Thursday, November 29, 2012

Who's in a family? 3 ways museums can welcome all families

If your museum doesn’t consider “families” its core audience group, it probably should. Now more than ever, most people coming to museums are visiting in family groups. Through research initiatives like the Family Learning Forum, we’ve come to know the benefits of inviting families into museums- for us and our communities. And if you didn't notice, the Family Learning Forum is a project of the USS Constitution Museum, a history museum. Catering to families is no longer solely the realm of children's museums. In an effort to serve families better, science centers are incorporating early childhood spaces and art museums are developing backpacks full of materials to engage children in their galleries.

Families are the units of our visitorship. When we offer family rates, family passes, and family memberships it’s important for us to think about what we mean by the word “family” and the assumptions we might make about what a family looks like, how many family members there are, and who’s who based on gender, race, and age.

Here are three ways to help make our museums more welcoming places for all families:

1. Define (or better yet, explicitly refrain from defining) your institution’s understanding of the word “family” in broad terms, somewhere prominent, like on your website or at the admissions desk. 

This is the easiest step to take in welcoming all families to your museum. Craft some language to let folks know that their family is welcome and won’t be scrutinized. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco does this simply and elegantly on their Family Pass.
"You define family - not us!"

2. Use the word “grown-up” “caregiver” or “adult” instead of “parent” “mom/dad” “grandparent” etc.

This suggestion can be used in signage as well as in conversations between visitors and floor staff. You don’t know who is accompanying a child to the museum, so avoid alienating your visitor or embarrassing yourself by keeping your language neutral and not making assumptions about relationships between family members. 

Examples of non-neutral language: 
  •  Family membership is limited to members of a single household.
  • Are you lost? Let’s go find your Mom.
  • Your granddaughter is so smart!
  • Is Dad at home today?
Examples of family-inclusive language:
  • All children must be accompanied by an adult caregiver. 
  • Uh-oh! Where's your grownup? 
  • Is this little-one with you? 
  • You all look like you’re having fun today! 

Family-inclusive signage at Boston Children's Museum

3. Make your policies fit your philosophy, not the other way around. 

If you've decided to tell your visitors that you support and validate their personal definition of "family", you might be worried that you'll start losing money on family passes and family memberships. Don't let that deter you from continuing to offer them, just change the way you think about them. Try offering memberships at rates based on the number of adults and children they want to put on the membership card. Before changing your family pass policy, try the Yerba Buena model- you might be surprised at how few people try and take advantage. And if it doesn't work, you can always institute a cap number later.

"And how many people would you like to put on your family membership?"

How does your museum welcome all families?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

American Family at Children's Discovery Museum

Yesterday we installed this little photography show in the art gallery at Children’s Discovery Museum and in the few hours it's been open, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Not only is the content of the show exciting to me, it was a particular pleasure to collaborate on a project that came together so quickly- just a few weeks, concept to install. With a quick timeline and the promise of a limited engagement, we were able to work in a way that felt much more experimental and responsive than what I'm used to.

I collaborated with art educator and gallery curator Lisa Ellsworth to plan, design and install American Family. She chose seven photographs from Courteney Coolidge’s American Families project to highlight one Bay Area family with two gay moms. To make sure the show felt relevant for all our visitors, Lisa developed an interpretive approach that focuses on the meaning of family and we wrote labels in the form of questions that invite visitors to talk about their own families.

The show opened just in time for San Jose Pride weekend, August 18-19. The Pride festival takes place on the Museum’s front lawn and this is the first year we’ll have Pride-related offerings in the museum itself.

The gallery is in a challenging space- it's part of a hallway that extends around a corner, framed by bathrooms and a defibrillator unit. Most visitors take a glance down the hall and if they don’t have to pee, say, “Oh, there’s nothing down this way- let’s go back downstairs.” Not exactly prime real estate.

But we made the most of it. We placed the larger photographs in strategic sight lines to draw interest from down the hall and positioned a table and chairs in the center to invite the kind of thoughtful lingering that we hoped would happen in our talk-back station. The photos are hung at kid-height so children know the photos are for them and for a bit of extra fun we extended the gallery experience into the rest of the second floor of the museum by including additional questions in places like the bathroom and the elevator.

As soon as the gallery opened, grown-ups were reading the questions on the wall to their children and the clips in the talk-back station filled up immediately. Many visitors have said they really like the photographs and Lisa and I are happy to see visitors spending more time in the art gallery. We're already talking about what's next.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Confusion, naivete, and walking through walls

On the first day of the Interactivity conference this year in Portland, I shared an elevator ride with a tall fellow with a white beard. He saw my badge and asked where the conference was being held so I told him that that's where I was headed and I'd walk him there. Trying to make friendly conversation, I asked him what museum he was from. He said he wasn't with any museum. A firm? I tried. He shook his head and smiled. On the board? Nope. I gave up. When I said I was confused he smiled again and said it was good to be in state of confusion. A half hour later I watched him give the keynote speech, introducing himself to the audience as John Seely Brown, Chief of Confusion.

Sometimes I can feel self conscious about being the new kid in a group of highly experienced professionals. But the truth was, they were all really excited to give me advice and introduce me to people I should know. The more questions I asked, the more answers I got.

As much as I look forward to gaining experience and some day becoming one of the Children's Museum Elders, I realize that I have something to bring to the field as the new kid. My naivete. And I don't mean ignorance. I think there's something valuable about not knowing your own limits.

One of my favorite science fiction novels is Robert Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. The title character is a cat named Pixel whose naivete is his power:

"...Pixel got the tag 'Schrodinger's Cat' hung on him because he walks through walls."
"How does he do that?"
Jane Libby answered, "It's impossible but he's so young he doesn't know it's impossible, so he does it anyhow."

I like that quotation so much I named my own cat after the cat who walks through walls.