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.


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!)