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!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mental Floss

To Kidcity's Visitors: I'm in St. Paul, Minnesota for the annual children's museum conference. I'll be back to blogging about regular Kidcity news soon!

The annual ACM conference has never failed to serve up at least one Really Big Idea that sustains me long after I've returned home. One year, they engaged Jim Collins to talk about how his "Good to Great" philosophy could help children's museums develop their focus on their core mission, and I'm still carrying around the card with my hedgehog concept that I jotted down as he spoke. Another year, Greg Mortensen made us all examine whether we have really stretched ourselves to equal the importance of our purpose when he described his journey of building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan with "Three Cups of Tea". And I will forever be grateful that I was in the room back in New York City in 1999 when Neil Postman blew the lid off any ideas I'd ever had about education when he listed the "Five Things we Need to Teach our Young" (which is inexplicably not available online, but was published in Hand in Hand, Vol. 13, #2.)

Here's one more for the list: after this morning's presentation by Dan Pallotta, author of "Uncharitable", I will never see my work and the tools I can use in the same light. He argues that we've set our whole non-profit sector up for failure, even though-- paradoxically -- we already know how to make it thrive.

The methods that make companies like Apple, Coke or Disney so huge, are the very methods that we won't allow our "helping" organizations to use. And isn't it more important to be successful in saving the world than in entertaining it?

He notes our obsession with evaluating non-profits by the size of their overhead. Although that produces pithy ratings about "how much of your donation actually goes to the cause", it doesn't measure whether the organization is doing a good job or having an impact. He asked us to imagine walking into a shoe store and saying: show me the shoes with the lowest overhead! Yet that's often how we make our choices for much more important issues.

Specifically, he pointed out five strategies of the for-profit world that we deny non-profits:

•can’t use money to attract leadership talent
•can’t advertise on the same scale
•can’t take risks trying new sources of revenue
•can’t take the long term view by spending cash now for a return years down the road
•can't raise money through the stock market

This guy was just genius. You have to read his book, or at least look at his website, because these ideas are inevitably going places.

Actually, I've encountered genius twice today, and it's not even noon.

I spent breakfast wandering around the convention hall where the various exhibit designers peddle their wares...which I usually find to be an underwhelming experience. Fortunately there is the occasional exception: I was rendered absolutely speechless (well, at least incoherent) by the images of the Noah's Ark exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center of Los Angeles, particularly of the animals that were fabricated from found materials by Lexington, a fabrication and design firm.

The craft, the whimsy, the bold re-imagination of form, and the flat-out invitation to play - this is just the kind of unique, artist-driven work that would be the best business choice a children's museum could make. In these days of multiple museums (at Kidcity, we've got 5 other children's museums within 30-minutes drive, plus a new state-sponsored science museum), how can the same old laminate and label philosophy of exhibit design cut through the clutter. The answer is art. That's not just about aesthetics and core values -- those are just bonus -- it's also the business insurance you take out against the very real possibility of a cookie-cutter neighbor scooping up your visitors. Walking away from their display, all I could think was "When are people going to realize that you always go to the Dunkin Donuts which is closest to the exit?"

I wish I had a more eloquent way to express this, but here's the thing: I just get so excited about encountering excellence in any field. Dan's book, a twisted giraffe sculpture, or the perfect hotel we have in St. Paul - somehow we don't have a word for this sort of stellar entrepreneurial spirit. I actually feel a sense of grace in it's presence - and it's worth the trip.

(here's the pig sculpture that drew me to the Lexington booth in the first place - how cool is this!)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Who's bored now?

To Kidcity's visitors: I'm blogging from the national children's museum conference in St. Paul, Minnesota...I promise that I'll get back to regular Kidcity news soon!

I just came from a session here at the ACM conference that was so boisterous that it was almost impossible to get a word in edgewise -- which is kind of funny since it's a topic that most people would consider a bit dry.

It was about how to create financial reports for children's museums.

That's probably why Mike Yankovich from the CM of Denver showed this slide of someone snoring...that was right before his presentation was pretty much hi-jacked by people in the room who kept jumping in with their two-cents.

I know some people find this stuff dull, but for this crowd, it was like being in a room full of Star Trek geeks and then Leonard Nimoy shows up to chat.

So what should be measured at children's museums? Is it just about ticket sales and gift shop income? Or how the fundraising does? Or whether there's enough in the bank to make payroll? (ok, that last one IS pretty important.)

And who wants to know this stuff?

My friends in the children's museum field know that I am a fiend for data - where are visitors from? How did this weekend compare to the same weekend last year, and what was the weather? Are we using more paper towels and less Purell? I really love this stuff. Basically, I think you can't have too much information when you are trying to understand why people might choose to come play at your museum.

The folks in this session were my soulmates: at least 5 people weighed in on the question of whether to track the depreciation rate of exhibits. In other words, should you measure how quickly your exhibits are "used up" - and is that a question of whether something needs to be replaced because it's broken, or is it just that your adult visitors might wait to bring their kid to the museum until you are advertising something "new". A few people proposed that it's an opportunity to educate visitors about how repeat visits to the same exhibit are the best thing developmentally for kids. As Concetta from Please Touch Museum in Philly said: "I gotta ask, how many times did you read Good Night Moon to your kid?" (Our exhibits at Kidcity are permanent for just that reason.)

Personally, I've grown to love measuring depreciation - no matter why you need to change an exhibit, you should understand how much of your physical plant you are "spending" every day - and if you let your rate of investment dip below that level, well then you are running a deficit no matter what your bank account tells you.

The springboard for all this conversation was the system that the museum in Denver is using to track their "Key Performance Indicators". They set a goal - like understanding their audience. Then they measure the diversity of their audience in both socioeconomic and ethnic terms - and not just by tracking zip codes. Their method of spending the occasional week asking every visitor to take a survey drew a lot of pointed questions - exactly how do they get a response rate of 70% - that's pretty high. Mike's advice was "keep it short." Their fire truck exhibit is visible from the door, and he said it's like it's a magnet and the kids are made of steel - there's no way that a grown-up is going to be able to answer more than a few quick questions. Also, he found that just explaining that the survey would help the museum do a better job serving its visitors was a motivator. After they've got the data, they compare it to their targets. For example, under the goal of Financial Sustainability, they had goals like "having 90 days of cash on hand", and having a ratio of earned to contributed income of at least 50:50.

By the way, in Denver, with a staff of 42 FTE's, and 269,000 visitors in 10,000 sq. ft. of exhibits, they are claiming the mantle of "most crowded children's museum in the country." Sounds plausible.

As we were wrapping up, Janet Rice Elman, the association's exec director, weighed in with her advice on how to make sure that all the people that need to know the numbers can get them - ACM uses Base Camp, an online system for sharing documents, which lets the association board members easily view all the financial reports, and also tracks who is actually logging on. That helps keep everyone in the same information loop. That's something I'll be looking into for Kidcity.

It seems that a number of us are in pursuit of the Holy Grail - a simple but accurate set of indicators that would give you a real snapshot of the current and future health of your museum. A dashboard that would tell you at a glance - is this bus taking us where we want to go?

On the other hand, though simple is good, I can think of lots of things we don't track very well at Kidcity - how many costumes do we go through in our dress-up room, how many people choose to buy a membership after spending a few hours with us, what kinds of things get in the way of families deciding to come play (I'm not even sure how we'd measure that, but I'd sure like to know!)

In my opinion, the mother of all data points is the number of people who choose of their own free will to come visit your museum, followed closely by how far they are willing to travel. You can have really terrific bookkeeping systems, and impressive grant reports, but if you have to advertise like crazy just to get people in the door, then I'd suggest that it's more important to have a fun and worthwhile museum than great reporting systems. The truth is, it's not an either or choice - if you make the numbers your friend, they help you make your museum thrive by any measure.

P.S. Here's a tip for anyone in the business of making software for children's museums - like Vista, Blackbaud, Explora, and our own PayGo, a Filemaker program. Someone could make a lot of children's museums very happy if they would create a system that actually works well for running the cash register, connecting with the bookkeeping programs, tracking the donors, members and school groups, managing the gift shop inventory, keeping the calendar for parties and events and sending the occasional email blast. Is that really too much to ask? So far, the answer would seem to be yes!

Putting the Muse in Museum

We're interrupting the construction of Kidcity's new bookstore for a visit to the national conference of the Association of Children's Museums! Over the next few days, I'll be writing about the conference, so my apologies to my regular Kidcity visitors - hopefully you'll find something interesting in these writings, but if not, don't worry. It will be over soon!

A great children's museum is like an advent calendar - that, and the title of this post, were just two of the nuggets of gold that I extracted from Daniel Spock's 400-second Pecha Kucha rant this evening.

Ok, I'll try to start at the beginning. (But don't you just love the idea of visitors leaning in and opening little advent doors full of surprises? I'd like to play there!)

Right....the beginning.

So, I'm in Minnesota at the annual ACM conference - with lots of people from children's museums around the world, including two others from Kidcity (that's Cait, our manager, and Matt, our exhibit builder).

We're here for three days of informative sessions on the nuts and bolts of the children's museum industry - there are workshops on how to hire the right staff, how to do promotions, and how to evaluate exhibits.

But before all that starts (Thursday morning), several dozen of us gathered for a Pecha Kucha session, organized by Paul Orselli and Peter Exley.

Pecha Kucha (say pe-CHA-ku-CHA) is a concept that started in Japan and has spread to cities across the world. Basically, each speaker gets 400 seconds to describe 20 slides, while the host periodically exhorts the participants to make more frequent visits to the bar.

Kind of like going to a poetry slam or church service - you feel like a good stiff breeze just blew through your head.

Here are a few moments:

Peter Exley lovingly pointed out the curved line of a favorite building, and Greg Belew offered up images of perfect steel pistons and crank shafts in the guts of an exhibit.

With photos of the exuberantly crafted new climbing sculpture at the Children's Museum of Phoenix, AZ, both Becky Lindsay and Deb Gilpin talked about seeing the benefits of risk in play, not just the dangers. Or maybe Becky was talking about exhibit design when she said: Jump out of the window and make your wings on the way down.

Aside from Daniel Spock's invigorating thoughts on liberating the play spirit, we got some of Paul Orselli's usual atypical common sense
on the topic of technology in children's museums. Sure there are exceptions - but mostly video screens just hypnotize and pacify us - which is pretty much the opposite of imaginative play and wonder.

Brad Larson has been writing and tweeting his haiku, to capture his experience of nature. But Clifford Wagner thinks we should all take up the violin. Right now. There's a photo of him walking his dogs while fiddling. He says it's all about creating joy.

I think that's a good theme to start this year's ACM!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What's Next?

Ever notice how construction causes a domino effect?

Last Fall, we decided to create a space where visitors could have that meant we had to demolish the Red Party Room. Then we spent the Winter working on a new Red Party Room, with more space and light for better parties. Then we realized we had some extra space left over that could be used to expand the tiny bookstore next to our front desk, and that it would be even better if we redesigned the desk area first....

You get the idea.

So now we've finished the snacks, the parties and the front desk. It's time for the bookstore.

The people who work at Kidcity -- myself included -- are a little bit loopy on the subject of children's books. Next time you're at the front desk, ask Cait about Whangdoodles or Roxaboxen. Matt swears by Seven Silly Eaters. I'm completely unreasonable on the subject of author Lauren Child and her Clarice Bean picture books. In fact, quit reading this blog and go get yourself a copy of Guess Who's Babysitting, Clarice Bean. Happily for you, it comes out in paperback this month.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, our bookstore. Here are some photos of the old bookstore, and the construction in progress:

First we emptied out the old bookstore and tore down the wall.

Then we began experimenting with shelving ideas and carpet samples.

Then we worked out the room layout and prototyped a few different book display ideas.

Last week, Matt started building the shelves! Stay tuned.

And since you asked, here are just a few of the children's books that I think everyone should have "read out loud" to them, repeatedly, between the ages of zero and ten (listed here from youngest to oldest). We do carry these at Kidcity, but you can also find them at your local library!

Charlie Parker Plays Be Bop, by Chris Raschka
The Going to Bed Book, by Sandra Boynton
Blueberries for Sal, by Robert McCloskey
A is for Salad, by Mike Lester
When I was Young: A four-year-old's memoir of her youth, by Jamie Lee Curtis (yes, THAT Jamie Lee Curtis)
Bunny Money, by Rosemary Wells
When Dinosaurs Came with Everything, by Elise Broach
Clarice Bean, That's Me, by Lauren Child
Weslandia, by Paul Fleischman
Glinda of Oz, by L. Frank Baum (but only after you read the first 13 Oz books)
Trumpet of the Swan, by EB White

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Red Room is Ready to Party!

We finished the Red Party Room back in early March, but I never shared my "before and after" photos. Of course, this being Kidcity, we don't actually feel like we are done with this project, and someday we plan to add a few more colorful accents around the room. That's the biggest problem we have...trying to decide when to move on to the next thing!

In my last post (a few months ago -- ahem), we'd just done the layout of the curved wall. The next step was to create windows that would let light in, but give party families some privacy.

Matt and Scott came up with these tiny openings, and then created handmade windows of glass beads floating in casting resin.

When the room was almost finished, we decided it needed more color -- a lot more color! So Scott designed this cool mural of a Frosting Factory run amok, spewing silver frosting all over the room.

It's really funny if you get up close and see the stuff these guys are doing:

Finally, here are a few shots of the room as it looks now:

Come take a peek next time you are at Kidcity!