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,

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Growing Site by Site

This post on finding a site from 2012 continues the series on Growing a Museum.

Minnesota Children's Museum today

Should we focus on opening our museum in a permanent site with the space and amenities we really want or should we open sooner in a smaller site and assume we’ll move later?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions from groups starting a museum. Mostly I hear it from children’s museums, but it is no different for virtually any new museum. One would think that being asked this question repeatedly over 30 years that I, and other museum planners, would have a good answer. Nope. There are no simple answers to this question. In fact, no single answer could fit every, or even many, museums’ circumstances.

The question itself reveals the complexity and various trade-offs involved in making a decision with far-reaching implications. Realities of capacity and readiness must play a role in whether a museum is able take on a large, permanent home or is better suited to grow site by site. Often opportunity and even serendipity have a deciding, if invisible, hand in what site shows up, where, when, and with what strings. Inevitably, the relativity of time distorts the meaning of permanent. Three years is forever in the life of a 5-year old organization but merely a pause in a 30-year organizational journey.

First Site
Whether a museum operates with no walls, borrowed walls, or permanent walls, in the end each answers the question of it first site its own way. In my experience starting in an unbelievably small space, moving onto a somewhat bigger second space, and then landing in a good-sized third or fourth space is not unusual. Madison Children’s Museum where I was involved during its mobile years and its first two spaces has grown through multiple moves as has Minnesota Children’s Museum where I worked in its second and third sites. Growing site-by-site aptly describes how more than a few established museums have grown.

• Austin Children's Museum (TX) operated as a museum without walls from 1983 to 1987 when it moved into a 5,000 square foot (s.f.) space. Ten years later it opened in a 20,000 s.f. space in downtown Austin. In May 2012, the Museum broke ground for a 40,000 s.f. building in a mixed-use development northeast of downtown and in 2013, it became the Thinkery.
• Bay Area Discovery Museum (Sausalito, CA) opened in a 2,500 s.f. pilot site at a shopping center in Marin County north of San Francisco, in 1987. In 1991 the Museum relocated to a 7-1/2 acre campus at Fort Baker (under the Golden Gate Bridge) and occupied 21,000 s.f. In 1993 and 1999, additions increased the space to 31,000 s.f. and then 31,500 s.f.  New construction on an entry building with classrooms and performance space, improvements on interior spaces, and development of exterior play areas took place between 2003 and 2005 increasing indoor s.f. to 52,000 plus 1.84 acres of outdoor exhibits.  
• Chicago Children’s Museum opened in the hallways of Chicago Public Library in 1982 and moved to a 7,000 s.f. space in Lincoln Park in 1986. A move to a 21,000 s.f. space in North Pier followed in 1989. The Museum opened in its current home of 57,000 s.f. at Navy Pier in1995. The Museum continues to expand at its site at Navy Pier.
• Explore & More Children’s Museum in East Aurora (NY) opened in 1994 with 500 s.f. of exhibit space in a school and added 500 s.f. more in 1997. In 2000 the Museum relocated to a 6,500 s.f. space in an office-park building in a residential neighborhood. Currently planning is underway for new construction of 25,000 -30,000 s.f. of space in a multi-use development at the western terminus of the Erie Canal in downtown Buffalo. (Opened in July 2019)
Madison Children's Museum's first walls 
• Madison Children’s Museum (WI) shifted from traveling exhibits in public venues to a 500 s.f. basement space in the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters in 1980 and was open on weekends and school holidays until 1985 when it moved into a 5,000 s.f. space in the garden level of an old factory building at the edge of downtown. In 1991 the museum opened 8,000 s.f. of space in a renovated bank building on State Street. Twenty years later, it moved 58,000 s.f. in a renovated a 1929 Montgomery Ward Building right off the Capitol Square.
• Minnesota Children’s Museum opened in 1981 in a 6,000 s.f. space in the Itasca Warehouse along the Minneapolis River front. In 1985, it relocated to an 18,000 s.f. historic railroad building midway between Minneapolis and St. Paul. In 1995 the Museum moved into a newly built 65,000 s.f. building in downtown St. Paul. Recently, the Museum announced a 14,000 s.f. addition to its current building and reconfiguration of interior spaces. (MCM reopened with 10 new exhibits in 2017.)

Madison Children's Museum 2012
The earliest spaces these museums called home were modest. Some were so small or incidental–like the hallways Chicago Children’s Museum occupied–that they were not even measured. Some early spaces received minimal preparation and others were renovated. Getting from a first space to a “permanent” home can take 10 years or 30 years. As these timelines illustrate, even when a museum is in its “permanent” home, its physical footprint is likely to change by growing and reconfiguring space. With time, its community footprint will undoubtedly grow and carry greater potential for increased impact. Facility and site changes are a reality; they reflect museums’ responses to changing contexts and to serving visitors whose interests and priorities change.

Bigger Steps
Site by site growth is not the only model for growing a museum. There are fewer, but increasingly more, museums that open “full-size” in a permanent home. Betty Brinn Children’s Museum (Milwaukee, WI) opened in a new 25,000 s.f. space in 1995 without incubating in a previous site. Creative Discovery Museum (Chattanooga, TN) opened in a new 42,5000 s.f. building in 1995. Stepping Stones Museum for Children (Norwalk, CT) opened in a new 19,000 s.f. building in 2000 and opened a 22,000 s.f. addition in 2010.

In 30 years, the arts, culture, and education landscape where museums position themselves has changed across the country. Children’s museums have become more familiar in towns and cities and are relatively established in the lives of American children and childhoods. These days, making the case for a children’s museum or science center doesn’t have to start with an introduction to an unfamiliar museum concept.

With the growth of museums, the start-up and expansion process has consolidated and become somewhat formalized. A group starting a museum will often find and identify their own “benchmarks,” museums in communities of similar size or with a similar vision; they will know their histories and growth. Sharing and developing resources for starting museums have also occurred on several fronts. The Association of Children’s Museums published Collective Vision in 1997. It sponsors an annual emerging museum conference and launched Collective Vision On-line Tool Kit in 2011. The Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums has offered an annual Building Museums symposium. In 2012, Minnesota Historical Society published Building Museums: A Handbook for Small and Midsize Organizations by Robert Herskovitz, Timothy Glines, and David Grabitske.

Navigating Site Questions
The site-growth question is not only common, but is also bound up with other long-term strategic choices a museum faces at an early stage in its development when it has few procedures and precedents for guidance. Site questions will always interact with larger questions of a museum’s vision, process, and position. Site and facility are more tangible ways for a board to approach larger, more abstract issues of mission or what the museum is and will become. The relative concreteness of a site’s size, its address, and related costs can offer a kind of comfort in searching for a site compared to exploring intangibles like experience, quality, or learning value.

Finding a first site–or perhaps any site–also requires distinguishing among size-related considerations like location, quality, or vision. For some museums, questions of site and facility are actually a proxy for other issues like fundraising goals (modest or ambitious?); personal or professional relationships in the real estate, construction, or development sectors; or values related to diversity and access. Finally a sense of urgency to find a site can be so insistent for founders and board members that it dominates the other business of starting a museum, overshadows other possible ways the museum could pursue growth, and at times actually derails a museum project.

Learning from Experience, Proceeding with Confidence
There is no formula for finding the right site at the right time in a relatively simple process. A few guidelines do emerge, however, from scanning the experiences–successful and otherwise–of other museums that have wrestled with finding a site.
• Vision: Maintain a roomy vision for the museum, even if it will take a long time to physically grow into that big vision. Keep the vision.
• Discuss. Engage in lots of lively discussion about site and size. Bring new questions and new information to these discussions. Be honest and respectful in discussing the museum’s capacity to successfully raise funds, create an outstanding experience, and effectively operate a site.
• Evaluate. Develop a really solid set of site selection criteria to help frame what is required of a site and to compare sites. Revisit the criteria periodically because circumstances change. This does not mean changing the criteria every month. It does mean bringing new information, perspectives, and questions to the criteria to test, refine, clarify, and strengthen them and the candidates. This builds a strong, shared sense of what they mean–and don’t mean–for longer-term and newer board members. When the real site decision comes up, things can move very fast. 
• Compare. Build a strong list of promising sites well informed by an understanding of the real estate market, neighborhoods, zoning issues, and the health of other culturals. Visit the sites. Always–always– look at multiple sites and compare and contrast.
• Realism. Be realistic about the museum’s challenges and capacity. Be aware of committing to a larger facility than the museum will be able to support financially and will have the capacity to operate well. At the same time, avoid frequent moves. Relocating is demanding. It takes a lot out of a museum staff; and it can be challenging to bring visitors along to a new location.
• Setbacks. It’s not unusual to find an “ideal” site that then falls through. In hindsight, that site turns out not to be as good as it seemed at the time: the area didn’t take off or a site of a better size came along.
• Caution. Even the best-managed site processes can become enmeshed in controversial issues that initially seem minor. Be alert to the early signs of a pubic fuss arising about a site, especially if the museum is associated with it. Contact museums that have had to navigate similar situations and learn from their experiences.
• Opportunity. Keep an eye out for opportunity. Listen for the knock.