The Association of Children’s Museums annual InterActivity conference is taking place through May 5 at the Pasadena Convention Center and InPark’s latest issue will be available at the show. InPark’s Joe Kleiman interviewed ACM Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus about the association, design trends, and issues facing children’s museums.
How does ACM define a children’s museum?
We differ from other organizations in that our membership is open, not limited. The only criteria we have is that a museum meet the ILMS definition of what museum a museum is and that it be a not for profit. There are some science museums included in our membership and some national and regional parks. The focus is on serving children and families. So I’d say that what differentiates our members is that they are audience focused. There’s a focus on the content on the floor – the exhibit environment and programs geared towards children and families.
Tell us about the importance of the InterActivity conference.
InterActivity is important on a number of fronts. It’s the time we bring field together. At InterActivity, staff from different museums share best practices. New practices are very important. We discuss individual design components, from integrating screens to larger architectural questions and even larger design philosophies. New content areas and design techniques need to be fruitful for full family interactions. Much of this happens in our concurrent session programming. The other piece that drives design is showcased in our Marketplace. It’s where design and rental services can show off their newest techniques to share with field. A third key aspect revolves around co-hosting with a member association. Museums hosting provide an opportunity for peer learning. There are study tours with behind the scenes experiences. We work with our host museum to leverage local relationships with other children museums and cultural institutions in the area.
One thing I’ve noticed that differentiates children’s museums from other museum sectors is the higher level of interaction.
Yes. In the modern iteration of children’s museums, a high level of interactivity one of the major components. Humans learn best by doing, and learning is experiential for children. So children’s museums us a natural learning methodology. Static displays, labeling, and untouchable displays are more for adults. Many children’s museums started as collection-based institutions that had labeling. Over the years, they’ve taken on a different approach to curating, an organization that appeals to children. Children’s museums are still object based, but the objects are in the hands.
Now, there are some space where some museums are children’s museums are moving towards a traditional static approach, like wall panels. But in these cases, it reflects life in a compelling narrative. Exhibits like Power of Children developed by Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which tells the stories of Ryan White, Ruby Bridges, and Anne Frank. They’ve recreated Ryan White’s room, so kids can explore it, but there are static displays as well going into detail on each person. Something like this uses the best of new and old design styles, successfully integrating story panels. It’s a kind of hybridization.
What is technology’s role in the children’s museum?
We’re still working out the tech angle – there have been some pioneering efforts and are some emerging trends. Museums experimenting with tech the most are those that are mindful of serving age 10 and up with experiences. A number of museums use tech for gaming experience. At the Children’s Museum of Houston, S.E.C.R.E.T. is a spy challenge for tweens and early teens. Kids have an iPad-like device takes them through a spy challenge. Integration of cellular is not prevalent yet. Some museums are experimenting with mobile apps and QR codes. The challenge is how to integrate tech, but not make it the centerpiece, how to integrate new capacities with digital technologies to enhance classic children’s museum experiences. The Magic House in St Louis has an exhibit called Future Play. It’s a digital playground exhibit, built around cooperative learning, building, and fun. They use responsive projector systems to create a trans-media experience. Components of experience pull all the kids together.
So technology is already happening in children’s museums, and it’s being used to create a communal experience. Technology enhances the experience. But it’s important to keep in mind that children are rough. Touch screens are problematic from durability angle. In line with Magic House, another example of integration experimentation is an exhibit from the Children’s Museum of Manhattan – Hello from Japan. There’s a small preschool table with iPads installed and a little activity to teach children how to draw Japanese characters with their finger. When using tech, its important to Educate design partners and software developers on how children deal with tech.
How are children’s museums dealing with issues of equity, access, and inclusion, especially when it comes to issues of race and LGBT concerns?
Equity, access, inclusion are a core principle for sure. They have been in a ways since the Brooklyn Children’s Museum opened in 1899. Children tend to learn through self education and awareness. We continue to find new issues and areas where we need to develop practices. Topics of inclusion – from disabilitys to culturally competent organizations, children’s museums practice social justice. Children’s museums act as a catalyst for children’s rights.
About 10-12 years ago, when the autistic spectrum became better understood, members started looking at strategies for children with autism. All children’s museums now have special accommodations for autistic children. Race and cultural diversity have been topics for decades. Boston Black by Boston Children’s Museum and Color of Me by Chicago Children’s Museum are two great exhibits that approach this. Children’s museum exhibits don’t deal with racism, but look for opportunities that introduce children to cultures. Children’s Museum of San Jose has a rotating cultural theme in its marketplace with different ethnic foods.
With LGBT, museums are welcoming to all families. In fact, we have a session on LGBT at InterActivity. A number of museums participate in PRIDE events. There are unique approaches for visitor services and welcoming families, where the staff is trained to welcome all families. Some museums have very open institutional policies on what applies as family membership. Chicago Children’s Museum is opening an exhibit called Once Upon a Castle, which is gender neutral. No princesses running around in pink dresses.
Museums these days tend to run the spectrum from facilitating discussion on issues to being activists pushing for change. Where do children’s museums fall on the soft power scale?
We are advocates. We create a world that honors and respects children in the diverse ways that they learn. We are advocates of what’s best for children. We support families in whatever iteration, whatever background they come. It’s rare for a children’s museum to become an advocate on social issues, unless it’s critical in community. We provide chld first and child centered approaches to learning and community planning. We first provide avenues fro discussion. Some museums, based on maturity and size, may sway more to advocacy. But in away, we all advocate by doing what we do.
The current proposed Federal budget calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences. What sort of impact would this have on children’s museums?
Materially, members have benefited and been successful in receiving competitive grants from all three agencies. These funds have made it possible for design and professional efforts that have moved the field forward. IMLS has certainly progressed the field. IMLS offers grants for children’s museum. There is an NEH grant to document the history of children’s museums. Doors will not close if they’re eliminated . They provide an incredibly important advocate on a national level that supports innovation and forward advancement of entire museum field. They allow and encourage us to push boundaries and create best practices. In a way, they’re an incubator for progress. Elimination will create a short shrift on impactful programs with small funding. There will be a ripple effect on the whole industry. Cohesion and advancement will be lost.
Could a non-profit or even a for-profit company come in and fill the gap if they’re eliminated?
Nonprofits cannot fill the gap. Matching funds are already required for ILMS grants. No single philanthropic actor can replicate the impact at the national level of what is an excellent program. There are hundreds of applications that would be lost. The national leadership grants for museums – only 10 granted are granted, but it’s so competitive that they’re granted to the most cutting edge and impactful projects.
I’m very confident the elimination will not happen. Arts are a major economic driver for local communities and for tourism. Arts and museums have good backers in Congress. Much of what happens on the local level becomes the inspiration for national programs, such as Museums for All [a joint program of ACM and ILMS that, among other things, provides for significantly reduced admission costs to museums for lower income family on public assistance]. There’s a model out of LA County supported by county. In Philadelphia, there’s ArtReach, in Worchester, MA, another program on the local level.
Let’s talk about STEM and STEAM programming in children’s museums.
Science has always been a part of children’s museum practices. One strong manifestation in children’s museums is through the Maker movement. With children, science works best when it’s multidisciplinary and pre-academic. There is some STEM, but not a lot of STEM yet. There has always been STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math] in chldren’s museums. More funders want explicit STEM content, but it’s important to take a thematic approach, aligned with a developmental and philosophical approach. More STEM in programs allows for a finer grained approach to the audience, but it must be age appropriate. Kentucky Science Center opened a whole new gallery – Science in Play. It’s an early childhood area that incorporates free play with blocks, which is made into a science rich experience. With their grocery store, kids shop for shapes. Shapes are the earliest building blocks for science and math literacy. Children’s museums don’t take a science first approach. Science is woven into a hands first experience. Water rooms and power exhibits are among the latest trends – lots of levers. Teaching science is a pre-content discipline.
What are some of the trends in exhibit design and programming?
Children’s museums are becoming focused on adults – they’re re-envisioning children’s museums as a place for adults to learn about how children learn. There is a strong feeling about community, a lot of high stakes testing. The degradation of the school day has skewed what quality learning experiences and good experiences are like for children. More testing will needs to be done to understand how to explain to parents what is happening to children when they visit museums.
Children’s museums are rethinking the exhibit experience as focused on total family learning, rather than just children’s learning. This is showing in actual exhibit design, where components are both child accessible and adult accessible.
There is a trend to move into more risk taking. More and more children don’t have the opportunity to engage in productive risk taking in play. As part of this emmerging design trend, the Denver Children’s Museum thought about taking classic children’s museum experiences, but making them challenging, while appearing dangerous. It’s important to balance between risk and safety, but these days, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for children to engage in risky experiences.