Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Gratitude in and for Museums

I am thankful for dog parks...
Last year my niece and her children made the crescent rolls for Thanksgiving dinner. Our large family hungrily reached for the bowl of rolls while the buffet remained temporarily off limits. A few of us heard and registered the caution to break the rolls apart carefully. Some of us did so, unlayering the rolls, finding the edges of buttery paper and gingerly pulling them out. Others noticed and became curious about the fortune cookie-looking strips of paper. Readers rather than eaters, we scanned the rolled up gratitudes in each roll, silently at first and then for others to hear. With no names included on the strips of paper, it was natural to try and guess who wrote this one or that. Who was thankful for toys? (Harper) And who was thankful for CRUMBS? (Henry, the Lab) Who was grateful for a niece and great niece who think of all these great little ideas that make our family closer at special times of the year”? (Tom)

Some were harder to decipher than others. A few syllables of gratitude had been eaten (and swallowed) before read. I bit the Wis of of "..consin Badgers and the S in "..allie Walker and Papa John" from the middle of Ian’s gratitude. In the spirit of gratitude, he forgave me. Family was mentioned often as was friendship, humor, health, patience, peanut butter, and chocolate. A thoughtfully provided master list provided clues to a few truly mysterious entries and corrections for some mismatches. 

What has stayed with me over the year besides memories of a full heart and insights into family members (who knew my millwright brother was so sentimental?) is a growing awareness of the many ways and places that gratitude is expressed. Not limited to Hallmark cards, I notice displays of gratitude in ordinary moments and extraordinary ways. With the amount of time I spend in, with, and for museums, feeling gratitude for them, for staff and friends, and for their place in society–all year through–is not difficult at all . My thankfulness for museums begins with an appreciation of them as welcoming places, empathetic and compassionate places, and as places of joy.

1.     Museums opening to more and larger parts of the community through free and reduced admission, access and inclusion strategies. National programs like Blue Star Families at more than 2,000 museums; field-wide programs such as Museums for All; pay-as-you-will policies; and hours and events that accommodate audience groups with special needs and abilities at more and more museums express an intention to lower, if not eliminate, barriers to visiting and enjoying museums.  
2.     Staff and volunteers prepared and ready with just-in-time support and understanding. Reuniting a separated child and parent, greeting visitors in the parking lot, giving helpful directions to a nearby restaurant, offering suggestions for must-see exhibits, or making a simple repair to an exhibit, museum staff–especially front-line staff–make the complex choreography of a visit to the museums work smoothly and with patience, kindness and a smile.

3.     Museums as refuge from storms–meteorological and metaphorical. Relief from rain, snow, hail, heat, and cold draws families, couples, friends, and individuals into museums to wander, pass time, connect, visit, or find solitude. In any weather, stepping into a museum can offer a reprieve from pressing duties and sorrows and a moment of time-out-of-time with the possibility of renewal.

4.     Colleagues compelled to experiment, push boundaries, and take risks. The curious, the friendly provocateurs, those who challenge complacency and easy assumptions create waves that move us all forward. Thanks to their appetite for authenticity, penchant for "what if?", and straightforward questions, my thinking is inspired and challenged as are others in the museum field.

5.     Museums reaching out to help one another. Museums are a far-flung community well acquainted with ways to help and support. They step forward to help after events such as Hurricane Katrina, Super Storm Sandy, 9/11, and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Strong and caring connections among museum colleagues are expressed in mentoring younger colleagues, offering support through difficult professional transitions, easing times of organizational uncertainty, and softening personal loss.

6.     The privilege of glimpsing visitors’ thinking and ideas. Listening to, observing, and being attentive to children and adults, their language, gestures, interactions, and creations open up and give clues about what is fascinating to them, what they know and are figuring out, what they imagine and hope for, and all they can do with their strengths and resourcefulness.

7.     Wholehearted expressions of joy. Years ago, I watched a family hurry into the Jump To Japan exhibition at Seattle Children’s Museum and towards the grinning CatBus from the animated film, My Neighbor Totoro. In great delight, they recited dialogue, gestured and assumed poses, bringing the film to life as a family. Joy is also expressed in a family reading together, all piled on dad; sisters seeing themselves in a Degas painting; and 5 year old practicing her new found skipping skills, leading her family to the admissions desk.

8.     Uncontained expressions of the human spirit. Museums hold and share art, beauty, ingenuity, natural wonders, and discoveries from around the world and across time through which we are able to experience the wondrous, the truly awesome, the sublime, and the extraordinary in the ordinary. In these moments and masterpieces we find  inspiration for new possibilities.

9.     The promise of more to come. More museums to visit and learn about; generous colleagues to learn from and be inspired by; new ones to connect with; and museums’ potential to favor the friendly exchange of curiosity and creativity.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

What Do We Want of Parents?

This past summer’s blog post by Marianna Adams during her summer residency at the Gardner Museum provided just the right additional thoughts to some threading through my mind. In writing about what museums convey to adults when they engage families in programs, she wrote about how we sometimes keep doing the same thing over and over, neither questioning the underlying assumptions nor paying attention to what’s actually happening.  Soon after that, a query on CHILDMUS (9/26/14) asked if any museums have figured out how to discourage parents from using their cell phones excessively while at the museum. It went on to say, "We get a lot of complaints about parents not supervising their children and typically it's because parents are on their phones.” A few weeks later, the agenda for an IMLS project advisors’ meeting I attended included engaging adults. The nature of the comments shared about parents and caregivers was all that was needed for me to wonder: What do we want of parents in museums? 

Comments and complaints about parents and caregivers are surprisingly consistent across museums: parents sit, talk on the phone, ignore their child, and take over their child’s project. Staff members are preoccupied with keeping parents off their cell phones and not wanting them to take over their child’s activity which Susan McKay at The Opal School at Portland Children’s Museum aptly characterizes  as a bipolar preoccupation with parents: too involved and not involved enough with their children in museums. There’s a whole lot of territory in between. What do we want parents to do?

Adults often comprise 50% of a museum’s visitors. It follows that museums have every reason to think that, if  these adults have chosen this museum as a place that provides an experience they value for their child, then what can the museum do to ensure a great experience for them. 

When museums have expectations that contradict one another about an audience group, are so vague they aren’t actionable, or are not shared among front-line staff, security, educators, and designers, it's a problem. The fact is, museums need parents and caregivers to meet their audience goals, goals for families, and goals for children. And while every museum does not want the same thing for parents and caregivers who visit (nor should they), every museum should have a shared framework for understanding parents and caregivers and how to serve and engage them.

True: Not all parents appear ready to be engaged
Serving an audience group well starts with understanding who they are. In this case, they are parents, step-parents, foster parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts; teachers, daycare providers, baby sitters, and nannies; group leaders and day camp counselors. First time and frequent visitors, they may range in age from 20 to 50 or 60 to 90, when grandparents and great grandparents are included. They may accompany a child ranging in age from newborn to 12 or 15 years; operate solo with one or multiple children; or be in a clutch of three relatives hovering over a new grandchild.
Parents and caregivers serve as chauffeur, chaperone, pocket book, navigator, coat holder, stroller pusher, diaper bag holder, referee, and occasional tie-breaker. They are readers, navigators, coaches, role models, and timekeepers. Museum goers in their own right, they are likely to be a learner, a co-learner, or a player. They may be tired, charged with energy, craving coffee or distracted by a problem on the home or work front. Clearly one definition cannot possibly stretch to cover parents and caregivers nor will a single strategy for engaging them serve all.

While every museum intends to serve parents and caregivers well, being prepared to do so goes far beyond good intentions. To offer a positive, supportive, engaging experience for parents, a museum needs a planned and organizational approach, developed over time, actively supported and valued, and renewed and refreshed. An ongoing process, a museum may begin by fielding a series of discussions among staff across the museum around four questions.  
  • How Do We View Parents?
  • Are We Building on Parents’ Strengths?
  • What Do Parents Want?
  • How Do We Support Parents? 
How Do We View Parents?

How a museum views the parents and caregivers it wants to serve influences how it shapes experiences and engagement strategies for them and their children. A museum may see them as friends and allies or as foes and obstacles in serving children. In some cases, parents are more or less invisible or incidental to the experiences museum offer. Parents and caregivers are both individuals with interests and preferences as well as adults engaged in a life-long relationship with their children. Is the museum prepared to both engage them as adults as well as in their parent role? Does it intend for them to be active participants in museum experiences or bystanders? 

To address the underlying assumptions about parents and caregivers that are inevitably diverse and complex, a museum needs to make explicit its view of parents and caregivers for its staff. Does the museum see them as learners, co-learners, facilitators, playmates, or tour guides? Perhaps an invented name for the role best captures the image and fits the museum’s experience style and brand: co-creator, play-and-learning partner, or explorer. Or museums may ask parents to name the roles they feel they are playing. A name for the role or cluster of roles brings into focus other attributes of parents and caregivers a museum wants to encourage and engage.

Are We Building on Parents’ Strengths? 
Our contradictory and sometimes negative ideas about parents and caregivers can overshadow the assets and strengths they bring to the museum with their children. Their love and commitment to exposing their child to varied and engaging experiences walks through the doors with every one of them. They bring an invaluable understanding of their child’s interests, skills, and previous experiences that is integral to children benefiting from the rich exhibit and program experiences. 

An essential question is whether the museum is recognizing parents’ competence and valuing that they want to do their best on behalf of their children? Sometimes, a change from a negative to a positive image is necessary. Recently General Mills produced a You Tube video, How To Dad. In this video the awesome dad image replaces the stereotype of the dumb, inept dad familiar in commercials and TV shows. A museum doesn’t have to produce its own video, but it may want start looking about and noticing what parents already do well; and where, for instance, the museum unwittingly gets in the way of parents playing their best role. Museum staff may want to learn what, for instance, parents are doing with their cell phones. Perhaps they are photographing or making a video of their children’s or families' experiences to revisit later, something many museums would encourage.

What Do Parents Want? 
Increasingly museums work to engage their visitors in dialogue through focus groups and visitor panels to learn what they want. The studies and plans I am familiar with, however, ask parents about family visits, overlooking the opportunity for critical information about what parents and caregivers want for themselves in a visit. While parents do consider the needs and interests of their children, they are not unaware of their own needs and interests at the museum.

If parents and caregivers pay more attention to their cell phones than their children, museums might ask if what they are offering is more interesting than  cell phones. Listening to what they want will help attune the museum to parent concerns. Do we know what parents want to get out of a museum visit? What they want for themselves? What signals to them that their participation is encouraged? What does support and encouragement look like to them? Where might a parent want to be during a demonstration or a story? What works for parents as her child climbs through a tree house or ant tunnel? In developing a new exhibit, does the museum ask what interests them about the topic, materials, design, or objects?
How Do We Support Parents?

A shared view of parents and caregivers, built on strengths and shaped by their input requires support in many forms: the physical environment, staff interactions, materials and design. Every museum engages in practices in all of these areas, but they are not necessarily aligned. A shared view can guide museum staff in assessing and tweaking existing practices and cultivating new ones that reinforce a guiding image of the parent and caregiver. How, for instance, does this view and what parents and caregivers say they want translate into:

·       Staff prepared to greet, support, and respond to parents and caregivers as they arrive, get involved, make choices, and, eventually, prepare to leave. Besides a museum’s own customer service training, a program like Wakanheza can prepare staff to support parents handling a difficult moment with their child in public. How does staff scaffolding experiences for children draw parents in? What, as Mariana Adams ask, does having parents stand at the back of the room with their children seated in front tell them about participation in a family program?

·       Environments, exhibits, and programs that take into account what parents and caregivers are concerned about like safety and security, comfort, easy visual access into and across spaces. How does the high climbing structure that invites children up and away from their adults assure adults of safety and offer them a way to interact?

·       Tools like the Adult Child Interaction Inventory serve as a tool for exhibit development and evaluation and are related to the adult's role in exhibits.

·       A consistent message delivered in a positive, respectful tone across multiple platforms: greetings, text panels, announcements, publications, wayfinding, and program activities. Parents, like the rest of us can tell when they are being talked down to or are not included.

·       An approach to cell phone use and devices that is informed, realistic, and in the spirit of what the museum hopes happens for the parents and caregivers it serves, for their children, and for staff.  

Related Museum Notes Posts
• Strengthening Parent Engagement

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Completing the Experience

Imagine a museum that has as its purpose: To serve, produce, and co-produce…people, food, art, and ideas. Visitors to this museum find not only a maker faire, but also an annual mending party where they fix, repair, and upgrade valued possessions, their own and others’. Families build and share their stories. Self-forming groups create their own pop-up exhibits to take out into neighborhoods. What if visitors not only loved the mosaics like those in the City Museum in St. Louis, but were able to contribute to those environments and add details? Everywhere in this museum could be experiences with choices that bring people one-step closer to being the authors of their own experience, not just consumers of others’ creativity. These ideas are not just mine. They come from museum thinkers and linkers like Kathy McLean, Nina Simon, and Reggio thinker, Lani Shapiro.

In her recent post Press Here, Nina Simon describes two ingenious children’s books, Press Here and This is a Book Without Pictures. Reflecting on how the authors cleverly use the basic elements of the page and words to break the fourth wall of book reading, she wonders, "How do we use the essential tools of museum-ness to disrupt, surprise, and delight people?" 

Trying to answer this question by analyzing it too thoroughly becomes problematic. Too many rules and qualities constrain the potential seismic shift the question invites. Breaking the fourth wall of museums by using museum-ness comes, perhaps, when users complete the experience museums offer, by filling in with their imaginations, questions, creativity, experiments, and previous experiences.

Museums are inclined to plan a little too thoroughly to assure they serve their visitors well. Consequently, the user fits into a designed experience others have determined for them. To be fair, users implicitly agree to experiences that others have planned for them by virtue of visiting the museum. But would visitors like something that they might direct or control more? Why not give them the opportunity? Do we have the confidence and courage to let users struggle, wrestle, spin, and delight in their accomplishments? Do we have the restraint to step back and give the visitor a greater hand in an experience intended for them? 

How do museums create experiences that allow visitors to complete the experience by directing it and changing it? Below are four shifts in constructing museum experiences I have been chewing on that might significantly rechannel museum thinking and energies to disrupt the current museum experience paradigm.

One big, bold idea, solid and true. An idea capable of creating a major shift in a museum wholeheartedly takes the visitor into account. Starting with a strong image and high regard for the visitor, the museum values and plans around possibilities meaningful to the end user–the visitor. A roomy and compelling idea is one that resonates intensely with the user. It is a generous host for the curiosity of many and diverse visitors and connects with their interests and passions rather than through our subject matter areas. Meaningful and relevant but not necessarily serious, a bold idea actually becomes bigger through engagement, capturing the visitor’s imagination, leading to new questions, and opening up possibilities. The museum certainly has a critical role to fulfill in this new dynamic. Its focus, however, shifts to locating and understanding an idea worthy of visitors investing in it.

An experience that can’t be completed without the user. More goals, outcomes, square footage, objects, components, design, and graphics can't substitute for what is essential that each person brings to the exhibit experience. Even expansive, interactive, immersive, dramatic spaces are static without the visitor’s curiosity, imagination, engagement, conversation, meaning making and physicality. When experiences are too complete, the visitor becomes irrelevant; there is no room for their voice, choice, or control. Central to completing the experience is the visitor easily seeing herself as a competent agent that can impact the course of the experience in a significant and relevant way. Physical or metaphorical, there must be ways to leave behind a physical trace or expression; make an imprint for others to engage with; or carry a mark of the experience forward.

Play with form. The stage and the book Press Here express a kind of play with their forms that allow the user to bring something significant to the experience. By removing the imaginary front wall of the stage, the audience enters the world of a play. In Press Here, the reader shakes the book. This gesture, unusual in the page turning conventions of reading, seemingly moves the dots on the next page. In museums, maker-based experiences may be compelling because the museum visitor becomes the maker of objects in a setting where they typically observe objects others have made. By selectively rethinking and applying rules and sidestepping expectations, a museum may create an experience that, not only surprises and delights, but also extends unexpected invitations, provokes novel responses, or just stops visitors in their tracks. 

Curating Opportunities. Shifts beget shifts. When a museum focuses on creating experiences the visitor completes, its thinking and energy is redirected. The roles of curator, exhibit developer, and designer, for instance, shift from helping visitors understand content to being able to curate opportunities. By exploring the big bold idea; making room for the user; and playing with form, exhibit planners set a course to make very different decisions about what goes in and, more important, what is left out of exhibitions to allow users to step into the role of creator and change agent. Rubbing away rough edges of a design might also eliminate what is essential to an unscripted but valued exploration. More opportunities do not require more space, more objects, more activities, or more money. They do, however, mean more openings to the possible directions an experience might lead; more ways to see, assign meaning, and layer, unlayer, and relayer experience.

Related Museum Notes Posts