Friday, April 15, 2022

Thinking Ahead, Thinking Big

Denver Children's Museum (Photo: Vergeront)

Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning

I have been hearing from museums taking stock, looking ahead, and facing their futures boldly. Some are consolidating changes made and lessons learned during the pandemic. Others are addressing new realities as extreme weather events increase. Some are anticipating leadership changes. 

 Regardless of their size, situation, or location, museums are challenged to make sense of the last few years and prepare for a less certain future. They wrestle with the number, scale, and variety of changes they’ve experienced, or recognized, over the last two years. Changes across the museum in attendance, staff transitions, and finances are occurring in the context of great changes in the lives of visitors and the communities they serve. 

 With museums viewing themselves in new ways and facing the future with courage, I have been wondering what might assist them in their endeavors. What started out as notes from conversations with children’s museum folks, blogs, and articles has evolved into a framework for museums to think big and move forward boldly. 

Resting on four pillars fundamental to a museum’s value to audience, communities, and itself, this framework is neither a roadmap nor is it exhaustive. It is a tool for stimulating discussion and reflection, challenging assumptions, and opening possibilities. Four pillars for thinking ahead are:
• For Someone and About Something 
• A Distinctive, Experiential Approach 
• A Better World Strategy 
• Making Change Visible 

Museums are complex entities. Guided by an enduring purpose, they are made possible by people to serve people. They manage valuable resources and interact with a dynamic external environment. Moving a museum forward is likewise complex. The four pillars support the rich complexity embedded in museums as well as help reveal opportunities that can strengthen museums in meaningful ways. Taking big steps starts with understanding what is core, distinct, valued, and full of potential and is advance by bold thinking. 

These four pillars are explored with museum examples and suggestions for reflection and discussion to engage the museum’s thinking. As these examples show, a museum doesn’t have to be big to think big. While using examples from children’s museums, the framework works for other museums that also serve children on field trips, at camps, and with their families as part their broader purpose to enrich the community by making art, science, or history accessible. 

For Someone and About Something
Children, their interests, their people, and long-term well-being are at the very heart of children’s museums. Guided by vision, mission, and values, they create engaging and fun play and learning experiences and environments for children and their adults. Children’s museums are highly committed to a core audience of young children and the trusted adults in their lives: parents, grandparents, caregivers, and teachers. 

Madison Children's Museum (Photo: Vergeront)
 Museum Examples: Children’s                 museums define their audience                 variously as: children birth to 12 years;         children’s first decade; children 2                 through 10 years and their families; and     ages newborns through eleven years         old, but designed to engage learners of     all ages. Pittsburgh Children’s Museum      has opened Museum Lab on its                 campus for youth 10+. 


Think About
• Who must your museum serve fully to advance its vision and mission? 
• What are capabilities and strengths of these children that inform your museum’s experience planning? 

In addition to identifying a core audience of children across an age range, children’s museums often identify strategically important groups it intends to serve recognizing that these children may not have a high presence at the museum. These might be children from under-resourced backgrounds; with special needs and abilities; from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds; or non-English speaking children and families. 
Explore & More (Photo: Explore & More)

Museum Examples: The youngest of these emerging audiences are often served in a separate early years space while targeted experiences such as camps serve youth 13 and up. Explore & More offers sensory-friendly accommodations for children with special needs. Many museums have access programs that reduce barriers related to cost. 
Think About
• How does serving children in these groups help your museum accomplish its mission and vision? 
• In what ways is your museum welcoming and creates a sense of belonging for all children? 

Children’s museums are also about something important in children’s lives. Some are discipline- based concentrating on  STEM or the arts. Many center on childhood and quintessential experiences of childhood especially around play—building, climbing, pretending, stories. Some museums highlight what is interesting and important to children about where they live and places they know; or on understanding the world. 

Museum Examples: A sampling of focus areas include: Everyday Science, Backyard Nature, Imagination and Inventing; the Arts and Sciences; and health and wellness and cultural connectedness                                                                                                          
Think About
• What is your museum about? What are its primary areas of focus? 
• Why are these areas important to your museum’s purpose? 

Children’s museums are also for and about their communities. They understand their audience and consider the context of the community or region. The opportunities, challenges, and changes an area is experiencing and will experience also inform the museum’s focus. 

Amazeum (Photo: Vergeront)
Museum Examples
: The Amazeum focuses on: Land, industries, and people who built 
and sustain Arkansas culture. The DoSeum explores connections between STEM, Arts, and Literacy. Madison Children’s Museum explores arts, science, history, culture, health, and civic engagement. 
Think About
• What does your museum offer children and the community that is currently missing and valued? 
• What kind of a difference in the lives of children could you make? 

A Distinctive Experiential Approach
As places for children, museums create varied experiences that engage, support and delight children, invite play, spark learning, and create a fund of memories. When these experiences and offerings carry a distinctive, consistent style, a museum stands out from other venues serving a similar audience: schools, libraries, summer camps, and even other museums. 

Grounded in its purpose, audience, focus, and community, a museum’s approach comes through in its exhibits, programs, environments, and events and how they engage visitors in exploring, playing, and learning. A museum’s image of the child, its view of play and learning, insights around its focus, and something essential in its character contribute to its particular experiential mix and its brand. 

Museum Examples: Across children’s museums, approaches often emphasize exploration, play, discovery, and learning. Many consider themselves to be child-centered, object-based, interactive, immersive, accessible, process-oriented, and/or community-focused. Approaches may play with novelty and surprise, focus on relationships, highlight beauty, prioritize local and sustainable materials, or incorporate making and co-creating with artists. 
Think About
• What is included in your museum’s experiential approach? 
• Which qualities play a more significant role? 

Minnesota Children's Museum
(Photo: Vergeront)        

  A distinct approach blends elements that support content,     connections, and context to generate varied engagement     strategies for rich and varied exhibit and program                 experiences. A strong approach is capable of engaging a     wide age range and multiple generations, connecting          domains, accommodating both individual and group              interests, and serving first time and regular visitors. Most       elements of an approach have multiple dimensions. 

   Museum Examples: “Accessing the material world” not       only reflects being object-centered, but also expanding       access; encompassing small objects and large spaces;       indoors and out, and placing objects in unusual contexts.       “Nature” may cover nature play, natural materials, play as     biomimicry, or art and nature. 
    Think About
    • How does your museum’s approach engage with the interests and salient characteristics of your audience? 
    • How does your museum translate its approach into exhibit design and program development? 

Clarity of approach provides a museum with a shared understanding and tool for developing experiences with appeal and impact. When well-integrated into the organization, an approach is supported by expertise, capacity, fluency, and resources. It evolves with time without chasing trends. It supports innovation and attracts new opportunities. If thoughtfully layered, consistent, and meaningful, the approach contributes to the museum’s value. 

Museum Examples: Investing in its approach, might mean building internal capacity around play; increasing staff expertise on environmental education; working regularly with artists; and being guided by allies and advisors on cultures. 
Think About
• In what ways does your museum keep its distinctive approach front-and-center internally, among staff and with the board? 
• How is the approach reflected in your museum’s staffing, exhibit planning processes and design, program formats, staff interactions with visitors, graphics, etc.? 

A Better World Strategy. 
Setting a museum’s experiential approach in a strategic context is an opportunity to think forward, act boldly, and grow impact. Recognizing a museum’s assets and where it has a track record points to where a museum can take a leadership role in responding to community priorities related to children’s well-being and resilience; to environmental justice; to diversity, equity, access and inclusion. 

An early step in scaling up and increasing impact is packaging museum assets into projects and multi-year initiatives. Assets include successful, well-tested exhibits, programs, learning resources, digital products, and staff expertise, as well as partnerships, financial resources, and community goodwill. 

Louisiana Children's Museum (Photo Credit: Vergeront)
Museum Examples: Louisiana Children’s Museum’s popular early years gallery and programs are anchoring a multi-year initiative for parents and babies during the first 3 years of life supported by resources co-developed with university and community partners in child development and infant-toddler mental health. 
Think about
• What museum assets with connected purposes could work together more effectively by focusing them, investing in them, and building on them? 
• What large-scale project or set of initiatives might your museum develop or develop further? 

When a museum organizes its assets into coordinated offerings and actions, it can build strategy. Strategy that supports children’s growth and development in the context of challenges they face now, and in the future, is a means to focus efforts and grow impact. 

Museum Examples: Stepping Stones Museum for Children’s ELLI preschool classrooms are grounded in a research-based early language and literacy framework and supported by the museum’s rich environments and professional development. Creativity in the Community is Providence Children’s Museum’s three-year state-wide initiative to connect all of the state’s children to its creative community. 
Think About
• In what ways could an emergent strategy link to children’s futures and community priorities? 
• Where can additional research and new partners direct and strengthen this strategy? 

Change can happen at many scales. System-level change involves engaging at meaningful points with a system that can impact children’s lives. Engaging with educational, healthcare, safe streets, or public housing can initiate system-level change around school readiness, childhood obesity, child mental health, or sustainability. 

Museum Examples: Kidzeum worked with teachers, curriculum specialists and administrators in one school district to transform science learning outcomes for elementary students by developing curriculum and using the museum as science classrooms.  
Think About
• Where are opportunities for your museum to effect system-level change? 
• What resources does your museum have and will it need—partners, space, expertise—to create change? 

As strategy develops, goals, and objectives take shape. Potential benefits and impacts, both qualitative and quantitative, come into focus. Linking museum resources and efforts to the impact it intends to have is the museum’s theory of change which maps out the change process. 
Discovery Museum   

Museum Examples: Discovery Museum’s long-time focus on environmental education was extended with development of  Discovery Woods and expanded to become intentionally and  visibly sustainable in its operations.                                               

Think About:                                                                                  

• What do your museum's community impact goals look like?        • What is your museum’s theory of change that shows how the     museum believes it can reach those goals? 

Meaningful change takes time—time to fully integrate transformative work into the life of the museum. This process involves a deepening understanding of the conditions that support consequential change, taking action on multiple fronts, implementing and improving the work at the same time. 

Museum Examples: Boston Children’s Museum’s long-running Powering School Readiness starts with its Play Space early years exhibit. It includes Countdown to Kindergarten, the exhibit and guidebook, and web-based resources on executive function, language, and play.  
Think About
• What expertise, experience, and resources are critical for your museum to sustain and grow its strategy? 
• How can your museum hold itself accountable for these changes over time? 

Making Change Visible
If a museum wants to matter, it must find ways to show that it does matter. Sharing its commitments, occupying a public role, communicating what it learns, and telling its story well are critical to awareness of a museum’s work on behalf of children. 

A museum’s values guide its everyday decisions and actions. Largely intangible, commitments often go unnoticed. Unless it acts with great intention a museum’s core beliefs can become good intentions. Operationalizing commitments, calling attention to even small activities, and connecting actions to current issues help spotlight where heart, energy, and resources converge. 

Museum Examples: The Utica Children’s Museum has merged with the ICAN Family Resource Center and will use trauma-informed approaches to design exhibits and develop programs to be a welcoming place for all children. 
Think About
• How does your museum demonstrate to the child, parents, staff, volunteers, trustees, supporters, and partners that it values the child’s capabilities such as creativity, caring, or agency? 
• In what additional ways can your museum demonstrate its values and priorities more obviously? 

The position a museum occupies on the local landscape, the role it intends to play and how it wants to be viewed by stakeholders, is a public expression of its identity and the contribution it plans to make. This leadership position is grounded in actual accomplishments and strengthened with networks of relationships. Among the roles a museum might play are convener, connector, catalyst, resource, advocate, or thought leader around its values and priorities. 

Greentrike's Children's Museum at JBLM
Photo Credit: Greentrike
  Museum Examples: Greentrike, an evolution of the Children’s Museum of Tacoma, is an            education and advocacy organization with            multiple sites and services that also                      convenes an annual symposium around                being a children and youth-centered                    community.       
    Think About
    • What visible presence in the community does     your museum currently have that it can build        on? 
    • What public leadership role can your museum occupy where it has a track record and strong partnerships? 

Museums are learning organizations. They ask questions, learn from and with their audiences, and draw on research from the museum field and beyond. Increasingly museums are integrating research into creating play and learning experiences; audience engagement; and local conditions affecting children’s well-being. By articulating its research interests; working with college, university, and healthcare research partners; and conducting its own research, a museum can initiate change and move the field forward. 

Museum Examples: Through ACM’s Children’s Museum’s Research Network, children’s museums have researched play, learning, adults’ perceptions of learning, and social emotional behaviors in children’s museums. Denver Children’s Museum’s Play Institute includes multiple research partners. Bay Area Discovery Museum’s mission is to transform research into early learning experiences that inspire creative problem solving. 
Think About
• How does your museum stay current with research in areas of high relevance? 
• What are your museum’s compelling questions about children, their well-being and futures it can explore through research on its own and with partners? 

Children’s museums have high hopes for children, their communities, and their futures. Powered by purpose and passion, they are in a unique position to make better childhoods and promising futures for children a reality. To move forward, museums must translate their mission and strategies into fresh, compelling stories for multiple audiences. 

The same creativity and passion that fuels engaging and memorable exhibit and program experiences, can tell museums’ stories and make their case. They can share new research findings, document and present children’s work in and beyond the museum’s walls, and share their own studies with stakeholders, leaders, connectors, and the field. 

Museum Examples: Many museums have produced publications on play, making, and kindergarten readiness. Parent resources on play can be found on Minnesota Children’s Museum’s website or blog and on the science of brain development on Boston Children’s Museum’s website.  
Think About
 • How can your museum make the research-to-practice connection visible to help stakeholders better understand the critical importance of early childhood experiences for bright futures? 
 • What if your museum’s annual report published what it had learned in the past year about supporting play and learning? 

Museum Notes 

• Carol A. Scott: Beyond the Walls: Demonstrating the social impact of museums is critical to their success 
Trends Watch 2022: Museums as Community Infrastructure

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