Reimagining Children’s Museums: Conference notes
So I’m sitting in the buzz/afterglow of three fantastic days last week for the “Reimagining Children’s Museums” conference, sponsored by the Assoc. of Children’s Museums and hosted by Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. What can I say? Of all the museum groups I work with, these are the people who are going to change the basic structure and way museums serve their audiences.
Where to begin? “Reimagining Children’s Museums” is a three year process begun last year to rethink the basics of museums, from architecture on through community engagement. (See my notes from last year for an intro). This year followed up on the theme, and played with new conference formats to convey the message. Here are a few quick, not comprehensive, notes from each of the days:
Day 1: SmallTalks. In a change from the usual conference format, we all walked to a nearby theater for a day of performance and inspiring presentations. From dance, to spoken word poetry, to thought leader presentations from Frans Johansson, author of The Click Moment (“seizing opportunity in an unpredictable world”), Luis von Ahn who invented Captcha and spoke on crowdsourcing (“the power of many for the common good”), Shane Lopez who spoke on the power of hope. And several appearances by the one and only Mr. McFeely who ushered in many “speedy deliveries.”
My overall impression on Day 1: we’re setting a course guided by creativity, hope, and kindness. It takes a special band of museums to own up to this mission, and it’s especially appropriate to chart this course in the hometown of Mr. Rogers, whose compassionate approach was still felt throughout the conference.
Day 2: Sessions and Exhibit Hall. Since I have a booth, my experience was in the exhibit hall rather than sessions this day. Though the day is long standing on the feet, we have a great community in the exhibit hall, and I was happy to hang out with museum friends Paul Orselli, Jim Polk, Clifford Wagner, and many others. For those who managed to go to sessions on Day 2, study tours showed a range of approaches: sustainable landscapes, technology and play, and Makeshop, Pittsburgh Children’s Museum’s industry leading initiative.
Day 3: Design Seminar. I missed the early morning Promising Practices Awards because I was out running around with a stick. And then I went back to see The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, among the best in the country. But then finally made it back for the culminating “Reimagining Design Seminar”, last event of the conference. The seminar gathered the four international design teams who have been charged with re-examining some of the basic architectural and community-interface mechanism used by museums. Some of the points that stick out to me:
- opportunities to use structures (like parking lots) in greener ways (such as plant-based roofs) to meet needs of our ecosystem (LEVENBETTS, NY)
- use the power of play (our strong point) to drive community-change (muf architecture, London)
- segment the one big museum into many smaller museums and landscape/playscape spaces interspersed throughout the community (“the pervasive museum”) (WANTED Landscape, Montreal)
- I resonated with analysis from Suisman Urban Design, who spoke of expanding the audience age range, and moving from “play based” to “place based” learning. Lots of insightful analysis such as “6 district types” that I hope will be published soon.
An image of the future of museums that is emerging in my mind from all this: institutions that are pervasive, with many more decentralized branches interspersed throughout the city, through programs, popup exhibits, and other small/temporary spaces that are easier for visitors to get engage with.
And finally, setting the context for all this: the Boston Stories project came together, documenting the early years of Boston Children’s Museum under the leadership of Mike Spock. (I was pleased to have had a small hand in some of the strategizing). Those early years in the 1960s changed the direction of museums, and coming off the reimagining conference, children’s museums are about to do it again.