Saturday, December 28, 2019

Consolidating the Gains: After the Museum Doors Open

First posted September 2015, Consolidating the Gains continues the series on growing a museum
Opening Day at Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota

The ribbon has been cut and the doors to the new museum swing wide open welcoming friends, members, supporters, neighbors, and the curious.  

Opening day festivities are well attended. The new spaces are awe-inspiring; the exhibitions sparkle. Fundraising is virtually complete and the punch list has been pared to a manageable length. Systems have been tested and tweaked. Media campaigns have drawn the hoped-for attention. Donor and member events have been great successes. The rounds and rounds of prototyping caught the bugs early. The community discussions that inspired the vision for the big museum project still feel inspiring. Years of planning now seem like a blur. 

Twenty years after opening day at the “new” Minnesota Children’s Museum ( on September 16, 1995 these impressions are still with me along with the many lessons I was fortunate to learn about planning and opening a museum. Yet, as memorable as the planning and opening were, the following year and the lessons learned navigating it have been even more enduring. And I've seen these lessons learned over-and-over again in other museums since then.

The Big Lesson 
Those lessons cluster around a single message. No matter how resounding a success everyone thinks and says the opening and new museum are and how amazingly well the first months go, the critical task is to retain and consolidate the gains made through the expansion and over the first months of operations.

This challenge also comes to mind now as I read and hear about recent openings at the DoSeum; the Thinkery; The Broad; the Mid-America Science Museum; the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County; the new wing at the Columbus Museum of Art; and the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota

Whether doubling the physical footprint, building a wing for exhibitions, converting space for events, adding a large-format theater or opening an extensive outdoor area, a large capital project has changed the museum. The transition from planning to opening to running a new institution is one of both planned and unexpected challenges that can make consolidating the gains more challenging than they might seem to be.   

Every new such venture is originally fueled by enormous passion and excitement. Working with a shared vision of a building, a fresh visitor experience, new amenities, and stronger exhibit experience makes coordination and alignment of the museum’s efforts relatively easy. Once that milestone has passed, however, the view ahead is fuzzier. The territory in which a museum now finds itself is new. Familiar signposts, patterns and benchmarks from the past are either irrelevant or in serious need of updating. The temptation is great to feel the museum has arrived and that efforts getting there have the momentum to surge forward. The first months or even year after opening, known as the benefit period, won’t last forever and, in fact, can disappear unexpectedly. 

Along with the sense of enormous pride and accomplishment among staff, volunteers, and trustees on opening is relief and deep exhaustion. And yet, during any long-term project, a museum has cultivated partnerships, shared its aspirations broadly, actively invited the public into its life, and deliberately stepped into the limelight. The action is just beginning.

Retaining the Gains
Just what are the gains that need to be consolidated? During the course of planning, a museum has assessed the need to expand or renovate, made a case for support, cultivated community good will, projected attendance, raised funds, planned exhibits, developed new programs, brought on additional staff, set up new systems, and trained staff. From a new physical footprint to a new community footprint, it has quantified intended gains in areas across the museum and that the museum itself intends to have on its community. It has set new attendance targets and identified new audiences to reach. It has projected growth in expenses as well as revenue; set fundraising goals; structured admission and membership; added new earned income activities; and calculated economic impact. New exhibits with new themes, topics, and learner impacts fill galleries and require on-going maintenance and repairs.

Consolidating gains typically means capturing the lessons learned; stabilizing financially and operationally; determining where to work harder to improve on what works; shoring up areas that lag behind; making the most of available momentum; and recognizing new opportunities. The museum shifts from promises and projections to targets and tracking. In this period of time, the museum has an opportunity to operate and serve from a higher platform. To do so, it needs to meet some consolidation challenges.

Consolidation Challenges 
•   Develop new baselines for benchmarking performance in key areas. In a new, larger, or renovated building, old benchmarks don’t work. Because square footage, attendance, and admission fees change, ratios for tracking key financial indicators and performance necessarily change. To know how the museum is doing and how it can do better, new data is needed, as is the time for collecting data, observing seasonality shifts and multiple cycles, and comparing actuals with projections.

•   Retain and support staff, especially key staff. With the expansion, the museum has added staff with new expertise while existing staff carry important organizational knowledge. Through training, the museum has invested in staff across the museum. The focus now is to retain and grow this expanded capacity during a period of transition. After a major project, people leave for various reasons. Temporary staff and contractors leave as work is completed. Permanent staff may be ready to move on, find a new challenge or change of pace. The same goes for trustees. Be kind.

•   Engage the audience and community at a higher level and in targeted ways. Many, if not most, projects begin with community input to assess the need for expansion, generate programmatic ideas, and prototype exhibits and programs. During the long process that follows, however, there’s little feedback from audiences. Upon opening, a flood of audience feedback, good and bad, pours forth. At this point, a museum needs to make the most of this feedback; be responsive and connect with visitors; and reinvigorate its community engagement strategies. 

•   Focus on new opportunities to grow impact. Greater museum visibility, a sense of optimism, and increased capacity combine to catalyze new and larger opportunities for greater impact. A museum may enjoy a new position on the learning and cultural landscape, have a new seat at the table, or be able to set a new table around its priority interests. With an eye on delivering significant long-term impact, a museum should build on its strongest partnerships, work in areas of emerging expertise, and develop larger initiatives that align with community priorities. 

•   Become the new museum. Expansion has changed the museum. It is a new institution with a new identity created through multiple changes starting with its building, possibly a new location or name, and on-line presence. A new logo, brand, and perhaps name have been unveiled, differentiating the museum from its former self and other venues. Now is the time to fully inhabit the promise of the museum through guest and learner experiences, text panels, the tone and spirit of interactions with staff and volunteers, and everyday moments. 

•   Plan for a new future. The big museum project has been all about a new future for the museum, a future that has arrived and is already quickly receding. It’s time to rethink the museum’s future and get out in front of what’s coming next. Through strategic planning, a museum can reinvigorate its vision, look ahead, and build on the gains to generate new ways to better serve the community.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Transition Planning

Part of this series on growing a museum, this was first posted May 2016

Artist: : Eron Davide Salvadei

In a large capital project, the transition plan is typically over shadowed by the series of plans that precede it. Earlier in the process, the strategic business plan, exhibit master plan, architectural plan, case for support, and fundraising plan are developed. Coming much later in the process, when it feels as if so much has been done that little could be left, the transition plan appears on the radar screen.

Obviously, a great deal of very critical planning has already been done. But the final steps of translating and operationalizing the project’s aspirations and intentions into the new space are indispensable. How will the vision for a stunning new wing, a LEED building, a sculpture garden, or 30,000 square feet of new exhibits approach their hoped-for potential if membership cycles span months the museum is closed, staff is not trained, programs are untested, and storage for back-up materials has yet to be found. How will the museum know whether the first year has been a success?

Connecting Resources Across Time
Transition planning connects the people, tasks, resources, and time that a museum needs to move through a succession of milestones to complete a major capital project: leaving one facility, moving into another, opening to the public, and operating during the first 12 months.

A standard definition of the transition plan is elusive and, perhaps, for good reason. Realistically, transition plans vary because every project is different. The transition for a museum starting up is very different than for an established museum opening a new wing, one bringing a large outdoor area on line, or new construction involving relocation to a new site.

Regardless of project specifics, transition planning shares some similarities. The time from winding down the old and becoming skilled at operating the new is about expanding ownership of and deepening familiarity with the museum’s new home, from a small group of people who have guided the project to a broader circle of staff. It deals with consolidating what is known about the present museum operation, the new facility and operation, and determining what needs to be accomplished during the transition phase. It relies on identifying the information and expertise necessary to plan for the changes ahead and building comfort with uncertainty and change.

Looking more closely, a plan that covers this time is a actually set of interconnected plans focusing on multiple phases defined by milestones following a critical path.

• Multiple phases. A series of phases typically involve closing down one operation, moving into a new facility, opening to the public, and operating through the first year. Milestones such as letting bids, groundbreaking, occupancy, exhibit installation, and opening events mark these phases.
• A set of interconnected plans cover all museum areas including programming, finance, marketing, development, facility, workforce, and daily operations.
• A critical path is the sequence of activities that add up to the longest overall duration required to complete a project. It both determines the shortest time possible to complete a project and also captures the interim deadlines and deliverables.

Times of Great Change
A museum going through this transition will not just have a new address or occupy a bigger space. Whether it rebrands itself or not, a museum will change its identity in small and large, subtle and more obvious ways. A constant shift between past and future and the competing demands of farewells and celebrations ensures a lively stretch of time. To navigate smoothly across multiple phases at a critical time in its growth, a museum must constantly manage complexity, grow capacity, and deal with uncertainty.  

Interconnections among museum areas add a level of complexity to transition planning. Marketing promotes programs; membership rates relate to admission prices and program fees; staffing levels are calibrated to expected attendance. A museum’s hope for a cohesive visitor experience with mission-related activities demands cross-functional planning as well. Planning in one area, development, for instance, will quickly encounter decisions and deadlines in marketing, membership, workforce, and finance.

During transition planning, a museum gathers and organizes information at an increasingly granular level and projects it onto more specific time frames and spaces. Pricing structures, attendance projections, earned revenue goals, and staff levels have likely been determined as part of the project’s strategic business plan. They may have been revisited and updated over the project’s run incorporating new information. But new information continues to arrive as do more specific questions arise about building systems, exhibition maintenance, on-boarding staff, daily schedules, updated policies and procedures, and opening events.

On the one hand, the physical changes become increasingly apparent. The building goes up, sculptures are installed, exhibits are commissioned. Yet staff must be increasingly precise in how they will operate a building where they have spent little or no time. How will they manage crowding? (By the way, what does crowding look and feel like in that new or renovated lobby?) What does emergency preparation involve here? How will staff be prepared to greet, serve, and engage visitors, partners, and friends in the membership line, at the bus drop off, in the cafĂ©, or outside in the new nature area?  

Complexity, uncertainty, and change persist in new forms throughout the first year. Upon opening, a museum will definitely find itself in a territory with few meaningful benchmarks for its performance. Conditions such as location, size, and novelty have changed substantially; donors are transitioning from capital to annual appeals; a big marketing campaign has put the museum into a bright spotlight. Consequently, attendance patterns, average ticket prices, membership renewal rates, store sales, annual gifts, program participation (and more) that the museum will record over the first year will relate only somewhat to past patterns, if there are any. There is little or no baseline information for measuring, comparing, and guiding museum decisions. There won’t be for a good portion of the first year.

Picking Your Path Through Transition Planning
Complexity, uncertainty, and change make transition planning hard enough. Not being a standard part of a large capital project makes this planning even more challenging. Daunting as this might seem, however, a museum can navigate the transition territory picking up on how other museums have done this work.

• Start early. Transition planning takes time, time to organize, to work on the transition plan itself, and to implement it. Because every museum project varies, the time to start will also vary. For example, a new museum that hasn’t been in operation may need a transition plan that covers moving into the building, opening events, and the first operating year. A museum building a new building on its current site may close for 2 years and offer programs and pop-ups at community locations; its transition plan may span almost 4 years. At a minimum, a transition plan should cover 9 months before and 9 months after opening.
• Involve staff and board. Not all museums are able to develop their transition plans internally. A museum starting up may not have any staff or staff with the experience, breadth, and capacity to develop plans in all areas. It might, however, have staff with knowledge critical to the visitor experience and skills to train staff. Use it. Even when a museum finds that working with a consultant or team of consultants best provides the needed time and expertise, staff and board should be very involved. Their internal and local knowledge is essential to customizing the transition plan to their museum and community. Equally important, they must own and implement the plans.

• Scope plans to fit the museum’s situation. A review of existing plans and their scopes should indicate where more current information and a coordinated approach to the transition are needed. Depending on the planning that has already been done, plans may be needed for: finance, earned revenue, marketing and communication, community engagement, visitor experience, programs, exhibits, workforce, building and grounds, data and IT, development, or opening events. Especially if staff is developing them, plan scopes should not be too large or too small. Finance could be a single (and massive) plan encompassing earned revenue, development, and workforce. Or there could be separate plans for the store, admissions, membership, and rentals that require greater coordination. Identify plan scopes and who’s responsible for each plan.

• Look back and forward. Looking to the future starts with looking back and exploring questions like, what have we learned from successes and limitations at our current site that will enable us to significantly advance our mission and serve our visitors better at our new site? Addressing this question will involve looking at existing data and past patterns, understanding what has worked well, and deciding where changes are needed. Looking ahead to tracking its success, a museum can help itself by identifying performance indicators for each of its plans and how to track them.

• Learn from other museums. Examples of transition plans are scarce. A single announcement of a museum’s transition to a new building shows up on Google. A chapter in the 3rd edition of Barry Lord, Gail Lord and Lindsay Martin’s The Manual of Museum Planning touches on getting to opening day. Fortunately, colleagues who have completed the transition to a new operation are generous in sharing what they learned along the way. Whether a capital project is a renovation, expansion, or new building, lessons cluster around: get aligned to focus on the tasks ahead; put staff training at the top of the list of things to prepare for; and be kind to one another.

• Be prepared to growTransition planning is not just a great opportunity to grow staff, volunteers, and board internal capacity. It’s inevitable and necessary. Plans must focus on additional resources—staff, expertise, space, furniture and equipment, and partners—necessary for the work ahead. More staff, new positions, and expanded expertise among existing staff from leadership levels to entry positions produce growth in many forms. Concomitantly, a new organizational culture takes root in both deliberate and unexpected ways. With new staff come fresh perspectives, familiarity with other resources and practices, and an eagerness to find a place in the organization. Long-time staff holds valuable organizational knowledge and perhaps attachment to long-held practices that may, or may not, be suited for the next phase. The moment is ripe for veteran and new staff to team up and work together in new ways.

• Be intentional in every way and at every step. Every decision is as an opportunity to reinforce what matters in this great organizational change. Selecting the transition team, shaping a collaborative process, and sharing information can communicate inclusion, openness and valuing participation. Sharing plans regularly at a Transition Team meeting informs, updates and coordinates them with one another. Being timely in updating plans and the critical path, meeting deadlines, and using information to make decisions moves the museum towards greater efficiency, sustainability, and stellar service. All of which will be in high demand when the doors open and visitors pour in.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Gratitude and Generosity

It’s that time of year when we tend to think about and express our gratitude more often than usual. We are grateful for the love and support of family and friends, for good health, food in the cupboard, for kindness and understanding from others. We also tend to be more generous this time of year, serving a meal at a shelter, dropping money in the kettle of the bell ringers, or writing a check to a favorite charity. We certainly hope our museums will be on the receiving end of others’ generosity with a year-end gift.

While valuing both gratitude and generosity, I’ve gradually decided that gratitude is relatively easy; generosity takes work. Generosity, it seems, is a more demanding, active, and compassionate form of gratitude. With gratitude someone else’s generosity or a lucky moment has enhanced us. We feel grateful to be on the receiving end of someone’s good will, gift, attention, or extra effort. How hard is that? On the other hand, when we have given up time, wisdom, or money, our generosity enhances the situation or wellbeing of someone else, not ourselves. Generosity is our giving without the expectation of someone else’s gratitude.

We are likely to think of people like Bill and Melinda Gates when we think of being generous. There is a link between generosity and resources with a long-standing connection between generosity and the elite. In fact, the origin of the word generosity is from the Latin word meaning of noble birth.

We don’t, however, need to be rich to be generous. True generosity is the quality of giving good things to others freely and open-heartedly. We can be generous with time, attention, advice, donating our body’s blood or organ, patience, kindness, hospitality, mentoring, money, or service to others. Everyone, even very young children and people with seemingly few resources can be generous to others.

Generosity is a disposition to do well towards others. As an inclination to act in a certain way, generosity is something we can all practice. While it takes more time and effort than a polite thank you, we can all do an errand for someone else, let someone get ahead of us in line, and remember the anniversaries of loss and suffering. We can live in generous ways in everyday moments, giving more than we think we have to give, sharing more than may feel convenient, or giving what’s needed with respect.

Giving is both an individual and a social act. When we give, we are contributing in some way to others in a social network, to our neighbors, members of our congregation, someone we tutor, a homeless family receiving a meal, or refugees living in a camp on another continent. The act of giving connects us to others and contributes to a stronger social network that may be small and near, or distant and large.

It might sound like a Hallmark greeting card to say that generosity gives twice–at least. Our mentoring, financial contribution, time listening, or doing a favor contributes to someone else’s wellbeing. In return, these actions refresh what we have allowing us to recognize our capabilities, enjoy a sense of purpose, or appreciate that we are in a position to give. Giving further serves our enlightened self-interest and how we see ourselves.

Of greatest interest to me is a generosity of spirit, giving that depends less on the money we have or the opportunities and privilege we have received from others. In that sense, it is more available to more of us and with fewer limits. Having money to act on behalf of others or in the interest of our community is not required.

Generosity Has Such Wide Arms
Although generosity does not necessarily beget generosity, it does spread good will, redistribute advantages, and create openings for change. When museums cultivate a spirit of generosity within themselves in addition to encouraging supporters to give time and money to their missions, they create larger openings that invite and inspire people and ideas.

Along with playing a valued role in their communities, museums’ generosity can help strengthen communities. Museum resources like spaces can be meeting places, event spaces, or even platforms for friends and partners to support their friends and partners. Museum expertise in problem solving, event planning, or creating interactive experiences can help community groups meet their goals, and not just advance those of the museum. Helping partners meet their goals makes stronger partners and a stronger community.

The museum field is a generous field. We share ideas and lessons learned about what worked and didn’t. I know this first hand. Without the generosity of strangers in museums who became friends and colleagues, I would not have managed to start a museum, expand a museum, help museums grow, or write a blog. Such helpful, generous guidance from so many is a model for me and for others to make introductions, share resources, and give away ideas. Because any idea is inspired by the generosity of others sharing their ideas, what they have seen, heard, and thought before, giving away ideas provides others with fresh ideas for their thinking. 

In our museums and professional service groups, a generous spirit helps build a culture of respect and acceptance. This spirit allows us to give someone the benefit of the doubt, tolerate ideas and behaviors that may be at odds with our own, listen to someone with who we disagree as if they might be rightThis act could inspire someone to go out of their way for someone who needs something, not expecting anything in return.

Gratitude is appreciating life’s gifts. Generosity is sharing life’s gifts. We need gratitude. But we are diminished without generosity. We could probably survive as a species and a society if we didn’t feel and express gratitude. There would, undoubtedly, be consequences of not hearing someone say thank you, or not opening an envelope to read heartfelt thanks. We could not, however, survive without generosity of spirit, open-hearted sharing, and true giving.

Of course, acting generously does not, for a moment, mean not feeling and expressing gratitude as well.

— Originally posted 11/2017 —

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Growing Pains

Part of this series on growing a museum, this was first posted in 2018

It happened again recently. Another, unplanned, leadership transition in a young, 3-5 year old, museum. Again, I get over my surprise; everything seemed to be going well. 

Again I think about the bumpy spots all museums encounter. Like any organization, these museums are experiencing, and will experience, rough spots and growing pains. Some bumps are easier than others. The departure of an executive director is a challenge, but not an unusual one. An unplanned departure makes it even harder. Often when it happens, is what makes it hard.

Again I wonder about the museum’s next steps, the probable executive search, and who I might know or know of who would be a good fit for the museum and the position.

Inevitably, I come around to the realization that this museum is navigating a transition from one stage to another in its organizational life-cycle. Just as humans go through life stages (think infancy, early childhood, adolescence, and right on through old-age) so do non-profit organizations, including museums. Planned or unplanned, leadership transitions often occur when a museum is making a shift from one stage to the next. In fact, bumpy spots occur at somewhat predictable points in a museum’s development. In the case of these 3-5 year old museums, they are moving from a start-up stage to a growth stage. Not surprisingly, they are living somewhat in both stages. In this situation, the referred pain of growth is likely.

The idea of organizational lifecycles comes from several fields. The work of Susan KennyStevens, a non-profit management consultant based in the Twin Cities has been a helpful tool in my work. In her book Non-profit Life-cycles: Stage-based Wisdom for Non-profit Capacity, Kenny Stevens presents seven lifecycle stages that nonprofit organizations, including museums, typically go through: the Idea stage, Start-up stage, Growth stage, Maturity stage, Decline stage, Turn-around stage and sometimes, the Terminal stage.

Museums of every kind, size, and age experience life-cycle stages. Often these times are rough for staff, board, and sometimes even partners and visitors. A life-cycles approach, however, can be a helpful tool for a board, executive director, staff, and even funders. Besides serving as a tool for navigating a transition, this approach can also help depersonalize difficult discussions and decisions at a stressful time for the organization.

Understanding Stages
While inevitable, stages are not deterministic with one stage automatically following another like cruising through state after state on a cross-country road trip. Completing a stage and moving on to the next requires deliberate effort, activity on many fronts, and working together at another scale and complexity. New opportunities come along; there are staff and board transitions; new systems are needed; and some things must be discarded.

The young museums I’m thinking about signaled an intention to leave the Start-up stage when, accompanied by great celebration and popular response, they opened to the public. The Growth stage seemed certain to follow. Moving through stages, however, is not automatic. Opening the museum doors doesn’t necessarily mean completely closing the door to the Start-up stage and stepping over the threshold into Growth.

And while stages may be clear, the boundaries between them are notConsequently, a museum is likely to be straddling more than one stage and not even realize it.

A stage is not simply a place a museum bides its time or plows ahead to get to the other side. Rather, a stage describes developmental periods when characteristic patterns of behavior emerge, develop, and are resolved. The major tasks that need to be accomplished in every stage cluster in five organizational capacity areas: Programs (including exhibits and programs), Management, Administrative Systems, Financial Resources, and Governance.

Work to Be Done
Managing success in any stage and the transition to the next one relies on having sufficient internal capacity in all five areas. Development–or capacity–in organizations however, is usually uneven and occurs at different rates very much as it does across domains—physical, social, emotional, and cognitive—in humans. Uneven capacity across areas is likely to show up as a rough patch or growing pains.

In museums, and in the Growth Stage in particular, exhibits, products and services are generally more mature than other capacity areas like Administrative Systems or Financial Resources. A museum’s offerings expand in response to public demand. Staff races to keep up; financial tracking systems lag behind. Capacity areas like Administrative Systems or Financial Resources often need time and targeted resources to catch up, for both building new capacity and shedding old ways.

Processes for budget development, program planning, on-boarding staff, and recruiting board members may have been outgrown—or were never even established. New levels of accountability are needed. What worked for a staff of 7 and a founding board may be inadequate for a staff of 20 and a board of many new recruits. The nature of the work to be done in a stage is not necessarily immediately obvious. For instance, “communication” surfacing as a recurring issue—communication with and among staff, staff leadership, the board—often indicates related capacity issues. Nevertheless, communication internally and externally IS more critical than ever.

– For Everyone
Having the necessary capacity also means having the right people in the right positions: staff, staff leadership, and board. In every stage, staff, board, and staff leadership have specific roles to play, and these roles change across stages. For instance, a board needs to shift from being hands on to being strategic. The executive director needs to have the right characteristics to work with the board and be positioned to lead through a period of growth and development.

Finding the right person to complete a museum leadership team, to fit with the board and fit with staff, can be a challenge any time. Especially when a founding ED has left and a new stage of organizational development is unfolding, a successful search can be challenging. A museum may not get it right the first time. Kenny Stevens points out that, while more has been written about the start-up stage, it is really the growth stage that is the more complex management challenge.

When I return to thinking about what comes next for these museums and I look through the lens of organizational stages, I think about them quite differently. Regardless of its size, age, stage, or focus, every museum faces essentially the same task: building and aligning capacity across all 5 areas. And because every museum is different, there isn’t a set way to move smoothly and gracefully from one stage to another.

An organizational life-cycle approach, however, does help a museum get unstuck and develop a shared idea of how to move forward. It invites a museum to understand which stage it is in, to diagnose its internal capacity across areas, to identify where behaviors are out of sync, and to begin to grow and align its capacity.

The approach doesn’t solve everything. No tool does. Moving from one stage to another, however, is also an opportunity for a museum to become a better version of itself.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Really Grand Opening: Louisiana Children’s Museum

Part of a series on Growing a museum

Louisiana Children's Museum City Park (Photo credit: City Park)

When Louisiana Children’s Museum opened at its new location in City Park New Orleans on August 29, 2019, it was a celebration of joyous connections, a triumph of resilience, and a splendid gift to the area’s children and families. Opening the doors also marked the 14th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina which changed the Museum’s future.

Opening day at the cafe
In early 2005, Julia Bland, then and now, Executive Director of Louisiana Children’s Museum (LCM) invited me to work with her and her staff on a learning framework. This was part of a larger effort for LCM to strengthen its educational offerings and better serve children and families in the greater New Orleans area.

With the framework completed in May, the Museum planned to develop community-based programs for parents and children and an extensive set of field trip programs for school groups. Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic damage it caused to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in August 2005, however, changed everything. As well as revealing new, urgent needs across the region, the storm exposed deep and long-present challenges facing children and families.

In a state and city known for being at the bottom of the list for positive indicators for children’s health, well-being, and learning, more and better programs for children and families alone would be an inadequate response. A bolder response was necessary, one that placed children high on the list of community priorities including a major investment in them and their futures.  

For LCM, the opportunity to rebuild the greater New Orleans area had a clear starting point: the region’s children.

Over the 14 years between Katrina and LCM’s 2019 opening, the Museum continued to operate on Julia Street in the Warehouse District. All the while, Julia, her board, staff, partners, boosters, architects, and designers from across the country created a new children’s museum for children 8 years and under, their parents and caregivers. Located on 8.5 acres at the edge of the City Park lagoon, the 56,000 square foot museum, a $47.5 million project, was guided by a bold vision, a response to the realities and challenges of living with water, and inspired by children’s potential.

A Bold Vision
A community thrives when its children thrive. Healthy, cared for children who enjoy varied and developmentally meaningful early experiences grow up to become responsible, caring adults. For this to happen, however, communities must invest early in their children, especially in their children who face multiple challenges and risk factors and limited opportunities.

A whole-hearted commitment to both the community and to children set the new Louisiana
Joyous musical and generational connections
Children’s Museum on a course to become an innovative social, cultural, learning resource for children and families. LCM would do this by making joyous connections with and among partners, ideas, children, and families. Along the way, it would find practices and approaches that would make the deeper ideas of the project visible, spawn other projects, and forge new connections.  

Early planning work began by cultivating collaborative relationships with community partners and players who, like LCM, shared enduring interests in children’s well-being. From grassroots community and civic groups, higher education, healthcare, and formal education, these partners focused on infant and toddler mental health, caregiver engagement, environmental education, early literacy, culture, heritage, and the arts. As the project proceeded, these partners contributed expertise, perspectives, and connections to new audiences. These areas also helped shape the focus of 5 exhibit galleries: Play with Me, Follow that Food, Dig into Nature, Make Your Mark, and Move with the River designed by Gyroscope, Inc.
The exhibit design approach began in 2011 with a visitor panel involving a dozen children, 5 to 10 years, their parents, and caregivers. This form of qualitative research that engages the same visitors at multiple points in the process brought children’s and adults’ perspectives into the project early in a way that informed and inspired subsequent design direction and choices. Using conversation, drawing, and photographs, the sessions focused on what was fascinating to children in exhibits at Julia Street, how parents and caregivers saw their child’s thinking and learning, and what was important and interesting to children about water in their everyday lives.

Recognizing that these conversations and drawings brimmed with what children notice and think, a practice of documenting children’s drawings and words was integrated into the whole project. In some ways, children’s words and drawings became the language of the project, expressed in experiences, the architecture, gallery graphics and text, wayfinding, and LCM’s identity.  

The building design also reflects the Museum’s openness to the community and connections to the site. Designed by Mithun, a Seattle-based architecture and planning firm, the skewed H-shaped building has two wings connected by a glazed atrium. Exhibits occupy two floors of one wing. The other wing is free and open to the public. Its programmatic spaces relate to health, early literacy, parent and teacher resources. Its gift shop and cafe, Acorn, serve children and families whether they are visiting LCM or City Park. A large shaded porch across the building’s front both invites the community in and connects visitors with the lagoon, nature, and the Park.

Living with Water
In a city that lives below sea level and a project born of flooding, the new Louisiana Children’s Museum is designed for water. Water, its presence in the life of the city and its children, is integrated into the building, landscape, exhibits, programs, and messaging.

Photo credit: Webb Bland
The building sits 5 feet above the ground, higher than the 4 feet that flooded City Park during Katrina. Situated at the edge of the lagoon, the building appears to hover above the water. A bridge across the lagoon is one of the entrances to the Museum. When visitors cross the water, they walk through an interactive fog sculpture by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya that spills out from the edge of the lagoon shrouding it and the bridges in a foggy, misty cloud every 30 minutes. A “floating classroom” rafts across the lagoon providing a close look at the water and wildlife.

The Museum is integrated into the local ecosystem. Its 47,000 square feet of outdoor exhibits include an edible garden, toddler nature play area, and native Louisiana plantings. Water runnels channel water around 26 mature live oaks spared during construction. A 15,000-gallon cistern collects rain water.   

LCM’s interest in growing a water- and environmentally-literate citizenry is apparent indoors as well.
Looking upriver from the Port of
New Orleans
In Move
with the River, a 100-foot long water table follows the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Itasca, MN through the Port of New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. Along its course, locks, dams, tributaries, and cranes for loading and unloading cargo help make local and global connections about the working river. In Dig into Nature, children continue investigating water, its ways, and Louisiana’s ecosystems in exploring a wave tank, sedimentation table, a pirogue, and bayou habitats.

While water plays a prominent role in LCM experiences, it is part of a larger set of locally-inspired and place-based experiences and relationships including food, music, art, and architecture. In Make Your Mark, sounds collected from across New Orleans are activated when a game pieces on a giant interactive chessboard moves. Children explore materials and art concepts in the art studio, the architecture of the Museum itself, local architecture, and elements of a resilient city.

In addition to featuring local musicians in the Jammin’ House and working with local artist Terrance Osborne on the shotgun house in Make Your Mark, Mr. Okra, a New Orleans vegetable and fruit vendor who sold from his truck while singing, is featured in Follow that Food. Besides Mr. Okra, bins of local produce, a grocery store, cafe, and family recipes for a traditional crawfish boil show how food connects family, friends, community, and the larger world.  

Children's words and drawings invite adults to
engage, play, care, and learn — in dialogue
Perhaps the most local experience and joyous connections, the relationship and interactions between infants and toddlers and their caregivers, are at the heart of Play with Me. Observing their child, following their interests in the Sensory Lagoon, or finding animals hidden in the Cypress Tree, the adult-child connection is fundamental to the experience. Across all of the galleries, “in dialogue” graphics introduced at the entry to the exhibits wing, invite adults to notice, ask questions, talk, and listen to create openings for their child’s interests and capabilities to shine through.

Inspired by Children’s Potential
A strong image of the child and their potential inspired LCM and its planning. Too often underestimated, children are, in fact, inherently capable. They are active agents in their own learning from birth and possess enormous potential. Valuing children’s natural curiosity, their openness to possibilities, readiness to play, and capacity for relationships, LCM committed at the start to taking the wealth of children’s potential seriously.

Early in the process, the planning team articulated an image of the child as:
• Caring and helpful
• Inquisitive and curious
• Imaginative and resourceful
• Engaged and playful

Prominent and visible throughout the project, this image informed design of exhibits and experiences, features of the building, development of the site, and graphics. With an image of the playful child and an understanding of play as essential to the optimal development of all children, play is encouraged throughout the Museum in opportunities for child-directed play and a rich array of loose parts. The caring station in Dig into Nature taps into children’s natural capacity to be caring and helpful as they examine and tend animals living in the park who have been injured. In fact, a firm belief in the child’s capabilities and potential has allowed the Museum to present complex and challenging issues related, for instance, to flooding, natural disaster, and injured animals, in a positive, playful context.  

Children's drawings provide way finding
and messages
Documenting children’s words and drawings, in the visitor panel and later projects, opened opportunities for the Museum to make children’s potential visible to them, their parents, caregivers, and educators, and to one another. Children’s words and drawings inspired the approach to dual language gallery graphics including introductory, instructional, and invitational panels. This approach is also direct evidence of children’s capabilities and remarkable understandings. It allows visitors to see the world through children’s eyes and brings additional meaning to the actual text and graphics that would otherwise be unlikely to be captured in adult words or photos. 
Even in a project of this scope, small details and gestures make big statements. At the entry of the building, four words writ large highlight the child ‘s capabilities to Engage, Care, Play, Learn. Throughout the building and site, children’s drawings are incorporated into wayfinding graphics. Their drawings identify the bathrooms, designate stroller parking, accompany people up the stairs. A child’s drawing of a crawfish completes the Museum’s new logo. Each and every drawing is credited to the child who drew it.

The new Louisiana Children’s Museum brims with joyous connections that are helping to build a thriving local ecosystem for children and families. Community partnerships that began early continue to grow. Varied experiences support children’s joyous connections with their caregivers, play, place, and nature. Multiple generations connect grandparents’ hopes and dreams for the children of New Orleans in the quotes throughout the building.

Visit and see for yourself.
In Make Your Mark, a boy builds a children's
museum and offers tours of City Park

The Sensory Lagoon in Play with Me

Teams: Gyroscope,Inc: master planning, exhibit design, graphic design; Mithun, architecture, interior design, landscape architecture; Waggonner & Ball, local architects; KubikMaltbie: exhibit fabrication; Studio Matthews: branding and wayfinding; Hands On! Studio: conceptual plan; Roy Anderson Corp.: contractor; Slover Linett: audience research; Vergeront Museum Planning: planning framework

Photos by Vergeront unless otherwise noted,