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"?

What Does 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