consolidating ideas and information. The varied ways a visitor is present in an exhibition–physical, social and emotional as well as intellectual–are ways they actively engage with and connect experience ideas and concepts. Understanding that learning is a broader, more varied set of processes directed by the visitor plays a far greater role in planning an experience-based exhibition. Both thread through experience goals.

Experience Goals
Just as nothing categorically differentiates experience-based exhibitions from those that are not, experience goals are not dramatically different from typical exhibition goals. They are, however, different in some respects. Differences become apparent in looking into a working definition of experience goals, unpacking its parts, and highlighting how the parts lay the groundwork for robust exhibition experiences.

Experience goals focus on the visitors’ direct engagement with a set of varied opportunities present in the immediate environment, related to a chosen topic, story, or theme, and support the visitor in making multiple connections.

The visitor: The visitor is the subject of experience goals. As agents, visitors activate the experiences, setting in motion what is static without them. In bringing skills, dispositions, interests, previous experiences, questions, imagination, and their own perspectives into the exhibitions, they are co-constructors of experience. Visitors complete the experiences sketched out by the exhibition team.
• A team can reinforce the visitor’s critical role in shaping experiences by characterizing the visitor as driver of the experience. Goals might start with: Concerned citizens will…; Inquisitive children and families will…; or Art lovers will

Direct engagement: Active verbs are called for in experience goals. Reflecting the first-person engagement of experience, verbs replace the relatively formulaic, noun-heavy, and passive language typical of education goals. Action verbs assure the visitor of having a role in shaping the experience. Doing rather than watching; engaging rather than understanding.
• Verbs expressing how visitors become co-creators of value include: activate, animate, appreciate, connect, direct, discover, empathize, explore, expand awareness, follow, immerse, interpret, invent, investigate, navigate, reflect on, stretch, transform.

A set of varied opportunities: Robust, actionable goals set the stage for wide-ranging experience strategies that support active engagement across many fronts: personalizing the experience, adjusting the pace, and following interests; initiating conversations or finding solitude; making choices or anticipating what might happen; using the body to measure distance and experience proportion.
• Varied opportunities engage multiple senses, domains, and modalities, venturing beyond the cognitive realm to embrace beauty, joy and delight, compassion, even reverence. Naturally, varied opportunities include full body experiences of being in a crowd, balancing, feeling the wind, or even feeling uncomfortable.

Present in the immediate environment:  Experience goals help concentrate exhibition planning on optimizing what visitors can engage with directly. Physical, social, emotional as well as cognitive engagement allows them to observe, move, talk, touch, construct, draw information, and make meaning.
• Immediate opportunities lay in navigating the site, spaces, structures and their features; glimpsing views; hearing sounds; moving around objects and changing positions; exploring materials; operating tools and mechanisms; completing tasks; being part of something bigger than one person can make happen. 

Related to a chosen topic, story, or theme: Experience goals frame 3-5 significant aspects of an exhibition topic or story casting them as roomy aspirations for the visitor. While stated broadly, experience goals give direction to (and are supported by) objectives that sharpen the focus on relevant forms and formats for engagement. These are, in turn, supported by experience strategies and design, messages, and text.
• A first crack at three goals might be: 
1) Investigate the arroyo as a place and an ecosystem; 
2) Engage in physical exploration and challenges across the site and its natural and built features: and 3) Reimagine the environment through creative expression.

Support the visitor in making multiple connections: Experience goals lay the groundwork for encouraging visitors to make connections they value. Connections, a basic way of capturing, if not defining, learning include connecting lived experiences with others’ stories; physical sensation with a natural phenomena; smaller ideas with a bigger concept; actions with consequences.
• Experience strategies for exhibitions are responsive to and supportive of how visitors make choices, explore ideas, and engage with others, follow possible paths, determine what might happen next.

Museums excel as places for experience; they are powerful sources for wholehearted engagement, for wondering, reflecting, connecting, and making meaning. Most museums ground some part of their exhibitions in experiences at least some of the time. Very likely, if asked about a powerful moment in a museum, visitors would share an experience: a view, a dramatic shift in perspective, a found connection with another person or a distant time. Experience goals help accomplish this important work in framing a team’s intentions and aspirations on behalf of its visitors, opening the possibility of extraordinary and durable experiences for visitors and for the museum.

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