Saturday, April 19, 2014

Experience Goals for Exhibitions

Photo credit: Wind Portal (Dezeen)

“Can’t live with them, can’t live without them!”  That was the first line delivered in a booming voice in a Science Museum of Minnesota theater production at the Midwest Museums conference years ago. The actor was referring to museum trustees, but I think the statement captures how many feel about goals for exhibitions, galleries, programs, and initiatives.

In museums, goals are a way of establishing what we hope to accomplish with major opportunities such as a gallery or an exhibition. Robust, aligned goals grounded in high-level master plans or learning frameworks are invaluable at every step of creating an exhibition. Types of goals are numerous in exhibition planning: a broad statement of purpose, benefit to visitors or the museum, and communicating a theme or concept. Different types of museums lean towards different types of planning and goals, as do individual museums. In general goals set direction and express intention. They establish priorities for how objects, design, media, structures, interactive elements, labels, space, and staff will deliver an exhibition’s topic or story and engage visitors in a memorable way.

As critical as goals are, the right kind of goals makes a great difference in whether an exhibition hits the mark with its own intentions and with the visitors it engages. After coaching several museums recently in developing goals for new galleries, I am convinced even more of the advantage of framing experience goals for exhibitions, galleries, and initiatives.

Goal Troubles
On too many projects to count, I have seen teams struggle to develop robust, productive goals. Visitor experience goals that consider the entire museum experience can overwhelm a focus on what happens for visitors in an exhibition. Project goals, partner goals, audience goals, and budget goals become entangled priorities. Educational goals inevitably cast the museum setting as a classroom. Confused or flabby goals plague a project to its end and beyond.

Educational goals often begin with, “Visitors will learn” or “visitors will understand.” This is followed by content, concepts, and sometimes highly abstract ideas related to the topic. With heavy overtones of the classroom and curriculum, education goals tend to confer a formal, intensive learning approach on an exhibition. Invisibly they push exhibition design, activities, and text towards delivering content that can be difficult even through structured, lengthy classroom presentations with limited distractions.

While valued for inviting observation, reading, and thinking, museum exhibitions are not suited to be the educational settings schools are. Museums’ lively, sensory rich, and social settings distract and interrupt learning that needs concentration. At the same time, these very qualities engage our senses, minds, bodies, imaginations, emotions, and recollections. They allow us to follow interests, make choices, and connect with people, places and past happenings. Responsive to physical, social and emotional, as well as cognitive needs, exhibitions are quite capable of crossing domains. Limiting exhibitions to a single domain constrains their richness and narrows their impact.

Replacing education goals with experience goals does not remove content or ignore visitor knowledge and expectations about a topic. Content is critical to visitor engagement and a project’s value. Exhibitions must have relevant, well-researched content, that is clearly communicated using the best methods and media. While necessary, solid content is only a piece of an exhibition.

On Experience
It is hard not to have an experience in or out of a museum. At the car wash or museum; by design or by happenstance, memorable or miserable, we are always having an experience. Experience is what happens through senses-on, minds-on, and hands-on encounters with people, spaces, situations, and objects. Through our choices, interactions, and active engagement, we more or less inhabit even daily experiences. Experiences extend to the impressions we take away, some of which we are aware of and many we are not. At some level, we change with and through experiences.

Museums use exhibitions to create memorable experiences for visitors to engage with phenomena, stories, issues, and collections. Connecting deeply with art in a sculpture garden or exploring dioramas with others is an experience. Playful exploration or focused problem solving in a maker space is also an experience. Engaging with complex concepts about the future or walking through a trail of time is an experience too.

Experience goals help museums deliver stronger experiences better. Centered on the potential of the experience, these goals are attuned to opportunities for engagement, cross domains, and expose the richness of objects and materials. They also recognize that experiences begin before visitors arrive at the museum and continue beyond.

Experience Goals and Planning for Museum Experiences
The nature of experiences as first-hand, direct, and immediate engagement readily builds on key museum attributes: being visitor centered, encouraging active engagement, and valuing the benefits of wide-ranging possibilities. Although a promising start, to make an exhibition experience durable and compelling is complex. Fortunately setting the right goals helps. 

When teams frame goals for the experiences they hope visitors will have, their focus shifts for the visitor, engagement, content, and design. First, the people who will have the experience move to the center of the team’s and the exhibition’s vision. An emphasis on specific content recedes. An image of the visitor as inquisitive and competent advances and replaces an image of someone needing direction, knowledge, and help. Furthermore, a visitor immersed in the experience is less of a passive recipient of exhibition plans. As a more active agent, the visitor can help shape and co-construct what might happen in the moment in the exhibition.

Second, a focus on experience broadens the view of learning. It accommodates the rich, fluid territory of thinking, imagining, and revising knowledge. Skills and dispositions as well as knowledge are relevant; beauty, joy, delight, and reverence are as valued as concepts. Finally, planning for experiences shines a new light on design. More and more, physical surroundings support the experience in particular ways. Design decisions focus on conditions that encourage a particular experience and mitigate obstacles.

Experience goals recognize that exhibitions are experiences, rippling through planning, design, engagement, and beyond. More on how this plays out and the goals that guide experience planning in the next Museum Notes post: Framing Experience Goals.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

Reggio-inspired Opportunities for Spring

Photo Credit: Andrea Fox Jensen
Spring always needs a little prodding here in the Upper Midwest, and especially this reluctant spring. While the new green shoots and forward observers are slow in making their presence known, some Reggio-inspired opportunities are, fortunately, appearing and delivering promise.  

The Reggio-inspired opportunities emerging this spring have been brought along by the November museums group study tour in Reggio Emilia (IT). Our group of 50 participants from 11 museums including partners from higher ed, libraries, community organizations, early childhood, and preschools enjoyed presentations by early childhood specialists, educators, and studio teachers. We visited infant-toddler centers and preschools, explored dynamic and beautiful exhibit spaces, discussed museum documentation projects, and investigated the Reggio-museum connection.

In following our curiosity and questions about adapting Reggio practices to museum settings, we encountered new possibilities, extended our imaginations about children’s potential, and sometimes took unexpected turns in our thinking. It is fair to say many of us returned to our museums, schools, and community centers wrapped in a powerful, invigorating confusion of possibilities. Eager to harness the sparks and insights of this intense and inspiring experience, many of us have since been building on existing projects, following new connections, and sharing work one another. Several opportunities are coming up and are worth exploring.

 Opal School of the Portland Children’s Museum, a Reggio-inspired tuition-based preschool and public charter elementary school, has a series of current offerings that extend their imagination regarding the capacity of children. A new e-book, Creating Possible Worlds: The Teacher’s Role in Nurturing a Community Where Imagination Thrives, documents a year of study in the preschool classroom that explored how the world of imagination and storytelling supports the world of science and reason. Five multimedia modules are also available at Opal School Online. Upcoming events in Portland include: Reading the World, May 1-2, that studies the role of quality in education and features the opportunity to observe class in session. The annual Summer Symposium is June 19-21 where Opal School teacher-researchers are joined by colleagues for reflection on a year of teaching and learning, exploring the role of materials in education, and connecting to the natural world.  
Two Reggio-inspired pre-conferences have been added to InterActivity 2014, the Association of Children’s Museum’s annual conference in Phoenix (AZ) this year. The Reggio approach and children’s museums are strongly aligned around some foundational areas: an important role for the environment and materials in learning, parent engagement, and strong community connections. Building on the museums study tour, responding to interest, and providing new starting points for Reggio-inspired practice in museums, the pre-conferences are an opportunity to explore Reggio ideas, insights and practices from a children’s museum perspective. Scheduled for May 13, these pre-conferences are for anyone interested in Reggio-inspired practice and working in or with museums. The morning pre-conference is Exploring Foundational Ideas in a Museum Context; the afternoon pre-conference is Making the Reggio-Children’s Museum Connection.

• Wheelock College in Boston is hosting an Inquiry Institute on June 19 that will explore ways to document informal learning in museum settings as well as open a conversation that explores ways of using documentation in public and visible ways. Bobbi Rosenquest and Stephanie Cox Suarez are planning this institute with other members of the DIG group (Democracy Inquiry Group) made up of teacher educators and faculty from several Boston area colleges. Jeri Robinson and staff from the Boston Children’s Museum; Julie Berenson, director of learning and engagement from the De Cordova Museum and Sculpture Park and the Lincoln Nursery School (Lincoln, MA); and two New Hampshire teachers working with artists will share new work-in progress. DIG recently published a special issue on documentation in The New Educator with articles targeting educators, families, mayors, stakeholders.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Play in the Sun

Play is the currency of childhood. It’s hardly surprising then that groups of parents, educators, early childhood educators and specialists, researchers, pediatricians, playworkers, and museum professionals devote thinking and learning to understanding children’s play, enriching it, and creating more play experiences. 

For more than 3 decades, my work has focused on play in in many forms. Through undergraduate and graduate school, teaching, and working in and with museums, opportunities to explore children’s play and the conditions that support have been and continue to be part of my work. As much as I enjoy deepening my understanding of play, sharing resources with others so they can interpret and incorporate it into their work makes any discovery an even better find.

Recently play has been in the sun in books, journal articles, in research and stories, about children and play, and in both current and culturally significant contexts. Four works have stood out for me in underscoring play’s complexity and many dimensions. Moreover, they are particularly helpful in bringing clarity to aspects of play that we struggle to articulate and that we gloss over as if simple or self-evident to others.

  • In Free to Learn, Peter Gray offers insights into the voluntary nature of play.
  • The Story of a Sand Pile, recorded by G. Stanley Hall, highlights the value of time and continuity of play in extending its value.

Play’s Social Benefits: Gray
In Free to Learn, Peter Gray sweeps across the evolution of childhood play, follows the origins of schools today, and explores a radical approach to schooling. In this challenging book, Gray’s evolutionary perspective sheds light on some meaningful dimensions of play often referred to but seldom explored in relation to one another.
Play is often characterized as voluntary or freely chosen, an attractive quality especially in contrast with school. These terms, however, can be interpreted in quite different ways. They can, for instance, suggest a non-compulsory activity or a fluid social exchange among children working to find common ground during play.

Play is voluntary because players are always free to quit. Anyone dissatisfied in play feels entitled to quit; each player knows it. If too many people quit because their ideas are not incorporated or they are relegated to undesirable roles, play ends. Consequently, to keep play going, players must satisfy both their own desires and those of other players through negotiation, listening, flexibility, building on ideas.

Gray adds depth to understanding play’s voluntary nature by providing an evolutionary context. Through play, children learn how to treat one another respectfully, in ways that meet others’ needs and desires. Play is satisfying when children treat each other as equals despite differences in size, strength and ability.

This voluntary aspect of play illustrates another benefit of play. Children learn through play what they can’t be taught by others through verbal instruction. Confidence, choice and control, empathy, being attuned to others, cooperation, and self-control must be learned through experience.

If we want to bring others along in valuing play and if we want to create the conditions that encourage and support children’s social engagement in play, fresh perspectives like Gray’s are necessary.

Pretend Play and Causal Relationships: Gropnik and Walker
Children’s pretend play is often viewed as a function of cognitive limitation–their inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. In the Fall 2013 issue of American Journal of Play that takes stock of the theoretical frameworks used in play in many domains, Alison Gopnik and Caren Walker take a look at how pretend play connects with learning.

In pretend play children engage in a kind of internal exploration involving objects and play partners. While this play takes place in the real world, children are also constructing unreal, and sometimes very elaborate, scenarios about possible, imaginary worlds. Gopnik and Walker suggest that children’s thinking involving pretense during play is actually grounded in reality thinking. The child imagines alternative possibilities, for instance, how an object might behave. Using various investigations through play episodes, the child revises the idea (or theory) to better fit the causal structures she knows about from interacting with the real world.

Gopnik and Walker have been working to provide empirical evidence of the cognitive mechanisms that supports this idea. Their study looked at preschool-aged children’s abilities to use alternative, or counterfactual, reasoning about the effects of pretend actions on a gear toy that used imagined causal relationships. Results of the study suggest that children can reason about the outcomes of actions on complex causal structures during a pretend play scenario. An ability to imagine possible worlds and alternative possibilities, they suggest, might be contributing to children’s connecting causal reasoning and learning.

Even in settings where play is valued, pretend play seems to be valued less for its learning value than other types of play are. Gopnik’s and Walker’s work contributes an important and somewhat surprising connection. Not only are children engaged in learning during pretend play, they are engaged in complex causal reasoning.

Children’s Thinking in Play: Paley
Vivian Paley is a teacher, a dedicated and sensitive observer of young children at play, and a storyteller of play. She is interested in and alert to children’s stories though play and shares some of these in Story and Play: The Original Learning Tools. Children, she says, transcribe everything around them into play. A word overheard, a snail in the garden, the marks on a stone, a rising tower of blocks are folded into children’s play. Passed from child to child, they are replayed and replayed through multiple stories to make sense of the new word, the snail’s family, or the balance of a block.

Paley herself is transcribing the world around her as she listens to and watches the children’s many stories in play. She shares, for instance, the inclusive gestures a group of young children make to bring a severely brain-damaged boy into their story; how his husky whisper is picked up as part of the play narrative; and how children recognize the desire of the boy to be part of their story. No curriculum, lesson, or activity could ever teach children, especially ones so young the empathy they showed. But children find their way through play.

Just as children do, Paley replays and replays these episodes, listening closely to the actual sounds of play in order to understand the meaning of the behavior. In unfolding them, stretching and interpreting them, and in going deeper, she finds children’s thinking in their play.

For those of us seriously interested in play, Paley shows us the necessity of closely listening to and following children’s play. In replaying children’s stories in play, we are rewarded with a glimpse into what thinking is like in a child’s head. This work places us side-by side with children in their search for meaning. It deepens our understanding and allows us to support children’s thinking through play where they find it and want to go with it.

Time and Continuity in the Value of Play: Hall
In The Story of a Sand Pile, G. Stanley Hall documents what happens when the mother of 2 boys, 7 and 9, has a load of sand delivered to the yard of their house near Concord (MA) in the late 1890’s. Left to their imagination and ingenuity the 2 brothers along with a half-dozen friends transformed the sand pile into an elaborate and extensive community over the course of a summer. From the first simple lean-to structure made of a board, to the appearance of animals (inspired by a rotten knot of wood), a system of roads, and hay put up in pressed bales 1”x2” for market, the boys shaped the land, whittled a population small figures, and introduced laws and government.

Virtually every aspect of life as they knew it was captured and incorporated into to this complete community: tools evolved, a tiny newspaper (with 7 subscribers) was started, a quarry was founded, stanchions installed in the barn for cows, and felt coins became the currency. The extensive details the boys incorporated were suggested by events such a disastrous shower, found objects, questions the boys raised, and observations of their surroundings.

Great interest, ingenuity, imagination and skills transform a sand-pile
In his unadorned sketch of the boys transforming the load of sand, Hall provides a rich example of the enormous possibilities and varied benefits of extended play. The sand-pile kept these boys busy over the summer and engaged others in the town for several more years. In attending to nearly every aspect of this real and imagined sand-pile community, the boys followed existing and new interests, sharpened their skills in using tools, solved problems, amended decisions, and displayed a spirit of self help. “On the whole,” Hall writes,” the ‘sand-pile’ has, in the opinion of the parents, been of about as much yearly educational value to the boys as the eight months of school.” Even after the sand-pile was removed, Hall notes, groups of boys continued with the enterprise, more proud than envious of it.

 Play is a complex activity one we know integrates several dimensions, each with potentially significant implications for children’s development. It is not enough to simply champion play for children in schools, neighborhoods, backyards, museums, parks, and day cares. Even with many voices chanting play’s benefits to children, we are lacking some necessary pieces.

We need to understand play’s value through multiple and fresh perspectives–research, evolutionary biology, story, the past. Each offers valuable insights and methodologies that challenge our thinking and raise new questions. They model ways we might bring greater rigor to our work in play. At their best, they encourage a spirit of experimentation in us to increase children’s access to play and expand its benefits for children so more children can play in the sun.

Related Museum Notes Posts

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Musem Notes Rewind: Children at the Center

Because what is at the center is what is important, I am re-posting this blog.  
As obvious as placing children at the center might seem, it's an idea that takes time, imagination, and persistence to work with in meaningful ways: challenging our image of the child, listening to our language, rethinking priorities, and updating what this means for children in varied contexts.

Children at the center has a ring to it and, at least in my networks, is referenced often enough to be familiar to many. But, is it a powerful tool or an empty buzzword? Yes–and both. With some teams I work with, children at the center sparks an interested, highly engaged response. From other teams the phrase produces a polite, blank or bored look, signaling a readiness to move on. 
A suspiciously attractive phrase, I nevertheless think placing children at the center extends well beyond a professional belief invoked with passion. What is at the center is what is important. Occupying a central position serves as a reference point towards which other considerations and actions are oriented. Children at the center asserts that children, their healthy growth and development; their resilience in the face of adversity, small or large; what is in their long term interest; and their joy are all important.
At its fullest, this idea offers an asset-based approach to building social capital in communities–better day-to-day experiences for children now as well as brighter futures. Children at the center has the capacity to align interests among multiple organizational partners to work towards long-term change for a community, its families and children. Finally, it is a compelling idea with enough gravitational pull to consolidate and focus a shared set of understandings and practices to better serve children in a museum, school, childcare, or community program. 
While placing children at the center can advance these significant strategic, organizational, and learning interests, it does so only with deliberate and steady work among a group, or even an active network, of people. The work starts with developing a deep, clear, shared understanding of what placing children at the center means. 
Seeing Strengths
Seeing children as strong, capable, competent, and full of potential is at the core of placing children at the center. The strengths and possibilities of even the very youngest child refute the easy assumption that children are simple and in need of correction, direction, and filling up with facts. Through movement, thought, reason, and language, infants and toddlers notice, follow sensations, organize information, seek out others to engage with, and make and change meaning. We might even view children as the original hackers, with their innovative customization of their world.
Children’s amazing potential is captured in the recent experiment of delivering a box of tablet computers in sealed boxes to two remote Ethiopian villages. The purpose was to see if illiterate children with no previous exposure to written words could learn how to read by themselves by experimenting with the tablet and its preloaded programs. Within 5 days, children had opened the boxes, figured out how to operate the tablets and were using an average of 47 apps each.  
It is not just children in remote villages with comparatively limited opportunities to spark an eagerness to explore that illustrates their strengths and capabilities. Evidence from everyday moments abounds. Children use others, often adults, as tools to accomplish their goals: to access something on a high shelf, roll the ball back to them and play, decode text, lift them up for a better view. Children observe others doing something they can’t do and then imitate them. Now they do it by themselves.
Our perspective influences what we see in children’s curiosity, expressions, persistence, and successes. If we see a strong, capable child, we see an active agent in exploring and learning. We view a child’s marks, questions, and choices as intention to make meaning–something we value greatly. We notice an extended focus on a purpose a child has invented herself rather than presuming a short attention span. We believe each child has something to say; each brings a narrative to the moment. It might be an observation about time, such as one 5-year old’s chronology of  world events, “Dinosaurs, Baby Jesus, the Knights, and me.” These are some of the magnificent offerings of children.
New Starting Points
Museums that internalize a view of children as strong and competent are in a position to activate the potential each child has. This sounds ambitious, and it is. The careful work of placing children at the center requires a deliberate shift from creating exhibits and programs to fill heads with facts or impress museum peers to centering the museum’s language, thinking, planning, and actions around children.
Learning from, with, and about children offers significant new starting points for a museum’s work. Who are these children? What do we know about them? What fascinates them? How do they explore, think, and make meaning? If children are the focus and what is important, then everyone across the museum becomes interested, patient observers. This is precisely the same as everyone being alert to safety everywhere and all the time.
Focusing on children’s strengths and capabilities reveals their competence as authors of their own experiences. They follow interests, investigate materials, make choices, modify approaches, and express possibilities. Children’s use of their many languages or ways of representing their ideas and emotions comes through in their spoken and written words, visual arts, drama, movement, and more. This focus opens new understandings about children and allows a museum to imagine ways the child’s agenda can be the starting point for explorations that will generate new thinking. Approaches shift to make room for children’s competence in building knowledge and seeking meaning in the environments the museum creates, the interactions it facilitates, and the relationships it nurtures. Rethinking environments, experiences, exhibits, and programs that invite children to wonder and extend their investigations is inevitable.
The sustained work of placing children at the center relies on listening to, being responsive to, and sharing in a child’s world attentively and respectfully. While evidence of children’s thinking and connections and their own words about what they are doing and understanding is rich, varied, and plentiful, it is all but overlooked in most settings. Documentation, an approach that gives visibility to children’s processes and accomplishments, brings together listening, recording, photographing, and reflecting on children’s actions, work, images, and words.
In making children’s thinking visible, documentation gathers evidence of an individual child’s or a group of children’s thinking from their words, drawings, questions, actions, and exchanges. In a program, at an exhibit, during a drop-in activity, and while prototyping, staff may listen to a child’s questions about what keeps a ball aloft; observe a child's repeated adjustments of objects around a light source to change shadows; notice a child’s persistence blowing bubbles; or reflect on a child’s varying the base of block structures. Notes, transcripts, photos, and children’s drawings that staff collect fuel discussion and interpretation about how children approach and think about the experiences the museum has created for them, or that they have created or found. Documentation is an iterative process of reflection, distillation, and sharing. It yields insights into how to support and extend children’s explorations, and modify environments where children will choose to invest their curiosity, imagination, and creativity.
At its best, documentation is a teaching, learning, and research tool. It illuminates children’s thinking and learning to them, to parents, and it staff; it frames new questions, and informs future planning.
Centering the Museum Around Children
There is no straight, short, or simple path to placing children at the center of a museum in a meaningful way. However, when educators, developers, designers, and visitor service staff from across a museum wholeheartedly and collectively engage in placing children at the center, momentum builds and change occurs along many dimensions.
Seeing children as strong and capable readily translates into seeing colleagues across the organization as capable and competent. Colleagues are recognized for bringing varied perspectives and complementary expertise needed to advance a shared vision. Staff working in different departments become collaborators in explorations and documentation that informs and deepens their work. A larger community of learners and partners with and around children takes shape.
Centering the museum’s language, thinking, planning, and practice around children takes hold gradually. New and more ways of placing children at the center begin to appear earlier in planning an exhibition, developing programs, framing the budget, and hiring and training staff. Through each project insights into children’s strengths and capabilities deepen. A shared vocabulary develops. New ways to support more elaborate explorations unfold. Cycles of documentation are tried, shared, and modified. Existing practices evolve and new ones emerge, clustering into an increasingly supportive set of everyday practices with children at the center. Museum-wide practice aligns thinking and links qualities of environments, experiences, exhibits, programs with children’s thinking and knowing. 
All museums have aspirations. Yet few actually translate these aspirations into change at a meaningful scale for a community, its citizens, or even itself. A shared vision and a sustained commitment are required. Placing children at the center of a museum’s long-term interests can be a way a museum matters in the life of its community. This commitment may be adopted as a value, a foundational principle, or a vision statement such as, “We envision a child-centered community that makes decisions based on what is in the long-term interest of the child.” Stated clearly and at the highest strategic level, placing children at the center can inspire, guide, and unify a museum’s varied and complex work across multiple formats and over time. 
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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Stakeholder Engagement Audit

As I am gearing up for a strategic planning project, I have been thinking about some of the usual planning steps and how they might be charged to do more work both as a part of the planning, as well as in moving the museum forward.

Every museum has stakeholders whether or not it recognizes them, serves them well, or enlists them in the life of the museum and community. Stakeholders are the people, groups, constituencies, and institutions who are likely to affect or be affected by a museum, its vision, plans, or projects. Not every museum is deliberate about identifying, understanding and engaging its stakeholders; some approach stakeholder engagement in a generic way, without considering stakeholders and their interests in relation to the museum and its interests. This is a missed opportunity.

Along with many museums, over the years I have expanded my view and appreciation of stakeholders, ways of engaging them, relating that engagement to the museum’s long-term strategic interests, and integrating stakeholders into the museum’s culture.

Especially when a museum anticipates significant change, careful examination of its stakeholders is critical. Strategic planning is an opportunity for a museum to think realistically and deeply about its stakeholders as it sets its future course. In preparing for a major expansion–an addition, renovation, new construction, or relocation– a museum must think about expanding its stakeholders and how to activate them around its vision. Finally, a stakeholder engagement audit advances a museum in becoming more magnetic like the museums described by Anne Bergeron and Beth Tuttle in Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement. In all these situations, a stakeholder engagement audit involves the museum in listening and responding to and being inclusive of its closest partners.

Stakeholder Engagement Audit At-a-Glance
A stakeholder engagement audit is a deliberate process for studying the individuals and groups across the community who share the museum’s interests and value its work and how it involves them. Strictly speaking, this is not a plan, but it does guide planning and decisions across the museum. Through gathering information, identifying common and consistent themes, and framing initiatives, the audit assists the museum in activating a stakeholder community around a compelling idea with positive outcomes.

Each museum has its own particular emphasis for a stakeholder engagement audit: widening its circle of stakeholders, better understanding community organizations, becoming more relationship based, or sustaining involvement. Depending on how formal or extensive the audit is, it can be done by an in-house team, strategic planners as part of their scope, or a firm specializing in this work. And, whether a museum takes this on in a big or small way, doing it is more important than doing it in a particular way. Conducting a stakeholder engagement audit addresses four broad questions.

• How does the museum currently view its stakeholders and how does it engage them?
• Around what significant, strategic idea does the museum hope to engage its stakeholders?
• What can the museum learn about its stakeholders to serve them and enlist their interests?
• How can the museum move forward by activating a stakeholder community?

How does the museum currently view its stakeholders are and how does it engage them? A practical starting step is developing a current and realistic picture of the museum’s stakeholder engagement. This background work looks at the stakeholders, both internal and external, who are engaged with the museum and benefit from its efforts. Board, funders, members, and visitors usually lead the list, but there are also partners, policy makers and gatekeepers. Push for 360º engagement. Stakeholders with shared interests who don’t (yet) fit in an obvious group can be carried forward: advisors or research partners from past projects or vendors and service providers with related interests. Capture regional and national as well as local stakeholders.

As part of identifying current stakeholder groups, the museum will also note how it currently serves and engages them through events, activities, communication, benefits, etc. Keep track of these along with opportunities for increasing their involvement at each step. Typically, this set of discussions shifts between what the museum currently does and what it could do in the future. The museum may gain insights in exploring what stakeholders of peer organizations look like–a museum of comparable size in its city or another city. This can introduce fresh perspectives including new ways to look at, cluster, and engage stakeholders.

In wanting to activate a stakeholder community around a compelling idea, a museum must explore the significant idea–or ideas–around which it currently engages them. Typically this is the mission, a slogan, or what the museum considers to be its brand. Often this conversation reveals that the museum lacks clarity around the set of ideas and what it represents or it has a limited way of talking about them.  

Around what significant, strategic idea does the museum hope to engage its stakeholders?
Most museums know that its stakeholders are motivated by its focus, track record, the population it serves, or personal relationships with top leaders. But most museums are not clear about what, in particular, this means given its community, mission, audience, and peer institutions.

Clarity about its own public value precedes communicating it and aligning around it. A compelling, strategic idea that is more than a slogan serves the stakeholder audit directly; it is also critical in making the museum’s case for support, coordinating messages internally, writing grants, hiring the right staff, and achieving museum-wide alignment.

Perhaps memorable and succinct, a tagline is generally not sufficiently compelling to activate and engage groups of stakeholders. It neither lends itself to a powerful agenda nor gives the museum traction to be a catalyst for action. Generally museums must look deeper into what they bring to their communities that others also recognize and value. A compelling idea is often located at the convergence of: the mission and vision with which it currently engages stakeholders; emergent opportunities pursued with greater rigor; and community priorities.

A helpful discussion at this point focuses on how the interests it shares with stakeholders could be more focused and relevant. Stakeholder interest might be framed around: strong families; learning through play; connecting art and the creative processes; transformative experiences through art; children’s potential; or authentic experiences related to place.

Realistically, most museums will refine this focus throughout the audit process itself: starting with an idea, framing questions for stakeholders, listening for what’s important to them, and following themes and threads. If a museum is fortunate, this work will continue beyond the audit because more staff will be attuned to big, resonating ideas that connect with stakeholders.

What can the museum learn about its stakeholders to serve them and enlist their interests? Now, get ready to listen to stakeholders and think about the relationship between them and the museum.

Individual interviews and facilitated conversations incorporate stakeholder perspectives and convey the museum’s willingness to listen. While there is no set number or mix of interviews, clearly, not all interviewees should be insiders-board, staff, and good friends. Varied perspectives and voices, including outliers, generate the rich information and new insights capable of providing strong direction. Typically these interviews are not confidential so interviewers can be selected based on warmth, clarity about the purpose and message, and good listening.

Face-to-face interviews and group conversations are opportunities for understanding how the museum’s strategic idea resonates with stakeholders; whether it is clearly expressed; and how it is meaningful to them. The museum will also hear how stakeholders see themselves as partners; who they view as other stakeholders and why; how much engagement they are interested in; what a fulfilling relationship involves; and the degree and source of the museum’s credibility in its area.

Organizing and distilling information from the interviews occurs in successive steps, looking at groups and approaches; themes; strengths and challenges. Forming stakeholder groups is more than sorting by demographic or external attributes. It involves finding and articulating meaningful distinctions among groups related to mutual interests, shared connections, and preferences for engagement so the similarities within and differences between the groups are easier to see and plan for.

Clustering stakeholder groups by internal (staff and board) and external stakeholders (i.e. visitors, members, community-based partners, civic leaders, donors, media, peers, gatekeepers) is a good first sort. Readiness to play with clusters, however, helps find meaningful groups and a manageable number. Interview material and the museum’s strategic idea for engagement are sources tools for customizing groups around relevant and specific interests. For instance, every museum has enthusiasts, but a museum may find designating enthusiasts for the riverfront is helpful. 

Interviews also reveal recurring themes such as a lack of clarity about the museum’s strategic idea, other community priorities, perception of the museum’s track record, concern about advocacy, or interest in the work of peer institutions. These themes can add definition to stakeholder groups, inform communication, or help shape engagement.

In effect, the interviews have tested the museum’s strategic vision and how compelling and clear it is for the stakeholders it hopes will invest in it with interest, time, and resources. This feedback should guide the museum in strengthening the idea, making it more tangible or relevant, or sharpening intended outcomes.

How can the museum move forward by activating a stakeholder community? Museums typically view stakeholder engagement as broad categories of involvement supported by a variety of activities and events. Participation occurs through visiting, volunteering, and attending events; learning through training, web content, or accessing resources; sharing through word-of-mouth, media coverage, or social media; support through funding or endorsing; and networking by opening doors, or social media. While stakeholder involvement very likely presents itself as these activities, activating a stakeholder community is more than assigning stakeholder groups to types of involvement.  

Developing a strategic-level framework can help the museum consolidate the audit’s information and insights and integrate it into its work. The framework also helps build alignment among its strategic idea, approaches to serving and enlisting stakeholders, and the internal capacity needed to support stakeholder engagement. A framework might include:

An institutional statement of the museum’s strategic idea around which it intends to activate stakeholders. This becomes helpful in messaging to stakeholder groups.

A working definition of stakeholder engagement. Consistent with the museum’s strategic idea, it also identifies what stakeholder engagement helps accomplish for the museum, and highlights characteristics of the museum’s approach to stakeholder engagement, such a: relationship-based, interactive, reciprocity; etc.

Three-to-four stakeholder initiatives for serving, engaging, and enlisting stakeholders. Initiatives focus on how the museum will activate engagement: opportunities it will provide; how it intends to build and sustain relationships and retain stakeholders; and the benefits it hopes to give and receive. One initiative may involve multiple stakeholder groups.

A logic model for each initiative to lay-out activities, resources, and short and long-term outcomes. A logic model also helps adjust the museum’s internal capacity to support, implement, and monitor stakeholder engagement considering: needed expertise, responsibility for implementation, coordination, communication channels, digital resources, etc. The logic models become action plans for stakeholder engagement and tools for monitoring progress.

Just More Work?
Is an audit just more work or does it put a museum ahead strategically? Museums can’t do well for themselves or their communities without investing in their stakeholders. Any time a museum focuses on its stakeholders thoughtfully, from a variety of perspectives, and in the context of long-term interests, it will be better off. There are other benefits as well. A stakeholder engagement audit can give a sense of how large and active the museum’s base of support is; surface new questions to explore about its stakeholders; identify new stakeholder groups; strengthen relationships with stakeholder groups; and identify stakeholder activities to drop because they are not valuable.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Climbing Houlihan’s Tree

When I was 4 years old, my 5 year-old sister, Kim, and 3 year-old neighbor, Pat and I climbed the tree between the house and the garage in Pat’s backyard. We climbed higher and higher until we couldn’t climb any higher. We were as high as the house roof and it was exhilarating; the view through the branches and leaves was fascinating. We couldn’t climb down either, but we were not concerned, standing on a branch with our arms wrapped around the trunk. When Mrs. Houlihan called and said, “Pat, Jeanne, Kim, where are you?” We called back to her and told her where we were. We also waved so she could see us. When she told us to come down, we said we would if we could, but we couldn’t. The branches were too far apart. It did not take Mrs. Houlihan long to call the fire department. Firefighters with ladders arrived soon and we were carried down. I can still climb Houlihan’s tree in my mind, sense my arms wrapped around the trunk, and thrill at seeing the world below. (In full disclosure, my sister says I climbed the tree alone.)

 Adventure playground-much like Bethnal Green
Twenty-five years later, I was doing research on adventure playgrounds in London for my thesis: looking at where children play on structures when they build the structures. One site visit was to the Bethnal Green adventure playground where children had used scrap lumber, ropes, discarded roller conveyors from the grocers, hand tools and nails to build rambling structures. I watched as children lugged plastic bread crates with them as they climbed up to a platform about 25 feet off the ground. Each child arriving at the platform settled into a crate and started rolling down the 40-foot run of the slide. Partially secured sheets of plywood were all that protected them from careening off the slide and down. I shuddered and winced as I watched child after child whip down that slide. Derrick, the Play Leader, cheered them on along with the other children. Each child emerged from the wild ride glowing and crowing with excitement. Their delight and pride erased the sense of alarm I had felt watching them.

Like most adults, I’ve seen both sides of risk taking, my own and children taking theirs. As many adults do, I wonder whether children today are finding the freedom to take and learn from the kind of physical risks that have long been part of play and childhood. Where are the settings children explore actively and with independence? Are there parks, playgrounds, empty lots, garages, and backyards close by and and is there time for children to explore heights, experience high speed, handle dangerous tools, be near dangerous elements (like water or fire), and engage in rough-and-tumble play? Along with some bumps, bruises, blood, and occasional bone breaks, children are assessing their capabilities, learning about the physical world, exulting at conquering a challenge, and feeling a grand sense of competence through their risky play.

The Necessity of Risk
From positive and inviting, to healthy and necessary, and to be avoided at all costs, risk is understood in a number of ways. It is challenge, uncertainty, peril, and the possibility of loss. Risk is so present in our lives, running through many daily activities and settings, familiar and new, indoors and out that it can be all of these. It naturally runs through children’s play.

While adults may try to protect children from risk, children need to learn to assess and manage developmentally appropriate risk for themselves. Play offers opportunities for children to learn first hand about their own abilities; coordinate their movements; estimate distances; grapple with uncertainty; overcome fears; and push the limits of the familiar. Adventurous play and the risk taking that comes with it impacts a child's physical and emotional development.

We can miss children’s competence and all that they have discovered about their own abilities if we allow our worries and fears to overwhelm us and scour the environment of loose and interesting objects. Giving children more freedom and choice even at a young age allows them to take more responsibility and accept consequences. Along with curiosity, children explore in a progressive manner and monitor the possibility of risk. Often children will sense risk and approach it gradually, test a surface, crawl bit-by-bit to a ledge, climb a few steps up a ladder, or pick up a spade and feel its heft.

“Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman’s swing. They feared that some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.”
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Boston Children's Museum

In play, risk takes a variety of forms; they explore heights, crawl into tunnels, pursue high speeds, handle sharp tools, are fascinated with water and fire, and wrestle around. Clearly all risks are not the same. There are reasonable risks for children at particular ages and abilities and there are extreme risks where serious injury is possible. Valuable distinctions are covered in the Alliance for Childhood’s recent publication Adventure: The value of risk in children’s play. Challenging activities, for instance, might look scary and take some mustering of courage to do, but safety features mitigate risks.  Genuine risk when something could go wrong is present with moderate risk; but with preparation, risk assessment related to age, and adult oversight this becomes calculated risk. Advanced, or extreme, risk requires extensive practice and significant skill development and is an unlikely fit for museums.

Ready for Risk
As museums expand into outdoor spaces, add climbers, sign onto Let’s Move Museums and Gardens, plant gardens, and outfit maker spaces, they encounter a greater range of issues related to risk. While they may not want to encourage the kind of risk of the 40-foot thrill ride at the Bethnal Green adventure playground, museums do have a significant opportunity to offer children some of the quintessential experiences of childhood with the physical challenges and risky play not available in other parts of their lives.

Expanding into adventurous play and exploration can, however, be challenging for museums even when they feel willing. On several master-planning projects I know of, the museum’s interest in offering children physical challenges and risk taking has been high initially. Play is in the mission. Twenty-first century skills including confidence, control, coordination, and creative thinking are in the learning model. Loose parts are in the list of exhibit criteria. High priority experience zones for the museum include a maker space, nature play area, and a multi-story climber. Lots of water is a requisite and even a zip-line is mentioned.

Then caution creeps in. The voice of adult worry and operational considerations are louder than the voice of advocacy for rich experiences for children. In the evolving plan, as key experiences are identified, and structures are defined, members of the museum team begin to express misgivings about loose parts, heights, water, tools, and surfaces. Perhaps there should be fewer sticks, less sand, a lower platform parents can reach easily, and no ropes. The log to walk across should be on the ground not crossing over a ditch. Will there actually be real rocks? Will there really be hammers? 

More opportunities for risky play and exploration inevitably involve increasing the tolerance for risk among museum staff as well as parents and educators. If museums value play as much as they say they do, value creativity, innovation, learner-directed exploration, and child-driven experiences, then challenge and risk are essential ingredients in the experiential mix museums offer.

Museums Taking Risks so Children Can Take Risks
Museums have enormous experience, expertise, and resources in creating safe, secure environments and engaging experiences for children and adults that they can draw on in providing adventuresome experiences in nature play, physical exploration, and maker projects for children and adults. At the same time, museums need to take some risks themselves to allow children and adults to enjoy the benefits of risks.

First and foremost, museums want to provide safe, secure environments. Concern for visitors’ health and safety is fundamental. Nevertheless, museums need to distinguish among a true need for safety, safety-for-its-own-sake along, and exaggerated fears about serious injuries, liability, and insurance issues.  Concerns about injuries, liability, and insurance should not be dismissed, but should be verified with information and supplemented by first-hand information about risk, challenge, injury in the museum’s particular environments and exhibits. In balancing safety and freedom to explore, the goal is to focus on reducing risks of serious injury while maintaining a spirit of challenge, creativity, and excitement.

 Museums can increase their understanding and tolerance for risk by building on their own practices, drawing on examples from other museums, checking out resources and articles, and working with experts, including the following steps.

Experiencing great heights at Morris Arboretum
Improve at Assessing Risk. A lot of territory exists between throwing caution to the wind and locking up every loose part. Risk assessment is something staff from all across the museum should be involved in exploring this territory by:
Distinguishing between risk and hazard. Operationalize these conditions for the museum. Risk is something a person decides; hazard is something dangerous beyond one’s control; think slippery floors. There can be an acceptable level of risk, but not an acceptable level of hazard.
Developing a shared vocabulary related to museum spaces, experiences and activities. Clarify challenge, risk and hazard and what each looks like for that museum and for different audiences and age groups. Coin and define useful terms like risky play, adventuresome play, or dramatic moments for a working lexicon.
Walking through the museum with new eyes. Invisible risks that someone is unlikely to recognize are potential safety problems: broken parts, trip hazards, and unstable structures. Also keep in mind, that if children and adults believe they are in an environment that is safer than it actually is, they will be less alert to risks that are actually present; they are likely to take more risks.
Checking and challenging operational realities related to staffing and supervision in friendly and straightforward ways. Agree on ways to broker priorities about what’s possible and necessary; and about balancing safety and freedom to explore.
Getting a realistic idea of actual rates of injury. Adventure has some useful data. Gather, monitor, and use data on injuries at the museum.

Learn From and About the Museum’s Own Risk Takers. The museum should learn about who ventures in and explores its exhibits, programs, gardens, and maker spaces everyday. What they expect and are comfortable with can be better understood and planned for by:
Talking with and listening to visitors about challenge, risk, and adventure. Field a focused conversation (or two) with parents and caregivers about their comfort with risk and challenge, for themselves and for their children at different ages. Some parents may be interested in risky play at the museum, a setting they trust.
Observing how visitors assess risk. Spend time in exhibits watching visitors approach something new, something risky. Notice the progressive steps they take to master a challenge whether it’s climbing, using a hot glue gun, or working a sewing machine.
Trusting others. Allowing risk puts trust in the child, the adult, and the staff. With their commitment to rich experiences that offer choice and spontaneity; expertise in materials and tools; alertness to hazard and risk; and preparation in guidance and oversight, museum staff are critical to managing risk.

Manage Opportunities for Risk.To offer more and richer adventuresome play experiences and fascinating maker projects, a museum needs to understand the kind of experiences it ideally hopes to offer and the benefits of doing so. A careful and deliberate approach can start with:   
Identifying the benefits of risky play: Keep the value of allowing choices and spontaneity and the advantages of experiencing a variety of risks and challenges front-and-center in planning and evaluating experiences and settings. Name the benefits that are important at that museum; capture them in photos and visitor's actual words.
Adding safety features and practices. Children’s museums incorporate many safety features throughout their exhibits and environments. Nets around a climbing structure and a single entrance and exit to a climber that adults can monitor are standard, but not the only, features. Graduated challenges and opportunities within a range allow children to assess their abilities.  
Getting smarter about guidance. Experiment with different levels of guidance: staffing, cuing adult oversight, and preparation. Problem solve how to allow children and adults to explore dangerous elements like how to build a fire or use a candle; offer opportunities for visitors to practice with unfamiliar tools; add control measures.
Testing an activity to understand its risks: Prototyping is a museum practice that lends itself to experimentation: working with unfamiliar tools, constructing forts, more open-ended activities, scaling experiences to a larger scale, introducing rocks, working with fire. Define what the museum hopes to learn, set up the activity, and plan to staff the area to understand what’s actually involved. Observe what children do; how do visitors handle risk? What were staff fears starting out and how realistic were they? How did staff feel watching visitors use an awl? How terrific did visitors seem to feel about their accomplishments?


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