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!