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.

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