Monday, June 1, 2015

The World's a Pink Explosion: Trans Family Exhibit Ready to Bloom

Thanks to the folks at the Incluseum for featuring this project on their blog

Rendering of the traveling version of the Trans Family Photo exhibit.

The Trans Family Photo Gallery, inspired by another project of mine, American Family, is a photography exhibit designed especially for children. The pictures in the gallery offer a window into the lives of transgender woman Erica Tobias and her children and grandchildren. 

My favorite part about working on this exhibit so far has been collaborating with accomplished photographer and RISD professor, Matthew Clowney. He's been such a joy to work with and I'm feeling very privileged to play a part in his creative process. Usually I come in at the later part of the exhibit development process- the artwork is made and it's my job to display it- but in this case, I've had the chance to work closely not only with Matthew but also with the family in the pictures. I feel like I've known Erica for years. From the interviews I conducted with family members, it's clear this is just who Erica is, a generous soul who welcomes everyone in with open arms, but I still feel special. We couldn't have picked a nicer family to work with.

Matthew making pictures of the Tobias family playing at the Boston Children's Museum.
This exhibit is also my first foray into the world of crowdfunding and it's been a huge learning experience for me. I can think of a million things I'd do differently for my next attempt, but right now I'm feeling so much gratitude for all the support, both moral and financial, we've received for our exhibit. I'm not a natural marketer so this campaign business is all new. It's always little scary going out of my comfort zone, but any time I'm scared I know I must be on to something.

The song playing in the background of the video is Pink Explosion, an original song written and performed by Matthew's partner, the talented Tracie Potochnik. Tracie had seen all the pictures Matthew had made of Erica and her family and listened to interviews I'd recorded with them. Inspired by Erica's love of the color pink and the springtime flowers in bloom, Tracie's refrain captures Erica's story beautifully: "The world's a pink explosion and I guess I'm bloomin' too." My favorite lines in song are in the last verse:

My heart it feels so happy and I guess it's just because
I'm finally who I'm meant to be and who I always was.

Here I am enjoying some downtime with Erica at her home with her daughters and granddaughter.
I'm excited about making this exhibit because I think all children (and adults for that matter) need what Laverne Cox calls "Possibility Models". We need to see people of color, women, and queer people represented in museums so children of all colors, all genders, and all sexualities can see the possibilities for themselves, not just as hypotheticals but as real, breathing options. 

Children gain an understanding of gender very early on in life. Many trans* and genderqueer individuals will report knowing they were different from their cisgender peers when they were toddlers. It's inevitable that some of the children who come to see this exhibit will recognize themselves. And for those who don't recognize themselves, I hope they'll see the importance of being a supportive family member and ally.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

It's time for sexism to exit through the gift shop

Striving to be gender inclusive- except in the gift shop.

When I was in college I had a job as a cashier in the gift shop at a children's museum. While I loved working at the museum, I didn't like working in the gift shop. It seemed to be the place in the museum that brought out the worst in people, children and grownups alike. A family who would spend the afternoon strolling through the exhibits, laughing and enjoying each others' company would end their visit in the gift shop, playing out the roles of whiny, wheedling children and bribing, manipulative adults.

But even more disturbing than the tantrums, bargaining, and empty threats, was the way families who had happily played dress-up with their boys and built block towers with their girls would pass over the gift shop threshold and suddenly become staunch gender-enforcers.

I vividly remember witnessing one such instance:

A mother and son were perusing the gift shop's one-dollar bins. Among the piles of cheap plastic toys the little boy, maybe four years old, settled on a pencil. A pencil. It was the color of bubble gum and had a matching pink downy feather sprouting out of where the eraser should have been. He smiled and held it up for his mother to see, absentmindedly stroking his cheek with the soft feather. She frowned at him and shook her head.

"No!" she said emphatically. "Pick something else."

Then she said something that made my stomach turn: "What would your father say?"

Now, it wasn't the museum's fault that this interaction happened in their gift shop. The pencil didn't say "girl" on it and it wasn't in a bin marked "girls". But it made me realize that the values that we were promoting in the rest of the museum (like gender equity) seemed to stop at the gift shop.

It is well-documented that when girls are reminded of their gender they tend to perform worse on academic tests. This phenomenon is known as stereotype threat and it happens when women internalize expectations that they won't be good at certain subjects like math or science. Many museums take this to heart and are careful to include representation of girls in their STEM exhibits by featuring girl characters, female pronouns, and profiles of important women in STEM professions. Likewise, many museums also won't discourage boys from trying on dresses, playing house, and caring for dolls in their exhibits.

The offerings in the exhibits reflect the museum's values, which educators and exhibit developers take very seriously. However, when it comes to gift shop offerings, a lot of museums will defer culpability. Our gift shop is run by an external vendor, they say with a shrug. We don't pick what gets sold or how it's displayed. Maybe true, but do you really have no say? What about that time you demanded that the cafe (also run by an external vendor) take peanuts off the menu? And don't try explaining that there's precedent for non-mission-aligned offerings because your cafe sells corn dogs next to the healthy eating exhibit. That's not an excuse, that's just hypocrisy. Get on that!

In a recent blog post on Let Clothes Be Clothes, the author asks London's Natural History Museum to imagine that the tops in their gift shop, "...aren’t t-shirts, but mini exhibits, and this exhibition is advertised to and for boys only – would that be acceptable? The Sciences are not a girl-free zone, and should never be promoted to children as such." Likewise, a post on Nerd in the Brain just articulated everything wrong with the unfortunate girls-only science books on sale at their local science museum. Namely that the books are "for girls" because they focus on the biology of flowers or the chemistry of baking muffins. Because boys don't want to bake muffins? Tell that to all the boys you didn't kick out of the play kitchen exhibit upstairs because they were busy pretending to bake. What message does it send to our visitors when they spend their whole museum visit exploring their interests freely, only to be packed back into little pink and blue boxes when they arrive in the gift shop?

This is about consistency of messaging so if it helps, think of it as branding. And it may be easier to improve than you think. Here are some suggestions for making the gift shop more gender inclusive, regardless of whether or not it's run by an external vendor:
  • Refuse to carry gender-labeled items. This means no "Girls Only" science books and equal-opportunity dinosaurs.
  • Do away with "girl" and "boy" sections. Group by age or interest instead.
  • Run training sessions for staff so they can help customers in ways that don't make assumptions. For example, give them the language to respond to a customer who is shopping "for a girl" by asking questions about the girl's interests rather than automatically pointing the customer at anything pink.
  • Make visible the efforts you are putting into promoting gender equity throughout the museum. Consider signage that points out specific design or content decisions you made and why you made them. If visitors have access to that knowledge, they might become more conscious of their own biases and assumptions about their children and themselves.
Our values are only as strong as our demonstrations of those values. The museum's mission shouldn't stop at the gift shop door.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The to-do list gets an upgrade

This year I have been trying out a planning tool that I really like. I'm not the first person to come up with this, but several people have liked the idea so I am passing it on to you. It's a to-do list that actually works.*

Basically it's a set of lists. I use Google Docs so I can access my document anywhere and update it easily- that's key. I populate the first list with my goals (professional, personal, short term, long term) and another with my accomplishments. Goals include gaining Twitter followers, writing blog posts, clearing out my studio, and getting an oil change (because for some reason I need the extra motivation for that one). Accomplishments include things like being a guest blogger and having conference proposals accepted but also meeting personal financial goals and writing thank you notes.

I keep adding new goals, making sure to vary short term and long term goals so I don't overwhelm myself. I find I don't mind looking at a big long to-do list if I'm also looking at list of things I did and I'm proud of. And I really like moving stuff from the Goals list to the Accomplishments list.

If you want to take it a step further, this document can serve as a personal archive too. For example, I just used my Accomplishments list to make a year-end summary I'm calling The State of the Margaret. It's a list of things I've done, as well as a few stats (money in the bank, loans paid off, Twitter followers gained, number of conference speaking engagements, etc.). Next year I'll compare my year-end summaries and see how far I've come.

I recommend this to anyone who wants a little personal encouragement for the things you are doing for yourself and your career. It's like a push and a pat on the back at the same time.

*For me. You might like it too.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Guest post on Boston Children's Museum's 'Power of Play' blog

You’ve likely seen it for yourself that there’s something very compelling for children about re-envisioning everyday objects, assembling ensembles, or pretending to be somebody else. But did you know it’s also good for their brains? According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), playing with costumes can build imagination, help children discover new things about themselves, and can be a powerful tool for self-expression. But I wasn’t about to take NAEYC’s word for it, so I took my questions to an expert: 8-year-old costume-enthusiast Nate Hill.

Nate in one of his favorite costumes.

My first contribution to the Boston Children's Museum blog is all about costumes. Inspired by Halloween, I sat down with two of my esteemed colleagues with experience not only teaching with costumes, but wearing them too: Arts Program Manager and performance artist Alice Vogler and Culture and Performing Arts Educator and ballet dancer Steve Schroth. I also interviewed 8-year-old Nate Hill, son of Marla QuiƱones, Director of Exhibit Design and Production. I was so taken with Nate's thoughtful, well-articulated responses that he quickly became the star of the article.

Read the rest of the article on the Power of Play blog here.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Guest post on the Western Museum Association blog

Nick Cave's "Freeport" at Peabody Essex Museum exemplifies an art exhibit with multigenerational appeal. Photo courtesy of Lauren Pazzaneze of Junkyard Arts.

 I love writing guest posts for other blogs so naturally I was thrilled when the Western Museum Association asked me to contribute. I saw it as the perfect opportunity to sit down with some of my colleagues at Boston Children's Museum and pick their brains.

I interviewed Director of Exhibitions Kate Marciniec and Arts Program Manager Alice Vogler and they shared with me their expertise and advice about how the museum field can look to children's museums to learn how to create exhibitions that successfully engage children and their families. The piece is called Bring the Family: Children's Museum Wisdom for the Rest of the Museum Community.

Here's how it starts:

So your museum wants to welcome families with children. You already know that welcoming families better serves the community and it also increases visitorship as the youngest visitors today are the members and donors of tomorrow.

But where to begin? A great way to start is by consulting the experts. And when it comes to designing multigenerational social learning experiences, children’s museums are certainly the experts. 
Note, I said, “multigenerational social learning experiences” and not “exhibits for children.” Because that’s the best-kept secret of the children’s museum—we actually design for grownups too. Kids don’t visit museums on their own—their adult caregivers are the ones deciding whether to stay and explore, or even to visit at all. Keeping adults entertained and engaged is key to creating great experiences for our young visitors.

Head on over to the Western Museum Association blog for the rest of the article.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Preparing art museums for children

Why is there is so much advice out there for adults about how to take children to museums? Articles are cropping up all over the place with titles like, Preparing Children for Art MuseumsWhen Can I Take My Kid to a Museum? and (my personal favorite) Taking Your Kid to the Museum Doesn’t Have to be MiserableThis trend is drawing attention to a very real issue that has nothing to do with whether adults are “equipped” to take their children to museums or if children are “ready” to be museum visitors. It's about museums creating learning experiences that work well for families.

For the most part, the suggestions in these guides are spot-on: start with your child’s interests, narrow your focus, take lots of breaks. But then some of the suggestions are a little baffling. Dr. Kimberlee L. Kiehl, director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC) makes a very thoughtful case for bringing children to museums, but at one point she recommends that since you can’t handle things in traditional collecting museums, you should bring toys to touch. Of course her recommendation is a practical one, but I hope the museums to which she refers (one has to wonder if she is implicating the Smithsonians here) are taking notes.

In another interview, Tricia Blasko, Curator of Education of the Racine Art Museum also has some excellent recommendations but then goes on to suggest that parents make their own scavenger hunt. Really? Scavenger hunts are the art museum version of the paper diner placemat that comes with crayons. It’s the most basic thing art museums have devised in the history of “quick! we forgot to make something for the kiddos”. Maybe they’re ubiquitous because they work, but if that's the case it seems simple enough to get the intern to make one up and leave some photocopies at the front desk, right?

People clearly want to bring their children to museums. We know museum visits do wonders for child development. The internet is abuzz with tips and tricks to hack your museum visit to make it more child-friendly. So here’s a crazy idea: why don’t we take the advice ourselves and make our museums easier for families to visit? I've compiled three examples of advice for visitors along with a few suggestions for how we can implement that advice so they don't have to. And here's a freebie: don't make families bring their own scavenger hunt- offer them one when they come in the door.

1. Look and Talk Together

"...encourage the children to hone their powers of observation by playing a game like I spy." Sharon Harding, How To Enjoy Art With Your Children
Most people don't feel comfortable having conversations about art, especially with children. But social interaction is so important in a museum. People learn and create memories by talking about what they're seeing. Additionally, visitors who are having engaging conversations are more likely to linger in the galleries.

To encourage dialogue between caregivers and children in the gallery, use brief, easy-to-read labels to give adults quick shots of background information and scripts to inspire their conversation. It's an incredibly effective technique in children's museums. Adults will read the questions right off the walls and it's an automatic conversation starter. Use temporary labels and observe visitors reading them in the galleries to see what questions are the juiciest.

An example of script-style interpretation in the exhibit, American Family at Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose

2. Review the Rules 

"Explaining to children in advance behavioral expectations (such as no touching) allows children to be prepared before their visit." Tricia Blasko, Preparing Children for Art Museums
Museum behavior rules are specific to museums. To set kids up to succeed (read: not get reprimanded in the galleries) we have to introduce them to our expectations and explain why we have these rules in place. Once children know what's expected of them, they'll feel comfortable, confident, and welcome in museums. That is, as long as our expectations are realistic. This is a great excuse to review the rules and toss out the ones that aren't there to protect the art and the visitors. It's worth reexamining policies that ban photos, cell phones, and talking.

A simple list of rules on the gallery map or website isn't enough- again, you're just putting the burden on the adult caregivers. Instead, use a direct approach that puts an emphasis on children having a positive visit. This could be a welcome speech from a visitor services representative, a complimentary intro tour for new visitors, an introductory gallery exhibit, or a video like this one from the Milwaukee Art Museum:

3. Limit Time 

“Don't plan on spending a full day in a museum or the entire family is likely to end up exhausted and grumpy.” Lisa Goodmurphy, 9 Tips for Taking Kids to an Art Museum
This is one of the best pieces of advice and it's the hardest to implement in real life. If a visitor spends $25 for each adult admission ticket, it's hard to justify leaving after only a few hours- which is probably all the kids can handle realistically. What if families could pay for a half day visit? Parking garages have reliable systems in place for charging people incrementally. Of course one pre-existing solution is membership, but that only works for local visitors and even if they want to be members, it's a big commitment to put the money down all at once. The St. Louis Art Museum and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco both offer gym-style memberships with recurring monthly payments.

Those are long term solutions. In the meantime, look around the museum and take note of all the opportunities visitors have to take a break and recharge. Cafeterias, picnic spots, gardens, and cozy nooks are essential museum amenities. Are there ways to make those spaces even more effective?

Child-sized museum fatigue. Photo by Babak Fakhamzadeh. 

In conclusion, we have work to do. But the good news is, visitors care about taking their children to museums. So much so that they want to help other visitors have positive museum experiences with their families. And museum educators are brimming with thoughtful solutions. People love museums and want to share that passion with their families. Just imagine how much more they’d love museums if we designed our exhibits with their families in mind.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Q&A on NPR's education blog

I'm thrilled to announce that my Q&A with NPR's Juana Summers just went live. You can read it on NPR's education blog here.

Screen captures from the NPR blog. Weird quote, but hey whatever, I'm just going to go with it.

Here's an excerpt from the Q&A:
We usually associate kinesthetic learning, learning by doing, with children and therefore as a lesser learning style than say, sitting in a lecture hall. Not only is that offensive to children, it's also just not true. We seem to have this bias that learning can't look like fun, and that's a pretty dreary way of looking at the world. Grown-ups and children alike learn in a whole range of ways and while sometimes learning looks like sitting down and being quiet — which can be very enjoyable — it's just one type of learning and it's certainly no better than other types of learning. In children's museums, we design experiences that engage the senses, stimulate the imagination, and encourage social interaction. Experiences that engage lots of different parts of the brain are particularly personal, memorable, and enjoyable and it looks like play — because it is.

Juana found my article on the Incluseum blog which led her to my post about kids in traditional museums. She interviewed me over the phone for this piece as part of a series that she's doing about play and learning. I'm so grateful to the Incluseum for the exposure that got me noticed by NPR.