Wednesday, December 30, 2009

It's Snack Time!

After two months of construction. the new section of the coatroom opened during one of our busiest weeks of the year! Here are some photos of families snacking during the holiday vacation.

Monday, December 14, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

The new section of Kidcity's coatroom should be open by Christmas!

Though it is a non-denominational seating area, it looks like the completion of the construction will coincide with the upcoming holiday. It's a good thing, too, because we continue to get a suggestion every few days that "Kidcity needs an area for having snacks!"

Today, Matt and Scott propped up the new counters and stools so that we could set the exact locations. It was my job to make a fool of myself by squealing "It's so cute!" over and over, and then saying "ok, a little to the left".

Here are some photo's from the day:

Monday, November 23, 2009

Putting the Puzzle Together

Construction at Kidcity is always a little complicated since our top priority is keeping our visitors safe - that's why we've installed a temporary wall in the coatroom while we create our new snack area.

But Kidcity doesn't open until 11 am on Mondays, so we took advantage of the extra time to pop the fiberboard off the framing and take a look at our progress. The new spines have been professionally lacquered and installed in the room, and the walls got a fresh coat of white paint - but the rest of the project is still in the cardboard&chalk design phase. With the temporary wall down, we were able to make some key decisions about the placement of tables, benches and stools - and as usual, we wound up adding some cool new ideas that will undoubtedly make things take a little longer than planned.

Here are some photos of this morning's session -- that's Scott Kessel drawing on cardboard, and Matt Niland's testing a layout for the countertop.

So when will it be finished? Oh please don't ask me that!

Saturday, November 14, 2009


The new spines, all in a pile. Shiny topcoat next!

Friday, October 30, 2009

What's behind the wall?

We are 18 days into the transformation of our old Red Party Room into a snacking nook off our coatroom. Here are some photos of the work in progress.

First, we worked out the floor plan - we always start with outlining our ideas in chalk or masking tape right on the floor - then we walk around in it and try to imagine how it will flow with our visitors. Next we move to cardboard. In this case, we knew we wanted to keep the crazy colorful forest theme of the coatroom, so it was just a matter of figuring out how to incorporate some seating and coat storage amid the spines.

We know there won't be enough seating for all our visitors at one time, but we are trying to create a variety of options. In the end, there should be some kind of space for every kind of family.

Next we cut the shapes out of birch ply and sand and prep them.

Next step....colors! Coming soon.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Just what you've been asking for!

The number one suggestion that we get at Kidcity goes something like this:

Please! Make a place where I can sit and give my kids a snack!

I'm happy to announce that we have finally begun construction on a snack area. The coatroom will grow a new wing (the red party room is rapidly being demolished as I write) and we'll have some extra coat storage, along with some seating areas that are perfect for serving snack. Plus a drinking fountain and place to wash up.

Things will be a little crowded (and occasionally noisy) over the next several weeks as we do our construction. Hopefully, by the time the Holidays are here, it should be a little easier to give your kids some crackers and cheese and a juice box before heading back into the museum to play.

Here are some photos of the work in progress...but they look a little like Before and After shots in reverse. We had to take down a really sweet bench to make room for the new space:

Here's what it looked like Wednesday morning:

Here's what it looked like Thursday morning:

By the way, we always welcome any suggestions at Kidcity! In fact, we just built a new suggestion box in the lobby area. Can you guess what the very first suggestion in the new box was?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Gone Fishin'

Since early May, we've had the Clipper Ship section of the Fishery room closed as we repaired some old murals and added some new fish play. Last week I took a few pictures to show you what's been done, and what we're still working on.

For many years we've been planning to do a tiny mural that could be seen through the telescope on the ship's deck (actually, it's the nozzle from an old firehose, not a telescope at all, but we thought it served our purpose!) Scott Kessel created this mermaid and swordfish dance that is just the right size. At the same time, we repaired the old walls and refinished the floors where our visitors "walk the plank".

One of our goals was to create new ways to move fish around, and the "Crank n Chum" does just that - you can toss back some fish and feed them to the sharks!

This area under the captain's deck used to hold a treasure chest - which looked cool but didn't do much. In the photo below, you can see our exhibit builder Matt Niland thinking through some ideas about how to get the fish down to the "brig" and then back out again. It involves a new treasure chest with a secret compartment.

Speaking of secrets, I'm not giving them all away in this blog post! But here's a hint: when the room opens, you'll have a new way to be seen and not heard, and visa versa.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Not just bowling alone

At Interactivity, I loved hearing Jane Werner from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh stand up and say:

“Things have been going pretty well at our museum, so we started thinking how we could leverage our strength to improve our neighborhood.”

For me, that was a big WOW. Maybe I need to get out more, but that’s the first time I’ve heard that kind of talk from any other children’s museum (other than using educational programs as outreach and social service). She mentioned interesting ideas like covering the local highway underpass with art, and stimulating connections between the various parks and cultural attractions in her area through the Charm Bracelet project. Since my motivations for starting Kidcity were more about quality of life in our community than about education, this was right up my alley.

As Kidcity’s director, I spend a significant amount of time working on Middletown. Although I can’t say I planned it this way, I find that my focus on the community helps the museum in two ways: first, there is a direct relationship between Kidcity’s appeal and the quality of our town – as Middletown goes up or down, so goes our draw as a destination. Second, my work builds social capital for Kidcity, and I know that we owe our existence and growth more to social capital than to financial capital. Social capital builds when you contribute to the life of the community (I love Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” for a very persuasive argument on this topic). Briefly put, having social capital means that when you want to get things done, the credibility and friendships you have developed are just like money in the bank. As an additional bonus, it’s fun.

So what does "Building Social Capital" mean on a daily basis? That would be different for everyone, but here are some of the things that I've been working on in the past year or so in our little town of 42,000 souls (other than my administrative and design work at the museum):
•helping establish "Creative Juice", a council for people in the arts and creative industries at our local chamber of commerce, co-chairing the first year;
•chairing the Downtown Business District (now 8 years old). The DBD is a group of 140 Main Street businesses that agreed to tax ourselves. I helped write our operating plan, which starts with the principle that Middletown has to be "clean, safe, and civil" before businesses can thrive -- we run a variety of maintenance, beautification projects, as well as providing strolling downtown guides.
•writing about city meetings and other stuff for a new hyper-local news blog,, which began in response to the decline of our local newspapers.
•being active on a 15-month study of the parking in our downtown, and lobbying for a new municipal department to manage it all.
•trying - and mostly failing - to find a resolution to the onslaught of graffiti around town, hopefully including a managable system for reporting and quick clean-up.
•helping various local non-profits with fundraising (sometimes at Kidcity and sometimes independently) and being active in the PTA of the Title 1 school in our neighborhood, where my 1st grader is a student.
•going to stuff! Supporting the dances, performances, meetings, potlucks and instigations of my neighbors.

Over the next few months I expect to be working on the design of a grant-funded wayfinding system (our downtown signage is truly awful - here's a photo of the excellent wayfinding system I saw in Philadelphia) and starting a dialogue with other arts/entertainment venues to talk about a possible joint branding and promotion campaign. I'd love to hear more people in the children's museum field talk about ways that they are connecting to others throughout the community, not just in direct partnerships, but in ways that "leverage the strength" of the children's museum to help the community in diverse ways.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

What's your brand?

I love it when Interactivity brings people from outside the children's museum field to give us a fresh perspective on our business practices. Wednesday's session with a company called “Brand Champs” was a great learning opportunity for any children’s museum that wants to have more clarity about who they are and how they communicate that to the world.

Fran and Bill Lytle, the married couple that is Brand Champs, started with the message that your children’s museum has an identity and you can analyze first what that identity is, and then understand whether you are sending the right message about it to the public.

What follows is the first part of their step-by-step process, which they peppered with examples both from the children’s museum field and national brands that we all know. If you work at a children's museum (or you are trying to start one), you should get a pen and paper and treat this like a quiz.

1. Determine your brand personality. Fran and Bill believe that all brands fall into one of these five categories. (The words in italics are just examples of that main quality – it’s not a complete definition, but it can help you figure out where you fit.)

a. Sincerity (down to earth, honest, wholesome, cheerful)
b. Excitement (daring, spirited, imaginative, up-to-date)
c. Competence (reliable, intelligent, successful)
d. Sophistication (upper class, cosmopolitan)
e. Ruggedness (outdoorsy, rough)

Of course, if you’re like me, you’ll be saying that you can’t fit in just one box – I’d say that Kidcity has a little bit A, B, and D, and none of C or E. But when really pressed, I come down to words like “authentic” and “quirky” which (I think) fall into the Sincerity category. I think of us as something like the World’s Largest Ball of Twine – you’d have to be crazy to collect that much string, but hey, you gotta hand it to them for commitment.

2. Next, identify what kind of Brand/Visitor relationship you have. Again, you can only pick one.

a. Passion (expectation, powerful, full of anticipation and satisfaction)
b. Intimacy (when a company says: We know something about you – if it is a good thing, you will be more of it if you use us, if it is a bad thing, we can help.)
c. Nostalgia (based on a longing for something that happened in the past. Mixed feelings of happiness and longing evoked by past experiences)
d. Partnership (if your museum can say to the visitor: I ‘m working with you toward one single goal.)

These were easier to understand when Fran gave us examples: Curves understands that women want to get in shape, but they don’t want to feel self-conscious while they are exercising – that relationship is Intimacy. Dove understands that we want to live in a world where women have a healthy body image, and their campaign about real beauty helps us do that – that’s Partnership. The Holocaust Museum covers a topic that people feel passionate about and you know you will see and feel something intense when you go there – that’s Passion.

In my case, Kidcity’s brand/visitor relationship is definitely Intimacy. I know that my customers -- in other words, parents -- have certain beliefs about parenting and childhood (and I happen to agree with them!) We give them a place where they can be closer to their ideal.

3. Identify your Brand Dimension. For someone who isn’t familiar with your museum, this is the shorthand that tells them what to expect. It manages their expectation. You'll be happy to know that you can pick more than one.

a. Continuity (they can expect to find the same type of thing each time)
b. Distinctive Recipe (really different from all of its peers)
c. Quality (I may not know how to choose gems, but when I see that little blue box, I know all I need to know – it’s from Tiffany’s)
d. Signaling (Bill gave examples of Harley Davidson and Apple, but I’m not sure I get this concept yet. Perhaps it’s when the brand signals a whole lifestyle, that you either belong to or you don’t)
e. Incumbency (when your brand is so dominant that it becomes synonymous with the product – Kleenex, google, xerox.)

Fran suggested that there probably aren’t any museums that could claim Incumbency, but I think the Exploratorium in San Francisco might come close, since they are virtually synonymous with a certain kind of hands-on science experience. As for Kidcity, our Brand Dimension would have to be our Distinctive Recipe of creating our own eccentric exhibits with local artists (which is a good thing, since we have five other children’s/science museums within 30 minutes drive.)

4. Define your True Product Explain the core of what your customers get from you in 20 words or less. They gave the pithy example of Ellis Island, which defines its true product as being “the symbol of American immigration and the immigrant experience.” I’d say they got that right.

So far, here’s what I’ve come up with for my museum: At Kidcity, families exercise their imagination, playing pretend together in inventive and whimsical theme rooms created by local artists. That’s only 19 words! It's not perfect, but I don’t think I could have gotten so much of our character into one sentence if I hadn’t done the other three steps first!


After taking us through these four steps, Fran and Bill finished the session by sharing a few ways that you can evaluate your logo and your website to see if they truly express your identity – but since I can’t do it justice, I’ll just direct you to their website: Brand Champs.

Hope you learned something new & useful!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Earned Income (or "How to make a buck")

As everyone at the ACM conference bemoaned the decline in fundraising income, they also traded ideas on how to improve earned income at their children’s museums. There were plenty of good ideas that came up during the session on “Improving Performance in a Challenging Economic Environment” at Wednesday’s Interactivity. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Please Touch did a “Free Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream for Taxi Drivers” day as a way to be sure that the drivers knew where to find the museum.
2. During the holiday season, the Portland Children’s Museum offers members who renew a chance to buy a special 3-month membership for just $20 that people can give as gifts. Sarah Orleans, the director, told us that about 50% are upgraded to full memberships after the gift expires.
3. Host a “museum playdate” for followers of any popular local mommy blogs.
4. Sort your mailing list and invite target groups for special bagel/coffee mornings just for those families. Target families from a certain town, or families with twins, or any group that would see exclusive social time as a real draw. Moms want to make friends with other moms! (We did this at Kidcity by sending a postcard, but it could also be done by email if your data is good)
5. Identify nearby towns with a favorable demographic and offer their library a free kids ticket for any child who completes their summer reading program. The point was made that the reading program kids are exactly our market. It sounded like this idea could also work with the local Suzuki violin school or the local scout troups. A free kids pass would require an adult’s paid admission.
6. “Love your concierge” was an idea that focused on the hospitality staff at area hotels by throwing a special night event at your museum for all their workers. My little town in Connecticut doesn’t have a lot of hotels, but it is a restaurant town, and I sometimes distribute passes to the waitstaff at the local eateries. In other words, figure out who interacts with your potential visitors, and make sure they are familiar with your museum.
7. If you offer favor bags for sale for your birthday parties, give families the option to buy $5 worth of Birthday Bucks for each guest instead – it’s a gift certificate to your museum store.
8. Put a popcorn machine at your exit. One museum (I didn’t catch which one) mentioned that they had $10,000 worth of sales in 6 months at $2 a bag. I did hear some grumbling in the room, though, about finding popcorn scattered all over the place.
9. The Children’s Discovery Museum in Normal, Illinois loves the Fetch programming from PBS as a way to drive repeat visits. People keep coming back for each new activity related to the show.

This session was moderated by the always entertaining and slightly outrageous Lesly Attarian from Please Touch. She liked some of the suggestions, but her ultimate advice was this: Don’t Do Free. Charge a dollar if you can’t bring yourself to do regular rates, but don’t do free. And she also said don’t hesitate to Just Say No to the person who calls and offers your museum an opportunity to provide the entertainment at their event without compensation – on the other hand, maybe you can find a creative trade so that it benefits your museum as well.

The session wrapped up with a topic that I would have liked to see us explore a little more: there has to be a fit between any new income ideas and your brand and your mission. Anyone who knows me understands that I am All About Earned Income, but I hate to see museums do things which cheapen their integrity, just to make a buck. Paul Orselli discusses just that on his recent blog entry about having to run the gauntlet of the Blue Slushee while exiting a museum recently. So let's try to keep it clean folks!

Get on the bus

I had a blast at the Interactivity session entitled “How to get the right people on the bus”. Ingrid Anderson and Peter Buonincontro from the Portland Children’s Museum had us all climbing across our chairs, drawing on the walls and generally having a great time. There was a power point, but I promise you that no one looked at it.

The core of the message was that you need to understand that it takes all kinds of people to run an organization – some who are visionary, some who are task oriented, some who are social, and so on. The problem is that most people hire people who are like them instead of people who fill the gaps in their museum staff.

Ingrid taught us a few games that can help – I’ll share the one that we had the most fun with.

The point of this game is to figure out who you already have on your team, and then to help everyone see the positives and negatives about the various personalities you work with.

Here’s what you do:
•tape 5 giant sheets to the wall, each one labeled with an animal (ants, turtles, lions, puppies, owls).
•ask each person to go to the animal they feel they are most like, writing any words that describe that animal.
•then go to the other animals and write words that describe those animals.

That’s it.

(Now I feel kind of bad giving away all the details, since you really should try this for yourselves, so feel free to skip the next few paragraphs.)

I was in agony trying to decide which animal to choose (ok, so I knew I wasn’t an ant or a puppy) when Joanne Morell from Topeka (already in the lion group) said “Oh Jen, you’re an owl.” So off I went.

Here’s what we came up with:

The ants wrote that they were hardworking, diligent, goal-oriented, instinctive workers, and organized socially and they can always find a picnic. After the ants moved onto the second part of the task (in a line, I might add, and after clarifying whether they should go as a group to each one of the other animals or individually on their own) the rest of us came along and wrote this: narrow-minded, followers, lack of creativity, can’t see the big picture, hard to change, NO big picture. Peter circled the words “hard to change” and noted you have to consider that before you hire an ant. He said ants always say yes, but the question is whether they are saying yes to the right thing.

The puppies wrote that they are approachable, playful, friendly, full of surprise, out of control, eager to learn, loyal, curious, talkative, wanderers. And the rest of us wrote that they are unfocused, inexperienced and if you ask them to do something they don’t know how to do, they get all anxious and then they pee on the carpet.

Owls think of themselves as wise, patient, nocturnal, focused, territorial, vicious, independent, stealthy, and stubborn. In their wisdom, the other owls rejected my suggestion of “loner”, deciding that it was adequately covered by “independent”, which is not at all the same thing, but then I knew that I had the power of the blog, so I just didn’t argue with them. The others in the room came along and wrote that owls are know-it-alls, hard to read and that they are not morning people.

Across the top of the page, the turtles had written “Slow and Steady Wins the Race”. They also wrote predictable, long-lived, dependable, and the world rests on their backs. Others saw turtles as slow, they hide from problems and they don’t go outside the box

The lions: direct, take-charge, respected, solitary, roar, big bite, protective, providers. But others see them as judgemental, loud, they scare people, have big sharp teeth, are not respectful of others opinions and think too much about their hair.

Ingrid (a lion) and Peter (a puppy) talked us through some of the pros and cons of each personality type.
•Puppies are fabulous for helping new people feel welcome (front desk!) but don’t put them on budget analysis.
•Ants are great workers, staying till the job is done, but beware of burnout.
•Owls are great observers, and are insightful, but they need a little support in getting engaged.
•Ingrid noted that you shouldn’t pair a puppy and an owl – but an owl and ant will get along, because they can see the big and small picture simultaneously. She also noted that if you put a puppy with the ants, they will scatter.
•Turtles are completely dependable, but really stubborn. If you try to rush them, you can knock for days, but they will never come out of their shell. Get them on projects where they can work at their own pace.
•Lions are either already in a leadership role or trying to take one, which can be intimidating to turtles and puppies and even ants, although they usually just go around them.

Finally, Ingrid suggested taking this game home and using it as a party trick with your spouse! That got a big laugh.

So that was the message, folks. Figure out who is on your staff already and then fill the gaps (and don't hesitate to get the wrong people off the bus before they ruin the whole ride.)

P.S. I can’t resist a nod to the person who chose the title for this session: last year, Interactivity’s keynote speaker was Jim Collins, whose terrific book “Good to Great” has been a real inspiration for me. One of his principles on how to run a business is that you shouldn’t hire people you have to supervise – and the key is in the hiring (or the transferring) until you have all the right people on the bus and in the right seats. Then, and only then, should you decide where the bus is going. At the risk of making my co-workers blush, I’ll say that part of the reason that working at Kidcity is so much fun is because (at least from my viewpoint) all the right people are in the right seats, and we all have a similar tolerance for joy riding.

P.P.S: One of the keys to having a successful time at Interactivity is knowing when YOU are on the wrong bus. I actually went to a different session at the start of the afternoon – the title sounded good but it was clear from the introductions that the presenters were going to be talking about something else entirely. In my early ACM years I would have sat there and fumed – but this time I just quietly gathered my stuff and slipped out before it really got going.

P.P.P.S: Here's a photo from another game we played called "Draw the Perfect Employee". I'll note that the earmuffs were not so they wouldn't listen to their boss but so that they wouldn't be bothered by the sounds of children having fun!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Going Virtual

I spent the morning session of Interactivity at a session called "Virtual Marketing: Real Dollars." What with our recent launch of our new (and still-in-progress) website for Kidcity and my on-again-off-again relationship with this blog*, it was at the top of my list of Interactivity Must-Sees.

The presenters, Alex Hillman & Annie Heckenberger, both of Philly, actively denied that they were experts in social media -- in fact, they said that no one is an expert in this field, since everyone is learning as it is being created. Ok, so maybe they aren't experts, but I think we can at least say they are VERY ADVANCED.

And then there are the rest of us.

Should I back up? Does everyone reading know what social media is? (hint: this is) Alex and Annie covered the basics of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter (boy, do they love Twitter), but the real value was in listening to their banter and absorbing just how big this new way of interacting and living online really is -- as Annie said, without a trace of irony that I could detect, "I like to call it "a new universe"."

So bypassing the issue that some of what they said was just slightly above my head, I did pick up some solid themes that all of us old-school face-to-facers need to learn.

First off, if you are trained in conventional PR techniques, or you think this is just a new way to promote your children's museum, then you should think again. Alex and Annie stuck to their message that your first step in the online world should be to listen -- not to shout. Alex likened it to a cocktail party - siddle up to some people, say something nice and supportive, get to know them -- don't just barge in saying "Our museum is having Clifford the Dog in our lobby this friday - you should come". Just like in real life, manners and generosity count.

On the other hand, they dangled the plum of free marketing -- Annie likened social media to "word-of-mouth on steroids". That's hard for us to resist!

Alex shared these beginner tips for when you are ready to dip your toe online :

1. Reverse the bullhorn. In other words, listen more than you talk. Don't oversell!

2. Be part of the community you serve. That means dialoguing, cheering for others, as well as asking people to help you.

3. Create an amazing experience (just my personal comment here that I think this should be #1 in everything - if you have to choose between upping your maintenance budget so that nothing is ever broken, or adding a PR staff person to manage your online image, there's no question you should do the maintenance first, since the first thing you're going to hear from your visitors online is: everything is broken - what's with that? But that's just my two cents - the new media makes it impossible to whitewash over your faults -- but more about that in #4)

4. Embrace the Chaos. When you enter the online conversation about your museum (which, like it or not, is already taking place on the mommy blogs of your region), you can expect a certain level of frankness, and sometimes negativity, about your museum. That can be scary from a PR perspective. Instead of deleting or blocking it, the new "virtual marketing" way to handle this negative feedback is to breathe, listen, apologize and find a way to turn Mad into Glad. Wait a second -- isn't that Customer Service 101?!

Finally, Alex and Annie stressed that we shouldn't worry about making a big splash online; instead we should go for the slow build. A little is better than nothing. Spending a short time on lots of different sites is better than putting all your eggs in the Facebook basket. The worst thing you can do is to start something too big and then burnout.

In an effort to extend my social network, I gave my card to both Alex and Annie. Maybe they'll read about themselves on my blog! If so -- thanks guys - it was a really valuable experience for us to hear your perspective: you set a good example and I learned lots.

*Just to assuage my own guilt at neglecting this blog, I'll mention that I do blog, early and often, at, which is a hyper-local news blog that I write with a few friends. While I've been here at Interactivity scarfing up Philly cheesesteaks (gluten-free, natch), the Middletown Eye has been roiling with a town-gown spat about vegan meals for the homeless and a recent invasion of carpenter bees at the corner of William & Main.

Breakfast in Philadelphia

The first official day of Interactivity began with roundtable breakfasts organized by museum field -- exhibits, finance, visitor services, etc. I took the elevator to the top floor for the leadership breakfast, and enjoyed the view of the Philadelphia skyline and the new Please Touch museum in the distance.

First, Neil Gordon, the current ACM board president and the ED at the Children's Museum of Boston, MA, took care of some business, welcoming new board members and thanking others who were completing their terms of service. There was a nice moment when Richard Battle of the Strong Museum, Rochester NY (who is retiring not just from the ACM board but from his museum as well) promised to have us all over on his boat in Florida. Also, I'm happy to say that ACM must have read my evaluations from previous years (thanks guys) and they kept the program short so we could network among ourselves.

Conversation at my table was vigorous as most people reported the following trend: attendance up, fundraising down. To my left, the director of the San Jose Children's Museum and a founding member of the recently opened museum in Fond du Lac, WI encouraged a woman named Tamar who has come all the way from Israel to learn about how to get a museum going in her town. To my right, the directors of Imagine It, Atlanta GA, Port Discovery, Baltimore, MD, and AHA, Lancaster, OH chatted about their museums. Imagine It has had great success with their "Target" free days at their museum in Atlanta, which open for free on the second Tuesday from 1 to 7 pm (sponsored by the department store). In addition to the the financial support, the director gushed about what terrific partners the people at Target were in volunteering and doing promotions to make the monthly event a huge success. Several of us were scribbling notes at that point. Part of our conversation revolved around one of my favorite questions - who really comes to children's museums, as Port Discovery has made the journey from their initial focus on an older, school-age visitors, to retrofitting their museum experience to the more frequent toddler and preschool visitor. I'll note that our host, Please Touch, was a pioneer in staking out the "early years" territory, since they have always been targeted from birth to age 7.

I was surprised at one question that came up in this group of museum veterans -- they were speculating about whether offering membership is a plus or minus for the bottom line of their museums. We agreed that becoming members at a children's museum isn't quite like when someone becomes a "member" of the ballet or the symphony (which they presumably do for the cachet and as a step to becoming donors), since children's museum members are likely motivated more by the discounted admission than the perception of supporting the institution. But there just wasn't time to explore why Membership as a concept would even be considered for the chopping block as a way to reduce costs -- I'd love to know what data each museum is compiling on that equation. This is one of those issues that is highly affected by hyper local market conditions -- in a previous year, I remember the director of a fellow New England children's museum saying "our members are killing us", meaning that they come all the time, but they only pay once a year. I felt like offering her a tissue!

I would have liked to hear more about how different museums make membership work -- at Kidcity we've seen some changes in use over the years, going from member visits in the 20% range of our overall attendance to close to 40% now -- but the balance is overwhelmingly in our favor in many ways, as members who visit freqeuently help define the play culture at "Kidcity". It's nice to have a balance between families who know the ropes and people who are just discovering our museum for the first time. I think everyone understand that there is an intangible benefit to offering membership -- but I'd love to hear other perspectives. Hopefully there will be more time to chat with other directors on this and other topics as the conference rolls on.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Pecha Kucha at Interactivity

I'm reviving this long-slumbering blog to report on Interactivity 2009 in Philadelphia. Interactivity is the annual conference of the Association of Children's Museums and if Monday night was any example, the whole field is letting its hair down a little bit.

Or that could just the impression anyone would get after spending two hours with Paul Orselli of POW and Peter Exley of Architectureisfun. The actual conference doesn't begin until Tuesday morning, but Peter and Paul got right to playtime by hosting a Pecha Kucha session -- and you don't have to google that one, because I'm going to explain.

Pecha Kucha is sort of part bar scene, part salon -- mix in some karaoke and social networking -- yes, I know that doesn't make much sense, but keep it all in mind as you read this: watch somebody present 20 slides and talk for 20 seconds during each one. That's 400 seconds, and the words don't have to match the slides, but done nicely it wraps up into a tidy epiphany. Sort of philosophy's answer to the haiku, but with a bar break halfway through.

Our hosts brought up some of their favorite people in the children's museum field to share their 20/20, in between exhorting people to have another drink. (I'm just going to use first names - unforgivable really, but maybe someone will clear that up in the comments) Here were some of my favorite moments:

-Aaron and Dana remembered playing, started keeping track of how they play now, took pictures of it, and asked us pay attention to how long we've been playing before we notice we are playing.
-Peter Exley offered up the exquisite mental image of an inflatable felt whale and showed photos of public art that he loves.
-I didn't catch his name but a fascinating guy from New Jersey talked about "Maker Culture" and how we've evolved from the days of making stuff because we needed it to making stuff as a hobby and ultimately into this hacker society of playing with things as we make them and getting them to do what we want them to do - not just in children's museums but everywhere -- so this is really kind of our moment, isn't it?
-Mary Maher (Hand to Hand) made me miss my own kids when she showed an adorable slide of hers in homemade Halloween costumes - and then revealed one of those interesting paradoxes of motherhood, as she told us that for 18 years she has started the day with a few hours of rowing crew (presumably without the children in tow). Ok, so that's my connection, not hers, but that's the point of Pecha Kucha isn't it?
-Mindy Shrago from Young at Art took us through 20 years of slides as her museum and her children got bigger.
-Paul Orselli has been thinking a lot about chairs, and he got hoots and hollers from the crowd when he asked us to give up "the notion that you can foster parent-child interaction by not giving the parent anywhere to sit down." On the other hand, Paul actually showed a photo of a dad asleep in a museum chair. He showed some other seating options too, some of which were interesting enough to keep anyone awake
-Jane Werner (Pittsburgh CM) talked about mentoring artists to make tough art -- tough enough, that is, to withstand life in one of our children's museums (loved the roller coaster for plants). She demonstrated this by wearing her own piece of tough art, a DIY orange fringe straight skirt.
-Brad brought up a long stick, not to hit us, but to tell us how his martial arts practice is like designing exhibits - how you have to stay empty and open, you can't be afraid of having an effect on the world or being affected by it, you can work with a partner to reach beyond yourself (that one got me a little misty thinking of our Kidcity team). Finally he closed with an idea that was just out of my reach, which is that the future is behind us, and it's our job to anticipate the moment it will catch up with us. I'll have to keep thinking about that one - or perhaps not thinking is more to the point.

Overall, Pecha Kucha was a great way to warm up for the conference and get people thinking about ideas, not just budgets, feasibility studies and exhibit assessment! Peter encouraged us to find a Pecha Kucha in our own town -- or failing that, to start one. You can learn more about that at

For next year, I just have one suggestion: they could add a drinking game to improve the take at the bar, and use it as a fundraiser for ACM:

-every time a speaker mentions "the children", take a drink.
-everytime someone shows a slide of a child playing with mud, take a drink
-every time a museum actually lets a child play with mud (just think of the laundry and customer service issues!) that museum gets free drinks on the house
-every time someone mispronounces Pecha Kucha, take a drink (here's a tip: say pe-Chak-a-Cha)
-every time a speaker says the word "play" take two drinks (remember the point here is to make money for ACM!)

It's a good thing that I wasn't in charge of organizing this, or I'd be in no shape for blogging. If my computer holds up, I'll write about the workshop's I go to tomorrow - sorry you can't all be here!