Announcing the 2021 ACM Board of Directors Election Results

Association of Children’s Museums Announces New Roles for 2021 Term

ARLINGTON, VA (October 5, 2021)—Today, the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) announced the results of its 2021 Board of Directors Election.

Joe Hastings, Executive Director of Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was elected President Elect for the 2021-2022 term, and will serve as Board President for the 2022-2024 term.

Said Hastings, “Children’s museums are so important—now more than ever—in terms of bringing children, families, and communities together. I’m excited, proud, and honored to have the opportunity to help ACM champion children, families, and the museums that serve them.”

New officers will join ACM President Tanya Durand of Greentrike and Past President Michael Yankovich of the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus. They include Tifferney White of Discovery Place (Vice President – Governance), Joseph Cox of the Museum of Discovery and Science and Dené Mosier of Kansas Children’s Discovery Center (Vice Presidents – Initiatives), and Putter Bert of KidsQuest Children’s Museum (Secretary). Stephanie Terry of Louis J. Koch Family Children’s Museum of Evansville was re-elected as Treasurer.

Newly joining the Board as At-Large Members for three-year terms are Crystal Bowyer of National Children’s Museum, Atiba Edwards of Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Melissa Kaiser of DISCOVERY Children’s Museum, and Felipe Peña III of Children’s Museum of Brownsville. Joanna Haas of Kentucky Science Center, Lara Litchfield-Kimber of Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum, and Carol Tang, PhD of Children’s Creativity Museum, were re-elected as At-Large Members.

Leaving the Board after years of valued service are Susan Garrard of Mississippi Children’s Museum, Jennifer Farrington of Chicago Children’s Museum, Juan Carlos Novoa of Museo Tin Marín, and Mort Sajadian, PhD, of Amazement Square.

“The ACM Board of Directors represents the children’s museum field in service of our vision of a world that honors all children,” said ACM Interim Executive Director Larry Hoffer. “We’re so proud to partner with these individuals as ACM pursues our work to champion children’s museums worldwide, and we’re tremendously grateful for their willingness to share their expertise and enthusiasm with ACM and the field at large.”

New Board President Elect:
Joe Hastings, Executive Director, Explora (Albuquerque, NM)
Joe Hastings has been the Executive Director of Explora, a hands-on learning center in Albuquerque, New Mexico since 2012. Explora is creating a cradle through career STEAM campus, adding a teen center—X Studio—and preschool—¡Brillante!—to the existing children’s museum and science center. Joe worked for thirteen years at the Exploratorium, San Francisco, in various roles including Director of the Center for Museum Partnerships. He also served as Executive Director at the Don Harrington Discovery Center in Amarillo, Texas, for five years. He is a Noyce Leadership Fellow, was a board member of the Association of Science and Technology Centers and Amarillo Habitat for Humanity, and an advisor to the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which supported children’s museum networks in Oklahoma, Nevada, and Arkansas. On the ACM Board of Directors, he previously served as Vice President – Governance.

New At-Large Board Members:
Crystal Bowyer, President and CEO, National Children’s Museum (Washington, DC)
Crystal Bowyer has been the President and CEO of the National Children’s Museum in DC since 2017. She led all aspects of redevelopment for the Congressionally-designated museum, including advocating Congress to introduce bicameral, bipartisan legislation, The National Children’s Museum Act, in order to secure the Museum’s sustainability and future. Before coming to the National Children’s Museum, she spent a decade in arts and culture in Chicago, last serving as Director, External Affairs at the Museum of Science and Industry. Previously, she worked in government in Missouri and DC. She has been a presenter at InterActivity in 2019 and 2021, focused on capital campaigns and emerging museums.

Atiba Edwards, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Brooklyn Children’s Museum (NY)
Atiba Edwards has served as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum since 2019. In this role, he oversees building operations, finance and HR, visitor experience and earned income, and marketing. He is also the co-founder of FOKUS, a 501(c)3 organization that provides communities with access to the arts and arts education programming to maximize and facilitate community relationships. He previously served as Director of Operations for Uncommon New York City Charter Schools – Brooklyn Collegiate East and as a Fixed Income Investment Bank Research Analyst.

Melissa Kaiser, Chief Executive Officer, Discovery Children’s Museum (Las Vegas, NV)
Melissa Kaiser has been the CEO of Las Vegas’ Discovery Children’s Museum since 2018. Among her accomplishments since arriving at the museum are growing its total operating revenue by 18% between 2018 and 2021 through earned and contributed revenue sources, and establishing the museum’s first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council in 2020. She has a significant background in development, serving in senior leadership roles at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Felipe Peña III, Executive Director, Children’s Museum of Brownsville (TX)
Felipe Peña has been the Executive Director of the Children’s Museum of Brownsville since 2012. During his tenure he developed and implemented the strategic plan that enhanced the museum’s ability to create an impact on the community, supported education through play for children, and increased awareness of the museum throughout the region, while searching for efficiencies to reducing operational cost. He has served on ACM’s Program Committee since 2017 and has been co-chair since 2019. He also serves as a member of the Texas Collective of Small Museums and Brownsville’s Coalition of Education

A complete list of the ACM Board of Directors:

ACM Board of Directors, 2021-2022
President: Tanya Durand, Executive Director, Greentrike (Tacoma, WA)
President Elect: Joe Hastings, Executive Director, Explora (Albuquerque, NM)
Past President: Michael Yankovich, President and CEO, The Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus (CO)
Vice President – Governance: Tifferney White, Chief Learning Officer, Discovery Place (Charlotte, NC)
Vice President – Initiatives: Joseph Cox, President/CEO, Museum of Discovery and Science (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Vice President – Initiatives: Dené Mosier, President and CEO, Kansas Children’s Discovery Center (Topeka)
Treasurer: Stephanie Terry, Executive Director, Louis J. Koch Family Children’s Museum of Evansville (IN)
Secretary: Putter Bert, President and CEO, KidsQuest Children’s Museum (Bellevue, WA)

At-Large Board Members
Brenda Baker, Director of Exhibits, Madison Children’s Museum (WI)
Crystal Bowyer, President and CEO, National Children’s Museum (Washington, DC)
Leslie Bushara, Deputy Director, Education and Guest Services, Children’s Museum of Manhattan (NY)
Atiba Edwards, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Brooklyn Children’s Museum (NY)
Joanna Haas, Chief Creative Officer, Kentucky Science Center (Louisville)
Melissa Kaiser, Chief Executive Officer, DISCOVERY Children’s Museum (Las Vegas, NV
Lara Litchfield-Kimber, Executive Director, Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum (Poughkeepsie, NY)
Michael Luria, Assistant Dean of Corporate & Community Engagement at the College of Science, University of Arizona (Tucson)
Michael McHorney, Executive Director, Children’s Museum of Eau Claire (WI)
Felipe Peña III, Executive Director, Children’s Museum of Brownsville (TX)
Carol Tang, PhD, Executive Director, Children’s Creativity Museum (San Francisco, CA)
Adam Woodworth, Executive Director, The Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn (IL)

About ACM
The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. With more than 400 members in 48 states and 20 countries, ACM leverages the collective knowledge of children’s museums through convening, sharing and dissemination. Learn more at

For media inquiries, contact Alison Howard at

Association of Children’s Museums to Partner on Communities for Immunity, Boosting Vaccine Confidence

ARLINGTON, VA (August 5, 2021)—The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) is proud to partner with Communities for Immunity, an unprecedented collaboration among museums and libraries to boost COVID-19 information and vaccine confidence in communities across the United States.

Communities for Immunity provides funding to museums, libraries, science centers, and other cultural institutions to enhance vaccine confidence where it matters most: at the local level. Building on the many ways they have supported their communities during the pandemic, the partnership will activate museums and libraries to create and deliver evidence-driven materials and develop resources, programs, and approaches specifically designed to help these institutions engage diverse audiences in vaccine confidence.

The Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) are leading Communities for Immunity with support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and in collaboration with the American Library Association (ALA) and the Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM). Museums and libraries will leverage resources and research available on vaccines and variants disseminated by IMLS’ research partnership with OCLC and Battelle, the Reopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) project. Communities for Immunity will further build on existing resources and efforts, including the Smithsonian Institution’s Vaccines & US: Cultural Organizations for Community Health initiative, as well efforts from the CDC, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and more.

“In the U.S. currently only children over the age of 12 are eligible for vaccination against COVID-19,” said Larry Hoffer, Interim Executive Director of ACM. “However, children’s museums can leverage their position as hubs in their communities to provide key information to parents and guardians of those children to empower them to make the safe choice regarding vaccination.”

In addition to ACM, organizations joining in the effort include the Association of African American Museums (AAAM), the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL), the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM), and the Urban Libraries Council (ULC). This national coalition of partners are creating a Community of Practice to develop and refine vaccine education resources that will be shared with the broader museum and library community.

This important project launches at a critical moment as the United States is experiencing both a surge in COVID-19 cases related to dangerous new coronavirus variants and an urgent need to dramatically increase vaccination rates.

“Throughout the pandemic, our nation’s museums and libraries have supported their communities with critical educational and social services,” said Laura Lott, President and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums. “As community pillars and trusted messengers, they are well-positioned to help build trust in and overcome hesitation to the COVID-19 vaccines.”

About ACM

The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. With more than 460 members in 50 states and 19 countries, ACM leverages the collective knowledge of children’s museums through convening, sharing, and dissemination. Learn more at

About the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

Founded in 1973, ASTC is a network of nearly 700 science and technology centers and museums, and allied organizations, engaging more than 110 million people annually across North America and in almost 50 countries. With its members and partners, ASTC works towards a vision of increased understanding of—and engagement with—science and technology among all people. For more information, visit

About the American Alliance of Museums

The American Alliance of Museums has been bringing museums together since 1906, helping to develop standards and best practices, gathering and sharing knowledge on issues of concern to the entire museum community. Representing more than 35,000 individual museum professionals and volunteers, institutions, and corporate partners serving the museum field, the Alliance stands for the broad scope of the museum community. For more information, visit

For more information on Communities for Immunity, visit

Laura Huerta Migus Selected to Lead the Office of Museum Services at the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)

Larry Hoffer Named ACM Interim Executive Director

ARLINGTON, VA (June 29, 2021)—Laura Huerta Migus, current Executive Director of the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM), has been selected to lead the Office of Museum Services at the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), beginning July 19.

“Taking on the role of Deputy Director of the Office of Museum Services is an incredible honor and comes at a time of great need and opportunity for the museum field,” said Huerta Migus. “I am excited to be joining IMLS to advance a bold agenda for strengthening museums’ roles as critical resources for communities across the country.”

Larry Hoffer has been named interim Executive Director of ACM. He started this role on June 21, providing a period of overlap for both leaders to support the ACM staff and board in a smooth transition. Hoffer most recently served as CEO of the Woodworking Machinery Industry Association and previously was Chief of Staff at the Association of Science & Technology Centers.

Said Hoffer, “I’m tremendously excited to be back in the museum field, as museums have always been among my first loves. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to lead ACM during this important transition and look forward to partnering with the board, staff, and members to keep building on Laura’s rich legacy.”

The ACM Board of Directors has convened a Transition Committee to plan and implement a national search for the next ACM Executive Director. This search will be informed by the current needs and priorities of the children’s museum community.

“The ACM Board of Directors values Laura’s work in positioning ACM as a thought leader and influencer in making the world a better place for children and families. We celebrate her appointment to the Office of Museum Services at IMLS,” said Tanya Durand, President, ACM Board of Directors, and Executive Director of Greentrike in Tacoma, Washington. “In this period of transition, we look forward to working with Larry Hoffer to continue this work in support of ACM’s membership and the communities we serve.”

This transition comes at the end of an extraordinary year for our field, following closures and operational distress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of these challenges, the children’s museum field innovated and transformed to remain responsive to the children and families in their communities, offering safe ways to learn through play. Leading the charge in stewarding our field through this journey has been the greatest fulfillment of ACM’s mission to champion children’s museums worldwide.

About Association of Children’s Museums (ACM)
The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. With more than 460 members in 50 states and 19 countries, ACM leverages the collective knowledge of children’s museums through convening, sharing, and dissemination. Learn more at

Museum Visits Top Three Million through Museums for All, an Access Program for SNAP Benefit Recipients

640+ Museums Participate in Offering Low/No Entrance Fee

ARLINGTON, VA (May 24, 2021)—Museums for All, an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) initiative, has been instrumental in opening museum doors for 3,000,000 community members receiving food assistance (SNAP) benefits since its launch in 2014. The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM), administers the initiative at more than 640 museums across the country to encourage people of all backgrounds to visit museums regularly and build lifelong museum habits.

“At IMLS, we believe that museums are critical community anchors,” said IMLS Director Crosby Kemper. “They provide opportunities to expand our knowledge and strengthen our practice of being lifelong learners. We are so proud of this milestone, and that Museums for All continues to be our strongest initiative to increase public access to museums for all citizens.”

A wide range of institutions participate in Museums for All, including art museums, children’s museums, science centers, botanical gardens, zoos, history museums, and more. As part of this initiative, museums offer individual admission fees ranging from free to $3 to individuals and families presenting a SNAP Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card during all normal operating hours. Participating museums are in all fifty states as well as the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Forty-seven cities are considered Museums for All Hub Cities, containing three or more participating museums.

“Participation in Museums for All, both by museums and audiences, has grown steadily since its launch in 2014,” said ACM Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus. “This milestone of 3,000,000 visits shows how important museums are to all community members, even in times of crisis, such as the past year.”

Museums for All helps expand access for individuals of all backgrounds to visit museums regularly and build lifelong museum habits. Visitors can find participating museums at: Museums interested in signing up to participate can learn more at:

About the Institute of Museum and Library Services

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums. We advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations through grantmaking, research, and policy development. Our vision is a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities. To learn more, visit and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

About Association of Children’s Museums (ACM)

The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. With more than 460 members in 50 states and 19 countries, ACM leverages the collective knowledge of children’s museums through convening, sharing, and dissemination. Learn more at

Reflecting on One Year of the Pandemic for Children’s Museums and the Communities They Serve

Association of Children’s Museums’ “Museums Mobilize” Initiative Highlights Efforts from Past Year

ARLINGTON, VA (March 18, 2021)—By March 19, 2020, all children’s museums in the U.S. had closed their doors to the public in response to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomorrow, March 19, commemorates one year of transformation within the children’s museum field, with museums creating new programs to support their communities and fill critical needs all while facing unprecedented operational crisis. Through its Museums Mobilize initiative, the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) is documenting these programs in service to children and families, and this effort currently counts 167 programs from 78 children’s museums in 34 states and four countries.

“Currently, 61% percent of children’s museums around the world are open to public visitation—a percentage that is currently at its highest point over the past year,” said ACM Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus. “As educational innovators, advocates for childhood, and community anchors, children’s museums have always offered more than the physical visit alone. The past year has put this fact into stark relief as we continue to serve our communities.”

Immediately following their initial physical closures in March 2020, children’s museums began pivoting to serve their communities in new ways, and more than 70 percent of ACM’s museum membership was offering virtual programming by June 2020. In addition, children’s museums have pursued other innovative strategies such as partnerships with schools and activity kits to help close the digital divide. At the same time, the pandemic has had a major effect on children’s museum operations, resulting in lost revenue and reductions in staffing. In summer 2020, 75 percent of children’s museums reported only 28% of the attendance they received during the same period in 2019. A survey from the American Alliance of Museums found that individual museums lost on average $850,000 as a result of the pandemic.

In an upcoming webinar on April 6 at 2:00 p.m. ET, ACM will highlight specific children’s museum efforts to offer support to parents and caregivers. Leaders from Louisiana Children’s Museum, Pretend City Children’s Museum, and DuPage Children’s Museums will engage in a fireside chat with their community partners on projects from expert parenting webinars to text message programs. Register here.

As the world looks to reopening, it’s clear the pandemic will have consequences on museum operations for years to come. ACM’s Museums Mobilize initiative highlights the need to invest in children’s museums as community responders. Learn more about the efforts of children’s museums worldwide the hashtag #MuseumsMobilize and by viewing the Museums Mobilize dashboard with key stats at

About Association of Children’s Museums (ACM)

The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. With more than 460 members in 50 states and 19 countries, ACM leverages the collective knowledge of children’s museums through convening, sharing, and dissemination. Learn more at

Children’s Museums Mobilize to Serve Children and Families during COVID-19

Association of Children’s Museums’ “Museums Mobilize” Initiative Highlights Programming to Support Communities  

ARLINGTON, VA (February 26, 2021)—Children’s museums around the world are offering programs to serve their communities during the COVID-19 crisis. Through its Museums Mobilize initiative, the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) has documented 167 programs in service to children and families from 78 children’s museums in 34 states and four countries.

“Most children’s museums closed their buildings in March 2020, and only just over half are currently open to physical visits by the public,” said ACM Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus. “For the past year, children’s museums have created and transformed their work to continue to support children and families, in the face of unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

An analysis of Museums Mobilize programming shows key trends among the programs offered, including partnerships with schools to provide space for students’ in-person, hybrid, or virtual learning; webinar series to provide guidance for parenting during the pandemic; activity kits to help close the digital divide; and more. Sixty-four percent of these programs include philanthropic partnerships, and 53% involve community partnerships.

In an upcoming webinar on March 4 at 2:00 p.m. ET, ACM will highlight specific children’s museum efforts, united by the theme of addressing food insecurity during the pandemic. Leaders from Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum, and the Children’s Museum of the East End will share how they are exploring activity kits, a local farmer’s market, and a food pantry as innovative strategies to support their communities. Register here.

ACM is collecting and sharing Museums Mobilize stories with the hashtag #MuseumsMobilize. View the Museums Mobilize dashboard with key stats at

About Association of Children’s Museums (ACM)

The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. With more than 460 members in 50 states and 19 countries, ACM leverages the collective knowledge of children’s museums through convening, sharing, and dissemination. Learn more at

ACM Launches “Museums Mobilize” to Highlight COVID-19 Responses

Campaign Tagline #MuseumsMobilize captures efforts

ARLINGTON, VA (November 30, 2020)—The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) has launched Museums Mobilize, a new initiative to highlight how children’s museums around the world are supporting children and families during the COVID-19 pandemic. The campaign documents and amplifies museum efforts over the past eight months, and also provides resources to help ACM member museums communicate their work at the local level.

“Since March, children’s museums around the world have launched new efforts and transformed existing ones to support children, families, and communities facing unprecedented challenges,” said ACM Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus. “In these trying times, children’s museums have leveraged their expertise in child-and play-centered approaches to academic and social-emotional learning to meet direct and pressing needs—as shown in our new initiative, Museums Mobilize.”

Examples of children’s museum efforts include the Children’s Museum of Fond Du Lac partnership with the North Fond Du Lac School District to house the Treffert Way for the Exceptional Mind school; Louisiana Children’s Museum’s partnership with Tulane Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health to offer the In Dialogue Video Chat Series, a webinar series that demystifies mental health issues for caregivers and their children; and the Museum of Discovery and Science’s MODS PODS program for distance learners in grades K-3.

To help shape the campaign, ACM is collecting stories of impact from our more than 300 children’s museum members around the world. These stories will be shared across ACM’s channels in the coming months. ACM is also building a network of global partners to increase children’s museums’ capacity to serve their communities. The first partner in the Museums Mobilize network is Nickelodeon.

About Association of Children’s Museums (ACM)

The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. With more than 460 members in 50 states and 19 countries, ACM leverages the collective knowledge of children’s museums through convening, sharing, and dissemination. Learn more at

Children’s Museums Surviving the Pandemic: Insights from Three Leaders

This article is part of the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.”
Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By Peter Olson

“How are we going to survive?” was the first question many children’s museums faced in March.  While many strategies have been developed, it remains an open question. The coronavirus pandemic is still affecting all aspects of society, and children are experiencing upended lives. With many museums’ doors still closed, children’s museums are innovating safe ways to be of service to their audience while protecting staff and fighting for institutional survival. It’s not an overstatement to say we are living through an unprecedented juncture, one at which every children’s museum in the U.S. initially closed to visitors in mid-March, the duration of the pandemic is unknown, and it remains unclear how post-virus attitudes will affect hands-on museums. 

In this context, in March, I spoke with three children’s museum leaders to learn about their real-time efforts to keep their museums sustainable through the pandemic. Stephanie Hill Wilchfort, president and CEO, Brooklyn Children’s Museum; Tanya Durand, executive director, Greentrike (Children’s Museum of Tacoma); and Tammie Kahn, executive director, Children’s Museum Houston, all shared strategies and tactics for surviving closure, preparing to reopen, and re-imagining missions and adapted operations. 

In late June, I checked in again with all three regarding specific aspects of their reopening progress. These conversations often spoke to the dire realities of these tough times, but they all shared the hope that the children’s museums field will reemerge as relevant, vital resources for children, families, and communities after the pandemic.

When did you first start grappling with the effects of pandemic?

WILCHFORT: Even though New York was not in lockdown yet, we started seeing an unexpected decline in visitation the first weekend in March. The following week we started grappling with closing. This wasn’t our first emergency health situation. We dealt with similar issues during a measles outbreak earlier in 2019, so we had developed some messaging and protocols on how to communicate. But this time we had to invent a framework for helping determine when we should close. To start, we created a basic four-point guideline. We would close: 

  1. If the governments ask us to close;
  2. If fewer than five staff members are able to report to duty to run the museum;
  3. If an employee reports serious and contagious illness; or
  4. If a visitor reports serious and contagious illness. 

We did not originally anticipate two other considerations. The first was that public health experts were clear that closure of spaces like ours could help mitigate the potential crisis, and that public sentiment shifted to feeling like museums should close. On March 12, both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History closed. We closed on Saturday, March 14. Second, at some point, with very few visitors and almost no revenue, staffing the museum was costing substantially more than we were earning. Does it make financial sense to run the museum when no one is coming? We later amended our closure framework to take public health experts into account, and to include an additional decision point related to non-attendance.

To determine when to reopen, we take our cues from New York City and New York State. We’ve been looking at how museums in other countries have handled this, and it seems like there is likely to be a twelve-week timeline for sheltering in place. Based on that, we initially assumed a July 1 reopening date. (That date was later moved to October 1.) Even if the world returns halfway to normal by then, our institutions may still be unable to reopen, either because large crowds will still be discouraged, or because we have had to contract so substantially that ramping up will take some time. We also know that, even when we do reopen, there will likely be a period of lower attendance and revenue.

New York City was initially one of the hardest hit COVID-19 areas in the country.  What’s the mood in your city today?  What do people want from a children’s museum now?

WILCHFORT: The mood is cautiously optimistic as the impact of the disease seems to be waning locally. Recently, we were heartened by the return of 600 survey responses from our visitors in two days. People seem to be willing to imagine coming back in the fall with safety measures in place.

DURAND: Our Pacific Northwest CEO group had been talking about the possibility of closure since mid-February. Examining models and various scenarios, we had been working on how to stay open as long as possible, right up to the day before everyone closed. What we thought was right one day, wasn’t right the next day. In a twelve-hour span, the conversation transitioned from “let’s be that place for families that is safe, clean, and has resources” into “it’s not socially responsible to be a place to gather.” On March 12 we closed our outreach program and on Friday, March 13, we closed the museum. Our childcare center stayed open until March 17, when a parent called us to report their child had symptoms. She never was tested, but we decided to close anyway for at least two weeks. Then another family called to inform us that their child also had symptoms. We’ll reopen the museum when it’s safe to do it. We’re not in a red-hot hurry.

In response to overwhelming community need, the museum reopened some day camps and its childcare center.  What has been community response to these shifts? Have other needs emerged that you’re dealing with or planning to?

DURAND: We are now coordinating an extension of the day camps into the summer months, and are poised to lean into the needs that fall may bring. The community’s response is one of gratitude and encouragement.

KAHN: We closed the museum to the public on March 16 and initially hoped to reopen in July. (The museum reopened at limited capacity in June). When visitors walk through our doors again, we know they’ll have much higher expectations than previously. With children out of school for so long, parents will be looking for educational, enriching resources. Our educators will be working in the galleries providing more personalized, content-rich experiences. We’re still going to have fun, but we’re going to provide value where and when it’s most needed.

Children’s Museum Houston (CMH) jumped out early in the production and dissemination of video and online learning programs. How have these digital offerings been received? What have you learned that may shape future work in this area?

KAHN: Our videos have had 2.8 million views. Our eblast initially had 70,000 subscribers; it’s now down to about 68,000. As far as content, we know that reading programs are oversaturated. Keeping at least digital connections with children is good for their mental health, but are they learning their ABCs? We just don’t know yet. Our videos have produced some museum “stars”—kids come in and ask for educators by name.

Millennial audiences approach life differently. They are harder to reach and less interested in the physical interactions with the museum. To continue to reach them, be ready to go digital. That said, we also know there are still digital deserts in Houston’s lower income communities. We have learned from local educators that only 42 percent of students logged on 1x/week to all the online learning programs the schools have been pumping out. School administrators figure they have lost contact with about 50 percent of students. Social justice needs to shape mission-directed museum work: if we can’t reach them, how can we serve them?
How are you remaining vital to your audience and your community while closed?

DURAND: As our community called upon us to spread the mission to honor children and champion play in diverse ways, last fall, our organization made an identity shift and changed its name to “Greentrike.” We’ll always operate a great children’s museum and, in fact, we’re opening a satellite. But we will also be an advocate, a disrupter, an educator, and a partner in ways that go far beyond typical museum operations. In addition to the museum and our emerging satellite, we operate a childcare center and a school. We’re leading a community-wide effort to explicitly brand our community as child-centered. Partnering with schools, the Boys & Girls Club, the YMCA, and the parks department, Greentrike has been tasked with coordinating the effort to provide childcare for children of emergency personnel, healthcare professionals, and others on the frontlines.

Based on your experiences in the past four months, do you see the mission of Greentrike evolving in any specific ways?

DURAND: Yes. For example, Greentrike is partnering with another agency to lead a conversation about ending the childcare crisis in our community.

Our nimbleness and our lack of bureaucratic structure enable us to advocate pretty strongly for important issues as they come up. We can “go to bat” for partners who lack the resources or the capacity to do so on their own.

WILCHFORT: We are all about in-person, sensory, physical programming and object-based learning. We do not have a robust digital team nor many resources in this area. So we have convened a cross-department team with staff from marketing, programming, exhibits, and live animal care, and started to create units of digital outreach programming in three big areas: Amazing Animals, which will showcase some of the museum’s animals in a digital format; Earth Science, based on content we’ve developed for a new earth science garden to be opened in a few years; and Cultural Festivals, creating content that brings in our partners, with activities, recipes, and dancing that normally happen at our in-person festivals. We hope that through this process we will build competencies around digital resources and new ways of presenting content that will continue after the immediate pressing need is over.

KAHN: We transformed our website to offer fun and engaging at-home learning opportunities for families. We provide both livestream broadcasting along with a database of school-related, curriculum-based activities and videos created by our staff. We launched this while we still had access to the museum, but then educators began “broadcasting” from their homes. Their children and pets starred in some of the programs. It’s all about connecting our audience with our stars—our educators—now that classrooms are closed.

What are the top issues you’re struggling with because of the pandemic? 

WILCHFORT: We realized right away that there would be no work for most of our part-time floor staff in a closed museum. We had to make the heartbreaking decision to lay them off. We called two staff meetings, both of which I led, on two separate days, and all staff completed a Google form indicating which meeting they could attend to ensure that no more than thirty-five people were in the room for each meeting. When staff arrived at the museum, we kept everyone at least six feet apart. We tried to make it as safe as possible while recognizing that a level of respect needs to be afforded to them. We also reduced hours and salaries by 20 percent for all full-time staff, but have made a commitment to retain as many people as possible, protecting their healthcare benefits throughout this process.

From left to right: Tanya Durand, Greentrike; Tammie Kahn, Children’s Museum Houston; Stephanie Wilchfort, Brooklyn Children’s Museum

Our board engaged in conversations about our annual fundraiser benefit scheduled for May 27. The initial idea was to do something like a Zoom party as an engagement and cultivation event as much as a fundraiser. The reality is that in this moment, children’s museums are not at the forefront of people’s needs. When emergency workers are on the frontlines, often working without proper PPE, it does not seem like the right time for us to fundraise aggressively. It’s so hard to say this might not be our time, when we love our organizations so much. However, it is important we advocate with donors and public funders in ways that aren’t tone deaf to what is happening around our city and country. Because we have amazing city support, wonderful trustees, a robust foundation community in New York, as well as local support for a future arts and culture stimulus, I am cautiously optimistic about our future.

Has your temporarily restrained
approach to fundraising changed in the past few months?  Where are you now with regards to raising money for core operations or special projects?

WILCHFORT: We elected not to do the May 27 event, but instead held a virtual board gathering and unveiled designs for our science garden exhibit that’s in development. Board members still gave money. We have reengaged in fundraising. Now that we’re reopening, donors are coming back. Two months ago, none of us understood how long this would last. Now we have a better sense of defining our response and a more refined understanding of where our organization falls: cultural organizations are more relevant than ever in providing safe ways to gather for learning experiences. Parents and children are fraying at the edges. We’re all asked to play roles we never expected to play, working full-time, and limiting outside contact. It’s a real crisis, and parents are anxious. Our fundraising aligns with meeting the needs in our community today.   

DURAND: I worry about people’s livelihoods. We reduced our team from sixty-nine to twenty-two. On average, the furloughed team members received two weeks paid leave, and it’s our intention to continue to pay for their healthcare benefits during the furlough. Our board cares deeply about our staff and is looking at the long game.

Like all of my colleagues I’m worried about money. We’ll probably have to dip into our line of credit. Our museum admission is by donation, so we don’t rely on the gate income that other museums do—a blessing in disguise in times like these. We actually save money by being closed. Our financial forecast is that we’ll end our fiscal year with a $150,000 shortfall for the first two and a half months (mid-March through May). This is not great news, but it certainly could be worse, and I feel for colleagues facing deeper deficits.

KAHN: We’re in the middle of complex financial modeling, including significantly dampening predictions for the coming eighteen months. For years we’ve studied worst case scenarios, but this crisis rivals our worst nightmare. We initially laid off 150 part-time staff and gave them two weeks’ severance to help bridge them to unemployment benefits. Many of this team live in families all dependent on part-time employment. Locally, massive layoffs due to required business closures have been devastating. For decades, Texas has attracted people who came here willing to work two or three jobs to give their kids a chance at the American Dream. We are proud to hire people from the demographics we serve. But we never planned on extended, universal unemployment for our entire region. And our biggest economic engine is still the energy business, which has hit several lowest-ever markers in the past few weeks. There’s a sea change taking hold in that industry as well.

Federal payroll assistance does not cover part-time employees. Normally we have plenty of cash on hand, even a cash reserve in our endowment. However, our shut down eliminated spring break and the start of our summer peak attendance. We are predicting an overall loss of $500,000 at the end of our 2020 fiscal year (June 30), even with short term federal relief for full-time staff. Our endowment value is at its lowest in ten years. We were fortunate to be running a surplus before the crisis, and we have been authorized to consider spending up to $1 million from our reserve fund including cash held in our endowment.     

But our museum is people-dependent. Our mission model is about transforming communities through innovative, child-centered learning. Our level of community engagement requires a lot of fully engaged talented people. Our efforts to have collective impact and work collaboratively are taking a major hit. Most of our community-based partners are shut down, libraries are closed, schools may not open until fall, and people are isolated. Our digital efforts are producing high contact numbers, but we are just beginning to learn how to build robust digital relationships. We are already evaluating learning outcomes from these efforts, but the evidence will require we rethink the new nature of the value that we bring.

As staff were gradually brought back to work in the museum, what new trainings did they need to meet today’s audience needs (safety standards, audience expectations, etc.)?

KAHN: Our staff training is not much different than before. The museum visit was re-structured as an “Epic Adventure” with a clearly mapped entrance/exit that paces the visit and allows social distancing. Each visitor receives an Epic Adventure bag that contains 80 percent of the materials need for the adventure, and which they can take home. Normally, the museum is full of frontline staff, but now, only our full-time educators are working in the galleries.
What are you working on now that you are most excited about?

WILCHFORT: Our 20,000-square-foot, outdoor Earth Science Garden, a big capital project in partnership with the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus, and by far our most exciting large-scale project. While it won’t come to fruition for a couple of years, it’s going to change the organization. The narrative for the eight exhibit areas is rooted in the history of Brooklyn and how it got its slopes and heights.
How do you see your organization coming out of the shutdown? Are you expecting and planning for any fundamental changes to your audience and how you serve them?

WILCHFORT:  If there’s one thing I’d say to other children’s museums in this moment, you may think you should put the brakes on big capital projects, but don’t. One, it’s good for the institution. When we do come out of this, people will need these new projects and programs. Two, content development, construction, and fabrication can be part of a stimulus program. If we keep the capital projects going, we’re creating jobs. If we stop these big projects, we won’t have that ability. It’s essential that everyone keep their capital and major exhibit work moving.

KAHN: We’ll be reducing our hours and days of operation, further cutting personnel expenses. However, we will increase the depth of educational experiences for visitors. Even before the pandemic, this generation of caregivers tend to display a heightened level of control over all aspects of their child’s safety, as well as the selection of environments and experiences to which their child is exposed. As a public venue designed for young children, we will be subjected to higher cleanliness and safety expectations than ever in the coming “post-COVID” era. As a nation, we have spent spring 2020 retraining our citizenry to assume new behaviors that are not in sync with our pre-pandemic missions or business models.

Since you have reopened, what are some of the biggest changes and challenges related to health/safety standards compliance?

KAHN: Visitors’ temperatures are scanned at the door. Masks are required for everyone age two and older–no mask, no admission. (Masks are sold in the museum store for $3.95!) Ever since Sandy Hook, the museum has posted a guard at the door. A typical compliance issue is visitors pulling their masks off their nose once they’re inside. Visitors who do so are reminded by staff, and if they still don’t comply, the guard will ask them to leave. Only one family so far has requested a membership refund over the masks rule.

Like most reopened museums, we have initiated an aggressive cleaning program, and have spent $400,000 on upgrades and cleaning supplies (HEPA filters, UV lights, cleaning products, etc.). Our lobby’s former Yogurt Snack Bar is now a Hand Sanitizer Bar.

A separate but related issue involves staff. Their temperatures are taken daily, and masks must be worn in the museum at all times. To date, one staff member tested experienced COVID-19 symptoms after returning from New York; five of the remaining hundred employees were believed to have been exposed to the virus so were sent home out of caution. Each of these employees required individual fourteen-day quarantines. It has been difficult to lose staff due to exposure from families and friends, while still paying full-time salaries for people who are in quarantine.
Do you think adjustments to the children’s museum experience are temporary or permanent? What is your level of optimism for children’s museums to continue to be relevant with hands-on, in-person learning?

DURAND: Children need to play to learn, and they need to play with others to gain social skills. That won’t change. We are waiting longer to reopen because I don’t think it’s right to ask a child to come back to a beloved familiar environment that we designed specifically to engage them in play, and now ask them to engage in different and difficult-to-explain ways. It does not set the child, or the family, up for success. Our field needs to advocate even more strongly that play is the right of children. We need to keep them and their families safe, but we need to push for a return to the rights of childhood as soon as we can.

DURAND: This is a basic operational and philosophical question that the entire museum field is considering. Greentrike will advocate for what families need. Childcare and access to the fundamentals will be important. The museum, I think, will experience a slow ramp back up to “business as usual,” whatever “usual” will mean at that time. We are working with our colleague museums to do a combined launch with consistent messaging. This obviously impacts budget: we are losing most earned income for almost five months. We are applying for CARES support and will continue to raise funds. 

As far as changes to the children’s museum audience, everyone will be enhancing their cleaning and safety protocols and thinking about social distancing. But, since our gallery experiences are hands-on, interactive, and often involve close contact with other visitors, these changes will certainly impact the way we serve our audience and it will certainly feel different.

For children’s museums in general, I don’t think it’s a terminal situation, but a hibernation. My hope is that there won’t be a decreased demand for children’s museums. I don’t anticipate a time when we say we shouldn’t have safe, rewarding, enriching places for children to go. The wake up, however, is going to be fascinating. I don’t know how extensive the hangover will be for families who do not want to return to public places. We need to watch our friends across the ocean, where there is a chance for a second wave, and how they handle it. This edition of Hand to Hand is almost like a time capsule, but one you’re not sure what to put in, because everything is changing on a daily basis.

Peter Olson is currently the owner of Peter Olson Museum Planning, LLC, and is the museum project director of the emerging Region 5 Children’s Museum in North Central Minnesota. Peter has served as the founding executive director at Knock Knock Children’s Museum and the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota, and as the director of exhibits at Minnesota Children’s Museum.


In a year filled with rapidly changing responses to a still fluid environment, Children’s Museum Houston just announced that it will launch All-Time Access, an online initiative to enhance distance learning. This program will be open to families all over the world from an all-time digital landscape. As kids return to school, in whatever configuration that may be, the museum will take a break beginning August 31 to focus on All-Time Access meeting children and their families where they are —at school, at home, at play. The museum will reopen once again as soon as it is feasible.

Read other articles in the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.”

After I Hung Up…..

This article is part of the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

The Zoom call ends, the hangout disperses.  You sign off, then what?  What are the first thoughts that come to mind as you return to solo work in a home office, living room, kitchen, silent museum office? In this collection of short pieces, museum staff talk about what they thought about, privately, during those many, many shelter-in-place days. How did they summon the energy to keep going?  What worries them the most?  These writers share what they have learned about their museum and themselves during the pandemic pause as they continue to fight for their museums’ future.

I Had Been Planning, But Instead….

Suzanne LeBlanc | Executive Director
Long Island Children’s Museum (Garden City, NY)
June 16, 2020

I get off the Zoom calls and I think: this wasn’t what I had planned at all for the spring of 2020. I was so sure we would be planning our expansion and capital campaign, a creative and fitting way to end my career. But instead: a pandemic, closing the museum, stay-at-home orders, economic freefall, and then worldwide demonstrations in response to the killing of George Floyd.

I find myself struggling to pivot, to prioritize, to make sense, to give myself a little time when I am not working and worrying, and all the while I’m missing my museum, my staff, and being in the company of others. Internally, I find strength in my relationships with colleagues, my decades of weathering other crises, my ability to stay calm and focused, and in all I have learned from my mentors who have helped shape my career. Externally, I find strength in what the LICM staff, board, and I have built over the years—a museum that always strives to do better, to do good, to stretch itself and face challenges together and head on. More broadly, the support of the full museum community provides the collegial support necessary to navigate the current crises in our field and in our nation.

I am honored and proud of staff members who have stayed the course, worked so hard and with so much passion for what we do. Questioning, debating, moving forward together. Facing our challenges with the certainty that, although this is not what we had planned, we will be steadfast in meeting the challenges and be a better organization in the future for it. New learning of a different kind. But the biggest challenge really—beyond the financial, of course—is trying to figure out what role a children’s museum plays in a non-touch world. How do we now communicate our value? How can we turn some of these challenges into opportunities?

In the end, in spite of a delayed expansion project that I was very much looking forward to, I made my peace with this: my strengths as a leader are needed and well matched for this kind of challenge, for this moment.

Racers, Start Your Engines

Traci Buckner | Executive Director
Akron Children’s Museum (OH)
July 15, 2020

After I hung up, my mind wandered back to the time some of my Leadership Akron group colleagues convinced me to run a leg of a marathon with them. After some friendly cajoling about how I had what it took and could easily do it since I would be on a team, I agreed to run the shortest leg in the race. On race day, my husband and two sons came out to cheer me on. Once they saw me on route, they’d drive up ahead to catch me somewhere along my next mile point. Once they were out of sight, I slowed down to walk a bit. Just as I slowed my pace, they reappeared, driving up beside me. Naturally, I picked up the pace and kept running while they cheered me on and gave me several air high fives.

I have been in need of similar air high fives since museum life came to a sudden halt on that eerie Friday the 13th last March. I often feel like I’m in a Grand Prix race and the announcer has just said “racers start your engines.” He counts down 3-2-1 as I’m revving up to make my best start only to suddenly and unexpectedly be slowed down by multiple surprise twists and turns newly added to the track. The constant engine “revving” is my ongoing brainstorming of new ways to generate revenue while the physical doors to the museum are closed.

Although I long for more riveting reasons—like a sudden influx of revenue—to receive high fives, the ongoing support of my board of directors and other museum supporters motivates me. Seeing the mayor wearing one of our museum face masks and collaborating with volunteers who are committed to seeing the museum weather the storm keeps me going. The support of fellow arts organization colleagues, ACM Leadership Call discussions, and state museum association meetings help me feel connected and inspired to keep up a steady pace in the race to preserve, protect, and reopen the museum.

The “New Normal” Is Not Normal

Sunnee O’Rork | Executive Director
i.d.e.a. Museum (Mesa, AZ)
June 22, 2020

Paradigm shifts for organizations often come planned and over a period of time, but the pandemic paradigm switch arrived swiftly like a thief in the night.

Prior to St. Patrick’s Day, when the i.d.e.a. Museum closed, we were thriving. Attendance and revenues had increased, and we had received $5 million in city bond funds to support Phase I of our Site Master Plan. The i.d.e.a. Museum Foundation was conducting a philanthropic feasibility study while the City of Mesa’s Engineering Department conducted a facility feasibility study. Our long-anticipated vision for growth was nearing reality… and then COVID-19 hit.

We immediately shifted gears, immersing ourselves in quickly making multiple decisions even with incomplete information. How long would we be closed? Should we cancel our annual fundraiser? How could we realign our city and our museum foundation’s budgets? Could we quickly create virtual programs to stay connected to our audience? How could we revise our interactive exhibits to meet new sanitation protocols? These questions and more occupied my thoughts 24/7.

After stakeholder discussions and over the short course of a few weeks, the annual fundraiser was cancelled, thirteen part-time and two full-time staff were laid off, we lost $260,000 in combined revenues, social media and web content increased, a one-way route was devised throughout the museum with a revision of fifteen interactives, and an outdoor space was planned for activation.

I have distaste for the “new normal.” There’s nothing normal about this. We are a resilient team that has been through four paradigm shifts in fourteen years. We use Susan Kenny Stevens’ book Nonprofit Lifecycles: Stage-Based Wisdom for Nonprofit Capacity to gauge our approaches and progress. We share with each other ways to stay healthy, and despite the sudden and pervasive upheaval, we know that “this too shall pass.”


Carol Scott | CEO & Executive Director
Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert (Rancho Mirage, CA)
June 15, 2020

When we closed our doors on March 13 to protect the safety and wellbeing of our community, we thought it would be short lived. As the days passed and the shelter-in-place orders became mandated, it was evident we were headed for unprecedented times. The world was changing fast. No industries had planned for serious environmental disruption, and our “high-touch” children’s museum was no different. We were grappling with issues we couldn’t have predicted, and the only certainty was uncertainty. Public, private, for-profit, and nonprofit sectors all faced the same problems.

Questions were endless: How long will this last? What do we do with staff? What can we continue to provide? How will all this affect children and their families? What does this do to our value proposition to the social capital we have developed through our programs? How will the museum survive? (Just to name a few.) What plagued my middle-of-the-night sleep were thoughts of limited cash reserves and no endowment. Our budget is based on 85 percent earned revenue. To close even temporarily was tantamount to a possible and permanent end. Without guests, school tours, outreach, events, memberships, and more, our daily earned income dried up overnight. And even though we had contingency plans for “normal” disasters, our current situation was worse than 9/11 and the 2008 recession combined. The road ahead looked impossible. As someone who usually thrives in crisis and can usually handle the curveballs thrown my way, I felt overwhelmed and a little scared. Would this thirty-year-old organization end under my leadership?

Enter the Zooms, the webinars, and the PPP money to keep my chief operating and program officers employed. Overwhelmed by what needed to happen, working with these two staff members and listening to my peers on our invaluable weekly calls, I realized this was not something I alone had to “fix.”

COVID-19 has asked humans to do something that the rest of nature does nearly every day—adapt. I focused on accepting that this was a pivotal time to not let what we couldn’t do interfere with what we could do. Present circumstances didn’t determine where we could go, they merely determined where we needed to start.

Buffering the Loss

Charlie Walter | Director
Mayborn Museum Complex (Waco, TX)
June 1, 2020

Some of my happiest moments in life are when I find a way to squeeze in an extra activity between commitments. If I fly into a city for a meeting, I try to arrive a little early, so I can explore the city before the meeting starts. If I go to a conference, I may stay an extra few days in the area to explore a nearby National Park before I head back home and to work. Sometimes when I am at the museum and one meeting ends early, I’ll take a walk along the river before the next meeting begins.

Now that life has been upended by COVID-19, I’ve found new hours to use in similar ways. With stay-at-home orders, instead of commuting to work in the morning, I now take a long walk in those early hours with my two Labradors, Abby and Arlo. Instead of commuting home in the evenings, I now grab my camera or flyrod and walk down to the river near my house.

I am thankful to have not lost a friend or loved one due to the pandemic. But I have lost the momentum my museum team has built over the past five years. Projects are on hold. Open staff positions are frozen. Budgets have been cut. Previous operations and revenues numbers—including those from the recent first quarter of 2020—are now meaningless as predictors of the future. 

But my morning and afternoon walks with my dogs have helped to buffer the professional loss I feel because of COVID-19, and I feel more ready to face another uncertain day.

A Ride with Friends on the Corona-Coaster

Roxane Hill | Executive Director
Wonderscope Children’s Museum (Shawnee, KS)
July 10, 2020

Recently, ACM Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus referred to us all being on the Corona-coaster! I, for one, want off this roller coaster.

In January, at Wonderscope, I deemed this year was “our” year. We had worked hard for many years preparing for and launching a capital campaign and starting construction on a new building. Construction was nearing completion; we would soon close our campaign and prepare to move into a bigger and better Wonderscope. We were due this good year.

January started well, February started to slide, then came March. This was not what we had scripted. We are now hoping we can open our new doors in October.

Despite this dire time, I’m finding pockets of joy, friendship, and solidarity. The team at Wonderscope has rallied; we have found joy and success in little things. Our board has rallied to support furloughed staff, and most importantly, I have found true friendship, collegiality, and solidarity with other museum CEOs, particularly those in the middle of the country. We call ourselves the Central U.S. Museums. We Zoom every other week. We share resources and ideas. We sympathize, and listen. The combined wisdom is extraordinary and so openly and bravely shared.  

The weekly Leadership Calls hosted by ACM have been a lifeline too. We may be spread throughout the country and the world, but we are all in this together. These new friendships and support have sustained me. If you haven’t yet found a group of like-minded roller coaster riders, I urge you to do it. These conversations will be some of the best hours you will spend in the COVID-19 theme park.

This Is It

Deb Gilpin | President & CEO
Madison Children’s Museum (WI)
July 7, 2020

THIS is it. This IS it. This is IT. This I sit. Every way you place the emphasis is a chuckle. Try it.  Each moment is the only one that matters—my approach to life. Opportunities to practice equanimity knock at my door every day, as they always have.

On 3/12/20 my journal says …“And the world tilts.” But that wasn’t my first note about something stirring. Turns out on 2/7/20 I began logging symptoms. I’d just spent time in China, consulting for a children’s museum project. Touring an international school, I saw staff checking kids’ temperatures, tongues, and hands before they entered the building. “That’s normal here.” LOL. On the third day of exciting progress making plans, Debbie hit the Downer button to talk with the Chinese project team about risks. Government closures? Sure. Pandemic? Naaahhh. A week later I was sick as a dog.

We closed the museum on 3/14/20, and by 3/20/20 I terminated employment for twenty-nine people, and cut hours of thirty-one more, all done safely distanced by email, no less. By 4/11/20 we’d secured a PPP, and renewed forty jobs. Great news. But Joy was working from someone else’s home and had taken her toys with her.

As a long-time CEO, I generally bear the weight of my entire museum. I try to do right by its people—staff and visitors who bring it to life—its resources, and its many exposures (economic, legal, market, etc.). I accept that weight, and try to bring stability, curiosity, and patience to whatever comes up in a day, giving space to discover the gift every person or situation offers. That’s where the joy comes for me.

After five weeks I’d had no days off, no exercise, no nature, little sleep, and I’d cut my own hair (badly). I had ignored all the mental health advice—“Be kind to yourself,” “Who do you want to be through this?” So, I slept on that question, because 2:30 a.m. is a CEO’s golden hour.

By sunrise I had a plan to better nurture myself, and my sense of humor showed up. I thanked Anxiety for doing its job pointing out that there was a problem to be solved. I remembered that every moment of this whole thing IS what it is, and has within it all the gifts and possibilities, just as every kid who comes through the museum’s front door has within themselves. Be the kid. This is it.

FOMO: Missing the Joy of Engagement

Beth Ann Balalaos | Access and Inclusion Manager
Long Island Children’s Museum (Garden City, NY)
June 1, 2020

I manage a program that broadly focuses on making our institution more accessible for visitors with various disabilities. I see this goal come to fruition when families first visit the museum for an event designed for visitors with disabilities, and most of them keep coming back. There is no better experience than seeing a child laughing, comfortable enough to just be who they are. For a lot of these families, just playing and enjoying themselves is not something they always get to do. It’s a big deal to have the opportunity to be a family without looks or judgment from others. Not being able to provide these opportunities is one of the major reasons I have been struggling during this pandemic.

I have a distinct childhood memory: sitting in the cafeteria at a table smaller than all the others and wishing to be “over there.” For two years, with two neurodiversities, I was in a self-contained class for second and third graders whose disabilities included learning disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and blindness or low vision. These two years were by far the two most influential of my life. Despite my teachers’ efforts to make us feel like everyone else, we lived in another world—one that always felt like it wasn’t quite made for us. Not much changed for me in middle school or high school. I was not fully mainstreamed until the last semester of my senior year in high school. To this day I feel like I never quite left behind that label of “otherness.”

Even though I had completed an internship and worked as floor staff at the children’s museum during my college years, I never intended to work in one. I wanted to be a teacher. But in 2016, a month before graduating with a master’s degree in elementary and special education, I realized teaching wasn’t for me. But how could I serve the kids I wanted to serve, and help them break the cycle of that familiar feeling of being “other”? Then, I got a call from my museum supervisor inviting me to interview for this job.

Like many cultural institutions now, we have altered our content to be delivered virtually. Through online programming, we are probably reaching even more families who may not have been able to access our museum in the past. But I am struggling, folks. Millennials often talk about FOMO (fear of missing out) when it comes to seeing what their peers are up to on social media. But for me, quarantine has evoked an intense feeling of FOMO…for my museum.

Engagement is a large part of what I do at the museum, and virtual engagement is not scratching that itch for me. As educators, we help visitors connect through conversations and sometimes just smiles. As I write this, those conversations and smiles aren’t happening. I now try to spark that engagement and connection in videos. I enjoy making videos in my new role as a museum vlogger, but I am used to “live” gleaming friendly little faces looking up at me. Now I just stare at a screen, hoping for a comment or a like—a completely new form of “engagement.”

I miss my kids. I miss the laughs. I miss the joy. I miss the smiles. I often think about the kids we serve and wonder if they are struggling too. My feeling of not being able to do enough for them is crushing. But I remind myself that we are doing the best we can, and many people in this nation feel similarly frustrated during these odd times. I have no doubt that many our museum families are feeling this way too. I just hope that everyone is being kind to themselves, and I’ll try to remember the same for me. I look forward to seeing my kids again. It is hard to say when that will be, but I am counting the days.

My Kitchen Table

Hannah Hausman | Senior Director, Development and Communications
Santa Fe Children’s Museum (NM)
June 15, 2020

I finish my last digital task of the day…maybe. It is 7:00 p.m. I am sitting at my kitchen table, which has now become my pseudo-command-post-desk-family-gathering space. My eyes burn and blur. I have always had less than stellar eyesight, but over the past few short months my vision has become somewhat hazy. The house is quiet, for now. With my five-year-old out of school for close to three months, working from home has been a juggle and a struggle. My guilt is immense. Will this pandemic damage us—our children—forever?

I am surprised though at how much I have accomplished work-wise in the past few months. Dozens and dozens of grants written and submitted in hopes of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars waiting to be distributed. Donors grateful to see our organization’s response to ensure the learning doesn’t stop. Social media and virtual programming ramped up. Staff pivoting in all sorts of directions. We are an amazing, hardworking team with an incredible leader and supportive board. All that being said, sometimes I feel like I am treading through COVID-19 quicksand.

I am and have always been grateful to work in this industry. Instead of shrinking from the pandemic, we reevaluated, took action, and kept our focus. Here in Santa Fe, our donors, our executive director, and our board are immensely strong and caring. During this period of uncertainty, the culture of our institution and our industry shines through. There’s a lot to be said for the steady, often behind-the-scenes work of building strong foundations.

At the end of each day, I say thanks because I know that no matter what happens, I will always feel proud of my work, whether it is in an office, or straight from a coffee-stained kitchen table. I am working to make a difference for our kids and families. As I close my computer and look out at the southwestern skies—a particularly beautiful sunset amidst all of this chaos—I reflect upon one of my favorite quotes from John Lennon: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” And he was right. It’s the end of a day, but it’s not the end.

Read other articles in the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.”

Nothing Yet to Close: Emerging Museums Pause and Regroup

This article is part of the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

Emerging museums at all stages are now dealing with a host of interrelated problems based on the pandemic. Funding:  Those in capital campaigns face compelling and highly competitive funding priorities.  Exhibit/program design: revised design and safety standards for “hands-on” exhibits and interactive programming are being developed, but are still incomplete.  Their communities, still unfamiliar with a children’s museum and its role as a key learning partner, are reeling from health concerns and economic shutdowns.  How do you feel the loss of something you don’t yet have? Founding board members, directors, and other stakeholders are asking questions to determine strategies for forging ahead, revising but keeping the plan alive perhaps on an altered timeline, or pulling the plug.

Children’s Museum of the Mid-Ohio Valley (Parkersburg, WV)

Tres Ross, Executive Director, The Ross Foundation

Children’s Museum of the Mid-Ohio Valley blueprint
First floor blueprint for Children’s Museum of the Mid-Ohio Valley (Parkersburg, WV)

Parkersburg, the central city in Wood County, West Virginia, is a relatively large city in a mostly rural state. It is located in the Mid-Ohio Valley, along the Ohio River which forms the Ohio-West Virginia border. Initially built on chemical and plastics manufacturing, the major industry now centers on extracting natural gas from shale.

The total population for Parkersburg-Vienna, West Virginia MSA, is 91,353, based on 2018 census data. The museum target demographics count 5,157 children under age five and 5,047 children between the ages of five and nine.

Other cultural venues include the Parkersburg Art Center, a community theater, another theater for plays and musical shows, and a waterfront music program.

COVID-19 Impact

Both Parkersburg and the state of West Virginia initially had a relatively small number of cases compared to the rest of the country. We have since seen an uptick as businesses began opening again. Beginning July 9, masks were required indoors.

The impact is still uncertain for businesses. West Virginia’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research is optimistic that a V-shaped (quicker) rebound will happen, but this will depend on the number of new cases, possibly requiring business activity to roll back again. Some local funders are focusing exclusively on health and basic needs, but others report they are not seeing many requests for funds from other organizations so far. A decent number of nonprofits in our community received PPP or EIDL loans, but their survival now depends on their reserves. 

The Ross Foundation will help with the restart of businesses and nonprofits. A big area of concern is how to operate and sustain entities in the arts community, especially if they do not have reserves. Two local theater groups in particular, even with PPP or EIDL loans, will not be able to host shows at full capacity for a while, possibly not until next spring, and they have no reserves.

The big questions we’re facing in the next two years are the following:

  • Are businesses stable enough to sponsor large exhibits?
  • When will families with young children feel comfortable attending large facilities?
  • Does opening up make sense when capacity may be limited?

The children’s museum is not open yet and can watch how other groups are faring. The art center is now open at a limited capacity, but their summer camp was well attended.    

We’re listening what other arts organizations, hospitality groups, and school systems are doing. As of mid-July, Wood County Schools will begin the 2020-21 school year on a staggered schedule, with some students coming to school on specific days. Otherwise, the reentry plan works on a stoplight system: Green is school as normal, yellow is a hybrid of in-person and online instruction, and red is fully online. The community college will open virtually this fall. Hotels report some increases in reservations, and some planned events remain on the books.


Funding an $8 million project in this very hard-hit economy remains a big challenge. The foundation’s board chair recently decided to accelerate the museum opening timeline. The Ross Foundation and the Ross family will now provide at least 80 percent of the funding for the project, and the completed museum will now open in two years. It was decided that the original plan to raise money from sponsors in the community would face too many challenges in the current economic climate and delay the museum’s opening an unacceptable length of time. 

Renovations to the building, a former Masonic Temple in downtown Parkersburg, will begin soon. The museum’s six floors will house exhibit space, office space, conference rooms, a café, and a 450-seat theater. 

Because we will be renovating an historic building, we are eligible to receive a little over $1 million in historic tax credits over the twenty-four month project period. The estimated cost for the renovations, architectural drawings, accounting, and legal fees is $3.9 million. (Accounting and legal fees can be higher when historic tax credits are involved, but costs can be included in the tax credits calculation.) Exhibits are projected to cost approximately $4 million. We will continue to look for sponsors for our newly-defined exhibit topics, and we anticipate some local response. However, the Ross Foundation and family will cover what cannot be raised in order to open the museum on time.

Our exhibits are not designed or built yet, providing an opportunity to learn more about the best materials and cleaning supplies to help maintain heightened quality and safety standards that will be now acceptable to families. Working with Roto Design, we are now in the process of developing master planning documents. Exhibit planning and development begins in October; exhibits will be developed by June 2022 and installed by late August 2022.

How do we demonstrate our future relevance with no track record? The community knows our foundation would not invest in a project it does not see as relevant. This confidence will help position the children’s museum as a key community asset. Furthermore, Parkersburg needs more entities that serve children and families. The art center offers family programs but not on a regular basis; the children’s museum will offer programs and exhibits continuously. In short, the children’s museum will be a cornerstone downtown development project that will create an anchor institution for area families.

Creative Learning Alliance (Joplin, MO)

Audie Dennis, Board Chair

In 2017, community leaders in Joplin, Missouri, embarked on a grassroots effort to identify goals for community growth and improvement. The resulting Vision 2022 report spanned an array of approaches, from economic development to quality of life. One concept that was well received and supported by Joplin City Council officials was the creation of a children’s museum.

Encouraged, a group of professionals, citizens, and educators began paving the way for a hands-on, STEAM-based destination. The focus on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math was driven by an education gap in those areas and employer demand for a better prepared workforce in those fields. Further, our community has a shared experience of severe weather events, notably an EF-5 tornado in 2011 that destroyed a wide swath of the city center.

The nonprofit Creative Learning Alliance (CLA) was formed with a vision to engage people of all ages in hands-on learning, driven by curiosity and play. The board of directors developed a five-year timeline, to culminate in 2025 with the grand opening of a new science center. A feasibility study indicated that it would attract partners and visitors from a fifty-mile radius in southwestern Missouri as well as Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. 

After securing funding for its first project coordinator, scheduled to begin in July 2020, CLA had ambitious plans to participate in large regional events. These appearances would kick-start a volunteer cadre, build community support for the science center concept, excite the public with portable, hands-on exhibits, and engage stakeholders to pave the way for a capital campaign.

However, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic quashed these plans and brought the terrific momentum of the group to an abrupt halt. Although southwest Missouri was not initially hit hard by the pandemic, stay-at-home orders forced the cancellation of large public events in the region. The team explored several alternative community outreach strategies, including video exhibit demonstrations, learning modules to engage kids and parents, and increasing social media engagement to build support.

Through thoughtful, honest conversations, the outreach committee ultimately decided that with one chance to make a first impression, none of the alternatives were a good fit. Schools, as well as established organizations and children’s museums in the U.S. and abroad, are already offering online access to STEAM classes and activities, filling that niche.

Regrouping, the board decided to hold affinity events, where one to two community leaders would host small peer groups, to continue to raise awareness and funds. Aligned with local COVID-19 prevention guidelines, these events feature colorful exhibits that ignite conversations and introduce supporters to our vision. With the help of CLA’s new project coordinator, affinity events this summer and fall will propel the project forward, as the organization continues its search for its first location.

In the meantime, the outreach committee will continue to evolve materials that highlight the science behind the exhibits, developing a website and social media presence that will fully support community outreach when these uncertain times have passed.

Glacier Children’s Museum (Flathead County, MT)

Corrie Holloway, Board Chair

Glacier Children’s Museum

Glacier Children’s Museum is a 501(c)(3) with a founding board and a small mobile outreach program, but no paid staff or permanent location. We are in the process of planning a series of exhibits to build support and attract donors to fund the creation of a permanent museum.

Without an exact location, we had not yet established a projected opening date. We had considered opening smaller, simpler “starter” spaces in 2021. However, we have decided to use the pandemic pause to recruit more board members, do more research, and plan more thoroughly. Opening dates for even starter spaces have been pushed back. Recently, two board members decided to leave the project, reinforcing our current priority to find new ones.

We are located in northwestern Montana in a county of about 102,000 residents spread among three small cities and several rural towns. The county is within an hour’s drive of Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort, Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake, as well as the Salish Kootenai and Blackfeet Reservations. More than three million people visit the area each year, and that number is rising. Many local businesses rely on tourism. Ours would be the first museum in the area geared toward interactive children’s learning.

COVID-19 Impact

As of early June, Montana has had a very low rate of COVID-19-attributed cases and deaths. At the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S., our governor was quick to shut down most of the state. With schools changing to online learning and businesses closed since March 13, along with a non-essential travel ban and a quarantine order for anyone coming in from out of state, our infection numbers remained low.

However, many people and businesses are suffering financially because of the shutdown. Our community foundation raised more than $500,000 for local nonprofits during the Day of Giving, showing donors’ high level of support and commitment to this valley. On June 1, Montana began Phase 2 of reopening. We expect to see a large increase of the number of people traveling here due to outdoor recreation opportunities and our relatively low COVID-19 numbers.

In deciding how and when to proceed, these are our top questions:

  • Will we be able to raise the money needed to open a permanent location when there are so many essential resources the community needs in the immediate future? Will donors still see the museum as a feasible endeavor?
  • Will people still want to go to a children’s museum based on fear of contagion?
  • How can we provide a safe and clean experience for our visitors?
  • What types of exhibits can be more easily cleaned or require less contact for interaction?
  • Can we continue to find people to volunteer their time and energy to move the project forward during these uncertain times—especially if the project goes into a holding pattern?

We are closely following recommendations and guidelines from our local school systems, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and our local health department. We are staying in contact with the Association of Children’s Museums  and other museums, observing how established museums are adapting as they reopen and what solutions the museum community is devising to support each other and the industry as a whole.

Since we are in the earliest startup stages and have enough money to sustain baseline costs, we could stay in this holding pattern for quite a while. It all depends on how we spend what we have. If we continue to get free storage for outreach supplies, hold off on hiring staff, and only spend money on administrative costs (website, post office, taxes, etc.), this extended planning period could last up to five years.

Some of our funds come from grants that need to be spent within the next year. We are wondering how long we can realistically complete our museum dreams without any paid staff and relying solely on board members’ volunteer hours, especially when the board turns over every two years.

We are already rethinking what our space and exhibits will look like, and discussing which interactive exhibits require less hands-on contact and are easier to clean. We are considering replacing the phrase “hands-on” with “interactive” in our mission statement.

The University of New England, Boilerhouse Discovery Space (Armidale, NSW, Australia)

Dr. Kirsti Abbott, Program Leader

Remediated Boilerhouse, University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia

The Boilerhouse Discovery Space is an integral part of the University of New England’s future campus plans. The project was initiated in 2016 by a philanthropist who supports children’s play-based discovery.

Over the past four years, we have raised more than AUD$10 million. We are in the process of identifying a principal design consultant, who we hope to onboard by the end of August 2020, to work collaboratively to design the building. During this time, we have run mobile programs. We also cleaned up the space, an old, disused industrial boilerhouse, contaminated with every bad thing you can think of! Remediation and demolition, covered by the university, took eighteen months and cost an additional AUD$2 million.

With a population of 30,000, Armidale, a regional university town in New South Wales, Australia, founded on agriculture and goldmining, is now a key educational hub. The university is the biggest employer, and the town is home to four private schools, a major state high school, thirteen primary schools, and many early childhood education centers. We are approximately six hours from Sydney to the south and Brisbane to the north.

COVID-19 has impacted our community in several ways. After simmering differences related to vision and management, COVID-19 exacerbated a few conflicts. Our town council disbanded and the CEO resigned. An outside government administrator is temporarily running the town without local councilors. The university has lost its on-campus students, and many residents have lost jobs due to slow business or shutdowns. There has been significant economic downturn.

Despite these challenging circumstances, the Boilerhouse project remains viable. We have secured sufficient funding to get this far (with only $5 million more needed to complete the project). The processes required to progress to this stage are all suited to online, remote work.

Our COVID-revised opening date is now mid-2023. The top three issues for the project over the next three years are:

  • Ownership by the university and incorporation into its core business. Typically, Australian universities have not invested directly in child development projects such as science centers.
  • General budget issues. The budget for our small regional university, although the largest employer in our region, is typically insufficient to allow for innovative projects like the Boilerhouse.
  • Our nascent culture of philanthropy. So far, the private donations and government funds we have raised are tagged for the project and cannot be diverted to other university uses. Even still, if the Boilerhouse Discovery Space is going to be a sustainable venture, it requires a significant shift in investment, expertise, and engagement in the overall philanthropic advancement of our campus. We are competing among scholarships, research, and teaching needs. 

We are largely dependent on university planning decisions for overall progress on the building itself. However, our team is somewhat autonomous in generating mobile programs and partnerships. We listen closely to our regional and state departments of education and government guidelines for planning future investment in children’s discovery programs and infrastructure.

With our opening date still two years away, we are lucky to have not yet done much exhibit or program planning. Once we have a design consultant on board, we anticipate moving forward, keeping in mind health advice and potential future social and physical distancing regulation.

kidSTREAM, Ventura County’s Children’s Museum (Camarillo, CA)

Michael Shanklin, Executive Director

Ventura County is a beautiful coastal community with an ideal climate for growing an array of agricultural crops. Home to several universities and a network of community colleges and with both beaches and mountains nearby, it is an amazing place to live and play. But it does not have a children’s museum within an hour’s drive to serve its 850,000 residents.

The kidSTREAM board determined early on to start small and prove ourselves to the community. Since incorporating in 2016, kidSTREAM has served more than 33,000 guests through Phase I museum without walls programming. Ultimately, the board planned to open a $15 million museum within a former city library in 2021. In 2018, a “Vision Room,” approximately 1,500 square feet of mostly indoor and some outdoor space, opened in the library to demonstrate what an interactive children’s museum experience entailed. In January 2020, the board decided to proceed to the next level. I joined the team in mid-February and began work on Phase II, the exhibit plan. We had hoped to open something by the summer of this year, however COVID-19 has pushed our plans back to 2021. 

As kidSTREAM’s first paid team member, my first day on the job was February 20, a month before community leaders issued the “Safer at Home” order. 

COVID-19 Impact

The pandemic has caused many donors to channel funding to direct service organizations, which has made fundraising for an emerging museum more challenging. However, the pandemic pause has given kidSTREAM the opportunity to reevaluate our plans for exhibit design and the guest experience. 

COVID-19 has significantly increased the amount of screen time children experience as schools have adapted from the traditional in-person instructional model. As we think about designing exhibit experiences for the new museum, how does this shift affect what our audience might want in a future museum visit? Current circumstances have prompted us to develop our outdoor space first. These spaces will be safer for guests, making them more comfortable coming to the new museum. We are also considering how we might make exhibits interactive but not necessarily hands-on. In hands-on exhibits, children literally touch everything; in interactive exhibits, such as light and shadow walls, children can actively engage without touching anything. Hands-on play is still incredibly compelling and here to stay, but it is getting a partial time out while the world recovers. 

Another silver lining is that we are able to rethink our cleaning protocols as we learn from other museums that are opening before us. 

Throughout these uncertain past few months, we never considered backing away from our plans. We are using this additional time to plan, fundraise, and solicit feedback from the community. Moving forward, however, the top issues that concern us are:

  • How can we fundraise during a pandemic?
  • How will the pandemic impact our project timeline?
  • When will families comfortable coming back to a hands-on learning environment (if at all)?

The ACM Leadership Calls have been tremendously helpful in tracking issues facing the field in general. We learn from each other’s success and challenges, and find some support in the process. This unanticipated pause has also given me the opportunity to work closely with our founder and board members to be more closely aligned.

Our field is an innovative nexus of learning, fun, kindness, and sharing. We will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic stronger, more guest friendly, and better suited for future challenges. If we model this behavior well, we might help future generations to become more resilient.

Building Relationships through a Pandemic

This article is part of the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By Alix Tonsgard and Laura Diaz

Building and maintaining trusting relationships is at the core of early education and care programs, whether part of a preschool, a social service agency, or a children’s museum. As DuPage Children’s Museum has continued our community outreach programming to vulnerable families in a pandemic, we have expanded and ultimately deepened our approach to building relationships. In the face of a global crisis, with normal communications patterns disrupted, our Partners in Play (PIP) program is still able to meaningfully impact the lives of children and caregivers through a previously underutilized path: texting.

The caregivers we serve often need support in recognizing the growth and development that takes place during open-ended play for young children (ages birth to three). Through a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), we created a program to take place in our Young Explorers exhibit gallery, originally designed for families with children under two, and intentionally redesigned to make child development information and milestones more visible.

We began with two cohorts of twelve families each, the first group selected by a social service agency and the second consisting of teen parents recruited from a support group. PIP was scheduled to take place over the course of one year, during which all families would attend monthly sessions at the museum.

The first few PIP sessions were designed to establish trusting relationships between museum staff and caregivers. Once families—some first-time museum visitors—became comfortable, sessions became more content-focused on specific aspects of young children’s development, such as memory, communication, and fine motor skills.

Two months into the program, COVID-19 hit and the museum closed. How could we keep these families engaged in meaningful and accessible ways ? We started group-texting families twice a week with a friendly greeting (“Hi, how are you doing?”) and a simple activity that could be done at home. We also called them individually from time to time just to connect and hear about what life during COVID-19 was like for them. We enlisted the help of a particularly outgoing PIP mother who helped spark replies and conversations among the families. Initially it was difficult to stay connected with teen parents. However, we learned that by postponing the text drop from mid-afternoon to around 7-8 p.m., when bedtime was near and they might finally be able to pick up their phones and relax on the couch, our messages got greater response.

The more we learned from texts and phone calls, the more we were able to tailor PIP activities, developed to take place in a carefully designed museum environment, to new realities—a home, often with other family members, including children of all ages, milling around. One text from a PIP staff member showed a picture of her own two-year-old who had decided to dump every single toy on the floor while Mom was on a Zoom work call. Not only was everyone able to share a laugh about what life is like “working from home,” but PIP staff suggested parents turn messes like this into   clean-up and sorting activities, perfectly appropriate for young children.

The response has been incredible. During the first few weeks of the pandemic, social service home visits paused and other organizations scrambled to come up with a plan for how to work with families from home (both the provider’s home and the caregiver’s home). At this time, the PIP program was the only support some families had. Many PIP caregivers are frontline workers who do not have the privilege of working from home. Throughout the shelter-in-place period, they continued to do what they could to meet the basic needs of their families. Regular texts and calls from DCM staff gave them something to look forward to and focus on beyond their daily struggles.

“The upbringing of ages zero to three is beautiful but very difficult and… very tiring because they need full time care. Programs like PIP help us with our stress and are great and fun dynamics for our babies.

 For families who have low resources it is a huge support because we know that there are an infinite number of organizations…but sometimes they are unreachable for us. Now more than ever with the pandemic, we need to gather and share ideas with one another to help with the upbringing of our children from home.”

Almost every family has a phone, but some families don’t have access to computers or reliable internet connections, making Zoom-delivered programs not fully accessible. Many social service agencies already use texts to stay connected with families. We talk a lot about access, but the pandemic has presented us with a unique opportunity to take a harder look at the realities and needs of the families we serve—in the extended stay-at-home COVID-19 environment and after. We are grateful for how supportive IMLS has been as we tweak this program to meet families where they are in a time when they need us the most

At this writing, there are ten sessions left in our program. We are packing up all the PIP materials and in two scheduled pick-ups at the museum, will give five kits each time to program families. Each kit contains instructions, materials, and child development information for an activity. Later we will text them short videos of how to use these kits. We are looking forward to seeing our families again at pick-up time, but are also excited about the expanded possibilities for keeping these connections strong under any circumstances.

Alix Tonsgard is an early learning specialist and Laura Diaz is a community & family access specialist at the DuPage Children’s Museum in Naperville, Illinois.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Read other articles in the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.”

The National Struggle with Unknowingness: Thoughts from a Facilities Director on Reopening

This article is part of the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By Luke Schultz

After closing on March 13, Madison Children’s Museum (MCM) staff decided there were still too many pandemic unknowns to even project a reopening date. Policies and plans were created to reduce the overall risk of exposure to our visitors and staff. But at this writing, barring any miraculous medical treatment or prevention breakthroughs, we will most likely remain closed until at least March of 2021.

Early discussions about reopening ultimately remained consistent with the museum’s mission and philosophy. We determined we could not provide children with the same freedom of open-ended play and discovery learning without an extensive—and in our view, experience-limiting—set of rules. The Madison audience is well informed, conscientious, and expects high standards. Even if we felt we could prevent or significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19 while serving young children and their families, the costs of doing so would be prohibitive, especially with the reduced numbers of visitors expected.

I have been the director of facilities at the museum for the past ten years. Before that, I worked in the field of building management. I am also married with two young children. But in a field focused on creating exhibits, programs, and social gathering places, I write from the perspective of someone charged with keeping the building clean, safe, operational, and all on budget.

Coming from the business world, I have seen a need for greater understanding of and focus on simple practices related to the physical plants, operations, and facilities side of museums. Among both existing and emerging museums, there is a field-wide focus on the museum experience, but not enough emphasis on the essential underlying facilities that deliver it. New safety requirements that have emerged as a result COVID-19 are bringing this issue to the forefront. In 2011, the museum was very lucky to have received a seven-year matching grant from the Kresge Foundation to help support upkeep and replacement of fixed assets like mechanicals, windows, the roof, etc. 

There are building and maintenance issues, large and small, with all museums.  But two primary areas of concern in my role for the museum’s pandemic response planning involve cleaning products and equipment and building air quality.

Cleaning Methods & Products

Just to have all the right equipment and sanitizers on hand is a daunting prospect. Even at the time of this writing (July), our museum has found that sanitizing products remain inconsistently available. Distributors sometimes aim products at “essential business,” and withhold them from “nonessential.” In some cases, distributors have been directed not to sell at all to nonessential businesses. Meanwhile, the same products can be available directly to consumers through Amazon or other retailers, but at a prohibitively high price for businesses buying in sufficient quantities to take care of large buildings.

U.S. Communities, a national cooperative procurement organization for the public sector that has been helpful in the past, reports that many of the products formerly made in the U.S. are now made in China and can be more difficult to obtain.

How clean is clean enough? There is “visual” clean. Traditional cleaning methods have done a good job. Everything looks clean, but how effective is that level of cleaning in this new COVID-19 environment? Our museum reached the conclusion: not good enough. We explored stronger cleaning methods and products, including a “biodome” probiotic spray-on surface coater. This statically charged sprayer encases surfaces, and protection supposedly lasts for ninety days. It is advertised to “work on mud [and other natural] surfaces.” It costs seventeen cents/square foot. It was also deemed safe for children, but when we looked at it, was still in lab studies to see if it works on COVID-19.

Cleaners that work on natural surfaces is a key selling point for us. MCM’s exhibits are known for their creative use of and commitment to natural materials. While green and environmentally friendly—and some people think less hospitable to viruses than hard surfaces—they are now harder to clean than plastic or laminate products. And many exhibit components are not COVID-cleanable at all, as many museums are now finding out, and must be removed from public access.

Building Air Quality

MCM’s HVAC system includes a “variable refrigerant volume” (VRV) system, an energy recovery unit, and boilers. Overall it is a ductless building with individual smaller cooling units in specific spaces. If the building is closed in the summer, and systems are off, humidity levels build and have a corrosive effect on materials and surfaces. Even a closed building requires maintenance and energy costs to stay ahead of the game. MCM has been running the fresh air system at night, when energy costs are lower, to keep air circulating/cooler.

What new levels of HVAC filtration will be needed to protect people from air-circulating particulates, e.g. coronavirus? We are continually checking with ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) for new COVID-19 standards. It has been suggested that some parts of the HVAC system can be enhanced with additional filters (e.g. MAVR-13 filters), but our other smaller units are not designed to accommodate additional, individually attached filters.

At one point, rough estimates for some of these add-ons would cost the museum, at a minimum, an additional $6,000/quarter. 

While We Wait

Like all children’s museums, MCM is very protective of the health and safety of children, their caregivers, our staff, and everyone in our community. We want to open, but knowing that we’re not essential and still feeling too much uncertainty about the pandemic, we remain closed. An initial PPP loan covered salaries through June. Through two difficult rounds of staff layoffs and conversion to a part-time work/share plan, some remaining staff like me have stayed employed, with health insurance.

Meanwhile, while we remain closed, the maintenance/upkeep needs of the building don’t stop. I frequently go to the museum to check on overlooked facility details common in closed or under-utilized buildings. Plumbing, for example. When toilets and sinks aren’t used, hard water buildup affects the fixtures. They will need to be replaced much sooner than they would in an actively used building. So, I go around and flush the toilets to circulate the water, waiting for the day when the museum will again be humming with activity.

Luke Schultz is director of facilities at Madison Children’s Museum in Madison, Wisconsin.

Read other articles in the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.”

Working from Home for a Museum with No Visitors: Front-Line Staff Stories

This article is part of the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By Mary Maher

On March 16, due to the rapidly spreading coronavirus, DISCOVERY Children’s Museum (DCM) in Las Vegas, Nevada, closed. Some staff, who had been tracking local response to the pandemic wave, were not surprised; others were caught off-guard by the museum’s swift decision. At first, most staff, like most people in the U.S., thought their regional shutdown would be short—two weeks. At the time, even that seemed drastic, but no one was prepared for the lengthy unknown that has followed.

Daniela Flores-Bello, visitor services coordinator at DISCOVERY Children’s Museum

When the announcement came, all staff felt supported by a “heartfelt email” from museum CEO Melissa Kaiser assuring them that their jobs were safe, and that those who were able to work from home would be able to do so. Many of front-line staff’s extended families fortunately were able to keep their jobs as well, and even though other aspects of the quarantine, including juggling work and family responsibilities at home, were challenging, financial hardships did not immediately emerge.

This article shares the stories of the many DCM staff who deal daily and directly with museum visitors. From interns to learning educators to visitor services staff, how did they handle the quarantine. What did they learn about themselves, both personally and professionally, in this mandatory timeout? And how will they take this new knowledge back to their work with visitors since the museum reopened on July 2? 

Visitor Services Staff with No Visitors

Visitor services staff Ayesha Inayat: “Visitors make our job!” While most staff were grateful to able to work from home and regularly connect with coworkers through video team meetings and emails, all agreed it felt odd.

Lisa Esterkamp, assistant director of visitor services: “It was very weird. I deal primarily with the visitors, and I spend the majority of my time in very close physical contact with my team. It was a big adjustment to move to online/phone meetings and communication.”

Sales Coordinator Connor Tetter: “I didn’t realize how much I missed my coworkers until we were finally able to start returning to the building.”

But perhaps Marketing Content Specialist Jessica Duffin summed it up best: “The museum felt so lifeless without hundreds of kids running around. In a way, this has been a good reminder that, beyond exhibits and programs, kids give the museum its magic.”

Preparing for Reopening

Shortly after closing, however, museum staff began planning for the reopening, adhering to evolving state and local guidelines. Every aspect of the facility was cleaned and scrutinized for health and safety precautions related to COVID-19. Staff worked to close or adapt exhibits, make museum admissions reservation-only and establish capacity limits, and create new signage to (playfully) keep visitors informed about new rules.

Joselyn Gurrola, Learning Education Team member at DISCOVERY Children’s Museum

Floor staff, key in ensuring returning visitors stay safe while enjoying a much-needed return to fun, were involved from the beginning in reopening plans. Discovery Children’s Museum’s floor staff, known as the Learning Education Team, and members of the museum’s internship program, YouthWorks, worked along with other staff to create a plan. Before determining how to best support returning visitors, all staff were asked to think about what situations might arise and what new mindsets they might encounter among once familiar audiences, many venturing out for the first time.

Staff at all levels agreed that many families need a break and are eager to get out of the house and enjoy a relaxing and fun museum visit. Kids especially, cooped up for months, might be ready to really cut loose. Staff thought they would be dealing with a range of mindsets—from anxious parents needing reassurance about their and their children’s safety to those who seem unconcerned or resistant to following safety guidelines. It was agreed that every visitor would be treated with the same patience and empathy to ensure a great experience.

To that end, the museum created an Empathy Policy, guidelines created to assist staff in engaging with visitors in today’s sensitive climate. During its creation, following the popular notion that people will support what they help to create, all staff were encouraged to think about putting themselves in the shoes of the person with whom they’re engaging, and trying to understand their situation. For example, prior to closure, most interactions with visitors were brief. Coming out of lockdown, people might be eager to start talking again—to anyone—which could lead to them to confide their quarantine trials and tribulations to staff unprepared to deal with that level of personal information.

Lisa Esterkamp, assistant director of visitor services at DISCOVERY Children’s Museum

Lisa Esterkamp: “The guidelines document is more of an addendum to our current visitor engagement training. It takes a deeper dive into four topics we felt were the most important for today’s ‘new normal’: Empathy, Active Listening, Transparency, and Patience. Not only will we be interacting with visitors, who will all have different thoughts and feelings about current events, but our employees are also going through this as well and may need additional support to help navigate their own experience. It was important to create a training that prepares them for both visitor and team member interactions.

“The new document shows the team how to slow down and spend time with the visitors. Pre-pandemic, we were high traffic, often with a line out the door. Quick, friendly, and efficient engagement was a focus, because visitors waiting in long lines can have a negative experience. Now, with physical distancing and attendance caps, wait times are inevitable. We hope to use them as opportunities to spend quality time with our visitors, getting to know them, seeing how they’re doing, and asking how we can help. The greater, more personalized engagement we can deliver today will keep them coming back in the future.”

YouthWorks intern Nayeli Lara: “… during their visit, I want them to have the best day of their life for however long they stay. I’ll refrain from heavy conversations or topics and let them immerse themselves in whatever gallery I am in that day. So at least they can rest easy that night knowing they had an awesome day at the museum.”

Learning Education Team member Kurt True: “I’ve been concerned since the beginning of the shutdown that children, especially the younger ones, will think that they are responsible for the sudden radical changes that they’ve experienced in their lives since the middle of March. It’s not unusual for small children to engage in this kind of self-blame when they experience an unexpected loss, for instance when parents divorce, or a pet dies, or a family moves to a new neighborhood.

“Children experiencing that kind of self-blame can become socially withdrawn and often lose ground developmentally. All of us on the floor are going to have to give a lot of extra encouragement to children who’ve been emotionally impacted by enforced social distancing over the past few months, but also we need to remember that children who are having emotional or developmental difficulties are going to need time to find their way back to their respective baselines. We can’t force or coerce them back. The best we can do sometimes is be a calming presence.”

What We Learned about Ourselves

Working with a graphic design firm, DISCOVERY Children's Museum developed a playful approach to signage that reminds visitors of the new safety guidelines.
Working with a graphic design firm, DISCOVERY Children’s Museum developed a playful approach to signage that reminds visitors of the new safety guidelines.

Prior to pandemic closure, most museum staff who dealt directly with visitors agreed that working with visitors—especially kids—was the most rewarding part of their jobs. They loved helping a child learn a new skill or work through a knotty problem. They enjoyed helping parents and caregivers feel comfortable in the museum, ready to engage in learning activities with their kids or just have a fun, relaxing time. Even the occasional hard-to-please visitors, though sometimes challenging, inspired professional growth. For a few intern staff, it was sometimes nerve-wracking but ultimately gratifying to successfully deal with “codes” (direct radio messages to staff about serious problems in the museum, such as a missing child).

So, what was it like for people staff to suddenly be disconnected from their people? Again, although everyone was grateful to still be employed, it varied. Some staff were surprised at how much they enjoyed working from home; some felt even more productive working alone. But through technology, they were able to stay connected with and supported by their team members and leadership staff.

Ania Lopez: “I am most surprised at how I am still able to interact with guests through the museum’s website and social media pages. Personally, I am surprised at how creative I’ve become with my work-from-home assignments.” Many staff were also grateful to have work assignments that helped focus their day.

Alondra Rocha: “Six people, including me and my two older sisters plus two dogs sharing a two-bedroom house has taken a toll. My weekly museum assignments were fun and kept me feeling it would all go back to normal soon.”

Ayesha Inayat: “Working from home isn’t as fun as it was in the beginning. Staying home every day has been trying. But our team has come together in an astounding way. Our CEO continued to boost morale, letting us know that she valued all of our work. It definitely helped me feel good about the work that I was doing even though at home.”

For some, especially YouthWorks interns—high school students used to busy, but structured schedules—the change caused them to suddenly dig deep for personal motivations. Some were surprised and buoyed by discovering a continued interest in pursuing their goals; others experienced a mix of motivational levels, but relied on friends and family (and pets!) to get them back on track. A few enjoyed the lack of structure and social engagement that freed them up to pursue dormant interests.

But the majority were eager for the museum to reopen, for visitors to return, and for them to get back to what they love.

Akira Tate: “Fourteen weeks working from home has made me realize how much I miss being at the museum.”

Some staff have learned that working from home is probably not a future option they would willingly choose.

Nicholas Coffey: “I have learned that I will never voluntarily work from home. Turns out I need to leave the house to feel fulfilled.”

Otila Prive: “I realized how much of a positive mental impact work has on me. Being out and interacting with other people is something I didn’t know I would need so much. Staying in my house all day—and every day in the beginning—started to take a toll on me.”

Everyone expressed complete trust in the museum’s new cleaning, safety, and operational procedures.

Marina Chavez: “The museum is taking lots of precautions to make sure staff and visitors are safe, following the guidelines like checking everyone’s temperatures and making sure visitors and staff are using hand sanitizers. The museum is probably the safest place to go compared to other places.”

Kurt True: “Who or what has been most helpful to me during the quarantine? That’s easy. The Facilities staff. Without them, I wouldn’t have a job to go back to tomorrow.”

All staff are looking forward to reconnecting with visitors and with their coworkers. The silver lining, if there is one, of this sudden and extended personal and professional retreat is that floor staff and all staff who deal daily with visitors are eager to return to what they feel they excel at: helping children and their families have fun learning experiences at the museum. They feel prepared to deal with the new museum environment and supported by their directors and managers. The future is still uncertain. We are not back to “normal,” but for this group of Discovery Children’s Museum floor staff the pause has given them time to think about their roles on their teams and what they can now bring back to the museum and its visitors.

Ashten Davis: “…having just been at the museum for five days before we closed, the quarantine has been difficult in some aspects but I am excited to go back, and I am leaving quarantine a better person.”

Jessica Duffin: “These past few months have opened my eyes to just how lucky I am to work for the museum. Our higher ups, especially our CEO, have handled this shutdown with more compassion and grace than any of us could have wished for. From the very beginning, they made us feel important and that they were going to do whatever it took to protect our jobs and our pay during these difficult times. I love my job and what I do, but even more, I love the people I work for.”

Mary Maher is the editor and designer of Hand to Hand.

Thanks to Jodi Gutstein, director of marketing and communications at Discovery Children’s Museum, for collecting thoughts from the following staff members included in this article:

Ayesha Inayat, assistant manager of sales and visitor services and data specialist; Conner Tetter, sales coordinator; Daniela Flores-Bello, visitor services coordinator; Jessica Duffin, marketing content specialist; and Lisa Esterkamp, assistant director of visitor services.

Learning Education Team members: Ania Lopez, Ashten Davis, Emma Agundez, Joselyn Gurrola, Kurt True, Lexi Keaton, Lidia Macario, Mahaleah Murdock, Marina Chavez, Nicholas Coffey, Otila Prive, Samantha Sleigher, Serio Lopez

YouthWorks Interns: Akira Tate, Alondra Rocha, Angela January, Christian Manriquez, Clarisa Del Toro, Kahleia Corpuz, Nayeli Lara, Nigel Simon.

Read other articles in the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.”

Museums in a Pandemic: Impacts for Workforce and Audiences & Partners

Sharing ACM Trends Reports 4.3 and 4.4 from the Association of Children’s Museums and Knology

ARLINGTON, VA (September 9, 2020)—The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) and Knology shared Volumes 4.3 and 4.4 of the ACM Trends Reports, “Museums in a Pandemic: Workforce Impacts” and “Museums in a Pandemic: Impacts for Audiences & Partners.” These reports delve into changes affecting children’s museums’ staffing, as well as visitors, members, and partners, in the first two months of the COVID-19 crisis.

“In examining the impacts the COVID-19 on children’s museums, it’s clear the effects of the pandemic will be long-lasting and far-reaching in our field,” said ACM Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus. “In the midst of considerable upheaval, these findings underscore the importance children’s museums have in their communities, both as employers and as providers of services and programming that support children and families.”

The data draws from a survey from 115 ACM member museums conducted in May 2020. Key findings include:

  • Layoffs and Furloughs –36% of museums surveyed had laid off or furloughed staff as of Mid-May 2020.
  • Online Engagement – 93% of museums surveyed offered online programming and activities on their websites and social media platforms.
  • Expanding Partnerships – More than half of participating museums reported establishing new or expanding existing collaborations, with goals of sharing resources and information, conducting planning related to the pandemic (such as facility reopening procedures), and developing content for curriculums and programming.

These reports conclude ACM and Knology’s analysis of the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on the children’s museum field during the first two months of the crisis. ACM and Knology are collecting a second round of data to explore the field’s experiences between May and September 2020. Further impacts will be explored in future reports of the ACM Trends Reports series.

Read the full text of ACM Trends 4.3 here and ACM Trends 4.4 here.

About ACM Trends Reports
Launched in Fall 2017, the ACM Trends Reports series draws from more than a decade of ACM member data to reveal trends in the children’s museum field. Volumes 1-3 are available for free to ACM members and for sale to non-members at This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

About Association of Children’s Museums (ACM)
The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. With more than 460  members  in  50  states  and  19  countries,  ACM  leverages  the  collective  knowledge  of  children’s museums through convening, sharing, and dissemination. Learn more at

Museums in a Pandemic: Impacts for Audiences & Partners

This post was originally published as ACM Trends Report 4.4, the fourth report in the fourth volume of ACM Trends Reports, produced in partnership between ACM and Knology. Read other reports in this series: ACM Trends Report 4.1, “Snapshots of Impact, ACM Trends Report 4.2, “Financial Impacts by Mid-May 2020,” and ACM Trends Report 4.3, “Workforce Impacts.”

The ACM Trends Reports team is exploring the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s museums. By mid-May, museums experimented with strategies and methods for connecting with two groups of stakeholders: audiences and institutional partners. This report describes the outcomes for museums’ work with their members and visitors, as well as new and existing institutional collaborators.

The data is based on responses to a survey conducted in mid-May 2020. Overall, 109 US-based children’s museums and 6 non-US museums were represented in the survey responses. The survey data shows that children’s museums were assessing ways to support their audiences as they: planned to reopen facilities to visitors, produced high quality programming for both members and general audiences, and communicated with these groups. At the same time, half of participating museums also tried to find support for their own institution by developing new or enhancing existing partnerships.

This report is the fourth in an ACM Trends series exploring the early impacts of COVID-19 on the field. ACM Trends Report #4.1 provided a quick snapshot of the early impacts, Trends Report #4.2 described financial impacts, and Trends Report #4.3 explored impacts on the museum workforce. We will continue to monitor the pandemic’s impacts on the field.

ACM Trends #4.4

By mid-May, children’s museums worked hard to engage two main groups outside of their personnel: their audiences and other organizations.

Serving Audiences

As of mid-May, children’s museums were testing multiple strategies to serve their audiences, while navigating staffing and financial impacts of the pandemic. These strategies focused on general reopening plans, members, and online offerings.

In the survey, 39% of museums reported a planned date for re-opening their buildings to visitors. Of these, most planned to reopen in summer 2020, and only one planned to reopen in 2021. Museum leaders considered a variety of tactics for operations during reopening, which included timed ticketing, member-only and member-first openings, and augmented safety procedures. However, at this point, most institutions were still in early stages of preparing for reopening and could not yet identify a date. Some directors participating in ACM Leadership Calls asserted that just because state regulations signaled they could reopen, it did not mean they should do so.

Museum leaders identified a range of factors that influenced plans for reopening their facilities to the public. Some cited uncertainty about finances and their capacity to meet cleaning and safety protocols. At this time, museum leaders reported seeing inconsistent guidelines from governing bodies or a lack of official instruction for reopening children’s museums. Some museums surveyed audiences to understand their concerns and interests related to reopening.


By mid-May, most children’s museums were adapting membership policies and plans. Nearly all participating museums (93%) extended renewal dates for memberships. A quarter of museums also expanded the benefits offered for members, such as access to exclusive content and priority admission upon re-opening. Five museums reported providing full or partial refunds for membership dues – of these, an average of 8% of dues were refunded by each institution. Two Large museums donated memberships to essential workers for every new membership purchased.

Online Audiences

At the same time, museums invested heavily in providing online content for both members and general audiences. In a review of children’s museums’ websites, we found that 101 out of 109 participating institutions presented online activities on their websites and social media platforms. Two types of programming stood out: over two-thirds of participating children’s museums offered online programs focusing on STEAM, as well as arts and crafts. Just under half of the institutions provided Story Time activities. Other less common programs featured animals or nature, music, and movement or exercise.

All participating institutions offered information on online programming through their websites. Almost all (98%) provided details on their Facebook pages, about 70% presented information on Instagram and Twitter, and about 40% shared on YouTube. Resources were typically presented as either online web resources, downloadable content, or recorded programming. Fourteen of the participating museums offered live virtual programming through Facebook Live, Instagram, Periscope, and YouTube.

Figure 1. Proportion of communication methods used by museums for members and general visitors / audiences.

Note. n = 109 for members and visitors.


Children’s museums used a variety of communication channels to connect with their members and general audiences. These channels were similar across the two groups, with some small differences that likely depended on typical ways that museums interact with these groups. For members, nearly all museums used email. About three-quarters made social media announcements, and more than half posted announcements on their websites. Meanwhile, for communications with general audiences, museums mostly relied on social media and website announcements, followed by email.

New & Existing Partnerships

Children’s museums invested in new or updated institutional collaborations to navigate the pandemic. Just over half of participating museums (n = 57) reported establishing new or expanding existing collaborations. Of these, half of the museums partnered on the local level.

Far fewer were state-level or nationally focused, and many didn’t specify the scale of their collaborations.

Museum leaders developed new collaborations or adapted existing ones with the ultimate goal of supporting the institutions as they navigated the crisis. They used several different strategies to accomplish this goal. About a third of participating museums, across all size categories, pursued partnerships to share resources and information, including general best practices, planning, and funding. A quarter of museums focused collaborations on planning specifically related to the pandemic, particularly facility reopening procedures. Another quarter collaborated with goals related to content development, including designing curriculum and program implementation. Other less common objectives included cross-promotions and outreach, advocacy and work around local issues, and collaborative fundraising.

Most frequently, museums of all sizes collaborated with other museums in their cities and towns. They also partnered with other types of organizations, like economic development agencies, local attractions, and other non-profits. Less common collaborations were with schools or education departments, as well as local governments.


During a mass crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be tempting to narrow an institution’s focus on the “basics” that might seem more easily manageable. However, the definition of children’s museums’ basic services needs to be reexamined. Moreover, the “who” involved in these services should be considered as well.

Museums do not need to weather the pandemic alone. Research across many sectors shows that collaboration strengthens partner organizations and benefits their audiences. As museum leaders examine new ways to pursue their mission of supporting children and families, they should consider themselves as part of the ecosystem of services that meet community needs. This ecosystem will function better when the various parts are coordinating their actions and supporting each other’s work.

The Takeaway

The pandemic will continue to unfold, and effects will ripple across the world for years to come. During this process, each community’s needs will evolve.

This crisis has underscored the need for children’s museums to think of themselves as closely linked to other children’s services and programs. Attending to community needs and aspirations can be a shared effort with, for example, schools and other social services groups. Programming can be designed as a complement or extension of offerings that others are providing in their communities. Leaders can ask: What are children’s museums suited to address that schools might struggle to provide? What other new roles might children’s museums fill during this crisis and beyond? Who is in need of support that can be met by the resources of a children’s museum? To answer these questions and more, museum leaders can join or create a collaborative working group to analyze gaps and opportunities in local public education systems and community services. This work not only enhances services for children and families across the community, but also reduces overlap in different organizations’ work.

In a similar vein, this crisis can help children’s museums identify new partnerships with organizations that have historically gone their own way. Public libraries and soup kitchens in particular might be effective partners for museums to pursue their mission of supporting children and families. These partnerships can also help museums make strong appeals to funders.

When museums are able to invest in partnerships, consider how to approach communications with new and existing audiences. It may be that social media, email, and website announcements don’t work well for new audiences, particularly if they lack consistent access to internet. Collaborations may also be a good opportunity for sharing communication responsibilities across organizations. Partners may have different communication strengths and preferences, which museums can tap into as they offer their own preferred methods.

About This Research

Data for this report was collected by an online survey distributed by ACM through an email invitation to children’s museums worldwide. The survey was open between May 7 and 18, 2020. Overall, 109 US-based children’s museums and 6 non-US museums contributed to the dataset. All participating US museums were currently ACM member institutions, representing 36% of membership. Participating museums were roughly representative of all size categories.

The information about types of online programming was collected in a manual review of websites and social media for the children’s museums that participated in the survey. ACM staff coded the types of programs based on common themes and refined the themes into meaningful categories. ACM staff also provided information about museum leaders’ considerations related to reopening facilities to the public.

Figure 1 shows average responses to questions about methods used to communicate with members and visitors. Responses were consistent across size categories, unless otherwise noted.

A researcher reviewed open-ended responses from the survey and coded themes in an iterative process to summarize information on partnerships. The initial coding process produced a large number of codes, and subsequent coding led to aggregated and more meaningful themes.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The Associations of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. Follow ACM on TwitterFacebook, and InstagramKnology produces practical social science for a better world. Follow Knology on Twitter.

Museums in a Pandemic: Workforce Impacts

This post was originally published as ACM Trends Report 4.3, the third report in the fourth volume of ACM Trends Reports, produced in partnership between ACM and Knology. Read other reports in this series: ACM Trends Report 4.1, “Snapshots of Impact, ACM Trends Report 4.2, “Financial Impacts by Mid-May 2020,” and ACM Trends Report 4.4, “Impacts for Audiences and Partners.”

The ACM Trends Reports team is exploring the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s museums. By mid-May, many museums had adjusted aspects of their staffing to navigate the early implications of the unfolding situation. This report describes effects related to full-time and part-time staff, as well as volunteers, and implications for the children’s museums workforce.

The data comes from responses to a special survey conducted in mid-May 2020. Overall, 109 US-based children’s museums and 6 non-US museums were represented in the survey responses. We found that, at that point, most full- time employees had either no change to their employment or reduced hours, whereas most part-time employees were laid off or furloughed. Museums communicated in different ways and to varying extents with volunteers and staff that had been laid off or furloughed. The findings offer opportunities for children’s museums to reflect on staffing decisions, as well as their communication styles and goals.

This report is the third in Volume 4 of the ACM Trends Report series, which studies the early impacts of COVID-19 on the field. ACM Trends Report #4.1 provided a quick snapshot of the early impacts, and Trends Report #4.2 described financial impacts. Trends Report #4.4 will explore early impacts on visitors, members, and partners. We will continue to monitor the pandemic’s impacts on the field over time.

ACM Trends #4.3

The children’s museums’ workforce is critical to the operation of institutions and the success of the field. We explored this idea in ACM Trends Report #1.10, which showed that, on average in 2016, 76% of children’s museum personnel consisted of volunteers, 16% were part-time staff, and 8% were full-time staff. On average, each of these groups devote different amounts of time to working at children’s museums, with full-time staff contributing the highest number of hours. The following findings focus on US museums unless otherwise noted.

Figure 1. The proportion of employment statuses for full time and part-time staff for children’s museums in mid-May.

The May 2020 survey showed that children’s museums made staffing adjustments in response to the pandemic, which affected workers in different ways. Figure 1 shows that, on average, full-time employees were the least likely to be dramatically affected by staffing changes, with over two-thirds having hours reduced or no changes to their employment. However, about 80% of part-time staff were furloughed or laid off. Overall, 36% of participating children’s museums laid off or furloughed staff. By comparison, 44% of museums of all types said they laid off or furloughed staff in a June survey (AAM, 2020).

The actions taken by children’s museums varied greatly, with some laying off or furloughing almost all their staff while others made few changes. The averages were generally consistent across size categories, though Small museums were the least likely to cut full-time staff. When we compare the financial impacts described in ACM Trends Report #4.2 to staffing impacts, there is no reliable relationship between relief funding received or the size of the museum to the proportion of staff laid off or furloughed. This suggests that the decision to change staffing appears to depend on the conditions surrounding each museum.

Two factors may have influenced these conditions. First, the Small Business Administration was in the process of disbursing Paycheck Protection Program funds around the time of this survey. (ACM Trends Report #4.2 showed that these funds were the most commonly received among children’s museums.) Museums that had recently received relief funds may not have made rehiring decisions by the time of the survey. Second, some leaders reported in ACM Leadership Calls that they made decisions about layoffs and furloughs based on whether they anticipated their part-time staff would receive unemployment benefits; in these cases, museums tried to prioritize their full-time staff as they planned how to use relief funding.

Staffing and operations decisions today seem to match historical patterns in museum hiring, and may have lasting negative impacts for children’s museums and the broader museum field. Media reports suggest that museum layoffs and furloughs are most likely to first affect lower paid floor or frontline staff, including visitor services workers and educators. These positions also tend to be filled by museums’ most racially and ethnically diverse professionals. Widescale layoffs of these individuals may affect perceptions of a museum’s concern for staff, as well as affect the field’s ability to attract talent in the future.

New Roles, Duties, & Services

As the shape of day-to-day business has evolved, most participating children’s museums (n = 80) reported experimenting with reassigning personnel to new roles and duties by mid-May. As museums reopen throughout the summer, these reassignments are evolving and will be reported on in future reports.

For half of respondents, the majority of these reassignments focused on two connected responsibilities. First, staff reassigned to programming have produced and delivered new learning and experiential content, including videos. Second, reassigned personnel have also focused on creating online content for websites and social media.

The next most common duty for reassigned personnel was operations, though it was far less common than programming and online content. Staff reassigned to operations worked on fundraising, accounting, general administration, and management.

Some children’s museums – primarily Medium and Large organizations (n = 5 and 13, respectively) – looked outside of their staff to contract services for their institution and personnel. The most common reason for these services was to obtain legal advice. Other services were related to human resources, as well as physical and mental health services. Museums outside of the US also reported using these contract services.

Communicating with Personnel

Many museums kept lines of communication open with laid off and furloughed staff as well as volunteers. Of the 75 institutions that laid off or furloughed staff, 59 institutions explained the goal of their ongoing communications with personnel. About half of these museums, across all sizes, used communications to provide general museum updates, which focused on the institution’s status, leaders’ decision-making, reopening plans, and funding status. A third indicated their goal was

to discuss future staffing plans, including updates on when they plan to rehire or revise staffing structures. Roughly a fourth said their goal was to sustain engagement with staff, using check-ins to convey both the museum’s interest in their return to work, and the value of personnel to the museum. Three museums, one in each size category, indicated that they sought to provide emotional support to laid off and furloughed staff in their communications.

When communicating with volunteers, the most common goals were to continue engagement and provide updates about the museum.

Figure 2. Proportion of communication methods used by museums for furloughed / laid off staff and volunteers.

Note. n = 65 museums contacted laid off and furloughed staff. n = 54 museums contacted volunteers.

We also asked museums about the communication methods they use and how often; this information adds nuance to the reasons for communication decisions.

Figure 2 shows the ways that children’s museums communicated with personnel whose work had been substantially altered by mid-May, particularly staff who were laid off or furloughed as well as volunteers.

Of the 75 institutions that laid off or furloughed staff, 65 were communicating with those individuals. The most common method of communication, for two-thirds of museums, was to use personal email accounts and about half through text messages. To a lesser extent, they also used telephone and video calls.

Participating museums communicated less with volunteers. Only 54 of the 109 participating museums indicated that they communicated with volunteers at all. Telephone calls and personal emails were used by half of the 54 museums that responded, with the third most popular method being the use of institutional email accounts. At the time of the survey, nine institutions had no contact of any type with personnel whose work had been impacted by the pandemic.

The Takeaway

Decisions about personnel may be among the most important and complex issues that children’s museums navigate during the pandemic. The early data from May 2020 show there are opportunities for supporting staff and volunteers in ways that benefit both museums and workers throughout the crisis.

The survey data suggest many museums may be missing a chance to engage their volunteers, a group that makes up the largest portion of personnel at children’s museums. There may be tasks that volunteers can do at home, particularly in support of the personnel who have been reassigned to producing programming and online content. Even if volunteers cannot be engaged in the work of the museum right now, regular communications can help reinforce their value to the organization. By mid-May, most of children’s museums’ full-time staff were employed, even though some had reduced hours. Part-time staff, however, were much more widely affected by layoffs and furloughs. There is potential for these changes to undermine museums’ efforts to work towards diversity and inclusion in their workforce. As leaders weigh future personnel changes, they should consider how to proactively address and support groups disproportionately impacted by the pandemic as part of their efforts to meet the needs of their communities.

These early data suggest that museum leadership should carefully consider how to use workforce communications strategies to lay the foundation for recovery. Supportive messaging with museums’ community of staff and volunteers can not only deliver on their mission, but also strengthen equity throughout the pandemic.

About This Research

Data for this report was collected by an online survey distributed by ACM through an email invitation to children’s museums worldwide. The survey was open between May 7 and 18, 2020. Overall, 109 US-based children’s museums and 6 non-US museums contributed to the dataset. All participating US museums were currently ACM member institutions, representing 36% of membership. Participating museums were roughly representative of all size types.

Figures 1 and 2 show average responses to questions about status of staff, and methods used to communicate with staff and volunteers. Responses were consistent across size categories, unless otherwise noted. For Figure 1, we asked museums about the proportions of staff that had been furloughed, laid off, reduced hours, and kept at their normal hours. Proportions were required to sum to 100%.

A researcher reviewed open-ended responses from the survey and coded themes in an iterative process to summarize data on reassigned duties, roles, and services, as well as goals of communications with cut staff and volunteers. The initial coding process produced a large number of codes, and subsequent coding led to aggregated and more meaningful themes.


American Alliance of Museums. (2020). A Snapshot of US Museums’ Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. https://www.aam- pandemic/

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The Associations of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. Follow ACM on TwitterFacebook, and InstagramKnology produces practical social science for a better world. Follow Knology on Twitter.

#InviteCongress for an August Visit

This post was written in collaboration with the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) and is cross posted on the ASTC blog.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on children’s museums, science and technology centers and museums, natural history museums, and museums with hands-on exhibits. Our field is beginning to get a sense of what the coming months and years will bring as the severe impacts of the pandemic continue beyond what was originally anticipated. In addition, much of the immediate federal relief—which has been a lifeline for many institutions—is coming to an end, even though a return to normal operations is a long way off.

ACM, along with other national museums associations such as the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC), the Association of Science Museum Directors (ASMD), and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), continues to tell the story of the pandemic’s impact on our members across the country. Your institution can play an important role by showing elected officials how these national issues are affecting their districts and their voters.

We encourage you to invite your Members of Congress for a virtual or in-person visit this August, so that they can hear your story and see how you continue to serve your community. You’ll be joining hundreds of other museums who participate in #InviteCongress—a national field-wide effort led by AAM and supported by a number of other national museum associations—to encourage and empower museums of all types and sizes to invite legislators to visit museums across the U.S.

Organizing a Visit

During August, Congress is expected to be on recess for much of the month, meaning that your Representative and Senators are likely to be in their home districts:

Visits by Members of Congress and their staff can be done virtually or, where it is prudent to do so, in person. AAM has prepared step-by-step guidance on how to draft and manage an invitation, design an itinerary, and prepare for the visit. Get your invitation out soon, as Members’ calendars may fill up quickly!

Federal Funding Can Provide Relief During the Pandemic

While the majority of institutions in our community do not receive regular or substantial federal funding, many did receive lifeline support from federal COVID-19 relief programs like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). However, those museums that received PPP loans have generally already exhausted those limited-time funds. Some museums, such as government- and university-affiliated museums, needed PPP funding, but were not eligible because their parent organizations were too large.

Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) all received funding to distribute via grants to museums, but these funding programs were small in scope.

Without additional substantial support from the federal government, our community remains at risk for permanent closures.

What’s Next for COVID-19 Relief?

Congress is expected to negotiate and pass another COVID-19 relief bill before the August recess. While ACM and other national museums associations have requested that Congress include a number of provisions to benefit our community, including museum-specific relief, expansion and extension of PPP, and more, it is unknown whether they will be included in this next bill.

As future relief legislation is being considered, we need to be certain that it benefits all museums. There are also opportunities for Congress to provide support through the normal budgeting process for fiscal year (FY) 2021, which will begin on October 1, 2020.

Regular Funding for Federal Agencies Remains Unresolved

While attention has been focused on COVID-19 relief, several key federal agencies can still support the museum field through their regular annual budget allocations or through additional stimulus funding. These include the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), NASA, the National Institutes for Health (NIH), the Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Congress has yet to decide on FY 2021 funding levels, so for those institutions that regularly receive funding from these agencies, showing Members of Congress the impact and importance of federal funding will help keep our community’s needs front of mind as they move through the FY 2021 appropriations process.

National Advocacy Work

ACM is a part of a broader coalition of museum associations advocating for Congress to create a $6 billion relief fund for museums. The coalition continues to work with other national nonprofit organizations to advocate for continued emergency relief funding, such as extending and expanding PPP, providing access to low-cost loans for midsize and large nonprofits that have not been able to access federal relief funding, and enacting and expanding grant and funding programs that help nonprofits retain employees, scale service delivery, and create new jobs. Learn more about past advocacy actions on ACM’s COVID-19 Advocacy webpage.

The Associations of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. Follow ACM on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram. With its members and partners, the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) works towards a vision of increased understanding of—and engagement with—science and technology among all people. Follow ASTC on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Reopening with Equity in Mind

Jump to a Section
Opportunities for Culturally Relevant Practice in Museums, Cultural Competence Learning Institute
Embedding DEAI in Strategic Planning, High Desert Museum
The Three Bears Model: Identifying Just Right Partnerships, Chicago Children’s Museum
Mobilizing Your Museum to Be a Resource for Equity, Cincinnati Museum Center
Conclusion and Resources

Opportunities for Culturally Relevant Practice in Museums

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, museums—like so many other institutions and sectors—are being asked to reimagine themselves: Will hands-on exhibits ever be the same? When and how can we reopen safely for our staff and our visitors? In the face of these existential questions, how can we keep equity front and center?

CCLI (Cultural Competence Learning Institute) is a partnership between  Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, the Association of Science and Technology Centers, the Association of Children’s Museums, and the Garibay Group. On May 19, CCLI hosted the webinar, “Reopening with Equity in Mind: Opportunities for Culturally Relevant Practice in Museums.” CCLI operates on the idea that success for museums in the 21st century will depend on embracing organizational change, allowing organizations to meaningfully connect with their community.

Cecilia Garibay, President of, Garibay Group shared a framework for grounding DEAI efforts in concrete areas of operations for rebuilding with an equity lens, drawing from CCLI’s National Landscape Study: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) Practices in Museums (Garibay and Olson, forthcoming).

CCLI’s key definitions surrounding equity work:
Diversity encompasses all those differences that make us unique, including but not limited to race, color, ethnicity, language, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, gender identity, socio-economic status, age, and physical and mental ability.  A diverse group, community or organization is one in which a variety of social and cultural characteristics exist.
Equity acknowledges differences in privilege, access, and need, and supports space for appropriate adaptation and accommodation.
Inclusion denotes an environment where each individual member of a diverse group feels valued, is able to fully develop his or her potential and contributes to the organization’s success.

Find more definitions at the CCLI website.

Garibay noted that the concept of equity can often feel abstract and even aspirational, but when we recognize that structural and historical barriers and systems of opression are at the root, it allows us to consider how we can begin to affect and change those systems and structures. She described how organizational change frameworks that look at systems and operational structures can help to create and measure change toward DEAI. The Burke-Litwin Causal Model of Organizational Change (Burke & Litwin, 1992; Martins & Coetzee, 2009) identifies three interrelated “factors” for change:

  • Individual & Personal (i.e. individual skills, motivation, needs, and values)
  • Transactional (i.e. organizational practice)
  • Transformational (long-term, core ways of thinking around mission and strategy).

Garibay pointed out that DEAI efforts often focus on the personal level using diversity workshops, implicit bias trainings, and other methods to support individual on their cultural competence journey. These strategies, however, ignore institutional levers critical for sustainable change and informing equity-focused organizational practices.

“I want to start by making it clear what an opportunity all of us have ahead of us. Our organizations are going to be community responders. Our first responders have been out there saving lives. And it’s our turn to move in when we can reopen as community responders to the pandemic, getting ready to help rebuild community and connection.”

Dana Whitelaw, High Desert Museum

Museum Practice for Reopening with Equity in Mind

Museum leaders from CCLI alumni organizations offered reflections on how they are thinking about equity amidst this pandemic.

Embedding DEAI in Strategic Planning

Dana Whitelaw, Executive Director, High Desert Museum (Bend, Oregon) 

The High Desert Museum, an interdisciplinary museum in Bend, Oregon, grounds all areas of their operations in an equity lens, both internally and externally. Dana Whitelaw discussed how this affects her museum’s strategic planning and approach to staffing and skilling up.

Pandemic Strategic Plan: The museum has created a pandemic strategic plan that sits alongside their pre-existing five year strategic plan. They have three phases over the next 12-18 months:

  • Closure (3-4 months)
  • Reopening (6-8 months)
  • Rebuilding (12-18 months)

During this time of closure, the museum is working to embed equity into all facets of reopening:

Admissions: How can your museum ensure access for a wide audience after reopening? Existing access programs, such as Museums for All, rely on walk-in admissions. If we reopen using timed ticketing, online sales, and cashless payment, how will our front desk processes continue to have an equity model?

Membership: Membership is seen as a privilege – how can we make it accessible?
How can you use membership to build more access? The High Desert Museum is working with partner organizations, starting with our hospital, to gift a community membership to frontline workers (e.g. nurses and grocery store workers) for each new or renewed membership.

Programming: How can you ensure your upcoming programming is inclusive?
The High Desert Museum is collecting stories from the pandemic experience for a future exhibit. They’re reaching out to community partners to ensure they feature and include a diverse set of stories.

Staffing: How can you skill up your staff to align with community needs?

You can build an equity approach into all levels of your organization. With governance, what board-level skills are needed for reopening? With staffing, how can you scale up to be relevant and responsive to new community needs?

The Three Bears Model: Identifying Just Right Partnerships

Jennifer Farrington, President and CEO, Chicago Children’s Museum (Chicago, Illinois) 

When Chicago Children’s Museum closed its doors due to COVID-19, it could not fulfill its mission to promote joyful learning by serving children and families to the museum in the same ways it had done before. President and CEO Jennifer Farrington shared how the museum identified new strategies to meet their mission, by authentically leveraging local partnerships to distribute resources to their community.

Museums do not serve communities alone, but rather as part of a web of individuals, organizations, and community partners. How can your museum work within this ecosystem to offer support and resources to communities? For those museums that feel they do not have resources to share, Farrington noted that with an abundance mindset, our institutions have extraordinary resources from our organizational values and integrity to key community relationships.

How to Approach Authentic Partnership:

1. Do an honest assessment of your museum’s capacity.
In this moment, museums can’t fulfill all their relationship obligations, and they also can’t serve their entire audiences. How can you ensure you make a meaningful impact without spreading yourself too thin? Consider focusing on three to four areas of work to increase impact, maybe even focusing on the most directly impacted communities around your museum. Being honest about what you can do helps set realistic expectations with your partners and offer internal clarity and focus.

2. Reach out with sensitivity and integrity.
Many community partners are on the front lines serving communities affected by the pandemic, and may not have the capacity to engage with your museum. How do you ensure you approach your partners and the people you serve with integrity and in equitable partnership?

  • Is your partner organization in a place to receive your message, or are they in a crisis mode?
  • What goals do you share? What can each organization bring to the table to accomplish those shared goals?
  • How can you work with partners to develop content together, rather than present “the baked cake”? How can the process itself be collaborative?
  • Ask your partners: What’s changed [in recent weeks]? Who at your organization has the capacity to discuss this project? How do the communities you work with want to be involved? 

Following the “three bears” approach, Chicago Children’s Museum is working with long-time partner Chicago Public Library to distribute activity kits to 10,000 families, with funding from the Education Equity COVID-19 Response Fund.

Mobilizing Your Museum to Be a Resource for Equity

Elizabeth Pierce, President & CEO, Cincinnati Museum Center (Cincinnati, Ohio)

When Cincinnati Museum Center closed due to the pandemic on March 14, 2020, it moved directly to be in even more active conversation with its community partners to hear what is most helpful for them in moving through the pandemic. By situating themselves as one node in a larger ecosystem, they have been able to be responsive and adaptive to community needs. How can your museum partner in your local social service landscape? President and CEO Elizabeth Pierce identified additional strategies for serving as a resource even when your doors are closed:

Adapting Programming to Address Isolation
This is a time of isolation for many communities, especially those who do not have access to online resources and technologies.

  • How can your museum help to lessen feelings of isolation?
  • How can we push out information across many technological differences?

In addition to online programming, can your museum organize analog conference calls or facilitate software that allows people to call into conferences, meetings, and presentations without an internet connection?

Cincinnati Museum Center organized analog conference calls to present curator talks.

Cincinnati Museum Center is also collecting reflections from the graduating class of 2020 as well as other constituencies. They plan to reflect this back to their community with future exhibits and programming when the museum reopens. At that time, they’ll invite respondents back.

Leveraging Your Building
While your museum may not be able to reopen, its building, parking lot, and other spaces may allow your institution to serve as a socially-distanced convener.

  • Can you act as a distribution center for a food bank?  
  • Are there opportunities to work with public schools?

Cincinnati Museum Center used its parking lot to host a drive-through graduation ceremony for a local high school.


As you consider these questions for your museum in moving forward, remember these ways of approaching this work from Dana Whitelaw, Executive Director, High Desert Museum:

  • You can ground yourself in your mission and vision statements as a lens for making decisions.
  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
  • Approach this time with abundance. While the pandemic can push feelings of scarcity, remember that museums are abundant in creativity and organizational purpose. Let’s put that to work to rebuild our organizations and communities.

“Some things are not answered yet, things are in motion. That’s true for our entire [museum] community. We’re in search of some concrete answers, but we’re not in the place yet in this experience where we can get there. We’re creating those realities.”

Laura Huerta Migus, Executive Director, Association of Children’s Museums



Burke, W.W.,  &  Litwin,  G.H.  (1992). A  causal  model  of  organisational    performance    and    change.  Journal of Management, 8(3), 523–546.

Garibay, C. and Olson, J.M. (forthcoming). CCLI national landscape survey: A conversation about the state of DEAI in Museums.

Martins, N., & Coetzee, M. (2009). Applying the Burke-Litwin model as a diagnostic framework for assessing organizational effectiveness. SA Journal of Human Resource Management, 7(1), 1–13.

The Associations of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. Follow ACM on TwitterFacebook, and InstagramCultural Competence Learning Institute (CCLI) is a partnership between the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, the Association of Science and Technology Centers, the Association of Children’s Museums, and the Garibay Group.

Museums in a Pandemic: Financial Impacts by Mid-May 2020

This post was originally published as ACM Trends Report 4.2, the second report in the fourth volume of ACM Trends Reports, produced in partnership between ACM and Knology. Read other reports in this series: ACM Trends Report 4.1, “Snapshots of Impact, ACM Trends Report 4.3, “Workforce Impacts,” and ACM Trends Report 4.4, “Impacts for Audiences and Partners.”

In March 2020, it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would have a deep and lasting impact on the museum field. The ACM Trends Reports team investigated the effects on children’s museums with a special survey in mid-May 2020. Overall, 109 US-based children’s museums and six non-US museums were represented in the survey responses.

The data provides a snapshot of the field in the early stages of navigating financial sustainability in the face of a global crisis. We compared the COVID- 19 survey data to information we’ve collected in the past about museum size – specifically, 2016 institutional data adjusted for inflation. This Trends Report can inform the steps that museum leaders take as the effects of the pandemic continue to ripple across systems and people that make up the field. In particular, this information can help leaders advocate for support from funders and policymakers. Future reports in this volume will examine other topics, such as staffing and engagement with audiences.

This Trends Report shows that relief funding through the US Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was an essential support tool for children’s museums early in the pandemic. Overall, PPP and other relief funds helped cover the majority of Small museums’ general expenses. Medium museums, on the other hand, were able to cover a much smaller portion of their overall expenses with relief funds, and will require other sources of funding. Large museums did somewhat better than Medium institutions but still need additional support, with reported funding covering about half of overall expenses.

Number of US children's museums that requested and received different types of relief funds
Figure 1. Number of US children’s museums that requested and received different types of relief funds.

Overall, museums most commonly applied for and received funds from the Paycheck Protection Program. Of the 109 children’s museums participating in the survey, 101 requested PPP funding and 95 received it. At the time of the survey, this funding program was designed to keep employees on the payroll for eight weeks, and could be used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities. Another program of the US Small Business Administration, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, provided loans and advances to 22 participating children’s museums, out of 39 that requested these funds. There have been reports of delays in processing EIDL applications, which may explain the gap between requested and awarded funds.

Private foundations proved to be a substantial source of relief funding for children’s museums. Half of the participating museums (n = 55) applied to private foundations for funds, and 34 received support. Three children’s museums outside of the US reported applying for and receiving funding from private sources.

About one-third of participating children’s museums applied for funding from state arts and humanities councils, which received funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities through the CARES Act. At the time of the survey, many of these grants had not yet been awarded.

Experimenting with Funding Sources

Participating museums also reported experimenting with other forms of financial relief fundraising. These strategies appeared to vary across size categories. Medium and

Large museums most commonly sought donations through appeals to corporate funders, members, boards, and other sources. These institutions also described creating fundraising events and activities like galas and fund drives, as well as online campaigns. Some institutions, primarily Medium museums, also tried to generate revenue through selling products (e.g., online gift shops). Small museums tried to raise money through donations and revising their existing funds. Medium and Large museums revised existing funds as well, which included accelerating annual gifts, reallocating funds, and tapping into reserve funds. Seventeen museums, across all sizes, reported doing Giving Tuesday Now campaigns. Two museums indicated they were using their physical space to generate supplemental revenue. As some museums tried to raise funds, others engaged in fiscally conservative strategies such as postponing capital projects and cutting non-essential spending. Some reorganized staffing, which we’ll examine in a future ACM Trends Report.

Of the 109 surveyed museums, only one Large museum received financial support from insurance, under a disaster relief policy.

Size & Amount of Relief Funding

Museum size predicted the amount of funding received, as well as the proportion of expenses covered by that funding. Relief funds appeared to be commensurate with the size of participating children’s museums, with Small museums receiving the smallest amounts, and so on.

However, there’s a different story when we compare the amount of relief funds to the proportion of expenses that those funds could potentially cover.

According to Table 1, Small museums were most likely to have a majority of their expenses offset by relief funds.

Medium museums had the lowest rate of offsetting expenses with relief funds, with only 36% of quarterly overall expenses covered. Large museums did somewhat better, with 45% of their quarterly general expenses offset by relief funds.

Table 1. Proportion of expenses offset by relief funds

National Industry Trends in Funding

We assessed how relief funding for the children’s museums field compared to national statistics for the leisure industry. As of the time of the survey in May 2020, PPP funding was the most commonly received financial relief. At that point in time, the Small Business Administration had provided a total of $7.6B to the arts, entertainment, and recreation industry, of which museums are a part (Small Business Administration, 2020). The average institution in this industry received $73,100 in PPP loans. Children’s museums participating in the survey had received a comparable amount, with an average of $78,750 in PPP relief funds.

The Takeaway

As the pandemic continues to shift the landscape, children’s museums will need to fundraise and experiment with new funding sources. Two federal sources were generally supportive to the field – PPP and EIDL – and private funds provided a substantial amount of support as of mid-May. We anticipate that other sources will prove useful to children’s museums as we continue to monitor financial impacts of the pandemic.

Some museums have been successful with attempts to increase revenue through selling products, using their facilities for novel purposes, and collaborations. These approaches may become more important as time goes on, and institutions might consider new ways of meeting their stakeholders’ needs. While this work may not always build revenue, it will support children’s museums’ missions of service to their communities and may help them make the case for new funding from other sources.

Leaders should take their institution’s size into account when they consider how and where to fundraise. Medium and Large museums can appeal to funders by highlighting the lack of coverage for expenses in early rounds of funding.

About This Research

Data for this report was collected by an online survey distributed by ACM through an email invitation to children’s museums worldwide. The survey was open between May 7 and 18, 2020. Overall, 109 US-based children’s museums and six non-US museums contributed to the dataset. All participating US museums were currently ACM member institutions, representing 36% of membership.

Our analysis used the size categories of Small, Medium, Large, which were originally presented in ACM Trends Reports #1.1 and #1.7. We use these categories to frame our analysis for many reports in the ACM Trends series because institutional size predicts a range of outcomes for children’s museums. Participating museums in the May 2020 survey were roughly representative of the size categories.

The survey asked about a range of relief funding sources that children’s museums had pursued. Figure 1 presents the current results for those sources that had disbursed funds at the time of the survey. We will continue to track this information over time.

For the information about experimenting with funding, a researcher reviewed open-ended responses from the survey and coded themes in an iterative process to summarize the data. The initial coding process produced a large number of codes, and subsequent coding led to aggregated and more meaningful themes related to new approaches to fundraising.

For Table 1, we combined all types of funding, even though some funds had restrictions on how they could be used. The survey did not seek detail on restrictions, so a combined approach provided a general sense of the funding received, compared to the expenses that could be offset. Median quarterly expenses for each museum size were taken from 2016 ACM data and adjusted for inflation.


U.S. Small Business Administration. (2020). Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Report: Approvals through 5/30/2020. U.S. Small Business Administration.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The Associations of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. Follow ACM on TwitterFacebook, and InstagramKnology produces practical social science for a better world. Follow Knology on Twitter.

On the Physical Reopening of Children’s Museums

Children’s museums’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic was swift and responsible: to close their doors as soon as the threat posed to public health became clear. By March 19, all U.S. children’s museums and most around the world closed the doors to their physical facilities for the health and wellbeing of their visitors and staff. But their work did not stop. Indeed, children’s museums—known for their dedication to materials-based, hands-on learning and exploration—pivoted to provide these experiences in new and innovative ways.

More than one hundred days since the closing of the field’s physical facilities, policymakers are establishing reopening plans for a variety of public facilities. How children’s museums are considered in these plans varies widely across jurisdictions. In some, they are included in early phases of reopening, and in others, they’re very last. This variation and lack of clarity in local mandates has created an ambiguous and difficult operational landscape for children’s museums to chart out viable strategies for delivering on their missions to engage children and families in child-centered learning experiences.

Every children’s museum draws from professional practice, core values, and operational assets to define its own destiny in the face of the ongoing catastrophe of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether that means working toward a physical reopening of their facilities for visitors, or committing to an extended physical closure, children’s museums are making informed decisions to ensure their own survival and, most importantly, to continue to serve their communities across the Four Dimensions of Children’s Museum Operations.

Children’s museums pursuing reopening of their physical facilities are…

  • Following reopening guidelines from their local governments (e.g., city, county, state).
  • Surveying visitors to determine if and how they should reopen. They are also surveying visitors after the visit to understand if they felt safe and enjoyed the experience.
  • Intensifying their already rigorous sanitation and hygiene practices to keep staff and visitors safe.
  • Often implementing capacity limits lower than existing mandates in the name of safety.
  • Exploring a variety of approaches to reopening their physical facilities, including:
    • Implementing timed-entry for visits.
    • Limiting access to only a portion of physical facilities (e.g., outdoors only, limited number of exhibits, one-way paths through museum).

Children’s museums committing to extended closure of their physical facilities are…

  • Investing in reimagining museum experiences and services for a post-pandemic reality.
  • Continuing to engage their communities in innovative ways, such as:
    • Creating new virtual programming, such as story times, virtual camps, and more.
    • Bringing high-quality, hands-on learning opportunities to families via learning and activity kits.
  • Investigating new ways to leverage their buildings to be of service to the larger needs of the community, by acting as sites for testing and blood drives, satellite food distribution, and childcare services.
  • Strengthening existing and establishing new relationships with community partners to support children and families through the challenges of the pandemic.

Whether or not their doors are open, children’s museums are supporting their communities.

  • The wider education landscape is in crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Children’s museums generally operate outside of the strictures of formal education systems. Many children’s museums are leveraging this flexibility to support their local educational systems (e.g., schools, Head Start, afterschool, childcare) as the 2020-2021 academic year starts. They are:
    • Developing academic curricula and virtual content.
    • Offering safe learning spaces for families in hybrid schooling plans that combine in-person and online instruction.
    • Providing teacher training.
    • Bridging the digital divide by providing connectivity for those without adequate internet access at home.
  • Children’s museums are and can be central partners for child and family-centered public health outreach related to the pandemic and beyond. Some museums are:
    • Providing trusted information about COVID-19.
    • Connecting caregivers with mental health resources for children and families to cope with this stressful time, as well as offering programming around social and emotional learning.

As every children’s museum makes its own decision to work toward physical reopening, or commits to an extended physical closure, it faces unique challenges depending on its location, government mandates, and operational history. Even still, children’s museums around the world are united in their commitment to the safety of children, and our shared vision of a world that honors all children and respects the diverse ways in which they learn and develop.

Help your local children’s museum continue to play its vital role in your community as an educational laboratory, community resource, and advocate by pledging your support today.

This document shares strategies that children’s museums are pursuing, not only to survive, but to continue to fulfill their missions in support of children and families. It provides field-wide messaging for children’s museums’ communications with the public and stakeholders. Questions? We’re here to help. Contact

The Associations of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. Follow ACM on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

New Webinar Series Helps Museums Take Diversity and Inclusion Efforts from Intention to Action

This post was produced in collaboration with the Association of Science and Technology Centers.

Museums across the country are navigating a critical moment: the urgent need to challenge systemic racism in our communities and institutions alongside the interconnected effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic stress. To effectively respond to the public health crisis and to transform into actively antiracist organizations, museums must lead with equity-centered work.

CCLI (Cultural Competence Learning Institute) has developed a free, four-part series to provide resources and concrete steps for museums to activate diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) efforts within their institutions and in their roles as trusted community hubs. Each of the four webinars in the series will cover the process of transforming intention to action, from equity and inclusion statements and hiring practices to community engagement and supporting DEAI committees.

  • Moving from Statements to Action (July 23): An equity and inclusion statement can be a foundational element for an organization’s DEAI work. But what comes next? This session will focus on how these statements are guiding principles for action. View the recording.
  • Building and Nurturing a DEAI Committee (August 20): Establishing a DEAI committee or task force can be a critical step in prioritizing equity work. How can museums support DEAI committees to most effectively elevate equity? This session will focus on best practices to build and nurture DEAI committees. View the recording.
  • Effective and Equitable Community Engagement (October 29): As museums build partnerships throughout the communities they serve, how can they ensure community engagement that serves all? This session will focus on inclusive partnership-building, outreach, and engagement practices. View the recording.
  • Restructuring with Equity in Mind (January 14, 2021 @ 3pm EDT): As museums navigate the enduring impacts of Covid-19 on staff teams, how can they restructure team roles, emphasizing skills, experience and initiative? This session will focus on the intersection of equity, HR practice and organizational change. View the recording.

Each 60-minute webinar will feature speakers from across the museum community, a short presentation of data from CCLI’s forthcoming National Landscape Study, and Q&A session for participants to share their challenges and experiences.

Participants are welcome to join individually, or with a team of colleagues. Each webinar will offer a deep dive into the topic to deliver concrete, actionable steps and resources toward organizational development. Register for one webinar or the whole series!

CCLI (Cultural Competence Learning Institute) is a partnership among Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, the Association of Science and Technology Centers, the Association of Children’s Museums, and the Garibay Group. CCLI helps museum leaders catalyze diversity and inclusion efforts in their institutions.

Announcing the Operations Issue of Hand to Hand

In light of the extraordinary circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest issue of Hand to Hand, “Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations,” will be published online rather than printed. You can read the issue in full here on the ACM blog, and also find the PDF in ACM’s Online Member Resources Library.

When this issue was originally scheduled last year, it was planned to focus on how children’s museums could maximize core operations, examine existing structures and practices, and fine-tune operations to be prepared to withstand “economic fluctuations and other curveballs.”

No one could have predicted the curveball of COVID-19. While most articles in this issue were written in early 2020, before the pandemic reached its peak, all have been updated to acknowledge our current challenges. The next issue of Hand to Hand, scheduled for August 2020, will focus entirely on the children’s museum field’s response to COVID-19.

We are currently evaluating future topics beyond this summer, as well as distribution models to ensure all ACM members have access to Hand to Hand

Read the issue!

Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations

A Note from the Editor
An introduction to the issue from Mary Maher, editor of Hand to Hand.

Thriving (in a Downturn)
Charlie Trautmann, Sciencenter
Consider three keys to success for museums looking to increase their strength and capacity: building community value, managing finances wisely, and practicing appropriate governance.

From Protests to Virus: Operational Changes with an Eye on Survival
Serena Fan, Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Museum
Learn how the Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Museum has adapted to the back-to-back challenges of ongoing protests and COVID-19 across staffing, scheduling, cleaning, and more.

Navigating with Knowledge: Using Data Strategically to Maximize Impacts and Benefits
John W. Jacobsen with Laura Roberts, David Ellis, George Hein, and Lynn Baum
The authors of the recently-completed Assessing Museum Impact (AMI) Research Project discuss the importance of using data to get where you want to go.

AMI: What We Learned about Data—Collecting It, Analyzing It, Using It
Q&A with Jane Bard, Children’s Museum of New Hampshire
Hear from the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire, one of six museums that participated in the Assessing Museum Impact Research Project, about how their lessons learned to build a more sustainable operation.

Positioning for Growth: Thanksgiving Point Restructures to Ensure Long-Term Sustainability
Stephen Ashton, PhD, Gary Hyatt, Lorie Millward, and Mike Washburn, Thanksgiving Point
Since opening in 1996, Thanksgiving Point, a museum complex in Lehi, Utah, has restructured for sustainability, unifying its different venues under a united leadership structure.

What We Learned from 2008:
Reflections from two museums that weathered the 2008 recession

Operating in Five Locations Since Opening in 2006 Has Taught Us Flexibility
Lisa Van Deman and Melanie Hatz Levinson, Kidzu Children’s Museum
Museum leaders reflect on the many changes Kidzu Children’s Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina has undergone since first opening in 2006.

Contingency Planning, Multiple Budget Scenarios, and Creative Operating Models: Then, Now, and Always
Patty Belmonte, Hands On Children’s Museum
Hear how Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia, Washington, leveraged in-kind donations to move to a new location in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. 

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A Note from the Editor

This article is part of the June 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By Mary Maher, Editor, Hand to Hand

In June 2019, I met with ACM staff to plan topics for the coming year.  At the time, blips were showing up on ACM Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus’s broader nonprofit radar indicating an economic downturn coming soon. Exactly when or how bad, no one could say, but many people were certain that it would occur.

In that light, this issue, themed Tighten Up: Streamlining Museum Operations, was planned to focus on how children’s museums could maximize core operations, examine existing structures and practices, and fine-tune operations to be prepared to withstand “economic fluctuations and other curveballs.”

In the fall of that year, with the stock market booming and other economic indicators trending up, concerns about a downturn receded a bit. Nevertheless, with many museums working toward strengthening their financial positions for an always uncertain future, a focus on economic flexibility still seemed apt.

In late February 2020, as first drafts appeared, two of them mentioned operational issues related to current and anticipated problems with the emerging Coronavirus. The Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Center was actively dealing with that city’s full-blown health crisis. Ending the original version of her piece about financial planning lessons learned in the 2008 recession, Patty Belmonte, CEO of Hands On Children’s Museum (Olympia, Washington), said, “Right now I’m thinking…what if coronavirus spirals in the U.S.? We are making contingency plans for that scary possibility.”

Within two weeks, the “other curveballs” slammed home. Countries went from watching COVID-19 unfold in other places to an unprecedented nearly country-wide shut downs. In the U.S., all children’s museums closed within a week. Many staff were furloughed or let go. Remaining staff worked from home, revising budgets to keep their museums alive and creating new or packaging existing museum programs to stay connected to quarantined children whose educations were now being directed by their parents. With no “all-clear” date in sight, museums around the world monitored health-related developments while beginning the monumental task of preparing to safely reopen.

Amidst the field’s currently triaged efforts at survival, would the information gathered for this museum operations issue still be relevant, and would museum staff be in a mindset to find it useful? After much discussion and a thorough review and update of articles to respond to today’s priorities, a decision was made to proceed.  As museums continue to plan both long- and short-term throughout this crisis, we are hopeful that readers will find the information helpful in reopening even stronger museums that will continue to serve the many children and families who sorely miss us.


Thriving (in a Downturn)

This article is part of the June 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By Charlie Trautmann, Sciencenter

As with all of the contributions to this issue of Hand to Hand, the text of this article was written before the current outbreak of the novel coronavirus that caused all children’s museums to temporarily close their doors in March 2020. To preserve relevance, the editor and I have made a few minor modifications to the original article, but because I believe that leadership at all levels involves short-term management decisions made in the context of long-term thinking, I hesitated to make major changes. While the details of how children’s museums will operate after re-opening is still unclear, what is clear to me is that the key points made in the article will likely remain relevant—and become perhaps even more so—in the future.   

How can a children’s museum withstand short-term fluctuations of the economy and also thrive in the long term? Although many factors are involved, three areas that stand out as keys to success include:

  • Building community value
  • Managing finances wisely
  • Practicing appropriate governance

In this article, we’ll examine each of these broad topics and show a few examples of how children’s museums can use them to increase their strength and capacity to succeed.

Building Community Value

Successful museums are, first and foremost, essential to their community—not just nice, but necessary. During downturns, communities rally to the aid of their most essential assets—and this is where children’s museums should strive to position themselves. There are several ways to build this sense of being “necessary” in a community.

Recognize that the more a museum gives away, the greater the return of community support. It might seem counterintuitive that giving away admissions, programs, and other benefits can lead to greater income. However, when a museum provides free or low-cost services that a community wants, it is more likely the community will value the museum as necessary and worthy of philanthropic support, especially in tough times.

For example, several years ago the Sciencenter held informal meetings over coffee with our county’s Head Start coordinators. We found that early STEM learning was a high priority for them, but was an area in which they had no expertise. A natural partnership evolved over the next several years, starting with the museum providing free programming. This led to a modest budget for regular events for caregivers and children at the Sciencenter. Head Start supplied hot dinners, coordinated the schedule, and publicized the events, while the museum provided space, activities, and staff educators. Members of the local government, donors, and educators now consider this partnership an important asset and a key part of the educational infrastructure in our community. More than one million dollars of new program support has followed, much of it from private donors who became inspired with serving those families with the fewest opportunities.

Create exhibits, programs, and events your community is passionate about. How can a museum do this? It’s simple, just ask! Talk with museum members, guests, and others in the community to learn about their interests and aspirations. Advisory groups, parent groups, and teachers are all happy to share their ideas. The Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum, while listening to its audience, found that food security was a top issue. As a result, they initiated a weekly farmers market in a pavilion on their site and rapidly won the praise of their community. Food turned out to be a versatile topic for education about nutrition, STEM, and culture.

At the Sciencenter, staff and volunteers were losing enthusiasm for a long-running offsite Egg Drop event, in which participants designed a device to protect an egg from breaking when dropped from three floors. But our community readily provided a solution by suggesting an onsite Halloween event. The new event drew twice the attendance of the former event and attracted people to the museum instead of to an offsite location; sponsorship for the new event increased five-fold over the old event.

Actively work for diversity. When developing activities for new audiences, it is important to remember that removing barriers to participation is necessary, but not sufficient to ensure that the activity will be truly embraced by a new audience. For example, free entrance admission and transportation alone won’t cause families from traditionally underrepresented communities to flock to a museum. Many museums incorrectly believe that if they promote their programs broadly enough, everyone will respond by participating. However, making new audiences feel welcome requires hard work: to demonstrate a sincere commitment to inclusivity and cement a true sense of welcome, you must reach out over the long haul and develop new relationships. Consider inviting members of the new audience to serve on the staff or board or as volunteers. (Trautmann et al. 2018; Dawes 2017).

The Sciencenter became aware of a need for families with children with sensory processing disorders to have a safe space to take their children. Rather than just offering free admission, the museum partnered with a local nonprofit serving families with disabilities and learned about the specific needs of this audience. The resulting pay-as-you-can Sensory Hours program—held on Sunday mornings when the museum was otherwise closed—became highly used by families and their children, and within several years received generous multi-year support from New York State.

Managing Finances Appropriately

The best financial managers work to meet both short-term metrics as well as long-term goals that transcend their own tenure. It’s a philosophy that requires transparency of financial results, conservatism in estimating income, long-term thinking, and the indirect benefits that come from giving back to the community. Here are several ideas for maintaining strong financial hygiene.

Develop a diverse mix of income sources. Work toward a mix of earned, contributed, grant, endowment, and other forms of support. At the Sciencenter, we maintain five primary sources, none of which provides more than 30 percent of total income. Combined income from admissions plus memberships is maintained below 20 percent of total revenues.

Recognize that earned income comes in two categories. Earned income can come from either visitors (e.g., memberships, entrance and program fees, gift shop, food service, parking, etc.) or non-visitor sources (venue rentals, grants, exhibition rentals, educational services, leasing of unneeded space, etc.). Having a business model that actually minimizes income from visitors is a great way to strengthen community relationships and increase the incentive for donors to support your museum. Some museums, such as the Children’s Museum of Tacoma, have gone as far as instituting a “pay as you can” model. Many others have embraced Museums for All, a cooperative initiative between the Association of Children’s Museums and the Institute of Museum and Library Services in which visitors showing an EBT card at the front desk pay $3 or less for museum admission.

While some museums attempt to squeeze every dollar from their visitors during each visit as a way to close the nonprofit funding gap, museums that take a different approach and subsidize operations through non-visitor revenue sources (and thereby promote frequent visits and being a child’s “home away from home”) are much more likely to be regarded as “necessary” if and when financial difficulties appear. Museums that charge $20-25 admission per person hardly tug at the heartstrings of most donors.

On the other hand, increasing earned revenue from non-visitor sources, such as rental of unneeded space, exhibition rentals, or sales of educational materials, is viewed positively by communities. It signals an entrepreneurial spirit that reduces costs to visitors, diversifies income sources, and bodes well for long-term financial wellbeing.

Know the difference between capital vs operating costs. Many museums have unknowingly entered into financial trouble because they ignored the difference between capital and operating costs. Capital costs, such as one-time costs of constructing a new building or addition, are relatively easy to raise, because donors are generally inspired by the vision of a new, tangible asset. However, boards and staff are transitory, and often the board and staff that raised the money for a new facility are gone when the need for ongoing operating support becomes the reality.

The best insurance against these kinds of costs is for a museum to be conservative and realistic regarding its projected attendance and the operating budget estimates for a new facility. Interactive museums in the U.S. typically see about six visitors/sq ft/year, with children’s museums slightly higher than average and less-interactive natural history museums slightly below average. Be wary of any estimate for a new museum of greater than eight visitors/sq ft/year, and of greater than two to four visitors/sq ft/year for an addition to an existing museum (Trautmann 2017).

Start (or grow) your endowment. All museums should have an endowment, if their governance allows for it. If your museum does not have an endowment, start one. A good rule of thumb is to shoot for an endowment equal to twice the annual operating budget, which will produce enough annual income to support about 10 percent of the annual budget. The Sciencenter began its endowment in 1994, just as its first capital campaign was ending; many board members were opposed on the grounds that operational needs were more critical and that “we can always start an endowment in the future.” With a steady drumbeat of promotion, however, the museum’s endowment grew to $5 million in the twenty-five years that followed and now provides almost 10 percent of the museum’s operating income—slightly more than the museum’s annual fund.

Avoid debt! Museums should avoid taking on debt of any type, but especially long-term debt. This discipline requires conservatism during capital campaign planning to avoid starting a construction project that ends up costing more than can be raised. Debt makes a museum highly vulnerable to financial downturns, because debt service remains, even if revenues decline. In addition, debt service is about as un-appealing a case for support as it gets, and donors often shy away from supporting an organization if they learn that their support dollars are going to a bank to service a debt, rather than delivering programs to the museum’s audience.

Unfortunately, debt is often advocated by business-savvy board members who are used to the tax advantages of debt financing of for-profit organizations. Because nonprofits have no tax advantages, however, debt financing brings few advantages and, on the other hand, can be debilitating. The only type of debt a museum should take on is short-term borrowing for well-defined cash-flow purposes, such as when receipt of a confirmed grant or donation is expected after the expenditures of a program or other project are incurred. For construction projects, building in phases is the best way to complete a large capital project with reduced financial risk and without long-term debt.

Practicing Appropriate Governance

Improving governance is easy to ignore, because even though it’s important, it is rarely urgent, and therefore rarely rises to the top of a CEO’s list of priorities. However, at least 5-10 percent of a museum’s efforts should be devoted to “sharpening the saw” of governance. Good governance makes every other activity of a museum more efficient and effective, and helps a museum avoid debilitating issues that can absorb large amounts of management time and attention later on. Here are several suggestions for improving governance.

Develop short but strong mission, vision, and values statements (MVV) and use them regularly in making decisions. Short, specific statements are easier to remember than long, inclusive paragraphs and are more likely to inspire staff, board, volunteers, members, and friends to use them in daily decision-making. Well-crafted MVV can serve as effective initial filters for accepting or rejecting ideas that cross a director’s desk. All museums are constantly approached by those who offer partnerships with strings attached, and starting with “Does this idea advance our mission, vision, and values?” is a good way to begin the decision-making process.

Think of diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) as a process, not a destination. Many museum board members and staff think of diversity as a destination (“We’ll recruit two members of color to our board and then we’ll be diverse.”) Instead, think of DEI as a journey, which we start, continually get better at, and continue for as long as we serve our museum audiences.

While good museums are resilient, the best museums seek to be “anti-fragile.” Good museums weather storms, but the best museums have an active process for learning from them, so they can become stronger and better over time, much as a muscle ultimately becomes stronger after being temporarily weakened by exercise. A muscle needs more than just exercise, it needs nutrition and rest. Trainers call this the “Fitness Cycle,” characterized by stress, recovery, and adaptation. Similarly, the best museums do post-mortem exercises to learn from stressful events, whether financial, operational, governance-related, etc. In this way, they become more able to avoid similar situations in the future as a result of their learning. For these museums, problems become a laboratory for learning and continuous improvement. COVID-19 is no exception, and once museums are (hopefully!) able to view the current pandemic in hindsight, it will be helpful to document their experiences, share them, and learn from both theirs and others.

Prepare for the Black Swan. A Black Swan is an event that is so unlikely that it literally doesn’t fall on any reasonable distribution of statistical likelihood (Taleb 2007). The novel coronavirus that is currently affecting people worldwide is an example of a Black Swan: no one had predicted that such a viral outbreak in Wuhan, China, would cause such widespread disruptions to business and life worldwide. On a more local level, the sudden illness or death of a key staff or board member; a fire, hurricane, or earthquake; or even a water main break that closes the street by a museum’s entrance—all of these events can severely affect a museum’s capacity to deliver on its MVV and survive as an organization. The best way to prepare for a Black Swan is to conduct periodic scenario planning, train board and staff, discuss options with an insurance carrier, and maintain a liquid reserve fund equal to three to six months of operating expenses.

Building community value, managing finances wisely, and practicing appropriate governance are three broad areas of museum operations that directly affect a museum’s capacity to thrive, especially in the difficult environment caused by a financial downturn. While I have shared a few specific ways in which museums can address these topics, there are many other actions that could be appropriate for individual museums and their communities. These examples are meant to provide a starting point for discussion; creative staffs and boards can brainstorm other specific measures that make the most sense from the perspective of their own communities and financial contexts.

Charlie Trautmann teaches and conducts research on early childhood education in the Dept. of Psychology at Cornell University.  He was previously director of the Sciencenter in Ithaca, NY for twenty-six years and has served on the boards of the Association of Children’s Museums and the Association of Science-Technology Centers. He holds a PhD in Civil Engineering from Cornell.


Dawson, E., “Not Designed for Us: How Science Museums and Science Centers Socially Exclude Low-Income, Minority Ethnic Groups,” Science Education, 89:6, Nov. 2014, p. 981-1008

Taleb, N.N.  The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Random House, 2007, p. 400.

Trautmann, C.H., Bevilaqua, D., Chen, G., Monjero, K., and Valenta, C., “Reaching New Audiences at Science Centers and Museums,” Informal Learning Review, Denver, CO, May-June 2018, pp. 13-19.

Trautmann, C.H., “The Business of Science Centers,” ASTC Dimensions, Association of Science-Technology Centers, Washington, DC, May-June 2017.

From Protests to Virus: Operational Changes with An Eye on Survival

This article is part of the June 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By Serena Fan, Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Museum

After almost three years of planning, Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Museum (HKCDM) opened in September 2018 on the first floor of a commercial building in a family-friendly district on Hong Kong Island. The 6,600-square-foot space has more than forty exhibits for families with children ten years old and under to explore, create, and express themselves. During our first year of operation, 60,000 visitors came to the museum, including field trip visitors from 210 kindergartens, primary schools, and other community organizations. HKCDM opened with eighteen full time and twenty-three part time staff.

The ‘Best-Laid Plans’

Due to capacity issues, this city’s first children’s museum initially opened on a reservation-only basis. (By law, HKCDM has a maximum capacity of 200 people, including staff.) Three daily fixed-time sessions allowed visitors to explore the museum for up to two and a half hours. The timed reservation system helped ensure we would not have to turn visitors away, as our online ticketing platform could show when a session was full. Visitors could purchase tickets before coming or, take their chances: if the session was not full upon arrival, they could purchase tickets onsite.

In addition to legal capacity, the three fixed time slots were important because of the one-hour break in between them. This respite allowed us sufficient time to clean thoroughly, as Hong Kong parents are hyper-vigilant about cleanliness. More importantly, it provided time for staff to process what we just experienced and to quickly share how we could do things better in the next session. 

There were downsides to the ticketing platform. If a family pre-purchased tickets and a child became ill, we had to help them rebook their visit to another day. It was also challenging in the event of sudden inclement weather, like typhoons or heavy rain, during which we would have to rebook multiple sessions. We also learned that the fixed visiting times were restrictive for a primary demographic—families with toddlers—as each child’s eating and sleeping routines could vary from day to day.

Almost ten months after opening, as staff gained experience, the need for the hour-long cleaning and debrief intervals was reduced. So we started planning to move to a more traditional museum visitation model, where visitors could arrive at any time. Still bound by maximum capacity levels, we would keep visit durations at two and a half hours.

Protests Accelerate Operational Changes

Less than a year after HKCDM’s opening, Hong Kong experienced a major citywide disruption. In June 2019, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against the Hong Kong government’s proposed extradition bill, which would allow criminal fugitives to be extradited to places with which Hong Kong currently does not have an extradition agreement. Notably, one of those countries is mainland China. When the government decided to proceed with the reading of the bill, a much larger demonstration was organized, which ended with the deployment of tear gas and rubber bullets. From there, weekly weekend demonstrations, often ending with tear gas, were common.

As time progressed, weekday boycotts called for citizens to stay home from work as a way to show support against the extradition bill. At the height of the anger against the government, demonstrators successfully shut down the city’s transportation system for a week. The Mass Transit Railway (subway) was so damaged at some major stations that it became unusable. In addition, roadblocks were set up at key areas around the city. Between the two, it was practically impossible to go anywhere. During that week, schools closed and more than half of our staff were unable to come to work.

Needless to say, these unprecedented events left us scrambling to put protocols into place. Furthermore, it pushed us to quickly change the way we operated, especially because it was predicted that protests could last for months and it was clear visitor attendance was already being affected. New and unforeseen variables added to the known limitations of the reservation system.

In July 2019, we piloted open sessions for two weeks. Visitors could come experience HKCDM for two and a half hours at any time during our regular hours. New visitors thanked us for the change, as some had always wanted to come, but could never find a session time that fit their schedule. Now they could come at a time that was most convenient for them. We learned some things about ideal visit start times as well. Our previous 12:30 p.m. fixed session start times were not as busy as our 4:00 p.m. sessions, because most families were still eating lunch midday. Once we moved to open sessions, we saw a rise in families coming at 1:30 p.m. On the weekend, this flexibility became important, because families would come in the early afternoon and leave in time to get home before the protests started again in the evening.

However, during the two-week pilot, we learned that the museum would need to implement major operational changes before this system became permanent. For example, we required a more sophisticated point-of-sale system. Open admissions required staff to handle all ticketing directly, instead of relying on the online ticketing platform formerly used to make reservations. We also needed a dedicated phone line and staff member to answer visitors’ inquiries about fluctuating daily capacity. We determined it would take us two months to adequately prepare for a permanent change to open sessions. So, we returned to our original fixed session system once the pilot was completed. This was painful, as the protests continued and families were limited to when they could come. The decrease in attendance was drastic, but we remained committed to a return to the fixed session system until staff was completely comfortable with a more sustainable plan.

In early November 2019, we switched permanently to open sessions. By then, protests were somewhat dying down, although families were still planning weekend activities around where ongoing protests were scheduled to take place. On weekends when rumors indicated that protests would occur near us, attendance would be low. Furthermore, the hot and humid summer had changed to cool and crisp fall weather, so fewer families were searching for engaging indoor activities. Thankfully, school field trips resumed so we were busy during the weekdays.

As Protests Wane, Coronavirus Hits

In mid-February 2020, Hong Kong experienced its second major citywide disruption within eight months. The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, closed schools and government facilities, such as libraries and swimming pools, until further notice. As news of the virus began to emerge, our first response was to purchase an enormous supply of face masks and cleaning supplies. The day after this purchase was made, both masks and supplies were either completely sold out or twice the price all over the city. Thankfully we made a timely decision to purchase additional supplies, as the stress of not having enough masks or cleaning products would have been tremendous and extremely costly. It may also have hindered our decision as to whether to open and for how long we could operate.

The museum’s popular water play exhibit, shown pre-COVID-19.
The museum’s popular water play exhibit, shown pre-COVID-19.  Now, under new guidelines, all visitors and staff must wear surgical face masks throughout their time in the museum.  If they do not have them, the museum supplies them. The museum’s popular water play exhibit, shown pre-COVID-19.  Now, under new guidelines, all visitors and staff must wear surgical face masks throughout their time in the museum.  If they do not have them, the museum supplies them.

We also reverted back to fixed-time sessions. Once again, people need to make a reservation before coming to the museum. However, a new part of the reservation process requires potential visitors to answer a travel-related question: has anyone in the group wishing to visit been anywhere outside of Hong Kong in the past fourteen days (the virus’s supposed incubation period). In order to avoid discriminating against people traveling from different countries (mainland China, for example, as opposed to Canada, where the virus was exceedingly rare at the time), we made the difficult decision to impose a blanket ban on all destinations outside of Hong Kong. If anyone in the group answers yes, staff politely asked that the family book at a later date.

We also established new guidelines. All visitors and staff must wear a surgical facemask throughout their time at the museum (if they do not have them, the museum will supply them) and we lowered our maximum capacity number to fifty people. With fewer visitors, everyone can spread out and if a sick person, often yet to be diagnosed, is in the museum, the chances of infecting others are lower. Despite these precautionary measures, reservations are understandably still down. Although we were only able to open four days in February, some families were grateful that we were open at all so that their children could run around and to do something different from being cooped up at home.

A Present on Hold; A Future Unknown

After three years of conscientious planning, the museum opened with every expectation of success. However, these two unparalleled, back-to-back challenges have not only severely reduced admissions revenues, but have drained our three months of operating revenue cash reserves as well. Fortunately, museum donors are still supportive of HKCDM’s work, so the goal is to try to survive this period of unknowns.

In the meantime, we reduced expenses in order to sustain the museum through an indefinite period. For starters, beginning in February, temporary salary adjustments were put in place in accordance with Hong Kong employment regulations. All twenty of the museum’s full-time staff members received about 62 percent of their normal salaries. Fortunately, staff were in agreement with this arrangement. However, if the virus persists and the government continues to advocate that public places be closed, it is unclear whether this salary arrangement will continue to be acceptable to all. During this temporary reduced-salary period, the operations manager and myself are working full-time; remaining staff are working half-time, and sometimes from home.

Staff responsibilities have also been temporarily adjusted to make best possible use of available time and skills to meet the needs of the museum and our audience. For example, initially it was difficult to determine what additional tasks could be assigned to floor staff, working half their hours and with fewer visitors. Social media content, typically created and managed by the marketing team, was essential for keeping the public updated about health and safety measures as well as museum operating hours. We have now combined the skills of all teams to create social media content to keep our audience engaged. Floor staff and the education team are working together to create activities for children to do at home, which the marketing team then posts on the museum’s social media channels.

The above paragraphs were written in mid-February. Now, as we move into June, after a one-month mandatory closure by the government in April, we cautiously re-opened in May. People have gradually resumed going out to public places. Our reservation-only fixed-time sessions are often reaching our lowered maximum capacity. In the summer of 2019, many groups booked visits, but with the uncertainty of whether a second wave will occur in 2020, there have yet to be any similar bookings for the remainder of this year. We are planning to hold our own summer workshops to hopefully help generate additional revenue. While the past year has been difficult, we can confidently say we are a team of flexible, creative problem solvers, and that no problem is too big for us to tackle!

Serena Fan is the founder and executive director of the Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Museum.

Navigating with Knowledge: Using Data Strategically to Maximize Impacts and Benefits

This article is part of the June 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By John W. Jacobsen with Laura Roberts, David Ellis, George Hein, and Lynn Baum

The crucible of a crisis provides the opportunity to forge a better society, but the crisis itself does not do the work.  Crises expose problems, but they do not supply alternatives, let alone political will.  Change requires ideas and leadership.”

New York Times Editorial Board, April 9, 2020

I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal in a feedback loop.

Bill Gates, 2013


This article explores one of the ideas that may shape the new normal for children’s museums as we come out of the lock-down: The idea of using data to get where you want to go, or navigating with knowledge. We have heard that data is important, but how can a children’s museum actually use data to inform decisions when so much is uncertain and when past data seems irrelevant? By carefully selecting the data that will track your desired impacts and benefits. This article describes how to do this using the PIID Sequence and reports the findings from the five museums that used the sequence to improve their impact.

Prior to the lock-down, many museums used data operationally. Annual budget objectives, attendance forecasts, and the number of grant proposals are examples of common tactical uses of data. The next step is to use data strategically in forward planning to evolve into the new normal and then to prove and improve value.

A museum aspires to impact its community, audiences, and supporters, who in receive benefits from the museum. Impacts are the effects desired by the museum; benefits are what matter to the beneficiaries. The distinction is important. Both are end results, or outcomes, of the museum’s activities. Both should be intentional, and both should be measured. In good times, a museum should maximize impacts; in times of trouble, it should maximize benefits.

Benefits can differ from impacts: A family visiting an aquarium receives the benefit of a quality family experience, while the aquarium’s desired impact on the family might be to heighten awareness of conserving biodiversity. Alternatively, the benefits and impacts can be aligned, which is an edge for children’s museums: New parents bring their toddler to a children’s museum to see her develop and learn with new kinds of challenges; the children’s museum’s mission is to be a resource for learning about child development. Studying the alignment between a museum’s benefits and impacts may illuminate inefficiencies. Some degree of misalignment may be desirable for strategic or advocacy reasons, but too much may be inefficient and unsustainable.

What are the steps/skills needed for museums in the new normal to gather/analyze data that will support their operations, inspire confidence in funders, and help them make informed strategic decisions about the future of their institution? This article explores those questions, as they all lead to becoming a stronger organization better able to withstand uncertainties, such as pandemics.

Museum administrators need measurements to prove our value and advocate for our institutions. More fundamentally, we need the right metrics to drive progress toward our goals so that we can improve the human condition and preserve the trust the public has in museums. In a nutshell, we need measurements to make museums healthy and effective again.

How Do We Quantify Abstract Results with Hard Numbers?

The theory is that a purpose or goal, if successfully achieved through the museum’s activities, should produce its planned results, which should be observable by tracking predetermined key performance indicators (KPIs) that are qualitatively and/or quantitatively measurable through data.

Museums that have multiple sources of revenue (earned and support) end up serving multiple purposes for their various masters. Such museums are “multi-missioned,” ideally prioritized. For instance, a science museum might say their top mission is science learning (50 percent), with community gathering (30 percent) and economic development (20 percent) as secondary and tertiary purposes.

Because we have so many outcomes, audiences, and supporters, because every museum is unique, and because each museum pursues its individual missions differently, the global field of museums has no commonly accepted metrics to measure impact and performance. Our richness and complexity challenge any simplistic assessment of a museum’s value and impact, such as attendance or collection size. As a result, one of the museum field’s most challenging needs is to find ways to articulate, measure and increase a museum’s desired outcomes.

The tool to apply this theory to practice is the “PIID Sequence” (Purposes 4  Impacts 4  Indicators 4  Data fields). The sequence starts with museum leadership articulating one or more of its intentional purposes, then stating what changes or impacts they aspire to achieve for each purpose, and what real world observations might indicate that the impact was happening. Then, what data fields might measure or document changes in that indicator. This PIID Sequence is illustrated here:

The Assessing Museum Impact (AMI) Research Project

John Jacobsen, Laura Roberts, David Ellis, George Hein, and Lynn Baum ran the Assessing Museum Impact (AMI) research project from 2017 to 2019 to explore whether the strategic use of data could help museums improve their impact and performance. The four AMI volunteer advisors found that the theory is promising in practice, and that wider, deeper, and longer research is suggested. Their report, Assessing Museum Impact: From Theory to Practice – A Summary Report was published in October 2019. The report details changes that six participating museums made to their programs and operations, and the methods they found most effective in the collection and application of data. The advisory team coached the museums through the PIID Sequence to select meaningful and revealing data fields and then to use that data strategically to inform decisions about mission-related outcomes.

With the support and partnership of the New England Museum Association (NEMA), the participating museums included: Gore Place (Waltham, MA); Children’s Museum of New Hampshire; Paul Revere House (Paul Revere Memorial Association, MA); Rough Point (Newport Restoration Foundation, RI); Seacoast Science Center (NH), and the USS Constitution Museum (MA). The freely available database of Museum Indicators of Impact and Performance (MIIP 1.0.xls) lists 1,025 potential indicators that some participants found useful for guidance.

Data Collection

Participants took stock of what data they were already collecting and reviewed relevant historical data to serve as the basis for analyzing incremental change over time. Collectively, the participants used the following on-site and online data collection methods:

  • Point of sales (POS) system reports
  • Revenue and expense data
  • “Bean counting” – Tallying by hand (stickers, etc.)
  • Pre and post program evaluations by students and teachers
  • Visitor surveys
  • Observations
  • Compiling social media comments
  • Google Analytics
  • Social media ratings (Trip Advisor, Yelp, etc.)
  • Zip code and geolocational tracking

All methods were relatively low cost, as the project offered no incremental funding.

Participants generally favored quantitative data collection over qualitative data, perhaps because it was more readily available and seemingly easier to gather and apply.

Participants encountered logistical and capacity challenges. Allocating staff time, particularly during busy seasons, was difficult. Some felt their limitations kept them from fully completing the job of systematically collecting consistent data or accomplishing as much as they hoped.

However, while acknowledging the limitations, participants observed that it “doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as it sounds.” They realized they were already collecting (but perhaps not sufficiently analyzing or using) data. Further, there are both low-tech and high-tech options (online and in-person surveys, interviews, comment cards) for improving data collection and analysis. Training staff, interns, and volunteers was essential, as comfort with using data in one part of the operation (like evaluation of school programs) can inform efforts in another part. Starting with easier data-collection tasks (e.g., using stickers to ‘vote’ for favorites on a large gallery map, counting attendance at events, asking a single question, etc.),rather than daunting undertakings like visitor surveys, can get the process going. Participants found technology could make a huge difference, such as employing new customer relationship management or point of sale software. Also, carefully placing data collection points in prominent locations, where people have time to complete surveys or other instruments, was useful.

Participants were excited about the potential of social media as a source of information and feedback but often found randomness, quirks, inconsistencies, and unpredictability in ratings on platforms like TripAdvisor and Google frustrating and “perplexing.” Often qualitative social media data—visitor comments—were more useful than ratings, although time-consuming to monitor. “The reviews remind us that even with our high attendance levels, the visitor experience can always be improved.” Participants also found that positive comments on these sites provided quotes for marketing, and that responding to reviews helped boost their rankings. They also watched for overall improvement and a decline in the proportion of negative reviews and comments. As with survey data, participants found information from reviews helpful in depersonalizing criticism and improving staff performance. Other sites, such as Facebook or Twitter, present a different source of insights. By developing metrics to measure engagement with learning and content pages on these sites, museums saw the potential for “a reasonable measure of mission impact as people elect to visit our institution’s content and thereby shape their digital personas.” Finally, participants were reminded of the usefulness of web analytics for improving the museum’s website.

Data Analysis:  Extracting Knowledge and Useful Meaning from Data

Participants were clear that raw data alone was not enough, that the utility of data depended on clear analysis and routine reporting. Some had reliable data from multiple years or sources that could be analyzed to identify trends. One participant used geo-location software to analyze data collected over prior years for trends and areas of opportunity in participation and visitation by schools and groups. But others confessed they had yet to “institutionalize” analysis or generate regular reports from the data they had. One noted the need for iterations in data collection and analysis, refining processes over time.

Some were left asking “so what? What do we do with this information?” Even with data in hand, analysis remained a challenge, often due to a lack of skills and experience. Participants noted other frustrations such as collecting data about visitor diversity or different departments collecting data in different ways.

Data Reporting: Communicating the Findings

Data and its analysis are helpful only when information is shared clearly and routinely, but how do we report what we have? Pages of numbers make people’s eyes cross; visuals are better. For instance, bar graphs are good when comparing similar museums or staff, where your museum is a differently colored bar seen next to others showing the same metric, such as the percentage of repeating teachers (an indicator of educational impact), or the absentee levels of floor staff. Pie charts, on the other hand, excel at visualizing different shares of a whole, such as a museum’s various sources of revenue, or a staff member’s allocation of work time.

A careful selection of KPIs is like the many gauges on the dashboard of an airplane’s cockpit that pilots use to fly safely to their destination. In order to fly to its destination, a museum needs to integrate and prioritize its KPIs to understand what they say collectively. These metrics will reveal the direction the museum is pointed in, and how that relates to where it intends to go and where it wants to make progress.

Using Data Strategically

As they became more comfortable with data and analysis of that data, participants envisioned how this capacity could inform organizational assessment and decision-making as an ongoing or regular practice. For example, a deeper understanding of the sources of revenue (events, admissions, rentals, annual appeals) could help museums make decisions about the allocation of resources and policies related to revenue generation.

Involvement of staff at multiple levels can help to change organizational culture, building and sustaining staff buy-in. There may still be resistance, but if staff at multiple levels and from all departments understand the large picture, the shift can take place. Participants recognized the importance of keeping a culture of evaluation going at their institutions.

Participating museums reported using data to inform decisions about functional issues like staffing, scheduling, and budgeting. They also saw utility for thinking and operating more strategically. They were better able to articulate intentions and goals and then become more rigorous about collecting evidence to support decision-making. One noted that data either “supports what you think is happening and/or exposes false assumptions.”

Understanding visitors—who they are, why they are visiting, and what they enjoy—was a focus for many participating museums. Museums also looked at the nature and quality of the experience and the ways that interventions like signage, amenities, and tours are, or are not, successful. One looked at data about returning visitors to fine-tune activities that would appeal to them. Another looked at improving the visitor’s experience of the museum’s grounds to support introducing a grounds-only ticket option. A third used data to look at the impact of a new visitors’ center and found that it met some their objectives but fell short on some of their other aspirations.

Museums were better able to understand patterns in visitation and organized program participation, confirming impressions or identifying opportunities in the market. Importantly, some were able to demonstrate their reach into previously under-served communities. One looked at changes in the distribution of the zip codes of members to gauge how well the museum was reaching new audiences.

One museum used data to more closely analyze how school and outside community groups made decisions about enrolling in various programs. It also identified potential new markets for programs. Another was able to demonstrate an increase in facilitated school visits over time, which they interpreted as an indicator of success.

Learning assessments completed by both teachers and their students and by visitors reported positive results, primarily around development of new skills and the confidence of children.

Participants noted that data can “substantiate your claims about your museum,” supporting the case made to funders for maintaining or increasing support. It can also strengthen discussions with potential grantors, sponsors, and donors and keep the museum accountable to all stakeholders.

The authors observe that expanding the use of data from tactical operations to strategic decisions may inform and support three broad areas of museum practice:

  • Advocacy and fundraising: Public officials and private donors are increasingly demanding data as evidence of a museum’s accomplishments.
  • Planning: Data from a museum’s track records and its peers informs both what it should be planning for and how much to expect it to cost and deliver.
  • Administration: Leadership uses data to set realistic objectives and to monitor how the museum is doing, motivating each department’s role toward an overall vision.

All these are essential in creating a stronger, more resilient museum able to withstand external pressures that come from economic downturns, pandemics and other crises.

The AMI Team (aka, the Stir-fry Collaborative) at one of their thirty-four pre-COVID-19 lunches over an enjoyable and collegial three years of creating, managing, and documenting the voluntary pilot research project.  The AMI advisors and authors are, from left to right, with chopsticks in hand: Lynn Baum, David W. Ellis, George Hein, Laura Roberts and John W. Jacobsen, at Changsho Restaurant, Cambridge (MA), November 2019.

John W. Jacobsen is president (ret) of White Oak Associates, Inc., a U.S.-based museum analysis and planning firm. Jacobsen has led analysis and planning projects for museums around the world for over four decades, including when he was associate director of the Museum of Science in Boston. He is the author of Measuring Museum Impact and Performance and the Museum Manager’s Compendium.

Laura Roberts is the principal of Roberts Consulting.

David W. Ellis is consultant and President Emeritus, Museum of Science, Boston.

George Hein is Professor Emeritus, Lesley University.

Lynn Baum is principal of Turtle Peak Consulting.


Jacobsen, J. W. (2016). Measuring Museum Impact and Performance: Theory and Practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

AMI: What We Learned about Data— Collecting It, Analyzing It, Using It

Q&A with Jane Bard, CEO, Children’s Museum of New Hampshire

This article is part of the June 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire was one of six New England museums (and the only children’s museum) that took part in the Assessing Museum Impact study. Museum president Jane Bard reflects on what she and her team learned in the process and how they are applying that knowledge to build a more sustainable operation.

Why did you decide to become involved with the project? How much time/effort was involved?

Collecting and analyzing data is important, but in the grand scheme of all we do, evaluation consistently moves to the bottom of our to-do lists. I say “our” because, in order to be effective, the commitment to engage in evaluation involves all museum departments. The project took eighteen months and included participation from several museum departments for an average of ten hours per month.

What data did you collect, which departments did most of the collecting, and what collection methods had you been using?

Prior to our involvement with the project, we had been collecting financial data, zip code data, and used both paper and online surveys to collect feedback from visiting families, teachers, and program participants. The visitor services and marketing departments primarily conducted data collection, with input from the education and development departments for specific projects or grants. This data gave us basic details and sometimes valuable information that helped inform decisions. However, there were gaps, especially among data that could measure our success in reaching goals set forth in our strategic plan. The AMI project challenged us to engage our entire staff in determining what data we could and should collect, and how it could help guide our decision making across departments.

What did you learn about using data effectively?

We tested some of our routinely made claims and assumptions about the museum, carefully reviewing the language used in those communications. We also reviewed which claims we should test such as, are we reaching a statewide audience? Are we fulfilling our mission and vision? Are our programs achieving their stated impacts in the community, with children, with low-income families? Is the museum the economic engine we claim it to be?

What were some of the data collection challenges, and how did you overcome them?

Primary challenges included collecting data from several departments, using multiple tools, and then trying to determine how to synthesize, analyze, and share it all in useful ways. We overcame this by dedicating two all-staff meetings to delve into the specifics: what data did we want to collect, how would we collect it, and who would lead each collection effort. We then assigned one staff member (who loves data!) to compile and share all the data. Another challenge was getting parents and teachers to return surveys. For parents, we incentivized their participation by periodically raffling off a museum membership to those who completed surveys. For visiting teachers, we eventually gave up trying to collect paper surveys and are now finding greater success by sending them a link to an online post-visit survey with results automatically tallied in a Google doc.

What did you learn about data collection? How did you come up with indicators that would determine success (or not), and then what data collection methods did you use to collect that information?

We used our current strategic plan pillars to develop success indicators. For example, one of our strategic goals was to expand and deepen our impact. How do we measure that? To show audience expansion, we gathered the following quantitative data:

  • zip code data to show geographic reach;
  • growth in participation by low income families and Title 1 schools to show socioeconomic reach; and
  • growth in overall admission numbers, including first-time visitors, the number of member families, and program participants. 

Much of this data was collected using our Altru CRM system and is now being used to target marketing efforts to specific towns and audiences where we know, thanks to census data, there is room for growth. 

To gauge how well we were meeting the second part of that goal—to deepen our impact—we gathered staff observations as well as qualitative data through surveys of parents, teachers, and children. Survey questions probed changes in understanding of subject matter, changes in observed behavior and skills, and changes in learning approaches following a museum experience.

We also used our AMI project data to answer the big question: are we fulfilling our mission and vision? Our mission is to actively engage families in hands-on discovery, and our vision is to inspire all to become the next generation of innovators and creative thinkers. Much of the qualitative data we gathered served a dual purpose in helping us determine 1) success in achieving our mission and vision, and 2) course adjustments that might be needed. 

There are some very sophisticated data collection methods available (e.g. geomapping), but primarily for large organizations with well-developed skills and capacity. What simple but effective methods did you devise to collect useful data?

We experienced an “aha” moment during this project when our advisors validated the idea that “snapshots” of data can be as valuable as year-long views, and that collection methods do not need to be sophisticated. We tested this idea during a Free Family Day hosted to celebrate the museum’s thirty-fifth anniversary. We wanted to know how many first-time visitors this event drew and whether it attracted local families or expanded our geographic reach. We set up large pieces of poster board and gave families stickers to post indicating whether this was their first time to the museum or whether they had visited before and where they lived. This quick and simple method of collecting data did not overburden our staff (on a very busy day with more than 2,000 visitors!). At a quick glance, it showed us that about 50 percent were first-time visitors and represented towns throughout the state of New Hampshire, as well as southern Maine and northern Massachusetts. We also gave these stickers to everyone, using a different color for members, and then counted how many were left. Since we knew how many we printed, we could easily count the number of overall visitors and how many were museum members.

You have said that data is used to confirm what you think is happening and inform decisions. Did any new data reveal any surprises?

Data from our point of sale (POS) system showed hourly visitation patterns: the largest percentage of families started their museum visit between 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., our first hour of operations. Through a Constant Contact survey of our members, as well as a Facebook survey of the general public, we found overwhelming interest in earlier opening hours. Many respondents said this would allow them to visit more often, work better for their family’s schedule, and increase their interest in renewing their membership. The museum changed to an earlier opening in September of 2019, and now 13 percent of families start their visit between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. Although we can’t prove causation, we have also experienced a 10 percent growth in family memberships during the same period.

What aspect of museum operations, or which museum staff, is underutilized in data collection? What are some unturned stones of useful information?

A “secret source” of data that surprised me, but may not surprise our marketing colleagues, is the aggregate of comments, reviews, likes, shares, and interest generated by the museum’s social media content. Paying attention to social media metrics helps us gauge what resonates with our audience, as well as what doesn’t. We also use Google analytics to track engagement with our website pages. With a little time, effort, and training, the information we have gathered has helped us understand how our visitors utilize information on our site, and that pattern is constantly evolving. A nonprofit Google grant helped us set up a Google Ads account, which gives us access to $10,000 of monthly advertising within the Google search console. With the help of an outside consulting company, we’ve able to see how people are searching for information about us, how to reach new audiences, and then how to better get them in the door for a visit.

It’s been said that “numbers without stories have no humanity; stories without numbers have no accuracy.” Has any of your new data affected your story?

New data hasn’t changed our story; it has reinforced the story we were already telling. We recently conducted a survey in an effort to measure our impact on the lives of the children and families. We asked members and program participants to rate the accuracy of several statements on a scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree in. Between 80 and 100 percent of parents and caregivers strongly agreed with the following statements:

  • The museum is a major contributor to my child’s development.
  • Visiting the museum is educational for my child.
  • The museum has helped my child develop the skills of communicating, cooperating with others, solve problems, being creative and persevering.

Being able to back up our claims with data has been powerful, both for our staff who feel their efforts are validated, and for supporters, who are making funding decisions based on data we are able to provide.

This article was originally written before the COVID-19 crisis swept the world. Did your participation in the Assessing Museum Impact project provide any additional resources to help you plan for our uncertain future, which now includes preserving your institution while navigating a path to reopening?

The article still stands, although it now seems like it was written a lifetime ago. Beginning in March, we have been using surveys to gather data to help us make decisions about the direction of our summer programming (traveling library programs and summer camps), and we will be surveying our audience about their intent to visit the museum once we have a possible opening scenario.  We are also closely monitoring our social media engagement to see what is resonating with families and educators so we can hone our virtual offerings to both support our mission and best serve our audience.

Positioning for Growth: Thanksgiving Point Restructures to Ensure Long-Term Sustainability

This article is part of the June 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By Stephen Ashton, PhD, Gary Hyatt, Lorie Millward, and Mike Washburn,
Thanksgiving Point

A Note to the Reader: Most of this article was written prior to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic that has so drastically impacted all museums throughout the world, including Thanksgiving Point. It remains to be seen how the ideas and principles discussed in the following article will help Thanksgiving Point weather the storms of uncertainty this pandemic has unleashed. In the article below, sentences in italics were written after the pandemic hit.

Thanksgiving Point is a multi-museum complex based in Lehi, Utah, about twenty miles south of Salt Lake City. Our mission is to draw upon the natural world to cultivate transformative family learning. Thanksgiving Point was founded twenty-five years ago when Alan Ashton, former WordPerfect founder and CEO, purchased the Fox Family Farm for his wife Karen, with the intent to build a large garden as a way to give thanks to the community for the many blessings they had been given.

The original plan created a large, fifty-five-acre garden, which opened in 1997, but in the process other ideas and experiences began to take shape on the site. Because the land was originally farmland, a farm and animal experience known as Farm Country opened to the public, also in 1997. A short while later, some paleontologists and investors contacted the Ashtons about building a dinosaur museum on the property, resulting in the Museum of Ancient Life, which opened in 2000. Thanksgiving Point now had three separate venue experiences: 1) Thanksgiving Gardens (renamed Ashton Gardens in 2016), 2) Farm Country, and 3) the Museum of Ancient Life.

In 2003, Thanksgiving Point hired Mike Washburn as president and CEO to help the growing organization achieve financial sustainability and become less dependent on ongoing Ashton family support. At the time, spending was high and visitation was low. Washburn and other team members worked diligently to lower costs and increase revenue. As Thanksgiving Point became more sustainable and more widely known, community stakeholders and board members requested that Thanksgiving Point add a children’s museum to its list of venues.

After several years of fundraising and construction, Thanksgiving Point’s fourth venue, the Museum of Natural Curiosity, a cross between a children’s museum and science center, opened in 2014.

From opening day, the Museum of Natural Curiosity was an immediate success. It completely revitalized Thanksgiving Point. Memberships grew from about 7,000 households to more than 20,000 households. In 2013, Thanksgiving Point’s annual revenue was $15.9 million; in 2015, it was $19.9 million. Thanksgiving Point has continued to grow. In January of 2019, Thanksgiving Point opened its fifth venue, the Butterfly Biosphere, an insectarium and butterfly conservatory. Visitation to Thanksgiving Point is now more than two million guests per year. The revenue for the most recent budget year was just over $23 million, with about 85 percent coming from earned revenue, including membership sales, venue admission, food and beverage, catering and meeting space rentals, some educational programs, and events.

Thanksgiving Point now faces new challenges. We closed our doors on March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Proud of our former 85 percent earned revenue figure, that number is now difficult to sustain based solely on current operation levels. With no endowment to fall back on, founders Alan and Karen Ashton generously stepped in to continue paying all employees’ salaries until we could secure a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Small Business Administration loan of just over $2 million. With that interim support in place (at this writing it will end July 1), we are looking for ways to significantly cut back on the original. Now more than ever, it is critical that Thanksgiving Point diversify its sources of revenue, including securing more ongoing public support to make up for the upcoming budget shortfalls.

Growth and Response

While Thanksgiving Point has experienced significant growth in the past twenty-five years, major challenges and obstacles accompanying that trajectory emerged. Shortly before the opening of the Museum of Natural Curiosity, several changes occurred that helped the organization grow sustainably.

At that time, the senior management team was composed of seven individuals who filled the following roles:

  1. President and CEO
  2. Chief Financial Officer
  3. Director of Food and Beverage
  4. Director of Marketing
  5. Director of Design and Programming
  6. Director of the Ashton Gardens
  7. Director of the Museum of Ancient Life and Farm Country

This management structure had evolved organically. Although the entire organization was overseen by the CEO, each venue had its own director and staff. This led to competition among the venues: rather than all five venues acting like parts of one cohesive organization, each venue operated as a silo, resulting in inconsistencies in guest experience and messaging. Additionally, while guests could purchase a property-wide membership, each venue’s staff encouraged guests to purchase venue-specific memberships to financially benefit their own site. While we admired their enthusiasm, the results were adversely affecting the organization as a whole, and not contributing to the development of a stable foundation that could support growth.

Consistent with the management structure to date, the opening of the Museum of Natural Curiosity would have required the creation of a new senior management position—director of the museum—bringing the senior management team to eight people. Not only would this have been difficult financially, requiring Thanksgiving Point to pay another senior-level employee, but also it would further complicate the existing silo problems.

A senior management reorganization was deemed necessary to streamline operations, eliminate disconnects, and direct a consistent approach across all venues. Working collaboratively, the senior management team made drastic changes to eliminate silos and set up the organization for more sustainable future growth. The former director of the Ashton Gardens became the new director of facilities for the entire property, and the former director of the Museum of Ancient Life and Farm Country became the new director of guest experience for all the venues. While these two directors were no longer on the senior management team, they retained their senior level pay and benefits. They report to the vice president of operations, a restructured senior management position that absorbed the director of food and beverage position.

In February 2013, a year prior to the opening of the Museum of Natural Curiosity, the new senior management structure was announced to the entire management team, giving everyone time for the transition to settle before the new museum opened. The restructured senior management team included the following titles and roles:

  1. President and CEO
  2. Chief Financial Officer
  3. Vice President of Operations
  4. Vice President of Marketing
  5. Vice President of Design and Programming

To continue to break down the silos and make operations more efficient, we built a robust education team. Rather than each venue developing its own educational programs, the new education team became responsible for all the educational programming throughout Thanksgiving Point. We also built or repurposed other skill-specific teams to impact the whole organization. For example, Thanksgiving Point now has one exhibits team to develop and maintain exhibits throughout all the venues. Other universal teams include marketing, signature experiences, accounting, facilities, audience research and evaluation, and food and beverage/catering, to name a few. Additionally, we encouraged employees to start using the term “team members” rather than “employees” when referring to anyone who worked at Thanksgiving Point, to help everyone feel like they played a defined but equally significant role in the success of the organization.

Communication and transparency were critical to making this transition successful. Staff at all levels and throughout all departments were kept informed and involved to ensure buy-in. For instance, we gave regular updates at monthly management meetings, composed of more than forty full-time team members. Individual departments also held departmental meetings to keep their teams apprised of what was happening. Clear communication about the process and impacts of restructuring helped our entire team feel vested in what was happening for the future good of the organization.


While the restructuring was not seamless and Thanksgiving Point still relies on some ongoing annual support from the Ashton family, it was successful in accomplishing the goals of streamlining operations, eliminating disconnects, and providing a consistent approach across all venues. The senior management team built a more stable financial and management foundation to support growth and ensure long-term sustainability.

Rather than hire a new director for the Museum of Natural Curiosity, a venue guest service manager was hired. This person, along with the other venue guest service managers for the Museum of Ancient Life, Farm Country, and Ashton Gardens, now report to the new director of guest experience. As such, when the Museum of Natural Curiosity opened in 2014, there was consistent messaging and guest experience throughout the entire organization. Venue-specific memberships had been discontinued, and guests could purchase all-inclusive memberships only.

The change in the management processes allowed Thanksgiving Point to open its fifth venue in 2019, the Butterfly Biosphere, at a fraction of the cost of operating a standalone museum experience. When the biosphere opened, the infrastructure already existed to support a new experience. We already had an education team, an exhibits team, and all the administrative staff in place. To open it, Thanksgiving Point hired a chief containment director, an entomology team, and a few additional guest service and education team members. The rest of the supporting departments necessary to operate the new museum experience already existed.

This model has worked well for the existing organizational structure, and it puts Thanksgiving Point in a strong position for future growth. Content-specific team members can be added as needed, but they will be supported by existing team members in other areas.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the integration of teams across Thanksgiving Point has been tested in new ways and proven to be even more important than we originally thought. While we were closed to the public, multiple teams have been working closely together to provide internal and external communications, digital content for our guests, and updated policies for guest safety. For example, our marketing team has worked closely with our education team to create videos of various exhibit spaces, including virtual tours of our annual Tulip Festival in the Ashton Gardens. These videos, uploaded on various social media, have been well received by our guests and members.

Financial benefits have included some savings, as the old model involved hiring and paying individual venue directors at senior management level salaries plus benefits. While guest service managers have been hired for each venue, they are paid less than a director; this pay scale model is now in place for future hires. Additionally, Thanksgiving Point now has a variety of teams that can support multiple venues at a time, thus keeping overhead costs low. The senior management team is supported by a management team comprised of about forty full-time team members, all directors or managers who support all aspects of Thanksgiving Point.

The management team supports more than just the five venues. Thanksgiving Point also operates an extensive catering and special events operation for private and corporate events; five restaurants across the property and additional concessions during major events; and facilities and grounds maintenance for all of the property, which includes a golf course (managed by an outside partner). At seasonally busy times of the year, Thanksgiving Point can employ up to 550 team members, while the number of members on the management team remains roughly the same.

Similar to other museum organizations, we are now looking for ways to cut costs, including potentially cutting hours, reducing salaries, and laying off employees. The management and senior management teams are working hard to minimize the impact as much as possible. But much will depend on how quickly the economy recovers and what additional support we can receive from federal, state, and local governments.

Today, even with a smaller senior management team than we had prior to restructuring, Thanksgiving Point can elevate our offerings. Calling on specific expertise from team members, who are strategically positioned where they can do their best work, Thanksgiving Point does better work overall. For example, having a single director responsible for guest services for all the venues ensures consistent and quality experiences for all guests, regardless of which venue they visit. Possibly as a result of “doing our best work,” annual visitorship has increased to more than 2 million. We have about 20,000 membership households, with an operating budget of almost $25 million. The restructuring helped us achieve these current increased numbers. Of equal importance, it has helped us unite teams and goals across all of Thanksgiving Point, resulting in a stronger organization prepared to meet the challenges of the future.

While, clearly, current uncertainty will continue into the near future, we are optimistic that we will be able to rebound from this economic and global downturn and emerge a stronger and more efficient institution. More importantly, this pandemic has given us time to look introspectively and make changes in order to be more relevant to our community. We have confidence in the value of our offerings. As we have slowly begun re-opening our venues to the public, following state and local health guidelines, we have observed that our guests are thrilled to be able to visit Thanksgiving Point again. We’re thrilled too!


  • 1995: Ashtons purchase Fox Family Farm and name the development Thanksgiving Point.
  • 1997: Thanksgiving Point Gardens and Farm Country open to the public.
  • 2000: The Museum of Ancient Life opens to the public.
  • 2003: Mike Washburn becomes President and CEO of Thanksgiving Point.
  • 2013: Thanksgiving Point undergoes significant senior management level changes to streamline operations and provide consistent experiences throughout all of Thanksgiving Point.
  • 2014: Museum of Natural Curiosity opens to the public. Number of membership households goes from 7,000 to about 20,000.
  • 2016: Thanksgiving Point Gardens renamed Ashton Gardens to honor legacy of founders Alan and Karen Ashton.
  • 2019: Butterfly Biosphere opens to the public.

All authors are on staff at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah. Stephen Ashton, Ph.D., is director of audience research and evaluation; Gary Hyatt, is director of guest experience; Lorie Millward is vice president of possibilities; and Mike Washburn is president and CEO.

Operating in Five Locations Since Opening in 2006 Has Taught Us Flexibility

By Lisa Van Deman and Melanie Hatz Levinson, Kidzu Children’s Museum

This article is part of the June 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

Describe your museum in 2008 (size, location, years in operation, target audiences, whether it was undergoing expansion/renovation/other major change, financial health, etc.)

In 2008, Kidzu Children’s Museum was two years old and operating in its first location—a 2,400-square-foot storefront in downtown Chapel Hill.   Having spent these years creating the visitor experience from a calendar of temporary exhibits, in 2008, Kidzu opened its first place-based original exhibit, Kidzoom: The Power of Creativity, which occupied the entire museum. The museum continued to serve between 30,000-35,000 visitors/year, with two and a half full-time professional staff, supplemented by work-study students from the University of North Carolina (UNC-Chapel Hill) and volunteers. Kidzu received several foundation grants and built a network of community partnerships, leveraging outside expertise to help create the museum experience and extend it beyond our walls. We worked extensively with the university, not only supporting numerous students and unpaid interns, but also working with the School of Education and its early learning research arm, The FPG Child Development Center.

As a university town, Chapel Hill was insulated from the economic fluctuations that occurred in other communities in 2008.  However, by 2010, Kidzu leadership realized its prime property rental wasn’t sustainable long term, and began looking for other options. UNC, in the midst of creating a new master plan for its downtown properties, generously offered the museum a temporary home (three years) in a vacant, university-owned storefront several blocks down the street at no charge while we strategized our growth plan and continued to serve the community. So, in 2011, Kidzu packed up Kidzoom and moved down the street to its new location (1,800 square feet) until the university was ready to repurpose the building.

In 2014, our public library moved into its new building and its previous temporary location was offered to the museum for free. Kidzu moved into this 10,000-square-foot space in University Place, a shopping mall two miles from the UNC campus. After only a few months, the museum was asked to move again to a similarly sized space across the hall, to make room for a large, rent-paying multi-plex movie theater. Kidzu opened a pop-up in an empty suite as the mall built out our new home. We again relied on the creative and artistic expertise of our community to create a museum that prides itself on “serving, celebrating and reflecting the community Kidzu calls home.

Even though your community was not heavily impacted by the recession, how did you plan for the viability and sustainability of your museum during these years of multiple relocations?

Throughout the museum’s early years and its many moves, board and staff continued to plan and fundraise for a permanent downtown location. Kidzu received a $1.5 million matching grant in 2012 from an international foundation with a Chapel Hill connection. With the significant income stream provided by this grant, the museum was able to explore a public/private partnership with the Town of Chapel Hill for a town-owned downtown space on the top deck of a parking garage. For a number of reasons, including structural issues, the location was ultimately not feasible. Fortunately, the museum was able to continue to work with the foundation to pivot their gift and use the funds to move into and operate our current University Place location.

While the 2008 recession had minimal impact on museum operations, the matching grant’s expiration in 2016 did. This grant had provided the impetus for an aggressive fundraising campaign of matching gifts and, as anticipated, its absence was keenly felt. Although we always knew the grant had an end date, its benevolent presence clouded our financial reality. When that funding ended, we had to make some serious changes, streamlining operations, not filling certain open positions and combining others. We restructured the board to include more members with broader networks, and developed a Museum Circle of community influencers who have helped open doors to new funding opportunities.

What did you learn from this experience that is applied to Kidzu’s operations today and its future planning?

In 2014, Kidzu opened a makerspace that is emblematic our brand—gritty, scrappy, highly creative, and rooted in North Carolina’s well-known arts and crafts culture. The maker mentality was a good fit for what we’d always done—repurposing materials and components, relying on local craftsmanship, pursuing less expensive ways of doing things (out of necessity)—all of which led to outcomes that were often unexpected, but more creative. Prototyping, tinkering, and the maker mindset became our modus operandus, not just in the makerspace, but throughout the entire museum and even into the way we operated. We became even more flexible, more adaptable, more creative in our visitor experience.

We began hosting adult events to build community and bring in additional revenues. We put greater emphasis on membership drives and fundraising to provide access for marginalized populations. We’ve continuously focused on transparency and communicating the value and impact of the museum. We’ve become deeply involved with our local Chamber of Commerce to build relationships with businesses and the corporate community.  We’ve become more explicit with funders about the financial realities of sustaining museum operations. And we continued to rely heavily on local expertise and our relationships with the university that help support and credential our work.

While the COVID-19 crisis could not have been predicted, how did your lessons learned from your 2016 crisis help you plan for the future, which now includes preserving your institution while navigating a path to reopening?

Following our 2016 experience, we have been working on building our cash reserves and establishing a working capital fund in order to weather whatever the economy has in store, but it’s not easy, and we certainly weren’t financially prepared for the impact of the pandemic. While our location in a university town offers many advantages and resources, fundraising is always challenging for all non-university affiliated nonprofits, including Kidzu.

With the onset of COVID-19, Kidzu was thrust into survival mode. We immediately raised funds from our closest supporters to help us minimize the immediate impact of revenue loss.  We downsized our staff to an essential few and have, like so many others, pivoted to focus on making the Kidzu experience available on-line. Frankly, Kidzu has operated in an environment of change and uncertainty for so many years that this latest challenge has been met with the our typical collective “can do” attitude, and ability to be creative on a shoestring. 

Our current operating budget pre-COVID fluctuated between $850,000 and $900,000 annually. Right before the museum closed for COVID-19, we were at about 50 percent earned revenue, and 50 percent unearned revenue and served over 85,000 visitors a year. Kidzu is still intent on growing into that “right sized” museum. We’re engaged with the Town of Chapel Hill and a local developer, weighing location opportunities in other areas of the city against expanding in place, while continuing to serve a wide swath of our region both at the museum and through outreach. We are working on a 2,000-square-foot expansion in our current location for fall of 2020 to make room for The Nest, a dedicated early learning space for children zero to three. This new space will also serve as a platform for collaborations with UNC’s School of Education and the North Carolina Reggio Emilia Alliance.

When we do open our doors again, we know it won’t be business as usual. Our operating hours may be limited, our team may be smaller, but we will continue to be the scrappy, innovative little museum that could!

Lisa Van Deman is executive director and Melanie Hatz Levinson is creative director and lead curator of Kidzu Children’s Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Contingency Planning, Multiple Budget Scenarios, and Creative Operating Models: Then, Now, and Always

This article is part of the June 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By Patty Belmonte, Hands On Children’s Museum

Give us a snapshot of Hands On Children’s Museum in 2008.

In 2008, with 116,000 annual visitors in 11,000 square feet, Hands On was a strong but small museum experiencing over-capacity. We were located in a rented home on the state’s capital campus, but had recently won our bid for $8M in Public Facilities District funds to support the construction of a new, permanent museum on Olympia’s downtown waterfront. Our regional reputation was strong: about 25 percent of our visitors came from outside of Thurston county.

The museum was part of the East Bay Partnership along with the City of Olympia, Port of Olympia, and LOTT Cleanwater Alliance, all working together to revitalize a prominent Brownfield site and restore it to public use. We were planning a beautiful LEED Gold facility on a three-acre campus that included parking, an Outdoor Discovery Center, and the new East Bay Public Plaza featuring an interactive 250-foot naturalized stream fed with reclaimed water.  Our new home, intended to be a model of green practices, was three times the size of the previous museum and planned to accommodate growth for fifteen years before additional expansion would be needed. Our campaign was set to launch in late 2008; we had already raised about 60 percent of our goal through public funds and initial major gifts.

How did the 2008 recession affect your community?

The Northwest’s economic make-up made it a bit more resilient than the rest of the nation, but times were not good. Larger banks and businesses that had been encouraging our move began to distance and hunker down—noting that social services really needed support during troubled times. There was a pervasive sense of gloom about the future; running a campaign for a new cultural institution was not the most important issue of the day.

How did it affect your museum?

Our organization was unprepared for the recession’s many consequences on campaign commitments and payment schedules. For example, our largest and lead gift from a well-respected Northwest foundation was reduced dramatically in the days leading up to their formal commitment. After initially suggesting a $1M pledge, they called to say that, in light of the times, they were revising their gift to half that amount. This significant, overnight reduction set the tone for the rest of the campaign. We realized that gifts would likely be less than our original fundraising plan had projected, and we immediately decided to phase the campaign. Phase I focused on the building, parking, and 80 percent of indoor exhibits; Phase II focused on the Outdoor Discovery Center, as well as facility enhancements discovered after opening, such as a larger coat and stroller room and additional parking lot lighting. Gift size wasn’t the only area impacted. We quickly learned to listen to our donors’ fears and worked out unusual payment options such as five-year pledge payments rather than three, a mix of cash and in-kind materials or services, and the option to make a smaller commitment early with permission to revisit the initial gift in a few years.

At the time, we were very disappointed to have to open the museum in phases. However, in retrospect, it gave us five years of new exhibits opening each year. This brought visitors back over and over again to see our progress. We did not experience the “sophomore slump” typical with new projects, and by year five we were overcrowded! The new facility nearly doubled attendance in two years and was up to 300,000 visitors in five years. By year seven, 2015, we leased a nearby parking lot, taken a lease option on two adjacent properties, and were in pre-planning for a future expansion.

How did you respond immediately (between 2007- 2009) to protect the viability of your museum? Or, to better serve audiences experiencing recession effects?

We were asked over and over again why we were pressing forward during a recession.  Our honest replies were: first, our Capital Campus home was due to be demolished leaving us homeless. Second, a large sum of public funds would be lost if we didn’t break ground by a certain date.

It was the worst and best of times. As gift sizes shrunk, we started thinking about how else donors could participate, eventually leading to nearly $2M in donated goods and services. For example, we wanted a sustainable building, so we asked Weyerhaeuser if they would donate posts and beams for construction, along with some cash. They did. The museum features fir doors from Simpson Timber Co, siding from a timber family, and a gorgeous floor made of leftover end pieces from the region’s premier wood flooring installer. One company donated three trees, which skilled woodworkers turned into exhibits and furniture. The museum’s front entry desk was repurposed by a local casework company from a mistake made for another job. With great building and exhibit designs in hand, we were able to break them down into the parts and workmanship we needed and then approach the community with requests for specific help. Hundreds of in-kind donations, including landscaping, exhibit construction, artwork, carpet tiles, appliances, etc., became part of the new museum. Although it was challenging to manage it all, a key team of contractor, exhibit designer, board members, and senior staff led the effort. In the end, the fingerprints of our entire community are on this museum, making it aesthetically pleasing and unique, as well as a source of pride for all who contributed.

Did that experience inspire practices in place today?

We just used the same “community build” approach to renovate the Megan D, a vintage, buccaneer-style schooner languishing in the Port’s boneyard for several years. The same contractor who led the museum construction rallied seven of his retired carpenters (several who had worked on our building) to donate more than nine months and 1,000 hours to renovating the ship into a premier Outdoor Discovery Center exhibit. We also learned that we needed to maintain our decades-long commitment to access, even when times are good. Families, especially lower income working families, still need ways to affordably access the museum. We now have more than twenty different access programs, including an expanded EBT program, deeper military discounts, and $20 Access Memberships, and more. Our access programs serve more than a third of our annual visitors (about 120,000). We partnered with a major credit union to evolve a five-year naming gift to launch Hands On into the Museums for All initiative. They enjoy the benefits of naming, while we are able to fund a signature component of our access programming.

What did you learn from this experience/process that is applied to daily operations today and future planning?

This sobering and very challenging experience made us think more about the value of contingency planning, phasing, and multiple budget scenarios, and reinforced our commitment to flexibility. We listen to and work with our visitors and donors to shape the museum experience based on community needs. These relationships generate more support and positive feelings for the institution.

While the COVID-19 crisis could not have been predicted, what lessons learned from the 2008 crisis are helping you preserve your institution while navigating a path to reopening?

In mid-March, I ended what I thought was the final version of this interview by saying, “Right now I’m thinking…what if coronavirus spirals in the US and we are making contingency plans for that scary possibility.”

In fact, we had already begun the early stages of planning for a recession, focusing on our need to expand but thinking about it through a new, more realistic lens. Perhaps we could consider mini-expansions within the existing footprint of the building using existing space in creative new ways. On weekends, classrooms already become mini exhibit galleries. And perhaps we could invest in higher quality portable exhibits to make the most of those spaces. On holidays and school breaks, we already feature programming in the Outdoor Discovery Center to encourage more visitors to go outdoors. Based on early research on COVID-19 that suggests outdoor environments are a safer than indoor ones, we are now thinking a lot about how to further extend outdoor learning experiences. Can we increase our footprint by using some of our entry plaza and adjacent public plaza as programming space? Can we activate low-use areas in new ways? One of our operating models anticipates more small-group and private-play visitation times. Extending operating hours into the evenings would provide us with more hours to work with in developing multiple visit options, including ones that accommodate visitors who feel safer in more personal settings.

In mid-March, as we moved into COVID-19 crisis planning, we drew on previous positive experiences with in-kind partnerships. For example, after construction we had developed an in-kind sponsorship with our HVAC company saving $13K annually in HVAC maintenance. Knowing that in the age of COVID-19, visitors expect not only cleaner buildings and exhibits, but also cleaner air, we recently secured a major in-kind sponsor to clean our duct work, saving the organization $25,000. Other new or expanded partnerships have allowed us to add steam-cleaning bathrooms, high ceiling area dusting, and carpet cleaning. As we considered our facility through the eyes of the post-COVID-19 visitor, we recently secured power washing for all of our outdoor exhibits, buildings, and the parking lot so that everything will be cleaned, re-stained or repainted prior to reopening.

Leading through the recession and now through COVID-19 challenges us in ways we could not have even imagined in February. Growing pains feel especially acute when you are in the middle of them. On really difficult days, I find myself comparing this 2020 pandemic period to 2008, only to conclude it was somehow easier or better then. Yet, I know that my perspective has changed over time and with accumulating experience. In 2008, I was in complete despair managing a high-profile, huge public project under extreme financial constraints. What came out of those dark days were new ways of solving problems and creating innovative operating models that led to long-term benefits for our organization. It is that experience that gives me the most hope as we muddle our way through surviving this pandemic. I find myself asking, what are you learning from this journey that will help you tomorrow?

Patty Belmonte is CEO of Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia, Washington.