Wednesday, June 24, 2015

DIY Research Agenda


Skyline at Chicago Children's Museum
Do you have questions about learning in your museum? How conversations support and reveal learning in family groups? About making as a learning process? Whether your visitors are environmentally literate? Do you want to go beyond knowing program satisfaction? Would you like to know more about the value your museum offers your community?

Do you often develop goals and evaluation questions on the fly, primarily as part of a grant proposal? Have you completed an evaluation study or exploratory research project and you hope to do more? Do you have a folder of museum studies that you refer to for guidance and inspiration? Are notes for a literature review collecting dust on a shelf? Do you wonder if you have the right mix of theory or practice to guide planning around engagement and learning?

If any of these resonate, your museum might be poised to develop a DIY research agenda.

Roadmap for Research
A research agenda is a roadmap or a framework for research that identifies and prioritizes what a museum or group of museums is most interested in knowing about the learning, engagement, and experiences it offers. It focuses on the impact the museum has on the lives of the children, families, and communities it serves. Development of museum research agendas reflect a shift from a belief in the inherent value of museums to a recognized need for a collective, evidence-based body of knowledge about museums that can be used across institutions to build theories of learning, improve practice, and demonstrate museums’ distinct value. 

Reflecting a growing maturity in the museum field museum groups have been developing research frameworks over the last decade. While initiated for different purposes, these research frameworks share an intention to grow the capacity of individuals, institutions, and the field. They express a common desire to improve practice, build theories of learning, and demonstrate the distinct value of museums while encouraging research and evaluation across the museum. Typically the frameworks include both basic research and evaluation, because evaluation studies have provided much of what is currently known about learning in the museum field.

Work on the AZA Framework for Zoo and Aquarium Social Science Research has been evolving since it was first introduced in 2011. The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) introduced its Practice-and-Research Initiative in 2014. In 2015 the Association of Children’s Museum released its Learning Value of Children’s Museums. 

These frameworks provide a context for individual museums to conduct research, evaluate projects, and collaborate on multiple-museum research initiatives. They also provide a context where museums can situate their own research agendas. Ideally a museum’s research agenda emerges from its learning or interpretive framework. A learning framework, however, can also be built around a museum’s long-term learning interests expressed in its research agenda.

You might be thinking that you will develop a research agenda some day, when … your museum is bigger or more established; when you have finished the evaluation project or the learning framework you have been developing; when you have greater capacity, the right tools, or a new director of learning.

Don’t let that idea roost for too long because it will slow you down, if not stop you in your tracks.

Start Now
Start where you are and grow from there. Use whatever internal capacity you have and access professional connections and networks. Start with what you like to do most or where you feel most confident. Gleaned from reading through the research agendas and my experience with museums and their research agendas, practical, but not necessarily linear, steps for starting your research agenda.  
Frame questions. What broad questions about your museum’s learning value and its community service purpose most interest staff across your museum? How do these relate to areas of impact–where your museum believes positive change is possible for its learners and its community? Look at the studies completed over the years at your museum to identify areas of continuing importance. Helpful here is Elee Wood’s article, “Defining the Scope of Your Evaluation” in Journal of Museum Education “Empowering Museum Educators to Evaluate” (March 2015).
Sort and refine. Cluster questions in various ways. How do questions align with research agendas in the field; with the research and evaluation done in museums in these areas; and with areas of funder interest? Some questions are sub-questions, important to keep, but not overarching research questions. Group the questions into 2-4 areas of interest; or select one question to start with. Before going too far, make sure your museum has a current policy on research and evaluation.
Familiarize. Wherever you are in the process, check out resources such as:
- “Empowering Museum Educators to Evaluate”, Journal of Museum Education (March 2015) 
- The CAISE Informal Science Education Resource
- ACM’s soon-to-be-relaunched Research Exchange 
- The White Oak Associates' John Jacobsen’s 2010 “A Research Vision for Museums”
Access capacity. Consider everyone and everywhere as a possible source for related expertise needed to advance your research. Capacity undoubtedly exists in your museum in design, education, marketing, and/or development. Consider creating an internship for a trained intern with evaluation and/or research experience to work under supervision. Tap into a local evaluation network or a regional museum with an internal evaluator. Get to know researchers at area colleges and universities. When you do work with an outside evaluator or researcher, select one interested in building capacity in your museum through engaging staff in the research and coaching.
Connect and collaborate. There’s a good reason large groups of museums develop and take on a research agenda collectively. Answering big questions is too much for any single museum. Take advantage of the field-wide nature of research agendas and look for opportunities to collaborate. Working together takes many forms from collaborative projects with museums with shared research interests, to joining a multiple-institutional research project, to sharing methodologies and shared evaluation metrics.
Divide and conquer. Making progress on your research agenda requires a meaningful effort over time. Rather than be intimidated, break the work down into manageable pieces you can grapple with and that are achievable. Identify a variety of studies to be conducted across your museum over several years. Structure projects and initiatives around your research questions and sub-questions. Build in opportunities on those projects to work with researchers and evaluators, engage staff, grow internal capacity, and build new knowledge–one study at a time.
Engage and share. Engage often with staff in your museum, in other museums and across the field to learn together and to answer shared questions. Standardize definitions; be generous with research tools and evaluation models; share results with partners, collaborators, and online research exchange.

Prepare for the Benefits
However modest a museum’s research agenda might be, it nevertheless enables it to advance itself and serve its community more fully. Having and working on your own research agenda:
• Shifts from research and evaluation as an afterthought to a backbone for planning and driving change;
• Creates a closer fit between intention and achievement in areas of impact and value;
• Builds a more active and enduring internal culture of inquiry and learning;
• Grows capacity among museum educators, developers, designers, evaluators, and marketers;
• Communicates to supporters, stakeholders, and potential partners the museum’s interest in building knowledge, improving experiences, and increasing value; 
• Demonstrates to others outside museums how museums serve as an integral learning resource;
• Builds a stronger case for your museum’s worth;
• Develops new strategies based on research to advance the mission, improve the quality of experiences, and increase impact;
• Contributes to a larger body of knowledge about learning and change in informal learning settings.
A DIY research agenda is win-win-win. Placing your museum’s work as part of that larger collective effort advances the field, your museum, and your community.

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Friday, June 12, 2015

Building a Learning Framework from Three Ideas


When Janella Watson, Director of Early Childhood Education and Family Learning at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), talked about NYSCI’s learning framework at InterActivity 2015 she summed it up in three words: Design. Make. Play. She then unpacked these constructs grounded in NYSCI’s museum-wide maker focus. With slides and an engaging voice over, Janella’s examples highlighted the important processes and skills, connections to learning, and the value of each.

Design. Emphasizes problem solving, intentionality, and divergent solutions that help in seeing the possibilities in the world.

Make. Thinks with the hands; tinkers with materials, tools and processes; and nurtures development of science process skills and confidence.

Play. Privileges delight; promotes intrinsic motivations; and leads to deep engagement. 
This approach is simple, or, if not simple, then straightforward. Actually, once these rich and roomy constructs are explored and described, they reveal valuable complexity. Museums can leverage this complexity in shaping, creating, and facilitating experiences. Having an accessible and practical starting point, however, is a decided advantage in starting and developing a framework. Interested in museum’s having and using learning frameworks, I’ve been looking for approaches that encourage more museums to start and stick with these tools. Janella’s approach puts into action an idea I have been exploring: building a museum’s learning framework around 3 solid complementary, relevant learning ideas, or constructs.

Typically, a museum’s learning framework is the convergence of constructs reflecting its over-arching purpose and long-term learning interests. Museums need a level of complexity in their learning ideas. They serve a broad range of visitors who are engaged in a wide variety of experiences including the complex process of learning. Bringing together 3 robust and compatible learning ideas creates a strong foundation for understanding and planning for learning and learners in an informal learning setting. It’s unlikely that a single learning construct could accommodate the social, cognitive, physical, and personal dimensions of the many ways of learning in museums.

What a Big Idea?
Add to NYSCI’s 3 ideas, 3 I’ve been noodling on (relationships, materials, and play), and others at work in museum learning frameworks and the range and nature of these big ideas become apparent. Change, community engagement, connections, creativity, critical thinking, design, global awareness, innovation, inquiry, making, materials, place, play, relationships, resilience, and sustainability. Certainly, every likely construct is not on this list, but the variety and focus are instructive. Absent are STEM, art, history, health-and-well-being, literacy, math, the environment, and other content areas and discipline. Basic life-long literacies, these are areas of interest that attract enthusiasts and are typically where exhibit topics are located. They are primarily cognitive and lack the active, experiential visitor-focus typical of the learning constructs above. 

What’s So Special About 3?
Too many ideas are unwieldy. They make a framework unnecessarily complicated and cumbersome to develop and use. Because ideas, or focus areas, interact with one another, 3 ideas generate related areas of interest and possibility. Where all 3 ideas overlap and meet is the sweet spot that helps establish a priority interest. What is at the center is what is valued, what deserves attention, and what receives resources.

Working with 3 ideas helps create a balanced, complementary focus capable of supporting a wide range of learning experiences. Each area contributes something distinct and desirable for a rich mix. Design involves a structured process and aesthetics; Make involves physical engagement, small motor manipulation, and experience with tools; and Play is motivating and open-ended. Together Design, Make, and Play encompass critical thinking, thinking with the hands, and imaginative thinking. They invite planning, evaluation, and reflection. Three ideas radiate over a surprising amount of useful territory.

What Makes Ideas Right?
Of course, not just any set of 3 ideas will do. Constructs that are grandiose, overly specific, too similar, or mismatched in magnitude cause problems. For instance, critical thinking and resilience–adapting well and becoming strong in the face of adversity–may both be important to a museum. One, however, is highly conceptual and complex; the other is more behavioral. Critical thinking might be better suited as a supporting strategy than an equal partner with resilience. Considering all 3 ideas and how they work together helps form a good working set.

Other qualities of learning ideas are helpful to take consider and many are found in NYSCI’s 3 big ideas. Big ideas are: 
• Grounded in theory and research;
• Suited to an informal learning environment like museums; 
• Inherently active, inviting wondering, doing, arranging, testing, and making connections;
• Well suited to a wide range of ages and learners;
• Naturally interdisciplinary, connecting several disciplines and content areas;
• Capable of carrying content while not content driven;
• Not merely buzzwords or slogans; and
• Being discussed, shared, and challenged across the museum.

How Do 3 Ideas Start to Shine?
A set of learning ideas has to fit a museum. Even though two museums may have the same set of 3 ideas, their learning frameworks won’t be the same. Developing the 3 ideas and building them into learning framework tailors it to a museum. Ideas emerge from each mission. They are understood and defined in ways particular to a museum, reflecting its community, and consistent with its contribution among other organizations. A museum’s stage of organizational development and whether it has been working with some or all of these ideas previously influences the course of development.

Building a learning framework from 3 big ideas connects with other elements of a museum’s learning interests, whether implicit or explicit: how the museum views its learners, the specific learning strategies and processes it uses, its learning assets. Using the framework, reflecting on it and revising makes it more and more specific to and makes it shine. 

Start with 3 big ideas.   

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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Becoming a Museum With A Strong Image of the Child

Photo: kylieparry.blogspot.com
Becoming a Museum With a Strong Image of the Child was a session at InterActivity 2015 held recently in Indianapolis. Depending on how you count, the session started taking shape 2 years ago, or 3, 25 or 70 years ago.

The deepest roots of this session reach into an educational experiment in Reggio Emilia in northern Italy that has been evolving over 70 years. For more than 25 years, Reggio’s infant, toddler, preschool and elementary schools have inspired children’s museums, and for good reason. Reggio pedagogy shares foundational ideas with children’s museums: parent engagement, strong community connections, and the environment and materials as teachers. The Reggio experience also rests on an image of the child as strong, competent, curious, and full of potential.  

With increasing diligence, children’s museums have been weaving these ideas into their cultures and experiences. In November 2013 50 participants from 11 museums and partners from community organizations, early childhood and preschools, and higher ed participated in a week-long study tour in Reggio. A pre-conference at InterActivity 2014 offered an opportunity to reflect on and share that remarkable experience with more museum colleagues.

Following the pre-conference which included Kay Cutler, professor at SDSU and trustee at the South Dakota Children’s Museum, exploring a “strong image of the child,” a participant approached me with two questions. How can we find staff with a strong image of the child? How do we become a museum that shares that value in every way?

Those questions inspired the 2015 session and are worth revisiting here for those not able to attend the session–and maybe for anyone interested in these questions. That children are full of potential, are empathetic, and have powerful natural learning strategies is an empty slogan unless supported fully, authentically, and regularly. This is ambitious but important work to which three colleagues brought invaluable perspectives.
• Susan Harris MacKay, Director of Teaching and Learning, Museum Center for Learning and Opal School of the     Portland Children’s Museum 
• Holly Bamford Hunt, Children’s Museum of Tacoma trustee and early childhood educator
• Blake Ward, Minnesota Children’s Museum Programs Manager

Dimensions of becoming a museum with a strong image of the child highlighted below reflect the long-term, broad scope, and collaborative nature of this work.
• Popular images of children as cute, messy, and not ready undermine viewing them as capable, competent, and      compassionate.
• Children’s strengths and strategies unfold from their earliest days, in relationship to others, and in response to opportunities.   
Vision and direction around a strong image of the child should occur at every level of the museum. Yes, every level–trustees, staff, and volunteers.
• The museum’s voice can promote a strong image of the child in the community.
• Daily, shared, and integrated practices support staff in noticing and extending children’s capabilities and natural strategies.

A Strong Image of the Child? 
Even the firmest beliefs in children as capable and competent encounter contrary forces, images, and messages about children. Sometimes unwittingly or in service to another objective or gain, ads, products, and humor focus on children's limitations.
We notice, for instance, what a 3-year-old can’t do–ride a two-wheeler, write her name, share toys. Yet, 40 years of research on children have found out not their weaknesses and problems, but their strengths and capabilities. Our own observations of children reveal how they are curious, solve problems, help others, and have ideas that motivate them. While we work in museums with explicit statements of valuing and respecting children, this value is not necessarily woven into the fabric of our museum.

What does a photo of a toddler wearing this t-shirt on a children’s museum’s FaceBook page say about children? Also from FaceBook is this book cover scrawled with blue marker. I see the marks indicating a toddler’s interest in making meaningful marks. The comment that followed, however, assumes very different intentions. “After drawing this lovely blue picture the toddler probably hit her mother over the head with it and then bit her.”

Expanded Thinking 
Becoming a museum with a strong image of the child depends on more than a list of positive qualities to repeat to like-minded colleagues. Being this museum is a function of expanded thinking about children’s capabilities. Susan began by suggesting a larger context for seeing children, one that considers this moment and the future, and childhood flowing into adulthood.   

To see more of what is possible we must go beyond narrow expectations and small images. When we pay attention to what children are doing we begin to see and appreciate what they are capable of from their earliest days. When we see children in the moment authoring their learning and expressing their ideas, it’s “… as as if we are opening a window and getting a fresh view…,” Malaguzzi says.

Everyday children use strategies–telling stories, asking questions, helping, tinkering, testing ideas, developing hypotheses and theories–that show us what they are capable of doing. In looking closely we can find how to invite, extend, and develop children’s strengths and strategies for the future in the experiences, environments, and materials we offer in our museums and in childhood.

A Community Voice 
Returning from the 2013 Reggio study tour, the Children’s Museum of Tacoma’s (CMT) contingent of 14 staff,
Photo: Children's Museum of Tacoma
trustees, and community partners worked in earnest on a long-term goal to internalize these ideas across the museum and become a voice in the community.

Holly described how staff and trustees have set a vision and a course for CMT around a strong image of the child. CMT’s new vision, mission, and strategic plan center on an image of the child: “Everything we do begins with our image of the child. We believe children are: compassionate, capable, inquisitive, creative, valuable, contributing, and dreamers.”

Recognizing that their work must also be community based, CMT publicly posed a major question, “What if we created a child-centered community?” Its Symposium On Our Youngest Citizens co-hosted with the University of Washington Tacoma in September 2014 invited 300 community-minded adults to listen to thought leaders, Ben Mardell and Alfie Kohn. CMT then engaged participants in exploring their own image of the child and how it is reflected in their actions, creating a platform for continuing work on becoming a museum with a strong image of the child.

Supporting Staff 
Blake’s experienced programmatic perspective on becoming a museum with a strong image of the child addresses critical and practical concerns. How do we find and support staff who see children as capable and possessing natural learning strategies?
Just as we all carry our own image of the child, museum staff do as well. This image invisibly directs them as they approach, talk, and engage the child. Working with staff is an opportunity to support them in seeing children as the protagonists of their own lives and learning. Blake focuses on experiences that support staff in expanding their thinking about children’s natural capacities and noticing the natural learning they use in investigating materials, asking questions, acting out stories, and expressing ideas.

These practices include engaging staff regularly in formal and informal dialogue and providing opportunities for self reflection and reflection with others about their work. Along with playful inquiry and opportunities for risk taking and failure, these experiences encourage a growth mindset, develop creative confidence, and cultivate a culture of relationships and listening.

Equally important as supporting staff is hiring for a strong image of the child. In a thoughtful and competitive interview process, Blake looks for candidates who are playful, innovative, flexible, and reflective; with passion for possibilities; and an interest in pedagogy and a growth mindset. 

In the Spirit of Becoming 
We often talk often about what we put in our museums–our exhibits, programs, a climber, and special events. While important, becoming a museum with a strong image of the child requires thinking about who is in our museums and how we view them: 
… Children who are resourceful, capable of making choices, with many ways of expressing their ideas;
… Staff who are alert to children’s remarkable capacities and create opportunities that are responsive to and engage children’s potential–and who are full of potential themselves; and
… Trustees whose image of the child as capable and strong provides direction for the museum and its role in the community.  

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

10 Lessons from Learning Frameworks


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I was delighted when Robin Meisner and Suzy Letourneau of Providence Children’s Museum asked me to join their session at InterActivity 2015 to deepen the exploration of making learning through play visible. This session was a response to interest from last year’s session and focus on why understanding a institution’s view of learning is important to making learning visible.

In thinking about how to frame the presentations by Janella Watson from NYSC, Amy Eisenmann from Bay Area Discovery Museum and Robin and Suzy, I wanted to do two things. First, I wanted to find out how typical a practice having a shared understanding about learning is and how this compares to other museum areas.  

I began by asking how many of the approximately 80 participants had an institutional view of learning at their museum? About 12 people raised their hands. When asked whether that institutional definition of learning was written, 12 hands remained. About 6 hands remained when I probed whether this definition was part of a larger document on learning. 

The results were quite different when I asked whether their museums had a financial plan, a marketing plan, a development plan, or an exhibit plan. Virtually every hand was raised for every plan. This generated some murmuring! Why don’t museums have a broadly shared understanding about learning as they do about marketing, finance, development? Why isn’t a shared understanding about learning woven into a museum’s fabric? Made visible as accomplishments are in those other areas?

My second hope in framing the session was to share the hard-won experiences of museums that have developed learning frameworks. A learning framework consolidates a museum’s most important ideas about learning and learners, and where a museum will focus its resources, distinguish itself, and deliver learning value. It seems, if not obvious, then extremely helpful, for a museum to articulate the important ideas at the convergence of its strategic and learning interests. Frameworks can focus on global awareness, creativity, inquiry, play, or early language development.

For the last 20 years learning frameworks have been my tool of choice for strengthening and making visible the learning value museums offer in their exhibits and programs and through staff and volunteer interactions with learners. Regardless of museum size or focus or whether it a museum is on its first framework or third update, 10 observations are worth sharing.

1. People who work together and who use the same terms–learning, play, creativity, global awareness–do not necessarily mean the same thing by those same words. These important ideas require a shared and deep understanding about how people who work together understand them.

2. A museum’s most important ideas about learning, creativity, or play must be defined by people in that museum, for that museum, for its audience, and taking its community.  into account

3. Identifying key ideas, defining them together, collaborating on a written framework, and distributing it makes these understandings and intentions open and public. They are available for others to examine, discuss, challenge, revisit, reflect on, and change as needed.   

4. Clarifying the meaning of learning, inquiry, play, or creativity is a negotiation. It brings together various interpretations and perspectives. Dialogue among colleagues makes the ideas and their meaning clearer, stronger, and shared. Wholesale adoption of a particular pedagogy or model defeats the purpose. One person’s passion cannot dominate. There’s a higher value than having your idea triumph. It’s having the right ideas clarified. 

5. As important as it is to be clear about individual ideas, it’s critical to understand how they relate with one another. What is the relationship of play and learning? Fully understanding the meaning of an idea includes clarity about how it engages with other muscular ideas. Connect the dots.

6. Whether or not we’re trained as educators or our position descriptions say we are educators, we all are engaged in some way in providing rich learning experiences for children and adults–no matter how we define learning. Everyone has a role to play and must play it well.

7. A framework around learning–or inquiry, play, creativity–is a framework for the entire museum. It’s not just for educators. A framework is an expression of how a museum values and views learning and learners; how it sees its value to its community; and how it sees itself as a learning organization.

8. A learning framework pushes well beyond an intention to contribute to positive changes for children, adults, and staff. It is a working tool for finding ways to make the learning that is occurring visible to learners staff and trustees, and to museum supporters.

9. This is hard work and demands rigor. Every museum may not be ready to make learning visible to children, parents and staff. But every museum can clarify and connect its most important ideas about learning that are embedded in its mission, related to its audience, and in service to its community.

10. A framework is a use-dependent tool. The more it’s used, the more it generates new insights and gives clearer direction for where the museum can accomplish more.


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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Starting on a Higher Rung


Partial view of the Tree of Forts
Not so very long ago, when a new museum opened, it looked, well, not quite ready. Hand-made exhibits occupied a small left-over space. Passion, pride, and excitement somewhat compensated for what the exhibits lacked. Friends and optimistic supporters kindly acknowledged that, “given some time, this museum would get a few more things right.” This was certainly true for Madison Children’s Museum when it opened at its first site in the early 1980’s. We were scrappy, inventive, good with duck tape, and hopeful.

I began noticing a change when Milwaukee’s Betty Brinn Children’s Museum (BBCM) opened in 1995. From its exhibits, programs, staff, and even visual identity, this new children’s museum seemed as though it had been operating for several years. This wasn’t entirely surprising. BBCM’s founding executive director, Mary Ellyn Voden, drew on her significant museum experience as Director of Exhibits and Education at Children’s Museum of Houston that had been operating for 10 years and had opened a new building in 1992.

A new museum starting on a very high rung opened May 1st in Mankato, MN, located 75 miles south of the Twin Cities. The Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota opened in a converted City of Mankato bus garage after 10 years of planning and growing.  I first met the two founders, Linda Frost and Mary Jo Hensel in 2005. Early childhood educators and friends, they
formed a board, joined ACM, and incorporated in 2006. The next year they invited me to facilitate a planning retreat and develop a case statement with them. In early 2009, CMSM hired Peter Olson as executive director. Peter brought 6 years of operations, marketing, and exhibit experience at Minnesota Children’s Museum to CMSM’s start up efforts. In 2011 I worked with a board committee to develop a master plan that served as a framework for exhibit and experience planning.

While most new museums follow similar steps, this museum has done so while thinking big, building community connections, being very intentional about the small and the beautiful, and keeping children at the center of their vision. 

Mankato is a community that believes the prosperity it has enjoyed comes from the regional resources–the river that connects towns and people, sandstone quarries, and productive agricultural land–and the resourcefulness of its inhabitants. This narrative threaded through the city’s 2007 economic development plan. It has informed CMSM’s vision and framed its approach to funders. It has become infused throughout the Museum and its experiences.

Thinking Big
CMSM has been thinking big from the start–not expressed in inflated language or high square footage ,but as a roomy vision that fits its community. CMSM has seen itself since the beginning–and more so with time–as extending the community’s prosperity to its children through a childhood rich in play and opportunities, as a children’s museum.

When CMSM decided how to build local awareness and learn to operate a children’s museum, it opened its first Play Lab in 2010 in a temporary, long-term space. Play Lab was a location, a state of mind, and an expression of the Museum’s interest in learning how exhibits and experiences play with the Museum’s audiences and how audiences play with exhibits. Play Lab was also where CMSM premiered TapeScape in 2011. A twisty, tubular crawl-through landscape, Tapescape is constructed from plastic shrink-wrap and packaging tape stretched and woven around an L-shaped steel pipe structure (32’ L x 24’ W x 9’ H). CMSM’s Tapescape was the first of this type of temporary installation that has since been installed in several other museums.

If anything indicates that CMSM thinks big, it’s probably the new Tree of Forts climber introduced at the opening. This multi-story tree supports numerous tree forts of different designs and materials that are connected by vertical, horizontal, and angled rope climbers and ladders. The tree bursts through the building’s roof, opening into a kind of tree fort high aloft and with a view of the river and city. The Tree of Forts rolls fantasy, childhood memories, physical challenge, and surprise for children and adults into one amazing structure. Climbing through it myself, I met toddlers and grandparents and every age in between climbing, sliding, slinking, and discovering.

A Strong Sense of Place
CMSM has deeply and thoughtfully grounded itself in southern Minnesota. In making choices, it has infused experiences and environments with a strong southern Minnesota flavor. Massive sandstone blocks from a local quarry enclose the Quarry Zone creating a very real sense of being in a quarry. Mounted on the wall inside, an historic 12’ circular quarrying saw blade seems to be poised for cutting stone. The combination of stone and blade creates a feel of authenticity with a hint of danger.
Play Porch, for infants, toddlers and preschoolers to 3 years, is completely at home in Mankato. The detailed ornamental scrollwork, porch posts, and creamy yellow clapboard are copied from the childhood home of Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy children’s books. The books, the house, the map of Deep Valley–Mankato in 1905–are part of the town and the childhoods of parents and grandparents visiting with their children today.

Local references are integrated throughout the building and exhibits. They are embedded in the expansive farm scene mural showing local crops and in alternative uses of farm materials like stock tanks, corrugated metal panels, and barn board. Regional crafts such as quilting and sewing are visible in the hand-made quilt that features southern Minnesota landscapes. High up in the rafters sits one of the recognizable millions of cats taken from an illustration in another local children’s book author, Wanda Gag. In every area of the museum, placed-based and historic references help tell their own stories. They invite conversations and elicit memories from parents and grandparents about quarrying, farming, and building tree forts.  

Visible Community Contributions
The importance of place is also reflected in the visibility of community connections, forged through the Museum’s planning and now contributing to what it offers. Like the hand-made quilt that traveled to the very first fairs and festivals CMSM attended, connections started early and have become integral to CMSM’s identity. The Toddler Committee made up of area early childhood educators has worked on the Play Porch for 7+ years.  Community carpenters built prototypes for the market and the quarry at Play Lab. Four hundred pieces of produce hand sewn by volunteers fills the wheelbarrows and bins of the farm and the market.

Indications that CMSM intends to continue to engage the community are apparent. A sign in the Ag area invites input for an indoor/outdoor new ag exhibit with, “What do you want to learn about modern agriculture?”

Worth Discovering
A wholehearted commitment to giving children something worth discovering is apparent throughout the Museum. There is not only the Wanda Gag cat in the rafters, but there is also a secret passage into the farmyard through the crawl-through log in the farm mural.  A message that wood comes from trees is carried by the steps spiraling up the Tree of Forts. Each tread is made from a different tree, its name burned in–Boxelder, Ash, Elm, Poplar, Maple.

CMSM knows children scour their world for information, are fascinated by small details, and notice often-overlooked features. The Museum has been deliberate and generous in making sure there are abundant opportunities for play, exploration, and discovery. Multiple mailboxes stand at different heights. Because children will feel and see details, the mailbox interiors are textured and patterned. Mailbox doors open and open-and-close at both ends suggesting games and extending exploration and play with others. 

Beauty as well as interesting details and novel materials invites investigation. Area artist Malia Wiley painted the farm scene mural in Grow It and included a mother and child and recognizable flowers and herbs. Liz Miller’s mixed media installation Preternatural Prairie Mirage floats overhead among the rafters. Children working with fabric artist Amy Sinning sewed and dyed 2,100 fabric willow leaves that hang–and detach from–the tree in the Play Porch yard. Laser cut steel railings carry a prairie grass motif designed by Ellen Schofield along the mezzanine where the Whiz Bang STEAM area is located.

CMSM has opened with a loud, wonderful, and long-awaited roar. I have no doubt that planning and refining will continue. This is a museum that knows how to discover ways of engaging children and their families, enriching childhoods, and strengthening connections with southern Minnesota.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Between Planning and Chance


Chance favors the prepared mind.
Attributed to Louis Pasteur




You plan and you plan and then you just have to acknowledge that some things will be left to chance.

This plannerism is one I keep in mind especially when deeply involved in a planning project that is winding down and moving towards implementation. What comes after planning? Opening a museum, launching a strategic plan, activating a learning framework, or unveiling an exhibition is much like the moment of taking off the training wheels and riding. What happens next?

This moment of transition from planning to action characterizes many aspects of museum work as well as teaching, planning a trip, finding a job, or, for that matter, life. For conferences, board retreats, organizational budgets, visitor panels, exhibition planning, or a strategic partnership, we can get the right people together, gather the needed information, meet with stakeholders, check-off the steps, develop a critical path, and have the right people in place. 

I suspect that, even when we have planned well, what we really want is an extraordinary version of our plan to play out, delivered by remarkable opportunities and chance.

We may be poised for opportunities, but we never know until the very moment whether we will recognize them or be able to act on them. Chance is not necessarily the unexpected popular guest arriving with impeccable timing. Sometimes chance shows up as back-to back blizzards, illness, or road construction. While we don't know just what chance will deliver or when, chance will play a role. 

Even with a firm a belief in the value of planning and the preparation it provides, how can we leave room for chance? Will we be ready when the ideal site is available long before we planned to start a site search? Can we take advantage of a special granting opportunity when we don’t have all the right people in place? We cannot predict, schedule or invoke opportunity or a lucky break. But we can find ways to make space for chance in planning and in living the plan.

Intentionality and Thinking in Time
From a strategic agenda to a conference agenda, from facility design to exhibition design, planning is being deliberate about accomplishing something significant for a museum, its visitors, and community. We identify the steps along the way and the means for accomplishing them–time, space, prepared staff, funds, and partners. As well as knowing what we want to achieve and encourage, we must also know what we are not after; we need to be alert to signals and precursors of opportunity and wrong turns that might lie on our path.

The larger a planning intention is, the more comprehensive planning will be. Yet, planning is not having everything figured out and tied with a bow. Rather than a script for the future, planning, at its best, develops a shared clarity about what is important and what we hope will happen. Because the future is necessarily uncertain, planning is as much a way of thinking and preparing for possible opportunities as having a detailed plan. Both strategic thinking and design thinking activate a static plan document or rendered exhibition design by the everyday thinking that continues long after the plan is officially complete.

When staff continues to focus on a plan's or project's purpose and intent, they are able to generate relevant insights that allow the museum to be nimble in a dynamic context. Thinking in time and making an integrated set of choices help optimize opportunities and navigate challenges whether the project is opening a satellite facility, launching a professional development center, creating a nature area, adding a maker space, or incorporating dialogue into interactions with visitors. This is living the plan.

Near and Far Horizons
Fast forward. A plan has been launched. A strategy team is meeting for the first time. The exhibit has opened and visitors are streaming through the gallery doors. The creativity framework is being shared across museum departments.

On the heels of completing a plan a critical but subtle shift occurs: merging day-to-day choices with overarching purpose. Living the letter of a plan is, on the one hand, artificial and rigid. Plans, frameworks, and exhibit designs are, necessarily, idealized versions of what we think should happen. In contrast, implementation is immersion in immediate, practical circumstances constantly in flux. Focusing completely on the everyday at the exclusion of the big picture can lead down rabbit holes and obscure opportunities and new possibilities.

Living in both the plan’s far and near time frames is vital. Active dialogue between them and alertness to approaching opportunities is facilitated by frequent discussions that easily shift between; they link the big picture with current choices. As decision points approach, we revisit past decisions in light of current information. We adjust our view to look at the big picture with a broader or narrower perspective. Reassessing the situation sometimes requires letting go and starting a new path. Challenging assumptions, noticing information that doesn’t fit, and being wary of confirmation bias help trefocus or bring developing conditions into focus.

J. P. Morgan noted, in planning as in life, we go as far as we can see. When we get there, we can see farther. What was invisible or out of view earlier is now visible and apparent.

Awake and Alert to the Moment
A plan isn’t going to send up flares to announce an approaching opportunity. Being alert and awake to the moment is the only remedy; it is, however, not as simple as it seems. An unlikely combination of concentration and responsiveness, it requires keeping a steady focus on what is to be accomplished, a openness to alternatives, and readiness for an adaptive response.

Difficult to put into in words, it is equally challenging to pull off in the moment. The image of a dowser holding a divining rod lightly in order to sense the tug of water far below suggests a readiness for the unexpected

In the municipal infant-toddler centers and preschools in Reggio Emilia (IT), one expression of planning is a well-developed structure and thoughtful organization that support teachers in guiding children’s explorations. A clear, but broad, agenda and preparation inform teachers’ choices as children pursue interests and follow bigger ideas. Extensive explorations, often spreading over weeks and even months, emerge from a focus on a well-planned activity, reflection on what’s occurring, and a responsiveness to children’s interests and questions.

While in a classroom, not a museum and in a pedagogical rather than a strategic frame, teachers concerned with larger goals are also attuned to what is happening as children express fascination and ask questions. Teachers are alert to what is happening, what might happen, and are ready to capitalize on an unanticipated twist or happy accident when chance comes to the classroom.

Reflection and Action
Along with intentionality and thinking in time, embracing near and far time horizons, and being alert and awake in the moment, reflection and action inhabit the time and space between planning and chance.

Practiced individually or as a group, reflection introduces important qualities not readily available and decidedly different from what task-driven action and decision-making pressures yield. In stepping away from the everyday, even if briefly, reflection creates a space for paying critical attention, making sense of what has occurred, and consolidating learning. Through reflection we may backtrack through choices, ask new questions, re-sort information, and reassess progress. We may integrate intention with actual experience, synthesize opposing ideas, and connect knowledge from prior experience to current options and choices. A new continuity emerges from hundreds of separate steps and actions.  

Reflection generates new ways of seeing. By reprocessing information, we may understand differently what has or hasn’t happened–or what could have happened. We may see something that wasn’t apparent before or see it in a new light. Bringing a new viewpoint to a situation can re-frame a problem, discover an ally, find a fertile a crack between two obstacles, or reveal ways to restructure work and move forward.

Insights from reflection often offer a glimpse of the possible, an imagination of what might happen. It might put us on a path to deliberate action that we couldn’t have appreciated before; open a door we didn’t know was there. We may recognize an opening for action.

Even if the space between planning and chance is different from what we sometimes wish it were, it is, nevertheless, roomy, rich, and often unexplored territory. Sometimes it delivers the results of hard work rather than a free sample. Sometimes it produces a generous shift rather than an ordered gift. But under a few right conditions, the space between planning and chance delivers.

 “… something incredibly wonderful happens.”
Frank Oppenheimer