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.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Guest post on The Incluseum blog

I'm honored that The Incluseum, one of my favorite blogs, has published a post of mine about the role of inclusive language in making museums more welcoming to families of all kinds.

Here's a handy dandy chart I made to accompany my post:

Read the full article at The Incluseum and use the comments section to let us know how your museum is trying to be inclusive of all kinds of families.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Defining family: starting the conversation at your museum

Families are vitally important to museums. By serving families museums can expand their audience, serve their community, encourage repeat visitation, and build the next generation of museum visitors. 

But who exactly is considered a family? And how are museums actively welcoming families of all kinds?

I recently asked these questions at a brown bag discussion with my colleagues at Boston Children's Museum. The conversation went so well that I want to share a step-by-step outline for how you could lead a similar discussion at your museum. And PS. I'm not a manager or director. Anyone at any level of the museum can organize an informal discussion like this.

Some background information

The following outline is based on a session I gave with Laura Callen and Rachel Kadner at the California Association of Museums conference. The presentation was called "Welcoming 21st Century Families in Museums" with the goals of debunking the myth of the nuclear family and turning a critical eye on museum policies, programs, and language. Laura is the founder and director of the Adoption Museum Project, an organization devoted to exploring the story of adoption.  Rachel is the Parenting and Community Partnerships Manager at Habitot Children’s Museum whose programs serve families of all kinds. Both Laura and Rachel have strong backgrounds in social justice.

Starting the conversation

You've booked the conference room, sent the all-staff email, and gathered up your Sharpies and giant Post-It pad. You're ready to talk families at the museum. Here's a cheat-sheet to help you along in your conversation:

1. What does family mean to you?

Everyone has their own definition of family. By asking this question you can begin to explore your preconceived notions about what family means and you may learn things about your colleagues you never knew before. After your discussion, offer up this definition that Laura, Rachel, and I came up with:

21st Century Family n.
  1.  A family as defined by the individuals involved, inclusive across race, culture, gender, age, and marital status. Family members may or may not be biologically related, share the same household, or be legally recognized.
  2. As opposed to "nuclear family". 

2. Share some facts

"4 out of 5 people living in the US ... do not live behind the picket fence— [their] lives fall outside outdated notions of family, with a mom at home and a dad at work."
How many of your co-workers are in this majority?

3. Talk about allyship

Museums have the privilege to serve and be allies for families of all kinds. What does it mean to be an ally?

  • taking responsibility for the changes we know are needed in our society 
  • being intentional, overt, and consistent
  • challenging prevailing patterns of oppression 
  • making privileges that are usually invisible, visible 
  • facilitating the empowerment of persons targeted by oppression 
  • talking to others in the dominant group about their behavior 

4. What are we doing to serve families of all kinds?

Chances are, your museum is already doing things to welcome and serve diverse families, intentionally or not. Use this opportunity to focus on all the good work you're already doing. Not only is it encouraging and validating to start here, it will also illuminate areas for improvement and pre-existing partnerships that could be strengthened.

5. How could we do even more?

Now is the time for brainstorming. After you've gotten a good list going, go back through the ideas you've come up with and identify possible community advocates or partners you could leverage and find interested individuals to investigate next steps. This turns your list of ideas into a list of action items and people who will be excited to help in the effort.

And that's it! Make sure you document your conversation for the participating members as well as the folks who couldn't make it. And keep the discussion going.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Museums and children: built to fail?

Does the thought of children in a museum make your heart swell? or does it make your heart stop? If the museum isn’t set up for young visitors, you’re probably on the cardiac arrest side of the equation. And it’s understandable.

The fact of the matter is, kids use museums differently than grown-ups. They’re more active and they talk more. This is how they learn and relate to the world. If museums truly want real live ACTUAL children to visit then they need to accept that children have different needs than grownups and design for those needs. If they don’t, museums are upholding unfair expectations. Children seem disruptive in galleries because galleries are not designed for their learning style. In effect, museums have set them up for failure.

One of the most fundamental problems here is the narrow definition of an appropriate experience for children to have in a museum setting. Columnist Judith Dobrzynski is becoming well-known for expressing her biases against museum experiences that look too much like fun and her thoughts on this issue is no exception. A self-described proponent of children in museums, she notes that the children she sees in museums are often “just horsing around or talking” and holds in contrast examples from the Denver Art Museum where they are actively engaging children with backpacks and programs that relate directly to the artwork on exhibit. Young visitors learn history and make art inspired by what they see on the walls. Judith deems this experience an appropriate one because she sees a clear correlation between the programming and the collection.

But Dobrzynski's underlying assumption is that every interaction a child has in a museum must be a content-driven one. When she writes dismissively about what she sees as “just play” she’s dismissing the fact that children learn by playing. In this regard, traditional museums need to take a page from the children’s museum handbook. Children’s museums (and science museums) have mission statements about sparking interest and inspiring love of learning, not delivering facts or even explaining concepts. They value attitudes and relationships over transference of knowledge.

Designing for children (and other kinesthetic learners) in museums is often mistaken for dumbing-down the museum. This speaks more to our society’s hierarchy of learning styles than anything else, but that’s another blog post. It’s this misapprehension that stokes the fears of folks like Ian Hewett who writes that such a philosophy dictates that “high culture must be brought down to the kids’ level”. He believes that art is far too complex for a child to appreciate. Incited by the bad behavior of the notorious grownups at the Tate Museum who let their kids climb all over a Donald Judd sculpture, he suggests that the pendulum is swinging in such a child-centric direction that eventually all hell will break loose and ultimately concludes that we simply cannot accommodate children in museums at all and they should be banned from museums altogether.

Of course there are plenty of museum professionals who disagree with Hewett. Educator Sarah Erdman encourages parents to visit museums with their babies. Not only does a museum visit serve the interests of a parent who wants a break from the isolated world of Cheerios and laundry (so much laundry), it can also delight infants with some of their favorite things: bright colors, photos of human faces, and the voice of their parent as they excitedly narrate their experience.

I wish Ian had been with me at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston last weekend (really, not really) to see an infant in his mother’s arms go gaga for their Quilts and Color exhibit. The baby may not have comprehended the history of the quilts or the color theory that his parents were interested in, but he was enjoying art with his family in a developmentally appropriate way. I felt bad that his mom felt like she had to shush his squeals of delight in the quiet gallery.

“We should be thrilled when even young children respond so enthusiastically ... Isn’t this exactly what we want?” 
Dea Birkett, Director of Kids in Museums, The Telegraph

Setting realistic expectations for children in museums comes down to what we in the children’s museum field call “ages and stages”. A three-year-old has very different needs and capabilities than a seven-year-old or a thirteen-year-old so exhibit developers match their expectations for children to their development and design experiences that meet their widely varying needs simultaneously. And children's museums always try to make sure the experience is just as engaging for grownups because let’s face it, the kids didn’t drive themselves to the museum. Creating multi-layered experiences is challenging, but it’s not impossible.

Sesame Street is a classic example of a successful multi-layered experience. Do the kids know who Placido Domingo is? Nope. Do they still get a kick out of Placido Flamingo? Absolutely.

As educator Cate Bayles succinctly states, “children breathe life into museums”. And deep down, most of us really do want children in our museums- even if it’s just to entice their parents. But making room for children in museums has its implications. What does it mean to truly invite children to the museum?