Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Light...Merry and Bright

How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.
Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

Walk-in kaleidoscope by Masakazu Shirane and Saya Miyazaki
Light’s absence seems to demand that it is at center of everything these days. Maybe it’s the long, dark days of winter, especially in the high latitudes of Minnesota. Maybe it’s the magical pathway of moonlight on the snow. Still, light seems to draw us even when days are long and the sun is high; even then, sunlight shimmering on water is marvelous. Fireworks explode and bedazzle. Light fascinates, illuminates, inspires, connects, and fills space.

Light fascinates. Babies are drawn to the light, eyes fixed on light’s sparkle on a spoon, foil, glass, jewelry. Children are captivated as light shines, shimmers, and scatters in reflections, rainbows, and shadows.

Photo credits below

Light illuminates and opens the world with meaning, metaphor, and the material nature of the world. To give light to children learning to read and doing their schoolwork, hundreds of these inflatable solar-powered lanterns are being sent to rural Tanzania. 
Light inspires. Energy with a kind of poetry, light reveals possibilities even through the smallest cracks. Light borrows from the day to transform night’s darkness, lighting what can otherwise be difficult to see.
James Turrell's Sky Pesher, 2005. Walker Art Center

Solar art glass (Sarah Hall Studio)

Light connects, spills and spreads around us, wraps us in its warmth, leads us forward.

Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space 

Light fills space flooding it with warmth and color. Moving in shafts, waves, and handfuls, light beams and bounces, pools; fills, flickers, fragments; glistens, glows and glimmers.

Beauty, possibility, remembrance, and hope. Wishing you a brighter 2015.  

Photo credits for above: 
(L) Shadow-ing by P.H. Fitzgerald; (C) Manning School, Jamaica Plain MA; (R) Kentucky Science Center
(L) National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC; Kidspace entry (Pasadena, CA) 
Suprasensorial at the Hirschhorn. Chromosaturation (1965 and refabricated 2012) by Venezuelan Carlos Cruz-Diez

Monday, December 22, 2014

Revisiting Nice + Necessary in the Context of Ferguson

 Old Courthouse and Museum, St Louis MO
The tragic events in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island have reverberated across the country and elicited a wide range of responses from individuals, groups, and institutions. Moved to respond to those events, the issues they raise, and the actions they have sparked, a group of museum bloggers coordinated by Gretchen Jennings, collaborated on a blog posted December 11th on Museum Commons and elsewhere, including here on Museum Notes.

Since then, members of this group have been both energized by the responses of individuals as well as puzzled, if not downright disappointed, by the limited response of many museums and museum associations in addressing the range of issues these events raise–race relations, injustice, unchecked police brutality, income and educational disparities, and movement toward positive change.

While frustrating and disheartening, this lack of action is, unfortunately, not surprising. These events are tragic and complex with relevance that ripples across local communities and national values. Responding to them in a meaningful way is challenging to say the least, a point clearly made by two questions raised repeatedly recently: should museums respond? and how should museums respond? 

In the past few days, I have visited websites of 40 museums including museums in the Ferguson-St Louis area, Staten Island, and Cleveland, in 16 states, and including science, cultural, history, natural history, art, and children’s museums to get a sense of how museums are addressing issues raised by events in Ferguson. Nine museums listed activities and events, posted blogs, facilitated conversations, or are collecting related artifacts; they are listed below. One museum’s blog post has since been removed. Some websites had no portal or link to an activity, event, or position paper; at least it wasn’t labeled clearly enough for me to find it.
Some of the 30 museums not highlighting events or blog posts are ones where I know a staff person has spoken out in emails and social media or has reposted one of the statements on their blog. This suggests a basic challenge of balancing personal perspectives with institutional positions.

Clearly some museums are practiced and comfortable in this space of action, community engagement, and healing. No doubt others are interested and feel a sense of responsibility, but are inexperienced and unprepared to engage. All must balance a sense of urgency with readiness to actively engage and do well for their communities and for themselves. From reflecting on my sampling of museum websites, reading blog posts, and following twitter feeds, I think many museums are struggling with how to balance the pull of being both Nice + Necessary.

The Pull of Nice + Necessary
Museums are nice. Lovely spaces, full of rare, fascinating, and often beuatiful objects, they are pleasant settings for spending time with friends and family. Places of inspiration and celebration, museums offer memorable experiences. Their missions express concern and an interest in the people of their town, city, or region. Every museum’s website in my sample highlighted holiday activities and special events; assured convenience on the busiest days of the year; urged year-end donations; and promised wonder, magic, and fun. Every museum, even the ones hosting Town Hall Meetings or posting statements presented itself as nice.

Whereas being nice focuses on fostering good will, being necessary actively fosters public good with an interest in long-term tangible outcomes. Necessary refers to the positive, recognized change a museum contributes to its community–its children, youth, and families, their well-being and prosperity. Based in a deep knowledge of a community, being necessary is a long-term commitment requiring solid groundwork and trust earned over time. Visible community impact differs for each museum reflecting community priorities. Impact may focus on a commitment to resolving issues that prevent a child’s growing up healthy, safe, smart, and successful at home, school, and in the community; to inspiring social justice and positive change; or to being integral to a more robust regional ecosystem around health and well-being.

Increasingly, museums are expected to–and want to–demonstrate their public value. The call to action from across the field is a current expression of that expectation. At the same time, the limited responses from museums express the very real challenge many museums experience in finding meaningful ways to be necessary–especially when the moment calls for it with urgency.

Admittedly the concept of Nice + Necessary alone is not sufficient for a museum to suddenly take action around a complex and pressing set of issues. It may, however, provide a frame for museums that believe our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure has an active and thoughtful role in bringing people together, facilitating conversations, shaping agendas, and moving toward a positive future but that are uncertain about how to go about it. While they may lack clarity about where to start and are unprepared to engage constructively at this moment, many museums are undoubtedly determined to be prepared to engage thoughtfully from an earned position of community trust around an inevitable future issue or crisis.

Pushing Much Harder on Necessary
Just as museums have deliberately worked over time to deliver a reliably nice experience for their guests, they must work equally hard, or harder, over time to be necessary: to play a meaningful community role with confidence and credibility and be capable of responding in a timely way. Building capacity internally and developing credibility externally is a long-term, challenging journey. Clearly, there is no single thing nor even 7 things to do; no one person nor a single event that creates change; no one month nor dedicated year of earnest activity that will make a measurable difference. Nothing less than a whole-hearted, sustained effort, guided by an aligned vision and mission and community outlook; with committed resources and activities; and support all across the museum from leadership to the newest hire is essential for relevant and meaningful action to issues like Ferguson.

Drawing on suggestions, comments, and perspectives of bloggers and museum professionals, below are some key factors for museums to become valued and trusted community resources capable of playing meaningful and relevant roles at difficult moments. They barely scratch the surface of the work to be done but may take advantage of momentum building in museums.

A museum in service to its community. The most basic idea is also the most challenging. Regardless of its size and prestige, a museum exists to serve its audience and community. It must maintain a perpetual, alert, and respectful outlook on its community and the ways in which it can be a valued resource for it. In dynamic environments, external conditions change and will absolutely change the way in which a museum can and should serve its community. Furthermore, valuing service to its community must be actively owned across the museum, be integrated in the museum’s culture, and persist through changes in leadership and times of scarcer resources. 

A visible civic role for the museum. A museum’s relevance to its community relies on its doing useful work with great clarity about the positive differences in the lives of its community and its members it deliberately tries to achieve through its activities. A visible civic role is recognized by others and is one a museum can assume relative to contemporary issues of significance and during a crisis. Although not always stated explicitly, direction on a museum’s civic role and community connections emerges from its vision and mission. 

Reflect the wider community in which it exists. Every facet of a museum can and should be an expression of its community. Trustees, staff leadership, staff, volunteers as well as visitors bring varied and diverse perspectives, voices, expertise, and skills representing the community that enrich the museum. A museum also reflects its community in its style, the questions that matter, the activities it offers, exhibitions it stages, how it delivers services, and how it reduces barriers to increase access to serve the widest possible range of visitors. 

Actively and respectfully engage with others. Museums need partners, organizations, agencies, and people with diverse, complementary expertise, skills, perspectives, and networks to advance their strategic interests and fulfill their civic role. This involves reaching out and listening to others–without having ready answers; engaging the community in exhibition planning; training diverse staff to interact with visitors from diverse backgrounds; and preparing staff to facilitate conversations on difficult subjects. It also means investing the time for building understanding and trust with parts of the community unfamiliar or distrustful of the museum.

Build on strengths. A museum can take a leadership role at a critical time if it has aligned its long-term strategic interests and programmatic strengths with the community’s priorities. Contributing something of recognized value and supporting it with related resources, a museum’s space, collections, content expertise, etc. are valuable assets. With intention and practice, a museum may serve as a safe and neutral space where people with diverse perspectives can come together to discuss charged issues; be a source of expertise about current pressing events and their historical context; curate a community art exhibit; or recognize a strength to cultivate and share. 

Learning at the Core. A museum’s core purpose is learning. While museums do create learning experiences for its visitors, they also have ample opportunities to learn with and from their visitors, learn from its communities, and learn from other museums. Engaging in an open and on-going process of experimenting, reflecting making connections, a museum itself becomes a learning organization; it frames new questions that matter, invites staff perspectives, supports dialogue, encourages reflection, and consolidates lessons at every step of the way. Learning as it grows, a museum recognizes new territory and learns from both successes and failures–including lessons from Ferguson.             

Posts by Museum Bloggers
Public History Commons: Public History Resources on Ferguson   

Statements by Museum Associations
"Statement from Sam Black", by Sam Black, President of the Association of African American Museums
•  "Museums and Social Responsibility", by Dan Yaeger, President of the New England Museum Association
Museums in the Wake of Community Conflict”, by Association of Midwest Museums' President, Melanie Adams 
"History Organizations Positioned to Be Powerful Participants in Dialogue on Ferguson and Related Events," by American Association of Local and State History

Museums Responses to Ferguson
• Harriet Beecher Stowe Center’s blog, "Salons at Stowe"
• History Colorado’s blog post, “Together We Can Work Towards Change"
• Jane Addams Hull House hosted a Chicago Town Hall Meeting to discuss recent events in Ferguson and    beyond
The Magic House, St Louis Children's Museum, took its outreach programs for children to area libraries when school opening in August was delayed following the disruption in nearby Ferguson 
• The National Civil Rights Museum blog: Ferguson Missouri ... What's Next?
• Walker Art Center: The Colorization of America; and The Art Newspaper

Related Museum Notes Posts

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events

The recent series of events, from Ferguson to Cleveland and New York, have created a watershed moment. Things must change. New laws and policies will help, but any movement toward greater cultural and racial understanding and communication must be supported by our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure. Museums are a part of this educational and cultural network. What should be our role(s)?

Schools and other arts organizations are rising to the challenge. University law schools are hosting seminars on Ferguson. Colleges are addressing greater cultural and racial understanding in various courses. National education organizations and individual teachers are developing relevant curriculum resources, including the #FergusonSyllabus project initiated by Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Artists and arts organizations are contributing their spaces and their creative energies. And pop culture icons, from basketball players to rock stars, are making highly visible commentary with their clothes and voices.

Where do museums fit in? Some might say that only museums with specific African American collections have a role, or perhaps only museums situated in the communities where these events have occurred. As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.

We are a community of museum bloggers who write from a variety of perspectives and museum disciplines.  Yet our posts contain similar phrases such as  “21st century museums,” “changing museum paradigms,” “inclusiveness,” “co-curation,” “participatory” and “the museum as forum.”  We believe that strong connections should exist between museums and their communities. Forging those connections means listening and responding to those we serve and those we wish to serve.  

There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role--as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit--in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?

We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?

We urge museums to look to their communities. Are there civic organizations in your area that are hosting conversations? Could you offer your auditorium as a meeting place? Could your director or other senior staff join local initiatives on this topic? If your museum has not until now been involved in community discussions, you may be met at first with suspicion as to your intentions. But now is a great time to start being involved.

Join with your community in addressing these issues. Museums may offer a unique range of resources and support to civic groups that are hoping to organize workshops or public conversations. Museums may want to use this moment not only to “respond” but also to “invest” in conversations and partnerships that call out inequity and racism and commit to positive change.  

We invite you to join us in amplifying this statement. As of now, only the Association of African American Museums has issued a formal statement about the larger issues related to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island. We believe that the silence of other museum organizations sends a message that these issues are the concern only of African Americans and African American Museums. We know that this is not the case. We are seeing in a variety of media – blogs, public statements, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook---that colleagues of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are concerned and are seeking guidance and dialogue in understanding the role of museums regarding these troubling events. We hope that organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums; the Association of Science-Technology Centers; the Association of Children’s Museums; the American Association for State and Local History and others, will join us in acknowledging the connections between our institutions and the social justice issues highlighted by Ferguson and related events.

You can join us by...
  • Posting and sharing this statement on your organization’s website or social media
Participating Bloggers and Colleagues
Gretchen Jennings, Museum Commons
Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, The Incluseum
Aleia Brown,
Steven Lubar, On Public Humanities
Mike Murawski, Art Museum Teaching
Linda Norris, The Uncataloged Museum
Adrianne Russell, Cabinet of Curiosities
Nina Simon, Museum 2.0
Rainey Tisdale, CityStories
Jeanne Vergeront  Museum Notes

Monday, December 8, 2014

Early Engineering Thinking

Julian engineers gravity (at Explora!)
There are few museum master planning or strategic planning projects I have been part of, national grant proposals I have seen, or exhibit projects I know of in which STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) or STEAM (STEM + Arts) are not areas of focus. Given the national priority on STEM and the call to both businesses and educators from science and engineering industry leaders to help make the sectors more diverse, a focus on STEM is not surprising. Museums see themselves as integral to the national learning infrastructure with a valued role to play in STEM learning.

Of the 263 museum projects recently awarded support by IMLS, 25 explicitly mentioned STEM or STEAM in their summaries; many more implied a focus on science. Described as “engaging,” “dynamic and hands-on” and including computer science, proposals came from nearly every type of museum: aquarium, arboretum, children’s, cultural-ethnic, history, natural history, science, university, and zoo.

In spite of all this talk and IMLS project focus on STEM, engineering gets little actual attention in museums. I have yet to hear discussions among exhibit developers, designers, and educators about engineering thinking skills, optimizing solutions, and adjustments to subsystems as they plan experiences. Assumed to be as represented in STEM as science and technology, engineering’s actual presence in museums and science centers is light. For younger children, say 10 years and under, the absence of engineering experiences is especially noticeable. Yes, there are contraptions and roller coasters and exhibits with pulleys and other simple machines. In many of these experiences, children are trying, practicing, acquiring, and building on engineering thinking.

The Silent E in STEM
Engineering is the silent e in STEM. Confusion about engineering seems to be widespread. The head of the National Association of Engineering is keenly aware that the image of engineering is off in the US where more people associate “engineering” with “train operator” than with “invents” or “creative.” In museums, “engineering” is likely to refer to engineering education, a career, the end products of engineering, or a design process. In some cases engineering thinking is the focus.

Whether it is an image problem or simple confusion, engineering doesn’t seem to be well understood. Less about following blueprints (hardhats and operating trains), engineering is about transforming our world. It is solving real problems elegantly that satisfy constraints such as cost, weight, size, reliability, safety, ergonomics, repairability, etc. William A. Wulf of the National Association of Engineering defines engineering as, “design under constraint” where constraints are the laws of physics, materials, and physical space. 

Obviously we will not all become engineers, but we will all have to navigate an increasingly complex, dynamic world where engineering thinking is required. And like any type of thinking, engineering thinking does not occur as a by-product of teaching engineering content. Without understanding what engineering thinking is, we are unable to cultivate the essential 21st century mindset and we miss promising opportunities for encouraging it.

As much as I value doing (making, building, unbuilding, etc.), a focus on the engineering thinking that accompanies it is critical. We must start by recognizing the early engineering thinking in young children and not wait until elementary or middle school. Those coasters and contraptions we like to put in exhibits, however, are not the same as  experiences deliberately and intentionally planned to encourage and build on early engineering thinking and acting.

We don’t have to explain to children how to build. We don’t need to add constraints because laws of physics, the properties of materials, and physical space are always constraints on designing, making, and building. Piaget noted that even infants have been observed to notice the governing principles related to shape, weight, and texture (friction). Children naturally investigate and modify the world around them to satisfy their needs and wants–as engineers do.

I am cautious, however, when we refer to children as “natural” or “little” engineers.” Typically that shifts credit from what children are doing competently as agents of their own learning to conferring legitimacy because they are like “real” engineers. We veer towards encouraging children to be more like engineers rather than seeing what they are doing and understanding how they readily make physical and conceptual connections all the time. This is rich information, indeed, for creating experiences that build on and encourage their engineering thinking and making it visible to them, educators, their parents and researchers.

Focusing on Early Engineering Thinking
Recently there has been interest in and activity related to early engineering in K-12 education, academia, and informal learning. A lack of learning standards for engineering prompted a 2009 study of K-12 engineering education efforts (see citations below) resulting in general principles for K-12 engineering education. The 2012 Next Generation Science Standards integrates engineering design throughout the science standards. These reports support a process-oriented, developmentally appropriate approach and consideration of engineering habits of mind that are consistent with 21st century skills and learning in museums and informal learning environments. Engineering design, an approach to identifying and solving problems that is highly iterative, is highlighted as a useful pedagogical strategy.
Approaching this area from another perspective are 4 studies (below) at the intersection of human developmental science and engineering education. Set in early childhood classrooms and museum settings, they explore engineering thinking among young children as young as 3 and 4 years to build consensus on "developmental engineering" and precursors of engineering behavior. 
Children’s engineering thinking and design is currently occurring spontaneously in many early childhood and museum classrooms and in museum exhibits through block structures, ball runs, and ramps. When they design and build intricate, complex structures or construct pathways and ramp systems, children are thinking about stability, balance, spatial reasoning, numeracy, and material properties. They are exploring force and motion and working with relationships among steepness and speed, weight of objects and distances rolled. Their explanations of ideas and predictions are reasoned and detailed. This is especially true in experiences in which parents scaffold and in which children engage in over time, experiences extended and repeated in camps, programs, and museum preschools.

An inclination to conflate content with learning lures us into thinking that if we simply put out blocks, contraptions, and ball runs we will meet our engineering learning goals for children. Their natural aptitude for engineering thinking, however, is just a starting place, and fortunately a very strong one. The four studies suggest where museum educators, developers, and designers, and floor staff will find direction and cues to shape activities, add materials, extend explorations and optimize what young children are already doing through their explorations. They provide insights and guidance into how we might get beyond over-used questions such as, “Can you do that another way?” Or invite us to think about how me might encourage children to pay attention to the points of failure in their structures because we ourselves are paying attention to them. In short, these studies point the way to making children’s engineering thinking visible to them, educators, their parents and researchers. Four insights seem particularly helpful in sharpening our understanding of children's engineering thinking.

Children’s engineering behavior can look different from adults’. Adults, for instance, identify engineering design steps (i.e. ask, imagine, plan, create, improve) and are inclined to follow them sequentially. Children, however, don’t necessarily explore them in sequence. Rather they are likely to merge steps and enact them simultaneously and are especially likely to create as they imagine and to revise as they design.

Early engineering is fueled by children’s self-motivation and interests. Children are motivated to satisfy their needs and wants in modifying their world–perhaps more than youth and adults. Compelled to investigate their own questions, they are likely to discover other interesting questions to explore along the way. Children set self-imposed challenges and incorporate additional goals to accomplish, such as using all the blocks. They add additional context to their activity such as naming or labeling their structures.

Developmental factors inform children’s engineering thinking and acting. Evidence of developmental forces at play is strong and pervasive. The closely related domains that are characteristic of early childhood are apparent in the importance of first-hand experiences and manipulative objects and artifacts as vehicles of active engineering thinking and activity as well as in the natural interdisciplinary nature of children’s questions, strategies, and the addition of context. Children also readily embrace the social domain to enlist the help of others in getting their designs to work. Through collaboration they invite others’ ideas, knowledge, and capabilities, offer advice, and give encouragement.  

Engineering thinking occurs through play. Children engage with engineering ideas and engineering activities through both child-directed and curriculum-structured play. Through play, they develop an understanding of material properties and the laws of physics that govern them, the constraints Wulf highlights. Often children engage in creative problem solving that involves balancing multiple constraints to achieve an appropriate solution in their play, whether they are constructing a bridge, building a ball run, investigating spatial relationships, or transforming one object into another.  
When we focus so intently on what engineering looks like as a career or in teaching older students, we miss everything that is happening prior to grades 10 or 12. We even miss what is meaningful to children at 7 or 8. We certainly miss the interests, skills, and dispositions that children at 3, 4 and 5 years old already have and eagerly bring to engineering activities.

Engineering Education

Studies on Early Engineering Thinking

Engineering Museums, Centers, Exhibits, and Programs
  • The Works Museum in Bloomington (MN) whose mission is, “to inspire the next generation of innovators, engineers, and creative problem solvers 

  • Spark!Lab at Lemelson Center, National Museum of American History,  Institution

  • Be A Scientist, a program to connect underserved families directly with scientists and engineers with the aim of inspiring participants to see themselves as innovators and inventors
Related Museum Notes Posts