Sunday, May 21, 2017

Tackling Persistent Questions About Learning Frameworks

I feel fortunate to have recently attended InterActivity 2017 in Pasadena and to have a great time. As always, seeing and catching up with colleagues from far and wide renews me. Gathering recollections about the first InterActivity they attended made many personal connections even richer. I was impressed with the courage and imaginations of two museums, The Children’s Museum of Brownsville and Play Africa, in the session, Children’s Museums as Strategies for Children’s Rights. Wandering the pathways in the Kidspace Arroyo Adventure among native plants and tiny lights as darkness set in was magical. And, I learned a new word, adulting, thanks to Henry Schulson.

I was also encouraged that learning frameworks are receiving attention, perhaps even more than in previous years. One session description began with, “The buzz continues about learning frameworks, …” More perspectives on what learning frameworks can be, smaller museums developing learning frameworks, frameworks referenced in discussing play, and frameworks guiding museum research are all indicators that museums are serious about improving their planning and evaluation of learning experiences and deepening their learning value.

At the same time, some basic questions still hover around them. At the conference, I was in group discussions, overheard comments, and was asked questions that I have been thinking about. On reflection, these explicit and tacit questions seem to touch on more than just learning frameworks. They relate to how learning in museums is viewed and how professional practices are sometimes pursued. In the long run, they can limit our thinking and our capacity to increase museums’ value to their audience and community.

These questions focus on 6 areas. They may be ones you and others in your museum also have and want to explore. They may be questions you hear from colleagues for which you wish you had better responses. Or thinking about them just might help move your thinking or produce helpful insights about learning frameworks that will facilitate your work.

Why do we call this a learning framework when it focuses on play? If a museum is all about play and the power of play, this is an obvious source of confusion. At least initially. In following that thought, we need to ask why play is valued in the museum. Is play valued for its own sake or is because of the learning that occurs during children’s play and how it contributes to children’s overall development? True, the relationship between play and learning is not always obvious. In fact, museums, and children’s museums in particular, are working to explore the nature of this relationship and how to convey it to parents and caregivers and to understand it themselves. Another reason a learning framework is called a learning framework is that education, or learning, is, at core, the nature of museums’ value to their communities. In 1992, the American Alliance of Museums’ report, Excellence and Equity, established education as central to museums’ public service.  

While a museum may focus its learning framework on play–or creativity, inquiry, making, or global awareness–those serve as entry points to learning, to thinking about diverse learners, serving as a solid platform for a new initiative, or describing the museum’s learning value.

Do we have to use the word, “pedagogy”? A director of education confided in me that when the CFO hears the word pedagogy, he shrieks with horror. He’s an otherwise normal guy. When I asked for clues about this response, she said that pedagogy sounds academic to him. He may be protesting or making fun of the word; she isn’t sure. Pedagogy, as the theory and practice of education, should not be considered an outrageous or pretentious term to use in talking about a museum’s learning focus, the theories that inform it, and how it encourages learning through its resources and practices. Especially in an institution with learning central to its purpose and education tied to its tax-exempt status. I doubt that saying, fund balance does not elicit screams.

Of course, it is not mandatory to use the word pedagogy. When it’s the right word for your purposes, however, and the best way to refer to the museum’s learning ideas and approaches, use it with confidence. When the howling stops, you can explain what it means and model what listening learn looks like.

Aren’t definitions limiting? Definitions are a vehicle for a group of people to focus, think together, and discuss what something important to them means. Very often, however, we assume that the people we work with mean the same thing we do when we use the same words frequently–play, interactive, creative, global awareness, etc. Without discussion that leads to a shared definition of what something means, how are we to know? Like guiding principles, criteria, and even a mission, definitions make important ideas visible and public for others to consider, ask about, and build on. Rather than a box that confines our thinking, a definition allows use to look into a word or phrase, and glimpse what meanings it may hold. We can revisit it and rethink it based on new information.

Definitions don’t need to be long, technical, or academic. They can brief and in the museum’s own words. But they must be clear and used consistently for communicating among museum staff, with museum supporters, and partners. Months, or years from now, that definition of learning can be revisited and updated.  

Should all areas of the museum be involved in a learning framework? Everyone who works in a museum has a responsibility for visitor safety and security. Likewise, each person is expected to use resources carefully and to align their work with the museum’s strategic plan. Because each person’s work contributes to the museum’s delivering engaging learning experiences for its visitors, perspectives from across the museum–from the bookkeeper and cashier, to the volunteer coordinator, preparator, events coordinator, and receptionist–all help in creating a well-thought out learning framework. Furthermore each person has insights and ideas about the museum’s learning experiences as museum-goers, as learners themselves, from conversations they overhear in the museum, or what they hear from their contacts.

Everyone on the museum staff doesn’t need to be on the learning framework team or deeply involved in developing the framework. At a minimum, everyone should know the museum is developing a framework or has one and should have an opportunity to think with others about how it relates to their own work. Ideally, however, all should be invited to contribute their expertise; and offered a chance to be a sounding board or a reviewer.  
Do we start from scratch for the learning framework? If your museum has a mission (and it probably does), you already have a start on your learning framework. If your museum has a vision, values, and a description of its intended audience, you are on your way to having a learning framework that aligns with your museum’s driving principles. Clues about what else to include in the learning framework can be found in the strategic plan, exhibit plan, MAP (Museum Assessment Project) materials and report. Think about the conversations staff have had about learning, diversity, partners, adult engagement; gather studies and articles that have excited staff and are referenced in discussions. You can look at learning frameworks from other museums too and see how they have addressed learning focus or impact.

All of this informs the learning framework which consolidates important ideas about learning, learners, and learning experiences in your museum. You will likely need to organize, prioritize, and fill some gaps. But you don’t need to start from scratch.

When is a learning framework done? More important than being “done” is having the essential framework parts in place and assuming it will grow and change over time. First and foremost, the framework should reflect the big ideas and ongoing dialogue about the museum’s learning purpose, its learners, and learning experiences. With the main parts in place, a museum can start to use the framework to develop exhibit goals, plan an initiative, or evaluate its camps. Time and actual use provide information for integrating the framework into current museum practices and developing new ones.

Conditions in the museum and its community are guaranteed to change over time. Naturally a museum can’t anticipate everything. The audience may age up or down; engaging parents and caregivers may become a new priority; community initiatives may come on-line; new studies will shed a new light on learning in museums. A framework should be planned for updates that reflect changes and new insights. For instance, as it learns more about learning through its framework, a museum may want to add indicators to its outcomes or develop a research agenda.

Each museum best determines when its learning framework captures the essence of its learning interests and is sufficiently robust and ready to serve as a useful tool for its educational planning and evaluation.

What questions persist for you about learning frameworks?

Sunday, May 7, 2017

InterActivity: 27 Years, 15 Recollections

InterActivity 2014

It’s May, a seasonal start of sorts for museums. May is Museum Month in many cities and states and Thursday May 18th is International Museum Day, celebrated since 1977. It is also the season of museum conferences beginning with ACM’s InterActivty 2017 in Pasadena (May 2-5) and AAM2017 in St Louis (May 7-10).

(Carol Scott (c) and Catherine Horne (r)
ReImagining Children's Museums (2012)
Professional conferences bring us together for what email, Facebook, GTM, Tweets, and Instagram can’t do even with their remarkable immediacy and connectivity: to encounter, engage, and explore, personally and professionally. Seasoned professionals and enthusiastic newcomers travel and meet in a new city where a host museum opens its doors and welcoming arms. We reconnect with colleagues in new positions and at new museums and hear of others whose careers and life journeys have taken them on other paths and to other conferences. Part family gathering, class reunion, and professional development institute, it’s a work party wrapped in a 3-day conversation.
Countless hours of planning by the host museum and ACM’s experienced staff shape a shared identity and build capacity to strengthen our museums and communities. This occurs at an increasingly larger scale with more registrants, exhibitors, and colleagues from more countries every year. In formal sessions, roundtable discussions, casual gatherings, and memorable evening events, we share accomplishments, meet new colleagues, navigate new realities, and learn together.

A platform for field-wide growth, the conference kicks off with the emerging museum conference. It channels fresh ideas to museums such as the Promising Practices awards (1999 – 2005) and host museum training for the (first) Asian Exhibit Initiative (2006). In 2014 participants from the 2013 Museum Study Group Tour to Reggio Emilia shared experiences at a pre-conference, Bringing Reggio Home, in Phoenix. The launch of Reimagining Children’s Museums in Portland in 2012 was followed by a preview of reimaginings in 2013 in Phoenix. Since 2011, representatives from international museums gather annually. Presenting the annual Great Friend to Kids award closes the conference, sending us off reflective, reconnected, and recharged.

Each year’s conversations inevitably conjure up past conferences. I often remember the first InterActivity I attended in 1990 hosted by Chicago Children’s Museum. I think the idea for YMEC (Youth Museum Exhibit Collaborative) started taking shape then as did lasting friendships that came from it. I loved the quirky, “makery”, and creative mail art exhibit. I still remember Karen Dummer, then Executive Director of Minnesota Children’s Museum, wonder out loud whether our museum should house an immunization clinic. The idea seemed outlandish to me at the time. I now realize Karen was 20 years ahead of the rest of us with museums now alert to ways of serving their communities in meaningful ways.

This year I asked friends and colleagues, what continues to stand out for you about your first InterActivity? A seemingly simple question, it elicited powerful impressions of personal relevance, connection, belonging, and gratitude.

Elee Wood (l) and Mary Maher (r) (2017)
Elee Wood, Museum Studies Program, IU School of Liberal Arts. ”My first conference was in 1996, the year it was in St. Paul where I then worked. Mr. Rogers received the Great Friend to Kids award. That was back when ACM was AYM (Association of Youth Museums). As a young professional, I was beyond thrilled to be able to meet all of the ‘big kids’ of the children’s museum field from Brooklyn, Boston, and Indianapolis. Of course it was a fantastic opportunity to meet Fred Rogers and show him around our new museum. That was also the first conference presentation I organized; I think the session title was “For the People, By the People” and centered on community involvement in exhibit planning. I had connected with others who created community-centered exhibitions that included people from the Troppen Junior Museum (Amsterdam), Chicago Children’s Museum, possibly Boston and highlighted the One World gallery at Minnesota Children’s Museum.” 

Collette Michaud, Children’s Museum of Sonoma County. “What I remember from my first InterActivity in 2005 in Indianapolis (IN) was how scared I was because I didn’t know anyone or anything about the children’s museum industry. All I knew was that I had a ridiculous dream of starting a children’s museum in my community and was hoping to learn all I could about how to do it.  What I found at the conference was an incredibly warm and welcoming group of people - mostly women, who selflessly took the time to share with me how they had started their own museums. I realized that they had been like me at one point  - just a person with a dream.  They confirmed that anything was possible. Ten years and as many Interactivity conferences later, I was able to open a museum in my community. I will forever be grateful for the generosity of so many people at that first conference. Their stories and willingness to share have deeply inspired and encouraged me over the years.”   

Julia Bland, Louisiana Children’s Museum. “My first conference was in 1998 in San Jose. I felt so overwhelmed and exhilarated - all mixed together. I probably looked like a reporter - asking questions constantly and taking notes from everyone I met. I moved through the conference days bursting with pride, with full confidence that children's museums were addressing the most important issues of the country!

What I remember from that conference could be said of any one since then - really committed professionals, passionate about their work and its hierarchy in the national ecosystems, explosive creativity (even on the tables as centerpieces), a learning environment that made me wish for cloning, nationally significant speakers (Hillary Clinton accepted the Best Friend to Kids Award) and a lot of really nice people.”

Tsivia Cohen, Chicago Children’s Museum. “My first Interactivity was in 2004 in Houston. Our presentation was called Presto! You’re There! Using Pretend as a Vehicle for Learning. We presented with two other museums, and my colleague Elaine Bentley and I were thrilled to hear how this same concept was being explored in completely different ways. We were in a hotel attached to a shopping mall outside of town. It was extremely hot outside and the only way into the city itself--and the museums--was on busses. I loved getting to see the Children's Museum of Houston as well as the Art Museum. For me the best part of the meeting was the opportunity to chat with colleagues whose roles were similar to my own. The connections I made led to new connections and a sense of a broader community of colleagues.”

Carol Scott, Children’s Museum of the Desert. “I was a new Director of Kidspace which was struggling when I attended my first InterActivity in Indianapolis in 1997. I was overwhelmed by TCM’s grandeur and wondered how I could ever compare what we could do with what Indy was. After more research, I came to realize that their museum was the exception, not the typical model.”

Aaron Goldblatt, Paul Orselli and Jen Alexander (2012)
Photo courtesy of Paul Orselli Workshop
Paul Orselli, Paul Orselli Workshop. “I don’t think it was my first ACM, but one of my most memorable and fortuitous conferences was the one in 2007 (I believe) in Chicago during which I met Vessela Gercheva from Bulgaria.  Vessela introduced herself after a session I presented in, and I thought, I’m never going to see this person again. I’m never going to travel to Bulgaria. Little did I know that chance meeting would lead to my involvement with Muzeiko, the first Children’s Museum in Bulgaria!”

Tanya Andrews, Children’s Museum of Tacoma. “The first IA I attended was Indianapolis--it must have been 1997. I was recently engaged! I think what struck me was the size and diversity of our field. How many small fries there are amongst some giants. It's like the ocean--small little fish swim peacefully with the big whales.  Everyone is in support of one another. I felt that right away.”

Kathy Gustafson-Hilton, Hands On! Studio. “My first InterActivity was 1997 in Indianapolis which makes this my 20th I/A; how time flies when you're having a blast. What a memorable combination, attending my first I/A conference and visiting the Indianapolis Children's Museum for the first time! I didn't know what to expect from the conference and didn't know many people. Of course, I had heard a lot about the legendary ICM. Neither disappointed. The thing I remember most about the conference is how friendly and welcoming everyone was - that hasn't changed in 20 years. And what I remember most about ICM is the joy of riding on the beautiful carousel. Both were whirlwind of uplifting experiences!”

Catherine Horne, Discovery Place. “My first impression at InterActivity at Minnesota Children’s Museum in St Paul in 1996 was that I had finally entered a museum that demonstrated good design, great learning, and wonderful play. A triple threat.”

Mary Maher, Hand To Hand.The first InterActvity I went to was in Seattle in 1994. Actually ACM hired me as conference manager. It had just hired Janet but her start date wasn't until June 27. The Great Friend to Kids Award went to Peggy Charren. The biggest standout over the years has been how the leadership and "character" of each host museum colors the conference. Host museums play a role in defining the program, but they also play a much bigger role in truly welcoming attendees, opening their museums and their communities to us as visitors, and inviting us to sample the resources and local expertise they live and work with every day. They give a good feel for the place. At the best conferences, you come away thinking, I see how this museum staff thinks, how they operate, and who their community is—and now I understand how they became who they are.

Brenda Baker, Madison Children’s Museum. “I remember sitting crossed legged on the floor of Elaine Gurian's hotel room, as she held court perched atop a double bed. 20 or 30 people crammed into her hotel room for a session on navigating our field's future. This was before ACM had a professional staff, an office in Washington, or a conference with more than 80-100 people. I listened and absorbed. But mostly, I was in utter awe, swept up with inspiration and enthusiasm when I realized I had met my tribe.” 

Jen Alexander, KidCity. “I'm pretty sure I got my money's worth out of my first Interactivity. It was 18 years ago in New York City. To this day, I'm still inspired by two presentations I saw there. I listened to a pair of playground designers describe their collaboration on the incredible Battery Park City playground - the one with a multi-kid cycle-carousel and waterspout lion heads made of stone. It became the standard by which I've judged every playground ever since! 

1999 is also the year Neil Postman gave a breathtakingly brilliant speech titled, Five things we need to teach our young. He made a pitch that we should stop thinking about learning in terms of subjects like math, English, science and instead teach things like rhetoric and methods of persuasion, appreciation of art, and understanding of religion. It would be hard to overstate the impact of that speech on my parenting and my work as a children's museum designer.  It was later published in the 1999 Hand-in-Hand (Vol. 13, #2).

I always learn something new at InterActivity. It also works as a mirror -- I see things about my own work that I hadn't noticed before. As we say in the tourism business, worth the trip!”

Aaron Goldblatt, Metcalfe Architecture and Design. “I attended InterActivity for the first time in Houston in 1993. It was a watershed moment. At the time I had been at Please Touch for 2 years and I still had a solo studio practice. In Houston, the world cracked open. I saw this world as full of people doing stuff that was exciting, fun, and challenging and thought, this is what I should be doing. I decided to close my studio practice and join this collaborative, challenging work.” 

Erik Schurink, Long Island Children’s Museum. "My first ACM conference was in Indianapolis.  The year? 1997 or 98. I remember loving the storytelling exhibit (the car, the hair salon), and a tween stationed at the porch of the house in that exhibit beautifully reciting a poem by Langston Hughes. What also struck me about this exhibit was its intimacy in contrast to the size of the museum itself. I remember how my childhood memories were triggered by the model trains and the impressive model landscape. I remember a session about teamwork explaining its 4 stages: forming, storming, norming, performing. It's an awareness still very useful to me. However I'm not positive that this was at my very first or second ACM conference. 

I remember visiting the Eiteljorg, how its art resonated with me in relation to the first children's exhibit I designed, To Walk in Two Worlds, an exhibit about indigenous people living contemporary lives in America, while carrying on their cultural heritage. I remember meeting Jane Clark Chermayeff, and having a chat with her at the hotel's breakfast setup. I remember sitting in on a YMEC meeting brainstorming ideas for the next exhibit round." 

This is a very small selection of recollections from only a few people who have attended InterActivity over the decades. Yet even just these memories speak to the remarkable, committed people who come together to fulfill the hopes of our gatherings.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

An Invitation to Think Together

If you read Curator, and I hope you do, I encourage you to read Play and Children’s Museums: A Path Forward or a Point of Tension? in the January 2017 issue.

The article reviews findings from research on play that is underway by members of the Children’s Museum Research Network, a project of the Association of Children’s Museum  funded by IMLS.  The Network which includes 10 children’s museums is in the process of conducting 3-5 research studies over 2-years to explore and articulate the learning value of children’s museums. Using a case study approach with 5 of the Network museums, the study has focused on learning frameworks, the major vocabularies they share, the constructs they use, and the learning theories that are implicitly or explicitly supported. Play, a defining concept for many children’s museums, emerged as a problematic element for children’s museums articulating their learning value. Three observations have emerged from the study.
• Each of the 5 museums positioned play differently.
• The museums often did not define play in their learning frameworks.
• The museums viewed the connection between play and learning differently.

Recognizing that the study is small, the authors nevertheless suggest that even children’s museums that have articulated their most important ideas about learning and learning value lack a shared understanding and conceptualization of play, internally and with other children’s museums. The authors suggest that individual children’s museums and the children’s museum field as a whole would benefit from developing a common understanding of play and its relation to learning.

The authors readily acknowledge that several aspects of play make it challenging. First, long approached from multiple theoretical perspectives, play is difficult to define and to operationalize. This is abundantly clear from any issue of The American Journal of PlayPlay is variously viewed as the release of tension, mastery over anxieties and conflicts, preparation for life, and consolidating learning already acquired. There is no agreed upon definition for play. Compounding its elusiveness, play is also undervalued. In contrast to the accepted value of learning, play is not highly valued by educators and parents. Even in children’s museums there is ambivalence about play. I was once asked how to advocate for play without using the word play.

Conceptually Messy, Joyous, and Imprecise
The authors are right to look critically at the extent to which children’s museums have defined what is central to their distinct value. They have raised important issues while providing glimpses into the evolving thinking of these museums. It’s not enough to be passionate about play or to have a cherished slogan like play is learning. Diligently articulating what play is, its benefits, and how it is a productive strategy for learning is critical. 

I agree, there is a problem with play. In fact there are, undoubtedly, several problems with play. On the one hand, play is a highly relevant focus for museums that are for and about children, interested in their well-being and potential, and focused on what matters to children. Essentially, play is worthy of attention because of its role in children’s well-being, their social-emotional development, and their entitlement to childhood. 

On the other hand, play is a challenging starting point for rapidly advancing the research interests of a relatively young wing of the museum field. It is conceptually messy, joyous, and imprecise. For centuries it has eluded definition and it is rife with paradoxes inhabiting its very core.
In effect the study exposes what has always been challenging for children’s museums. They are about someone–children–not about something like art, science, history, or natural history. They have lacked the subject matter definition and body of knowledge that art, science, natural history and history museums have claimed, enjoyed, and used to good advantage. Moreover, until about 20 years ago, play wasn’t explored in museums. Play was understood primarily in the context of playgrounds, preschools, day care settings, and the backyard.

Problem or Invitation?
Will the children’s museum field be strengthened by lively discussions about play and its role in children’s museum settings? Absolutely. Yet, rather than viewing the lack of definition of play–internally and across the field–as a problem, I would frame this as an invitation to think together. This represents important, urgent, field-wide work. For children’s museums as a field to inhabit this conceptual territory and increase their value for children, parents, caregivers, and communities, they must address this together, developing shared understandings and language around play.

From my perch working with children’s museums, I see growing capacity. Work is proceeding, somewhat slowly, but at an increasing pace. With perhaps one exception, The Strong, National Museum of Play, this work doesn’t obviously resemble similar work in other museums. Children’s museums are as yet unlikely to hire play scholars, designate a vice president for play studies, or have play fellowships in ways similar to how art museums hire art historians and artists, history museums hire historians, and science museums hire scientists.  

Finding a way to think together is not easy, nor is it linear. Like play, it is messy and joyous with invitations everywhere. Starting points are, in fact, at the very heart of each children’s museum, in situating play in the vision, mission, and values–literally or figuratively, directly or indirectly. Every mission statement need not include the word, play. Play, however, like children, families, childhood, learning, creativity, thinking, well-being, and community are relevant to articulating what a museum aspires to create for its community and why it exists. Many and lively discussions help surface areas of tension and ambiguity among ideas, beliefs, and concepts and generate new insights. Crossing boundaries, leaping over walls, and connecting theory, practice, and research are necessary as is engaging with other children's museums. A shared language around play will emerge from articulating the relationship between play and learning or play and creativity. In sharing insights museums will inevitably rework familiar ideas, uncover new ones, and construct new frameworks.

In this endeavor, it is helpful to view children’s museums as an on-going experiment. Relatively new and focusing on children rather than a subject, children’s museums have been experimenting for decades. In effect, they have been playing with the museum model in response to changing social and cultural contexts related to children. Views of children change; family structures shift. The cities and towns in which children grow up and in which children’s museums live evolve and change. They are taking on new roles in their communities and in the lives of children and families.

In her recent presentation, The Importance of And at MuseumNext in Melbourne (AU) Elaine Gurian explored how museums need to appreciate nuance, navigate uncertainty, and manage complexity in being relevant. Among strategies she proposes is engaging in experimentation in exhibitions. As children’s museums push into new territory around play, an experimental mindset is a great asset to be used deliberately.

Considering the nature of play and its elusiveness, it would be unfortunate to force a definition of play too soon or be too certain about any single theory or definition of play. Much work has yet to be done in exploring different possibilities about the relationship between play and learning, considering age groups or the role of adults in the particular context of children’s museums. Articulating beliefs about play, considering alternative constellations of ideas, formalizing conceptualizations, forging a shared view of play requires time and disciplined thinking. An example of this long-term contextualized work comes from the municipal infant toddler centers and preschools in Reggio Emilia (IT).   

After 40 years of studying various pedagogical thinkers, like Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky, the Reggio educators arrived at what they call, “Our Piaget” and “Our Vygotsky.” Emerging from a practice of questioning, these educators identified ways in which these thinkers both narrowed thinking about children in some areas and yet opened other, productive paths for developing a pedagogy for the Reggio schools. Committing to similar diligence, shared thinking, and taking advantage of each others’ work, children’s museums can author a comparable pedagogy, “our play,” that reflects insights into children, play, and museum environments.

An invitation to think together offers the possibility of bringing a children’s museum perspective to play that will benefit children, parents and caregivers, communities, museums, and the study of play. Opening this effort to engage more committed, thoughtful people in working creatively and collaboratively across more children’s museums will help grow a shared language around play. Like play itself, this language and its related vocabulary, ideas, and constructs will express the variety, vitality, and value of children’s museums. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

In the Primordial Ooze of Early Planning


I love the primordial ooze of early planning for a big museum project. It may be a new museum, an expansion, or reinventing a museum. There is no near or far in the midst of primordial ooze; no fixed or firm center; no visible shore. In this early stage everything oozes into everything else. Potential is enormous, vision is fuzzy; possibilities bump and meld into one another.

Not every member of a team or planning task force, however, enjoys this murky phase. Avoiding it, however, is virtually impossible. Museums find different strategies for navigating the thick mass of shadowy possibilities. Typically museum leadership or founding board members look for guidance from other museums, master planners, and their own related experience. They visit museums that are strong examples of what they aspire to become and attend museum planning conferences.

A project definition, a set of well-tested planning steps grouped into phases with project milestones help bring order to the early steps in the process. But, at some point, there is inevitably a stutter in a process this extensive and complex. A key team member moves on or joins the team; planning money is hard to find; the “perfect” site doesn’t come through. The team regroups, the process slows, and sometimes, the project is resized.

It is one thing to have a planning process laid out, but how does a museum team ready itself for the unavoidable ups-and-downs of the intense, often life-changing, journey they are beginning? A few realities about the process have emerged from the experience of countless museums that have started up, expanded, or reinvented themselves. It's helpful to keep them in mind.   

This is not actually a linear process. Project planning, especially, in the early stages, is a discovery process. While perhaps a disciplined discovery process, it is nonetheless exploratory, opportunistic, and has a life of its own. Laid out on charts, the process looks orderly with a clear beginning and end. Planning, in fact, starts long before building size is determined or design begins. It often runs on parallel tracks and moves forward at different rates. Trial and error and false starts are inevitable. And, what appears to be the end of a project is actually a new beginning. The museum opens, meets reality, and is on a new learning curve.

Everything connects with everything. Especially and emphatically at the beginning of a project! The vision connects to the community and to the mission; both connect with audience. Audience informs the target market and attendance. Community size and projected attendance are closely related to building size and exhibit square footage. Thinking about a building without considering the location is unproductive; will the site draw audiences? And everything connects to funding which connects to vision, mission, staff, and the community. 

There’s no single model for a museum, plan, or project. Every project is distinct from another because every museum is distinct. Even two projects underway in the same town at about the same time differ in material ways. A journey is shaped depending on whether a museum is mature or a start-up, renovating or building new, its size, in a museum-going community or not, starting off in during lean or boom years, has an experienced or inexperienced capital campaign team. Museums certainly should borrow and learn from other museums, projects, and planning processes–of course! But they should also borrow with a mind to the particular parameters of their project and community and adapt accordingly. 

The museum field has not only enjoyed a building boom but also has a track record of sharing its lessons. Insider insights into a capital project by a science center in the east are regularly passed on to an art museum expanding in the west and a children’s museum starting up in the south in conference sessions, blogs, and journals. Take comfort and take advantage of others having blazed the trail before and having insights others want. Reach out to leaders at museums that have recently expanded, renovated, or opened a completely new museum. Be respectful of their time and play this generosity forward and help other projects coming along.

Preparation, preparation, preparation. Planning and preparation help develop shared expectations among planning team members, the board, across the museum, and with partners about the vision and what lies ahead. Understand the necessary steps, what needs to be accomplished during each, and who should be involved. Decide how decisions will be made and start learning a new vocabulary and terms. Implement and track practices that are helpful in guiding the discovery, wrangling orderliness throughout the process, and reinvigorating staff and board. It is unlikely a team can do too much preparation and planning.

Actively collecting resources to serve as a bookshelf for the project will be useful in navigating murky moments throughout the process. A dog-eared article may be the just-in-time information or needed perspective when facing a tough decision. Others' reflections of their experiences can bring comfort at a challenging moment. Sharing a blog post can lift a pesky question into the open for a lively discussion.

The following selected Museum Notes blog posts address some of the inevitable questions, challenges, and realities that surface in the long meander of process. How do we build support for the project? Should we start off in a permanent site or grow site-by-site? Who should our partners be? Can’t our audience be "everyone"?

WhatDoes Your Museum Make Possible? Every museum needs to think about and place a frame around its potential value to its community, visitors, partners, and friends. This enduring value can take many forms–from sparking extraordinary insights about the world to creating greater agency and competence among learners and citizens, to inviting joy. Articulating the hoped for benefits of a museum visit early on and identifying multiple ways to realize them will be helpful in a museum’s being recognized and valued as a community asset.   

Stakeholders + Engagement. “Stakeholders” is a term a museum might not think about early in its planning process. Stakeholders play a key role at every step along the way. They are partners, supporters, members, gatekeepers, staff, and board, and decision makers who can become friends. Thinking about the museum’s stakeholders, who they are in its community, and how to involve them in meaningful ways throughout the process will favorably impact the project. 

Vision with a View to Impact. A clear and powerful vision is necessary for the journey ahead. At the same time, a hard working vision is not always the first choice of a group setting out on a long, complex process and feeling the need to accomplish everything all at once. A hard working vision connects with impact and emerges from knowing the community, connecting the community’s and museum’s assets, and describing the positive change the museum believes is possible. 

Audience, An Area of Enduring Focus. Nothing is more central to a museum’s existence and aspirations than its audience. Understanding audience is never complete, but is especially key in starting up or planning for dramatic growth. Museums learn about their audiences in many ways: identifying primary, secondary, and emerging audiences; surveying visitors; analyzing attendance data; conducting audience research; engaging with the audience. This focus on audience serves to remind staff and board that the people and communities they hope to serve are the highest priority, at the center, and at every step.

Vision, Process, and Position for the Big Museum Project. The earliest stages of a museum project are hard to visualize, but are truly formative. This period of exploration creates clarity around an inspiring project vision, a process that supports and delivers on that vision, and the position the museum hopes to assume in its community. This sounds simpler than it is. Everyone is eager to get going. Perhaps more challenging is how vision, process, and position entwine and interact with one another. Clarity around vision, process, and position is often what separates two equally ambitious projects from one another.

Growing Site By Site. Among the most frequently asked questions from groups starting a museum is, “Should we focus on opening in a permanent site with the space and amenities we want or should we open sooner in a smaller site and assume we’ll move later? The question itself expresses the complexity and trade-offs in making a decision with far-reaching implications. While there’s no formula for finding the right site at the right time in a relatively simple process, some guidelines emerge from the experiences–successful and otherwise–of museums that have wrestled with this task.

Planning Out Loud. Planning out loud makes a museum’s thinking, testing, and learning visible to itself and its stakeholders. Bigger than a prototype, louder than a focus group, and unfolding over months and possibly years, planning out loud uses long-term, deliberate testing of multiple aspects of a museum by engaging the community: from testing hours, staffing, and how much mess; to community partnerships; to programming schedules, and how to communicate with stakeholders.

Unpacking Nice + Necessary. Nice and necessary serve as two valued and complementary lenses for viewing a museum, the roles it plays in its community, and how it pursues its goals. Museums that are starting up or expanding will find it helpful to understand and articulate that they are nice and how they are necessary in ways that are meaningful to their community. 

Good luck on the journey ahead! 

Photo credit: A glimpse of the primordial soup courtesy of the Large Hadron Collider's Alice Experiments