Wednesday, May 21, 2014

In Dialogue With International Children's Museums

At the Association of Children's Museums conference in Phoenix last week, Anita and John Durel facilitated the post-conference session, "In Dialogue With International Children's Museums." We engaged in animated discussions with people from Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, El Salvador, China, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, Norway, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Canada and the U.S. We delved into the situation for children around the world, addressing access to quality education, the persistence of rote learning in many countries, the impact of violence and crime, poverty and economic hardship, and poor health. Across the globe there are people working to create a better life for children and families, and who understand that opportunities for play, informal learning, and creativity are essential for healthy early childhood development everywhere.

In the words of Michael Akinleye from Nigeria: "The future of these children lies in their good start up in life.... I am willing to use every God-given opportunity to give Nigerian children a future through learning and play for creative living."

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Serious Play

I am just returning from the Serious Play Conference -- on gaming -- in Redmond, CA, heart of Microsoft, home of DigiPen, a university dedicated to interactive technologies.  OK, so why Serious Play?

First off, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (phonetically: chick sen me hi. Along with everyone else who has ever read this brilliant guy, I wondered) reminded us that play is always serious.  Play, for children, is the work of learning, how to bond, walk, talk, eat, read, compete and collaborate.  For adults, same, and then some -- rise to the challenge, necessary for personal development into old age, a component of creativity and of cultural evolution.

And playfulness?  Playfulness is the quality of experience people feel when they do something they enjoy for its own sake, usually in games, sports, artistic activities, but also in work, love, cooking, and other "serious" activities.  
And play is the a primary component of Csikszentmihalyi’s primary topic: flow. What is flow? A person can said to be experiencing flow when his attention is focused on a limited stimulus field -- like writing this article -- fully concentrating, not even thinking of what is occurring, really. But I did here that motorcycle driving by... As Csikszentmihalyi said, the roof could cave in and go unnoticed.  Action and awareness merge.  There is freedom from worry about failure.  You feel nothing can stop you. Self-consciousness disappears.  You are unaware of your body.  Time becomes distorted.  The experience becomes its own reward. You do it for the satisfaction it gives; because you love it.

What resonated with me about games for museums, seriously
    • Play can be seen as practice: Build, fail, test, do again. What better model for learning? You fail often in order to succeed. The pace is set by the player, through interesting choices, if the game is well designed, and includes meaningful, challenging choices.  All of this, just good pedagogy!  But remember, a game in an exhibit is usually played only once by the visitor so it better be easy to access.  
    • Making and playing games are an act of creativity. No systemization in place yet.  System architecture is long way off, apparently.  As when technology first infiltrated our hollowed halls in the 70s (I was there), the technology budgets are weak, and games can be expensive. Our organizational structure and staffing are probably inadequate. 
    • Building the game - 25% of cost; evaluating, tweaking, improving, the game - 75% of the cost.  Marketing is on top of that.
    • The business model for all current museum games mentioned at the conference -- in exhibits, played in the museum halls, or online -- had the museum, not the visitor (the player), paying for the game. Could we find a way to up-charge for games as we might do for a special exhibit?
    • t was reported at the Serious Game Conference that new production models frequently applied to games could bring creativity and innovation in design thinking to museums: empathize, define, ideaize, prototype, test, do over.  This could have positive effect on exhibit, publication, and program development, it was said.  This was also said in every decade since the 1970s by every group of smart young technologist with shiny new toys for us then.  Edwards Deming Plan-Do-Check-Adjust Change/Quality Management Cycle helped in the 1980s. I won’t belabor the point with Jim Collins in the 90s, etc.   

My final point: our multigenerational audiences watch and play games, in droves, online, on boards and screens of every size, on playing fields and swimming pools and woods and hiking trails, in urban environments and in the backs of cars, and they learn as they play.  We need to be aware of that and make rational decision to include game making and play, or not, in our programming mix.

Find out more and online games at the following museums:  Science Museum, UK; Strong Museum of Play, Museum of London, J. Paul Getty Museum, Indianapolis Children's MuseumNYTimesNYTimes Article by Chris Suellentrop. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Rubber Tire Tour: Museums, Roanoke Region

The stone, glass and steel 21st Century Taubman Museum of Art lifts itself from the 19th Century brick surround of Roanoke.  Somehow, this building now belongs in its place; it has settled into a reflection of its neighbors, with a slight and welcome patina. Inside, even better.  Della Watkins, Director, and her colleagues, offer choice, quality exhibitions by turns tender, playful, provocative, and compelling. Programs align with the exhibitions and include many opportunities for families. The museum is free, the gift shop well-stocked, the new cafe welcoming.  

Museum visits begin with the website. Taubman writes about its exhibitions and programs with an unusually sensitive intelligence.  

Supporting a museums of this scale and quality in a market the size of Roanoke is no small achievement.  As reported by the press, the museum has faced financial hardships, to be expected of any museum opening at the start of the economic downturn.  It founders have returned to the Taubman, sometimes wishing they could release it, I’m sure, but with it nonetheless.  It looks to me as if this museum is going to be one of those that could, and did, and does for a long time to come.  www/

Roof Top Garden, above, Center in the Roanoke, reopened, completely renovated, May 2013, houses three museums: the all volunteer Harrison Museum of African American Culture History Museum of Western Virginia, and the Science Museum of Western Virginia.  

The exhibitions of the History Museum of Western Virginia are as good as history museums get. One explains the human migration through Southwest Virginia through the 20th century in the region.  A Civil War exhibition commemorates the sesquicentennial.  Both excellent.  The museum can be said to be fully formed.
Two week’s after opening, the museum laid off its director and fund raiser.  It has a debt of more than $1 million.  A board member has stepped in as acting director. This serious situation remains unresolved.

The Science Museum of Western Virginia remains a work in progress, rightfully so. They have not raised (or spent) the money necessary for all new exhibitions so they have smartly revitalized old exhibits which work perfectly well in their new space.  A new butterfly garden, knowledgeably staffed, occupies the top floor.  An OmniGlobe, animates weather patterns over millions of years on Earth and even other planets.  Everything I saw works and many families were enjoying, engaging, learning, having fun.  www.smwv.or
Still under wraps, before opening, Science Museum of Western Virginia
D-Day Memorial
Eighty-eight acres hugh, built in Bedford because, proportionally, this tiny town lost more men than any other town in American.  Washingtonians (me) love their memorials, so I can say the D-Day Memorial stands shoulders above anything in DC. We have nothing of this scale, grandeur, or poignancy.  Perhaps having the memorial in Bedford where so many men lost walked to school, kissed a girl for the first time, helped their fathers in the fields adds to the grace and meaning.  The artistic quality of the sculpture, the landscape -- hard and soft -- and the water features working together provide a transcending experience. 

The D-Day Memorial has undergone recent leadership transitions.  Considering the fiscal sustainability of this site might wither those with the sternest military bones. Currently, the memorial is a private 501(3)c nonprofit and no doubt must find a suitable partner to share in the on-going care of this astounding American treasure.  To my thinking, this should be a federal partner because this site has undeniable national and international reach.

Mr. Jefferson’s Summer Retreat:  Poplar Forrest

A website is never a substitute for an on-site visit, but if ever there was a website worth reading, is one. Here you will find rich depth, built layer-by-layer, over years as painstaking archeology uncovered Jefferson’s creative genius.  Thomas Jefferson’s very private retreat house were nearly lost to encroaching redevelopment when, in the 1980s, a small group of local residents joined together to protect the site. Today, as they say so well:

        Poplar Forest's unique contribution lies in its unparalleled personal scale,
        its contemplative character, and the immediacy of its message for the life of the mind.
        It can stimulate reflection and learning through providing high-quality experiences for 
        smaller numbers of people onsite and through radiating ideas to greater numbers via technology.

Poplar Forest also has a new director -- Jeffery Nichols, a man with historic site experience, and like Jefferson, unbounded intellectual curiosity, dreams for a better future and a commitment to generations to come.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Texas Supports the Smithsonian

Imagine my surprise when I arrived at my favorite Dallas spot, Hotel Belmont where everything and everyone is hipper than me, to find half naked young men preening in the bar, flexing their tattoos, preparing for the Jason Brooks tattoo catwalk at Dallas Contemporary. The walk occurred at 9:00 pm and was on a 6:00 am flight from Washington.

When I arrived in FTD airport, I learned the local museums were open free, in support of efforts to keep the Smithsonian in my home town free to the American people. Well, of course, I did my part and visited the Amon Carter where I particularly enjoyed their Allure of Paper: Watercolors and Drawings from the Collection, a magnificent exhibition to from their permanent collections. Also spent time in the Russell and Remington Study Center, extremely well done. Then down the very hot street to the Cattle Raisers Museum housed inside the spectacular Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. It was packed with families enjoying every sort of exhibition. It was a joy to see this place hum. The collaboration between the science museum and the cattle raisers is one to be emulated throughout the museum world. The director of the CRM is also the director of the National Cowgirls Museum next door. How's that for gender equality?

I finished the afternoon at the recently opened BRIT: Botanical Research Institute of Texas, with perhaps the most enthusiastic staff I’ve encountered in decades. They are so happy to finally have a beautiful space in which to show off their important work, to invite the public to.

I can’t sign off without out mentioning Smoke, the restaurant attached to the Belmont. Breakfast this morning was ricotta cheese pancakes, lighter than a feather, with apricots and cream and an actual rasher of bacon. Lasted me until a dinner of chicken with baked beans on a bed of watermelon and greens.

Sadly, I didn't make it to the catwalk. Just can't hit the long ball anymore.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Busman's Holiday

Driving most of the 170.2 miles of the Garden State Parkway last week put me in mind of What Exit? an exhibit about the NJ Turnpike created by SallyYerkovich during her tenure at the New Jersey Historical Society still online.

At the top of the Garden State Parkway, we stopped at the Morris Museum, lead for many years by Steve Miller. For almost a century this general museum has been devoted to art, science, history, and theater and its collections support these disciplines. Remarkably, it houses one of the world’s most comprehensive collection of mechanical musical instruments and automata, the Murtogh D. Guinnes Collection.

The museum provides a steady offering of changing exhibitions, including while we were there, Jersey Rocks: A History of Rock and Role in the Garden State, curated and organized by Claudia Orcello. NJ supported a unique mix of performers and places, technology and talent that dominated the airwaves and rocked the nation.

Paul D’Ambrosio recently took the helm at Fenimore Art Museum,Cooperstown. This summer he filled the house with Frida Kahlo, modernism from the Munson Williams Proctor Institute, Syracuse, known to those who love it at the Munstitute. And that is no where near enough: also, early drawings and watercolors by Edward Hopper, NYHSA's own glorious collection of folk art and the stunning Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Happy, Building Museums in San Francisco

What do the following museum leaders have in common?Daniel Gottlieb, Patricia Leach, Julie Van Blarcom, Joe Brennan, Grace C. Stanislaus and Lial A. Jones?

Each contributed to last month’s dynamic Building Museums conference in San Francisco, presented by MAAM in partnership with WMA, IAMFA, ACM and AIA/SF. Themed around planning, building, and sustaining new, renovated, and expanded museum projects, this is the single conference, world-wide, attracting architects, museum and building professionals to discuss the challenges of this distinctive building type.

Extraordinary museums hosted at the Oakland Museum of California, Walt Disney Family Museum, The Old San Francisco Mint, Contemporary Jewish Museum, de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. Each house displayed brilliant architecture, sustainability (in both the green senses) and community engagement achievements.

Oakland in particular, slightly off the beaten path, deserves a shout out. Opened in 1969, built entirely of concrete by the Eero Saarinen associate Kevin Roche on four city blocks with interior gardens over many galleries, it can be said that Oakland had a green roof decades before the term was coined. The build brought together three small museums of history, art, and science which have co-existed almost without change since that time. The current renovation respects the original architecture and mission (grounded in the radical upheaval of the time and place) and updates infrastructure, about 300,000 square feet of exhibit space, and all program offerings. All those leaky concrete roofs and garden beds are getting an upgrade, too. Now two blocks from the BART transit system, Oakland Museum is easy to get to and it is an extraordinary experience. If you can’t visit soon, I recommend Mark Dion’s The Marvelous Museum, an ambitious walk through the nooks and crooks of Oakland’s deep storage and realized in what is certainly the most marvelous publication on any museum done in decades.

We heard about the Herculean team work and flood recovery efforts of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library and the Kentucky Derby Museum. You can witness the move of the NCSM&L’s flooded building, 140-tons, happening now. Staging necessitated by climate extremes are just part of the story of the new, all-glass Anchorage Museum. Lessons learned from building a collection and a building for it, resulting in the Phoenix Musical Instrument Museum -- a project made in a decade from idea to delivery, gives new meaning to project management. The planned move of SF’s beloved Exploratorium had us thinking about returning to San Francisco when this museum opens in 2016.

The projects were given context with in-depth discussions of financial considerations -- from how to maximize earned income to raising money in the worst economic downturn ever. The balance between stewardship, sustainability and audience needs was thoughtfully discussed, as were the latest insights on day-lighting new building projects, where and how conservation of objects fit into this work.

The Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture received the third annual Buildy Award, bestowed for outstanding construction which increases awareness within the field, and by the public at large, of the value of museums and the need for their ongoing rehabilitation and expansion to serve future generations. Claire Larkin brief inspiring acceptance speech can be read here.

Happiness, according to research from positive psychology, requires 1) meaningful work 2) mastery over the work 3) the opportunity to work with people you admire and respect and 4) a challenge that is larger than yourself. Every museum building project provides these criteria in abundance as we all learned in San Francisco.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

QR Codes in Museums

Our founder and friend, Will Phillips, provided the following in an email to his health club roundtable members this week. It holds for our museum colleagues, too, so I've redrafted slightly and reposted.

A QR code is a specific matrix barcode readable by dedicated QR readers and camera phones. The code consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background. The information encoded can be text, URL, or other data.

Common in Japan, created by Toyota subsidiary Denso-Wave in 1994, the QR code is one of the most popular types of two-dimensional barcodes. QR, abbreviated from Quick Response, as the creator intended the code to allow its contents to be decoded at high speed. QR codes can hold over 7,000 characters, providing a rich data delivery.

Natali Del Conte of CNET explains QR codes in a short video. Google encourages the use of QR codes in their Favorite Places campaign by asking business to show QR codes in their windows and advertisements, leading to rich data resource. Google's Android also moved QR adoption in the US. Since the Android market is small screen only, it is common for users to scan the QR code from a web page or another phone's screen or a print ad as Del Conte explains. QR codes can link to your electronic calendar, website, videos, coupons, promotions, and invitations.

Would QR codes on an object label in a museum usefully extend the information available to the visitor? Could discounts be offered on the museum website encourage visitation during slow times? Since interest is just building, would some visitors be attracted to this now "secret" way of gaining access? Since we all carry our phones 27/7, mobile marketing is apparently the next wave.

p.s from Mary Case: I’ve downloaded the recommended iPhone app, Neoreader, but so far haven’t had success in decoding anything. Onward!