Monday, August 29, 2011

Bookworm Gardens

Bookworm Gardens is not the storybook garden you might imagine with oversize teacups, fairytale castles, and a theme-park feel. Instead Bookworm Gardens is stories remembered and imagined from childhood found, in woods, fields, and sunny glades, and made fresh and vivid with plantings.  

Located on eight acres of land made available by Sheboygan County in eastern Wisconsin, Bookworm Gardens is the dream of founder Sandy Livermore. It has grown through the commitment and generosity of volunteers, artists, community organizations, and businesses.  

Peter Rabbit's hiding place, the tool shed in Mr McGregor's garden
Dozens of gardens on roughly two acres have currently been designed around stories and books. Seventy-five stories were selected through a collaborative process with teachers, librarians, reading specialists, parents, and children. Some stories are familiar and well-known; others are less so. Some are fiction; others are non-fiction, and from and about many cultures. 

Children’s books, stories, and a few fairy tales certainly represent the majority, but the stories are for a wide range of ages, including adult. In addition to expected stories like The Tale of Peter Rabbit (Beatrix Potter) and Make Way for Ducklings (Robert McKloskey) for younger children, there are chapter books like Sarah Plain and Tall (Patricia McLachlan) and The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame). A Sand County Almanac (Aldo Leopold) is more familiar to adults.

Stories are told in big and small ways, but never in the same way. They sometimes spread out like The Magic School Bus (Joanna Cole) and are planted incidentally as tree sculpture of re-used materials inspired by The Tin Forest (Helen Ward). The Gardens are punctuated by several major elements, a Hansel and Gretel House, an amphitheater and, soon, an outdoor kitchen. Landscape architect Herb Schaal from EDAW (Fort Collins, CO) provided the design that brought together the stories, the landscape, gardens, and activities.

Open this spring for its first full season, Bookworm Gardens looks as if it’s been there longer. The landscape has worked with the stories to inspire the gardens. Attention has been paid to working with many of the existing plants. For instance, instead of clearing the land, they removed invasive species and dead wood, cleared selectively, and kept many of the the Red Pines. Following the land’s contours and features, the ravines and slope have been incorporated into the landscape design and stories. The small post-and-beam barn, a project by students at the local community college, uses weathered boards that make it look like it’s seen many hard Wisconsin winters.

Of the many things Bookworm Gardens has done well, one is to seamlessly bring together a love of stories, the power of place and setting, and the possibilities of gardens. 

The Power of Place
The Magic School Bus lands at Bookworm Gardens
Stories are told–or perhaps told better– at Bookworm Gardens because they are told through outdoor settings that are multi-sensory and fully dimensional, complete with weather and smells. Even the most brilliant illustrations and even pop-up books can’t provide sunshine, wind, a drop of rain, or a splash in the pond.

A carefully edited landscape gives a strong sense of place to all the stories with a changing feel from on story setting to another. The Magic School Bus, with wings extended, back doors flung open, and plants spilling out, looks very much as if Ms. Frizzle has been at the wheel and driven off the road. Positioning the bus heading down a small slope adds excitement. 

Stopping by the Little House in the Big Woods.
Follow a soft pine needle pathway to a small clearing under the Red Pines. It’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. At any moment, it seems, Pa could come around from the back of the covered wagon, Ma could come out of the small cabin to cook over the open fire and Laura and Mary might return from gathering wood. Anyone can put on an apron, sweep out the cabin, or play with corn-husk dolls and join Laura and her family in their story. 

As unexpectedly as Jack and Annie come upon the tree house in Frog Creek, visiting bookworms come upon The Magic Treehouse (Mary Pope Osborne). Cantilevered over the ravine, hovering above the tree branches, the tree house gives a great sense of being up high along with an expansive view into the deep woods. As in the book, this treehouse is on pathways to adventures. In the quiet of the woods beyond sits a Japanese teahouse and garden. Step inside to fold paper cranes as in Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (Eleanor Coerr) or count along with One Leaf Rides The Wind (Celeste Davidson Mannis). Over in the meadow, join Marco and imagine the fish to be caught from the bridge in McElligot’s Pool (Dr. Seuss). And keep an out for the family of ducks waddling right out of Make Way For Ducklings (Robert McCloskey), baby ducklings with wings out in a row behind mother duck to the stream’s edge.

Discoveries Everywhere
Like a really good book, the story gardens scattered across the landscape captivate readers, walker, gardeners, and bookworms. Opportunities for discovery are everywhere along meandering pathways, views that open, and thoughtful attention to materials and detail.

Rewards for noticing and looking closely are many and wonderful. They are to be commented on, puzzled over, and remembered. A slice has been taken out of the pizza garden from  Curious George and the Pizza (Margaret and H.A. Rey). Charlotte’s message from Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White) is written in the spider web in the barn and is a creation of a local metal artist.

Look up. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (Judi Barrett) has inspired hanging fishing bobbers, hotdogs, and hamburgers from overhead tree branches. Look down. Foot-high toadstools carved from fallen oak trees by a local friend of the garden pop-up here-and-there. For many they are fairy gardens located near tiny shelves of colored pebbles, nuts, pine cones, and bark. For others their specific profiles identify the type of mushrooms. No, look low. There's Stuart Little (E.B. White), his house and car, and miniature plants, tucked among the terrace near the ampitheater.

Where Winnie the Pooh lives under the name of Sanders
Some smaller story gardens might be missed which would be too bad. The charming detail of Winnie The Pooh living under the name of Sanders is playfully presented in the tree house. Mr. Sanders’ cottage looks just like it does in the line drawing in Winnie The Pooh (A.A. Milne) except that the lines have been filled in and the cottage is child-size. Elsewhere, plants may nearly hide the story; by the end of the summer, the corn plants cover the cereal bowl and spoon of From Corn to Cereal (Roberta Basel).

Artists have brought a hand to creating sculptures, murals, embellishments. Beautifully crafted doors open the book bins in the stone pillars throughout the gardens, literally opening up more stories. And while not exactly a garden, a discovery is to be made in the girls’ restroom where a long-necked giraffe peeks over from one stall to next. 

So well sited are the stories, you can go from story garden to story garden and discover a dozen stories before lunch.

Layers of Stories, Gardens, and Play
Stories in the gardens
Bookworm Gardens is a naturally inter-generational place. Grandparents stroll, sit, and bring a practiced green thumb to the garden. Children hop into a story and act it out or pick up the magnifying glass and look at flowers. Parents too move across a range of roles and activities: as player, walker, or reader, facilitating engagement for the youngest, or chatting with other parents and grandparents. Even youth are involved as readers in the garden.

Harry the Dirty Dog gets scrubbed
Not only is there a sense of playfulness throughout the gardens, but there are many kinds of play as well. Children can tie the giant’s shoelaces in Jack and the Beanstalk. They wash and scrub Harry The Dirty Dog (Gene Zion), which is a great, great favorite as is giving Harry a haircut. Children step through set of giant colorful picture frames as they follow Katie into a story into a painting in Katie and the Sunflowers (James Mahew). Role-play is everywhere: playing Laura in Little House, helping Pooh track Woozles, checking the garden shed for Peter Rabbit, or sitting on an egg to help as Horton Hatches the Egg (Dr. Seuss).

Plantings add interest, content, and activities for children and adults. Children fill watering cans and water plants or, sometimes, a topiary llama or bear. In the grass they find the spiny green burrs of the rare American Chestnuts planted years ago on the property. Learning about what plants support caterpillars and attract butterflies in the Waiting for Wings (Lois Ehlert) butterfly garden is interesting to all ages. The garden around Is Your Mama A Llama? (Deborah Guarino) has a humorous collection of plants with animal names.

Places to sit, rest, remember, and retell the stories are plentiful, playful, and garden and story inspired. There are garden benches, a sod sofa, and rocking chairs. The Three Bears family of chairs might be too big or too small, but are often just right for lap time, reading time, and friend time.

Many Happy Endings
Bookworm Gardens is a wonderful story with many happy endings. It continues to grow. About 60 of the 75 story gardens have been planted and more are planned. The dinosaur for Dinosaur Bones (Bob Barner) had just arrived but was not yet planted when I visited. Next to the Hansel and Gretel House, land is being cleared and readied for The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett). Closing for the winter in November, Bookworm Gardens will open next spring for a new season.

A soon to be planted story garden: Dinosaur Bones

Monday, August 22, 2011

Relationships As a Museum Value

Some familiar ways relationships play out at museums–here at OMSI
It may seem I’m stating the obvious in saying relationships are at the heart of museums and why they matter.

We often refer to the powerful relationship between people and objects that distinguish museums from other settings. We talk about relationships with funders. Museums have significant educational and community partnerships. Various types of social media help museums stay in touch with their visitors.

On the other hand, relationships may not really be at the heart of museums so much as a part of serving visitors, members, volunteers, and vendors. Few museums include relationships among their guiding principles or organizational values along with, for instance, respect, inclusiveness, cooperation, or quality. Were relationships an explicit value, a museum would be engaged in thoughtful and on-going cultivation, nourishing and sustaining relationships with internal and external stakeholders and with the community. Valuing strong relationships would guide decisions and individual and organizational behavior at every level. There would be a degree of accountability around recognized and valued relationships and the supporting practices for pursuing them.

Recognizing Relationships
My own relationships with museums–working with many museums and with some museums over many years–have increased my appreciation of the value and potential of relationships. Observing in museums, developing strategic and education plans, and hearing staff and board talk about their museum’s strengths, strong relationships are at the core of a museum’s mission, sustainability, and recognized community value. Relationships operate at every scale from strategic to daily operations and span every museum function. They are expressed in countless ways.

•            Several years ago, I walked through Discovery Center Museum (Rockford, IL) with Executive Director Sarah Wolfe; she greeted–and was greeted by–a dozen parents and children by name, remembering camp projects and asking about family members.
•            I have watched as Stepping Stones Children’s Museum (Norwalk, CT) has evolved from having many programmatic partners, to having long-term committed partnerships, to conducting an audit on the impact of these partnerships on engaging low-income residents.
•            Strong and established relationships with foundations were a critical source of guidance and support for three museums I worked with as each went through extended leadership transitions.
•            Rochester Museum and Science Center (NY) enjoys third generation enrollees in its preschool.
•            For 20 years, a group of children’s museums has been collaborating to develop interactive exhibits to travel to member museums. YMEC (Youth Museum Exhibit Collaborative) shares a model similar to the SMEC (Science Museum Exhibit Collaborative) and TEAMS  (Traveling Exhibits at Museums of Science) Collaborative.
•            Madison Children’s Museum (WI) built on existing relationships with local artists, architects, designers, and fabricators to create artwork or exhibit elements for its new 56,000 square foot museum.
•            Cultivating Relationships is a program strategy for The Bakken Museum (Minneapolis, MN) that recognizes that “relationships are at the heart of learning and at the core of The Bakken’s strategic interest in serving the community.”
•            One museum has been thoughtful and deliberate in cultivating wonderful friends, building awareness, community connections, goodwill, and advocacy around the convergence of public policy and museum priorities.

These examples may sound like anecdotes, and, in a way, they are. But for several of the museums mentioned here, I chose only one of several examples of significant relationships for that museum. For  museums where relationships are a priority, managing them well is also a priority. Within those museums there is a shared understanding about cultivating and supporting relationships that is not unlike a systematic and strategic approach to stakeholders.

An Expanded View of Relationships
Less apparent, but essential to museums’ value, are ways in which relationships–social, physical, and experiential–are deeply embedded in learning. Learning involves others, people with whom we are in relationship. Our earliest learning relies on personal bonds with caregivers and within the family. Of course, the social context of learning with family and friends continues throughout the life cycle and across every type of learning setting, formal and informal, including museums, zoos, and nature centers.

Julian explores relationships at ¡Explora!
Understanding and meaning depends on the flow of talking, pointing, interrupting, sharing ideas, and negotiating with family members, peers, museum staff, and volunteer. We are also constructing, testing, reconstructing, and elaborating on ideas that connect our previous experiences with experiences afforded by exhibits and programs. This might be at an interactive exhibit component, an activity on toddler Tuesdays, standing before a painting, or stepping back in time in an historic home. In fact, museums invest a great deal of creativity, problem solving, evaluation, staff training, and fabrication in shaping the kind of social encounters in exhibits and programs to encourage remembering, shared hunches, elaborating on ideas among families, community groups, and other social groups.

I’ve also learned a lot about relationships from the Municipal Schools in Reggio Emilia (Italy) where relationships are at the very core of a remarkable and hardworking educational experience over the last 60 years. The concept of relationships is captured incisively and expansively by Loris Malaguzzi, the guiding light of Reggio practice: 

“Relationship is the primary connecting dimension of our system, however, understood not merely as a warm, protective envelope, but rather as a dynamic conjunction of forces and elements interacting towards a common purpose.” 

 Relationships interact: people, objects, parts. (Argyle Design, Inc.)

In the Reggio approach, children are considered in relation with the family, other children, the community, and the wider society. Relationships–exchanges among children, cooperation at all levels of the school, and sustained exploration in projects–enrich learning. Not only are relationships important among children, parents, and teachers in these schools, but connections between the schools, the wider community, and the city are also critical. The school and the child are integrated into the broader civic and cultural context, contributing actively to the life of the city, to its vibrancy and resilience. This takes many forms, from children being out in the community, to studying the city, to being viewed as active citizens in the city, citizens of today who will also live in the future.

Relationship Value
A more expansive view of relationships has real potential for museums. Relationships have an easy fit with the multi-faceted and complex nature of museums, capable of straddling both mission and margin, tangible and intangible benefits. They lend themselves to the multiple, dynamic connections and interactions a museum has daily, weekly, monthly and throughout the year with a wide range of stakeholders having varied perspectives and interests.
Relationships at play at Heureka
An organizational value of relationships supports the quality, variety, and relevance of learning and customer experiences expected of a museum and necessary to its recognition as a respected community resource. Through successive interactions and exchanges among people and groups of people, a museum’s relationships evolve, just like the dynamic external context in which it operates and the community where it lives. A museum’s interactions and relationships offer a prime opportunity to learn from and about visitors and members of the community. This is a boon to museums that might otherwise ease towards complacency or rest in comfortable in isolation.

Relationships can also be a way for a museum to be nimble in its work, serving internal and external audiences and accomplishing its strategic and financial goals. A focus on sustained relationships encourages a longer-term perspective, an investment of time and attention that considers a museum’s interests and resources and those of its stakeholders, supporters, and partners. A shared organizational understanding of the potential of relationships, supported by compatible practices, systems and structures are necessary elements for staff and trustees to live this, or any, organizational value.

Committing to relationships as an organizational value places a museum in a rich ecology of interconnections and exchanges with visitors, learners, and supporters; with other organizations and museums; and in a shared life with its community. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Postcard From The Edge of Summer

I’m off on vacation. It will probably be something of a busman’s holiday–a visit to a museum, a garden, a county historical society, and a stack of articles to enjoy. It usually is. But there’s always something unexpected and memorable to take away.

Two years ago, driving along the Trans-Canada Highway in the Rockies we came upon cars backed-up for miles and at a complete stop. We stopped too far from the accident ahead. Eager to stretch our legs and breathe the piney air, we stepped out of the car onto the shoulder of the road. Looking into the woods an unexpected message greeted us.

I have enjoyed noodling on the who and why at this very place for two years; I have neither answers nor clues, but savor the delight of imagining.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Conference and The Conversation

Just like everyone loves a great party, everyone loves a great conference.

In a way, it’s high season for planning great museum conferences. The Visitor Studies conference recently concluded. Early Bird registration is here for the October ASTC conference. In mid September, the Association of Children’s Museum’s program committee meets to plan InterActivity 2012. And here in the Twin Cities, committees are in planning mode to host AAM’s annual conference April 29 - May 2.

I enjoy and, in fact, rely on a really good conference and have written about the 2011 InterActivity in Houston and the VSA Conference. I catch up with colleagues, hear about exciting work and new (or continuing) challenges, and push my thinking. Much as we all look to the conference itself to inspire our work, I have been thinking that the year surrounding the conference is overlooked.

This idea started taking shape in a thought-provoking session at the end of the VSA conference. Joe Heimlich, Jessica Luke, and Kris Morrissey challenged the group to think about strengthening the critical practice of the conference. A spirited discussion pushed the boundaries of the topic. Comments ranged across structuring the conference as a journey, experimenting with session formats, and finding more time for critical reflection.

The thinking was quick and lively. The intensity, though, had the end of-the-conference feel. This is when personal connections have been renewed and fueled; the energy of shared experiences runs high; and a momentum built over three days has taken hold. Intentions about continuing the conversations back in our museums, universities, schools, and practice are good and true. Yet, they fade as we each grab a suitcase, step onto the elevator, catch the shuttle, and speed to the airport.

Regrettably, the sense of urgency to know more about and build on each others' work disappears. Remembering to share articles, references, and links is interrupted. The remarkable opportunity of bringing people together from Portland, Houston, and Boston all in one place has evaporated.

I’m no different in this respect. That last session at the VSA conference, however, has pushed my thinking about what sustaining the conference throughout the year might be like.

What if a conference were a node or a moment in a rich flowing conversation among many colleagues over the course of a year, and moved from one year on to the next?

Both extending the conference and strengthening the conversation are necessary. Conferences should be no less rich, while the surrounding conversations should be more inclusive and robust. This would enhance what conferences are intended to: grow professionals, open the field to new ideas, advance professional practice, strengthen our institutions, and deepen our community value.

Conversations do take place throughout the year among colleagues, across projects, and between partners. Listservs are active; blogs are growing in number and followers. My sense is that overall they are relatively small, brief, and unlikely to build momentum. A broader reach and shared energy would allow the conference to energize the conversation and let it do more of its work.

An unimaginable amount of planning occurs far in advance of a conference in our association offices, on committees, and in museums. A really good conference is everyone’s responsibility. So too is a sustained and satisfying conversation that wraps around it and draws us in.

Extending the Conference
Extending the conference is not a matter of making it longer, but of giving it a bigger tail.

•            Build up to the conference in varied ways. People arrive at conferences fresh from pre-conference workshops and events. Project meetings can occur then. This brings energy. What other conference appetizers and desserts are possible?

•            Plan the conference as a journey that continues beyond the final sessions. This builds on Emlyn Koster’s suggestion at VSA to think about next year’s conference as having a beginning, middle, and end. And I would add, a new beginning.

•            Wind the conference down in a way that moves the conversation forward and invites participation. It’s true that by the last day of a conference, numbers dwindle. A day with a decidedly forward trajectory might stem attrition.

•            Actively engage attendees in next year’s work at the conference end. Right after the conference theme is introduced and summary or critical reflection sessions are happening, sessions are fresh, connections are strong, and resolutions are firm. Make time for people to find each other and start talking about next year’s sessions.

Strengthening the Conversation
The conversation is really many conversations, with voices and channels added to build connections, spread ideas, and nourish the sense of community among museums.

•            Launch the conversation from the conference. Agree on a book to read as a group about next year’s topic. Frame a question or topic to explore on the listserv and in readings over the coming year.

•            Generate ways for more people to be involved in different aspects of the conference conversation all year long. I know of program committees, host committees, and reviewers for session proposals. What are other roles?

•            Use online formats to channel energy and exchange on a conference theme or shared question. Joanna Fisher has started a Museums, Community and Social Responsibility conversation on LinkedIn. 

•            Add your voice and bring someone to the conversation. We are all part of other conversations. I read museum journals and often have silent conversations with the authors; these sometimes become part of conference sessions, blogs, an email to a colleague, or a search for more articles on a topic.

More Questions
Change happens from the top down and the bottom up. These are initial thoughts from the bottom about an attenuated conversation around museum conferences. Admittedly, some may not be new ideas at all and others may be unrealistic. But perhaps this will invite you and others into the conversation to share and explore these and more questions. And frame your own.

•            What encourages on-going conversations in other settings? Does your museum do this fairly well? Do you attend a conference that is attempting to do this? In the VSA session, Mary Ellen Munley mentioned Open Space Technology and World Café. I just googled, “café conversations” and found two sites that look interesting: Conversation Café and Public Conversations Project

•            What are on-line equivalents to conference session formats that might work? 

I'm looking forward to the conversation and the conference.