Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Consultant’s Role–or Four

Sometimes when I’m asked what I do, I pause to think how best to answer. Of course, I can and usually do reply that I am a museum planner. I also say I am a consultant or an independent professional. Borrowing a term from baseball sometimes I describe myself as a utility player. In addition to being a strategic planner or developing learning frameworks, I step into various roles to help build internal capacity. I coach, train, and sometimes fill in for a senior staff. I sometimes round out a team, as an educator on one team, an evaluator on another, or an experience developer on another. Serving as a utility player works for me and I suppose it does for other consultants as well.

Especially when I am asked what my work is like, I am tempted to reply that I am part lightning rod, part chiropractor, and part editor. It goes without saying that sometimes, I am all 3. This is not in any way a complaint, but an evolving set of insights after 20 years of consulting and what planning with museums involves.

Lightening Rod
Like the lightning rod atop a building protecting a structure from a lightning strike, a consultant often attracts an electric charge in the group, diverting it constructively. By nature of their work and relationship to an organization, consultants often walk into situations with which they are only somewhat familiar and connected. Yet, expectations can be high that this outside specialist’s experience and expertise will not only address the explicit task at hand, but also tackle other issues as well. A mere secondary association with one issue can be enough to attract questions, surface concerns, and set off a reaction. This is hardly surprising because without the strong, on-going relationships among staff and board and with a limited tenure, a consultant’s presence offers a relatively safe discharge of built-up energy.

When lightening does strike during a consultancy, it is likely to strike around what board and staff don’t talk about or won’t address. Serving as a lightning rod means listening for what is not being talked about, noticing who is quiet, who interrupts, or who dominates the discussion. It means registering what information is easy compared to seemingly impossible to come by. Along with glowing reports of grants received, fantastic new board members, great attendance numbers, there might be little mention of long-overdue raises, lack of meaningful follow-through on diversity and inclusion efforts, or an overly active and less-than-transparent executive committee. There might be a disproportionate mention of the past and how things were back then.

Being a lightning rod is also helpful when there is a boardroom bully, internal cliques, an unpaid founding director who will not leave, or a board that has decided to dismiss the executive director–the one who has arranged for the consultancy. Issues related to a capital project, a compressed timeline, an unrealistic campaign goal, or casually taking on debt, definitely attract a charge.

The first time and often the second time of carrying the charge come as a surprise. Gradually, however, knowing that the charge is likely and defusing it to help the museum, team or individual move forward feels more like an opportunity. A well-placed question, a few sidebar conversations, a new timeframe, rethinking the agenda, or calling the question can open up dialogue, create a sense of relief, or allow a graceful exit.

When circumstances change, when an organization grows, when pressures in one area of an organization mount, an organization and its people can feel off-kilter and out of alignment. Lack of alignment can place a drag on an organization’s performance and put a drain on its resources. Its organizational efforts feel uncoordinated, difficult, and frustratingly unproductive.

At times like these, a chiropractic yank can be what a museum needs. A good yank engages and aligns parts of an organization, from guiding ideas, to organizational structure, audience, staff and skills, resources, processes, and relationships with the community.

Museums, like any organization, are complex and changing. Different aspects of the organization are affected by and respond differently to various pressures and trends. Growth occurs at different rates. Mindsets change more slowly than policies. The organizational culture may be at odds with its current leadership style and community expectations. Staff allocations in some departments may reflect 2003 workloads or a mash-up of responsibilities added over the years.  

Not surprisingly, the need for a chiropractic tug often becomes apparent around periods of growth, decline, and transition, whether planned and unplanned. This could be a sign of healthy growth or an early warning signal of trouble.

In some cases a consultant may help identify the need for rebalancing and identify what kind of tug is needed and where. In other cases, a consultant’s work with a team or group provides new skills and a nudge towards more coordinated action. Often, the consultant’s work with the museum, developing a long-term plan or reimagining the museum, activates the big yank and a ripple of adjustments.

Relatively small adjustments like remixing teams and working groups will sometimes refresh and realign work and energy. A strong new lens might be needed to jettison outdated programs and partnerships; activities may still be cherished but have low relevance and place a demand on resources. Larger adjustment, like a new vision and mission, a strategic plan, restructured departments, and shifts in internal operations can activate bigger change. Finally, for a museum facing a critical juncture, a turnaround may be the organizational-sized yank that is needed with restructured programs, finances, management, and marketing strategies.

When key pieces are in place, priorities clearly communicated with related accountability and incentives, there’s alignment. When plans make sense and staff see their part in the museum’s work and when teams work in a common direction towards a shared purposes the chiropractic yank is accomplishing its goal.
Museums are dynamic, productive settings, rich in possibilities. Ideas flow for exhibitions, fundraisers, projects, strategies, partnerships, programs, and marketing strategies. Museums translate their ideas and aspirations into multiple forms; they design, write, share, publish, post, and send e-blasts. An exhibition opens and there are programs, events, a social media campaign. A strategic plan takes shape and there are 7 goals.

Nevertheless, there can be too many ideas, too many priorities, too many words, images, and goals. The fact is, not all ideas are worth pursuing, even ones held passionately. Not all big ideas can be driving ideas. Not all ideas are right for a museum and work well with other ideas connected to its broader purpose. Not all ideas are the right size.

Sometimes the density of ideas simply gets in the way. This can happen when group think rules, a team chases every new idea, an idea won’t die, an organizational culture insists more-ideas-are-better, or frank assessment of ideas is risky. Sorting through the quality, quantity, and relevance of ideas, tasks, and language is an enormous challenge.

Enter the consultant as editor. A consultant can help trim, prune, prioritize, and sometimes take a weed whacker to a thicket of ideas and goals. Removing the excess begins to clear the view of what is important and what can be done well. Does a museum need different gallery activities everyday? Does it even have the bench strength to carry out this schedule? Are attendance projections overly optimistic? Are there strategies for getting there? Do they make sense?

Editing not only trims the number of strategies or goals to a manageable number, but also helps right-size them, their objectives, and impacts for the museum.

As a consultant reflects back what’s more and less important, a museum begins to find its own path forward. Are these words in the museum’s voice? Is this where the museum can do an outstanding job of delivering value because it has a record of achievement–not just ambition? Editing exposes the strong ideas, links efforts that engage powerfully with one another, and helps someone see their work, their role, or their accomplishments in a new light.  

If editing doesn’t work, a chiropractic yank might do which illustrates a truism about these 3 roles. They easily work together. Sometimes all 3 roles play out in quick succession. While consultants frequent this territory, it is not exclusively theirs. When a consultant isn’t around, anyone can and should step forward to move things along. Anyone can be on the alert for questions that need to be asked, ideas that need to be explored, lists that need to be trimmed, and voices that need to be heard.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Play and Playground Resources: Recent Finds

As the conversation around play in children’s lives expands and gets livelier in schools, in the media, and in museums, new resources and approaches to play appearing on the play landscape are worth noting. I am familiar with and appreciate resources like the American Journal of Play, U.S.Play Coalition, PlayCore, and KaBOOM! among others.

And I’m always on the look out for more play-related resources that inform, extend, and challenge my understanding of play. Of particular interest are resources that consolidate sources of information; relate play to broader issues like community engagement, well being, and learning; look at play across the lifespan or cross-culturally; incorporate international perspectives; connect theory, research, and practice; and contribute to a visual vocabulary for play environments

With any resource, familiar or new, I am interested in recent research, in better understanding how play and learning connect, and in promising strategies for supporting and extending a wider range of play in museums. Finally I simply enjoy the pleasure of play well-explained.

Even as I am pleased to keep encountering new resources, I am also surprised I have never heard of them before. Below are several resources I have come across recently. 

AnjiPlay, an internationally-recognized early childhood play curriculum developed by Chinese educator Cheng Xueqin, has been tested over the past 15 years in 130 public kindergartens in Anji County (China) serving more than 14,000 children from ages 3 to 6. A play curriculum in Chinese preschools may not seem to translate readily to museums. When described as “sophisticated practices, site-specific environments, unique materials and integrated technology,” however, AnjiPlay does seem to have something in common with museum environments for children. In fact, many of the guiding principles of AnjiPlay, love, risk, joy, engagement, and reflection could be found in a list of values for many children’s museums.

Play & Playground Encyclopedia is where you will find a Child’s Outdoor Bill of Rights; books like American Playgrounds, Revitalizing Community Space; descriptions of types of play, toys, and play environments (including children’s museums); and profiles of play advocates like Lady Allen of Hurtwood. The Encyclopedia is a collection of over 600 listings that relate to issues around children’s play, playgrounds, health and safety, including the people, organizations, and companies that contribute to children’s play and well being. The listings include links and citations to make P&P a veritable portal to the world of play.

Voice of Play is an initiative of IPEMA (International Play Equipment Manufacturers’ Association) that promotes the benefits of children’s play by providing information and resources to encourage the quality and quantity of children’s play and the use of playgrounds. Its coverage of the benefits of play, playground safety, the science of play, and its checklist for access are most relevant and helpful to museums. Results of its 2017 Survey on Play provide information on parents’ attitudes towards play behavior and frequency and is also a resource for building public awareness about play in communities and with stakeholders.

• Dezeen's Pinterest board on playgrounds From 2013 – 2016, Paige Johnson posted about interesting and varied play environments on Playscapes, from playgrounds on New Yorker covers to futuristic playgrounds of the past. (http://www.play-scapes.com) Without her posts, finding play environments that reflect an experimental mindset about children’s play environments and that break the mold in their design is sporadic. While not everything I could wish for on children’s play environments, Dezeen’s Pinterest board fills a noticeable void and will hopefully grow in the range and variety of what it highlights by artists, exhibit designers, architects, and landscape architects.

The Association for the Study of Play (TASP) The broad focus of this academically-oriented organization of play scholars reflects its interest in interdisciplinary research and theory construction related to play throughout the world. Mirroring the multi-disciplinary nature of play itself, TASP brings together perspectives on play from an impressively broad range of areas including anthropology, education, psychology, sociology, cultural studies, recreation and leisure studies, history, folklore, dance, communication, kinesiology, philosophy, and musicology. The Association’s annual conference and its publications (a newsletter, 3 issues of the International Journal of Play, and an annual volume of Play & Culture Studies) focus on sharing and disseminating information on the study of play.

More to add to the list? What resources on play and play environments would you like to share? In what ways are they valuable to you?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Engaging Parents and Caregivers

A short history of viewing and serving parents and caregivers in museums might go something like this. For decades, many museums, art and history museums in particular, were for adults as off-duty parents and caregivers. In children’s museums, parents were viewed as drivers and pocket books that brought children to the museum. Caregivers of many different kinds accompanying children to museums were lumped together with teachers and parents. More recently, parents and caregivers, or parental adults, are recognized for their interest in family spaces in art museums, science centers, and children’s museums and their roles and value in extending and supporting children’s experiences. In some parts of the country serving multi-age, multi-generational families is a high priority.

While recognizing the value of the parental adult has grown, clarity about their role and how to support them in museums has not similarly increased. Comprehensive approaches with related strategies for engaging and supporting parents and caregivers in extending children’s explorations and having a satisfying museum experience themselves, are lacking.

I have some observations about the nature of this challenge from my involvement in several studies with parents and caregivers, master planning for expansion, developing learning frameworks, reading professionally, and making countless museum visits observing caregiver-child interactions.

Parents and caregivers in museums comprise a very diverse group. They are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nannies, baby sitters, neighbors, day care providers, camp counselors, scout leaders, field trip chaperones, and teachers. They are also museum staff and volunteers. They are stepparents and foster parents; new parents and experienced parents; parents of one child and of many children. They are first time and frequent visitors.  

Some have a long-term relationship with the child while others have met the children in their field trip group minutes before boarding the bus. Yet, they also have a few things in common: an interest in the child and confidence in the museum as a safe, interesting place for children. Still, it’s quite a mix.

The parent and caregiver role in museums is complex and dynamic. We have only to think about the
homeschooling adult who is both teacher and parent to recognize how intermingled and constantly shifting adult roles are in a museum. Some recognizable roles have been identified by Dr. Lorrie Beaumont in her research in children’s museums. The Adult Child Interaction Inventory identifies 6 roles: the Player, Facilitator, Interpreter, Supervisor, Student of the Child and Co-learner. This is a helpful perspective, but parents and caregivers also chaperone, hold coats, monitor, observe, manage conflict, push strollers, and comfort children. They are often multi-tasking. In an interview conducted recently, a mother of 5 children in a science exhibit in a public library described what she was doing as observing, answering her child’s question, and changing a diaper.      

Parents and caregivers want to do well with and for their children. Parents and caregivers have every intention of doing their best on their children’s behalf. Multiple factors, however, can overwhelm their best intentions to engage actively and intentionally with their child during a museum visit as well as in the everyday moments of life. In any one setting, parent and caregiver engagement with children will assume many forms with individual and cultural variations in playing out. Parents and caregivers observe, sit back, listen, take photos, talk, grab a moment of respite, check email, or direct the activity. They praise, cajole, and challenge. Depending on the moment, a parent or caregiver’s interaction may be misconstrued as disinterested, controlling, or intuitive.

Whatever a museum’s caregiver goals and strategies for engagement are–and they vary from one museum to another–they need to build on an assumption of good intentions, strengthen the adults’ position, and support their relationships with their children.

Parents and caregivers help museums accomplish their goals. Often the ways they do this are barely visible to museums. Parents and caregivers have valuable information about their children that is relevant to exploring exhibits and activities. They know the child’s passionate interest, a favorite activity, how she responds to new situations, and the signs of mounting frustration. A visit to the museum is also an opportunity to act on goals they have for their children, to encourage their child to try something new, persist when something is difficult, deal with failure, or feel a sense of accomplishment.

When they observe, monitor risk, and step in to avoid mishaps, parents and caregivers contribute to a safer museum environment. Their conversations about what’s happening, modeling how to do something, and reading instructions advances the museum’s learning agenda. We know that in museums children engage more and in more complex ways in exhibits with adult involvement. By asking questions, making connections with previous experiences, and adding information, parents and caregivers enrich and deepen the experience. Just as they make connections with what happened yesterday, they extend the experience afterwards, at home, at the store, on a family trip, or reading a bedtime story.

The parent and caregiver relationship with the child is a third presence to serve. Besides the child and the adult, there is their relationship. While this may be true of every dyad in museums, it is especially significant for adults and children. At any moment 3 agendas are at play: the child’s, the adult’s, and the long-term, on-going, powerful relationship between them. From research and experience, we know the role of parents and caregivers is critical in children’s lives, prenatally, right on through life, at home, school, and in museums.

This relationship may be a close emotional bond between parent and child or a supportive connection between a child and key adult. In either case, such relationships are important for emotional development and fostering development of a healthy sense of belonging, self-esteem, and wellbeing. They are based on trust, nourished by time together, and they deepen familiarity. Built on shared experiences from other settings and times together, connections are strengthened by opportunities to explore and discover new ways of being together. Conversations that take place in the museum may have started weeks ago and may continue for months ahead. 

The following selected Museum Notes blog posts address some of the dimensions of engaging parents and caregivers, related challenges, and exemplars. Can we give parents and caregivers a reason to be interested in the museum content–whether it is their child or a topic of interest? What do parents and caregivers say they want? What do museums want of parents and caregivers? While there are many ways to address these questions, addressing them effectively relies on actively engaging, listening to parents and caregivers, and learning from parents and caregivers.

WhatDo We Want of Parents? Adults in children’s museums generally comprise about half of the visitors. That’s a very large number considering children’s museums serve more than 30 million visitors annually. In spite of this large number of parental adults on whom we count  to the museum attend with their children, we vacillate between wanting them to be more attentive to their children (get off their phones) and not wanting them to interfere with child-directed experiences.  

Parent Voices, New Insights: Regardless of their child’s age or gender, parents and caregivers are thinking about and providing for an amazing range of considerations about their children and their museum visit. Even when parents and caregivers sit back and seem to be sitting back and uninvolved, they are much more tuned into their children and the serious work of being good parents and grandparents than we are inclined to assume.

Strengthening Parent Engagement: While the imperative for effective parent and caregiver involvement in museums is clear, the strategies for doing so are less clear. Museums are often in search of ways to connect with parents and caregivers. They lack the structured and daily opportunities to interact with parents and caregivers that schools and childcare centers have. Nevertheless, they have some distinct and promising opportunities they can exercise more fully and effectively than they currently do. 

Messaging With Parents and Caregivers in MindBecause parents and caregivers play a crucial role in their child’s museum experiences (and on-going development), museums want to engage and communicate with them. How to do so effectively is always a question. When museums bring parents and caregivers together and listen to them, they gain some useful, sometimes surprising, insights that challenge assumptions.

Adult-Child Connection: First Person: It’s all well and good to think in the abstract and write about parents and caregivers at the museum with their children. Being there, with them, in the moment, however, brings a rich does of reality to what parents and caregivers experience minute by minute. I gave myself a “so-so with a few bloopers” mark on a visit to a children’s museum with my great niece and nephew.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Way To Grow, Minnesota Children’s Museum

Photo credit: Minnesota Children's Museum

In reviewing a big museum project, we tend to review the building, a new wing and the exhibitions. At the top of the review is the project cost, facility square footage, the number of new galleries, new acquisitions, major donors, and sponsors. Depending on the project, the design team, architects and exhibit designers are mentioned.

On June 7th, Minnesota Children’s Museum cut the ribbon and opened its doors to a major renovation and expansion. Its $30 million campaign, Room To Play, launched in 2011 helped grow the building from 65,000 to 74,000 square feet. The makeover represents 35% more space for visitors. The Museum is, as billboards, bus sides, its website, and Facebook page announce, Bigger, Better, Bolder.

Imaginopolis is created and recreated countless times each day.
The obvious, and exciting changes are more experiences and added amenities. The ten exhibits offer a wider range of experiences and interesting spaces that are more open-ended. A maker space; a four-story climber with a super speedy spiral slide; Sprouts a larger early childhood space; a second outdoor area; Forces at Play, Imaginopolis, and Super Awesome Adventures with a Laser Maze have been added to a new Our World, and TipTop Terrace

There added amenities, from a skyway-level entrance, café and coffee bar; more bathrooms; more seating, and a kitchenette in Sprouts. An easier entry experience through the parking-connected skyway and another elevator improve circulation. On my two visits prior to opening and at the ribbon cutting ceremony, I noticed crowds move easily through the spaces, bigger kids as part of family groups, natural light filling more areas of the Museum, and a beautiful space that someone described as a part art museum and part place for play.

Deeper, Less Visible Growth
While all new exhibits, and expanded footprint, and more amenities attest to Bigger, Better, Bolder, MCM has accomplished more than that. The deeper, less visible ways MCM has grown count in the long run.

From the start, it was clear that a major expansion of the building was going to be challenging. In 1995 I was head of exhibits and education at MCM when the Museum re-located to a new building in downtown St. Paul. The site was small with limited space for physical growth, but the new 65,000 s.f. building easily accommodated the 350,000 visitors who came the first year–doubling previous attendance.

Over the years, attendance climbed to regularly surpassing 450,000 visitors annually at the downtown St Paul location. It became apparent that something needed to be done to ease the crowding. Opportunities for expansion had been designed into the original building: adding a floor, building into the small side yard and filling in the street-front setback, and filling in a mezzanine level. But the building was virtually landlocked.

Moving through new spaces, an adventure and better circulation
Aldo Leopold might not readily come to mind in thinking about museum expansions. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold observed that, “To build a road is so much simpler than to think about what the county really needs.” To build a new building or wing, some museum leaders and writers suggest, is simpler than addressing long-term visitation problems. (here and here).

While every major project is an opportunity to grow institutional value and physical presence, physical growth, a new building or wing, usually wins out–and not necessarily with the best results. Growing value involves going to the core, remembering and reconnecting with what is fundamental, staying true to the audience. Growing value relies absolutely on paying attention to what is necessary but invisible.

Even as the Museum conducted a capital campaign and worked with its architects MSR Design and exhibit planners, Gyroscope, Inc. (on whose team I served), it directed resources thoughtfully and from the beginning to institutional growth.

Throughout the process, MCM invested where its visitors would benefit directly from the expansion and renovation: 35% more space for visitors and more amenities. To go deeper into the structure of its value, the Museum also studied itself, its audience, and its stakeholders. By the grand re-opening, MCM's extensive platform around the power of play had brought on friends, leaders, and the community as its partners. 

My folder with the studies MCM conducted to guide expansion is thick and interesting to look at in retrospect. “Inspiring Future Growth” summarizes the results of a questionnaire to over 900 parents of children in the age range. A “clicker” study analyzed traffic, space usage, tickets, and attendance in 2011 and compared it to a 2004 study. A white paper summarized research on play and learning. The Museum also conducted a survey on play with its members. A focus area assessment explored perceptions of the Museum’s learning value. A brand study, stakeholder engagement audit, and technology scan round out the set of studies. The Museum has generously shared some of these studies on their website.

The Museum diligently used its planning time to plumb its foundational thinking and, in the process, I believe, internalized its core purpose to a significant new degree. 
Play to the 7th power

Sparking children’s learning through play, the Museum’s mission, could have been a catchy slogan with a new look for the reopening. Instead, the Museum engaged in a sustained investigation around play.  Drawing on research on the value of play, the Museum connected why play matters with skills that are crucial to children’s learning, well-being, social interactions, and creativity. Dubbed the Seven Powers of Play, opportunities to practice skills such as creative thinking, collaboration, and communication were deliberately incorporated into design, activities, and material selection, and messages. The 7 Powers of Play are posted through out the galleries.

An  intentional approach also brought parents and caregivers to the forefront. Parental adults have a key role in encouraging children’s play and exploration. Their interests and comfort must be provided for whether through seating, restrooms, or anticipating their reactions to play’s mess or a lack of structured experiences. While the novelty and ambiguity of spaces, materials, and structures may invite playful exploration, they also can create uncertainty and hesitation for adults and for children about how to get started. Full-scale prototypes of Creativity Jam in 2013 and 2015 and Forces at Play in 2016 took on some of these challenges, testing engagement strategies for adults, messaging, and staff prepared to facilitate free-choice, open-ended play experiences.

The Museum’s comprehensive view of play and its value has been adapted to messages for multiple audiences and across platforms using a friendly, engaging tone. #PlayMoreMN invites members and visitors to post their stories and photos of powerful play that it has defined as captivating and fun, active and challenging; self-directed and open-ended. Tips on Let’s Play helps parents and caregivers enhance the learning that occurs through children’s play.  Successful People Play videos profile how leaders, friends, educators, artists, and chefs in Minnesota play. Since opening the Museum has also launched Stand Up for Play, a community campaign to make play a priority.

While the Museum has been for and about play since its founding more than 35 years ago, over the last seven years it has become an advocate and a leader for play. And it shows. MCM President and CEO, Dianne Krizan, encouraged creativity by letting children play in her recent Commentary in the Star Tribune. A joyous spirit of play also shows throughout the Museum as children paint their faces, spiral down the slide, transform a light-filled landscape, set off a chain reaction, wash a vehicle with bubbles, and build forts, and discover the possibilities of play.   

Way to go, Dianne, Barbara, Jess, Jennifer, Mary, Kirstin, Joe, Blake, Michelle, Bob, and so many more!