Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Couple of Ideas for the Taking

Chicago Public Library Oak Park Branch

“Hey! I got an idea!” I get a kick hearing someone, usually a child, say that. As a child, I loved the feeling of getting an idea. And I still do.

Having ideas is a wonderful feeling of possibility and adventure. Ideas can take us many places, connecting with people, developing new interests, learning more, and doing something helpful. Recently several ideas have popped up in my reading and have stuck around a bit longer than ideas sometimes do. Without a museum that I work with on a long-term basis, I am not able to act on them directly. But I can put them out there for the taking. The three emergent ideas that follow, described in a preliminary way, will hopefully spark someone else’s sense of possibility and move them to take them further.

Local Inventors and Innovators
In late December the business section of our local paper, The Star Tribune, featured the story of two University of Minnesota graduate students who developed a mobile app that is helping to increase the productivity of small farmers in an arid province in India. The story of these young innovators and their thinking that is now doubling the fruit and vegetable yields while decreasing water and fertilizer use tucked itself somewhere in my mind. Recently it reappeared as a question: how could this, or other similar innovations, find its way into science center and museum experiences, programs, and partnerships?

The application of science principles to a current need with tangible, beneficial outcomes is a compelling, timely story–the kind that engages museum visitors and strengthens the museum experience. This story involves young inventors and entrepreneurs, has local-global connections, is located at the nexus of water and food production, and offers potential partnerships with businesses, colleges, and universities. Other innovations are likely to have similar entry points and connections related to local inventors, a problem to solve and its context, the thinking involved, risk taking, and STEM content.
School Program Experiments
In a guest post on Museum Questions, Jackie Delamatre, educator at the RISD Museum (Providence, RI) wondered what if… the museum visit for school groups was less like the school classroom and, instead, imagined ways to encourage learners to direct their learning, explore their interests and questions, and make their thinking visible.

That made me wonder, what if… museum educators could truly rethink the school visit by, for instance, optimizing the opportunities museums’ informal learning environments offer. Together multiple small experiments with school programs in many museums could break the mold of current museum school tours. Is it possible to create a shift so schools would learn from museums and borrow their informal learning strategies?

This week on Museum Questions Rebecca Herz identified three field trip related experiments she intends to try at the new Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum where she's executive director. A number of interesting ideas are embedded in these experiments. This is hopefully just one of many experiments that are–and could be happening–at all kinds of museums, ones that start with the learner; plan using the museum’s remarkable resources; and focus on thinking or looking skills. Or, develop experiments that go somewhere completely different. Sharing ideas and making connections among museums can happen in many ways, including here on Museum Notes.

Design + Children’s Play + Research
I was sorely disappointed when I wasn’t able to see either exhibition on design for children. The best I could do was to check-out the 2013 Design for the Modern Child at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the 2012 Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900 – 2000 at MoMA on-line. With somewhat different emphases, these exhibits featured furniture, toys, tableware, wallpaper, and textiles designed for children. The MoMA exhibit considered modernist thinking about children and design for them.

As engaging as these exhibits appear to have been, I am eagerly looking forward to an exhibition that focuses on designing for children’s play and the research behind it with children playing at the heart of the experience. This exhibition brings together aspects of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Wonder Years exhibition; Paige Johnson’s Playscapes blog on design of play structures; and The Strong’s American Journal of Play.

Incorporating the perspectives of an art museum, children’s museum and university research lab, it might explore an object’s play value, the learning associated with imaginative play, and design-play connections. Rich with images of children at play, it could also serve as a play lab for conducting research. Above all, this would be an exhibition brimming with play, not just about play. I really hope this exhibition can travel so I can be sure to see it.

Please Take These Ideas
Let them inspire you and make them into what you can. Share them with colleagues; develop them further. You may find them more helpful by splitting and combining them and connecting them with other project ideas, plans, or practices already in the works. Set them in motion, folding them into an experiment. Let me know what comes of them and your thinking.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cultivating an Experimental Mindset

In kicking off a planning process with a museum team, I often point out that we are engaged in a discovery process. Eyes widen, sometimes with fear and sometimes with excitement. I add that, while a discovery process, it is a disciplined discovery process, based on relevant organizational documents and information, following well-tested planning steps, informed by internal staff and board knowledge, and guided by clear outcomes and deliverables. We won’t, I assure them, just go off on any old trajectory. But honestly, we really don’t know quite where we’ll end up.

Often, however, I wish the process could accommodate more wandering and experimenting. While clearly not a precise definition of experimenting, this situation points to how museum work may be more of an experiment than we think it is.

Museums fortunately have a tradition of experimenting. Some like Shelburne Farms have their roots in earlier experiments. Others, like the Museum of Modern Art, was viewed 75 years ago by its first director, Alfred Barr Jr. as “a laboratory in its experiments the public is entitled to participate.” Museum experiments continue at many scales. An experiment that has transformed museums the Exploratorium continues to take experimenting seriously. More recent experiments have included maker spaces, satellite museums, and free admission.Word of a museum’s experimentation travels and can be documented by following replication, from Exploratorium exhibits to maker spaces to tapescapes. Images of a tape structure in an architecture magazine inspired a Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota board member to construct TapeScape in 2011. Introduced in the start up museum’s Play Lab setting, the structure merged an immersive exhibit, art installation, and re-purposed material. Tapescapes followed in Pittsburgh in 2013 and Manitoba in 2014. A fresh contribution, it has attracted followers and expanded the museum repertoire.

While museums have a tradition of experimenting, they aren’t necessarily impelled by an experimental mindset. Imitating and improving ideas from one museum to another is a valuable strategy for introducing change and increasing variety in experiences, but alone doesn’t reflect an experimental mindset. Prototyping, evaluation, and research are among museum practices that encourage experimenting. They can challenge assumptions and push boundaries, but may also be established practices that become routine.

A Typical and Frequent Response to Challenges
An experimental mindset is a proclivity to question, rethink options, and make changes. An attitude and outlook, it is a readiness to wonder, question, challenge, test-and-retest, and reinvest lessons learned into new efforts. More than an ability to ask questions and run small studies, it is a typical and frequent response to challenges, obstacles, and opportunities. With questions of “what might happen if…?” and confidence that there are more options than the most obvious course or what was done previously, a disposition to try and test supports evidence-based decision making, challenges perspectives, and delivers new possibilities.

An experimental mindset helps museums deal with complexity and uncertainty, realities inherent in their own organizational context and the dynamic communities they serve. This outlook tempers an understandable push for certainty. We may want assurances about what we will accomplish, how long something will take, its cost, and if others will approve. However, shadowing a process with “Will it get funded?” stifles risk taking, fresh thinking, and a search for better solutions.

Knowing what will and won’t work ahead of time is impossible, but small experiments in fact can reduce uncertainty. More iterative than definitive, an experimental mindset shared across a museum anticipates that the group will arrive at a collective understanding, valuable insights, or a satisfying resting point but not a certain destination. The twists and turns in finding out what works better and what’s expendable inevitably challenge comfortable, well-established practices. Perhaps more important, an institutional commitment to questioning and research also invigorates work, delivers unanticipated outcomes, and offers shared learning.

The Sweep of an Experimental Mindset 
Karina Mangu-Ward, EMCArts Director of Activating Innovation explores the potential of shifting from models to a mindset in her guest blog post, We Don’t Need New Models, We Need a New Mindset. While she does not speak directly about an experimental mindset, her construct assumes complexity rather than relying a distilled and fixed set of assumptions. She suggests that a mindset sidesteps set priorities, simple solutions, and easy-to-count metrics. Whereas models encourage replication, a mindset revises understandings in response to information, changes and challenges.

Cultivating an experimental mindset assists a museum in living its core values. A museum with creativity or innovation as institutional values needs an organizational culture that expresses them and translates them into major decisions and daily actions. While celebrating failure for visitors, museums do not seem as eager to make new mistakes themselves. If critical thinking, experimenting, and tinkering with ides are valuable for visitors, a museum needs these same qualities as part of its own DNA. Becoming an organizational learner is as important as supporting life-long learners. When it has internalized its values, a museum hires staff and recruits trustees with a tolerance for ambiguity, an appetite for risk taking, and a metabolism change.

A disposition to act on questions is not limited to a single department or division. It engages every organizational level and brings greater clarity about where and how to strive to achieve impact. Each new program or initiative; every new exhibition, interactive component, or acquisition; a revised membership incentive; or a community collaborative is an opportunity to experiment with how a museum might invite participation, build loyalty, engage visitors more fully, extend engagement, or increase impact.
Columbus Museum of Art

Engaged in reimagining itself over the past 6+ years, the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) has fielded a suite of projects covering the entire museum. Reframing creativity, rethinking art education, reimagining the drop-in visitor experience, and remaking space has engaged trustees, volunteer docents, and staff across the museum. CMA’s sustained experiment, or set of experiments, clearly demonstrates the critical role museum leadership plays in asking bold questions; reframing and responding to opportunities; and supporting a journey to someplace with new possibilities. It is also illustrates how leadership becomes distributed across the museum, helping to advance an organization-wide commitment to reflect, question, and act. Leaders with hearty appetites for disciplined discovery often view the museum’s approach as an opportunity to grow support for roomy questions rather than small certainties.

A museum supports an experimental mindset by making room for experimentation. Time is given to what is valued; it is critical for getting beyond easy answers, finding out what works. On the other hand, a compressed time frame for a team might actually support experimentation by concentrating creative energies on strengthening ideas rather than searching for hopefully better ones. Writing about innovative exhibition design on ExhibitTricks, exhibit designer Axel Hüttinger believes “the exhibition must become a laboratory, in which there virtually are no prefabricated results which the visitors are served.” Teams or groups operating with an experimental mindset are alert to fortuitous accidents and unintended consequences–and make good use of both. Museum Camp at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History tries out a new and original camp format for engaging museum professionals in creatively investigating a novel theme such as “space.”

The questioning and reflective frame of mind supported by leadership and nourished by available time informs how museum staff navigate everyday activities and responsibilities. By asking questions of their own practice and searching for answers, staff examine the impact of museum experiences on visitors who come through the door, visit regularly, participate in programs, explore exhibits, or participate on-line. Recently, Michelle Grohe, Director of School & Teacher Programs at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston, MA) shared a regular practice Gardner Museum educators engage in as they reflect on and assess student tours.The practice draws on both big picture ideas and specific questions that museum educators ask of themselves, partner teachers, and students. As answers to these questions accumulate, the museum has data to anchor plans for developing new programs, revising and improving programs, and understanding the impact of programs on students. 

Everyday Studies
Strategic experiments can be a solvent for an organizational culture that is stuck or for navigating areas of persistent frustration. Even a quick study lasting 30 minutes or 30 days can be a cost-effective experiment yielding significant insights.

Many museums would like to reach more youth before they age out. A move from wanting to grow this part of the audience to understanding what’s working, the relevant conditions, and which ideas are more likely to work ahead of time requires both motivation and mindset. A museum might start with a set of questions: What has staff noticed about where the 9-12 year olds who do visit spend the most time? What do these children find most engaging about those experiences? How do they talk about what they like doing? How can these qualities be adapted to and incorporated into other exhibits? Staff might observe, interview, and conduct focus groups. Small studies harvest staff’s informal knowledge about the museum and its visitors, where they spend time, use patterns, noise levels, etc. It brings cross-departmental knowledge and strengths together–marketing, visitor services, education, and exhibits–and is likely to extend to other museums with a similar interest. Building internal capacity as well as better serving the museum’s audience are likely results of following through on persistent questions.

Experiments help progress towards larger goals. After completing its strategic plan, Grand Rapids Art Museum (MI) staff began a set of small experiments to improve the visitor experience. One experiment responded to visitor feedback on being told not to touch the art. Using gallery observations, staff logs, and guard interviews, staff developed a concept to try: turn the message from, “Don’t touch the art” to “Why can’t we touch the art?” Framed mirrors installed in the galleries were paired with text encouraging visitors to touch the mirrors and notice the oils left behind. In the three months following installation, guard reminders to visitors declined to one.

Every museum possesses some valuable assets for cultivating an experimental mindset. A board member keen to questions; an organizational value on innovation; an eager, boundary-pushing floor staff person; teams passionate about their projects; a membership director who wants to try something new; visitors asking, “why?” Each staff member, trustee, and volunteer in every museum also shares one great advantage in advancing an experimental mindset. Learning by experiment has worked since the earliest days of life when we engage a parent with a smile, or pump small legs and move the mobile. If a museum can encourage, align, and harness individual dispositions to wonder, question, and push boundaries, imagine the potential institutional force for significant internal and external change.

Related Museum Notes Posts

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Creativity, Play, and Learning

Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.
Some of us might say there’s some relationship between creativity and play…maybe. Stretching a bit, some may say they appreciate play for its role in creativity. Fewer are likely to have considered the possibility that creativity and play are closely related. Mostly we tend to think of creativity and play as worlds apart. 
Play is for younger children; creativity is for adults and older children. Creativity is a charm that unlocks potential; play is for blowing off steam. Creativity is serious business, play is what happens when there’s nothing else to do. Creativity seems mysterious; play is ubiquitous.

Yet, looking at creativity and play more closely and together highlights some important similarities and connections between them as well as to learning. 

Admittedly there are many views of both play and creativity. Furthermore, both concepts are difficult to capture and often assigned overly elastic or simplified meanings. Traditionally creativity has been considered unrestrained, uninhibited, cathartic and emotional; or individual talent and flashes of insight. More recently creativity has been theorized from perspectives of education, sociology, psychology and philosophy. It is viewed as generating something new that has value. Educators in the schools for young children in Reggio (IT) consider creativity as the art of thinking. Then there is one of many recursive five-stage processes. Expansive territory, indeed.
The Inner Circle by Jaime Filipe

No less vague and fraught, play is likewise viewed through multiple lenses of psychology, evolutionary biology, and child development and enjoys many definitions. Complex and ambiguous, play is recreation, the child’s work, and a pleasurable activity carried out for its own sake. Just as there are multistage processes for creativity, there are play taxonomies galore. According to Martin Buber, “Play is the exultation of the possible.”  

The rhetorics of creativity and play mirror one another in significant ways. We see in both, ideas and forms that are consumed with pleasure. In neither is the object, form, or idea accepted as a given. Whether manipulating blocks, making music, designing a new font, or redesigning packaging, we do something to whatever we started with, combining, stretching or somehow up-ending its original form. In play and creativity, we draw on stored information, ideas and skills from accumulated experiences and settings. In both creativity and play, a similar push-and-pull of drives is at work. We make bold connections, are flexible, and find different combinations of ideas on the one hand, and we respond to the drives of conformity, familiarity, and predictability on the other. And although forts, songs, apps, and new food products may result from play and creative activity, neither necessarily produces tangible products.

Creativity In Play
A sense of a more substantial relationship than a list of similarities between creativity and play emerges from recent thinking in cognitive science and neuroscience. It builds, in fact, on Einstein’s idea of creativity as combinatorial play. Versions of this idea have been explored in articles in American Journal of Play as combinational creativity (Boden p. 7) and combinatory play (Stevens. p. 99).

Leaf Bowls by Kay Sekimachi
In combinatory play a person uses conscious, deliberate connection making and imagination, manipulating familiar ideas, images, sounds, or forms and comes up with unlikely combinations of ideas, images, sounds, or forms. Recombined they are novel, surprising and valuable. We may experience this in combining disparate information, repurposing an abundant discard, imagining dried leaves as a bowl or translating a metaphor into an immersive environment. When we do, we play with possible outcomes, adapt to unexpected results, and link what had seemed unlinkable. We envision what is not present, compare and contrast various combinations, fuse and peel apart constructs to arrive at a new whole. The brain plays.

Connecting previously unconnected images, facts, or elements in ways that are new and meaningful occurs through both conscious and unconscious cognitive play. The mind hovers between structure and openness; it wanders between focused attention and diffused attention. It skates freely with and among a series combinations without imposing a conclusion. This is a complex form of play as well as thinking.
Falcon Model made of cardboard boxes

The Brain Plays
Thinking outside the box speaks directly to creativity as well as play. For both, this image celebrates freedom from constraints and attraction to possibilities. Creativity invites us to detour rigid frameworks, assumptions, and rules. By thinking outside the constraints of a cardboard box’s original size, proportions, and purpose, a familiar box is transformed into a child’s boat or spaceship or an animation artist’s detailed scaled model.  

Thinking outside the box also suggests how we might look at the relationship between creativity, play, and learning. Making connections between one thing and another is also fundamental to a conceptualization of learning as a connection-making process. Deliberate and conscious, learning involves connecting formerly isolated concepts, linking abstractions with hands-on concrete application, associating previous experiences with a fact, and reinforcing understanding a concept. In contrast to the fresh, unlikely combinations that characterize creativity and play, learning is concerned with making connections that construct a meaningful system of relationships that changes and grows with experience.

Just as creativity requires sidestepping conventional ways of exploring thought, structure, and objects, letting go of well-used and decidedly separate categories for play, creativity, and learning allows us to see how each helps advance the case for and supports the others.

Judging from the number of articles, reports, blogs, journals, and magazines, there’s no shortage of opinions, advice, and evidence about the importance of creativity and creative development and how to foster it. A valued attribute for 21st century learners, creativity enables us to respond to a rapidly changing world and deal with the unexpected by extending our current knowledge and skills to novel situations and by using it in new ways. For everyone–a parent, barista, software programmer, museum, plumber, accountant, or a child–the day job requires creativity. 

Taking any of these three seriously means taking all seriously. Valuing creativity and learning relies on valuing play (at every age); providing for one provides well for the others. Expanding experiences and enriching opportunities in one area, fuels the other two. If we want children, youth, and adults; citizens, learners, and workers to be creative, follow different ways of imagining, thinking, linking, exploring and challenging ideas, we need to create the conditions that allow players, connector, and learners to think artfully, to combine and recombine, connect and reconnect pleasurably even exuberantly.

To do this, we have every reason to be generous with tools, machines, images, designed objects, natural forms, found materials, artifacts, and bio-facts; in maker spaces, studios, discovery rooms, and ateliers; backyards, play yards, and junkyards; experiment stations, kitchens, or labs. Unlikely, intriguing, and fresh combinations will emerge as we hold back on judgment and ease up on the pressure to come to closure. We need to respect the element of time for imagining, drawing on previous experiences, successes and failures; for building and rebuilding representations; and for talking about, working with, reflecting on, and making ideas or connections their own.

  • How do you see the relationship among creativity, play and learning? 
  • How do the connections among them expand your understanding of each?
  • How would you create the conditions in your museum or classroom to invite all through?  
Related Museum Notes Posts

Creative work is play. It is free speculation using the materials of one’s chosen form.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Better Versions of Our Ideas

"Ephemeral Rays" by Charlotte Smith
I have several cherished theories, none of which is based on any shred of evidence. One is that most of us want better versions of the ideas we already have. True, we like what we have come up with, but want an improvement over it. This might pertain to a concept for an exhibition, the title of an article, a vision statement, an idea for a museum initiative, or the theme for a party. We do like our idea and we don’t want to give it up. We just wish it were more, more…provocative, current, simpler, deeper, or perhaps edgier.   

Not surprisingly, I’m ever-so-pleased when I find something I like to think about, write on, or do, that is accomplished in a way I wish I could manage. In the last several days, I have fortuitously come across links to three interesting websites and blogs that illustrate my cherished Better Version theory. While located in my silo and what I write about on Museum Notes, these writings do so with spark and spunk. Of interest to me, it is also a pleasure to share them with others interested in stretching their thinking and deepening their insights.

But will you be here?  An argument for tours that encourage life-long museum going by Jackie Delamatre on Rebecca Herz’s Museum Questions

Rebecca Herz has been hosting a series of guest posts on museums and schools; all have been very good. In this one, her guest Jackie Delamatre challenges some basic assumptions about school tours in museums. Now an educator at the RISD Museum (Providence), her provocative questions are based on observations of students in tours she has lead at the Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art. I think Jackie is able to highlight where museums limit themselves in imagining what tours (and other programs) might be by replicating the teacher-directed approach of classrooms in informal learning institutions; placing curricular connections high on the list of goals for school visits; and structuring space and lessons that answer questions we hope students also have. What if, Jackie wonders, the primary goal of a museum visit were to foster an understanding of, appreciation for, and techniques for being future visitors in a museum? This question opens inviting new territory for museum educators to explore ways in which learners might direct their own learning, explore what interests and motivates them, and allows them to explore their thinking and ideas. 
Related Museum Notes Posts


The Happy Museum

How can an idea like a Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI) not get one’s attention? I came across that and a link to the Happy Museum project in this week’s Center for the Future of Museums' blog post, Lost Pleasures. The Happy Museum Project (HMP) in the UK is concerned with enlarging the idea of community–in time, space, and participants–well beyond what museum aspirations and planning typically embrace. With a determination we seldom see among museums, HMP pursues a museum’s role as a steward of people, place and community. An appetite for roomy ideas connects well-being and environmental sustainability. Well-being is supported by the restorative benefits of museum visits, resilience, and community and museum synergies that include resources like outdoor space. Reimagining museums’ role in increasing community vitality involves civic engagement with a mutuality among museums, visitors, and citizens. HMP clearly favors a museum’s measuring (and doing) what matters over easy-to-quantify financial and resource measures. Its experimental mindset (it describes its efforts as “a creative enquiry”) is also expressed in commissioning projects and conducting action research. More expansive than what most museums are likely to consider, HMP is a friendly provocation to museums to stretch their vision, challenge their assumptions, and activate their community relationships.  
Related Museum Notes Posts


Department of Play

A Boston-based collective, Department of Play’s mission is to bring a spirit of empathy and wonder to public life through immersive, irresistible, and aesthetically appealing collective experiences in public space. In staging temporary play zones at familiar and unmemorable locations across Boston, Department of Play is not just for or about children. It does use play as a collaborative endeavor capable of shaping and transforming public space, increasing social exchange, and impacting quality of life. Department of Play seems to be the kind of partner museums can work with and learn from as they envision the positive change possible for their community and engage members of the community in realizing it. This is also an organization that serves a wide audience, has a strong sense of what it is about, and expresses it playfully in small (hello[at]deptofplay[dot]com) and large ways; activities are designed with research in mind.
Related Museum Notes Posts

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Thoughts on Writing a Blog

The year-end blog post, “What You Lose When You Become Embedded and a Moment of Mourning for Blog Conversations” on Nina Simon’s Museum2.0 blog was thoughtful and provocative as usual. Nina shared what has interested her about blogging and is currently happening. Blogging has served as a way to learn twice: first by writing, then by engaging with commenters. While her readers have increased, comments and conversations have decreased. Nina’s readers do engage with her posts, but often elsewhere with others. I contribute to this: I read regularly, comment sometimes, and occasionally work threads from her posts in my writing. Consequently, this very prolific and generous blogger has become less part of the lively exchanges she has created and looked forward to writing. Her post, coincidentally, seems to have prompted more comments than usual.  

Entering my fifth blogging year and mindful of Nina’s post, I’ve been reflecting on my reasons for writing Museum Notes which cluster into two areas. I blog to stretch my thinking and be helpful to museums. At its best, writing is a discipline for me that serves others. Wanting to engage significantly with readers through comments wasn’t something I imagined or expected early on. It’s probably a good thing; I don’t receive many comments on my posts. 

Exercise and consolidate my thinking. The convergence of a museum’s strategic and learning interests has been of particular interest to me for years. Areas not typically considered together, they are meaty and dynamic, separately and together. Vigilant to how they relate, I explore connections between them. Interactions between these enduring interests touch on strategic planning and educational planning; community context and public value; stakeholders and audience; learners and learning; experience, play, and exhibitions; professional practice and capacity building.

Opening up my thinking for exercise is planned (reading and research) and unplanned with conversations, museum visits, images, reflections, and walks. One way and another I stumble on fresh perspectives, emerging areas of thought, new connections, and points where I simply need to rethink. In writing and rewriting, I try for clear lines of thought, meaningful distinctions, and a better glimpse of what is worth revealing. Working to make a point sharper and more explicit, I search for the right…better, fresher, crisper … word sacrificing many words along the way. That new word often makes other thoughts seem fuzzy.  (And can I make it shorter?)

I don’t use the exercise my thinking casually. The thinking required to write each of the 170 blogs has been decidedly more strenuous than imagined. With false starts and dead ends, thinking (not to mention writing) is harder than it seems. Here the invisible but real presence of readers, museum clients, colleagues, conference presenters, authors, friendly critics, and other bloggers become partners in thinking and sustain my efforts. Rewarded when I hit the publish button, the lows and highs of writing wrestle and somehow balance out each other. 

Being helpful. Each post is not only an exercise in thinking, but also a hope that it will be helpful to others. Will this matter to a young museum professional; a group of museum founders looking for next steps; an executive director with a runaway board; a graduate student with a paper; an evaluator building staff capacity; an exhibit developer trying to frame goals; or a strategic planner wanting to rethink vision statements?

There are more dimensions to being helpful than I first realized. Being helpful can be inspirational or practical; build on the work of others or push into under-explored areas; reach into the past or project into the future. In 35+ years of working in and with museums I have experienced a wide range of situations and change. Work with many different museums gives me a sense of trends and issues that, if not “field wide,” are nevertheless shared by many museums. I encounter resources, books, local programs, special expertise, solutions to problems, efforts that haven’t worked, and valuable lessons useful to museums elsewhere.

Clues about possible topics spring from queries on LinkedIn discussions, Museum Junction, ChildMus, unfinished ideas from earlier Museum Notes, and blogs. Visiting museums also reinforces possible topics. Staff at museums across the country have similar issues (serving a wider age range) and express common frustrations (parents on cell phones). Museums have similar needs (project goals and learner outcomes); face similar challenges (a shared understanding of creativity, play and thinking); and get stuck in similar ways (adding, but not abandoning programs; valuing content over experience).

Even a good topic is not useful by itself. It requires a suitable context (connecting to what is current or enduring, like public value); relevant in different types of museums (inquiry, creativity, audiences); and applicable to museums at varying stages of development (vision, mission, and values). I frequently ask, “so what?” Why might this matter to what people working in museums and libraries, and to parents and educators, care about? What difference will it make to someone leading organizational change; making a case for the museum’s impact to a funder; or wanting to experiment a little? How can developing a learning framework be accessible to even small museums?  Can this idea be like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle they have been looking for?

I work to make overly-used, often tired and unchecked connections explicit; shine questions; and return complexity to what has been reduced and simplified. An added twist, even a somewhat contrary view, enters now and then as in promoting A Good Mess. I am drawn to exploring what we value for museum learners as parallel practices for museum staff: asking questions, experimenting, and taking risks. Perhaps most of all, I hope to make visible what we often overlook and undervalue: everyday moments; children’s strengths, competencies, and futures; play, and the physical environment as a teacher and a mediator of learning.

In the long run, I have a hunch there is an exchange that occurs with readers, even though few actually comment. The exchange is more like playing it forward than a volley back-and-forth. Often I refer someone to a post that addresses a question, helps manage a board discussion, prepares them for a foray into a new area, directs them to resources, or helps writing a grant proposal–especially when IMLS grants are due. I often hear via e-mail or in conversations at conferences that a particular post has been timely. I am amazed at the growing number of readers in Ukraine, Romania, India, and Sierra Leone.

In closing, Nina, thank you for your end-of-the year blog and for your years of blogging. Thank you, readers, for your time and interest.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Light...Merry and Bright

How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.
Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

Walk-in kaleidoscope by Masakazu Shirane and Saya Miyazaki
Light’s absence seems to demand that it is at center of everything these days. Maybe it’s the long, dark days of winter, especially in the high latitudes of Minnesota. Maybe it’s the magical pathway of moonlight on the snow. Still, light seems to draw us even when days are long and the sun is high; even then, sunlight shimmering on water is marvelous. Fireworks explode and bedazzle. Light fascinates, illuminates, inspires, connects, and fills space.

Light fascinates. Babies are drawn to the light, eyes fixed on light’s sparkle on a spoon, foil, glass, jewelry. Children are captivated as light shines, shimmers, and scatters in reflections, rainbows, and shadows.

Photo credits below

Light illuminates and opens the world with meaning, metaphor, and the material nature of the world. To give light to children learning to read and doing their schoolwork, hundreds of these inflatable solar-powered lanterns are being sent to rural Tanzania. 
Light inspires. Energy with a kind of poetry, light reveals possibilities even through the smallest cracks. Light borrows from the day to transform night’s darkness, lighting what can otherwise be difficult to see.
James Turrell's Sky Pesher, 2005. Walker Art Center

Solar art glass (Sarah Hall Studio)

Light connects, spills and spreads around us, wraps us in its warmth, leads us forward.

Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space 

Light fills space flooding it with warmth and color. Moving in shafts, waves, and handfuls, light beams and bounces, pools; fills, flickers, fragments; glistens, glows and glimmers.

Beauty, possibility, remembrance, and hope. Wishing you a brighter 2015.  

Photo credits for above: 
(L) Shadow-ing by P.H. Fitzgerald; (C) Manning School, Jamaica Plain MA; (R) Kentucky Science Center
(L) National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC; Kidspace entry (Pasadena, CA) 
Suprasensorial at the Hirschhorn. Chromosaturation (1965 and refabricated 2012) by Venezuelan Carlos Cruz-Diez

Monday, December 22, 2014

Revisiting Nice + Necessary in the Context of Ferguson

 Old Courthouse and Museum, St Louis MO
The tragic events in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island have reverberated across the country and elicited a wide range of responses from individuals, groups, and institutions. Moved to respond to those events, the issues they raise, and the actions they have sparked, a group of museum bloggers coordinated by Gretchen Jennings, collaborated on a blog posted December 11th on Museum Commons and elsewhere, including here on Museum Notes.

Since then, members of this group have been both energized by the responses of individuals as well as puzzled, if not downright disappointed, by the limited response of many museums and museum associations in addressing the range of issues these events raise–race relations, injustice, unchecked police brutality, income and educational disparities, and movement toward positive change.

While frustrating and disheartening, this lack of action is, unfortunately, not surprising. These events are tragic and complex with relevance that ripples across local communities and national values. Responding to them in a meaningful way is challenging to say the least, a point clearly made by two questions raised repeatedly recently: should museums respond? and how should museums respond? 

In the past few days, I have visited websites of 40 museums including museums in the Ferguson-St Louis area, Staten Island, and Cleveland, in 16 states, and including science, cultural, history, natural history, art, and children’s museums to get a sense of how museums are addressing issues raised by events in Ferguson. Nine museums listed activities and events, posted blogs, facilitated conversations, or are collecting related artifacts; they are listed below. One museum’s blog post has since been removed. Some websites had no portal or link to an activity, event, or position paper; at least it wasn’t labeled clearly enough for me to find it.
Some of the 30 museums not highlighting events or blog posts are ones where I know a staff person has spoken out in emails and social media or has reposted one of the statements on their blog. This suggests a basic challenge of balancing personal perspectives with institutional positions.

Clearly some museums are practiced and comfortable in this space of action, community engagement, and healing. No doubt others are interested and feel a sense of responsibility, but are inexperienced and unprepared to engage. All must balance a sense of urgency with readiness to actively engage and do well for their communities and for themselves. From reflecting on my sampling of museum websites, reading blog posts, and following twitter feeds, I think many museums are struggling with how to balance the pull of being both Nice + Necessary.

The Pull of Nice + Necessary
Museums are nice. Lovely spaces, full of rare, fascinating, and often beuatiful objects, they are pleasant settings for spending time with friends and family. Places of inspiration and celebration, museums offer memorable experiences. Their missions express concern and an interest in the people of their town, city, or region. Every museum’s website in my sample highlighted holiday activities and special events; assured convenience on the busiest days of the year; urged year-end donations; and promised wonder, magic, and fun. Every museum, even the ones hosting Town Hall Meetings or posting statements presented itself as nice.

Whereas being nice focuses on fostering good will, being necessary actively fosters public good with an interest in long-term tangible outcomes. Necessary refers to the positive, recognized change a museum contributes to its community–its children, youth, and families, their well-being and prosperity. Based in a deep knowledge of a community, being necessary is a long-term commitment requiring solid groundwork and trust earned over time. Visible community impact differs for each museum reflecting community priorities. Impact may focus on a commitment to resolving issues that prevent a child’s growing up healthy, safe, smart, and successful at home, school, and in the community; to inspiring social justice and positive change; or to being integral to a more robust regional ecosystem around health and well-being.

Increasingly, museums are expected to–and want to–demonstrate their public value. The call to action from across the field is a current expression of that expectation. At the same time, the limited responses from museums express the very real challenge many museums experience in finding meaningful ways to be necessary–especially when the moment calls for it with urgency.

Admittedly the concept of Nice + Necessary alone is not sufficient for a museum to suddenly take action around a complex and pressing set of issues. It may, however, provide a frame for museums that believe our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure has an active and thoughtful role in bringing people together, facilitating conversations, shaping agendas, and moving toward a positive future but that are uncertain about how to go about it. While they may lack clarity about where to start and are unprepared to engage constructively at this moment, many museums are undoubtedly determined to be prepared to engage thoughtfully from an earned position of community trust around an inevitable future issue or crisis.

Pushing Much Harder on Necessary
Just as museums have deliberately worked over time to deliver a reliably nice experience for their guests, they must work equally hard, or harder, over time to be necessary: to play a meaningful community role with confidence and credibility and be capable of responding in a timely way. Building capacity internally and developing credibility externally is a long-term, challenging journey. Clearly, there is no single thing nor even 7 things to do; no one person nor a single event that creates change; no one month nor dedicated year of earnest activity that will make a measurable difference. Nothing less than a whole-hearted, sustained effort, guided by an aligned vision and mission and community outlook; with committed resources and activities; and support all across the museum from leadership to the newest hire is essential for relevant and meaningful action to issues like Ferguson.

Drawing on suggestions, comments, and perspectives of bloggers and museum professionals, below are some key factors for museums to become valued and trusted community resources capable of playing meaningful and relevant roles at difficult moments. They barely scratch the surface of the work to be done but may take advantage of momentum building in museums.

A museum in service to its community. The most basic idea is also the most challenging. Regardless of its size and prestige, a museum exists to serve its audience and community. It must maintain a perpetual, alert, and respectful outlook on its community and the ways in which it can be a valued resource for it. In dynamic environments, external conditions change and will absolutely change the way in which a museum can and should serve its community. Furthermore, valuing service to its community must be actively owned across the museum, be integrated in the museum’s culture, and persist through changes in leadership and times of scarcer resources. 

A visible civic role for the museum. A museum’s relevance to its community relies on its doing useful work with great clarity about the positive differences in the lives of its community and its members it deliberately tries to achieve through its activities. A visible civic role is recognized by others and is one a museum can assume relative to contemporary issues of significance and during a crisis. Although not always stated explicitly, direction on a museum’s civic role and community connections emerges from its vision and mission. 

Reflect the wider community in which it exists. Every facet of a museum can and should be an expression of its community. Trustees, staff leadership, staff, volunteers as well as visitors bring varied and diverse perspectives, voices, expertise, and skills representing the community that enrich the museum. A museum also reflects its community in its style, the questions that matter, the activities it offers, exhibitions it stages, how it delivers services, and how it reduces barriers to increase access to serve the widest possible range of visitors. 

Actively and respectfully engage with others. Museums need partners, organizations, agencies, and people with diverse, complementary expertise, skills, perspectives, and networks to advance their strategic interests and fulfill their civic role. This involves reaching out and listening to others–without having ready answers; engaging the community in exhibition planning; training diverse staff to interact with visitors from diverse backgrounds; and preparing staff to facilitate conversations on difficult subjects. It also means investing the time for building understanding and trust with parts of the community unfamiliar or distrustful of the museum.

Build on strengths. A museum can take a leadership role at a critical time if it has aligned its long-term strategic interests and programmatic strengths with the community’s priorities. Contributing something of recognized value and supporting it with related resources, a museum’s space, collections, content expertise, etc. are valuable assets. With intention and practice, a museum may serve as a safe and neutral space where people with diverse perspectives can come together to discuss charged issues; be a source of expertise about current pressing events and their historical context; curate a community art exhibit; or recognize a strength to cultivate and share. 

Learning at the Core. A museum’s core purpose is learning. While museums do create learning experiences for its visitors, they also have ample opportunities to learn with and from their visitors, learn from its communities, and learn from other museums. Engaging in an open and on-going process of experimenting, reflecting making connections, a museum itself becomes a learning organization; it frames new questions that matter, invites staff perspectives, supports dialogue, encourages reflection, and consolidates lessons at every step of the way. Learning as it grows, a museum recognizes new territory and learns from both successes and failures–including lessons from Ferguson.             

Posts by Museum Bloggers
Public History Commons: Public History Resources on Ferguson   

Statements by Museum Associations
"Statement from Sam Black", by Sam Black, President of the Association of African American Museums
•  "Museums and Social Responsibility", by Dan Yaeger, President of the New England Museum Association
Museums in the Wake of Community Conflict”, by Association of Midwest Museums' President, Melanie Adams 
"History Organizations Positioned to Be Powerful Participants in Dialogue on Ferguson and Related Events," by American Association of Local and State History

Museums Responses to Ferguson
• Harriet Beecher Stowe Center’s blog, "Salons at Stowe"
• History Colorado’s blog post, “Together We Can Work Towards Change"
• Jane Addams Hull House hosted a Chicago Town Hall Meeting to discuss recent events in Ferguson and beyond
The Magic House, St Louis Children's Museum, took its outreach programs for children to area libraries when school opening in August was delayed following the disruption in nearby Ferguson 
• The National Civil Rights Museum blog: Ferguson Missouri ... What's Next?
• Walker Art Center: The Colorization of America; and The Art Newspaper

Related Museum Notes Posts