Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Gone Conferencing, Part I: Work(ish)

Last week, several of Providence Children’s Museum’s staff headed to Houston, TX for a few days of fun and learning during InterActivity, the annual conference of the Association of Children’s Museums. This year’s conference theme was “Innovation is Child’s Play,” and we all walked away with plenty of new ideas and inspiration.

Here are some of our many takeaways:

Chris Sancomb, Exhibit Designer
I really enjoyed meeting fellow designers and peers and discussing the similarities to process, problems and solutions. The workshops that involved participation were opportunities to build spontaneous team chemistry, and explore multiple viewpoints and working methods. Sometimes it clicked and sometimes not, but it reinforced the bond our Providence Children’s Museum team has.

A pre-conference workshop on cognitive science and exhibit design was awesome! I also really enjoyed two workshops on inclusion and the museum environment – one on universal design and the other focusing on autism and the spectrum of visitors. Very informative and helpful in assessing what we have and what we can do for the future.

And of course I enjoyed the time out of the office with my peers, where we sometimes talked shop, sometimes we talked big picture and dreams. I think all go to building strength back at home.
Chris and other conference attendees at a workshop.
(Courtesy of Paul Orselli)

Janice O’Donnell, Executive Director
  • Keynote speaker Steven Johnson's concept of “the slow hunch” – let an idea grow gradually from inspiration. That's what we hope experiences at the Museum give our visitors – the beginning, the inspiration for their further learning.
  • Getting measurable ways to track moving from “Nice to Necessary.” Children's museums are nice places – no one argues with that – but we want to know we're addressing real needs, that we play a necessary role in our communities and beyond. Jeanne Vergeront said that being necessary starts with looking past our walls. We're pretty externally oriented – we work closely with Children's Friend Head Start, Providence Boys and Girls Clubs, DCYF and many other organizations to help them meet the needs of children and families in our community. I want us to look at these collaborations to make sure they are relevant and sustainable, which Julia Bland described as key to being necessary. She should know; she directs the Louisiana Children's Museum in New Orleans, which continues to be a major player in the city's recovery from the devastation of Katrina.
  • There has been tremendous growth in the number of children's museums over the past several years and a lot of museums have gotten bigger. Consequently, the market for hands-on exhibits has grown. More and more exhibit design firms have popped up, many of the larger children's museums are creating exhibits to sell or rent, and relatively fewer museums are designing and building their own unique exhibits. While this might be a trend toward efficiency, it's also akin to the “malling of America” – children's museums all over the country look a lot alike. I think we’re approaching a tipping point. There were several discussions and presentations about “the DIY alternative,” creating unique exhibits in-house (which was the norm 15-20 years ago). Paul Orselli showed images from several children's museum, including ours (thanks, Paul!), pointing out that all are examples of DIY museums – all imaginative, local, artful and themselves. In a session about “Courageous Design,” Brenda Baker from Madison (WI) Children's Museum and Nancy Stice from Phoenix Children's Museum presented on creating their museums in collaboration with their local communities and artists. The images of both Madison and Phoenix knocked me out – gorgeous places and you'll not find anything like them anywhere else.
Climber, © Children’s Museum of Phoenix
Two-story climber made with salvaged materials.
© Madison Children’s Museum

Robin Meisner, Director of Exhibits
The sessions and conversations I was part of have led me to thinking...

• that we and similar museums around the country have to think about the balance between encouraging caregivers to play with their children and encouraging them to be students of their children (learning from their kids by observing and celebrating their play and learning). We need to try different ways of communicating the value of the learning that happens through play to caregivers.

• that we need to consider children at the upper end of our age range carefully... what works for them about what we do and what might we do differently, perhaps even exploring the role new technologies might have in engaging them.

• that inspiration can come from anyone or anything, and that I truly enjoy working with our team in thinking about the design and development of our exhibits and environments.

Carly Baumann, Education Programs Coordinator
A favorite experience at the conference was riding the hotel’s glass elevators: one side facing downtown and the other creating the illusion of plummeting to the lobby. During our session about healthy risk, my co-presenters and I discussed the feeling of risk when riding the elevators as the ingredient that kept us involved in the play. It's typical for riders to silently face the doors in an elevator, but with the walls transparent, strangers came together in their love or aversion to the sensation – risk as "a social lubricant," as Aaron Goldblatt expressed it.
Speaker Dr. Milton Chen’s measurement of a great learning center: “Do the kids run in at the same rate they run out?” As much fun and learning as we had in Houston, I couldn't wait to see excited kids' feet flying up the entrance to Providence Children's Museum again!

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