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 do not live behind the picket fence— [their] lives fall outside outdated notions of family, with a mom at home and a dad at work."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.

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