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! 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Rewind: Playing with...Mud

International Mud Day is approaching.

Mud Kitchen, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
I have long loved mud. It is a messy and joyous medium full of great possibilities. As a child I molded “fruit” from the mud excavated from around the foundation of our newly built house. I built nests out of mud and dried grass and sat in the woods to watch which mud-grass nest design birds would choose. Hearing e.e. cummings’ phrase, “…when the world is mud-luscious…” for the first time in college, the ooze and joy of mud play and the deep, dark pungent mud smell from childhood engulfed me.

The scooping and sculpting, digging and dunking, concocting and cooking, mixing, making, and sitting in mud has long been part of childhood. Just as I remember sculpting with mud, a friend recalls a spring mud ritual in New Hampshire. When the snow was almost melted and the dirt-covered playground softened, eager boys hurried outside and scooped out snow to play marbles in the mud. Christine Maestri wrote in the Star Tribune some years back about her year old niece choosing mud to explore over an entire whole farm. Passing the barns, animals, garden, toys, grass, the toddler walked directly into the mud puddle and sat down where she stirred and squished the mud in her fingers and played with it for nearly half an hour. 

Childhood without mud play is sanitized in too many respects. This is more than adult nostalgia, a romanticized vision of childhood, and my personal fondness for mud. Given mud’s great learning value as fascinating content and inspiration for varied experiences, mud play has a limited presence in most children’s lives. Clay and sand are great, but mud is better. It is local, plentiful, versatile, and somewhat forbidden.

And Then There Was Mud
Mud is a world-making medium. The world was covered with primordial ooze, mud, at its very origins. Mud in its many forms, hot and eruptive has contoured the world; cool, slimy or thick, it has been a habitat for critters.

Just as mud was at the beginning of the world, it is also a universal medium for children to explore, discover, and use to shape their world. It is elemental, putting children in touch with the earth. The pressures of a small hand or the push and poke of even a tiny finger can sculpt mud and shape a world. Mud is not only local, it is also intensely seasonal.

Anything a-la-mud
Mud lends itself to cooking, painting, sculpting, building, and full body slathering. Children can create mudloaf, mud pies, mud lattes, and anything-a-la-mud in muffin tins, pie pans, ice cube trays, cake molds or cookie sheets. Do not forget the scrapers, pancake turners and spatulas; the stirrers, spoons, sticks, and brushes for mixing, mushing, spreading and stirring. In short, set up an entire mud kitchen. And the birthday candles. Leaves, seeds, and sticks make any mud creation better. Equip a mud patch with hand shovels and trowels for digging; buckets and tubs for filling; hoses, watering cans, and cups for adding water and making sure the mud is “just so.”

Mud play is inevitably child-directed. Few adults want to get in there and take over a mud activity. We do not need to teach children to investigate mud or how to do so. Investigations with mud start in many ways. Not surprisingly, children’ investigations of mud begin with touch, a finger, a toe, a hand, a foot, whatever the moment (and supervising adult) will allow. Deeper immersion will follow.

When I have watched children play with or in mud, they are either extremely intent and serious or are playful and exuberant. If intent, a child is alone in thought, observing closely and with great concentration as if measuring with her mind how much she must press this mud patty before the mud fills in. Or a child might watch how the mud drips form at the lip of the cup. A child might concentrate on a muddy finger and drag it across a stone, a bare arm, or a piece of paper and notice how mud paints.

If joyous and spirited, children crow, cajole, and compete with one another about their mud related accomplishments. They might be stringing together mud-inspired rhymes in a sing-songy voice, serving mud lattes to imaginary friends, or applying face paint to scare others. Their imaginations transform mud to oobleck, to lava, to chocolate. Children join forces to sculpt mud worlds with castle outposts, great walls, towers and moats.

 This is just the kind of lively participation in the world–physical, natural, social, sculptural, aesthetic–we so want children to enjoy. We seldom, if ever, see the same excited questions, deep absorption, extended discovery, and elaborate play narratives emerge from an exhibit on sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks with fixed specimens, labels and photos.

Learning from Mud
Attractive to all ages, the mud table at Discovery Hollow
Considering mud is so prevalent and versatile, so joyously accessible, there are surprisingly few opportunities for children to explore mud in museums, classroom, and camps. Occasionally a children’s museum or nature center will boldly embrace mud. Tamarack Nature Center added an enormous mud table in Discovery Hollow. Yet, one museum asked me to take “mud pies” out of the final draft of the exhibit master plan. Visions of muddy-fingered children disturbed board members.

Mud is quintessentially interdisciplinary. Is mud science, solids suspended in liquid? Is it art, a plastic medium with expressive qualities? Is it humanities, a universal building material providing shelter the world around? Yes. Yes. Yes. and No. Mud is mud.

While exploring mud is often unstructured and open-ended, it is also an entry point for children to explore and learn about big and sometimes complex ideas and often with a degree of authenticity that is valued.

Making bricks at the Santa Fe Children's Museum
Children are able to make adobe bricks at the Santa Fe Children's Museum. Outside, under the trees, children mix the soil (typically a sandy clay loam) and water, find the right proportion to get a stiff mix; fill and compact the wooden forms; and then remove the brick from the form and let the bricks dry in the sun. In the play and work of brick making are centuries of building knowledge, a feel for the native soil, the heft of wet and dry bricks. This can be repeated in other locales with wattle and daub methods using an underlying structure with twigs and sticks, mixing cut grass or straw into the mud, and ‘plastering’ it onto the structure beneath.
The clay house at Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
As part of the summer 2012 exhibit, Dirt-O-Rama: Intriguing Tales of the Underground at Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, children worked with artists to create a clay house in front of the Arboretum Learning Center. Starting with an underlying straw bale structure, a coat of clay from the local brickworks was plastered over the spiral structure. Nearby, the Mud Kitchen was open for play on weekends.

In addition to the indoor clay studio and outdoor sandbox at Pittsburgh Children's Museum are vats of beautiful, bubbling mud in the Backyard. Children can dip their hands and arms into the roiling ooze that suggests the Earth's origins, feeling its temperature and consistency, and sensing how it coats and clings to the skin. In Animated Earth by Steven Eisenhauer, children can add air to the mud vats. Turning the handles adds air pressure to change the surface, the size of the bubbles, and the music of the mud.

Backyard bubbling mud at Pittsburgh Children's Museum
In an ode to the medium of clay, Denver Art Museum’s 2011 exhibit, Marvelous Mud: Clay Around the World explored clay’s range and versatility as a mark of human interaction with the earth. The show features a great sweep of ceramic arts through human history and around the world, with antiquities and contemporary arts from the museum’s collection. Artists, asked to create specific works for the museum, stretched the possibilities of mud and ideas about clay. In the Mud Studio, children and adults explored clay as an inviting and forgiving sculptural medium that invites experimentation, permits mistakes, and allows reworking. 

Mud play doesn’t have to be outside or full body, although that is a terrific way to enjoy mud. Mud can be scooped onto a cookie sheet, fill up the sensory table, top off a plastic swimming pool, or be discovered in a mud puddle. It can turn an outdoor kitchen area into a mud kitchen. But I have to say that watching children at the Arboretum play in the mud, that the one having the most fun and on whom all eyes were directed was the boy sitting in, covered with, and lolling about the mud patch.  Oh, International Mud Day is June 29th. But I think any day can and should be a mud day.