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.

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