Monday, January 25, 2016

Anatomy of a Front Desk


For those of us who eat, sleep and breathe children's museums, there's an email listserv called CHILDMUS.  It's a place to geek out about all the little details of our field. However, Childmus doesn't allow photos.  So I thought I'd use this blog to reply to this question from Leanne Poellinger at the Children's Museum of La Crosse, Wisconsin:

What is the set-up of your museum's front desk?

I told you it was geeky.  You've been warned.

At Kidcity, with 100,000 visitors a year, the front desk has to do a lot.  

• It's where visitors check in or buy a membership or book a party - it's the literal Point of Sale.
• It's where visitors go to ask a question or get restaurant recommendations or an ice pack for a boo-boo.
• It's where visitors (the tiny ones) come for the "goodbye" ritual of getting a hand-stamp on their way home.
• It's where visitors (the grown-up ones) run when they can't find their child.
• It's where our manager needs easy access to all information about the museum - schedules, money management, staffing, maintenance work.
• It's where we keep a supply of all the brochures and printed pieces, plus stuff for making quick signs.
• It's where we process all the orders for our tiny bookstore, which is so small it doesn't need a separate clerk - people just come around to the front desk to check out.
• It's where we make memberships - laminating new cards and making member packets.
• It's where we sort the mail and leave messages for each other.  And, it's where the UPS guy delivers.
• It's where all the floor staff come to sign in and get their assignments.
• It's where we store a compact vacuum, a butler broom, all the keys (so many keys), and some cleaning supplies.
• It's where we have technology, like our computer/Point of Sale system, our card swipe, our phone, our battery backup, and our walkie-talkies.
• It's where we surf the web.
• It's home base for our manager who runs the operations of the museum - delegating to floor staff, ordering supplies, making sure everything happens the way it should.
• And finally, it's where staff share treats they brought from home - or bagel runs - or Neil's Donuts from Wallingford, CT (worth the trip, so they say).

So how do we have room for everything?  One word:  IKEA.

Just kidding.

The basic rule is "Everything Has a Place".  And Ikea.

The Layout

Like the rest of Kidcity, our front desk was built by artists who thought a lot about how it looks and feels - both for visitors and staff.  Our amazing carpenter (the multi-talented Matt Niland!) used 3/4 inch birch plywood to build nooks for all our storage - we went with an orange and yellow palette since we were feeling sort of '70's that week.  And our live-edge front counter is a work of art by City Bench's Ted Esselstyn.    The canopy overhead, providing a little drama, is also by Ted.

Where the visitors stand, there's a high counter, with a card swipe machine, and racks for our brochures, and a pile of exhibit maps.    
 
There's also a lower counter at wheelchair (and kid) height, with our hand-stamps and washable inkpads, a tissue box, a canister of wet-ones, some Purell, a rack of downtown maps and a binder with the menus of all the kid-friendly restaurants within walking distance.  

The back of the front desk is open to the bookstore, coatroom and our snack area - all somewhat visible to the person sitting at the desk.

Here's the lobby, viewed through the train layout designed by artist Scott Kessel.  We built this train so that kids would have something to distract them while their folks are busy at the front desk.  That's the coatroom to the right, and the bookstore and snack area behind the front desk.  Click to make the photo bigger, so you can say hi to Cait sitting at the desk!  (photo by Sassy Mouth)

On a facebook comment, one of our visitors said it seemed like we have lots of staff at Kidcity, but maybe that's because you're never far from the person at the front desk.   The museum's footprint is like a squat H, with the front desk in the center hall.  So you pass it again and again during your visit.


The Storage



Drawers
We use IKEA's awesome metal (and already-assembled) little drawers called the Helmer ($39.99). Each drawer is a bit bigger than a sheet of copy paper, and we use some drawers as "mailboxes" for staff, others to hold markers, scissors/staplers, brochures, old membership forms.  We've got two in a stack - and we write labels on each drawer so you can find stuff quick.

Open Shelves
These are built-in shelves that hold the drawers and our binders.  Binders with time sheets.  Binders with birthday party schedules.  Binders with front desk procedures - like how to sell a membership or change the outgoing phone message.  Binders that hold the "Building Log" on everything that needs maintenance - the phones, the elevator, the HVAC system.  Anything that won't fit in a binder goes in a wooden magazine holder (KNUFF at Ikea, $9.99 for two).  Looks classy & hides the crap!

Covered Shelves
We have a few shelves in a cabinet that has sliding doors, for ugly stuff like mailing materials, bins of keys, oversize stationery supplies.

Bins
We built some deep drawer bins with plexi on the front to hold bulky stuff, like supplies for making gift boxes for memberships.  (We use shiny take-out food containers and fill with colored paper shred, and stick the membership card and brochure in there.  Pretty!)  Also, the bins have room for some personal stuff - coats, snacks, etc.

Hooks
Our floor staff works from a list of tasks that change by day (in addition to the usual "picking up toys" part of the job).   It's a cycle of tasks, like washing plastic fruits and vegetables, cleaning wall vents and baseboards, and washing windows that goes on a schedule to save us from letting something slip through the cracks.  Once it's on these lists, it WILL get done.  These heavy-duty laminated lists hang on a hook at the front desk so staff can come back and check off the stuff they've done.

The Closet


We built a tiny closet around an electrical panel at the front desk - it's about 4 sq. ft - but it gives us a safe place for a shallow shelf of cleaning supplies, and a rack of brooms/vacuums.  Plus, it's where we hang the world's thinnest stepstool for reaching those high shelves.


Racks

We built a rack on the wall to hold those memberships that someone buys...but then they go off to play.  They come back later and pick it up.

Counter Space
This is SO important.  You need a little space for sorting whatever project you're working on at the desk.  We don't have quite enough.  It's especially handy when someone brings in a big tray of cupcakes for a staff birthday...


In Closing...

Since our earliest days as a museum, we learned to put our best person at the front desk - it's not a job for the faint of heart.  It's not just about running the cash register - it's about having someone who can respond to both crisis and serendipity (since nice things happen too, not just problems.)   It takes someone warm and friendly - and also someone with the ability to chill.  Oh, and did I mention a steel-trap mind and ability to organize the heck out of anything?  Our manager - the amazing Cait Pierce (soon to be Cait Alexander!) - embodies these qualities, and most days, you'll find her at the desk.  Plus, she has built a team of people who know how to communicate "Kidcity" to our visitors when they sit in that chair (Shout Out to Assistant Manager Carl Chisem - celebrating 10 years at Kidcity!).

Our front desk is Command Central at Kidcity.   Now you know all there is to know!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Indy 2015

Just got back from 4 days in Indianapolis at the 2015 children's museum conference called Interactivity.  We were last here for ACM in 2005, so some things were familiar (one never quite forgets the sheer scale of the CM of Indianapolis) and some things were new.

Small Talks

Back in Pittsburgh 2013, Interactivity started a delightful tradition of inviting interesting people from outside the field to give Small Talks, letting those of us at children’s museums borrow inspiration or ideas from their experience.  A personal highlight was the Dance Kaleidoscope lady who got a stage-full of conference participants (needless to say, non-dancers) to co-choreograph a dance about waking up, eating breakfast and showering.   Exhibit designer Clifford Wagner distinguished himself with his enthusiastic rendition of what it looks like when he pulls on his pants in the morning; an image now indelibly marked on my brain.

Sessions

I attended a packed session called “How to Swim and Win in Data” - as a self-declared numbers geek, I like to hear what other museums measure.  One of the speakers, Blake Wigdahl, dazzled us with the news that his whole staff reports numbers daily by email to everyone across departments - and that’s at a museum just one year old, and part of the Thanksgiving Point museum/garden/farm complex in Utah (at the one-year mark at my museum, we were lucky to get our place cleaned up, the cash in the bank and the toilet paper re-stocked before the next day began, so clearly, they are doing something right out there.)  Lindy Hoyer & Jeff Barnhart from the Omaha CM shared their experience with measuring the actual result (rather than the anecdotal “feeling”) on whether traveling exhibits actually drive revenue and attendance in proportion to their cost.  After reading what the numbers said (which could be summed up like this:  “meh”) they decided to occasionally build their own temporary exhibits, which energized their staff creatively and fiscally.  Now they’ve settled into a mix of bought & built.  Karen Coltrane, talking about her experiences both at the CM of Richmond and at EdVenture, gave this advice:  Share all your numbers with everyone in your organization - which led to lots of enthusiastic nods around the crowded room.

I spent Wednesday afternoon at the CEO forum - which was limited to executive directors at open museums - and since the doors were locked and we agreed that everything said the room is now in “The Vault”, I can’t say what we talked about.  Just kidding!  We talked about fundraising.  For four hours.  But aside from that, I really enjoyed the guts-baring camaraderie around my table during the session.  The best thing was seeing my fellows around the conference for the next two days- like we’d all just filmed our own version of The Breakfast Club and now we’d find out if we can still be friends out in the real world!  Hey Tammie, Stephanie, Lara, Jeff, Mike, Rouleen & Karysia!

In fact, all of the sessions I attended this year were well worth the time.  I learned a lot  - or laughed a lot, as in the case of Kathy Gustafson-Hilton’s session called “Mistakes were Made”.  Kia Karlen from Madison CM took home the “Epic Fail” trophy for her story “GhostFire” about the time that she…well, you’ll have to get that one from her.    

On the learning side, it turns out that children’s museums are perfect places to build Executive Functioning skills, which are Essential to Happiness and Success in Life, according to all research ever.  If you’re not familiar with it, google the Marshmallow Test, and then think about all the moments in our exhibits that make kids slow down, think a bit, wait for a reaction or get someone else to participate for the biggest payoff.  It turns out that all this is a Good Thing.  This session - presented by Erin Ramsey from the Families and Work Institute on their Mind in the Making project - is exactly the kind of the thing that the ACM conference does well:  bring in an outside expert and let us learn from their work, and give us some room (rather than spoonfeeding) to think about how it relates to our museums.

In other news, I sat in on a session moderated by Aaron Goldblatt on my absolute favorite topic: how to create a vibrant town (and how children’s museums can help).  In other words, Urban Planning.  A few of my favorite people in the industry narrated their photos of public places that have a sense of fun and CM-type spirit, and there were also a few cautionary tales about how hard it can be to get things done in the civic arena (as opposed to our own seamless organizations?), especially when the cave people show up to protest (that’s c-a-v-e, or Citizens Against Virtually Everything).  

Michael Shanklin from Kidspace in Pasadena led a roundtable about “Next Practices” about what the future looks like for the children’s museum field.  I appreciated the chance to rant about some of my not-so-secret agendas.  Here are three:


  1. How to encourage museums to create their own original exhibits.  If everyone buys exhibits from the same firms, we start to all look alike and that’s professional suicide if we want children’s museums to multiply and expand.  As Collette Michaud from the CM of Sonoma County noted, there's a place for exhibit firms and some museums need them, but more museums should feel empowered to try creating something of their own instead of thinking that's only for the experts (after all, we ARE the experts on how kids in our communities play and learn!)  At the table, we tossed around the idea of creating a “Tony Awards” for exhibit design - with nominations for “Best Revival” (a fresh rendering of an old chestnut), “Best Original Concept”, and “Best Engaged Play”.  The prize would be bragging rights!
  2. We need a committed return to regular and robust gathering of data by ACM about our museums.  Until the mid-2000’s, there was an annual survey…then it puttered to every two years…now we’re still sitting on 2011 data.  I know that probably no one else greeted that fat envelope survey with quite the same glee as me, but I think ACM should use it’s Moral Authority to say “Hey, this is important.  We need accurate data on our own performance so that we can advocate for the support we need and show our impact.  So no more whining!  Just do it!”  I hear that ACM will re-start that process soon, and maybe we should consider a suggestion that Michael Shanklin made:  let’s ask for help from IMLS to create a streamlined online survey for all the museum associations combined to combat survey fatigue - and each could have specific questions just for their members. 
  3. Let’s expand the repertoire of organizational structures that can create and sustain children’s museums (in other words, could there be non-profit variations on the existing board/staff model?  How does the current structure lead to better museums and how does it limit them?  What is required by law, and what board practices are cultural?)


The Zeitgeist

There are always a few trends or buzzwords at the conference, and I can say with relief that this year, it was NOT nano.  The question of intellectual property was hot  - and whether you can really steal an idea like “grocery store” or “bulldozer” - so when is the line crossed from inspiration to lazy or malicious plagiarism.  (My husband says, you can borrow my idea, but return it with interest!)  And there was some tussling over whether we should stick to words like “learning” and “education” in describing a children’s museum, or whether it was acceptable to ever utter the word “play” or “fun”.   (Note to field:  doesn’t matter what you call it, that’s actually why people come, whether you like it or not!)

So that’s my wrap-up - I had a great time in Indy, seeing my ACM BFF’s and occasionally being a troublemaker (shout-out to Paul Orselli!)   Next year the conference is in Kidcity’s home state of Connecticut at Stepping Stones in Norwalk!  So come play!

(I leave you with photos of the most brilliant thing at the CM of Indianapolis…the rotating round lounging bench under the giant Chihuly glass sculpture.  This was inspired magic and put everyone in the frame of mind that we seek to create at our museums:  Anything is Possible!)







At this rate, I will have to change the name of this blog to “What Happened at Interactivity • the Children’s Museum Conference” - since apparently I only feel the urge to post after my annual trip to ACM.

(pause for yet another mental vow to write more about what’s going on at Kidcity….ok, moving on!)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lessons from Interactivity

One last post from my visit to ACM's Interactivity,
the national children's museum conference in Houston.

Here are some notes from the Interactivity conference sessions that I enjoyed:

Would you like fries with that?

Maybe it’s not the most glamorous part of our business, but children’s museums need good computer systems for making sales (cash register), booking parties and events (calendar), running our shops (inventory), and keeping track of members and supporters (database & online communication). I was complaining about the lack of good options at last year’s Interactivity, and was delighted to find a session this year that went right at the question, led by Denver’s Mike Yankovich and Please Touch’s Concetta Bencivenga.

While a few representatives from common ticketing systems watched, about 20 of us from children’s museums of all sizes and shapes made lists of what we want these systems to do, and how they fall short. Hopefully the vendors who were there appreciated their front row seat to an unvarnished customer opinion. As for the museums, we plan to compile our needs into a proposal, and if need be, work with the vendors to help them do a better job of serving our market, at a price we can afford.

One big happy family….almost

Most children’s museums participate in the national reciprocal program, selling a membership card that provides free admission to all the other museums in the program. In the past few years, it’s become clear that this system has some problems, and on Thursday, about 50 of us hashed it out over lunch. The problems fall into three main categories: pricing, geography, and abuse.

Price: the rules dictate that museums charge at least $100 for the ACM card, but some charge much more and they can find their customers scooped (sometimes by online savvy customers) by museums at the lower rate. On this issue, there seems to be some consensus among those in the room that $125 or even $150 was a more practical price, given that it hasn’t gone up since the mid-1990’s, and the use of the card is so much more extensive (and therefore has a bigger impact on museums) than it did back then.

Distance: Some museums feel that the card shouldn’t work on museums in close proximity to each other, instead having an exclusion clause for other museums within 90 miles. This is the system used by the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) for their reciprocal card. An on-going survey of reciprocal museums, though, showed that about ¾ would rather NOT have an exclusion (get those surveys in, folks!) In the past year or so, ACM has experimented with letting individual museums create mutual restrictions, which makes it a pain in the neck for card-holders, who have to wade through a lot of fine print just to be sure they can use the card. That hardly seems an improvement.

Abuse: Some people have figured out how to game the system, and sometimes it creates more lost income than a museum can bear. Sigh...

My own perspective as Kidcity's director is that I hope we Don't Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater. Even though visits on the ACM card are a full 15% of our overall attendance - that means we don't get any income from that attendance - I still feel that the program benefits both Kidcity and the overall field. I am in support of a price increase though - because I think that the value would still be there for families at $125 or $130, especially in our region, where they can visit about a dozen museums within an hour or two's drive.

The ACM Board will be considering changes to the program at their meeting this summer, and then they'll give museums a year to decide whether they like the changes or want to opt out of the program.

Oooh....Eye Candy!

Maybe it's just me, but I think the most fun part of the conference is seeing images from other children's museums, especially the good ones! The new children's museum in Madison, Wisconsin looks amazing, with chickens wandering around on the green roof, a steampunk big-kid space, and a wiggly suspension bridge crossing the airspace of their early childhood room. After just a few minutes, I was pretty sure I wanted to move there. Then I saw the photos of an amazing tree-walk designed by Aaron Goldblatt for the arboretum in Philadelphia. Imagine a beautifully crafted boardwalk through the tree canopy, punctuated with occasional giant hammocks, all 50-feet up in the air.


I won't bore you with the details....

....but I'm incredibly excited about the new ACM benchmark calculator which debuts this summer. You can compare your museum with others of the same budget, or attendance, or staff size, or regional population.... ok, nap time's over.

A Really Interesting Idea

ACM again turned out an amazing keynote speaker with Steven Johnson, who wrote Where Good Ideas Come From. Johnson challenges the notion that breakthrough ideas come from some lone genius, instead pointing out the importance of connections between people as the root of innovation. That's good news for our current generation of social networkers - according to Johnson, they are uniquely poised to take advantage of each other's expertise and resources when it's their turn to create the future. I'm part-way through his book, and my new favorite concept is the idea of the Adjacent Possible, which means that innovation can only grow from what already exists, but it also means that innovation is always possible from what's in front of you right now (I find this especially interesting from an urban planning perspective: what do I want my community to be come, and what's the next step to get there. I wonder what can grow out of the elements which are already here?)

I appreciated Johnson's optimism. Personally, I'm getting tired of all the doom and gloom about how we all need to focus on the economy and job training - I think it leads to a narrow focus in the education system and in business. I'd love to see more worrying about the quality of our ideas and less about our financing - that's true for the children's museum field and the whole country!

That's my wrap-up from Interactivity 2011. It was well worth the trip - next year, it's off to Portland, Oregon!

P.S. I don't want to leave the impression that we worked ALL the time in Houston. To satisfy Kidcity Manger Caitlin Pierce's obsession, we tracked down a hipster food truck on the corner of Montrose and Willard, where I had the best burger of my life (along homemade ketchup, tipsy onions & sweet potato fries) Just something we'd love to see more of in Little ol' Middletown, CT.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Adult Swim


The last session of the 2011 ACM conference was about as raw and honest as any discussion I've ever heard among children's museums over the years.

Kathy Gustafson-Hilton of Hands-On Inc. brought us together for a new-to-ACM format call The Fishbowl. She set the ground rules: People in the front row of a circle of chairs would offer a tale of risk from their museum - they would give up their seat when they were ready, and someone from the back rows could go for it.

It was a little scary in the Fishbowl. Interestingly, the group seemed to be mostly executive directors and others in leadership in the field. People told stories of faith, trust, betrayal, deceit, glory....if you had to sum it up in a single word, I'd have to say "Passion". The details of each story weren't important, but the sentiment was: we love what we do. But for a moment - and this is hardly typical of the conference - the vibe was less of the self-congratulatory and more of the confessional.

The topics ranged as widely as the museums themselves. Some museums are making hard exhibit choices - especially the question of whether traveling exhibits (a sacred cow in the industry) were really worth the money and loss of creative control for the hosting museum (um...can you tell where I stand on that issue?) Others were diving into challenging social issues where they felt driven to make a difference, but full of worry about the impact on their operations.

A few were excited about new opportunities and expansion plans, and others talked about the role that their boards play. For non-profits, it's the board that sets the policy and strategic direction, and the executive director who follows that plan. I hope I don't shock anyone when I say that this is a complicated dance in the best of organizations, and has wrecked havoc in more than a few.

This was a great format for an ACM session - I loved the chance to hear directors talk so openly about the issues they face. Since we're in true confession mode, I'll say this: I often leave the conference wishing I'd spoken less and listened more. This format let me hear from many people I've met or known for years, but I'd just never heard them speak so clearly, and from the heart.

Maybe it's because I came to be a children's museum director as a Mom fresh from the supportive atmosphere of the Playgroup circuit, but I really value hearing about how people feel about the work they do. In some ways it's less "professional" - but it also re-energizes us for the work ahead.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pecha Kucha 2011

Dear Reader,
It's true I haven't been in touch lately on this blog - we've been busy on a top-secret project at Kidcity and I knew I'd spill the beans if I even opened my mouth. But we're almost ready to reveal what we've been up to - hopefully next week!

In the meantime, I'm at the national meeting of the Association of Children's Museums in Houston, TX and I'll be blogging about the conference for a few days. Be back at Kidcity soon!



I'm seriously considering taking up the ukelele. You would be too, if you'd been at the Pecha Kucha session last night at Houston's Heritage Society.

For the newbies, Pecha Kucha gives you 6 minutes and 40 seconds to show 20 slides and talk about what inspires you - it started in Japan and has spread all over the world, including the ACM conferences in 2009 and 2010. This year, the ACM Pecha Kucha showcased 10 people from the children's museum field. As instigator Paul Orselli pointed out, it alternates between the sublime and the ridiculous: where on earth did Erich Rose find that photo - let's just call it
Manequin Parts with Hose and Duct Tape. It was more of a "Don't" than a "Do".

For me, the evening was a bit of a blur because I was so nervous about making my first ACM presentation - it was thrilling, even if I did accidentally press pause on the laptop part-way through my presentation.

Oh, I wish I had pictures...but here's a smattering of what I remember:

Becky Lindsay captured the exhibit designer's quandry of the tension between the
macro exhibit (how it looks from the outside), and the micro exhibit (the loose parts and tasks that actually engage your child visitors). Creating that outside WOW is important, but it's the micro level that leads to the sustained, imaginative play that makes a magical children's museum experience.

Clifford Wagner demonstrated the power of the Path of Least Resistance, and encouraged us to use it both in exhibit design and in opening potato chip bags.

Paul Orselli waved the banner - bless him - of why children's museums should develop their internal capacity to create their own exhibits. It's at least as important as having a snazzy cafe (where you just might find your visitors taking a nap.)

Aaron Goldblatt treated us to sort of mental yoga class. Suggesting that ugly things become beautiful if you look at them long enough, he showed us his photos of found and forgettable corners of urban life. We mulled them over in silence, a la John Cage.

Sari Bowen bravely and beautifully told us about her unexpected love affair with the ukelele - and how she dreamed of creating just such a "ukelele experience" for visitors in children's museums. When was the last time you fell in love with an idea and then let it move in? What makes that perfect combination of openess (you) and inspiration (it) that knocks you off your feet? After asking this question, she led us all in a sing-along of Ringo Starr's "You're Sixteen". We didn't sound too shabby!

The room was packed, the bar was busy, and two lucky winners went home with door prizes! I'd like to suggest that ACM issue a special community service award to Paul Orselli (and his usual co-host Peter Exeley) for this new tradition. Pecha Kucha is a great way to start the conference!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Books, books & more books!


If you've been to Kidcity in the past few months, this is old news...

...the new bookstore is open!

There is a lot more room for reading, a corner bench and fun library stools to slide around on. And, of course, lots of new titles. (A book called Chester is the new staff pick, but we're also partial to Binky, the Space Cat.)

We've separated the books into categories like "Small World", "Cool Science", "Things that Go" and "Busy Books".



My personal favorite is the "Vintage" category. That means we have a special shelf for the books we loved when we were little -- they're now back in print for our own kids. So you can get Harold and the Purple Crayon and A is for Annabelle right here.

Matt built this nifty cabinet to hold 8 new styles of t-shirts - but we're still working on the designs.








What do you think of this one...maybe on a bright purple tee?





P.S. I'm crazy about the photo-fun carpet tiles in the new bookstore - they're from Flor!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Merry Month of May

The month of May typically means beautiful weather in Connecticut. Unfortunately, this year is no exception.

In other words, it's pretty quiet these days at Kidcity, since everyone seems to be playing outside instead.

Here's a photo of folks on the Kidcity staff trying to stay busy by trying on dress up costumes. Lookin' good, guys!

If you happen to be one of those families that hates a crowd, then please....come play!

Meanwhile, we are making progress on our new museum shop.

Here's a shot of Matt and Scott as we debate building another cabinet (see the cardboard prototype).

Instead, Matt built these steel "ladders" that fit between the joists, and then we lined the back wall with black beadboard.

In other news, we picked out ceiling tile, got the carpet in, decided to wallpaper, decided not to wallpaper after seeing the samples, and Scott is now testing a linen faux-paint technique on the walls.

Best of all, we got some new titles in, even though the new shop isn't ready for them. My kid loves this one:



Enjoy the nice weather and come back and play soon!