Thursday, April 20, 2017

An Invitation to Think Together

If you read Curator, and I hope you do, I encourage you to read Play and Children’s Museums: A Path Forward or a Point of Tension? in the January 2017 issue.

The article reviews findings from research on play that is underway by members of the Children’s Museum Research Network, a project of the Association of Children’s Museum  funded by IMLS.  The Network which includes 10 children’s museums is in the process of conducting 3-5 research studies over 2-years to explore and articulate the learning value of children’s museums. Using a case study approach with 5 of the Network museums, the study has focused on learning frameworks, the major vocabularies they share, the constructs they use, and the learning theories that are implicitly or explicitly supported. Play, a defining concept for many children’s museums, emerged as a problematic element for children’s museums articulating their learning value. Three observations have emerged from the study.
• Each of the 5 museums positioned play differently.
• The museums often did not define play in their learning frameworks.
• The museums viewed the connection between play and learning differently.

Recognizing that the study is small, the authors nevertheless suggest that even children’s museums that have articulated their most important ideas about learning and learning value lack a shared understanding and conceptualization of play, internally and with other children’s museums. The authors suggest that individual children’s museums and the children’s museum field as a whole would benefit from developing a common understanding of play and its relation to learning.

The authors readily acknowledge that several aspects of play make it challenging. First, long approached from multiple theoretical perspectives, play is difficult to define and to operationalize. This is abundantly clear from any issue of The American Journal of PlayPlay is variously viewed as the release of tension, mastery over anxieties and conflicts, preparation for life, and consolidating learning already acquired. There is no agreed upon definition for play. Compounding its elusiveness, play is also undervalued. In contrast to the accepted value of learning, play is not highly valued by educators and parents. Even in children’s museums there is ambivalence about play. I was once asked how to advocate for play without using the word play.

Conceptually Messy, Joyous, and Imprecise
The authors are right to look critically at the extent to which children’s museums have defined what is central to their distinct value. They have raised important issues while providing glimpses into the evolving thinking of these museums. It’s not enough to be passionate about play or to have a cherished slogan like play is learning. Diligently articulating what play is, its benefits, and how it is a productive strategy for learning is critical. 

I agree, there is a problem with play. In fact there are, undoubtedly, several problems with play. On the one hand, play is a highly relevant focus for museums that are for and about children, interested in their well-being and potential, and focused on what matters to children. Essentially, play is worthy of attention because of its role in children’s well-being, their social-emotional development, and their entitlement to childhood. 

On the other hand, play is a challenging starting point for rapidly advancing the research interests of a relatively young wing of the museum field. It is conceptually messy, joyous, and imprecise. For centuries it has eluded definition and it is rife with paradoxes inhabiting its very core.
In effect the study exposes what has always been challenging for children’s museums. They are about someone–children–not about something like art, science, history, or natural history. They have lacked the subject matter definition and body of knowledge that art, science, natural history and history museums have claimed, enjoyed, and used to good advantage. Moreover, until about 20 years ago, play wasn’t explored in museums. Play was understood primarily in the context of playgrounds, preschools, day care settings, and the backyard.

Problem or Invitation?
Will the children’s museum field be strengthened by lively discussions about play and its role in children’s museum settings? Absolutely. Yet, rather than viewing the lack of definition of play–internally and across the field–as a problem, I would frame this as an invitation to think together. This represents important, urgent, field-wide work. For children’s museums as a field to inhabit this conceptual territory and increase their value for children, parents, caregivers, and communities, they must address this together, developing shared understandings and language around play.

From my perch working with children’s museums, I see growing capacity. Work is proceeding, somewhat slowly, but at an increasing pace. With perhaps one exception, The Strong, National Museum of Play, this work doesn’t obviously resemble similar work in other museums. Children’s museums are as yet unlikely to hire play scholars, designate a vice president for play studies, or have play fellowships in ways similar to how art museums hire art historians and artists, history museums hire historians, and science museums hire scientists.  

Finding a way to think together is not easy, nor is it linear. Like play, it is messy and joyous with invitations everywhere. Starting points are, in fact, at the very heart of each children’s museum, in situating play in the vision, mission, and values–literally or figuratively, directly or indirectly. Every mission statement need not include the word, play. Play, however, like children, families, childhood, learning, creativity, thinking, well-being, and community are relevant to articulating what a museum aspires to create for its community and why it exists. Many and lively discussions help surface areas of tension and ambiguity among ideas, beliefs, and concepts and generate new insights. Crossing boundaries, leaping over walls, and connecting theory, practice, and research are necessary as is engaging with other children's museums. A shared language around play will emerge from articulating the relationship between play and learning or play and creativity. In sharing insights museums will inevitably rework familiar ideas, uncover new ones, and construct new frameworks.

In this endeavor, it is helpful to view children’s museums as an on-going experiment. Relatively new and focusing on children rather than a subject, children’s museums have been experimenting for decades. In effect, they have been playing with the museum model in response to changing social and cultural contexts related to children. Views of children change; family structures shift. The cities and towns in which children grow up and in which children’s museums live evolve and change. They are taking on new roles in their communities and in the lives of children and families.

In her recent presentation, The Importance of And at MuseumNext in Melbourne (AU) Elaine Gurian explored how museums need to appreciate nuance, navigate uncertainty, and manage complexity in being relevant. Among strategies she proposes is engaging in experimentation in exhibitions. As children’s museums push into new territory around play, an experimental mindset is a great asset to be used deliberately.

Considering the nature of play and its elusiveness, it would be unfortunate to force a definition of play too soon or be too certain about any single theory or definition of play. Much work has yet to be done in exploring different possibilities about the relationship between play and learning, considering age groups or the role of adults in the particular context of children’s museums. Articulating beliefs about play, considering alternative constellations of ideas, formalizing conceptualizations, forging a shared view of play requires time and disciplined thinking. An example of this long-term contextualized work comes from the municipal infant toddler centers and preschools in Reggio Emilia (IT).   

After 40 years of studying various pedagogical thinkers, like Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky, the Reggio educators arrived at what they call, “Our Piaget” and “Our Vygotsky.” Emerging from a practice of questioning, these educators identified ways in which these thinkers both narrowed thinking about children in some areas and yet opened other, productive paths for developing a pedagogy for the Reggio schools. Committing to similar diligence, shared thinking, and taking advantage of each others’ work, children’s museums can author a comparable pedagogy, “our play,” that reflects insights into children, play, and museum environments.

An invitation to think together offers the possibility of bringing a children’s museum perspective to play that will benefit children, parents and caregivers, communities, museums, and the study of play. Opening this effort to engage more committed, thoughtful people in working creatively and collaboratively across more children’s museums will help grow a shared language around play. Like play itself, this language and its related vocabulary, ideas, and constructs will express the variety, vitality, and value of children’s museums. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

In the Primordial Ooze of Early Planning

I love the primordial ooze of early planning for a big museum project. It may be a new museum, an expansion, or reinventing a museum. There is no near or far in the midst of primordial ooze; no fixed or firm center; no visible shore. In this early stage everything oozes into everything else. Potential is enormous, vision is fuzzy; possibilities bump and meld into one another.

Not every member of a team or planning task force, however, enjoys this murky phase. Avoiding it, however, is virtually impossible. Museums find different strategies for navigating the thick mass of shadowy possibilities. Typically museum leadership or founding board members look for guidance from other museums, master planners, and their own related experience. They visit museums that are strong examples of what they aspire to become and attend museum planning conferences.

A project definition, a set of well-tested planning steps grouped into phases with project milestones help bring order to the early steps in the process. But, at some point, there is inevitably a stutter in a process this extensive and complex. A key team member moves on or joins the team; planning money is hard to find; the “perfect” site doesn’t come through. The team regroups, the process slows, and sometimes, the project is resized.

It is one thing to have a planning process laid out, but how does a museum team ready itself for the unavoidable ups-and-downs of the intense, often life-changing, journey they are beginning? A few realities about the process have emerged from the experience of countless museums that have started up, expanded, or reinvented themselves. It's helpful to keep them in mind.   

This is not actually a linear process. Project planning, especially, in the early stages, is a discovery process. While perhaps a disciplined discovery process, it is nonetheless exploratory, opportunistic, and has a life of its own. Laid out on charts, the process looks orderly with a clear beginning and end. Planning, in fact, starts long before building size is determined or design begins. It often runs on parallel tracks and moves forward at different rates. Trial and error and false starts are inevitable. And, what appears to be the end of a project is actually a new beginning. The museum opens, meets reality, and is on a new learning curve.

Everything connects with everything. Especially and emphatically at the beginning of a project! The vision connects to the community and to the mission; both connect with audience. Audience informs the target market and attendance. Community size and projected attendance are closely related to building size and exhibit square footage. Thinking about a building without considering the location is unproductive; will the site draw audiences? And everything connects to funding which connects to vision, mission, staff, and the community. 

There’s no single model for a museum, plan, or project. Every project is distinct from another because every museum is distinct. Even two projects underway in the same town at about the same time differ in material ways. A journey is shaped depending on whether a museum is mature or a start-up, renovating or building new, its size, in a museum-going community or not, starting off in during lean or boom years, has an experienced or inexperienced capital campaign team. Museums certainly should borrow and learn from other museums, projects, and planning processes–of course! But they should also borrow with a mind to the particular parameters of their project and community and adapt accordingly. 

The museum field has not only enjoyed a building boom but also has a track record of sharing its lessons. Insider insights into a capital project by a science center in the east are regularly passed on to an art museum expanding in the west and a children’s museum starting up in the south in conference sessions, blogs, and journals. Take comfort and take advantage of others having blazed the trail before and having insights others want. Reach out to leaders at museums that have recently expanded, renovated, or opened a completely new museum. Be respectful of their time and play this generosity forward and help other projects coming along.

Preparation, preparation, preparation. Planning and preparation help develop shared expectations among planning team members, the board, across the museum, and with partners about the vision and what lies ahead. Understand the necessary steps, what needs to be accomplished during each, and who should be involved. Decide how decisions will be made and start learning a new vocabulary and terms. Implement and track practices that are helpful in guiding the discovery, wrangling orderliness throughout the process, and reinvigorating staff and board. It is unlikely a team can do too much preparation and planning.

Actively collecting resources to serve as a bookshelf for the project will be useful in navigating murky moments throughout the process. A dog-eared article may be the just-in-time information or needed perspective when facing a tough decision. Others' reflections of their experiences can bring comfort at a challenging moment. Sharing a blog post can lift a pesky question into the open for a lively discussion.

The following selected Museum Notes blog posts address some of the inevitable questions, challenges, and realities that surface in the long meander of process. How do we build support for the project? Should we start off in a permanent site or grow site-by-site? Who should our partners be? Can’t our audience be "everyone"?

WhatDoes Your Museum Make Possible? Every museum needs to think about and place a frame around its potential value to its community, visitors, partners, and friends. This enduring value can take many forms–from sparking extraordinary insights about the world to creating greater agency and competence among learners and citizens, to inviting joy. Articulating the hoped for benefits of a museum visit early on and identifying multiple ways to realize them will be helpful in a museum’s being recognized and valued as a community asset.   

Stakeholders + Engagement. “Stakeholders” is a term a museum might not think about early in its planning process. Stakeholders play a key role at every step along the way. They are partners, supporters, members, gatekeepers, staff, and board, and decision makers who can become friends. Thinking about the museum’s stakeholders, who they are in its community, and how to involve them in meaningful ways throughout the process will favorably impact the project. 

Vision with a View to Impact. A clear and powerful vision is necessary for the journey ahead. At the same time, a hard working vision is not always the first choice of a group setting out on a long, complex process and feeling the need to accomplish everything all at once. A hard working vision connects with impact and emerges from knowing the community, connecting the community’s and museum’s assets, and describing the positive change the museum believes is possible. 

Audience, An Area of Enduring Focus. Nothing is more central to a museum’s existence and aspirations than its audience. Understanding audience is never complete, but is especially key in starting up or planning for dramatic growth. Museums learn about their audiences in many ways: identifying primary, secondary, and emerging audiences; surveying visitors; analyzing attendance data; conducting audience research; engaging with the audience. This focus on audience serves to remind staff and board that the people and communities they hope to serve are the highest priority, at the center, and at every step.

Vision, Process, and Position for the Big Museum Project. The earliest stages of a museum project are hard to visualize, but are truly formative. This period of exploration creates clarity around an inspiring project vision, a process that supports and delivers on that vision, and the position the museum hopes to assume in its community. This sounds simpler than it is. Everyone is eager to get going. Perhaps more challenging is how vision, process, and position entwine and interact with one another. Clarity around vision, process, and position is often what separates two equally ambitious projects from one another.

Growing Site By Site. Among the most frequently asked questions from groups starting a museum is, “Should we focus on opening in a permanent site with the space and amenities we want or should we open sooner in a smaller site and assume we’ll move later? The question itself expresses the complexity and trade-offs in making a decision with far-reaching implications. While there’s no formula for finding the right site at the right time in a relatively simple process, some guidelines emerge from the experiences–successful and otherwise–of museums that have wrestled with this task.

Planning Out Loud. Planning out loud makes a museum’s thinking, testing, and learning visible to itself and its stakeholders. Bigger than a prototype, louder than a focus group, and unfolding over months and possibly years, planning out loud uses long-term, deliberate testing of multiple aspects of a museum by engaging the community: from testing hours, staffing, and how much mess; to community partnerships; to programming schedules, and how to communicate with stakeholders.

Unpacking Nice + Necessary. Nice and necessary serve as two valued and complementary lenses for viewing a museum, the roles it plays in its community, and how it pursues its goals. Museums that are starting up or expanding will find it helpful to understand and articulate that they are nice and how they are necessary in ways that are meaningful to their community. 

Good luck on the journey ahead! 

Photo credit: A glimpse of the primordial soup courtesy of the Large Hadron Collider's Alice Experiments  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

City Museums and Children

Children gathering information about the city (Photo courtesy of Humara Bachpan)

Among the top 10 global trends ranked by international experts, according to the World Economic Forum, is the growing importance of megacities. Increasingly, life is lived in the world’s urban centers where more than half the world’s population of nearly 7 billion is living. Global urban growth is expected to continue. By 2030, 60% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. 

If city museums are about strengthening the connections between the city and its inhabitants, they should be considering children and youth in their vision for themselves and their cities. Children comprise about 50% of the population in urban areas and will soon make up 60% of the urban population growth.  More than a billion children live in cities worldwide. 

For city museums, this is enormous potential. Increased attendance and income from serving even a small percentage of this part of urban population has significant  implications for institutional health and attendance. Serving children intentionally in city museums is also strategically important. Children are a big part of the opportunities and challenges cities currently face and will deal with in the future. Children have a valued and different way of seeing their city that the city needs.

Jane Jacobs, American-Canadian urban theorist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities would agree. She insists that, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Including children and youth.
Ghent Museum Family Day (Photo courtesy of Ghent Museum)
City museums currently do serve children in a variety of ways. Many host a “kids day,” produce a magazine for children, and offer programs for students. While certainly not representing the full extent of children’s place and presence in city museums, these examples also don‘t correspond to the size or significance of children in urban settings.

To bring children into a vision for themselves and their cities, city museums need to strengthen their connection with children on the one hand and grow children’s connections to their city on the other.

Children as Learners, Explorers, and Citizens
Imagining ways to strengthen connections with children and with the city is difficult without viewing children as learners, explorers, and citizens.  

Through their senses, movement, observation, thinking, reason, and language, children notice, follow hunches, organize information, seek out others to engage. They construct and reconstruct knowledge, revise ideas, and share meanings and stories with others. Highly resourceful as learners, children observe others doing something they can’t do and imitate them; then they do it by themselves. With a natural zest for testing and trying, they are constantly making connections between what they see, hear, smell and touch and the experiences they have accumulated in even the first few years of life. Searching for the reasons for things and for meaning, children are learning everyday.

Active from their earliest days as eager explorers, children are finding their place in the world. In ever-expanding circles, they are interested in knowing where they are, where they live, where they are going, and what is beyond. Initially, children’s experiences are mediated by adults, but rapidly children direct explorations themselves. They explore around home and the neighborhood, become familiar with routes and pathways, and gradually come to know the larger, shared landscapes of their cities.

The city of the child is not history, landmarks, postcards, and transportation networks. It is not the past. Rather, the city is immediate, present; it is a compelling invitation to notice, wonder at, and explore. Children spot power lines and trash bins; they make a game of the paving stones, and shout down the storm drain to hear their voice. They watch people at work, pass houses, move among shoppers carrying packages, and hear the sounds of traffic. For the child, even a trip to the market is an encounter with the city's rich complexity.

Moving through the city, accompanying a parent on errands, going to school, visiting family, or meeting
Children as explorers (Photo of Jeanne Vergeront
friends, children and youth are developing relationships with the city. They form relationships with places–physical, social, public, civic–and with people. They become enmeshed in daily rhythms, shared events, and a city’s cultural expressions. When children grow up in and with in the city, they forge identities about belonging, sharing with others, and participating in a life embedded in the city.

We are inclined to think of children as future citizens. Children, however, are not waiting for the future. They are writing the future now in their everyday lives. More than just residents or short-term visitors, children are participating in the only real life they know. They learn the stories of their city, feel its spirit, recognize its many faces, and share its pride. Part of a changing city they know first hand through their everyday comings and goings, children are citizens now.

Building Connections to the City and to the Museum
Inspired by an image of children as critical and valuable for a city’s long-term vitality, city museums can shape a broad agenda for growing children and youth’s connections to the city. Going beyond expanding children’s programs, another kids’ day, or a pretend city exhibit, this agenda begins deep in the museum, reaches into the city, and returns to enrich the museum.

The city is a compelling invitation to children to explore and discover. With so many possibilities, a museum needs to align its interests around engaging children with its mission and strengths and choose where to focus. What, for instance, does it know about children and their city? How might it deepen its knowledge? What larger issues around safety, well-being, or welcoming immigrants is the city addressing that the museum could also explore? Readings such as those listed below and city plans for children and youth offer valuable information about city children.

Questions frame a museum’s interests and guide its inquiry. A museum may want to know more about what children think a city is, where it starts and ends; how they experience the city; or how they view nature and the city. Along with reading and discussing, museum staff also need time for observing children out-and-about in the city, interviewing them, and listening to their insights to appreciate their ideas and questions.

Ideas, places, and partners for projects and explorations are likely to emerge from this exploratory research and from children themselves. When invited to think about what is fascinating about their city and what they want to show others, children have answers and ideas. Fresh perspectives on a seemingly familiar places and new lines of inquiry emerge. Giving children tools such as maps, sketchbooks, pencils, binoculars, old photos, and cameras assists and extends their explorations of a place, an interest, or a route. In growing their knowledge of the city and its places, they are documenting discoveries, formulating questions, inventing ideas, and gathering information valuable to city planners Where does this stream come from? What was here when this tree started? How far do these tracks go? What is on the other side of the bridge? Discoveries about how parts of the city connect, new routes, and how to get their bearings as they cross the city on a bus or tram spark museum projects, exhibits, guides, programs, tours, and expo events.

Children Seeing the City
In the Municipal Infant-Toddler Centers and Preschools of the city of Reggio Emilia (IT), educators invited children three to six years to be interpreters and guides of their city. In this project, Reggio Tutta: A Guide to the City by the Children, children were asked first to think about their image of cities in general. As they then thought about their role as guides for Reggio, in particular, their perspective shifted. Using words, making maps, creating symbols, postcards, a rich, layered portrait of Reggio emerged: a city with boundaries, relationships among parts, distances, and stories. Overall the children depicted a city that is positive, livable, and welcoming.

A large project like Reggio Tutta can inspire smaller projects in various formats for a city museum to suit its size, readiness, and partners. A project, Our City at Play, might focus on places to play and what makes a good place to play. Children could interview parents and grandparents about their play memories from childhood; they could draw or construct models of playscapes for park planning. The exhibit could be laid out around the city on an audio trail or bike tour with stops at related sites. Drawings, words, models, and maps about play could likewise be installed at city hall bringing visibility to children’s insights and ideas about a playable city.

Children’s investigations of fascinating places in the city can be the starting point for designing urban adventures for themselves and others using games, scavenger hunts, and maps.  Geotagged objects or intriguing places from the city’s past could be incorporated into an augmented reality app like one created to enliven places in historic Ribe (DK).

Inviting children to participate in the life of the museum engages them as learners and citizens. Museu de les Ciències Princep Felipe (Valencia, ES), one of several science centers that has set up a children’s board of 10 and 11 year olds, it offers an opportunity for participation in museum governance.  While not city museums, the work of these museums suggests other ways children build connections with the city through authentic participation. Here, children meet and work with children from across the city. Their ideas for activities and programs are vetted by the museums’ internal processes.

City museums often create spaces for young children as the Helsinki Museum’s Children’s Town, Chicago History Museum's Sensing Chicago and other museums have done. Planning for a museum expansion or
Children's Peace City (Photo courtesy of Cavan County Museum, IE)
renovation can also engage children in the thinking of the next phase in the life of an important city landmark. Like their adult counterparts, children’s voices can be added to ideas about building design, amenities, and exhibits.
At many points in a museum’s life, children might create a guide for the museum–or its neighborhood.   

Museum collections also offer opportunities for engaging children in making connections between the city and the museum.  A museum might frame a project around children’s interest in objects in its collection that connect with a current city issue or civic campaign. Working with a curator, children might explore public transportation memorabilia, workers’ tools, or old signs. Looking over the objects children consider who used them, equivalents today, possible future versions, and what they would put on a label about the objects.

Becoming Part of the City
Cities are constantly changing and adapting. Children are part of this process and can help make cities better. When museums involve children now on different topics, they are also engaging them in thinking about what those changes might be. What might a possible future for their city look like? What would make the city better for children and youth? What would make it friendlier to newcomers? How will the city meet challenges around water? Crowding? Transportation? Children will see a different city. Starting conversations now will inspire them to imagine a new future.

When children are engaged, when they feel heard, when they contribute to their city, they become part of the city. City museums with their partners–schools, public housing, libraries, community organizations, city departments–have a large, active, and valuable role in creating opportunities and experiences that grow children’s connections with their city. Questions, interests, and possibilities–children’s, the museum’s, and the city’s–move back and forth creating strong connections. Authentic encounters with places and people which evolve into substantive museum projects, exhibits, and programs allow children to contribute in meaningful ways to the cities they live in, are growing up in, and will lead.

A version of this post is included in the spring issue of ICOM's CAMOC Review. I encourage you to explore the other articles about city museums in the Review.

Suggested Reading
• Bernard van Leer Foundation. Early Childhood Matters
• Derr, Victoria, Chawla, L. and Van Vliet W. (2015). Children as Natural Change Agents:Child-friendly Cities as Resilient Cities 
• Growing Up in an Urbanizing World. (2002) Chawla, Louise (Ed.) UNESCO: New York
• Mara Krechevsky, Ben Mardell, and Angela N. Romans. (2014) Engaging City Hall: Children as Citizens, The New Educator, 10:1, 10-20.
• Municipality of Reggio Emilia (2000). Reggio Tutta: A Guide to the City by the Children. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children.