Thursday, January 15, 2015

Learning from the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

This article, by Museum Education Director Cathy Saunders, was also posted on Kidoinfo

I started school in the early 70s, a white child in a Boston suburban school that had integrated busing.  I wondered what it would be like to have an hour-long bus ride to school, but I gave no thought to why other students traveled so far each day. A few years later, when a special holiday was created to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and our teachers began to talk with us about the civil rights movement, I began to understand things that I was seeing around me.

I was shocked to learn that white and black children had not been allowed to go to school together or even play together. I was relieved to know that someone as courageous as Dr. King had stood up to the injustice – and I was in awe of the pictures of thousands of people who stood behind him at rallies and marches. They were all brave. It made me scared and proud.

I was relieved to know that I wasn’t growing up in that confusing time when children were barred from attending school. But then I started to notice and question other things that didn’t make sense. How come the children from Boston were bused to our schools, but we weren’t bused into Boston schools? Even though black and white children played together, how come we lived in different neighborhoods and why did we have different toys?

My parents did not always know how to discuss these issues with me. But, they were honest and truthful about their own experiences, even when it felt insufficient to me. Sometimes I asked the questions at very embarrassing moments. They compassionately answered my questions as I posed them, and asked me how I thought things should be. I didn’t just want answers, I wanted to make things right.

Fast forward to 2015. Now Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a federal holiday and the president of the United States is African American. So much progress has been made; we have moved beyond many of the problems that spurred the civil rights movement. Yet, recent events in Ferguson and New York City have made it painfully clear that discrimination, prejudice and inequality based on race are still present.

Why is Dr. King’s work relevant to the issues of today? How do we talk with children about these difficult issues? It’s important that we do not put Dr. King on a pedestal. He didn’t work alone; many people, black and white, old and young, were involved. These leaders and every day heroes of the civil rights movement can be inspiration to us now – there are things that both adults and children can do to help combat racism. That’s why the Museum is committed to celebrating Dr. King’s legacy each year.  Through performance, displays and an interactive activity about discrimination, parents and children are given a unique opportunity to discuss these hard issues – about history as well as where children see inequality in their own lives.

Every family will have their own starting point to this conversation. In addition to the Museum’s event there are some excellent resources that might be useful for your family:
How to Teach Kids About What's Happening in Ferguson
This article from The Atlantic has extensive resource lists for teachers and parents including a list of recommended children’s books.

Talking About Racism With White Kids
This post on the The New York Times Motherlode blog also includes links to other posts dealing with race, racism and difficult conversations.

Talking to Our Children About Racism & Diversity
This excellent document developed by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund provides helpful guidelines for answering hard questions from children and some suggestions of “what you might say when your child says ‘….’”

Join the Museum’s Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, January 19 from 11:30 AM to 4:00 PM.  See history come to life through songs and stories during powerful performances of “M.L.K.: Amazing Grace” at 11:30 AM, 1:00 PM and 2:30 PM. Also explore a display of photographs, words and books describing Dr. King’s life and work and take part in a provocative anti-discrimination activity. Learn more.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Water Ways: Making the Ceramic Mural

Among the many artful elements of our new Water Ways environment is a stunning ceramic mural handcrafted by Peter Geisser and Mika Seeger, a team of artists and educators who have collaborated for two decades to create ceramic sculpture and mosaics from wood-fired stoneware and porcelain.  This is their fifth major public project together, though they have worked separately on dozens of murals and mosaics.  As a team, they have a particular interest in bringing people together through community-based artworks; past projects include ceramic murals at India Point Park in Providence and Narragansett Town Beach.

Commissioned by the Museum to reflect the color, feel and movement of water, the duo’s abstract Water Ways mural gives Museum visitors a uniquely hands-on experience with art.  In their words, “Water and waves in clay as relief sculpture and represented by tiny mosaic tiles… engage children on a textural journey.”   Peter also spoke about their medium in terms of the murals’ permanence: “With kids, permanence is a wonderful phenomenon.  It gives a sense of belonging and importance.”

Working at Mika’s Tiverton ceramic studio, the two started their process with research, exploring Leonardo DaVinci’s studies of water and photographs of actual water, though they decided they wanted the piece to be more abstract.  They admit that their styles are quite opposite – Peter's strength is the big picture and his work is naturally more abstract while Mika delves into realism and focuses on detail.  “We meet in the middle somewhere,” said Mika, while Peter described their process as “a push and pull.”

Once they had their inspiration, they ripped big paper into pieces and taped it up to create the mural’s initial pattern.  They transferred the template to a large custom-built table topped with plastic, then canvas, then a ½ inch slab of clay, and finally the paper pattern traced at a larger size so they could start building the sculpture.

They added and molded clay to create a massive sculpture, which they completed in a single day to give it a feel of spontaneity. 

Once the entire surface was complete, they let it dry, cut it into pieces, and hollowed out the thicker pieces so they’d fire more quickly.

When all of the pieces were bone dry (completely air dried), Mika and Peter numbered them, did an initial bisque firing in an electric kiln and then glazed them in a unique way.  After Mika painted three white coats, they applied a wax resist over the tips of the waves to create the foam and poured blues over it to fill in most of the body of the waves.

They fired the pieces again – a second 30 hour+ long firing!  When the pieces were fully fired, they filled the hollow backs with a mix of Styrofoam and cement so they would be durable, yet light enough to hang.

They traced around the pieces on paper to create another pattern, which they transferred to the Water Ways wall to guide the installation.

All told, the incredibly intricate sculpture was made from about 500 pounds of wet clay and includes 91 large sculptural pieces, which went up in one day, plus hundreds of handcrafted colorful mosaic tiles in different shapes, which took two weeks to fill in.  Every piece but the small mirrored bits is handmade.

In putting the mosaic together, they tried a new technique for this project: they left some areas of the larger pieces unglazed and brought the mosaic onto the curved ceramic surfaces, which helped create an illusion of different depths and of movement.  The finishing touches included grouting the tiles and cleaning the entire piece.

Reflecting on the project, Peter said, “It’s the only purely abstract mural we’ve ever done,” and added, “If we’re going to do a mural, we want it to be extraordinary.” 

And that it most certainly is!  We’re deeply grateful to Mika and Peter for creating this incredible piece to complement Water Ways and are proud to count it among the Museum’s collection of vibrant works by talented local artists.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


This article, by former Museum Executive Director Janice O'Donnell, was also posted on Kidoinfo.

A recent Wall Street Journal article – “Children’s Museums Brand Exhibits with Corporate Sponsorships”– discussed the prevalence of commercial identities in museums, especially children’s museums, across the country. Visitors to children’s museums in many cities make pizza in a replica of a chain pizza parlor, shop in a miniature grocery store named for a regional chain, and try out the ATM at the bank with a national brand. It’s obvious why the sponsors like having their brands prominently featured in a place that attracts thousands of children and parents – it’s like product placement in movies. And it’s understandable why museums, always in need of funding and grateful to the corporations that provide it, go along with this trend.

At Providence Children’s Museum, we’re just as grateful for and just as in need of corporate funding, but we don’t do brands. From the Internet to television to toys, children are the target of commercial interests. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) cites research that shows that very young children cannot distinguish between TV programming and ads and that, until about age 8, children do not understand the persuasive intent of advertising. This is research that corporations use for their benefit. There’s certainly nothing illegal about this and arguably nothing wrong with it either. It’s how our economy works.

But I would argue that, while for-profit corporations exist to make a profit, museums do not. Nonprofit children’s museums exist for the benefit of children and their families, caregivers and teachers. So our first concern must be what is good for children. Many child advocates believe, as I do, that the commercialization of childhood is NOT good for kids. CCFC cites research that shows that marketing to children is a factor in the child obesity epidemic, that it encourages eating disorders, and promotes sexualized stereotypes, as well as violent behavior. So at Providence Children’s Museum we have made a commitment to being brand-free. Yes, we are deeply grateful to our corporate supporters and very happy to acknowledge their generosity on donor labels, in the media and on our website. But we will not help them sell themselves to children. One of our Board members, who is also a mom and frequent visitor, calls our museum “a commercial-free zone.” And we’re proud to be just that.

For more information on marketing to children visit and join the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Janice O’Donnell recently left Providence Children’s Museum, after 35 years of visionary leadership, unwavering passion and tireless commitment to children and families. See an interview with Janice and read her farewell message to learn about her legacy of play and learning.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Gift of Play

This holiday season, there are several great ways
to give the gift of PLAY!

Make a tax-deductible contribution to Providence Children's Museum to help children and families thrive, and inspire the next generation's love of learning.  Every gift makes an impact!

Give a year of fun-filled play and learning to children, parents and grandparents with the gift of a Providence Children's Museum Family Membership.  Choose a Family PLUS Membership to give discounted reciprocal admission to hundreds of children's and science museums - great for families who travel.

Purchase a gift membership online or by calling the membership office at (401) 273-5437 ext. 221.

Give the gift of a Providence Children's Museum visit by purchasing gift admission passes in a quantity of your choice.

Please Note: To guarantee mailing before Christmas, gift memberships and passes must be purchased online or by phone by Sunday, December 21. However, you may purchase gifts in person at the Museum through Tuesday, December 23.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Talking Back: Janice O'Donnell

Meet Janice O’Donnell, the Museum’s executive director from 1985-2014.

What brought you to the Museum 35 years ago?
I was a young mother in the 1970s and, starting in her infancy, my daughter taught me that children are amazing; that they’re much smarter and more purposeful than most folks give them credit for.  That they are natural learners – curious, experimenting, asking questions, trying new things all the time.  And I wondered – what happens to that? – because most adults aren’t such eager learners.  I thought about children’s experience in school and how it so often deadens their confidence and creativity.  I knew there had to be a better way and began a life-long process of learning about how children learn.

I joined with other parents to create a cooperative school, starting with a preschool and growing over 10 years to go up to fifth grade (although the school didn’t have grades – children learned in their own ways and at their own pace).  And so I continued to learn from children.  I also learned about running a nonprofit organization, from governance to fundraising to HR.  I graduated from the University of Rhode Island and looked for a job where I could put my experience and education to work.  There was an opening at the new Children’s Museum.  The only problem was that it was in Pawtucket and we lived in South County.  But still – a children’s museum!

Exhibit director Randy Harelson and Janice O’Donnell at the
Children's Museum of Rhode Island in Pawtucket, 1986.

What was it like in its earliest years?
When I joined the staff in 1979, the Museum was only two years old, and one of only a few dozen in the country.  It had a staff of six or seven and about 30,000 visits a year.  At first, although I was in charge of PR and membership, I was also everyone’s assistant, which was great because I learned about creating exhibits, managing the frontline, running out-of-school-time programs.  Everyone did everything.  We had a really wonderful boss – the Museum’s first director, Jane Jerry.  She said, “We don’t know what a children’s museum should be and we don’t know what needs Rhode Island’s children’s museum should meet.  Let’s figure that out.”  So I had this amazing opportunity to be part of a small team that hammered out the Museum’s mission, learning frameworks, policies and long-range plan.  When Jane left in 1985 to lead the new children’s museum in Houston, TX, I was honored to be asked to serve as interim director and then, after a national search, to be named executive director.

The Museum’s first and second directors – Jane Jerry and Janice O’Donnell –
celebrating Janice's 25th anniversary in 2004.

What prompted the Museum’s move to Providence, and how has it changed since?
By 1990, the Museum had over 50,000 visits a year and had simply outgrown its 5,000 square foot Victorian house in Pawtucket.  We had lines wrapping around the block!  We knew we needed more space.  The Museum's mission was then, as it is now, to serve all of Rhode Island.  Even though the current location is only five miles away from the original location in Pawtucket, Providence belongs to all Rhode Islanders.  As painful as it was to leave our hometown, we knew that the Museum needed to be in the capital city.  Since moving to Providence in 1997, the Museum has more than tripled its audience, budget, physical space and staff.

Carol Peterson, Janice O’Donnell, then-mayor David Cicilline and Betty Capozzi
burn the Museum’s mortgage in 2009.

You've guided the Museum to become a strong advocate for children's play.  How has the state of play changed over time, and what's your vision for restoring play?
Children’s museums are based on the idea that, naturally, children play and that we can present content in a way that builds on children’s natural proclivity to play.  But children’s free play has declined alarmingly in the past decade or more.  More affluent children are sent to after-school and weekend lessons and organized sports.  Poor kids are in structured out-of-school-time programs.  With high stakes testing, schools emphasize academics and homework has expanded.  The ubiquitous screen claims huge amounts of kids’ time.  Days of free play with neighborhood kids “’til the street lights come on” are over.  That’s a tragedy.  Free play is so critical to children’s social, emotional, physical and cognitive development.  I want to give free play back to kids.  I want to work toward a statewide recess policy that recognizes play as essential.  I want to help ensure play-based kindergarten and pre-K.  And I’m committed to creating safe and healthy neighborhood places for children’s free play.

What do you hope for the Museum's future?
I hope that the Museum continues to put the real needs of children first; that it continues to work closely and collaboratively with other community organizations to ensure collective impact.  Providence Children’s Museum is a leader in the community and nationally in our field because of our integrity and dedication to children and families.  Let’s never falter in that.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Farewell, Janice – A Legacy of Play and Learning

Executive Director Janice O’Donnell – our fearless leader and “priestess of play” – leaves the Museum today, after 35 years of visionary leadership, unwavering passion and tireless commitment to children and families. 

Dear friends and colleagues:

For 35 years I have had the great privilege of working on behalf of children and families.  I have been so fortunate to do what I love and work toward causes I care passionately about.  The Children’s Museum is a large canvas with an encompassing mission: to inspire and celebrate learning through active play and exploration.  That has allowed us to adapt and change, to experiment, to introduce new ventures that meet the changing needs of families, and to go beyond our walls to ensure ours is truly a resource for all children.

I’m proud of the Museum’s expansion and the $3 million capital campaign that got us to Providence in 1997, and I take great satisfaction in the fact that the Museum is financially strong after so many years of struggle.  I’m proud of our Museum’s national reputation – that we’re seen as leaders in our field for our deep commitment to children and community – and that we are also known locally as collaborative and community-minded.  I love that we design and build our own exhibits using local talent and are creative and artful in our learning environments.  I’m proud that our team is so committed to high-quality learning experiences, so thoughtful in creating exhibits and programs.  And I’m proud that our team is willing to take risks, take on important issues – like our partnership with DCYF serving court-separated families and our play agenda engaging community in important discussion about children’s needs.

I’m especially proud of the Museum’s commitment to inclusion and community.  Ample free admission opportunities means that the fee is not a barrier to visiting the Museum.  All of the Museum’s labels and signage are bilingual (English and Spanish).  But it’s not enough to say Free and en EspaƱol!  A truly inclusive organization must reach out and go into communities where coming to a children’s museum is not necessarily top of mind.  That’s why we work closely with Head Start, Boys and Girls Clubs, the Y, community centers, schools, libraries, the Department of Children, Youth and Families, Providence Parks and Recreation and other city departments – so that the Museum is an integral part of the community.

I’m grateful to our partners – that network of dedicated people who share our vision of a child-friendly community where the needs of families are paramount.  I’m grateful to our generous supporters who make our work possible.  And I am deeply grateful to the skilled, resourceful, talented, smart, committed Museum staff – past and present – for creating a community resource that’s so beloved by so many.

It has truly been an honor to steer the ship that is the Children's Museum for all these years, and to work toward making the world a better place for children and families.  I know I leave the Museum in strong, capable hands.
– Janice

Janice with her grandchildren Liv and Finn, who practically grew up at the Museum.

The Museum staff is profoundly grateful to Janice for guiding, inspiring, empowering and teaching us SO much over the years. We welcome you to comment and share your favorite Janice memories and stories, appreciations and best wishes!

Tributes and well wishes have arrived from near and far!