Saturday, September 27, 2014

Now Playing ... On the Sidewalk

Pieter Bruegel's, "Children's Games" (1560)
Debating children’s play is nothing new. For five centuries, scholars have explored the meaning of the children’s games depicted in Pieter Bruegel’s “Children’s Games.” The 1560 painting shows two hundred children playing 80 different games: children roll hoops, ride barrels, play tug of war, spin a top, play with a doll, and blow bubbles. Scholars have questioned whether the children are depicted as ideal or believably childlike; as little adults or as mischievous urchins; are engaged in folly or learning. Expressing both interest and concern, scholars have looked at the painting’s subject in the context of morality and of Antwerp’s progressive schools at the time. Four hundred years later, William Carlos Williams’ poem about the painting imagines a grim humor in Bruegel’s devotedly recording the games.

In the 21st century, interest and concern about children’s play persists. We wonder about and discuss play’s value, explore its relation to learning, and are concerned whether children are playing enough. Parsing what’s optimal for children’s play is a challenge. We try to distinguish, for instance, among the play we hope children engage in, the play we remember with delight from our own childhoods, and the possibility of play we are unaware of. While being concerned about whether children are playing enough or as children “used to play”, I don’t want to miss traces of the play that is occurring.

Whether children play enough or engage in the right kind of play, they are playing and often right before our very eyes. On my walks in my neighborhood and in other cities, I come across signs of children’s play. Who else would have decorated the sidewalk with chalk or built fairy houses? Who but three lucky sisters can draw with chalk on the side of their house? What else could create the screams of delight than Cente and his cousins riding the skateboard down the sidewalk–on their backs?

Children play where they find themselves. Without cars or busses to get very far from home on their own and with snippets of time too short to roam far on bikes, children’s places to play are close to where they live: in front of the house, in the back yard, under the trees in the side yard, and often on the strip of parkway between the sidewalk and street. In found spaces overlooked by adults, children create worlds leaving traces of their play of found objects, plants and seeds, water, light and shadow, small critters, and snow.

Found Spaces
The spaces adults pass by or through with little notice are places children can take control of, even if only temporarily. Low down and out of sight, sometimes overgrown with plants or piled high with snow, children know just what to do in loosely structured, found spaces. They take ownership with their play. In a postage stamp-sized green space, children find inspiration in small objects (a straw dropped by a passerby), a puddle from yesterday’s rain, or plants pushing through unfriendly soil. Using whatever is available, children imbue found spaces with new qualities made possible by their imaginations.

In huge mounds of snow left by the plows, children earnestly dig caves and tunnels while adults pass by on the walking path without a pause. For two friends, this grand snow pile is a glacier or the North Pole and they must rescue members of their expedition. At a corner fountain, three children gather, take off their shoes, dangle their feet in the water, and tell jokes. In the narrow space between an old stonewall and a ramp, four girls hold onto the railing. Creating physical challenges for themselves, they squeeze, stretch, and balance. In the soupy muddy rut next to the sidewalk, three small boys float their boats.

Creating Worlds
Children give shape to small worlds gathering and arranging found objects, transforming a box, or claiming space in the shade between plants. Sometimes, it seems these small worlds evolve over time with a child’s multiple visits to a chosen spot. Plants grow taller and thicker over the summer, a shell from vacation is added, a character moves in, an imagination of the possible expands. These worlds change from both inside and outside.

One well-played spot I came across on a walk was a bare weedy patch under a tree between the sidewalk and the street. A partially buried blue bowl first caught my eye; a fishing lure was cradled in it as if the fish were swimming through sky-blue-waters. By crouching down, other small groupings of objects gradually came into view. Two miniature wrought iron chairs sat side-by-side; a figurine of a tiny mouse with a saddle on its back perched on a stone; two small horses lay on their sides near a wooden barn. At one end, a child’s chair seemed to oversee this world–or these several smaller worlds.

Traces of Play
While a day’s play may come to an end, evidence of play may last. A LEGO brick left behind, colorful leaves arranged in a circle, sticks propped up against the tree, or a sticker affixed to a leaf are vestiges of play that hint of the play this space has enjoyed.

Chalk messages abound in proclaiming children’s ownership of sidewalk sections, the street corner, or the wall. They announce lemonade and cookies. Chalk dreams tell of traveling to outer space. Colored chalk makes anything, even a sewer grate, more beautiful. Writing letters a foot high confers the due importance to a name that no sheet of paper can. A slab of cement sidewalk is transformed into a game board for hopping and jumping.

 We may not see children play along the sidewalk each time they are out or we are out. After all, children are playing for their own pleasure, not for ours. We may see that they have been playing from some remnants of their play. We have to pay attention. There is something almost ephemeral in children’s play. Very present in one moment, it is suddenly gone with only a trace. It is as if play were a bubble that takes off in the air, floats lightly, and pops when it moves too far from its source.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Four Key Practices

With Building a Shared Understanding I cast one of the five practices I have accumulated over the years as the queen of museum practices. Perhaps somewhat of a stretch, it is, nevertheless, useful in distinguishing it as a high-level, long term, organization-wide practice from other productive, but nevertheless, supporting practices. On their own, the remaining four practices do important work in strengthening the museum in small ways towards their larger interests. 
  1. Building a Shared Understanding
  2. Making Meaningful Distinctions
  3. Breaking Things into Smaller Parts
  4. Crossing Boundaries
  5. Experimental Mindset

Making Meaningful Distinctions 
Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (1995) is a landmark study by
Marko Remec at Mass MOCA
Hart and Risley on parent talk to young children at home and the lasting difference it makes for children. The title alone consolidated for me a valuable practice around highlighting important differences among otherwise similar ideas or situations.
These distinctions, connected to driving ideas or supported by evidence, are crucial to building shared understanding, capacity, consistency, quality, and value.

Familiar concepts or favored ideas often have several or fuzzy meanings with invisible implications–until they collide. A half dozen words now enjoying currency in museums–creativity, participation, play, engagement, impact, learning–have multiple meanings across the field and even with in a single museum. Meaning that seems intuitive to one person rarely is to another.

I recently read a museum master plan that used the terms scientific thinking, science learning, and science literacy interchangeably throughout. While these concepts are related, they’re not same. Each possesses meaning or attributes the others don’t. Undoubtedly one is more consequential to the museum’s driving ideas than the others. In what ways is one concept more resonant with the museum’s interests, supported by evidence, or related to community priorities?

Making distinctions is more than just defining words or word-smithing. Less busy work, it facilitates work, for instance, guarding against false dualities that stymy discussion. Are we about art or people? Are we nice or necessary? Framing important ideas, identifying salient traits, relating them to one another, and clarifying their importance also signals what is less important and why. Staff can channel their creativity and act with confidence following clear direction on where to invest energy and resources to benefit visitors and the museum.

Meaningful distinctions can be made in many ways and virtually all the time. A simple statement caught my eye on Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 recent blog: Each of these activities invited contribution on a different level.” Rather than a single participation opportunity, each activity invited a particular kind of participation, for instance, at a point in the process, individual, collaborative, of varying duration, or personal investment, etc.

My strategic planning partner Andrea typically follows a statement like, “The museum’s region is a fast-growing mid-sized market” with, “This is important because…” This links a characteristic of the community relevant to the museum’s vision, mission, and audience grounded in back-up information. It assists the museum in viewing the future, addressing potential growth, and identifying benchmark museums.

Everyday museums have opportunities to make meaningful distinctions about anything that's meaningful at the museum: sustainability, adult engagement, access, inquiry, materials, collaboration, learning, risk/hazard, etc. 
For instance, championing open-ended materials in a studio space says some materials better support the museum’s vision of its visitor experience and learning opportunities. Open-ended materials that invite and extend exploration help clarify why a museum values them. Selecting particular open-ended materials because their properties invite manipulation, build knowledge of material properties, build on existing competence, and encourage representing ideas add important information. Considering how these qualities tend to extend exploration through more questions, experimenting with techniques, defining problems, or richer language connects the materials and their qualities with the broader experiences, and conveys more valuable distinctions. When staff across a museum make these choices consistently, everyday choices serve the museum’s long-term interests. 
Breaking Things into Smaller Parts
From an early age we are encouraged to break a problem apart to make it more manageable. Outside of school we forget until, years later, we fall into this practice again by accident. I did. Twenty years ago when I had the opportunity to work with the owners’ reps for Minnesota Children’s Museum’s expansion project on cost estimating for exhibits, I was reintroduced to this in another and relevant form.

The owner’s reps were bringing their method of estimating building costs to estimating exhibit costs for 15,000 square feet of exhibits we were building in house. Compared to present cost estimating for exhibits,  estimating then was a rudimentary, informal exercise with few or no specialists and no exhibit cost databases, at least that we knew of. I was a bit skeptical that the very same way to estimate costs for lobbies, lavatories, and loading docks would apply to estimating costs for a DIY thunderstorm, musical solar event, or the Harambee–a 2-story musical sculpture in our exhibits.

John and Jerry started with a simple example they explained clearly: making a table. On the one hand, they said, they could estimate the cost of making a table: one cost for one entire table unit with all its parts. On the other, they could split the table into its component parts, estimate the cost of making each, and tally the costs: make a tabletop of a certain size and material; build a skirt frame; make four legs; assemble all the parts. While both approaches would be estimates, totaling the cost estimate of each table part would be closer to the actual cost than one estimate for the table.  

Even as John and Jerry were describing the process of estimating the cost of making a table, I was imagining attacks on many types of problems and the benefit of getting a more accurate view of what I was dealing with: taking on a big project, tackling complexity, exploring something new, developing goals and objectives, or just getting unstuck. Whether solving a budget problem, developing a center for creativity, or building a table, Breaking Things into Smaller Parts manages the parts along with the whole. Without losing track of the bigger picture, this practice asks: what are the component parts? What is known about each? How do the parts relate to one another? What’s missing? What resources are needed?

Breaking Things into Smaller Parts works at virtually every scale, starting a museum or building a science park; developing a capital project budget or the annual budget; framing visitor experience goals or initiative goals.

Crossing Boundaries 
Crossing the cultural, geographic, physical, contextual, and intellectual boundaries that hold us back and limit our thinking opens new spaces for thought and action. In times of fast-paced change or easy continuity, whether a museum is navigating turbulence or sinking into complacency, stepping outside the familiar
Skirball Cultural Center photo
advances new perspectives, challenges thinking, reframes possibilities, and drives change. 

Territory beyond well-known boundaries is wide open. Venture outside the museum field, our cities and countries; explore libraries, retail, hospitals, and parks. Learn from other types of museums and from ones that are smaller, larger, or older. Crossing, not toeing, boundaries of theory, discipline, paradigm, media, department, and terminology allows us to explore what lies at the intersection of areas and to transform ideas in each area by combining them in new ways.

Increasingly the museum field looks beyond its borders, borrowing and adapting frameworks, methods, and approaches from social work, sustainability, and the for profit world to strengthen internal processes and operations. Interest in the Triple Bottom Line, the Hedgehog concept from Good To Great and Blue Ocean Strategy have migrated to museums. To manage these complex and diverse organizations, museums hire people from healthcare, education, business, customer service, anthropology, and theater. A colleague described how her museum director brought his extensive professional networks from previous jobs in other areas to strengthen a collaborative community effort around literacy. Having maintained past connections, he deliberately leveraged them on the museum’s, and the collaborative's, behalf.

By inhabiting another role, we inhabit perspectives that are otherwise unavailable. For years I volunteered in a second grade classroom, accompanying the class on field trips, riding bumpy busses filled with 60 second graders laughing, cheering, and talking to the symphony, book arts center, natural history museum and children’s theater. When we visited the children’s museum, however, I was most challenged in my chaperone role. In spite of knowing the museum, the exhibit, and my small group of children well, I struggled in accommodating their individual interests and different paces for exploring. In all the years we had planned field trips at the children’s museum, I realized, we had never actually stepped into the chaperone role to become chaperones and know the field trip experience from the teacher, parent, or volunteer perspective.

Crossing Boundaries is a daily and doable practice for individuals that introduces and invigorates with new types of diversity. Reading, visiting, training, or working outside our area can stretch us beyond even the best professional development opportunities. Another context, whether physical, cultural, or procedural, can challenge the limits of our thinking and test well-worn and worn-out patterns of thought. Introducing a new process like Design Thinking can energize a team. 

On returning from a journey through new territory, we view and value what we and others do differently, find new paths to follow, and discover new and powerful connections.
Experimental Mindset
Borealis Press
Increasingly my favorite practice is an Experimental Mindset. In many ways this practice energizes and feeds the three other supporting practices.
Museums enjoy a tradition of experimenting. Alfred Barr, first director of the Museum of Modern Art, commented 75 years ago that, “The Museum of Modern Art is a laboratory in its experiments the public is entitled to participate.” Every new exhibition or program, each interactive component or new acquisition, a revised membership incentive, or community collaborative can be a hypothesis about how the museum might invite participation, build loyalty, engage visitors more fully, extend engagement, or increase impact. With prototyping, evaluation, observation, documentation, and research of various types, museums have a wide range of methods to support experimental mindsets. 

Working at every organizational level an Experimental Mindset helps solve new problems as well as solve old problems differently. A suite of experiments projects can be activated in service of museum-wide change as the Columbus Museum of Art has been doing for the past 6+ years. Experiments can also navigate around interpretive challenges as the historic Hunter House experiment described in Pushing the Period Room Beyond the Period. They can be as small as a hand-written sign with a question, re-purposed materials, or QR codes and new technology to rethink the field trip. Regardless of the size, curiosity and an experimental stance fuel this practice. As with all of the five practices, however, museums and museum staff must avail themselves of the practices and their related opportunities. An Experimental Mindset may ask more of staff than other practices do, but challenge and opportunity also invigorate staff and entire organizations. Museums that value institutional vibrancy, groundbreaking ideas, and nimble responses to change and opportunity, can bring an experimental mindset to find innovative ways to encourage and support staff and trustees in being open to new approaches and ideas, taking risks, failing and then failing in new ways, and changing outcomes.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Five Practices: Starting with a Shared Understanding

In the billowy word cloud of practice, float professional practice, reflective practice, green practice, and many types of spiritual practice. There are practices that are promising, evidence-based, and best. A set of practices might also characterize a particular museum or an approach. Even as individuals, we are likely to have a few favored practices we rely on, whether or not we think of the methods we deliberately deploy to accomplish our work as practices. I know I’ve accumulated 5 practices over the years, applied and tested across settings. 
  1. Building a Shared Understanding
  2. Making Meaningful Distinctions
  3. Breaking Things into Smaller Parts
  4. Crossing Boundaries
  5. Experimental Mindset

While likely somewhat idiosyncratic, my set of five is basically what we know as practices: tested methods, processes, and rules used in a particular situation within a field or profession. Accumulated over the last 30 years, my practices confer a kind of confidence: I’ll find my way through situations I am likely to encounter. They provide the kind of security a traveler in a fairy tale has from jingling silver coins in his pocket as he wanders through strange new lands. 

I like new situations. Over the years I’ve found myself in new territory moving from teaching to design to professional development to museum administration to museum planning; the world has been changing as well. I figure I’ll be using these silver coins in the future since they have served me well in starting a museum, building a new museum, planning exhibits, helping others plan museums, developing initiatives, and fielding strategic plans.

These five practices have come from different parts of my work life: from reading, noticing, borrowing from others and, of course, from actual practice. Sometimes with a click, “just something I do” becomes a firmed up practice. A practice may be based on existing practices like inquiry but comes together with a group as with Shiny Questions. At least one practice has migrated from another field. Breaking things into smaller and smaller parts, a practice in cost estimating, is equally useful in thinking about strategies and what precursor engineering thinking in young children looks like. A phrase I came across in reading a study resonated with a roar and consolidated a string of related activities in one swell foop.

Building a Shared Understanding

When a team hums, a department hits its mark regularly, an initiative gains serious traction, or a museum transforms itself, chances are the group has developed and works with a shared understanding of significant, relevant ideas. They may share an organization-wide understanding of the museum’s sustainability commitment and how to further it across every department. They may be working from a common pedagogical framework around learning that they have hammered, negotiated, tested, and continue to revise. Or they may have coined their own vocabulary about family learning with special terms and phrases to describe interactions among family members, reliable strategies for engaging them, and what the chosen outcomes are.

A shared understanding across a team, a department, and levels of an organization deepens appreciation for and genuine caring about a common vision a museum is intent on achieving. Whether initiated by formal leadership, a thought leader, or a team’s energy, cultivating a common language or vision is a practice that engages and brings together an entire museum. Unfolding over time, an understanding explores diverse perspectives in such a way that a deeper, common understanding emerges. Neither static nor finished, understandings continue to be revisited in the light of new information from fresh voices, questions, failures, changing conditions, and new connections. Not at all the product of same-thinking colleagues, it is sustained equally by varied perspectives and the aligned efforts of many. The mutual support, or force, of an understanding galvanizes people in many roles to action and generates shared, productive energy.

Suitable across Many Settings 
In a museum building a shared understanding may center on a framework for public value, on a vision for the museum experience and the amenities needed to realize it, or on how a museum advances its broad learning agenda. This process generates questions such as how is learning (or customer service) part of everyone’s job? Following questions and unpacking meaning connect big, roomy ideas with the everyday language of museum work. What do we mean by program? By learning? By creativity? What does learning look like at our museum? A lexicon of words and concepts emerges and facilitates discussion. Familiar words, crisp with new meaning, replace tired, over-used words that mean everything and nothing.
The value and benefit of a commonly understood direction are apparent across a range of settings. Building Shared Vision is one of the five disciplines of learning organizations Peter Senge writes about in The Fifth Discipline. At the heart of the decades-long educational project of the municipal infant toddler centers and schools of Reggio Emilia is a comprehensive, shared pedagogy that has inspired schools (and museums) worldwide. Over nearly 10 years, Columbus Museum of Art has been intentionally engaged in integrating creativity throughout its learning and visitor experiences. The July 2014 issue of Journal of Museum Education is dedicated to an in depth exploration of their journey. A similar deliberate and sustained approach to a shared vision, in this case of becoming a  “… thriving, central gathering place where local residents and visitors have the opportunity to experience art, history, ideas, and culture” characterizes the work Nina Simon has been leading at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. The Learning Community, an innovative K-8 public charter school serving Central Falls, Pawtucket, and Providence (RI) has, as its approach, a comprehensive and deeply understood program based in research, clarity of ideas, and explicit instruction.

For museum staff, team, or board to feel connected to one another around a greater hope of bringing positive change to people’s lives requires a way of talking deeply with one another about important ideas. It relies on unearthing the museum’s salient, ennobling ideas; talking, listening, and thinking together. In probing meanings and casting them in the museum’s particular context, a museum’s full team makes ideas accessible and actionable. A museum that enjoys a shared view of what’s possible and a common starting point for framing issues also enjoys advantages in navigating new and complex situations that arise, making decisions, and identifying solutions.

Why engage an entire museum–staff and board–in a long-term, challenging effort with inevitable risks, set backs, if not failures, along the way?

By its nature, building a shared understanding is a collective, reciprocal effort that generates a sense of ownership and commitment, shared identity and pride. Work in one area of the museum is integral to work in other areas. Each is necessary to the overall effort and coordinated action required to move forward. Valued for their perspectives, creativity, and experience, staff members are empowered to create opportunities to learn and understand more, and to put relevant, supportive practices into place. Museum capacity builds as staff internalizes ideas and develops fluency around what matters most and how values are expressed. When a museum harnesses a shared understanding across the organization, it experiences a palpable energy, a sense of being alive with meaning and possibility.
Foundational changes will inevitably create shifts, some of which will be disruptive. Many, however, will also invigorate an organization that is serious about change and on the move. For instance, it is likely that a museum will shift from relying on assumptions, hopes, and wishes that a vision will be realized to being empowered to find strategies and tools to act on it. Other shifts will also occur.
  • From talking about what the museum does to ... internalizing why it does it.
  • From short-term thinking in separate departments to ... on-going dialogues across the museum.
  • From acting on untested assumptions about what visitors do and think to… asking and exploring questions and using evidence to inform choices about the visitor experience.
  • From presenting cherished programs staff likes and has done to … developing programs relevant to visitors, grounded in research, and capable of advancing the vision.
  • From counting what is countable–participants and “likes”–to … documenting changes in practice, progress towards outcomes, and shifts in how the museum is viewed by stakeholders.
  • From I and my, and they and them to … we, our, and us.
  • From attracting staff, trustees and funders content with business as usual to … garnering attention, talent, and support of decision-makers and funders attracted by potential and persistence.
An Overarching Practice
Among the five practices, Building a Shared Understanding is perhaps an overarching practice, one that serves an entire museum across all its endeavors and its trajectory. Tied to foundational ideas, effecting meaningful change, and engaging staff, trustees, and visitors, Building a Shared Understanding is as basic as providing for safety and keeping the doors open and goes well beyond. In fact, Building a Shared Understanding is possibly THE practice of a museum. It is clearly supported by the other four practices.

Next up: Making Meaningful Distinction, Breaking Things into Smaller Parts, Crossing Boundaries, and An Experimental Mindset.

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