Sunday, August 21, 2016

What Do We Mean?

Every profession has its own language. With shared understanding of specialized terms, important words, and key phrases, that language connects people with common interests who hope to communicate effectively with one another and accomplish larger goals. That shared language offers confidence that we are understood as we wish to be. Yes, at times this language can be jargony and annoying. For communicating across the field and with stakeholders, however, a common language is essential. Terms that are shared and sharpened allow us to make distinctions that are meaningful and relevant to a broader purpose, to define strategies, and to gauge impact.

Across museums we use many common words: branding, learning, impact, strategic, equity, stakeholder, sustainable. We often use them in varying and inconsistent ways. This is not entirely surprising. We are dynamic institutions engaging with business, education, media and technology, design, pop culture, many cultures, and in local contexts. Why wouldn’t we borrow concepts from business, integrate architectural terms, absorb marketing language, or use words that resonate locally?  

Judging from terms I come across in museum articles, blogs, journals, grants, and conversations, the list of terms used inconsistently and interchangeably is long, and stretches across museums and geographies. Even within one type of museum and within a single museum. It is tempting to consider this jumble of words as a sign of richness. In reality, it seems to be an obstacle to understanding, sharing ideas, and increasing museum’s value. How do we talk, think, and work collectively if we don't know what we mean?

Fuzzy language slows our thinking, confuses others, and sometimes is downright exclusive. There are more than a few examples; so many, in fact, we overlook them. Recently I read an article that occasionally used “data” to refer to knowledge. At first I didn’t understand; I gradually realized “data” was facts as distinct from knowledge or understanding. Learning, the article reserved for making connections. One museum used scientific thinking; scientific literacy; science processes, science concepts and skills virtually interchangeably throughout its master plan. Not long ago, Suzy Letorneau and Robin Meisner at Providence Children’s Museum noted that some of the museums they talked with were looking at learning impacts but had no definition for learning. In Carol Bossert’s August 5, 2016 interview on The Museum Life, with John Jacobsen about his book, Measuring Museum Impact and Performance:Measuring Success, she notes that one of the biggest challenges the field faces is lack of definition of important terms.

I encounter confusion of terms everyday and imagine others do too. One cluster of casually switched words surrounds museums’ learning interests. These words include: educate, teach, learn, know, think, and understand. They are used both as verbs and nouns and are sometimes modified by equally fuzzy words, like experiential. There's also a second tier of terms that fall into the mix: explore, engage, interact, transactive, discover, experience, make meaning, creativity, and play. No doubt others would add more words.

When it comes to planning programs, developing exhibition goals, evaluating activities, identifying outcomes, measuring impacts, and describing the museum’s value to others, the words we use matters. How do we know what we each mean if I talk about learning, you talk about education, and our partner talks about understanding? We may want to assume that related terms are synonyms, but they aren't. Ideas  reflect a point of view and a set of assumptions they do not necessarily share with related words. We are unlikely to align ideas robustly if they aren’t clear and their meanings migrate.

Are we trying to educate visitors? Are we interested in their acquiring knowledge? Learning? Becoming thinkers? Have we thought about the difference? Philosophically we may consider ourselves constructivists, work in the education department, teach students in programs, and evaluate learning goals. What do these different words suggest, for instance, about how we view the visitor? Do we see the visitor as an active agent in constructing their own meaning or as a consumer of our knowledge and information? Imagine what a museum might accomplish if it used a shared definition focused on its visitors becoming thinkers rather than educating them.

How can we begin to remove roadblocks to shared understanding and increase alignment and impact that would accompany it? While I'm keen on shared understanding of terms within a museum and across the field, I am not enthusiastic about standardized terms being imposed. As a preferred alternative to an established museum field glossary, I’m inclined to follow a few basic practices.

Think About It
This may seem ridiculously obvious, but clarity, sound thinking, and effective communication all rely on the obvious. We might all start by asking ourselves, “what do I mean?” If we are interested in creating learning experiences, what do we mean by learning? Facts?  Personal insights? Learning about others? Do we want to encourage thinking or learning? How do thinking, learning, and educating relate to one another? Thinking about the context in which the word is being used, who the audience is, and other related ideas will sharpen our understanding of what we mean and why it’s important and convey it to others. It’s Not “Just Semantics.”

Look It Up
Finding the meaning of words on-line is just a click away; definitions by Merriam Webster, Lev Vygotsky, or museum thinkers are only a few clicks away. Checking out meanings of a word from various sources and in various contexts is helpful. We may not be able to find the precise definition we want, but we will be able to discover shades of meaning, find sources and resources, and strengthen our understanding of ideas, not just words. A helpful source is the Definitions Project of the National Association of Interpretation which defines terms from Accessibility to Wilderness Education

Borrow and Adapt
We can borrow terms and definitions. And why not? Making meanings explicit is challenging, so why not get a head start? When Julia Child was working on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she ruled that if a recipe for the book were taken from somewhere else, it had to be improved. Excellent advice, Julia. Someone else’s definition for their museum, library, zoo, nature center, or youth development program will not automatically work for ours. The solid definition we're hoping to develop can, however, take into account how others understand words like impact or indicator and how terms are used locally.

Define and Share Your Terms
In The Art of Relevance Nina Simon takes us through her understanding of relevance and its evolution. That step on page 22 grounds the book in solid thinking and makes her examples stronger.

The need to define our ideas and the words we use and share their meaning with others is not limited to writing a book. Confidence in the ideas we explore, the relationships among ideas, and the case for the museum’s value is seriously limited if underlying concepts are fuzzy and idiosyncratic. How can we inspire others with our vision if the ideas and purpose behind it are neither clear nor anchored in definitions that can be shared, explored together, tested, and strengthened?

It’s hard to believe, but people who work together and use the same words do not necessarily understand those words in the same way. Much depends on developing and using a shared language. For starters, it will help us know what we mean.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Habitot, So Long

Minnesota Children's Museum's HABITOT
Minnesota Children’s Museum recently announced it will replace 3 iconic galleries as part of its $30 million expansion and renovation. After 20 years, Earth World, World Works, and HABITOT will close and be replaced by new galleries.

Since 1989, HABITOT has been Minnesota Children’s Museum’s area for very young children, first at its Bandana Square location and then at its downtown St. Paul location. Designed as a learning landscape for infants and toddlers, 6 to 36 months and their caregivers, it followed Boston Children’s Museum’s PlaySpace as one of the early spaces designed specifically for the youngest museum visitors, their parents and caregivers.

When HABITOT was being planned I was head of exhibits and education at the Museum. My background in early childhood and children’s environments and the Toddler’s Nest I had created for Madison Children’s Museum were helpful in working with a team of Museum founders and board members. Karen Dummer, then Executive Director, had advocated for a dedicated early childhood space. Her question, “What does babies parked in strollers and perched on hips say about how a museum values children?” became the rationale for the project.

Doing is becoming 
At 900 square feet, HABITOT was not large. It was, however, a safe, engaging environment where infants, toddlers, and caregivers could feel comfortable actively exploring together. More like a landscape than a playpen, its research-based, developmental-design approach recognized that, especially for very young children, physical development is cognitive development and social-emotional development. A new walker careening down a ramp is walking, moving from here to there, dealing with gravity, and motivated by the sight of a parent nearby. What that toddler is doing is what that toddler is thinking is what the toddler is becoming. Even at this small size and squeezed into a narrow slice of space near the Museum’s entrance and the bathrooms, HABITOT was large enough to signal a firm intention to serve young visitors well, share information about children's developmental potential, and support a range of related activities.

Three abstract landscapes–canyons for peepers, creepers and crawlers, islands for toddlers, and caves for increasingly independent preschoolers–were designed and built in the Museum’s fabrication shop. Ramps, steps, a wavy walk, crawl-in caves, changing surfaces, a birdcage-climber along with loose parts, sensory tubes, and busy boxes supported a range of experiences for moving in different ways, testing new motor skills, playing games, and mastering new feats.

Before opening, a group of toddler sons and daughters of staff and board, affectionately known as the HABITOT babies, explored and tested the spaces with their parents. Their activity and enthusiasm was a clear endorsement soon to be played out repeatedly by families with very young children and small groups from childcare programs.    

The year HABITOT opened, attendance increased 40% over the previous year. In 1988 attendance statistics were rudimentary, recorded by cashiers with paper and pencil. While the precise percentage increase might be off, the magnitude reflects the impact on the Museum in recognizing and serving this young age group.

Over the next few years, HABITOT was a site for staff observations, University of Minnesota student internships, and an academic research project by the Kinesiology Department. Also a hub for programming, weekly programs for parents were presented by Museum partners. Parents shared anecdotes about their child first rolling over on the Canyon cushions, taking their first steps, and overcoming hesitation to crawl into the texture caves. Caregivers reported they found the brochures useful and liked chatting with other parents and caregivers. Some families visited weekly, a pattern that has since become familiar in many museums among members with very young children.

Evidence of the need for more museum space was reinforced by the attendance growth that followed HABITOT’s opening and plans for moving to downtown St Paul began taking shape in 1991. The 10 focus groups conducted confirmed a high interest for an updated HABITOT. Valuable lessons from HABITOT’s first 4 years guided us in many ways. A focus group with HABITOT parents allowed us to explore family experiences in greater depth. Input from these groups informed the 1992 Programmatic Master Plan and launched gallery planning.    

Jane goes ice fishing in the Forest 
Parents, caregivers, and educators were emphatic about a larger HABITOT with amenities. We were able to double the size of HABITOT to a still modest 1,800 sf. that also included a resource alcove, nursing room, bathroom, and stroller park. When parents talked about experiences they wanted for their very young children, they mentioned positive experiences in nature. This fit with the place-based context suggested by the name HABITOT, originally constructed by Director of Development Kristin Midelfort. It also fit with conceptualizing the 4 new galleries as Worlds. Landscapes became less abstract and more local. Each of the 4 areas, Pond, Prairie, Woods, Bluff Caves, were specific Minnesota locations in a different season. 

Both parent input and the availability of a resource space for books, articles, and information sheets allowed us to rethink caregiver messaging. In this version of HABITOT, adults’ supporting and extending infants’ and toddlers’ exploration was a high priority. Graphics used a playful, conversational-style with questions and prompts to invite exploration. Paired with bold, picture-book style images and sandwiched between clear Plexi panels, they were easily visible from two sides as adults kept up with toddlers. A short video starring a new group of HABITOT babies and their parents focused on how children at different ages explore each landscape and its features supported by parent engagement.     

HABITOT inspired more programs and events geared to this very young group of children. Weekly HABITOT Tuesdays designated for children 4 years and under offered story, movement, and sensory programs. HABITOT Halloween grew and eventually evolved into HABITOT Holidays throughout the year. 

In A HABITOT Generation
These days, when I work with a museum to develop a vision statement, I typically frame a question asking, “What changes does the museum believe are possible in the next generation for children and families in our community?”

The generation since HABITOT opened has been a good one for very young children and their caregivers in museums. Museums have broadened their view of their audience, now serving the full life span from the early years to the elder years. With a boost from research on early brain development and national conversations on the critical role of early experiences in the first 5 years of life, museums have stepped into larger supportive roles around early childhood. Publication of the 2013 policy report, Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners by the Institute for Museums and Library Services, both reflects and encourages this trend.

Spaces planned for very young children have taken root and grown in museums. They have spread from children’s museums to science centers, art museums, history museums, and natural history museums. Less likely to be squeezed into a small, unused space, they are increasingly among the core experiences a museum offers. Often as designated totspots distributed throughout the museum, early childhood spaces make it easier for families to explore galleries together. In some museums, the early childhood space is one part of a comprehensive resource for serving young children, parents, educators, and the community along with supporting programs, professional development, a research agenda, or preschool.

Iterations and updates of design for these spaces have generated other changes. Increasingly the distinctive needs of this young audience are being recognized. HABITOT and PlaySpace environments are not just smaller versions of other exhibits in a museum. Experience rather than content-driven, sensory exploration and play are at the heart of these developmentally- calibrated and responsive environments. Playing a crucial role in their child’s everyday and museum experiences, parents, grandparents, and caregivers are a high priority audience in these spaces. Making it easy for them to get into the act requires considering their comfort, interests, and expectations. Multiple strategies for involving caregivers need to be incorporated into the complex choreography of the experience.

The “HABITOT babies” of 1989 and 1995 are now parents themselves. Soon they will be bringing their sons and daughters to Sprouts, a new and larger space for very young children opening in 2017 as part of Minnesota Children’s Museum’s expansion. Designed by Gyroscope,Inc., Sprouts continues to explore the concept of young children’s physical development as social and cognitive development with a fresh, engaging design approach. At 3,000 s.f. and a wider range of experiences including water play and more amenities, the spirit of HABITOT continues to grow.