New Hand to Hand: Communications 2022

The latest issue of Hand to Hand is all about Communications in 2022! Read each article on the ACM blog, and find the full issue PDF in the Hand to Hand Community on ACM Groupsite.

This issue explores the different approaches children’s museums take to get their messages out and stay connected to their audiences. From creating a communications plan, to curating social media content, to experimenting with new platforms, museums share success stories and new questions about maximizing efforts in uncharted and constantly changing territory. 

Read the issue! 

Communications 2022

In Search of Kindness: A Call to Action
Mike Yankovich and Gretchen Kerr
In January 2022, when the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus closed for ten days to support staff navigating guest anger over mask policies, the story went viral. Museum leaders ask, what role can children’s museums play in fostering kindness?

What Is a Communications Plan and Why Do I Need One?
Maureen Wolsborn
A communications expert shares the value of creating a communications plan to ensure your organization’s mission and message reaches your community, keeping your Goals, Audience, Messages, and Tactics front of mind.

Content Front and Center: Minnesota Children’s Museum Talks about Racism
Bob Ingrassia
Building on their strategic goal to “champion children’s healthy development,” Minnesota Children’s Museum’s Vice President of External Relations shares the importance of messaging that addresses the negative effects of racism and racial inequities on children.

Responding to Public Reviews: Dos and Don’ts
Kathleen Sandoval
In a time where everyone has an opinion and the opportunities to voice them are endless, how do museums respond to public reviews? San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum’s Marketing & Events Manager shares top dos and don’ts.

Macro to Micro: Developing a Cohesive Social Media Strategy
Mary Maher
This Q&A with Jenny Holland, Director of Digital Strategy, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, delves into how building an engaged community on social channels helps drive museum visits.

TikTok Talk
Keith Ostfeld and Henry Yau
Children’s Museum Houston has learned how to optimize TikTok to maintain connections with their audiences on this popular platform, including through their popular DeTok and Science Snacks series.

In Pursuit of an Online Audience: Using Stories to Cultivate a Community
Rebecca Tucker Nall and Molly Noah
Learn how the Mayborn Museum Complex expanded their organic reach on social media by embedding science content in stories about real people.

Social Media Communications Today: It’s the Wild West
Amanda Sobczak
With new social media platforms on the rise, children’s museums are faced with the challenge of content creation, distribution, and expectations for monetization. What does success look like?

Social Media: Successes, Challenges, Surprises, and Questions
Learn insights about social media from staff at Amazement Square, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire, The Children’s Museum at Saratoga, Discovery Center Museum, Greentrike, The Iowa Children’s Museum, KidsQuest Children’s Museum, Mighty Children’s Museum, Mississippi Children’s Museum, The Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum, and Please Touch Museum.

Hand to Hand is the quarterly publication of the Associations of Children’s Museums (ACM). ACM champions children’s museums worldwide. Follow ACM on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram

In Search of Kindness: A Call to Action

This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Mike Yankovich and Gretchen Kerr, Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus

For nearly fifty years, the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus has been a gathering place where people in our community can share moments of wonder and joy. Our staff takes this mission seriously, and strives to help families create memories in a safe and welcoming environment.

The past two years have been trying for everyone, including our staff and the families we serve, and accomplishing our mission has become increasingly difficult. Our community has faced countless challenges, leading to uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. These emotions have spilled out in big, small, and unexpected ways, often affecting those around us.

In January 2022, as the pandemic continued and Omicron hit the scene, the museum continued to follow Denver’s public health guidelines, which included wearing masks in indoor public spaces. Regrettably, some guests who objected to the city-wide policy were inappropriately directing their anger toward our staff. With these incidents increasing in frequency and intensity, the museum made the decision to immediately close our doors for ten days to support our staff and bolster our policies with the hope of preventing this type of behavior in the future.

An email to our members and one social media post regarding the closure was all it took for the news to spread quickly through our community and soon, the country. In addition to the hundreds of comments of love and support that appeared on our post, phone calls and emails poured in from all over, many from children’s museums experiencing similar struggles. Unfortunately, the bad came in with the good—negative comments, indignant emails, and even cancelled memberships—all due to our call for kindness.

Disappointing, to be sure, but there was work to do. We met as a team to share the disheartening situations our staff experienced. The conversation was difficult, but vitally important to lay the foundation for the work ahead. Our staff voiced that they appreciated the time and space to work together to support each other and to develop strategies to make the museum a better place for our internal and external community.

As a part of this process, we reflected on our How We Play guidelines. These long-standing signs are posted throughout the museum and offer a simple reminder to share, be kind, and treat others with respect. We were looking for ways we could further embody this sentiment and encourage positivity and joy through all aspects of the museum.

So when we reopened, in addition to new and improved processes around guest orientation, de-escalation, and accountability, we employed some more playful options to encourage kindness. We installed a giant conversation heart at the entrance of the museum where guests shared simple acts of kindness they planned to engage in. Children and adults alike took part, and the ideas flowed: smiling at a stranger, helping an elderly neighbor, or calling mom… all small actions with potentially big impacts.

Next up for us: High Five Highway. Inspired by a similar activity developed by the Exploratorium in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, High Five Highway will live on our plaza and encourage strangers to interact and connect with one simple action.

Though the mask enforcement days are behind us (for the moment), something else has become abundantly clear: it was never just about masks. We live in a time where a little kindness can go a long way, although it seems many have lost interest in demonstrating this human-centered value. And unfortunately, as we learned from the conversations we had with our friends across the country, this is a shared issue that affects all of us, and acting alone won’t cut it.

As we look ahead, we ask the community of children’s museums for help answering the following questions:

  • • How can we support grown-ups in being positive role models for not just their child, but all children?
  • • What role can children’s museums play in fostering kindness in an increasingly divided and troubled world?
  • • How can the field of children’s museums boldly work together to support positive development in the children of our community?

The task at hand may feel daunting. But we are never stronger than when we are together. We look forward to working with you all to make the future a brighter, and kinder, place.

Mike Yankovich is president and CEO and Gretchen Kerr is COO of the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus.

What Is a Communications Plan and Why Do I Need One?

This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Maureen Wolsborn, Hamilton Place Strategies

A communications plan is an organizational road map to ensure that your mission and message reach your community. While the initial creation of the plan takes time, it will pay dividends down the road as it provides the organization with internally agreed-upon processes and expectations. Outlining clear deliverables and timelines empowers your team to execute your messaging strategy while reducing the need for day-to-day oversight.

Developing a plan can seem daunting if you do not have a communications background. However, creating an effective plan is a simple matter of organizing and writing down what you already know about your organization and how you’re currently communicating about it.

Start by dividing the plan into the four integral parts: Goals, Audience, Messages, and Tactics:

GOALS: Define the why.

Why are we doing any of this in the first place? What is the purpose of updating the website? Why do we need to post about events on social media? This may sound pedantic, but going back to the beginning and defining what you are trying to accomplish is a vital step in the process. Below is an example from one of my plans created for a school district bond program.

Prove the value and impact of the 2018 bond measure through accurate, up-to-date, culturally appropriate, and easily accessible information and communications on bond projects and their long term-term impact on student experience and the greater community.

An example for a children’s museum’s goal could look like this:

  • • Educate our community on enrichment programs available at the museum.

Keep each goal to one or two sentences—brevity and clarity are paramount. While there can be multiple goals, remember that a dense message can be challenging to follow. The purpose of the “goals” section is to help everyone pull in the same direction.

AUDIENCE: Define the who.

Establishing your goals will help you understand who you need to reach to achieve them. If one of your organization’s goals is to expand access and visitorship amongst culturally diverse populations, then identify those groups. It is not about singling out one population, but rather ensuring you are creating communications that are culturally and linguistically appropriate for a specific audience.

Audiences can be as broad as “teachers at our K-12 schools” or “parents of children ages 0-18 in Denver.” If you get stuck on completely defining them all, start with a broad view and go back later to refine the list as your plan develops.

MESSAGES: Define the what.

Message creation can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Start with the obvious sources for inspiration: mission, vision, and strategic plan. Then jot down any commonly used phrases or terms specific to your organization. This will give you an idea of the consistent tone and voice your communications should convey.

Next, write a few key messages to guide the rest of your plan. Key messages don’t need to encompass everything you’re trying to say. They exist to ensure future team members understand how to write in your organization’s voice. Keep those goals and audiences in mind as you write. An example of a key message might be “the children’s museum welcomes children and families looking for fun ways to play and learn together.”

If there are specific audiences, events, or benchmarks you are trying to reach or accomplish with your communications, it’s a good idea to write a few key messages that are targeted to those needs. Think about your supporter base: getting an existing supporter to sign up for a new program offering (e.g., “Sign up now for the museum’s new and improved Summer of STEM!”) is different than trying to recruit brand new supporters (“Instill a love of science in your kids by exploring STEM at the museum!”). Goal-specific messaging should be tailored to each deliverable.

TACTICS: Define the how.

What are you already doing to get your messages out? Is it working? How do you know? It is tempting to jump right into tactics, but make sure you have tools set up to monitor your metrics and performance first (more on this later). Perhaps you’ve seen another museum do something cool—like a great TikTok post or YouTube video—and you want to do one too. It’s great to seek that creative inspiration, but before you take that leap, ask yourself if that new strategy will help meet your goals and reach your audience.

For example, let’s say you have new summer program offerings for kids:

  • • Why do we want people to know about it? Engaging kids and families is part of our mission.
  • • Who needs to know? Teachers, so they can spread the word; parents, so they can sign up their children; and kids, so they’re excited to attend.
  • • What do we want them to know? The details of when/where/how much, as well as what’s being offered.

Tactics include updating your website, posting to social media, and calling the local reporter who gives you column inches every spring to publish summer programming for families. Organize these tactics in a way that makes sense to you and that matches your organizational capacity. The easiest structure to follow focuses on each of your channels. Channels are the communications tools that you own and control: your social media, website, newsletters, etc.

Perhaps you need to update the website a certain number of times with camp registration information in order to reach that previously stated goal. In this case, that tactic would go under “website.” You can then attach any additional details—such as messaging, graphics, timeframe—to this category.

Time and resources are major limiting factors for any plan. Before you build out a lofty communications plan, think about how much time you and your team are able to put into executing it. If one person is able to spend four hours a week on it, be sure your plan reflects that reality. One person won’t have time to shoot, edit, and post six TikTok videos a week while also doing the other necessary functions of their job. Based on what you already know about which channels work best for which audiences in your community, establish work focus priorities. Setting realistic expectations gives your team the opportunity to succeed and the foundation to grow your skills as you become more comfortable in this work.

SOCIAL MEDIA: Navigate the changing landscape.

Every organization today wants compelling and engaging social media content to be a key component of its communications plan. But how do you get there? The most important pillar when building a social media presence is consistency. Working off a schedule of where and when you post and then assessing engagement will allow you to continually tailor your social media strategy.

Consider your audiences. What do you know about their interests in your organization? Where do they get their information? What messaging has been successful in the past? Answering those questions will lead you in the right direction.

The styles, content, and schedules of different social media is a topic too vast to sum up in a couple of paragraphs. However, a key attribute across the board is that social media should be interactive. Engage with your audience through direct messages, posts directed at your organization, and comment threads on whatever platforms you use. If someone tags you in an Instagram post about the fantastic experience they had at your museum, respond with a comment to say thank you. Conversely, maybe someone didn’t have a great time and chose to vent online; a sincere response from the organization may turn that feeling right around, or at least let the venter feel heard.

If you don’t have the time or know-how for any social media posting, turn to the users! Have a social media contest where people submit content for you to publish on your channels. Or consider an “Instagram takeover” on your account, handing the reins over to a social media user you trust who creates great content. For example, hand over the reins of your Instagram account to a media-savvy member of your floor staff for a day. They can post the sweet or funny things that happen while playing with kids in an exhibit. Or run an Instagram LIVE during a program launch.

NEWSPAPERS ARE NOT DEAD: Utilize print media and choose platforms.

Despite the current focus on social media, print ads and promotions are still popular and effective with many audiences. How people like to get their information changes constantly, and there are plenty of people out there who get overwhelmed by the noise on social media.

A community newspaper, for example, could be a great place to run a focused earned media piece. The better you understand your audience(s), the easier it will be to reach them with your communications. The myriad options can be intimidating, so test out different messaging and delivery methods to see what works best. You might be surprised at what you find.

SO, DID IT WORK? Measure success.

This part is hard. Start by determining how you define success for a campaign, what data you need to measure it, and how to get that data. This is where digital platforms provide the most insight. If your organization has the budget for it, use paid ads on various platforms with different messages and examine the performance analytics to determine what succeeds.

As a baseline, be sure your website and newsletter platforms have an analytics tracking component that allows you to go back and run reports on performance for specific time periods, campaigns, and audiences. These simple viewership numbers can provide insight into how your communications are performing and what items within your communication strategy are drawing the most engagement.

Last word

There are no silver bullets for any of this work. A communications plan provides a guiding structure for the organization, but it is a living document. Don’t hesitate to make changes. You’re going to learn along the way, so it helps to be adaptable. When in doubt, get some people in a room and try a good, old-fashioned conversation to start identifying your museum’s Goals, Audience, Messages, and Tactics.

Maureen Wolsborn has nearly a decade of experience in Colorado public policy, citizen engagement, and communications. She managed bond communications for Jeffco (Jefferson County) Public Schools and Denver Public Schools. She recently became a creative director at Hamilton Place Strategies, an analytical public affairs firm.

Content Front and Center: Minnesota Children’s Museum Talks about Racism

This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Bob Ingrassia, Minnesota Children’s Museum

For more than forty years, kids and parents have appreciated Minnesota Children’s Museum as a playful place for fun, smiles, and laughter.

Millions of families have made joyful memories in our exhibits. Children who remember crawling through our mysterious ant tunnel have since grown up to watch their own kids confidently scale our four-story climbing tower and zoom down a giant spiral slide.

So why does our museum talk so much about the serious and challenging topics of racism and racial inequities? Shouldn’t we just “stay in our lane” as a place for family fun?

Here’s what our staff and board believe: Working toward racial justice is core to our mission and vision.

The organization’s strategic plan calls for us to “champion children’s healthy development.” We know there is no way to meaningfully advocate for the wellbeing of kids without acknowledging and addressing racial inequities that harm children in Minnesota—and everywhere.

So, yes, a children’s museum that speaks forcefully about racism—particularly its negative effects on children—and works toward a more just future is absolutely staying in its lane.

A Racial Reckoning in Minnesota

More than two years have passed since a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, touching off protests around the world. During this time, the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area has endured bouts of civil unrest, additional police killings of young Black men, tense trials of police officers, and a divisive election about the future of the Minneapolis Police Department.

The police violence against people of color sparked more urgency to finally take meaningful action to address broader racial inequities in the Twin Cities and throughout Minnesota—in housing, education, healthcare, and other areas.

Even before George Floyd’s murder, Minnesota Children’s Museum had joined other cultural organizations in a commitment to make progress toward becoming a more diverse and welcoming organization for visitors, staff, and volunteers. The museum has since doubled down on its diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, work that museum President Dianne Krizan detailed in a previous issue of Hand to Hand.

Our staff and board members have also asked and started to answer a tough question about the museum’s responsibility outside our walls: What role, if any, should the museum play in the racial reckoning happening in our community?

Thankfully, we knew we would not be starting equity and inclusion work from scratch. During the museum’s forty-year history, we have earned a reputation as a joyful and welcoming place for all families to experience playful learning. The museum’s audience has grown to be at least as diverse as the region we serve, and often more diverse. We have a robust access program in which about 25 percent of our audience each year enjoys the museum through free or reduced-price admission.

Still, we understood there was much more we could be doing, and that remaining silent as the #BlackLivesMatter movement gained momentum in the Twin Cities was not an option. But we also understood that simply stating we supported the idea of combating racial injustice was not enough. The museum decided to map out a course to publicly engage in the work to combat racial injustice and to build a more equitable future.

Why Talk about Racism?

We considered the risks and acknowledged that speaking publicly about racial inequity and social justice might upset segments of our audience. Advocacy on issues as challenging as injustice and systemic racism would be new to the organization.

We also anticipated that we might hear the question: Why is the children’s museum talking about racism?

The answer we developed tied this work to the core principles and objectives in our mission, vision and strategic plan. The future we envision, one in which “all families thrive in a happier, healthier and more innovative community,” cannot happen when racial injustice holds children back.

Our answer leans on facts.

We found reassurance in a timely survey that showed substantial support among our audience for the museum working to combat racism. When a group of adults who visit cultural organizations were asked if Minnesota Children’s Museum should join efforts to fight racial injustice, 51 percent said they “strongly agree” we should and another 29 percent said they “somewhat agree.”

Taking Action

In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder, the museum publicly declared on our website our commitment to supporting the #BlackLivesMatter movement, stating that “Black lives matter. They mattered yesterday. They matter today. They will matter tomorrow.”

In April 2021, just ahead of the anniversary of Floyd’s death, the museum hosted a panel event titled “Talking with Children about Racial Injustice.” More than 1,200 people registered and nearly 600 attended, with hundreds more watching the event recording.

In a post-event survey, many attendees said they appreciated the museum hosting such an important discussion and indicating they wanted more. One attendee stated: “That panel was outstanding: Direct, honest, specific, encouraging! I particularly appreciated the continual references to noting the historical context and legacy of race as well as the intentionality of conversations about race with children.”

The museum also collaborated with the panelists to create a one-sheet for parents and caregivers with tips for talking with children about race.

In November 2021, we hosted a second panel event about how play can help overcome inequalities. Three child development experts detailed the urgent need for action in addressing the negative effects of racism and inequality on children’s health. They made a case that playful learning, in the home and in the classroom, is a proven driver of every child’s growth and development.

We also continue to use our own channels, such as our blog and social media pages, to share resources and information that support this work. We’ve found that our followers and subscribers heavily engage with this content in meaningful ways. For example, in February 2022, the museum shared a blog post about how to celebrate Black History Month with children. The post was one of our most popular ever, getting more than 10,000 pageviews in just a few weeks and driving traffic to our website from all over the world.

Some of the museum’s other equity and access work includes providing free or reduced cost admission to income-qualified families. More than 4,000 families currently have a scholarship membership to the museum. In addition, nearly 12,000 people have visited the museum during the pandemic with steeply discounted day passes available to lower-income families.

Knowing that many families are either not able to visit or are still not comfortable visiting, the museum has provided free play kits to families in need. Using a state grant, the museum has packed and distributed more than 1,000 “tinker kits” featuring a variety of loose parts and materials.

Looking Ahead

Combatting systemic racism is difficult work. The museum has made strides toward becoming a more inclusive organization. We have publicly called out inequalities in Minnesota and taken initial steps to help erase them.

Still, we know that we are still establishing our voice and our path forward. We have not yet fully defined what it means when we say we want “ally” to be a verb, not just a noun—but we feel like we are on the right path.

We also know there will be more challenges ahead as marginalized communities press for equity and work to preserve rights that may come under threat.

Whatever lies ahead, we will remain committed to supporting parents in raising happy, healthy children, publicly advocating for the powerful role of play in growth and learning and furthering the movement for racial equity so all children thrive.

Bob Ingrassia has led the marketing and communications team at Minnesota Children’s Museum since 2014. He is a former journalist who lives with his spouse and two children in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Photos by Bruce Silcox for Minnesota Children’s Museum. 

Responding to Public Reviews: Dos and Don’ts

This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Kathleen Sandoval, San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum

Thanks to cell phones and the internet, we are all connected in ways never before experienced. While the opportunities to engage with your favorite musician, actor, or brand are endless, it also means organizations are open to even more criticism through channels like Yelp, Google My Business, TripAdvisor, and more.

According to a Local Consumer Review Survey conducted by Brightlocal, 98 percent of consumers read online reviews for local businesses. This means your guests are researching you before deciding to step foot in your doors, and those reviews can make or break your museum’s image. The customer experience at your institution impacts your overall rating, so when a negative review appears, it’s important to respond. 89 percent of consumers are “highly” or “fairly” likely to use a business that responds to all of its online reviews. Your response could be one of the easiest ways to save your museum’s reputation.

How do marketing and communications professionals respond to the reviews posted about their institutions? From the good, to the bad, to the really bad, we break down the top dos and don’ts when acknowledging and responding to reviews left on public channels.

Rule #1: DO respond to every review

Whether the review is good or bad, take the time to respond to each and every one. Someone is taking time out of their day to share their experience. A good customer experience means that every customer feels valued and heard.

Rule #2: DO keep it short and sweet

Now is not the time to get into a debate or endlessly thank your reviewer. Responding is simply an acknowledgment of their kind words or feedback. There are plenty of ways to gather more information, if needed, without writing a novel. Try to keep it to two to three sentences for a positive review. We’ll dive more into negative reviews below.

Rule #3: DON’T get defensive

Someone once gave us a 3-star review because they thought our free, donated coffee was terrible. What?! People will always find reasons to be upset. It isn’t personal. Again, keep it short and sweet when you respond. If the matter is concerning or if you’d simply like to understand the reason for a low-star review, see Rule #4.

Rule #4: DO ask for more information and acknowledge feedback

Regardless of whether or not a reviewer’s feedback is legitimate, always acknowledge their concerns. The big complainers often just want to vent and have someone listen. You may need more information to determine what happened, so don’t be afraid to ask them to directly message you or email you at a general email like info@[museumname].org.

Rule #5: DON’T allow everyone to speak on the museum’s behalf

Just as guests have access to these sites, so do your employees and board members. It’s easy to get heated and want to defend your workplace. However, only a designated representative of the museum should respond to reviews or comments about the museum. It’s all too easy for an employee to misstep and create a mountain out of a molehill. A social media policy will keep employees from speaking on the museum’s behalf.

Rule #6: DON’T be afraid to report the review

Whether the reviewer got you mixed up with another museum, or misrepresented or downright lied about their experience, don’t be afraid to report the review. We once had a reviewer complain about our mask policy, but they openly admitted they hadn’t even come inside. Since their review wasn’t based on a legitimate experience at the museum, we reported it, and the review was taken down. Yelp, Google My Business, and many others allow you to report reviews. Assuming your report follows their guidelines, they’ll take it down. If they don’t take it down, refer to Rule #3.

Rule #7: DO have your employees’ backs

Mistakes happen. Once a reviewer said an employee told them we clean only with essential oils. Yikes. Other reviewers have taken interactions out of context, such as when a guest complained we tried to charge their family of four $40 for an hour (in reality, they had the entire day to enjoy the museum, but chose to leave early). Your employees are the backbone of your organization, so don’t throw them under the bus. Privately talk to your staff about the incident and take the steps necessary to resolve the issue before responding. Once you respond, acknowledge the feedback and briefly mention how you are working to resolve the matter.

Feel free to use these review response templates: positive, top; negative, bottom:


Kathleen Sandoval is the marketing and events manager at the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum in Escondido, California.

Macro to Micro: Developing a Cohesive Social Media Strategy

This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.
Q&A with Jenny Holland, Director of Digital Strategy, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Mary Maher | Interviewer

Former reporter turned content marketer Jenny Holland has served as the director of digital strategy for The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis for nearly ten years. In this role she leads strategy for integrated digital marketing campaigns for museum initiatives and exhibits, including the recently expanded and reopened Dinosphere®. Her work involves the development of social media campaigns with onsite and online components to boost social reach and engagement and increase attendance; developing lead email acquisition, engagement, and retention strategies for all museum departments; and spearheading lead generation and online sales strategies for to maximize online revenue.

Prior to her work at the museum, she served as marketing communications specialist at Conner Prairie in Fishers, Indiana, and was a reporter/producer for WTHI-TV in Terre Haute. Jenny holds a degree in journalism/Spanish/telecommunications from Indiana University Bloomington. She is also a board member of Hoodox, Indiana’s first and only streaming service featuring nonfiction, Indiana-focused content that entertains while helping people connect to their community and create positive change.

How does the museum develop a social media strategy?

In the fourth quarter of each year, we work with our leadership team to understand the museum’s overarching priorities for the next year. Our marketing team then conducts a SWOT analysis to discuss the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that we foresee. These can include anything from how COVID uncertainty affects our dynamic pricing strategy to how we conquer the challenge of marketing an exhibit like Dinosphere®, which has more depth and complexity than a single ad or series of ads can include. We also look at applicable visitor survey data, content analytics from the previous year, and current socil media trends. Drawing on all this information, the digital team creates its strategic plan, which includes both organic and paid social media strategies, for the year as well as individual marketing plans for each new exhibit that will open. Social media is big part of our advertising spend for the year. Of our total advertising buy, which includes TV, radio, display ads, social, and search, 12 percent is spent on social media advertising.

Among several popular social media platforms, how do you decide what messages go where?

In 2020, we worked with an outside company to help us create a guiding document for our organic social media strategy. Organic social media involves posting content (text, photos, video, graphics, stories, etc.) for free on social media platforms hoping to engage audiences.

The bones of our plan stay the same each year, but we revisit the goals, strategies, and tactics annually. We adjust as needed based on the changing platform landscape, analytics from previous years, information we’ve gleaned from our constituents, and priorities of the museum.

One section of that strategy document includes channel differentiation. What is the mission, role, and audience of each of our social media channels, and what kind of content works best for each? To determine this, we use what we know about the overall demographics of each social platform coupled with analytics data around content performance from previous years. This tool not only helps us do a gut check when we are creating our campaigns, but also helps us educate other departments on what channel might work best for their particular event or content idea.

To determine our optimal social platforms, we surveyed our audience asking them which platforms they use. We combined these results with historical engagement data from our channels. For example, our data shows that 75 percent of adults surveyed use Facebook and less than 5 percent use TikTok. If we just went off the survey data, we would have overlooked TikTok entirely. However, after investing some time into testing that channel, we saw incredible engagement results and the potential to reach a new audience. TikTok has become a priority channel for the museum over the past year. We take our time when deciding to invest in or add a new channel. We have a small team, so we want to make sure we are not spreading ourselves too thin.

Walk us through your social media strategy for the recent opening of the newly expanded Dinosphere® exhibit?

Since 2004, Dinosphere® has taken visitors back in time to the Cretaceous Period, when the last dinosaurs walked the Earth. The new Dinosphere® digs even deeper into the prehistoric past, presenting two massive new sauropod fossils from the Jurassic Period, amazing aquatic creatures of the Mesozoic Seas, and a Dino Art Lab that pairs science and creativity.

Reopening Dinosphere® included lots of layers of marketing, public relations, digital, and overall communication strategy. The campaign, which lasted more than a year, had several phases. During this time, we closed the original exhibit while the new one was being completed, and continued digging for new fossils at our site in Wyoming. Here are a few of the tactics from each of those phases.

  • • Phase 1: Keep dinosaurs top of mind for our visitors during year-long closure of Dinosphere®.

— Updated all of our communications (web, email, and social media) to make it clear Dinosphere® was closed.
— Created an online Dino Hub, embedded with a 360-degree tour of the old exhibit with hot spots to some evergreen dino content.
— Sent a monthly dino e-newsletter to all of our members.
— Created a Dinos A to Z video series that we shared bi-weekly on our social channels.

  • • Phase 2: Maintain excitement and anticipation of building the new exhibit.

— Posted a weekly Fossil Friday behind-the-scenes moment to show exhibit progress.
— Went to the dig site and covered the dig with live and in-the-moment content across social channels.
— Created a mini-documentary to show the full backstory of the exhibit from dig to preparation to display.

  • • Phase 3: Create buzz to drive ticket and membership sales.

— Began our social advertising campaign, including a two-month membership campaign on Facebook and Instagram followed by a campaign to drive spring break ticket sales on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.
— Hosted an influencer preview party to generate social chatter.
— Conducted a city-wide dino egg hunt.
—Worked with our mayor to declare it Dinosaur Day in Indianapolis.
— Mounted a huge sound and light show downtown in our city center that made it feel like dinosaurs were taking over the city.
— Created a thunderclap moment by having all of our staff, influencers, sponsors, and partners post the same graphic and copy at the same date and time.

Each of these tactics played out differently across each of our digital communication platforms, but layered together to create a cohesive campaign that reached all of our audiences. As the campaign continues, we have moved into sharing visit tips, user-generated content, and deeper information about what you can learn, see, and do in the new experience!

What is the goal of your social media strategy? Is it online engagement, or do you want it to lead to actual involvement with the museum, e.g., in-person visits, memberships, donations, camps/program enrollment?

All of the above, but it depends on the piece of content. We want to build an engaged community on our social channels, provide extraordinary customer service, and ultimately drive people to visit the museum. We do post some content where the goal is pure engagement or amplification; other content is pure promotion (e.g., buy tickets to an event) and some content is both. It’s important to strike a balance.

On the paid social advertising front, the goal of almost all of our content is to drive online ticket, membership, or event sales.

How do you know if your communications are hitting the mark? How do you measure success?

It depends on the post. We measure engagement, amplification, reach, and transactions from our social content. However, we don’t necessarily measure all of those for every single post. While we have had a few posts go truly viral, ultimately this didn’t drive the uptick in ticket sales you would expect based on the online engagement we saw. Other posts have seemed to do poorly engagement-wise, but the click-through and transaction numbers were through the roof. It all depends on what the goal of the post is.

For our paid ads, we also measure total transactions (total number of completed sales), conversion rate (transactions divided by clicks), cost per conversion (campaign spend divided by transactions), revenue (total money earned from sales), and return on ad spend (revenue divided by campaign spend).

Online media is a rapidly changing environment: new apps and platforms emerge and existing ones abruptly change how they work. Audiences can be fickle. They might love your Instagram posts for a while, then that love vanishes.  How do you stay nimble?

This is one of the most frustrating and exciting parts of this job. We review our social media strategy quarterly. It’s a fluid document, so if it needs to change based on content we see performing well or not performing like we thought, then we make that change. We don’t wait a whole year to react to what we are seeing. We also have a pretty flat approval process. If we want to change our content strategy or try a new trend, we don’t have a lot of layers for approving the move. We aren’t afraid to try something and miss.

Bad news and tough topics: How does the museum use its social media platforms to deliver important but not fun news? For example, pandemic-related information over the past two years (and ongoing)—closures/mask/capacity policies?

We try to be honest, transparent, and keep an open line of communication. Our small department is not making decisions in a vacuum. The museum has a large team of people who approach decisions and messaging from a lot of different angles and viewpoints to make sure we are thinking through all of the scenarios. When it came to the pandemic, we saw very quickly that there were some topics that were going to be incredibly polarizing. We did our best to remind people that we are human, and we are looking out for safety of visitors and staff. We also hid or deleted comments that did not follow our community guidelines.

We also tried to couple our information with resources for parents. We created content around tips for helping your child get comfortable wearing a mask, social narratives to prepare families for the changes at the museum, and live Q and A’s with health experts.

How do you handle negative online reviews or social media posts?

We used to reply to every single bad review and comment. In the past year, as we’ve seen commentary get more and more divisive and at times unproductive, we have been much more liberal with shutting down those conversations, banning people, and deleting/hiding comments if they do not follow our community guidelines. We do, however, reply to every legitimate bad review when it is relevant. We find that sometimes you can take what is perceived to be a terrible experience and turn it around just by showing the person that you are listening. We’ve had many examples of turning complainers into promoters by letting them know they were heard.

Does the museum use any printed communication materials anymore?

Yes, we still send very targeted direct mail communications. A few examples include renewal notifications (in combination with email and text reminders), lapsed member postcards, and our member magazine.

Communications 2012 vs. 2022: What has changed? Where do you see it going in the future?

Social media has become more and more dominated by the use of video. I also think content, especially video, has become less polished (not to be misconstrued as sloppy). When we first started our TikTok channel, for example, I had a very hard time with how raw the video was and how the copy we were using wasn’t 100 percent grammatically correct. Same with our first live video! But I think the trend of authentic, unpolished content will continue. I also think social media platforms will start putting emphasis back on more meaningful engagements. I hope this means we will see more genuine conversations and connections with the community.

From the advertising perspective, social media has gone from being fully organic to being a key player in our ad mix receiving 12 percent of our overall ad buy in 2022.

What are some overlooked avenues of communication?

These may not be overlooked by everybody, but these are some areas where we’ve seen success.

  • Influencers: We have a large group of local and regional micro/nano influencers we have built up over the years. When each new exhibit opens, we invite them to tour the exhibit before it opens to the public. We provide dinner and an exhibit-themed gift, and they help us spread the word! For our Dinosphere® event we had more than 400 social posts in one night.
  • Word of mouth/UGC (user-generated content): We use a service to aggregate all of our user photos and streamline the process for asking for permission to use them. We’ve used these photos in e-news, social posts, testimonials, and on the website to show a more authentic museum experience directly through the eyes of our visitors.
  • Employees: For several recent campaigns we put together social media kits for staff to help them feel more comfortable sharing information on their social channels. We have a staff of nearly 400, plus volunteers, board members, and a guild consisting of 100 volunteers who create a Haunted House on our property. Given the right tools, this huge group of promoters, who already love the museum, can help amplify our message. We provide them with approved copy and images custom-sized for each platform.

What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to effectively communicate with their audience(s)?

One of the biggest challenges is trying to step away from the content—what you are trying to communicate—and see it through the eyes of the different people you are trying to reach. We tend to be so close to the topic that we may overlook something obvious that needs to be clarified in the messaging. I also think it’s important to observe or assume various roles throughout your museum so you can better understand the pain points visitors might be having. It’s one thing to hear about a struggle or a miscommunication from the customer service team; it’s another to see it happen with your own eyes.

What is your biggest social media success story? What is your biggest communications hurdle/challenge?


This is from a while ago, but I still consider it one of the best campaigns we have ever done. Back in 2014, when Dinosphere® was turning ten, we decided to throw a birthday party for our Spring Break experience with very limited dollars and resources. We ended up crowdsourcing a ten-day dino birthday party with a new user-generated idea featured each day. Each person who suggested a winning idea got to come to the museum with their family and experience it in person. One little girl suggested we turn our dino dome into a giant dino-sized birthday cake, so we did! Another child suggested we have carnivore and herbivore pizza, so we handed out free pizza in our café. We ultimately drove a ton of engagement and excitement around the birthday party and got to celebrate the creativity of some of our amazing community members. On top of that, we engaged other museums around the globe to wish Dinosphere® a happy birthday on their social media channels. We ended up with some really wide-reaching, creative mentions from our colleagues around the world.

Ongoing challenge:

Too many exciting things to talk about and not enough resources or digital real estate to cover it all!


Digging deeper into our strategy document, the core areas include:
  • • Challenges for the year countered with our strategic response.

Example from 2021:
Challenge: The world has changed because of the COVID pandemic.  There will be varying levels of comfort with returning to cultural institutions.
Strategic response: Ensure open lines of communication on safety across channels.

  • • Goals and objectives for the year

Example from 2021: Recapture general attendance

  • •  Messaging priorities for the year

Example from 2021: The museum provides a safe and FUN experience. Provide resources to prepare for your visit; show the ways we are keeping people safe; share testimonials from visitors.

  • •  Content Pillars (exhibits, events, community, and impact) and the percent share of voice they will be given.
  • •  Cross-channel voice, tone, and lexicon
  • • Channel differentiations (mission, role, audience, and content broken out by channel).
  • • New Initiatives for the year

Examples from 2021: Building our TikTok audience; increasing focus on Pinterest to drive a bigger virtual audience; redefining our influencer strategies.

TikTok Talk

This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Keith Ostfeld and Henry Yau, Children’s Museum Houston

For years, Children’s Museum Houston has been using social media to reach our audience for announcements, special deals, silly puzzles, and especially fun videos and livestreams. Like most children’s museums that use social media, our focus has been on engaging parents and caregivers, who are the primary users of social media, with content they can also share with their kids (at least until the kids get savvy enough to demand the videos themselves). Facebook, YouTube, and, more recently, Instagram have served us very well in reaching our audience. But then things changed…

Why TikTok?

We first became aware of TikTok back when it was still called, which began in 2014 and changed to TikTok in 2018. Back then, the demographics of users skewed heavily into the teens—not our core audience. But we kept an eye on it, figuring that, much like younger parents were choosing Instagram over Facebook, as TikTok’s users aged, it may become a popular social media choice for young parents.

And then…well, you know. During the first quarter of 2020, while we were all trapped in our homes and hungry for entertainment, TikTok had the biggest quarter of any app ever with over 315 million downloads. It currently boasts more than 138 million monthly active users in the U.S., of which 29.5 percent are 20-29 and another 16.4 percent are 30-39—the userbase aged up quickly!

A little sooner than expected, it was time to get onto TikTok. And while it was uncharted territory, the Children’s Museum Houston, driven by our passion for discovery and lifelong learning (and fueled by coffee), loves to delve into new experiences. We quickly discovered that TikTok has some unique quirks that make it very different from other platforms. Our challenge lay in how to produce the videos to optimize the platform.

The TikTok Challenge

First and foremost, TikTok is a mobile-first platform. Many social media platforms started with content shared through computers, so horizonal video formats worked well on computer monitors. Over the years, as how we consume content has shifted towards mobile devices, vertically formatted videos—like the videos on TikTok—have become more popular. The popularity of this format on TikTok has led other platforms, including Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Google, and even Netflix, to add mobile-first options.

In addition, while many of our videos that we shared on Facebook and YouTube could be lengthy, TikTok videos had to be short, snappy, and visually engaging. Most TikTok users decide whether to continue watching a video in the first three seconds, plus there is typically a time limit to the videos. In addition, TikTok users also tend to skip videos that look too professional; a homemade feel is more popular.

With this in mind, we restructured our shooting formats. First, we made sure that we shot clips vertically, often opting to use a mobile phone for the shoot. Second, we started planning and scripting our videos differently, aiming for a quick visual grab and shorter timeframe. Finally, we started using a different style during production, opting for less structure and encouraging more free-form movement of the camera.  The result were videos which both aligned with our programming and how TikTok audiences consume content.

Our TikTok Experiences

We first ventured into creating content for TikTok to tap into a new audience base in the summer of 2021, during our post-pandemic reopening. We had hired two amazing young interns who were already regular consumers of TikTok and familiar with its trends. Since we were launching, we gave our interns the liberty to explore different types of formats to see what would work best to create views while remaining in line with our brand.

Some of their first explorations involved “tiny mic interviews,” where they would interview our staff and visitors with simple questions about current trends like superhero movies. While these interviews were fun to produce, we didn’t get very consistent viewership.

Next, they tried “museum exploration” videos, where they explored different exhibitions, sometimes focusing on a few exhibits, as a way of “touring” visitors through the museum experience. These videos created consistent viewership, but not huge numbers of viewers.

However, the third type of videos they created, which included TikTok viral trends, was more successful. (You can see what’s trending on TikTok under their sounds option. “TikTok Viral” includes a current list of widely used tracks.) They would look for trending styles and challenges that were in alignment with the museum’s brand and riff off those. These by far produced the most views, into the thousands.

DeToks – We search out videos on TikTok showing science experiments, based on scant or incorrect facts, being done at home. We either prove and explain them (e.g., dipping a spoonful of cocoa powder into a bowl of milk will cause a film to form around the cocoa which can be “popped” using a toothpick) or debunk them with an explanation (e.g., proving that toothpaste will NOT dissolve an eggshell).

By the end of that summer, we established that there was both an audience for and interest in what we do on TikTok. With this information in hand, we went back to the education team to begin developing a plan in sync with our other video work to create TikTok-specific content. This effort resulted in two main standouts:

  1. 1. Science Snacks – Very short science experiments and projects in the style of Tasty, the world’s largest food network, and similar videos, with little speaking and far more visuals.
  2. 2. DeToks – We search out videos on TikTok showing science experiments, based on scant or incorrect facts, being done at home. We either prove and explain them (e.g., dipping a spoonful of cocoa powder into a bowl of milk will cause a film to form around the cocoa which can be “popped” using a toothpick) or debunk them with an explanation (e.g., proving that toothpaste will NOT dissolve an eggshell).

With this success, we have started exploring other ways to adapt our existing video work for TikTok, including creating shorter and/or sped-up versions of previously recorded videos and new styles of video content that take advantage of current TikTok trends.

But we aren’t doing any #stupidchallenges.

Keith Ostfeld is director of educational technology and exhibit development and Henry Yau is director of communications at Children’s Museum Houston.

In Pursuit of an Online Audience: Using Stories to Cultivate a Community

This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Rebecca Tucker Nall and Molly Noah, Mayborn Museum Complex

Children’s museums are in a unique position on social media.

Our direct audience is not there.

How do we communicate our museum’s value and create a robust online community? Let’s talk about how children’s museums can successfully advocate for their experiences and build a strong social community with their indirect audience—parents.

At the Mayborn Museum Complex at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, we use storytelling techniques to encourage parents to choose the museum as a resource to supplement learning and fuel a love of science. Our storytelling begins with our brand values—creativity, curiosity, and collaboration—and then considers our audience’s needs.

Who Is Your Potential Audience?

Attracting the attention of potential visitors on social media is a privilege, and museums must earn that to create genuine trust and credibility. But who are they? Everything starts with research. At the Mayborn, we dig into who our audience is and is not. Through our participation in ASTC’s COVES initiative (, we know a fair bit about who walks through our doors—and how our experience resonates with them. For example, we know our audience is composed of mostly college-educated, young families who want high-quality experiences and the opportunity to learn something new. For our digital visitors (anyone who visits our website, social channels, or opens an email), we study user analytics and in-app insights to create user profiles. After exhaustive research, we know who they are and that they want safe, hands-on, and awe-inspiring experiences for their family—oh, and a new experience each time they visit! Now that we know their needs, we can create social media content that we think they want.

So, What’s the “Story”?

Mayborn Museum is the leading center for youth science and education in Central Texas. While some members of our community remain skeptical of science, everyone can relate to our brand values of creativity, curiosity, and collaboration. When visitors walk through our doors, fact-based science is presented with a sense of wonder. We recreate that same sense of wonder and trust on all of our marketing materials, including each of our social channels. We want the audience to see us as the place to be if they want their kids to be creators, inventors, makers, or researchers.

Why Use Storytelling as a Framework?

One of my favorite sayings is, “information comes in casual conversation.” Children’s museums can package their brand values and marketing messages while also meeting their audience’s needs by creating original content around something people are already talking about—other people’s stories.

Black History Month, one of the most important months of the year, offers an incredible opportunity to tell the stories of the contributions of Black Americans to science and museums. While our institution had in-person engagement opportunities focused on Black history throughout the month, our marketing team took the opportunity to feature local, Black scientists and museum professionals who embody our museum’s values like curiosity and collaboration on our social media channels. We brought them to the museum for a tour and an informal photoshoot, building content that would go in our newsletter and on all our social platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Dr. Bessie Kebaara

We met Dr. Bessie Kebaara, a scientist who believes yeast holds the key to understanding human RNA, in 2021 when she went through our Portal to the Public program, an Institute for Learning Innovation collaboration that connects our audiences with current science through conversations with Baylor University scientists. Normally Dr. Kebaara would bring her yeast canisters and research presentation to the museum and catch wandering visitors for a quick talk about RNA’s transformational qualities. But for Black History Month, we invited her to come to the museum for a photoshoot and an informal interview. We wanted to hear about her work and what drove her to become a scientist, in the hope that she could inspire future scientists here in Central Texas. You can read her interview here.

Scientist Dr. Bessie Kebaara believes yeast holds the key to understanding human RNA.

Brandice Nelson

Brandice Nelson is a public historian and the Director of Engagement at National History Day, a nonprofit that engages middle- and high-school students around the world in conducting original research on historical topics of interest. Nelson graduated from the Mayborn’s Museum Studies program in 2016 and now lives between Waco and Austin, Texas. We invited Nelson to “take over” our social media accounts to show a day in her life. She walked our audience through her morning routine, said hello to her hamster, and watched her prepare for a big National History Day Fair coming up soon. Our audience caught a glimpse into life as a public historian. You can view her takeover in our Instagram story highlight “Brandice Nelson” on our Instagram profile.

Public historian Brandice Nelson invited our social media audience to walk through her day as she prepares for the National History Day fair.

Stories Mean Shares, and Shares Mean Social Media Gold

We’re grateful to Dr. Kebaara and Brandice Nelson for sharing a bit about their lives with our audience, and we hope their stories inspired Central Texas parents to bring their children to the museum to explore a career in science or history. We found success through embedding our science content in stories about real people. These features received double the organic reach of our regular posts and triple the shares! Shares are the incredible currency on social: they tell you who is connecting to your content while also signaling to the algorithms that this is high-quality content. The higher quality of the post, the higher it will rank in the feeds. Now we have more eyeballs on our museum—and our mission! While social media algorithms change, one thing does not, and that is the value of time. Each app wants the audience’s eyeball for as long as possible and they will reward creators who can keep an audience for a long session.


One of my favorite marketers, Allie Wassum, global director, social & integrated media at Jordan (Nike) said, “In paid social, you make a brand promise. In organic, you deliver on it.” If you work in social, then you know that organic reach is disappearing on Facebook and Instagram. Hashtags are questionable in efficacy, and the algorithms change all the time. It is challenging work to stay in front of your audience. We keep a targeted, paid ad on our social channels to make sure we stay in front of the right audience. Our paid ads are visual reminders of the value of a Mayborn experience and always include a powerful call to action. In our ad below, we show two children embracing in front of our T. rex, Stan, with their t-shirts saying, “I love the Mayborn.”

We attracted more than 3,000 new followers during our paid campaigns in November and December 2021. Once you follow us, we make a promise that the stories we are telling are worth your time—brand marketing married with awareness. Our social channels are a place you can spend a lot of time. This is a good thing, because social media algorithms prioritize your content based on how much time people spend looking at it.

Invest in Original Ideas

Parents do not follow museums on social media so they can see our calendars of events or exhibit upgrades. They follow us to be entertained, educated, and learn how to spend quality time with their family. Developing original, creative storytelling may seem time-consuming, but investing time and social real estate in original content is where you deliver on the promise you made in your paid advertising. It’s a powerful one-two combination. We know that people are hungry to build a real community online. Through powerful storytelling, children’s museums can be part of that online community while successfully advocating for their experiences.

Rebecca Tucker Nall, currently assistant director of exhibits, communication, and visitor services at the Mayborn Museum Complex in Waco, Texas, has served in various roles at the Mayborn since 2007, overseeing the museum’s marketing and front-of-house staff for the last five years.

Molly Noah is the marketing coordinator at the Mayborn Museum Complex. With a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and master’s degree in museum science, she has been working in social media within the museum field for the past four years.

Social Media Communications Today: It’s the Wild West

This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Amanda Sobczak, Betty Brinn Children’s Museum

In the early spring of 2020, it’s likely that we all shared a similar feeling. Unlike many other businesses and institutions, most children’s museums could not accommodate the developing and rapidly evolving recommendations for combating COVID-19. Children don’t social distance and they want to touch everything. Plus, mask wearing was a very new concept in the United States. I vividly remember Betty Brinn Children’s Museum‘s CEO, Brian King, solemnly saying, “This isn’t going to be just a few weeks.” And he was right.

First Responses

By April 2020, the majority of the U.S., and even the world, was in shutdown. After the initial shock, children’s museums began to regroup and reimagine communications without a facility open to the public. With only limited means of connecting with our audiences, many of us were forced to develop a communications plan that made sense in a suddenly new environment that didn’t. What information would be helpful? What would keep us relevant? While these questions are always at the forefront of marketing and communications, many of us were not prepared for a lengthy pandemic, or the changes it brought to communications in general.

Initial, post-shutdown online content from our peers included simple activity videos, messages of encouragement, and reminders that our industry needed help to survive. If, like me, you spent a good amount of time on social media, you were able to see which museums were able to adapt quickly. Soon, online content became more sophisticated. Videos were polished and well-branded, activity and programming prompts became more elaborate, and donation appeals popped up left and right. Suddenly, with no intentions of ill-will, online messaging became extraordinarily competitive. It was hard not to be envious of larger children’s museums with specialty functions like theater departments. At the same time, it was hard not to feel distraught the first time I saw a social media post about a children’s museum announcing they were closing their doors for good (although, amazingly, very few did). The day-to-day anxiety kept many of us going.


Present day, the world is itching to return to a state of normalcy. At Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, we took the steps to reopen, with evolving best practices for health and safety guidelines, including masking. I cannot begin to describe the mixed emotions behind photographing children’s smiles after two years. What started as a crash course in crisis communications ended with a more gradual transition back to what feels familiar, although colored by new trial-by-fire learning. I doubt any of us will be able to shake the lingering thought of future pandemic experience. That worry might stay with us for the rest of our careers.

So here we are. Open and growing. Undoubtedly, many institutions are still rebuilding their teams. Shout-out to the one-or-two-person departments. Shout-out to all the marketing professionals who orchestrated triumphant communications plans to reopen with as much umph as they could manage. As the excitement of an industry rebirth settles, we are all faced with the challenge of our new plans.

New World Communications

As we all know, no matter what the environment, there are some marketing and communications principles that do not deviate much. We monitor reach, growth, and KPIs, but marketing strategies have always changed, and they always will. We try to keep up, but also use our experience to anticipate where we think we are headed. Who else has recently had the discussion about the efficacy of printed marketing materials? Does location-based advertising through cell phone data make anyone else a little uncomfortable? Audience acquisition and marketing resources will continue to develop and become more refined. In tandem, people will continue to rely more and more on their smartphones and computers. And, like it or not, marketing departments, in turn, will continue to track and plan for that.

In the expansive world of social media, video content continues to serve as the most popular means of engagement. Platforms like Instagram and TikTok have made creative video construction achievable for anyone with a smartphone or tablet. Balancing our need for advertising with general entertainment among multiple platforms means curating a substantial amount of content. A recent marketing recommendation suggested 30 percent of social media posts should be focused on event or other promotional advertising and the rest of it—70 percent—should be about everything else. Audiences will expect a children’s museum to post information about membership and a link to a purchase page. For interested families, this is a quick and easy way to access pertinent transaction details. But connections to audiences can also be made with no call to action at all. Videos of our museum mascot or an April Fool’s Day post about installing a waterslide in our climber exhibit have been very popular. When more serious topics have presented themselves, such as conversations around social justice in summer 2020, it was imperative to reiterate our support for equality. In addition to being the voice of the museum, social media posts offer opportunities to show its soul.

When The Weeknd performed at the 2021 Super Bowl, some children’s museum social pages were quick to equate his chaotic visuals with how it looks when a child plays in the museum. One caption read, “When the museum closes in 15 minutes and your kid needs to see everything one more time.” It was clever, and if you were one of the first to share the post, you may have reaped the benefits from your audience. Applause and appreciation to the originator. It was relevant, relatable, and quickly created—three concepts that lead to social media success, in my opinion.

There is certainly no lack of ideas for content, but marketing professionals sometimes wonder if oversaturating their online platforms really aligns with and advances the organization’s mission. In inevitable bouts of frustration, I find myself questioning if it is really worth interrupting a guest’s experience to add one more post to a social story. I doubt the three-year-old will do the little dance again if I ask. They don’t really realize what they did to begin with. How often are we committing to being present to capture those click-worthy moments that pass so quickly? When to jump in? It’s difficult to make hard and fast rules about when to approach visitors for photos. I make sure to approach when it just feels right, such as if a parent is taking a photo, or if someone makes eye contact with me or acknowledges me.

Most nonprofit organizations face the same budget constraints, and we all know click-through rates don’t necessarily equate to a profit. Just because a user follows your page, it does not mean that they will support your content. Some posts, no matter how strong you felt in development, just won’t yield the results we hope for. Facebook and Instagram have created exceptionally unpredictable roadblocks for the success of organic content. I have a hunch (supported by numerous online media articles) that pauses in social media activity can be beneficial in fighting algorithms meant to suppress impressions. But the pattern is loose. I have seen spikes in numbers a few times after a pause. But the parameters have been very specific: the post has to yield impressions through organic interaction before a pause yields the attention you’re hoping for.

With online resources and new platforms on the rise, children’s museums are faced with the challenge of content creation, distribution, and hopes for monetization. What does social media success look like? Of course, it all depends on the goals of each post, but if we all understood the alchemy behind getting a lot of likes, shares, and comments, we would all be using the same template. If we could go viral every day, the concept wouldn’t be as sought-after. It really is the Wild West: new territory where children’s museums continue to build their social media skills and understanding, hoping that their follower counts build along with it.

When The Weeknd performed at the 2021 Super Bowl, some children’s museum social pages were quick to equate his chaotic visuals with how it looks when a child plays in the museum. One caption read, “When the museum closes in 15 minutes and your kid needs to see everything one more time.” It was clever, and if you were one of the first to share the post, you may have reaped the benefits from your audience.

Amanda Sobczak serves as the director of marketing and communications for the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Social Media: Successes, Challenges, Surprises, and Questions

This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

We posed four basic questions around the use of social media among children’s museums around the U.S.  Responses from the museums listed below left reflect the new and ever-changing territory navigated daily by staff charged with communicating in an increasingly and pandemic-accelerated digital world.


Amazement Square (Lynchburg, Virginia)
Morgan Kreutz, Vice President

Brooklyn Children’s Museum (New York)
Winston Williams, Manager of Communications

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose (California)
Joey Sanchez, Director of Marketing & Communications

The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire (Dover)
Neva Cole, Communications Director

The Children’s Museum at Saratoga (New York)
Ben LaPoint, Digital Media Coordinator

Discovery Center Museum (Rockford, Illinois)
Ann Marie Walker, Director of Marketing

Greentrike (Tacoma, Washington)
Rolfe Bautista, Communications Manager, and Rebecca Schrack, Communications Coordinator

The Iowa Children’s Museum (Coralville)
Amanda Thys, Director of Marketing & Communications

KidsQuest Children’s Museum (Bellevue, Washington)
Melissa Berger, Digital Marketing Manager

Mighty Children’s Museum (Chillicothe, Ohio)
Kelcie Pierce, Executive Director

Mississippi Children’s Museum (Jackson)
Clara Williams, Digital Media & Website Coordinator

The Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum (Illinois)
Jada Culberson, Community Engagement & Marketing Manager

Please Touch Museum (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Amanda Mahnke, Director of Marketing & Communications



Amazement Square
Over the last two years we have exponentially increased our social media presence and audience and have “found our groove” with content that resonates the most with varied audiences.

Brooklyn Children’s Museum
In winter 2021-2022 we opened our rooftop ArtRink: a synthetic-ice skating rink meets winter wonderland meets visual arts exhibition. A little out of left field from our typically offerings, this complex concept also faced a well-established competitor with both a polished message and faithful audience.

First, we designed it to be as visually appealing as possible, with strategic branding placement throughout the experience to increase word-of-mouth when shared.

Opening into the headwinds of Omicron, we also invested in collateral advertising and doubled down on targeted advertising on social. Rather than launch it as the big holiday experience we originally envisioned, we positioned ArtRink as a safe, smaller-scale opportunity for families to play outside and where children could learn to skate. To emphasize the “wow” factor of the physical space, we hired an agency to produce a couple of high-impact videos including some drone footage of the rink with the NYC skyline in the background.

It was a huge hit. Thousands of families from Brooklyn and beyond came to the museum just to experience it during its three-month run; plans for a bigger, better 2.0 version are slated for the end of this year.

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose
Our year-end performance on social, and in particular, Instagram. Two giveaways that included museum tickets and a family membership generated significant excitement, engagement, and follower growth. It was so successful that we plan to integrate giveaways into our quarterly strategy. We’ve also seen a lot of success with photo carousels and user-generated content on our social media pages.

The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire
With a robust YouTube page and educators willing to make videos, since March 2020, we have created 155+ educational videos that have been viewed across all our platforms (Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram) a total of over 225k times (as of January 2022)! This growing library of videos makes excellent social media content throughout the year.

The Children’s Museum at Saratoga
Spending more time developing and making consistent posts as well as making efforts to increase engagement, our social media analytics have shown positive growth.

Discovery Center Museum
For Discovery Center Museum’s 40th anniversary in 2021, we had anticipated a huge celebratory public event, a private event for donors, an event for members, as well as other happenings. Then COVID hit. With Illinois’s COVID restrictions and locally high case numbers, for months our capacity was limited to 50 guests. Large events were out of the question, but we still wanted to share this milestone and feel the gratitude we had for our members, guests, and supporters over the years. Through a social media campaign, we solicited photos, favorite memories, and testimonials from the public with fantastic results. Through social media and our website, we shared user-generated content and created an anniversary video. Connecting with current members and volunteers as well as many from decades past, we now have a wonderful collection of digital images and testimonials to use in the future as well!

Over the last six months, we have integrated a variety of scheduled updates. The regularity and transparency of these communications have built expectations among our audiences for what kind of information and resources they can expect us to provide.

The Iowa Children’s Museum
Our education and exhibits team created a puppet version of our mascot, Pete the Turtle, which provided new social content and opportunities to collaborate with community partners. In the last six months, ads, giveaways, and special discounts for memberships have been crucial to rebuilding our membership base post-pandemic.

KidsQuest Children’s Museum
Reaching out to patrons to ask them to submit names for our two exhibit animals, a sheep, now called Lady Baba, and a cow named Mooriah. Fun and playful, comments and likes were up more than 50 percent.

Mighty Children’s Museum
Capturing 10k followers in roughly fifteen months through our story, which began on Facebook and then expanded into other platforms (Instagram and TikTok).

Mississippi Children’s Museum
Our announcement that the museum had won  the 2021 National Medal for Museum and Library Service organically reached over 2 MILLION people on Facebook!

The Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum
Experimenting with contests, videos, staff stories, and sharing mission-related posts from other sources, the staff stories and mission-related posts seem to be doing best.

Please Touch Museum
The name recognition alone of our next traveling exhibit, The Wizard of Oz Educational Exhibit, guaranteed excitement. But we were still surprised when our Facebook announcement post reached 23,475 people, with 131 likes, 62 comments, and 53 shares! Our highest reaching post in the past two years.


Amazement Square
Getting our constituency to commit to attending events. While we have an abundance of interest and “virtual confirmations,” the translation to physical attendance has been difficult.

Brooklyn Children’s Museum
Communication of multiple goings-on across many channels on a tight budget with a team of limited bandwidth. It’s a constant balancing act to maintain a consistent message and presence.

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose
Having enough capacity to create new content for the website/blog, which can then be repurposed and promoted on social. With programs moving from all virtual, to hybrid, to all in-person, the pandemic also provided a whole new set of challenges in representing content visually. Masked vs. unmasked photography of our activities made a big difference in the way our audience perceived us. Gauging their comfort level to return was difficult, and we took—and continue to take—a lot of criticism from the anti-mask side.

The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire
Switching to an online registration/pre-payment system, which we love, but communicating the ins and outs of that system is still prone to misunderstanding. From finding the right ways to spell out reservation steps to ensuring that the process doesn’t actually prevent people from visiting is a big concern. We try to mitigate any difficulty by making sure guests can reserve their spots quickly and easily over the phone. We also offer a $0 option to simply reserve a date and time online and then pay at the door upon arrival making the museum more accessible to people using EBT cards or free passes.

The Children’s Museum at Saratoga
Money. Social media basically costs time and is accessible to everyone, but content can easily get lost in the ocean of posts, especially ones with broad and popular appeal. Utilizing other forms of communication, such as radio ads that better target our core demographics would be great, but many of them are out of our price range. We have explored the idea of geofencing, but again, the cost of initiating and running both options long enough to gauge response is an investment outside a budget focused on the more immediate needs of our audience, donors, and sponsors.

Children’s Museum at Saratoga

Discovery Center Museum
Internal: Training new staff and keeping them up to date as our policies change. Several key staff positions vacated during COVID have not been filled. It has been challenging for our small staff, often taking on new duties, to get the communication they need to be effective and feel well connected to the organization.

External: With a reduced budget, maximizing communications to help rebuild our membership base, communicate changing mask, capacity, and reservation policies, and marketing classes and events.

Reaching new audiences in an increasingly crowded digital communications space. We have revitalized existing communications methods and launched new systems, but new audience growth is happening at a slower pace than pre-pandemic levels.

The Iowa Children’s Museum
Sharing our nonprofit mission and looking for more ways to communicate all the ways we serve our community. Many local residents see the museum as more of an “indoor playground in the mall” and are unaware that we provide accessible, educational play opportunities in our museum and outside our walls.

KidsQuest Children’s Museum
KidsQuest is much more than just a physical space so it’s tough to keep our followers up to date on all we have going on—from in-museum programs, to outreach, to our work in the community and with community partners—without confusing or overwhelming them with messages.

Mighty Children’s Museum
Attracting new visitors! We hear the phrase “I didn’t even know this place was here” far too often. In a small town, this comment makes us wonder how we can attract (and keep) our online visitors, but we would like everyone who is liking or following our pages to step foot inside our doors!

Mississippi Children’s Museum
With so much happening at the museum, it can be difficult to find the line between keeping our followers informed and overwhelming them with too much content.

Mississippi Children’s Museum’s announcement that the museum had won the 2021 National Medal for Museum and Library Service organically reached over 2 MILLION people on Facebook.

The Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum
Staff time. We are only seven years old and lots of people in our community don’t know we are here, or even what a children’s museum is!

Please Touch Museum
Keeping up with changing social media algorithms. Right now, Instagram Reels are important for engagement, but will they be in six months? Reels require significantly more work to create than photo-driven posts, which formed the majority of our previous posting plan.

Getting engagement on our posts, particularly when we ask viewers to share something in the comments. We have a significant follower count on our platforms, but they are not active commenters, which hurts our organic reach.


Amazement Square
We monitor our social media posts and catch problems before they go too far, but it is so easy for messages to be taken out of context and publicly disseminated to hundreds at the click of a button.

Brooklyn Children’s Museum
You have to give people what they want—and quickly—or they move on. At the beginning of COVID we experimented with digital-only programming, including short videos for YouTube and public broadcast television. As wonderful as these experiments were, it showed us that our biggest fans aren’t looking for that, at least not from us. They want one-of-a-kind programs and performances they can experience in-person to form lasting memories and be exposed to entirely new ideas and ways of life. Reopening to visitors and resuming regular hours and live cultural festivals reminded us how essential it is to align all of our content—in-person and online—with our audience’s desires. Don’t fight uphill battles—focus on giving people what they want.

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose
We are more resilient than we thought we could be with reduced staff. Different kinds of content can work well on organic versus paid. For example, text graphics don’t typically do well on our organic social, but event text graphics do very well on paid social.

The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire
Spending more time crafting content doesn’t always translate to more views. Don’t be afraid to be silly and human. Not in a million years would I have predicted having to defend a museum health and safety policy like mask wearing. We learned when to respond to comments, when to let extreme opinions sit without response among more balanced opinions from other followers, and when to turn off comments if things get out of hand!

The Children’s Museum at Saratoga
How much tracking of an individual’s habits and locations takes place. Useful from a marketing standpoint, but it really opened my eyes to just how much information about you is out there.

Discovery Center Museum
How TikTok has grown and been utilized by museums.

Although social media has been a primary vehicle for organizations to self-promote and share information for the last decade, the ways in which different age groups engage with it remains incredibly varied. For some, following organizations to stay in the know is second nature, while others need to be directed to our social media accounts by other means, such as televised promotions and word of mouth.

The Iowa Children’s Museum
The quick shift to video content! We have a lot of work to do in order to keep up with this new emphasis on TikTok/Reels videos.

KidsQuest Children’s Museum
Our followers are invested in the community and engage particularly well with posts about Black Lives Matter and BIPOC-focused stories about individuals or organizations.

Mighty Children’s Museum
How accessible we can be. We can post changes to programming and daily experiences virtually; we can even convert programs to solely online offerings through Facebook live or posted videos if we need to. The pandemic accelerated our skills in using online platforms to deliver both messages and content.

Mississippi Children’s Museum
How much things change in such a short amount of time! Staying up-to-date on social media trends is a challenge in this digital age.

The Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum
The posts that you think would do really well aren’t always the ones that do. Sharing pictures from programs doesn’t do well. Sharing from other sources does (but not reliably). We shared a Cuddlebug post that did really well.


Amazement Square
How can we secure nonprofit donor status for our Facebook page so that we can build a donation page? We have provided the necessary information but we keep getting rejected and can’t reach anyone to figure out why.

Brooklyn Children’s Museum
What’s next (besides TikTok)? How to succeed in a digital world that is becoming more privacy-minded, where users are allowed to opt-out of analytics?

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose
Any tips on the fastest and most efficient ways to create blogs and other longer-form content? So worth it, but so time-consuming.

The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire
Is it really worth the money to advertise consistently on Facebook and Instagram? Should it be worked into your annual budget or can you get away with “here and there” event-related boosting?

The Children’s Museum at Saratoga
What is the best way to monitor how social media posts impact real world results? How can I find out how many people came to an event because of our social media posts?

Discovery Center Museum
For small marketing departments with limited staff and resources, which social media platform(s) should we focus our attention on?

With social media platforms maturing from purely social networks into ones geared towards monetization, what are your predictions and recommendations for platforms yielding the most organic audience growth, brand content growth, and audience engagement with museums?

The Iowa Children’s Museum
Given the ongoing shifts in social media platform usage, especially for younger generations, what are the most effective ways to reach today’s parents of young children?

KidsQuest Children’s Museum
How to continue to grow our followers and up our engagement with them in an authentic way.

Mighty Children’s Museum
How to reach more followers and keep our news on the top of social media pages. The current algorithms make it incredibly difficult to continue to see up-to-date info.

Mississippi Children’s Museum
Which social media platform do you think is the best to invest in as a children’s museum?

The Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum
How does social media marketing translate to getting people in the door? How do you know/track this?

Please Touch Museum
With so many social media platforms and limited staff bandwidth, is it better to go wide—maintaining a presence on many platforms with fewer posts—or to go deep—creating a lot of good content for fewer platforms? What platforms are on the horizon to reach young parents that we aren’t thinking about yet?

New Hand to Hand: Children’s Museums and Climate Change

The latest issue of Hand to Hand, “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” is now available! Read each article here on the ACM blog, and find the full issue PDF in the Hand to Hand Community on ACM Groupsite.

This issue delves into how children’s museums are exploring climate-related issues experienced by the communities they serve. Pieces share ideas and strategies around how our institutions can help children and caregivers learn the facts in age-appropriate ways while developing the skills needed to adapt to a changing world.

Read the issue! 

Children’s Museums and Climate Change

Talk, Act, Hope: Pushing Together to Save Us from the Effects of Climate Change
A Conversation with Katharine Hayhoe, PhD, along with Jonathan Patz, MD
In this interview led by Brenda Baker, Madison Children’s Museum, leading climate experts discuss the challenges that prevent climate action, and how using your voice and focusing on health and wellbeing can help mitigate these challenges.

Building a Climate of Hope
Lisa Thompson
The Natural History Museum of Utah utilized research, expert advice, evaluation, and exhibit prototyping to create their forthcoming exhibit, A Climate of Hope, which will empower visitors to take meaningful climate action in their communities.

Science from the Past and for the Future: Learning from Indigenous Knowledge for Climate Change Adaptation
Lauren Butcher and Rachel Zollinger
Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum is developing at-home STEM activity cards that highlight local Indigenous peoples’ Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), showcasing how traditional practices effectively utilize science and engineering principles.

Seeing the Future and Taking Steps to Get There
Neil Gordon
After first articulating its commitment to environmental sustainability in 2007, Discovery Museum has worked to “walk the talk,” with a framework of sustainability commitments, and turn its vision into reality, using data to develop concrete goals and actions.

How to Engage a Community in Fire Season Education
Chris White
The Discovery in Reno, Nevada, is utilizing its Spark!Lab Smithsonian gallery to teach families about fire season while engaging them through play, with support from community leaders and resources.

Learning from Nature, Not Only about It
A Conversation with Billy Spitzer and Al DeSena, interviewer
In this conversation, former National Science Foundation program officer Al Desena interviews Billy Spitzer, executive director of the Hitchcock Center of the Environment in Amherst, Massachusetts, about how children’s museums can engage with the domain of climate change. A recording of this live interview is also available.

Building Sustainability, Inside and Out
Lance Cutrer
With a commitment to sustainability solidified in its 2020-2025 strategic plan, the Museum of Discovery and Science has hired an environmental sustainability manager, created educational programming focused on sustainability and resilience, and more.

When to Begin? Early Memories Build the Foundation for Environmental Learning
Charlie Trautmann, PhD
By understanding the basic elements of how human memory works, museum professionals can design for the types of memories they want children and families to have when developing experiences related to climate science topics.

For Our Children, the Planet, and Our Budgets: Museums Learn to Manage Energy
Stephanie Shapiro and Sarah Sutton
The co-founders of Environment & Culture Partners share how Culture Over Carbon, a new research project to improve the museum’s field understanding of energy use, will help museums plan for the future.

Climate Action Heroes in the Museum, Online, and Soon at Dulles Airport
Langley Lease and Paige Childs
With input from educators and experts, National Children’s Museum’s Climate Action Heroes framework empowers young activists to defeat climate “villains” while exploring the science behind climate change.

Rebounding through Making and Tinkering
Rachel Daigre, Cate Heroman, and Alexandra Pearson
As a regional hub for MakerEd’s Making Spaces program, Knock Knock Children’s Museum uses making and tinkering experiences to support the emotional needs of children during traumatic events and help deepen their knowledge and understanding of weather-related events.

Hand to Hand is the quarterly publication of the Associations of Children’s Museums (ACM). ACM champions children’s museums worldwide. Follow ACM on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram

Talk, Act, Hope: Pushing Together to Save Us from the Effects of Climate Change

This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
A Conversation with Katharine Hayhoe, PhD, along with Jonathan Patz, MD
Led by Brenda Baker, Madison Children’s Museum

Noted atmospheric scientist, writer, teacher, communicator, and researcher Katharine Hayhoe studies climate change.  She is the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy and a Horn Distinguished Professor and the Political Science Endowed Chair in Public Policy and Public Law in the Department of Political Science at Texas Tech University.

As an undergraduate, Katharine studied physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto and later earned both master’s and PhD degrees in atmospheric science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In 1997, she founded ATMOS Research to bridge the gap between scientists and stakeholders and provide relevant, state-of-the-art information on how climate change will affect our lives to a broad range of nonprofit, industry, and government clients.

She frequently gives public talks and interviews on climate science, impacts, communication, and faith. Her TED Talk has close to 4 million views. Her book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, was released in September 2021. With her local PBS station, KTTZ, she writes and produces a PBS Digital Studios short series, “Global Weirding: Climate, Politics and Religion.”

Katharine’s list of publications, affiliations, appearances, and honors is lengthy.  Why does she do it all? “When just one person tells me sincerely that they had never cared about climate change before, or even thought it was real: but now, because of something they heard me say, they’ve changed their mind.  That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

Jonathan Patz, MD, MPH, is director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the Tony McMichael Professor and the John P. Holton Chair of Health and the Environment with appointments in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Department of Population Health Sciences. For fifteen years, Jonathan served as a lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the organization that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

Patz is committed to connecting colleagues around the world to improve health for all. He is continually striving to integrate his research into teaching for students and communicating to policymakers and the public.

He has written more than 200 scientific papers, a textbook addressing the health effects of global environmental change, and co-edited both the five-volume Encyclopedia of Environmental Health (2011), and, most recently, Climate Change and Public Health (2015, Oxford University Press).

Jonathan has served on scientific committees of the National Academy of Sciences and was the Founding President of the International Association for Ecology and Health.  He is double board-certified, earning medical degrees in both Occupational/Environmental Medicine and Family Medicine from Case Western Reserve University (1987) and his Master of Public Health degree (1992) from Johns Hopkins University.

Brenda Baker is an artist and and vice president of exhibits, facilities and strategic initiatives at Madison Children’s Museum, where she has worked for more than thirty years.

BRENDA: Katharine and Jonathan, thank you very much for joining us. I’ve known Jonathan for a couple of decades and have been following your work, Katharine, for as long as I can remember.  You’ve both been inspirations to me. Katharine, your new book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, is all about hope and healing. What are the main challenges that keep people from acting on climate change? What makes them feel overwhelmed or less than hopeful in the first place?

KATHARINE: When it seems like people aren’t worried about climate change or aren’t doing anything about it, we often assume they lack information, so we just dump more scary scientific facts on them. But that just makes the problem worse. Because the vast majority of us are already worried: 70 percent of all people in the US are worried; 83 percent of moms are worried; and 84 percent of young people are worried. So, why are we not acting? Because we don’t know what to do. Fifty percent of us feel helpless, hopeless, and don’t know where to start. What we lack is something that social scientists call “efficacy”—a belief that what we do will make a difference. We have this global crisis that could spell the end of civilization as we know it, and most of us think we can’t make a difference. But it’s not about saving the planet—the planet will be orbiting the sun long after we’re gone—it’s about saving us. That’s why I called my book Saving Us.

We’re told we need to do things like change your lightbulbs and eat less meat—don’t get me wrong, those are good things to do—but we know they are not sufficient to fix a global crisis. Jonathan knows this; that’s why, for so long, he’s spoken at venues from Davos to TED about why climate change matters and what we can do to fix it.

Using our voice to talk about what we can do at our schools, where we work, in our buildings, or in whatever organization or church we might be part of, to advocate for climate action, is the single most powerful thing we can do. My book is full of stories of ordinary people who have made a profound difference by talking from the heart about why climate change matters and what we could do about it. Today, that’s exactly what the young people of the world are doing. If they can use their voice, why can’t we? As one of my students said, “You know, the biggest thing I’ve learned in this class is that the most important thing we can do to help fix climate change is to use our voice—and it’s free!” Installing solar panels costs a lot of money. But every single one of us has a voice and it’s free.

BRENDA: Jonathan, what scares you the most about what you see in the data?

JONATHAN: The fact that there are multiple exposure pathways through which climate change affects human health really scares me. It is not just one toxic agent or a few infectious agents to avoid. There are multiple insults from many different factors that affect our health. And it’s no longer in the future. It is already happening, faster than we expected; the acceleration of change is alarming.

I am also scared about the disregard for science that we have seen during the pandemic. The science is clear on climate change and its current and future impacts. There is no question about what is happening and what we need to do as a society. Given the current misrepresentation of facts and the conspiracy theories that abound, even though we have the best scientific information, we still have difficulty coming together and changing behaviors. In the face of overwhelming evidence, there is an alarming lack of response. This is where we need to bring in social science and other experts to help.

BRENDA: Do either of you have any stories about someone who was unconvinced that climate change mattered? What did it take to change their mind?

KATHARINE: There’s a simple formula for engaging with people on climate change: begin with something they already care about. Don’t begin with what you care about and try to convince them to care about it, too. Begin with something they care about, and then connect the dots to how climate change affects it, bringing in positive, constructive solutions that they can get on board with. Although not a Rotarian myself, a number of years ago I was asked to speak at our local Rotary Club. I wondered where to begin. What did we have in common? Well, we all live in West Texas, so I’m going to start by talking about what we can see happening right here: our heat waves are getting stronger, and our summers are getting longer, and how that affects our home energy bills and how it affects our local farming community.

When I walked into the hotel ballroom where they were meeting, I saw this giant screen showing the Four-Way Test, which Rotarians use to evaluate all of the decisions that they make. 1) “Is it the truth?” Is climate change the truth? Absolutely. 2) “Is it fair?” Absolutely not. It disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable people, primarily through their health. 3) “Would it build goodwill and better friendships?” Yes, fixing climate change definitely does that. Finally, 4) “Would it be beneficial to all?” Yes, climate solutions help us all.

So, while everyone else was eating their lunch, I sat in the corner of the ballroom and rearranged my whole talk around the Four-Way Test. As I began my presentation, I could see people who were not paying attention, or had their arms folded like, “Who invited the climate scientist here? This isn’t what we normally have.” But as I started to go through the Four-Way Test, I saw people’s arms unfolding, people leaning forward, and heads starting to nod. They saw their values reflected in what I was saying. I was showing them how they were the perfect people to care about climate change because of who they already are—Rotarians. Caring about and acting on climate change would allow them to have an even more genuine expression of the Rotarian values they already held. In the book, I talk about a local banker, who I had met a few times and who had always been cordial but distant. He came up to me afterwards with the most bemused look on his face and said, “You know, I never thought too much of this whole climate change thing,” which of course is a polite Texas way of saying “I thought it was a load of crap.” “But it passed the Four-Way Test, so I have to agree.

JONATHAN: Katharine, I have a similar story with the Madison Rotarians. Except the first time I spoke to them, a member already very familiar with climate science told me, “You can talk about your stuff, but don’t say the words ‘climate change’.” Well, that’s easy, I’ll just talk about extremes, like flooding, and resulting sewage backup and how they affected people’s health. Six months later, the same guy said, “You know what? Now you can talk about climate change.”

BRENDA: Many children’s museum professionals feel that they can’t use the words climate change in their board rooms or with donors because it’s become so politically charged. How might we reframe the conversation so that it’s first and foremost about health and wellbeing of children?

KATHARINE: Begin the conversation from the heart with something people already care about—and what is closer to the heart of any parent than the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of their child? We would move mountains to save our children from anything that threatens or harms them. Today, climate change is firmly in that category.

Climate change exacerbates air pollution, which contributes to childhood asthma. It increases our high temperatures to the point where one of my colleagues, a fellow “Science Mom” who lives in Arizona, had to wake up her children before dark this summer so they could go play outside before it got too hot. Children’s sporting events and practices are rescheduled to avoid the hottest parts of the day. Another colleague puts monitors on children playing outside in playgrounds to see how much energy from the sun and heat they’re exposed to and whether they’re getting dehydrated. Another colleague in Nevada couldn’t let their children outside to play for three weeks this past summer because of the terrible wildfire smoke. We have to worry about our children’s health today in ways that we never had to before. Climate change is no longer a distant threat. It is right here, right now, and it is affecting the health of those most precious beings, our children.

JONATHAN: According to the World Health Organization, 88 to 90 percent of the effects from climate change affect children.

Multiple physical health threats currently affect children in the US due to hot temperatures and extreme hydrologic cycles. Behind the elderly, infants are second most vulnerable to overheating, which can cause all sorts of problems. Warm temperatures also exacerbate pre-term labor. Climate change is affecting air quality, with stagnant air masses and increased air pollution, resulting in higher incidences of asthma in children, greater aeroallergens, and higher counts of ragweed pollen, along with a longer pollen season. Mold also greatly exacerbates childhood asthma. With more extreme weather events, flooding in the basements of homes and apartment buildings results in a perfect environment for mold growth, which has become a real problem, especially for disadvantaged communities that were formerly redlined; these neighborhoods are more prone to flooding and are at higher risk.

Hot temperatures also mean bigger and more intense wildfires. The Journal of Pediatrics recently reported that the particulates from forest fires like we’ve seen out West this past year are ten times more harmful to children ages zero to five than other particulates.

We have also seen a strong relationship between gastrointestinal issues in children and heavy rainfall, which results in more combined sewage overflow events, especially in areas reliant on well water. There are increased risks of recreational exposure for children swimming at a beach after an extreme rainfall event, for example, which increases bacterial loads for e coli.

Aside from physical threats, climate change also inflicts mental health impacts, which we are seeing now, on children, including young children. Known as “eco-anxiety” or “climate anxiety,” these crippling worries about the future, or the post-traumatic stress experienced after disasters like recent hurricanes, forest fires, and floods, disrupt children’s lives. Many more people are taking a serious look at these issues. It is so important for children to avoid hopelessness, because it is so paralyzing. We need children to have hope that inspires them to act.

BRENDA: Children’s museums’ primary audience are kids eight and under. Many of us in the field hold closely to the principles put forth by environmental educator/activist David Sobel, who basically says no tragedies before fourth grade. Instead of frightening, doom-and-gloom warnings, we should instead focus on providing opportunities for young children to be delighted by—and not worry about—the natural world. How can we best support very young children and their caregivers in understanding their role in creating sustainable communities?

KATHARINE: With young people it is even more important to emphasize how they can make a difference. Awareness of the issue wakes us up, but if we don’t know what to do about it, fear and anxiety set in. Many young people today already suffer from anxiety and stress because of the threat of climate change and the perception that people aren’t doing enough to fix it. I started to hear this so often that a few years ago in my YouTube series “Global Weirding,” I decided to make an episode called, “I’m just one kid, what can I do?” I found so many kids doing so many amazing things. Kids are creating $5 inventions that charge people’s cellphones using solar and wind energy. One girl created an algae biofuel lab under her bed until her mom found it and made her move it into the garage—and she won a national science fair prize for it. Children are leading the Children’s Climate Strike and suing their federal governments, not just the US, but Canada, Germany, and other countries, for the right to a better future. Children and young people are engaging with cities and corporations. When I was at COP26 (the 2021 United Nations climate change conference) in Glasgow, I was really encouraged to hear from entities as disparate as the United Arab Emirates government, IKEA, and Nestle that they were forming youth advisory councils and it was mandatory to consider their advice when making major decisions on climate.

Kids are using their voice to make a difference in their school, with their classmates, in their neighborhoods, and online, where many children are engaging these days. I don’t think we should shelter our children, saying “everything’s fine” until they get to a certain age and they find out it’s not. Age-appropriate awareness and conversations that acknowledge the fact that yes, there is a problem, but here are examples of people who are working on it in our city, state, or country, or maybe in our own family, are the way to go.

BRENDA: As climate scientist parents, did you talk about climate change with your own children when they were young, or did you just encourage them to get out and get excited about the natural world around them?

KATHARINE: When my son was in third grade, I forgot to give him his lunch one morning. So, I ran over to school to put it in his locker. As I was walking down the hallway on this January morning, right after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, looking to see which one was his locker, I noticed that all of the kids had posted an “I have a dream”-themed essay on their locker doors. I knew I got to the right one when I spotted the “I have a dream that we’ll fix climate change” essay. It started with “I have a dream that we’ll fix climate change because here’s what it’s doing to the world,” but very quickly moved to solutions: here’s what people can do about it, and here’s what’s already happening, and here’s why it’s a good idea to fix it. Although my son has listened to some of my talks and interviews, I’ve never sat him down and lectured him on climate change. It melted my heart that he got that it was important, but he also got that there were solutions. He was concerned but hopeful—and that’s what we want for all of us.

JONATHAN: We did lots of camping, just being outside and appreciating nature. We had a unique opportunity to build a log cabin in Montana that happened to be very close to the cabin of Charles D. Keeling, the famous climate scientist who discovered the effects of the carbon cycle on climate (the controversial Keeling Curve of CO2, “a standard icon symbolizing the impact of humans on the planet”). I remember having drinks with him on the porch and later telling my then eight-year-old son, “This is the guy that discovered climate change.” But mostly, I’m just leading by example. Riding my bike to work (luckily, I live in Madison), composting, recycling, installing solar panels on my roof, etc.

BRENDA: Traditionally, museums have been considered neutral ground. Numerous studies have shown that people trust them. Now, many museums are doing more advocacy work and taking a stand on issues like social justice and climate change. Katharine, as a member of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s Advisory Board, you are well aware of this changing dynamic. How can museums remain trusted institutions while also taking a bolder stance on climate change and action?

KATHARINE: Well, a thermometer is not Democrat or Republican. Telling people that the climate is changing, that humans are responsible, that the impacts are very serious, and that the faster we act the better off we’ll all be, are not political statements. They are neutral scientific facts, which over the last twenty years have been deliberately politically polarized by those who don’t want us to act. But if we tacitly agree with that politicization, we’re agreeing that a thermometer somehow gives different answers to different people. It does not.

The reason we care about climate change is not because we come from the left, the right, or the center of the political spectrum, it’s not because we live in the north or the south or the central part of the country. It is because we are all human beings living on this planet, which we depend on for everything we need: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the resources we use to make everything we have. It all comes from this planet. I didn’t call my book Saving the Planet, because it is not about saving planet, it is quite literally about saving us. Climate information matters to every single person on the planet. If we believe we have a duty to inform people of facts that are directly relevant to their lives and pose an immediate threat to their wellbeing, then climate change today is at the very top of the list of what museums need to be informing people about, because this science has direct implications for people’s lives, for our future, and for our children.

BRENDA: In our recent experiences with COVID, despite sound medical advice, many people have rejected scientific data that showed that vaccinations would help not only themselves, but the larger community. How might we revive a sense of the common good in the climate change fight where we need everyone on board to win?

KATHARINE: The biggest challenge with climate change—similar to our country’s approach to COVID—is not that we aren’t aware of and worried about the problem, but the majority of us still don’t think that it matters to us here and now in relevant ways. When you ask people across the United States, “Is climate change real?”, three-quarters of them say yes. When you ask, “Is it going to affect people in the future?” everybody says yes. “Is it going to affect people who live in developing countries?” Yes. “Is it going to affect plants and animals?” Yes. “Is it going to affect me personally?” The numbers plummet. That’s called psychological distance. Humans are very prone to seeing risks as distant in time, space, or relevance. So, climate change is an issue for the future, not now. Or it’s an issue for people who live over there, but not here. All of these aspects of psychological distance come into play with climate change. That’s why when we talk about climate change, it is so important to bring it here, to bring it now, and to show that climate change is not an isolated, localized issue.

We also tend to think of climate change as a separate issue, competing for our interest. People may be worried about their child’s health, or their job, or the safety of their home, or poverty or justice. Life is a set of buckets and we only have so much time, effort, and attention to put into each one. Along comes this new bucket of climate change and we just don’t have much left over for it. Well, climate change is not a separate bucket—it is the hole in every single other bucket: our children’s health, the safety of our home, the health our local economy, and issues like justice and poverty. When we can show someone how much they already care about the other buckets, and how those buckets are all being affected, they can see that they are already the perfect person to care about climate change. Then they can make the connection to understanding why climate action matters to all of us—because it affects every single one of us.

BRENDA: How do you keep yourselves inspired, and, as professors, how do you keep your students inspired to make their own life changes and find new solutions?

JONATHAN: I tell my students, okay, this is serious, but look at all the things that can be done. They have to know and understand the problems in order to begin to address them. In my classes, we spend 30 percent of our time focusing on the dire impacts of climate change on global health and the other 70 percent learning about solutions. Like Katharine, I like to focus on the fact that we already have most of the solutions we need. We just need to scale up. Today we are lucky that we don’t have to wait for new technology. Even though our politicians are not moving quickly, the private sector is moving faster. Everyone is realizing that fossil fuel is yesterday. People all over the world are stepping up and making changes.

On a personal level, there are many things you can do to contribute to a collective impact. Change your diet. Ride a bike for transportation. Most importantly vote. Speak up. Join others to fight for policy change. As author Bill McKibben says, and Katharine mentions in Saving Us, the best thing you can do as an individual, is to be less of an individual. Joins groups, talk to others, engage people in conversation and action. My own soapbox pitch is that the more we talk about climate change through a human health framework, the better. Because it is both a human health crisis and a human health opportunity at the same time.

KATHARINE: I take on two new personal sustainability habits each year, and I keep the old ones, too, because that gives me more to talk about. About two years ago I realized how much indoor air pollution gas stoves produce, creating indoor air pollution levels that are many times over the EPA recommended level. In fact, children are much more likely to develop asthma if they live in homes with gas stoves. In the interest of good cooking, I had a gas stove, but this year I swapped it for an inductive cooktop. I also decided to take plastics out of the bathroom, switching all of our shampoos and soaps to bars instead. We tried out a few to see which ones we liked best and then I shared the ones we liked best on social media.

The year before I decided to reduce food waste, a big source of heat-trapping gas emissions. I changed the way I shop and got rid of the freezer. (As a win-win, I used the space for clothes drying racks.) We eat a lot more fresh vegetables and seafood and a lot less meat. Every little action counts. But again, when we use our voice to talk about what we can do together and why it matters, that’s the biggest thing we can do.

BRENDA: In terms of climate change, what gives you the most hope?

KATHARINE: Over the past five years, no matter where I am or who I’m speaking to, that’s the biggest question I get and why I wrote my book. Action gives us hope—our own action and seeing others act. We often picture the giant boulder of climate action sitting at the bottom of a steep hill with only a few hands on it trying to push and it isn’t even budging. If we add our hand, we think it won’t make a difference. But when we realize that boulder is already at the top of the hill, and we see millions of hands—children, young people, parents, grandparents, students, businesspeople, people who work for government—on it, already pushing it down the hill in the right direction, that gives us a very different picture. Adding our hands makes a little bit of a difference, but using our voice to encourage others to add their hands, too, will make an even bigger difference. What gives me hope is recognizing how many hands are on that boulder.

I engage in a practice called active hope where I consciously look for good news stories—stories of people who are making a difference, who are changing minds or inventing new technology, or helping cities be more resilient or working with poor communities to expand their ability to grow food—and then I share them on social media because I know other people want to hear them, too. Recognizing that the boulder is rolling downhill in the right direction gives us hope. It just needs to go faster. And to make it go faster, every single one of us needs to act, beginning with using our voice. To quote Greta Thunberg, “There’s one thing we need more than hope and that’s action. Because when we act, hope is all around us.”

Building a Climate of Hope

This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Lisa Thompson, Natural History Museum of Utah | University of Utah

A Climate of Hope is the working title we’ve adopted for a new exhibit on climate change under development at the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU). Like our colleagues at natural history and science museums around the world, NHMU is shifting away from an older, more data-driven approach to climate change exhibits (also known as the “doom and gloom” approach—largely focused on the dire nature of the crisis). As our working title suggests, our goal is to create an exhibit that inspires hope and empowers visitors to take meaningful climate action in their communities.

This article highlights a few of the “guiding principles” shaping the content and design of our exhibit that we have learned from research on effective climate communication, consultation with wonderful advisors, front-end evaluation with visitors, and evaluation of a full-scale cardboard prototype of the exhibit. Although our exhibit is not aimed specifically at young children, we hope some of these ideas will be useful in exploring how children’s museums can create hopeful, empowering experiences that support children and families.

Welcome Visitors through the Side Doors

Some inherent challenges come with tackling climate change in an exhibit. Even a title mentioning climate change could turn away visitors whose political identity tells them, “This exhibit isn’t for me,” as well as people who are worried the exhibit will add to the anxiety and stress they already feel about climate. In contrast, other audiences may not have strong feelings about climate change or perceive its personal relevance because it seems remote in time and distance, a problem for other people far away in the future.

One key idea that emerged from our initial dive into the rich body of climate communication research was the importance of “side doors.” When tackling a polarized issue like climate change, side doors frame the issue in ways that aren’t clearly marked as belonging to one partisan group. They focus on shared values that resonate across groups with diverse perspectives and create a space for taking action together. Talking with local organizations working on climate solutions and our visitors in a front-end evaluation helped us identify some of the side doors that resonate with Utah audiences.

At the top of the list is Utahn’s deep concern about the impact of the poor air quality in many parts of the state on their health. While the greenhouse gases that cause climate change and the particulates and ozone that damage our health are distinct, they are often emitted by the same sources. For example, focusing on how measures that improve Utah’s air quality can also reduce greenhouse emissions offers a side door to climate action. Other side doors that resonate with our audiences include concern about the decline of Utah’s famous snow that supports our ski industry, a strong tradition of emergency preparedness that could carry over into creating climate resilient communities, and the opportunities for Utah to benefit economically from developing and implementing climate solutions.

Keep It Local

The local nature of these side doors reflects another key idea that emerged from our research—the power of telling local stories to make climate change immediate and relevant for our audiences. While melting glaciers and rising sea levels seem remote to many Utahns, stories that demonstrate local climate impacts in relatable ways made a big impression on visitors in our prototype exhibit. For example, one story in the prototype that visitors often discussed illustrated Utah’s warmer, shorter winters with a historic photo of ice skaters on a well-known park pond that rarely freezes today. The prototype also offered visitors a chance to share their own observations of local climate impacts and what they mean for them at a talk-back station.

Stories about the many existing, feasible climate solutions already being implemented in communities around Utah also connected with prototype participants. They expressed excitement, surprise, and pride upon discovering the numerous efforts underway in Utah along with some of the innovative ideas in development. Focusing on solutions is another key principle of effective climate communication. Solutions, after all, offer hope and inspiration. Stories about people implementing effective solutions also serve to counter common misperceptions our visitors expressed in our front-end evaluation—“Nobody is doing anything” and “Solutions don’t exist yet”—which serve to discourage and disempower.

Don’t Ignore Emotions

Our front-end evaluation with visitors provided important context for developing our exhibit. When we asked participants how thinking about climate change made them feel, they predominantly expressed discouragement, fear, anger, confusion, and other negative emotions. Their responses reflect the growing number of people who report experiencing climate anxiety or climate grief. However, according to research in psychology, fear and uncertainty can shut down our ability to act.

A growing number of climate communication researchers emphasize the importance of acknowledging the powerful emotions climate change evokes, helping people understand how their emotions impact their ability to act, and emphasizing that taking action can lead to feeling more hopeful. This approach presents hope as a practice to be cultivated, not something you can obtain simply by wishing for it. As Dr. Katharine Hayhoe explains: “Hope doesn’t come to me if I just sit there waiting for it to show up.”

In A Climate of Hope, we are seeking ways to explicitly address the emotional component of climate change and give visitors a chance to share their feelings through an interactive, which will have a therapeutic or cathartic quality. The exhibit will also introduce visitors to the idea of hope as an outcome of action. One idea we are considering is a set of short “TikTok” style videos of community members responding to the prompt, “What gives me hope…” with a description of the action they are taking.

Reimagine the Future

Both the front-end evaluation and exhibit prototype showed that visitors were extremely interested in knowing what actions they could take to reduce climate change. In fact, in the prototype it was clear that visitors expected—almost demanded—to learn about what individual actions they could take in their daily lives in an exhibit about climate change. While individual actions can be a good start, climate science indicates that they aren’t sufficient for addressing a problem that requires systemic change. Plus, placing the onus of addressing climate change on individuals—especially through their consumer choices—fosters “climate guilt” and is inequitable to those who can’t afford those choices.

A Climate of Hope will seek to provide visitors with a different set of tools for taking meaningful action. We envision opening the exhibit with an immersive interactive that engages visitors in imagining a future where humans and nature thrive in a changing world. Many visions of the future related to climate change in our culture are dystopian if not apocalyptic. Several climate communication scholars are emphasizing the need for new cultural stories that help us know what we’re aiming for and envision paths to getting there. Even the very low-tech version of the interactive we created for the prototype was compelling for visitors, and many reflected on the content of the videos during their wrap-up discussion.

The prototype also included a Venn diagram that provided visitors a framework for thinking about how they could take action at the community level—a level at which actions have more possibility of affecting systems change. Our goal is to encourage visitors to take the next step beyond individual actions to actions in their networks that still feel personally relevant and achievable. The three circles of the Venn diagram contained a set of questions visitors could answer to identify ways they could act:

  • • What groups are you part of?
  •    What groups could you join?
  • • What are you good at?
  •    What do you enjoy doing?
  • • What is the climate work that needs
  •    doing? What challenges is your community facing? What do you care about?

We realized that this framework would be a significant shift from the messages focused on individual actions most visitors are accustomed to receiving. We were pleasantly surprised that many prototype participants called others over to the Venn diagram to discuss it and mentioned it in their conversation with evaluators.

The prototype also included a Venn diagram that provided visitors a framework for thinking about how they could take action at the community level—a level at which actions have more possibility of affecting systems change. Our goal is to encourage visitors to take the next step beyond individual actions to actions in their networks that still feel personally relevant and achievable. Image credit: Dawn Renee Farkas Prasad


Big Changes Start with Small Talk

One individual-level action the exhibit will highlight is talking about climate change with family and friends—not to persuade or debate, but to listen and share. Surveys from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication indicate that more than 70 percent of Americans are worried about climate change, but only 35 percent talk about climate change even occasionally. Talking about climate change is critical for processing our emotions, imagining and telling new stories about our future, and finding and building networks for community action. Climate communicators have developed great resources outlining how to have a constructive climate conversation.

While visiting the prototype, several parents asked for resources on talking with their children about climate change. We are just beginning the process of developing family resources for the exhibit. We are considering the approach of encouraging families to focus on building the social and emotional skills we all need for being resilient, such as empathy, talking about our feelings (especially when we’re worried), and working together to tackle big problems. Because children’s museums excel at creating experiences that foster the development the social and emotional skills for resiliency, they are already doing important climate solutions work.

Other climate communication approaches align well with the strengths of children’s museums and could even be worked into existing exhibits and programs. For example, stories about local people and organizations working to implement climate solutions fit naturally with exhibits about the people who make our communities safer, healthier, and stronger. Activities that invite children and their caregivers to imagine the future of their community could include challenges for designing new kinds of climate adaptations. And children’s museum could host activities or partner with other organizations to connect families with opportunities to take action in their community, such as planting trees or community gardening.

Children’s museums are well-situated to play an important role in building a climate of hope that empowers children and their caregivers to take meaningful climate action and develop the resilience and empathy we’ll need to navigate climate change. We’re excited to see how you do it.

Lisa Thompson has worked as an exhibit developer at the Natural History Museum of Utah at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City since 2013. Prior to this, she managed Public Programs teams at NHMU and Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Building A Climate of Hope Resource List

A short and by-no-means-comprehensive list of climate communication resources to get you started.

Organizations with great research and tools:

Voices for hope:

Climate Communication in action:

Science from the Past and for the Future: Learning from Indigenous Knowledge for Climate Change Adaptation

This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Lauren Butcher and Rachel Zollinger, Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum

How can we equip our children for climate change? One way is to look to long-established knowledge of climate and place. Since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have made their homes in New Mexico’s arid lands, experiencing climate events such as extreme drought and devastating wildfires. At Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum, we are developing at-home STEM activity cards that highlight local Indigenous peoples Traditional Eco-logical Knowledge (TEK) around water conservation, forest management, and living within arid conditions. The cards showcase how traditional practices have effectively utilized science and engineering principles—and continue to do so.

One exemplar STEM activity card focuses on waffle bed gardening. This water conservation technique arose independently in cultures living in arid lands around the world, including in the Southwest, where Diné (Navajo), A:shiwi (Zuni), Zia, and Laguna peoples use waffle bed gardening to grow corn, beans, squash, and other crops. The card provides instructions on how to construct a simple waffle bed by digging out a small square of earth and building walls around the edges. The bottom of the square is filled with gravel, sand, or mulch to prevent evaporation. Water is poured directly inside the square. The activity fosters science and engineering practices by asking children to meet challenges and test different variables: what would happen to the damp soil in the square if the walls were taller or the square was deeper? How might more gravel, sand, or mulch affect the evaporation? What soil composition makes the strongest wall?

One exemplar STEM activity card focuses on waffle bed gardening (above). This water conservation technique arose independently in cultures living in arid lands around the world, including in the Southwest, where Diné (Navajo), A:shiwi (Zuni), Zia, and Laguna peoples use waffle bed gardening to grow corn, beans, squash, and other crops.

STEM activity cards are a way to share education resources on a range of topics for at-home learning, a pathway Explora has utilized for reaching individuals and communities outside the museum. Climate-focused cards invite young children to play with ever-fascinating water, soil, and rocks in the new context of positive climate change solutions. They provide an arena for family conversations by promoting an interactive play experience. The cards encourage children and their families to expand their conversations to include local knowledge holders such as traditional gardeners, farmers, and elders. Climate change is a community concern, and the cards prompt families to look to community assets to address it. The Southwest is projected to experience more intense drought and storms as a result of climate change. Proven agricultural and land management techniques developed in response to extreme natural weather patterns are especially effective for adapting to the region’s future.


Explora - Squishy Soil Activity Card

STEM activity cards are a way to share education resources on a range of topics for at-home learning, a pathway Explora has utilized for reaching individuals and communities outside the museum.

Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum will continue to work with community partners across New Mexico to develop STEM Activity Cards that highlight both conventional and indigenous science-based climate mitigation strategies so the next generation will continue to adapt and thrive. We would like to acknowledge our funding from IMLS Planting Seeds of STEM, the NISE Network Earth & Space Project-Based Professional Learning Community, and the IMLS Howtosmile At-Home Activities project for the development, printing, and translation of the cards.

Lauren Butcher is school and community programs manager and Rachel Zollinger is an educator at Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Seeing the Future and Taking Steps to Get There: Discovery Museum Acts on Its Commitment to Sustainability

This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Neil Gordon, Discovery Museum

The news about climate change, the environment, and the state of our planet is frightening and discouraging. In the face of it all, how do we create hope? John Fraser, noted conservation psychologist, has stated that a focus on solutions and actions can reduce fear and increase hope. And hope, Fraser says, “is a targeted way of seeing the future and taking steps to get to that future.”

Children’s museums are all about hope for the future, but actions to fight climate change that are environmentally positive have not been a focus for many of them. I share the experience of the Discovery Museum in the hope that any insights it yields will help us all take more action and inspire our visitors to do the same.

Building on a Foundation of Environmental Focus

This year we are celebrating Discovery Museum’s fortieth year. Over the last decade, we have grown from two small museums into one large museum with pre-pandemic attendance over 200,000 and a $2.7 million budget. The museum has a strong focus on science and nature, with 4.5 acres of accessible, outdoor exhibit space adjacent to 180 acres of town-owned, wooded trails that we program. Connecting kids and families with nature and operating sustainably have long been important goals for us.

Discovery Museum first articulated its commitment to environmental sustainability in 2007. Asserting that “we are keenly aware of the interrelationships of humans and the natural world and our obligations to be good stewards of that world,” the organization adopted a vision statement to become “a premier community museum that embodies discovery learning and environmental stewardship.” Formal goals included becoming a “green” organization and encouraging others to take responsibility for the environment. Two years later, in 2009, a new Master Plan for Campus Expansion included a concept for building a new Environmental Discovery Museum featuring photovoltaic panels, a windmill, a composting area, and an aquifer recharge zone. Unfortunately, the 2008 recession forced the museum to focus almost exclusively on shoring up finances and building our audience. It was not until 2013 that the museum was in a place to contemplate a future campus renovation and initiate a capital campaign to fund it, this time with a focus on accessibility—by then, a pressing capital need and programmatic focus.

Over the last decade, our environmental work focused on the goal of connecting kids with nature, both to raise awareness and promote the physical and mental health benefits of outdoor play. In 2015, we hired our first Outdoor and Environmental Educator. The following year, we opened Discovery Woods, an award-winning, one-acre, fully accessible nature playscape and treehouse. With a goal of encouraging “every kid, every day, outside to play,” we also deepened our Backyard and Beyond program series to offer a range of year-round outdoor experiences for children of all ages and levels of comfort with outdoor play. Coinciding with the opening of our expanded and renovated, accessible building in 2018, we also changed our longtime tagline, “Hands On, Minds at Play,” to “Science. Nature. Play.” This change reflected our programmatic evolution, elevating our message that getting kids outside is a first step to developing an appreciation for the natural world and a sense of responsible stewardship of its resources.

We have also taken steps to advocate publicly for these values, including signing the We Are Still In (WASI) pledge, a joint declaration of support for climate action, signed by more than 3,900 CEOs, mayors, governors, tribal leaders, college presidents, faith leaders, health care executives, and others; joining America Is All In, a coalition to develop a national climate strategy; supporting the Town of Acton in declaring a climate emergency; becoming a member of the Acton Climate Coalition; and presenting programs addressing environmental topics through our Discovery Museum Speaker Series.

Walking the Talk

We have increasingly wrestled with how to take concrete steps to be visibly and demonstrably sustainable in our own operations as a key strategy for inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards.

Our actions—how we operate and what we model for the world around us—are as important and maybe even more so than what we strive to explicitly teach as a museum. W.E.B. Du Bois said, “Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” The environment we create, and what kids and families take from that, is an influential tool. The goal is to motivate families to adopt more sustainable viewpoints and practices at home, and support environmentally sound public policy. We wanted to more visibly “walk the talk” as a critical element of our educational approach.

Recognizing this, we knew we needed a plan.

One of the first things we decided to do was look for advice and guidance. We had lots of questions about scope, level of detail, what kinds of goals we should have, and even how we should define “sustainability” for our organization. Luckily, we had some prior experience working with Sarah Sutton, who helps places like ours through her organization Environment & Culture Partners. She provided positive feedback on our goals, an invitation to join with other cultural institutions as part of We Are Still In, and some great links to useful resources.

One especially useful resource for us was the WASI list of commitments. Sarah noted that others had used this list as a framework for creating their own sustainability plans. A white paper from Museums Australia had a very similar list. Based on a review of these examples, it made sense for us to follow their approach.

Our framework was built around a set of “commitments”:

  1. 1. Commit to increased use of renewable power
  2. 2. Commit to understand and reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  3. 3. Commit to reduce materials consumption and waste
  4. 4. Commit to reduce the impact of transportation
  5. 5. Commit to reduce water usage
  6. 6. Be publicly committed to sustainability
  7. 7. Commit to education and communication
  8. 8. Integrate climate change into portfolio analyses and decision making

The process for developing our plan was relatively simple and streamlined. Given our long commitment to environmental education, little discussion was needed about whether to formalize our goals and objectives. We moved straight to researching and producing a plan focused on action steps. Key to this was establishing the museum’s baseline environmental impact, which we did with the tremendous support of a skilled intern who self-described as a “sustainability geek.” With her help, we found answers to a range of questions. How much energy do we use, and in what ways? What level of greenhouse gas emissions do we produce? What does our water consumption look like? How many miles are we driving? How many deliveries do we get? How much waste do we generate? What are our cleaning supplies and the materials in our exhibits and programs made of? In what ways do we talk about the environment? And many more.

For some of these questions the data was readily available. Our utility company is very good about keeping track of our electricity, oil, and natural gas usage. Our water company was a bit trickier, as they do a poor job in regularly reading the meter. In some areas, no real good data source existed. For example, the waste collector empties the dumpster on a regular schedule, whether it is full or half empty.

Turning Our Vision into Reality

There are a number of models that can estimate greenhouse gas emissions based on energy usage or miles driven; our goal was to find one that was relatively simple to use and easily available to us. The model used by our intern produced easy-to-understand visual representations of our greenhouse gas sources. This was useful for discussing our action steps with staff and the board, as it made the priorities much clearer.

One interesting data point stems from our being a suburban museum with effectively no public transportation option. Everyone (mostly) drives here, so we used visitor zip code data to come to a pretty good estimate of miles driven by our visitors. As it turns out, this is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions for the museum, and as you would expect, not the easiest to address.

We recognized that our data collection efforts were not perfect, but we decided rather than devote lots of time and resources to get perfect data, we would create objectives for filling in the blanks later. Even though our measures of progress would be less than precise, we were moving forward.

Our analysis of this imperfect data became the platform for the development of concrete goals and actions, and what we hoped were reasonable timeframes for accomplishing them. We also committed early on to implementing our plan transparently and allowing for flexibility as we make progress and learn along the way.

The most visible part of the plan is our project, to be completed in mid-2022, to produce solar electricity onsite to meet 100 percent of our campus energy needs—and then some. The plan also outlines our approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and becoming carbon neutral; reducing water usage; minimizing waste generation; investing sustainably; and advocating for climate action. All of this will support an environmental education effort that will connect kids and families with nature, help them learn in partnership with the natural world, and inspire them to advocate for sustainability—all in the fun, hands-on Discovery Museum way. The final plan includes 29 action steps, spanning all areas of museum operations, to be taken over the next several years. These actions include discrete tasks such as replacing pavement with permeable surfaces and redirecting stormwater to groundwater recharge. The plan also outlines goals for ongoing action, such as investing sustainably, building community partnerships to advance our environmental work, and advocating publicly for our values.

A Commitment to Flexibility and Progress

Implementation of our plan is now underway. We have created a Sustainability Plan Team made up of staff members throughout the museum who have primary responsibilities for one or more of the action steps articulated in the plan. The team meets monthly to review progress on each of the steps, share ideas or concerns in moving steps forward, and identify new or modified actions that we might take. In this way we have peer support and peer accountability for the plan, making sustainability more of an organizational norm.

The Sustainability Plan Team holds regular discussions on our progress, providing a good tool to address the built-in imperfections of the plan itself. For certain action steps, better ideas have emerged from the work together. The team has become comfortable with the idea that we are both implementing the plan and improving the plan at the same time.

A good example of this approach centers on our ideas about visitor vehicle emissions. The plan calls for the museum to implement a system of visitor-purchased carbon offsets as a means of mitigating the emissions, not eliminating them. The plan anticipated a mandatory approach as well as a significant visitor education component. The team realized, however, that the logistics of promoting, educating about, and collecting offsets would be challenging. We will likely need to implement the plan on a targeted basis first, such as to members, to work out the kinks. Efforts to address this biggest source of our greenhouse gas emissions continue.

Importantly, we also want to model external accountability. We engaged outside voices to review our plan drafts, adding perspective. The current version has been published on our website and shared across our audience with a request for feedback. The Board of Directors has formally approved and adopted the plan, and we have begun to recruit for an external Sustainability Advisory Group, which will conduct an annual review of our progress and report on recommendations for improvements and changes.

We recognize our vision will take time and resources and are honored that many have stepped up to help support our work. Most notably, the Sheth Sangreal Foundation has committed $1 million over the next five years to activate our sustainability and inclusion goals, and has challenged the community to match their investment in our plans. We will be asking everyone to join them in helping us leverage our culture of play-based learning to inspire families to help sustain our world.

It’s also important to note that we are approaching our sustainability work with full knowledge we must also be engaged in its intersections with racial and social justice. We know that the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately affect people with low incomes and people of color. And we know that access to the outdoors and nature-based learning experiences are less available to many. To us, becoming more sustainable is about more than just leaving our children a planet with adequate resources. It is also about achieving greater harmony in the present between the environmental, economic, and social outcomes—both locally and globally—of our choices and actions. We are therefore committed to pursuing our sustainability objectives in ways that also promote equity. In many ways, all of this is integral work for the museum. In other ways it is new and fresh, because we’ve made a renewed commitment to sustainability, made urgent by the world around us. We are energized and motivated and we hope others in our field will join with us, with combined, greater effect on both our communities and the natural world.

Neil Gordon has served as CEO of the Discovery Museum in Acton, Massachusetts since 2009.

Financially Sound Solar

Once you decide that solar electricity is the right thing for your organization, the question quickly turns to: does it make financial sense? In the Discovery Museum’s case, we were pleasantly surprised by the financial sense that an investment in solar made.

We started with a very simple model in mind: we would fundraise for the cost of installation and use the annual electricity savings to support our environmental education programs. Thus, we would describe the investment in solar as an endowment of the programs. This idea made some sense pre-pandemic, but quickly looked silly in the face of needing to raise funds just to stay open. That led us to understand the economics in much more detail.

We quickly identified several companies that specialize in working with nonprofits on solar projects and chose to work with Resonant Energy, based in Boston. Resonant was able to show us a model of solar financing that involved “selling” the federal tax credits (obviously, we would not be able to use them directly), estimating our energy savings, selling excess electricity to other nonprofits at a discount, and maximizing other incentives (in our case, solar incentives offered by the state of Massachusetts). The access to the federal credits is a bit complicated and you’ll want a lawyer for that work, but it results in a 12 to 15 percent “savings” right off the top. Resonant was able to show a 25-year financial model that accounts for decreased production over time (we were surprised to learn that panels wear out), operating costs such as maintenance, changes in electricity rates, and so forth. To support our analysis, we put together a Solar Task Force of board and non-board experts that reviewed the modeling and evaluated our options.

The Solar Task Force was able to recommend to our board that the museum finance this project. With low interest rates and a good bank, we put in place a loan that should be paid back in about eleven to twelve years. The projected cash flow is positive in year one, thus actually meeting one of our original goals to support programs using the sun!

How to Engage a Community in Fire Season Education

This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Chris White, The Discovery

When I first moved out to Nevada from Maryland to join The Discovery team, one of the first phrases I had to get used to was “fire season,” the time of year when fires naturally occur in the drier parts of Nevada and other western states. Over the past few years, these fires have become more common, more intense, and more devastating.

Fire season is evolving faster than normal, and it’s drier now. We either get no rain or dumped on. Sometimes if there is no rain at all in the fall, we have to wait for winter snowfall to provide moisture. Fire season used to run for about three months, starting at the end of August; now it runs five to six months, starting end of June and going late into fall. The cycle is out of whack.

Fires happen often in remote mountain areas. Some are due to natural causes, such as lightning strikes, but some result from human activities, such as shooting, campfires, and cigarettes. In 2021, the Portola, California, fire burned just fifty miles away. Reno sits in a bowl—once smoke comes, it settles in for weeks. We can wait for a “Washoe wind” (a strong, late-day summer wind that blows from the west to southwest) to blow it away, or just sit tight until it dissipates. But in 2021, school was cancelled due to poor air quality, and people were warned to stay indoors and keep windows shut. Not everyone has air conditioning; it became a social issue.

Fire season isn’t all bad. It is a crucial part of the region’s ecosystem. The West wouldn’t be as beautiful or environmentally diverse without these fires. However, the fires are getting bigger and more destructive. According to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, over the past two years, California and Nevada have lost more than 6,000 square miles of land. For comparison, that is 80 percent of New Jersey’s landmass. As a science museum, our responsibility is to provide useful information about this climate-related change to our community while engaging and empowering them with that knowledge.

To that end, we have developed a three-part plan to help us create a vibrant and dynamic collaborative space within our existing Spark!Lab Smithsonian gallery, in which half of the gallery’s footprint will be dedicated to teaching families about fire season while still engaging them through play. Visitors will be able to meet community members to whom fire season matters most—instructors and graduate students from the University of Nevada, Reno, local firefighters (if they aren’t fighting fires…), and members of the Bureau of Land Management—and learn how they respond to this increasingly longer time of year.

We are also working with these key community members to create easy-to-understand infographics that visually convey what happened in past fire seasons compared to what is happening now. Infographics that not only describe what is happening, but why will be placed throughout Spark!Lab and in some parts of our Nevada Stories exhibition. For our family audience, messages will be directed primarily to parents in an effort to get them involved in the education process with their kids

The second part of the plan involves the creation of interactive, collaborative activities in which visitors work together to solve fire-related problems. The first will be a firefighting game where up to three visitors will assume the roles of community leaders tasked with managing assets affected by fire season. By pulling connected strings, they can work toward extinguishing as many fires as possible in the time allotted. Also under development is a tile-based, firefighting board game, similar to Catan (a popular electronic seafaring discovery game). In our game, one player is the wildfire, and the other player(s) try to contain the spread while each tries to fulfill roles within the community.

The final pillar of the plan will bring community leaders and stakeholders most involved in protecting our community during fire season to the museum for a “meet and greet.” We want our visitors to put a face to the heroes in our community who choose to take on this yeoman’s work. Visitors will hear firsthand the issues affecting our hometown and what these frontline experts think we can do to mitigate and manage what is happening.

It is hoped that fire season content, launched in Spark!Lab and periodically distributed among existing exhibits at The Discovery, may eventually become a portable exhibit available for outreach events or temporary installations in other community organizations and businesses.

Fire season is an integral part of what makes the West special. But for many reasons, the fires have begun to take more than they previously provided and more than we can replace. It falls to us to educate ourselves and our community if we hope to pass the beauty of living in this spectacular environment on to future generations.

Chris White is The Discovery’s Spark!Lab Smithsonian Coordinator. Prior to joining the team at The Discovery, Chris worked at the original Spark!Lab in Washington, DC, which is part of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation located in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.


Learning from Nature, Not Only about It

This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
A Conversation with Billy Spitzer, executive director of the Hitchcock Center of the Environment in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Al DeSena, interviewer

Billy Spitzer, executive director of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst, Massachusetts, is a member of the coordinating team for the Action for Climate Empowerment National Strategic Planning Framework and a member of the leadership board for the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network. Before coming to Hitchcock Center in August 2021, he was vice president for learning and community at the New England Aquarium in Boston, where for more than twenty years he applied learning and social science research across education programs, exhibits, visitor experience, and community outreach. He served as principal investigator for numerous informal science education projects funded by the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Institute for Museum and Library Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency. These include a series of projects focused on public engagement on climate change, including the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation. With more than thirty years of experience developing and implementing science education programs, exhibits, and materials, he has been recognized by the White House as a Champion for Change for engaging the next generation of conservation leaders.

Al DeSena retired in 2019 after fourteen years at the National Science Foundation, where he was a program director in the Advancing Informal STEM Learning Program.

Listen to a recording of this live interview!

ACM · Learning from Nature, Not Only about It

AL: For years, children’s museums have provided experiences for children and their families pertaining to nature, the weather, the earth, the environment, etc.  But now, given the considerable global attention to climate change, worldwide loss of biodiversity, a green economy, and environmental justice, many children’s museums have been considering what opportunities they should be providing for their audiences to improve the knowledge and skills that affect their individual lives and humanity in general.

What are the overarching questions behind the important decisions that children’s museums are wrestling with on this topic? How are these decisions affected by the implications of the last two years of the pandemic as museums move forward?

BILLY: Having worked in the science education field for a long time, my interest has always been: How do we give people in a participatory democracy the scientific understanding, tools, and ways of engaging that are critical to enabling us as a society, not just as individuals, to make good decisions and pursue the right courses of action? About twelve years ago, at New England Aquarium, we were wrestling with the most important issues facing the ocean. Climate change kept coming up as a major issue in the zoo and aquarium world, which I think went through what the children’s museum and science museum world is going through now: if we really care about the future, what issues do we need to address in our public programs and exhibits?

We realized that we needed to start working with other aquariums and zoos to figure out how to talk about climate change. We started with the fundamentals: trying to understand the science—and the communication science—better, and then looking for what kind of interventions would make sense. Should we be developing educational materials? New exhibits? What would be the most effective way to get going? We settled on exhibit interpretation as the place to start. It’s harder to change physical exhibits, but it’s a lot easier to work with staff. We started a collaborative program to help educators and interpreters at aquariums and zoos talk about climate change in a way that was true to the science, but also reflected what we know about effective communication. Over time this collaboration grew into a national network that exists to this day with about 400 highly-trained climate communicators in thirty-eight states across the country who have, in turn, trained about another 40,000 informal educators and other communicators in the last ten years. Children’s museums are at an interesting point now: new issues are impinging on child development—climate change being one, and the pandemic and related health issues being another.

AL: How does your work at the Hitchcock Center—and previously at the aquarium—relate to children’s museums that primarily serve families with younger children?

BILLY: The Hitchcock Center started almost sixty years ago as a traditional nature center. Committed to focusing on sustainability, in 2016 they built what’s called a “living building,” and also committed to working on climate change and environmental justice. That new direction drew me out here last year. Like a lot of museums, the center is focused on education, particularly for children. We do programs for adults, but we have a really strong set of programs for kids from preschool to high school, along with afterschool and homeschool programs, summer camps, and leadership programs for teens, including a climate summit program. A lot of our programs are analogous to what you’d find at a children’s museum. We have a small nature exploration center inside the physical facility. So, in many ways, this place looks and feels like a lot of children’s museums.

AL: How might children’s museums define or frame the actual domain of climate change and what activities it entails?  Should they be thinking about it as a way to develop systems thinking in children?  What does it mean to learn from nature instead of about it?

BILLY: I think dealing with climate change is about shifting our perspective from thinking of it as a science or environmental issue to thinking of it as a societal issue, a social challenge. You can think about it as a crisis of public health, as an issue of social and environmental justice, as an issue related to developing a future workforce and building healthy and resilient communities. All of those perspectives are important to consider when framing the subject of climate change and a museum’s role in relation to it.

Once you start diving into climate change as an issue, it becomes not so much about learning climate content, but more about developing the skills, habits of mind, attitudes, and behaviors that will enable us collectively to find a path forward in terms of what we need to do to both mitigate and slow down climate change and also adapt to it. Systems thinking is a great example of that approach. Young kids are natural systems thinkers; educators can cultivate that skill. Kids are also very natural problem-solvers. And we need creative and hopeful problem-solvers to help us work our way through all that we need to do to respond to climate change.

At the Hitchcock Center, we’ve been focusing on moving from learning about nature to learning from nature, using the principles of ecological design, like those we used to design our living building, to help us design better human systems.

AL: Many children’s museums are wondering whether they should engage in the climate change domain at all.  What are some of the major factors that are important to consider when museum leaders are deciding whether their organizations should get into it?

BILLY: Start with your organization’s mission: what does it tell you? A lot of museums, and a lot of children’s museums in particular, have strong community-based missions. What are your community needs in relation to climate change? Who is already working on this issue that you could talk to, learn from, and partner with? What do you know about what’s going on in your own community around climate? What are public attitudes? What is the general level of knowledge people have? Where are the gaps?

The Yale Project on Climate Communication, a great resource, offers a wealth of data on public knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors around climate. People are often surprised by the fact that the vast majority of the public understands climate change is a problem, is looking for help in figuring out what to do about it, and often look to places like museums for those answers.

Understanding the readiness levels of both staff and your board is also really important. If you’re facing a lack of readiness in either group then you need to figure out how you’re going to work on that.  But again, there are probably a lot of good resources in your community already, including community organizations or public health agencies. Many cities and towns have climate action plans. Figure out what’s already happening and where can you connect to it.

AL: How can children’s museums customize their programs based on what they know about their audiences?  Visitors of different ages, knowledge, abilities, interests, skills, cultural backgrounds, etc.?

BILLY: There’s a mantra from environmental educator David Sobel, “No global disasters before 4th grade.” Years ago, kids learned about the rainforest before they learned about their own backyards. You have to start with where your audience is already in terms of environmental education—what kind of prior experiences do they have, what are they interested in, what kind of questions are they asking—and respond to that. In the case of climate, you don’t want to start with, “Well, here’s what’s happening to the planet.” Instead, “Here’s what’s happening that you can see and observe.”

You can introduce systems thinking at many different ages or levels of sophistication and depth. For example, if you’re talking about a squirrel, how do you help kids understand that it’s not just about a squirrel, but it’s also about the acorns and the trees and the forest, and what other animals are like squirrels. How do squirrels relate to chipmunks? What do squirrels eat, and what eats them? Where do they fit in the big picture? Using that perspective to look beyond an individual animal or phenomenon and think about the bigger system, is the skill you need eventually to understand what’s happening with the climate system and how it interacts with ecosystems and with us.

Finally, what worldviews are your audiences coming with? They might not be all come from a western scientific or cultural worldview. What cultural backgrounds are your audience coming from, and how do you incorporate these different perspectives? These aren’t new ideas to people working in children’s museums: the same principles that apply to good child education in general apply to climate education.

AL: In your programs at the Hitchcock Center, what different approaches do you use for preschool kids vs. kids who are nine years old, for example?

BILLY: At all age levels, but particularly at younger levels, we incorporate a multi-sensory approach, combining experiential and tactile learning with social and emotional learning. For really young kids, it’s important to foster physical comfort in the natural world. An affective connection and appreciation are really, really important ingredients to build on. But if you’re working with older kids who haven’t had much experience with nature or environmental education, you need to start there.

AL: Are there particular experience formats that might be more appropriate to children of different ages or cultural backgrounds? The Hitchcock Center’s tagline is “Education for a Healthy Planet.” What kinds of learning experiences relate to that basic idea?

BILLY: Things often overlooked are the aspects of an experience that you provide that are not necessarily what you consider formal parts of the program. Take our building’s composting toilets, a wonderful example of how nature never wastes anything. Kids—especially young kids—are incredibly fascinated by them. They often go home and when their parents ask, “well, what did you do today?” that’s what they talk about first. Kids who spend a lot of time at the center end up taking it all for granted. Of course, you get your energy from the sun and your waste gets recycled, and that’s just how things work.

In our programs, the games may change depending on the age level, but the concept of play and using the arts as a form of expression are common threads all the way through. Although language abilities and attention spans differ by age, kids’ interests are quite similar. Activities that we’ve done with young kids come back in a slightly different format with older kids. Maybe the program is a bit longer and the level of depth is a bit greater, but some of the same program formats work across a wide range, whether it’s an afterschool format or a summer camp format. As kids get older, we emphasize learning and applying their learning to some kind of community action. As kids get into the teen years, we focus on programs that develop leadership skills. We participate in the Youth Climate Summit, where we bring teams together to learn how to create climate action plans and programs and projects in their schools. So, staff-led preschool programs eventually lead to youth-led work.

AL: At what age do you think that the approach should align with what kids are hearing on TV or other media about climate crisis? There are reports of many kids experiencing anxiety about it.

BILLY: Unfortunately, there have been more and more reasons to figure out how to help kids process really scary and difficult things, from terrorist attacks to school shootings, pandemics, climate change, disasters and so on. Often, the first thing kids want to know is, “Am I safe? Is my family safe? Are we going to be OK right now?” Usually the answer is yes, and it’s really important to provide that reassurance.

And then listen to what kids are asking about rather than just dumping a lot of information on them. They’re not necessarily asking about the same things that are on an adult’s mind. From educators, to interpreters, to visitors—kids and adults—fostering hope and self-efficacy are the keys to keeping people motivated and involved. The idea isn’t to ignore the problems, but to understand that collectively we have the power to change things. We can be creative problem-solvers and come up with collective solutions. If we see things in the world that we don’t like or don’t think are right, we have the power to change them. That’s really a critical attitude to cultivate in people of all ages, but particularly young people.

AL: Are there strategies you might suggest to children’s museum professionals for how they might make timely adjustments to the conditions of our fast-changing world, and in particular to challenges their communities and regions might be facing?

BILLY: First, understand which things aren’t changing quickly. What is enduring? The kind of values you want to help promote in people, the kind of skills and habits of mind you want to develop and encourage, tend to be more durable than the latest crisis. Second, you should do this work alone. This is an opportunity to work with other organizations in your community that have their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening—people working on public health, social justice issues, poverty alleviation or racial and environmental justice. People working at the grassroots level, who see people facing daily challenges, and who are very focused on responding to those challenges. This gives you a very good perspective on which of today’s concerns are really important in the community around you.

AL: Circumstances are going to be quite different for different institutions at different locations and points in time, whether a hurricane has just gone through a region, or whether fires or a drought are dominant issues, as well as how active individual communities are in terms of being responsive to such things.

BILLY: There have been some wonderful examples of museums responding in times of need or crises, whether serving as physical places of refuge for people in the aftermath of natural disasters, or as places for COVID testing and vaccination clinics. There are all sorts of ways in which museums can participate in community and civic life which helps build trust and familiarity that can be really helpful the next time a crisis or controversial issue comes up.

AL: Ideas about climate change have evolved.  Are we engaged in crisis mitigation or adaptation? Some geoscientists think we’re probably beyond the possibility of humanity to mitigate.  We’re just going to have to learn how to adapt. How do you deal with local/global adaptation/mitigation issues?

BILLY: To mitigate or adapt is not a choice. We need to do both, and there are actions that meet the criteria for both. As people learn about what we need to do to prepare and adapt to all of the consequences of climate change, their reaction is, “Oh, my god, how are we going to do it? Is there anything that we can do to make it easier?” And then you start getting into mitigation: “Well, if we start shifting where our energy comes from and become more efficient, then we will have less to adapt to.”

There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “the best time to plant a tree is fifty years ago, but the second best time is today.” There is not the time for delay. This is a time for doing everything we can. We need a big transformation in how we operate as a society, as an economy. But a lot of the technology and resources we need are there—what’s not there is the political will. And that’s where public engagement is so critical.

We also need to work at a scale that’s bigger than the individual but smaller than the whole planet. Working at a community scale, where people have the strongest sphere of influence and can actually see change happen, feels doable. You can take advantage of the social diffusion of innovation and knowledge that tends to happen among people who have some kind of a connection, whether it’s a town, a neighborhood, a faith community, a school, a workplace, etc. And you can build from there—from local to regional to global. If you start with the global it tends to be really, really overwhelming and puts people off. It doesn’t enable you to cultivate that sense of self-efficacy as effectively.

AL: In the beginning of this discussion, you talked about staff training. Do you have any thoughts about the role of staff training and the best approaches to it?

BILLY: Education staff at museums—even more than exhibits or programs—are an incredible resource to help effectively engage the public. Because they can have the responsive and adaptive conversations, whether it’s with kids or adults, needed  to develop human relationships. Educators can be very, very skilled at reading their audience and responding to their questions and interests. But to do that effectively on an issue like climate, you need to understand what effective communication looks and sounds like and develop the skills to do it.

In a project with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, originally funded by the National Science Foundation and now continuing with funding from NOAA and other sources, we developed an effective training model for acquiring these skills. The training program, which originally took about 100 hours, is now available as a “crash course” that takes about 25 hours and can be done online. We’re happy to partner and share that work with children’s museums.

But it’s not just about training, it’s also about building a supportive community of peer professionals, at your institution and at other institutions, so that when issues come up you can share resources, problem solve together, and give each other emotional support in what can sometimes be very challenging work. The network worked a lot with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Association of Science and Technology Centers to advance the state of the art in climate communications. Organizations like ACM can play a really important role in the same way.

AL: Some children’s museum they might say they don’t have sufficient in-house expertise to work successfully in the climate change domain. What recommendations do you have about possible collaborations that could bring the required expertise to the table to maximize their impact?

BILLY: Start locally: who can you work with? It could be another museum, your public health department, a university, or another community organization. If museum leadership is ready and willing, think about what kind of role you want to play. A museum can directly engage and educate the public, but it can also be a place for conversation, a forum for deliberative discussions to engage the public. Think about how you want to demonstrate sustainable practices at your institution. Or about how you want to partner with community organizations to help strengthen community resilience, which could be about climate, or it could also be about building social capital and social cohesion. Think about working with youth organizations to help cultivate youth leadership and advocacy in some form.

More broadly, think about how you want to work regionally and nationally, whether it’s with other children’s museums or other organizations to be part the larger public engagement movement around climate change. Over the past couple years, I have been working with what is now called the US ACE (Action for Climate Empowerment) Coalition, which focuses on a part of the Paris Agreement that’s focused on promoting public engagement, and not just reducing carbon emissions. We’ve started building a nationwide coalition of non-government actors who are involved in that kind of work to join those on the government side. There are a lot of opportunities for coalition building and collaboration at multiple levels.

AL: In seeking climate education collaborations, aside from the public health entities you mentioned, what other folks in the community should we be paying more attention to?

BILLY: Think about community organizations that are working on issues that you might not immediately think are climate-related. A lot of artists and arts organizations are interpreting climate issues. In my work at the Hitchcock Center, I’ve been talking to folks who are doing different kinds of community work—health, housing, economic opportunity, or food security. They’re really interested in the intersection of their work and climate and partnering with other groups like us to explore that. Children’s museums have some incredible assets as places that focus on holistic wellness and child development, and those are important resources to bring to the table. Once you start stating your interests and intentions, you find more and more people interested in exploring partnerships. Every time you talk to a potential partner, ask them, “Who else should be I talking to?” The number of contacts starts to grow exponentially. Cast a wide net.

AL: How does the issue of environmental justice factor into the work that you do?

BILLY: The intersection of climate and environmental justice issues is becoming more apparent. Who is disproportionately impacted by environmental issues, climate and other economic disparities, social risk factors, health risk factors? They’re all interconnected, and folks in the public health world really see that intersection systematically. A population with some vulnerability is likely to have multiple vulnerabilities in multiple areas. At the Hitchcock Center, we used Census data to identify populations facing a predominance of risk factors—economic, social, and health—and then overlaid them with the environmental and climate risk factors to help target who’s most important to reach first in terms of programming and partnerships. The unfortunate fact is that the populations who tend to bear the brunt of climate-related issues are the ones who can least afford to deal with it, and have done the least to contribute to the problem.

AL: Final thoughts?

BILLY: It’s clear we’re facing some really, really big challenges around climate, and as a society. This is the time for all of our institutions to think about stepping up to the plate and understanding how critical education is to a healthy and effective democratic society.  This is our opportunity to think about how the work we do is so necessary and can become even more impactful. We have a high hill to climb but we can do this together.  I’ve seen so much progress in the last few years in the aquarium and zoo field. Climate has gone from an issue that was rarely talked about to the norm. The children’s museum field can take heart in that and really get excited about working together.

Listen to a complete recording of this live interview.

Building Sustainability, Inside and Out

This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Lance Cutrer, Museum of Discovery and Science

The Museum of Discovery and Science (MODS) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has embarked on a journey to claim our position in the community as a leader in sustainability and resiliency. Our vision is to create a hub for learning, planning, and community discussion focused on tackling issues related to climate change. This comprehensive approach, built upon decades of environmental education and science-based learning, began at our founding in 1977 (when we were called the Discovery Center). In 1992, we opened our current location and took another step toward environmental education with the introduction of our EcoScapes exhibit. Still open today, an updated EcoScapes carries museum guests through the various ecosystems of South Florida to highlight the importance of a healthy natural environment.  Our next step, in 2011, allowed us to enter the world of green building when we opened a 25-million-dollar expansion called the EcoDiscovery Center. The center, which doubled our public space, was designed to meet LEED Silver designation under the U.S. Green Building Council LEED rating system.

In 2019, CEO Joe Cox and the board of trustees built upon this long history and solidified our commitment to sustainability with our 2020-2025 strategic plan. Along with early childhood learning, health and wellness education, and physical science education, the strategic plan now incorporates environmental sustainability as the museum’s fourth content pillar. The new pillar has led us to take numerous industry-first steps. In addition to hiring our first ever environmental sustainability manager, MODS has begun the design process for a new permanent exhibit focused on addressing climate issues. We have also implemented new internships designed to educate youth on resiliency issues, and taken steps toward lowering our own resource footprint. To fulfill our vision to become a community hub for resilience and sustainability, MODS is joining forces with dozens of local partners and experts to bring the community together and show that large-scale action can show real results when addressing climate change.

Why Focus on Sustainability and Resiliency?

Being more sustainable, focusing on more efficient building processes, and seeking green energy alternatives is not new. Many institutions have successfully undertaken such initiatives, often to great success. Like many others, we believe we must become good stewards of the Earth and address many issues to ensure that future generations inherit the same, or better, living standards currently available. These issues include carbon pollution, sea-level rise, extreme heat, more extreme weather events, environmental degradation, resource scarcity, and environmental justice. Our South Florida location is ground zero for negative outcomes related to all these issues. Hurricanes are predicted to become stronger, sea levels have already begun to rise, and extreme heat will put our most vulnerable stakeholders at risk. So, becoming more sustainable and resilient is an easy decision.

However, MODS is not embarking on a stealth or siloed operation. Leveraging our long history of institutional sustainability and green building practices and building on society’s trust in museums, we will actively involve as many stakeholders as we can to bolster the whole community. According to the American Alliance of Museums, people believe that museums, and especially science centers, are a highly credible source of information (Merritt, 2019). In addition, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that people trust science news from museums more than any other institution or news outlet (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2019). MODS wants to be a good steward of that trust and make positive change not only for the museum, but for the entire community. Through various education initiatives, the museum will focus on solutions to address the effects of climate change and lead museum guests, employees, and outside stakeholders to action.

Luckily, we are not starting from scratch. The City of Fort Lauderdale and, more broadly, Broward County, have already started research and policy implementation on a number of issues related to sustainability and resiliency. MODS is partnering with government and business interests to educate the community on climate issues and the solutions being implemented and developed, including the Broward County Resilient Environment Department and its Chief Resiliency Officer, plus the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance. This work is guided by the Broward County Climate Action Plan; a multi-disciplinary and inclusive document that focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emission and making sure communities are equally adapted to the changes coming through a warmer world.

Programs and Initiative Highlights   

Despite a global pandemic, with the creation of the new strategic plan in 2020 and the support of new and existing funders, MODS began several new sustainability initiatives.

  • Environmental Sustainability Manager

In the summer of 2021, MODS invested in creating a new staff position, Environmental Sustainability Manager (ESM). Because of our education-first mindset and our mission to connect people to inspiring science, the position is appropriately housed in the education department. The ESM creates new educational programs and curricula focused on sustainability and resilience issues. They are also charged with incorporating these principles into existing educational offerings.

Along with educational goals, the ESM is also responsible for helping museum leadership manage the museum’s overall sustainability plans. From aiding in the design of a new resilience exhibit, to creating a Sustainability Action Plan, the ESM’s role at MODS crosses boundaries into exhibits, building operations, and procurement departments.

Because environmental sustainability is one of the museum’s four core pillars, a cross-departmental perspective and interdisciplinary cooperation are essential to create a good sustainability action plan. To this end, the museum has adopted a philosophy from the sustainable business world: the Triple Bottom Line (TBL), is an accounting framework that measures an organization’s success not only in terms of monetary success but includes positive outcomes in the environmental and social realms. To put it simply, the Triple Bottom Line endeavors to drive positive change for people, planet, and profit. As MODS continues to evolve toward higher levels of sustainability and resiliency, we plan to incorporate the TBL philosophy more and more into every day and strategic planning.

  • Educational Programming Focused on Sustainability and Resilience

Since starting in the summer of 2021, the ESM began implementing educational programs centered on sustainability and resilience, the first being the Everglades EcoExplorer Internship, a paid internship intended to motivate high school students to become Environmental Ambassadors. EcoExplorer interns learn about the environment of South Florida, namely the Everglades, and how the natural resources of the community contribute to social health and prosperity. The students then become museum ambassadors, taking the knowledge they gain from field excursions and classroom experiences and delivering it to museum guests. This supports the internship program’s   goal to help students develop their work readiness by teaching them professionalism and public speaking skills.

In addition, the ESM, with help from museum leadership and several community partners, has begun a monthly guest speaker series focused on careers in resilience. Through this series, interns gain valuable insight from professionals in the sustainability and resiliency arena and learn about a number of possible career pathways, including careers in public policy with local/state government or private consulting firms, careers in engineering and architecture specializing in building resilient infrastructure and green buildings, careers in education specifically focused on climate education and healthy ecosystems, and careers in scientific research to find the best solutions for adapting to a changing climate. In addition to sparking interest in new fields, the series will create future change-makers for our community. Following its first-year success, the Everglades EcoExplorer internship program will nearly double enrollment, growing from thirty interns in four high schools to fifty interns from eight high schools. In addition, we will be moving from paying the interns a set stipend to paying them an hourly wage to promote accessibility and equity.

Furthering our goal to become a hub for resilience and putting our outside spaces to better use, the MODS Food Forest was installed during the summer of 2021. The once simple grassy area surrounding our outdoor Science Park is now planted with saplings and seedlings of a plethora of tropical fruit trees and shrubs. This rejuvenated space was generously brought to life by our partner organization, Thrive Lot, a public benefit corporation that designs, installs, and maintains edible landscapes and forest gardens in collaboration with local master growers and skilled specialists. The Food Forest demonstrates our commitment to community-scale actions achievable through partnerships—we would not have been able to install the garden without them.  Utilizing local knowledge through an organization called New River Gardens, Thrive Lot helps us maintain the Food Forest as well. The Food Forest is also a great example of an initiative that drives Triple Bottom Line positivity.  Planet:  Replacing grass with drought-tolerant plants means less maintenance and lowering irrigation needs means saving water.  People:  Carrying forward our mission of connecting more people to inspiring science, we are showing them where food comes from and giving them ideas on how they can do the same at home or in their neighborhood.  Prosperity:  The Food Forest has already garnered positive attention from community leaders and the local school district and has raised the profile of MODS as an organizational leader. Through their involvement in the Food Forest project, the ESM has become a new liaison for Broward County Public Schools (BCPS). Deepening this existing partnership allows MODS to collaborate with county educators to create impactful curriculum for both the county’s youth and MODS guests.

The partnership with BCPS is not limited to the Food Forest. MODS collaborates extensively with BCPS on many efforts; however, one event stands out for advancing sustainability and resiliency education: the Youth Climate Summit which will engage over 3,000 middle and high school students from all over the county on issues related to climate change. This upcoming summit is the fourth annual meeting and plans to expand on previous summits by offering two events:  a virtual two-day conference and an in-person, in-depth climate solutions summit.  Taking place this spring at MODS, the Youth Climate Summit will bring in local, regional, and national experts to lead sessions focused on solutions and how to take action, with a particular focus on environmental justice and inspiring youth to work toward fair and just solutions.

A Look to the Future

In leading a museum-wide transformation toward sustainability and resiliency, we see a bright, at times challenging, future. We are ready to adapt to the effects of a changing climate and lead our community to a better future by taking what we are already doing and expanding it one-hundred-fold.

At the center of our efforts lies a new permanent exhibit solely focused on resilience. Pathways to Resilience, now in the early stages of development, will occupy approximately 4,000 square feet on the museum’s first floor.  This exhibit will aim to educate museum guests on current issues related to climate change and inspire them to take action of their own. By concentrating on solutions to local issues, such as water conservation, lowering individual carbon footprints, and learning how to successfully advocate on neighborhood issues, as well as highlighting aspirational actions across the world, we anticipate that guests will leave with concrete ideas of what they can do to address the issues that are most important to them. In addition to creating a new exhibit, we are also updating current exhibits with an increased focus on resiliency. These updates will key in on topics such as hurricane and extreme weather preparation in our Storm Center exhibit, the benefits of healthy ecosystems provide, like flood protection and natural cooling through shade, native species conservation in our Ecoscapes area, and the science of human-induced climate change in the Prehistoric Florida exhibit.  These updates will align with messages in the new exhibit, creating a cohesive guest experience.

All building operations are also being evaluated to ensure internal systems are as efficient as possible. We are planning to expand the existing efficiencies of our LEED Silver designed Eco Discovery Center to the entire museum; the Sustainability Action Plan will detail steps to reduce energy, water, and waste and improve the indoor and outdoor experience for all stakeholders.  Specific actions such as switching to all LED-powered lights, renewing our building envelope to ensure unwanted warm air isn’t leaking in, and installing low-flow water fixtures throughout the museum are low-hanging fruit we know will help us save resources. Going beyond these simple fixes will include developing a Sustainable Purchasing Policy and Green Cleaning Policy to ensure environmentally and socially favorable products are brought into the museum, installing more renewable energy generation on-site via solar, wind, or green hydrogen, and installing rainwater catch systems for outside irrigation needs.  As MODS takes steps to bolster our own sustainability and resiliency, we will share our experiences and encourage as many community partners and stakeholder as possible to work together to drive positive change for TBL’s planet, people, and profit.

We have set a high bar for MODS:  transform our community into one that is more resource responsible and able to bounce back from disruptions caused by a changing climate.  But we will fail if we tackle this issue alone. We don’t have time for a world where individuals all try their hardest; we must work together to avoid catastrophic failure.  We believe that museums have a unique power to bring communities together and lead them to a better tomorrow.

  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (2019). Encountering Science in America. Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  • Merritt, E. (2019). TrendsWatch 2019: Truth, Trust and Fake News. American Alliance of Museums. Retrieved from

Lance Cutrer is the first environmental sustainability manager at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Prior to this, he was a middle school science teacher and educational coordinator for an environmental learning program.

When to Begin? Early Memories Build the Foundation for Environmental Learning

This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Charlie Trautmann, PhD, Cornell University

Many children’s museums are thinking about whether to introduce the difficult but increasingly important topic of climate science into their programs. They are looking for guidance not only on where to start, but does it make sense for their primary audience of very young visitors. Will preschoolers even remember anything about this complex and sometimes scary topic?

Whether the purpose of a visit to a children’s museum is education, relationship-building, entertainment, or some other goal, the visit often involves making memories. When museum professionals understand the basic elements of how human memory works, they can design for the types of memories they want children and families to have when developing experiences for their audiences.


Before we apply the science of memory to museums, it is helpful to understand the time element of memory. Psychologists use three timeframes when discussing memory: sensory, short term, and long term.

Sensory memory is ultra-short, ranging from a few milliseconds to seconds. Our five senses provide information continuously, and most of it cannot be processed fully or stored (Sperling 1963; Orey 2021a). The image of a giant robotic dinosaur, the sound of the spark from a Van de Graaff generator, or the voice of the staff member who asked us not to run are all sensory memories. Some sensory information does survive and moves to a different part of the brain, becoming retained in short-term memory.

Short-term memory, also called “active” or “working” memory, lasts for only 20-45 seconds (Miller 1956). We have a relatively small capacity to keep information in working memory, with a limit of five to nine items, and so after sensing something, we need to do something with the information, or it will be lost (Miller 1956).

Some short-term memories become preserved, or “consolidated,” into long-term memories (Dudai et al. 2015). Long-term memories can last a lifetime. However, since short- and long-term memories occur in different parts of the brain, a transfer of information is required. In many cases, consolidation takes place during sleep. Key Point #1: Getting adequate sleep promotes improved memory (Ruch et al. 2012).


To describe five common types of long-term memory, psychologists usually divide them into two groups: conscious and unconscious, as shown below in Figure 1 on preceding page (adapted from Saylor Academy 2012).

Conscious Memory: Conscious memory involves consciously recalling information, such as what that happened a minute ago, or last year, or what two plus two equals (Cherry 2020). Within this broad category, episodic memory is recalling specific personal events, such as the time, place, and description of something that happened to us. Can you remember your first kiss or the senior high-school prom? These are episodic memories. In contrast, a semantic memory is a piece of general knowledge that has no specific time or place associated with it, such as “dogs have four legs” or “grass is green.”

The two types of conscious memory interact: semantic knowledge often starts as a sensory experience and becomes an episodic memory for a period of time. The child who releases a blown-up balloon taped to a straw on a string experiences the phenomenon of jet propulsion, which might stick in her mind as an episodic memory for that day. Eventually the time and place will become lost to her, and the concept of Newton’s Third Law—that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”—will just become part of her general (semantic) knowledge about the way the world works.

On the other hand, episodic memory relies on our framework of semantic knowledge: the more we know about a subject, the more likely we are to be interested in further learning about it, paying attention to new sensory information that comes to us, and remembering it. The young boy who can watch birds at a window feeder during breakfast is much more likely to engage with an exhibit about the migration of birds at the museum. Key Point #2: Episodic memory and semantic memory can support each other.

Another important fact is that most humans have few episodic memories before the age of four or five. This universal phenomenon, called “infantile amnesia,” means that although children hungrily learn from the time of birth, young children are unlikely to reward their caregivers or museum educators with descriptions of their learning experiences.

Unconscious memory: In contrast to conscious memories, unconscious memories, also called “implicit” or “automatic” memories, are those that we don’t think about on a conscious level (Squire and Dede 2015). These kinds of memories are also important, because they influence our actions and behavior. Three primary types of implicit memories are of particular interest to museums.

Procedural memory refers to motor and cognitive skills that allow us to walk, talk, ride a bike, or type without consciously thinking. Children’s museums provide many opportunities, particularly for children with the fewest opportunities, to develop their procedural memory. In designed spaces, early learners can develop and practice gross motor skills, fine motor skills, observational skills, and sensory perception, often in ways they can’t at home. Although some would consider such activities frivolous, children at play are often testing their theories about the way the world works and, in so doing, are developing the foundations of scientific thinking (Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl 1999). Key Point #3: It is important that we emphasize the concept of learning through play to our stakeholders, and particularly to funders, who sometimes balk at the idea of supporting “play” with their funding.

Priming refers to how recalling information from one domain can trigger memories in another domain. In other words, by strategically activating knowledge in one area, we can use that activated knowledge to elicit knowledge in another area. Staff and volunteers can use priming questions with museum visitors, activating their prior knowledge—perhaps in an unrelated field—as a way of engaging them with a topic (Tulving and Schacter 1990).

Classical conditioning, the third kind of unconscious memory was discovered by Pavlov, who found that one stimulus can become associated, through repetition, with an unrelated stimulus that has a specific response (Cherry 2019). In his famous experiment, Pavlov rang a bell when feeding dogs, and this feeding caused them to salivate. Eventually the dogs would salivate whenever he rang the bell, even if no food were present. Marketers employ classical conditioning when they associate a logo or audio jingle with a pleasurable experience; the McDonald’s jingle can conjure up images, thoughts, and even smells of burgers and fries on the radio. Museums seeking to evoke positive thoughts and increased visitation can use their sounds, logos, and other images in much the same way.


Now that we have an understanding of the common types of memory, let’s apply it to a current topic of interest to many children’s museums: climate change. How can we prepare our children for the future without: 1) boring them with semantic knowledge about the climate they will largely forget, 2) traumatizing them with episodic memories of climate change in a way that scares them and prevents them from connecting with the topic, or 3) conditioning them, through repetition, to simply ignore or shut down on the topic of climate change?

One approach is first for children’s museums to capitalize on their ability to inspire relationships among people, objects, places, and concepts. As poignantly expressed by Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught” (Valenti and Tavana 2005).

Museums are well-positioned to inspire a child’s love for the natural environment by creating positive semantic memories about animals, places, water, and other elements of the environment that will last a lifetime. These positive memories about the environment can form a foundation to support later learning about the environment and its key systems, in a way that is age-appropriate and in line with a child’s cognitive learning abilities.

Second, through their programs and exhibits, children’s museums can encourage children to improve their critical thinking skills, which are important in countering much of the disinformation about climate change. Museums can help children become more comfortable in asking good questions, and simultaneously building children’s confidence to seek help from adults in answering their own questions. Museums can advance these goals by helping adults understand how children learn and form memories so that they can support childhood learning most effectively.


The science of climate change is complex. Many children’s museums struggle with the decision to include it at all for their primarily very young audiences. What engaging activities related to climate change could be presented in a playful way that a four-year-old would even remember? But as many other authors in this issue have stated, the early years are the optimal time for laying a learning foundation of critical thinking skills and building a sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world, which in time, can blossom into a conservation mindset. By understanding how memory works, children’s museums can enhance learning and other positive impacts for the children and families they serve. Positive episodic memories and semantic memories can enhance each other, and museum educators can use this understanding to create the most effective programs and exhibits.


  • Cherry K, 2019. What is Classical Conditioning?
  • Cherry, K. 2020, What is memory?
  • Dudai, Y.; Karni, A.; Born, J. 2015. “The consolidation and transformation of memory”. Neuron. 88 (1): 20–32. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.09.004. PMID 26447570.
  • Gopnik, A, Meltzoff, A, and Kuhl, P, 1999. The Scientist in the Crib. New York: William Morrow, p. 304.
  • Miller, G. 1956. “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information.” The Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.
  • Orey, M. 2021. “Information Processing: Short-term Memory.”
  • Orey, M. 2021. “Information Processing: Long-term Memory.”
  • Ruch, S.; Markes, O.; Duss, B. S.; Oppliger, D. Reber; Koenig, T.; Mathis, J.; Roth, C.; Henke, K. 2012. “Sleep stage II contributes to the consolidation of declarative memories”. Neuropsychologia. 50 (10): 2389-2396. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2012.06.008. PMID 22750121.
  • Saylor Academy, 2012. Introduction to Psychology, vol. 1.
  • Sperling, G. 1963. “A model for visual memory tasks”. Human Factors. 5: 19–31. doi:10.1177/001872086300500103.
  • Squire, LR and Dede, AJO. 2015. “Conscious and Unconscious Memory Systems.” Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives on Biology. 7(3). doi: 10.1101/cshperspect.a021667
  • Trautmann, C.H. and Ghosh, A., 2021. “Memory and Museums.” Informal Learning Review, No. 168, Jul/Aug 2021, pp. 6-12.
  • Tulving E, Schacter DL. 1990. “Priming and human memory systems”. Science. 247 (4940): 301–6. Bibcode:1990Sci…247..301T. doi:10.1126/science.2296719. PMID 2296719. S2CID 40894114.
  • Valenti, JoAnn M.; Tavana, Gaugau (2005). “Report: Continuing Science Education for Environmental Journalists and Science Writers (In Situ With the Experts)”. Science Communication. 27 (2): 300–10. doi:10.1177/1075547005282474

Charlie Trautmann is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. He is director emeritus of the Sciencenter of Ithaca, New York, and a past board member of the Association of Children’s Museums and the Association of Science and Technology Centers. At Cornell, he teaches Environmental Psychology and directs the Environment and Community Relations (EnCoRe) Lab. He can be reached at

For Our Children, the Planet, and Our Budgets: Museums Learn to Manage Energy

This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Stephanie Shapiro and Sarah Sutton, Environment & Culture Partners

Culture Over Carbon is a research project designed to improve the museum field’s understanding of energy use by examining data from five types of museums (art, science, children’s, history, and natural history), plus zoos and aquariums, gardens, and historic sites. The two-year research period, which began in September 2021, will cover at least 150 institutions in all geographic regions of the United States, spanning varying sizes and types of buildings (e.g., office vs. collection storage). The project will collect enough information to establish an energy carbon footprint estimate for the museum sector, while creating individual “roadmaps” to help participating institutions understand and use energy more efficiently. Resulting aggregate data will boost the cultural sector’s broad understanding of its current energy practices and help to plan for future expected changes in energy availability, policies, and regulations.

Culture Over Carbon is funded by a National Leadership grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to the New England Museum Association, which leads the project in partnership with Environment & Culture Partners and the nonprofit energy consultants New Buildings Institute (NBI).

Why this Project?

Very few museums have the ability or resources to monitor and assess their own energy use, especially during this prolonged period of economic stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet without this data they are unable to make strategic energy management decisions to save money or reduce the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) that worsen the climate crisis.

Museum staff interested in benchmarking their energy use and comparing use reductions struggle with the lack of comparisons. While the Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building certification program and the Environmental Protection Agency’s EnergyStar program provide energy performance ratings for buildings, there is no comparison framework/Energy Star score specifically for museums. (There are too few museum-user entries to create appropriate comparisons from a broad base of information.) Museums can join the International Association of Museum Facilities Administrators, which provides access to comparative data from about 200 institutions, but at a cost. Even with this information, staff and leadership often still struggle with how to make good energy use choices and how to pay for them, especially when they may require sometimes costly changes to existing operations.

Nearly every other major US sector understands that its energy use impacts the climate in some ways and has paths to strategically reduce their emissions. Without this context or guides to implementation, it is difficult for museums to find the means to make these shifts. As codes and regulations change—and budgets get tighter—museums need a strong case for competing for public and private funding for compliance.

The Culture Over Carbon project seeks to build a research foundation by focusing on the following questions:

  • • What are key aspects of the current state of energy consumption and management in the US museum field?
  • • What is the best available estimate of the field’s current energy use?
  • • Can the information derived from energy meter data in samplings of similar institutions or spaces (animal and plant life support, material collections care, education spaces, exhibit galleries, and office spaces) reveal areas where most museums of that type are likely to expend the most energy?
  • • Can these use profiles support individual institutions as they prioritize modifications to operations, buildings, or mechanical systems for energy savings that reduce cost and GHG emissions?

The climate challenge is so significant that all who can possibly participate in creating solutions must do what they can. Until now, the museum sector has done little research on its own energy use, spent little time looking ahead to predict changes, and has expended minimal effort into articulating the need for investment in our energy systems to make better decisions. As nonprofit institutions, many museums recognize that they have a mission-driven responsibility to limit negative impacts of their work while modeling thoughtful, responsible behavior. Recognizing our fiduciary responsibility, this project tackles both the global and institutional issues that are so important to our futures.

How it Works

Participating museums provide general building information describing their building design and construction, and how it is used. Based on their submission of twelve months of past energy use data, they will receive a profile of their site which prioritizes areas of concern and provides a roadmap of next steps, including working with an energy technician or engineer to achieve results. Many are eligible to receive a stipend for sharing their data.

Using all the data collected during the project, NBI will create a free report that identifies the variety and extent of energy formats and uses in the museum sector, comments on the most common areas for improvement, and offers recommendations for how the field can collectively reduce energy use that contributes to global warming.

Culture over Carbon participants share their energy use data through Energy Star Portfolio Manager (ESPM), a free online software program provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Anyone running a home or a building can use ESPM to understand how much energy is used on a monthly and yearly basis, and what the GHG emissions are. Many museums of all types or sizes already use ESPM for budgeting and managing energy consumption. However, the Carbon Over Culture project will move beyond this basic level by processing the data through First View, a software program developed by NBI with EPA funding to explore the research questions stated earlier.

If you are interested in learning more, please contact Sarah Sutton ( or Brenda Baker (, children’s museum sector organizer and project advisor.

Stephanie Shapiro and Sarah Sutton co-founded the nonprofit organization Environment & Culture Partners (previously Sustainable Museums) in 2021 to strengthen and broaden the environmental leadership of the cultural sector. Sutton, CEO, now lives in Tacoma, Washington; Shapiro, managing director, lives in Washington, DC.

Climate Action Heroes in the Museum, Online, and Soon at Dulles Airport

A father and daughter play in the Climate Action Heroes exhibit at National Children's Museum
This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Langley Lease and Paige Childs, National Children’s Museum

Engaging children and their families in a meaningful dialogue around climate change can be tricky, to say the least. How do we playfully introduce children to this serious topic and inspire them to take action?

Answering this question became a priority in 2018 during the early stages of developing the newest iteration of National Children’s Museum, which opened in February 2020 in Washington, DC. It was evident that climate change lacked representation when assessing the landscape of children’s museum content at that time. As an institution that combines children’s museum experiences with science center content, it felt both natural and necessary to dedicate exhibit space to such a timely and critical science topic.

With the help of educators and experts, the museum developed its Climate Action Heroes framework, which empowers young activists to defeat climate “villains” while exploring the science behind climate change. Located in our Innovation Sandbox space, this exhibit will live in our museum for at least the next two years. (More can be learned about the museum’s in-person and virtual Climate Action Heroes experiences in the November 2020 issue of Hand to Hand.)

Since the museum’s reopening to the public in September 2021, the in-person Climate Action Heroes experience has been named a favorite exhibit by 28 percent of visitors who complete a post-visit survey. The climate science-dedicated space in the museum has influenced our on-site and digital programming priorities, community partnerships, and future exhibit development. In fact, a Climate Action Heroes experience will soon make its debut at Dulles International Airport, where children will be invited to discover climate-friendly travel tips and challenges. Content is continuously added to the digital experience at, including monthly missions that share small ways young activists can help protect the planet.

At National Children’s Museum, our mission is to inspire children to care about and change the world. Our changing climate is one of the most important issues facing our world today. As stewards of the next generation, we believe it is our duty to empower and inspire young innovators and activists. This means committing to and expanding upon our work in climate science. Climate change and the important role today’s children will have in tomorrow’s solutions will remain an undercurrent in every facet of National Children’s Museum’s work, from our daily operations to the programs we offer. Climate Action Heroes is just the start.

Langley Lease is exhibits + experience manager and Paige Childs is communications + digital specialist at the National Children’s Museum in Washington, DC.

Rebounding through Making and Tinkering

Nature face craft at Knock Knock Children's Museum
This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Rachel Daigre, Cate Heroman, and Alexandra Pearson, Knock Knock Children’s Museum

In 2019, MakerEd, a nonprofit organization that brings maker education to communities, selected Knock Knock Children’s Museum to be a regional hub for Making Spaces, a two-year professional learning and capacity-building program designed to support local leadership around maker education, with an emphasis on sustainability and growth. Knock Knock then selected program participants, including fifty preK-third grade educators and administrators from eight elementary schools as well as staff from the nearby public library.

After Hurricane Ida passed through our region in August 2021, Knock Knock provided resources and guidance to help children cope after this natural disaster. To extend our reach, we decided to use our October Making Spaces training as an opportunity to help educators create supportive learning environments in response to severe weather events. We brainstormed how we might use making and tinkering experiences to accomplish two goals: 1) support the emotional needs of children during traumatic events and 2) help deepen their knowledge and understanding of weather-related events in our community.

To reach the first goal, we wanted to inspire teachers to create environments and provide experiences to help children:

  • • calm themselves;
  • • express feelings and emotions; and
  • • cope with frustration (C. Heroman & J. Bilmes 2005).

To achieve the second goal, we talked about all the things that children might experience during hurricanes: strong winds, power outages, downed trees, flooding, community helpers, lost or destroyed toys, lost pets, gas shortages, long lines, no electronic games to play, giving/receiving donations, damaged buildings, evacuating, relocating, and more.

With these two goals in mind, we set up activities throughout the museum that educators could explore and later implement in their classrooms. The public library assisted by sharing children’s books—both fiction and nonfiction—to support children’s understanding of this weather disaster and to help them cope with their feelings. Teachers quickly realized how they could use the making and tinkering experiences listed below to help children recover from the effects of severe weather events:

Big Backyard: creating weavings and faces with items from nature;

Maker Shop: creating homemade circuit switches in a homemade neighborhood that could be broken by tree limbs, making battery-operated fans and flashlights, making whirligigs powered by wind;

Art Garden: creating miniature Zen gardens, making string art by hammering nails and wrapping them with string, wrapping sticks with yarn to make patterns;

By-You Building: exploring wind at the wind tunnel, building strong houses and water bottle forts;

Paws & Claws: designing and building pet carriers, creating lost pet posters;

Geaux Figure! Playhouse: creating homemade board games;

Go Go Garage: using a homemade grappler tool and working as a team to move roadblocks and ease traffic on the racetrack, playing with model bucket trucks;

Bubble Playground: making floating boats, discovering items that sink or float;

Story Tree: exploring books related to hurricanes as well as supporting the emotional needs of children.

After an hour of exploration, the educators met by grade levels to reflect on these questions:

  • • What was a big “aha moment”—a new activity you really liked and want to try in your classroom?
  • • How might you adapt this for your class and available resources?
  • • What similar activities have you already done in your programs?
  • • How might you integrate these activities into your curriculum?
  • • How would you use any of these experiences as documentation in your assessment of children’s learning?
  • • How did these making and tinkering experiences support the emotional needs of children?

With the increasing occurrence of hurricanes and floods, children in our community are experiencing phenomena that are difficult to comprehend. Planning new ways to help them and their families understand and rebound after disasters is critical. Making Spaces teachers walked away with making and tinkering strategies to use now and in the future to help children cope, deepen their knowledge, and spark their curiosities.

  • • Knock Knock Children’s Museum Helping Children Rebound Resources
  • • Heroman, C. & Bilmes, J. (2005). Helping Children Rebound: Strategies for Preschool Teachers After the 2005 Hurricanes. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies, Inc.

Rachel Daigre is director of learning innovation; Cate Heroman is education committee chair; and Alexandra Pearson is Maker Shop manager at Knock Knock Children’s Museum in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Stand Back: Watching and Learning from Returning Families

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Pam Hillestad, Glazer Children’s Museum

I believe passionately in silver linings, but I have to admit that even my optimistic ideals were shaken to the core when we re-opened the Glazer Children’s Museum in June 2020. None of us knew what to expect. From a business standpoint, I wasn’t sure how we were going to recover, but I was even more worried about how we were going to create a positive experience for families coming out of quarantine. Would they come? What would they expect? What would they need? We weren’t sure, but we hoped that if we watched and listened we would figure it out.

Fairly quickly, we noticed that groups stayed together and experienced the museum differently than they had in the past. They remained in family units and were much more aware of where their children were and what they were doing throughout their visit. No longer distracted by phones, conversations, or the outside world, adults appeared more physically and mentally involved in their family’s visit. The reality of the threat of COVID-19 and navigating a new normal seemed to force them to be more present in the moment. We saw caregivers genuinely immersed in their children’s experiences.

Capitalizing on Change

We were not surprised that caregivers were newly cautious, but we were excited at the renewed attention they gave to their children and the overall level of family engagement. Preparing to add daily programming back into the schedule, we asked ourselves, “What if we could create programming in such a way that even when COVID-19 is no longer a concern, families still exhibit this kind of engagement during museum visits?” In an attempt to answer this question, we re-imagined our daily programming schedule and began to prototype what eventually became the Family Play Project (FPP).

First, we set up a programming area designed to give families their own spaces within it. The museum has two staircases. When we reopened, we designated one as the “up” staircase and one as the “down” staircase. The programming space we chose at the top of the “up” staircase was immediately visible and welcoming to families as they made their way to the second floor. In this 1,100-square-foot area, we set up six small, family-sized tables, six feet apart, and put a bottle of hand sanitizer on each table. Our program team staff, called playologists, stood near the top of the stairs and invited guests into the area to try the day’s activity. They shared materials and instructions with families by placing items on colorful trays and passing each family a tray as they entered the space and sat at their own table to participate.

In the first few months, activity themes changed frequently. On one day, we would offer an art activity at 10:00 a.m. and then a STEM activity at 11:00 a.m., for example. In one of these first art programs, playologists gave families a tray of leaves and other natural objects and invited them to use a glue gun, eye stickers, paint sticks, and other materials to create an animal or picture of some sort to either leave on a gallery wall or take home. After handing each family a tray, playologists then stepped aside to allow them to complete the activity on their own. Initially intended to keep both staff and guests at a social distance from each other, this type of “hands-off” programming was a big shift for everyone. Our playologists were used to interacting with children face-to-face while parents either opted out or participated in a cursory way. Families were used to letting us guide their play.

We put this new format in place as a temporary measure to help staff and guests feel safer. However, we soon found it also gave our program team time to observe and encourage family play. More importantly, we discovered it allowed caregivers more time and space to engage deeply with their children around the program. It wasn’t just that they were keeping closer tabs on their children’s physical location during a museum visit; we now saw a new level of interest in the programming activities. We saw deepened, joyful connections and knew we had stumbled upon something important.

Committing to Change

As you can imagine, the initial change was not easy for the playologists. The moments of joy the team had formerly experienced working one-on-one with children had been transferred to the caregivers—and that was a hard adjustment at first. The team missed their old interactions with children and weren’t sure they were doing their jobs correctly anymore. After all, who were we, if we were not directly instructing or playing with children? That question led us to take a deep dive into the world of playwork and to begin to determine for ourselves where the intersection of museum play, family play, and playwork lay.

We had to dig in, examine our mission, consult our strategic plan, and determine who we wanted to be and who our families needed us to be—now. And while a little painful at the time (isn’t all change painful?), it was ultimately revelatory. This process has put the museum on a path, toward not only establishing ourselves as convening experts in the field of play, but also centering ourselves in the community as champions of play for children and families. Within a few weeks not only had the percentage of engagement in our daily programs grown, but so too had the amount of dwell time in them, the quality of the interactions, and both the level of participation and overall satisfaction of caregivers. The daily program participation capture rate soared under 10 percent in 2019 to 34 percent in 2021. We felt we had found the holy grail!

By stepping back and providing families with tools, we were building a more meaningful programming space. To celebrate this discovery, we decided to put all of our daily programming “eggs” into the family play “basket,” and we have not looked back. Prior to the pandemic, we had the typical scheduled programming at timed intervals and in different locations throughout the museum. Now we are committed to open programming throughout the day and primarily in one location.

The Family Play Project’s discovery phase continued through the fall of 2020 in the dedicated “up” staircase area. Frequently observing families in the space, we tracked daily metrics as well as dwell times. Families were engaged and having fun, and we were learning how to interact with them from the sidelines, wearing what Penny Wilson calls “the cloak of invisibility” in her essay, “The Playwork Primer,” published by the Alliance for Childhood.

By late December, we were posting daily capture rates over 30 percent. We instinctively knew that this was not simply a COVID-19 phenomenon, but that we had stumbled on the great white whale in children’s museums: a way to build relationships with caregivers and give them the support and space they needed so that they could enjoy a meaningful and playful experience with their children.

Project Appeals to Families—and Donors and Supporters

By January 2021, based in part on metrics and in part on gut feelings, we decided to continue the Family Play Project format for our daily programs in the upstairs space. But instead of running a couple different daily programs, with ever-changing themes, we selected one theme per month, allowing us to deepen the impact. Phase 1 of this new iteration involved building a Family Play Project calendar, choosing a theme for each month and tying as many of the other daily elements and museum spaces of the museum into it. Our first extended focus topic, bears, was an introduction to the Wild Kratts exhibit that followed. A screen in the FPP area was tuned to a Panda Bear webcam, and families learned how to fold origami bears together in the project activity. In addition, playologists learned a number of interesting bear facts to share with guests and all of our story time books were about bears.

Along the way, we also discovered the well-branded Family Play Project was very appealing to partners and donors. In April 2021, we partnered with Tampa Bay Water and created a Family Play Project with a special emphasis on water. Families stepping into the “up” staircase space were welcomed by water-related images on the walls, including art by First Nations Artist Christi Belcourt portraying the interconnectedness of nature and images explaining the water cycle. Families received a tray that included a black sheet of paper, oil pastels, and a copy of a family water pledge, which they could sign. Bilingual signage on each family table shared information about Christi Belcourt as well as some key water-related vocabulary words, such as aquifer, mangrove, and percolation. Children were captivated by the oil pastels, and adults were intrigued by the artist and her technique, which is characterized by rich, saturated colors that look like native beadwork, frequently on a dark background. Many families signed the water pledge as well.

Refining and Adapting—An Ongoing Process

The Family Play Project nicely illustrates the lessons we have learned about family play. While children are almost always eager to participate in an activity, choosing a topic that also interests caregivers increases family involvement. Currently, Family Play Projects are planned well in advance and integrated into the broader museum program. Some months the focus is attached to a partner (Tampa Bay Water) or an exhibit (Daniel Tiger), while other months it is attached to an event (celebrating the museum’s birthday). Each month we develop a theme-based, scaffolded family play activity, a story time book list, a musical play list, and a felt wall in the play space. The Family Play area is open all day long and families participate on their own schedule. Playologists are focused on inviting people into the area and supporting them, while giving families space to do the activities themselves.

We are still in the process of determining exactly what elements complete the perfect recipe for a meaningful, playful family experience, but we are learning more every day. In retrospect, Meditation and Mindfulness, our least successful theme, seemed to be an unfamiliar topic to caregivers, with activities like trying yoga poses and writing affirmations. What seems to consistently work best are themes that involve a lot of loose parts for children and a reason for caregivers to pay attention (either an intriguing topic or a perceived dangerous or “adult” tool, like a glue gun or hammer). Over the last eight months, we have continued to add and tweak elements, consult our play experts and families, and work cross-departmentally to develop a framework that captures what we are seeking. Our current model for the ideal project includes family learning goals based on topics we believe will delight and appeal to both children and adults, such as the use of interesting or novel tools (microscope, skin tone crayons, oil pastels), colorful tabletop and wall signage, multimedia elements, and an opportunity to either display a project on the gallery wall or take it home.

This summer, we added an intercept survey to our metrics, and now ask random families to complete a short survey on their way out of the programming space. To date, responses show that 91.7 percent of caregivers agree or strongly agree their child/children discovered something new about themselves and/or others today; 84 percent agree or strongly agree they discovered something new about themselves or their child today; and 97 percent agree or strongly agree they had fun. These responses have convinced us not only that are we headed in the right direction, but also that we are filling a need for the families we serve. Currently under development, a research project with the Department of Child and Family Studies at the University of South Florida will further probe FPP outcomes and results will guide future work in this area.

While so many difficult and awful things have happened during the past year and a half, we are thankful and extremely glad we took the time to watch, learn, and listen to our families when they returned to the museum. Their vigilance in protecting their own families struck a chord with us and the Family Play Project grew from there. We have recently added back some daily pop-up activities in other areas of the museum throughout the day. Families are starting to relax and sometimes will even join another family at the FPP table. On the whole, they are still more engaged than they were pre-pandemic. It is our deepest hope that the lessons learned will inform our future playwork and help families continue to build deep connections through play.

Pam Hillestad, vice president of play and learning, has served at the Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa, Florida, since 2017. Previously she was a high school English teacher and soccer coach on U.S. Military bases in Portugal, Turkey, Bahrain, and Italy.

Gardens Grow, and So Do We

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.
Q&A with Liz Rosenberg, Chicago Children’s Museum

Before assuming her current role as Lead Arts Educator and Developer in June 2021, Liz worked for twelve years in a variety of other positions at the Chicago Children’s Museum (CCM). Most were part-time, enabling her to also work for Chicago Public Schools as a middle school and high school art teacher. 

Liz came to Chicago from Houston, Texas, to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2005-2009).  As a teen, she volunteered at Children’s Museum Houston and worked on the Teen Council at the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston. She describes herself as “a bit of a museum nut!” Along the way she got a master of teaching degree in art education at Columbia College (2013), worked at a zoo, and sold bath bombs.

Let’s Grow Together, a visitor-created art exhibit, was born out of a desire to celebrate reopening the museum in June 2021.  In a large display case located in a well-trafficked hallway (across from the dinosaur), Liz developed a program to transform the space to welcome returning children and families.  Liz: “So much loss happened while we were closed. But I didn’t want to focus on that so it was natural to think about growth instead, and gardens immediately came to mind. We can’t see all the emotional and social rebuilding that’s happening within us, but we can see a garden grow.” 

For Liz the exhibit was a “great mental challenge as a developer/educator.” Guests dropping in to the Art Studio could make a leaf (or a flower or a bug) and either take it home or tack it to a burlap wall in the studio. Because individual leaves, flowers, and bugs were made over eleven weeks by young visitors, she couldn’t anticipate how the mural would look from week to week.  When the museum was open from Friday through Sunday, Liz worked in the closed museum during the week to gather parts that had been “planted” on the burlap wall (seen in panel #1 of the cartoon) to assemble into the hallway mural. (Panel #2 shows the visitor process in action.)

Liz uses cartooning as a tool to help develop other exhibits and programs. In the cartoon presented at left, Liz portrays the many components of Let’s Grow Together—from the participating artists (kids), to their families/caregivers, to the staff, to the ideas and feelings that the project sparked—in six meaningful and delightful panels.

Let’s Grow Together’s garden beds are full now but will remain on display for the coming year.   —ED

In panel #3, week 1-5 shows flowers, week 5-8 leaves, and week 8-11, bugs. Were you encouraging a botanical story progression? As a gardener, I noticed flowers come before leaves. Huh? But I also notice you included the bugs! Oh, the bugs… 

Liz: Good eye on noticing we planted out of order. Flowers don’t come first, but we started there because it was so bare! I love leaves, but maybe our returning guests wouldn’t find them as interesting as flowers. As it turned out, leaves were the most popular! Just yesterday, a three-year-old talked to me about how he continues to make leaves at home. We ended up with “body builder” leaves, “cat” leaves, “dragon” leaves, “alien” leaves, and “COVID mask” leaves. From a practical standpoint we did leaves second so I could more easily arrange them naturally in bunches around the flowers. (You can see the whole process on my Instagram highlights—

Through Let’s Grow Together, what have you discovered about the kids in your audience? 

Liz: I was amazed at how they really embraced the unique aspect of it all and how responsive they were! We are really into process-based education in the Art Studio at CCM and so I would show them folding techniques to work with symmetry. And that was it! They came up with whatever they wanted! I didn’t think two- or three-year olds would get the symmetry bit very well, but they really seemed to enjoy it.

Your Instagram feed has a lot of cartoons that seem museum-related, e.g. Lay off the Masters, Sock Puppets, Scribbling, Bird Creative Play, etc. Do you actively push these out to museum audiences? Are they related to other programs at the museum?

Liz: Some of my comics have been featured on our CCM Instagram page. During pandemic quarantine, an artist I know asked me to make comics for her to share with her many followers who were caregivers. So, for a while there I challenged myself to make a comic every weekday. She would share them with her followers, and I shared them with mine. I was working very little at the museum at the time. All my videos were made in my own apartment! (I’m the gal with purple hair.) So, yeah, I wanted to help people in the best way I could—with play tips!

Under the developer umbrella, I am also currently working as an illustrator at the museum. I make illustrations to highlight upcoming projects or to help people understand how our spaces can spark play. My illustrations are very comic-like too. Even though these past eighteen months have been really tough, it’s been a great opportunity to try new things.

Do you regularly use cartooning to help develop programs?

Liz: I definitely use how I think about cartooning in my work. A challenge with cartoons is the balance of visual and word. I see that same challenge when introducing activities in the museum. I want kids and grownups to use their imaginations and the visual cues all around to inspire their making. So, sometimes I have to hold back. I can get too wordy in my comics too—ha-ha!—and, dare I say, in this interview!? Every museum experience is unique. For some guests it is their first visit; others are regulars or having a special family time together who may not want an educator talking to them very much. So I designed the Art Studio space to do a lot of the communicating on different levels.

What are the advantages of using cartoons in program development, over the usual written word or conversations? What can you communicate in a cartoon that’s hard to capture otherwise?

Liz: Accessibility! You’ll notice I tried to include Spanish translations in my cartoon (examples in panels #1 and #2). During the pandemic I worked with a colleague who is a native Spanish speaker (Hola, Alex!). I thought really critically about how to use Spanish meaningfully by making the text equal in size along with the visuals! If you don’t speak English or Spanish, a picture can help you understand something. When you travel to a place where another language is spoken, you can tell the power of simple images when you are looking for a bathroom. Or, where not to step. Also, for early learners, seeing a picture or simple cartoon of something and then the word is a classic phonics exercise. The simpler the drawing, the easier it is for our brains to “read” it or store the information.

The characters who appear in this cartoon—are they museum “regulars”?

Liz: Many of them are combinations of many regular visitors. The person in the hijab (panel #4) recently saw the comics and asked if it was her. Yes! An educator and artist who inspires me, she always wears bright and beautiful headscarves.

I also hide things, like cochlear implants, in my comics (seen in panel #5 in the little girl’s earlobe). The high school where I worked had a great “Hard of Hearing” program. I used to collaborate with the older high school students to teach our younger middle schoolers about sign language when I was introducing hand drawing.

I really love people, and many of them make it into my comics in different ways. All people should be able to find themselves in art.

How did you come into cartooning? Do you draw cartoons in other, non-museum aspects of your life?

Liz: I’ve been making cartoons since I was a child. In my teens I tried to move away from them because it wasn’t “cool,” but I kept going back to it. I have dyslexia and ADHD. My mind moves really fast. Comics are satisfying because I get to think about a million different things at once. Ultimately, I loved art because it was a place I excelled when I was struggling at school (I didn’t read until I was in 4th grade!). My parents were great and really encouraged it.

I try to draw every day, and not just art for work. Years ago, I saw people I knew on Instagram sharing art they were making and I decided I wanted to do it too. I have a comic about the power of envy. Occasionally jealous of what I saw among other people, I realized I had…unrealized desires. I also have a children’s book and a graphic novel I’ve been working on for multiple years. I don’t know if anything will ever happen with them because I work like crazy on one or the other for two months, then I don’t touch it for a year. I do take breaks when I need to but again, with the ADHD thing, I’m more stressed when I’m not doing something.

So yes, I do make comics in all parts of my life.

What do you think about when you draw a cartoon? How do you start? One idea/image, then a story flows from it?

Liz: I usually will begin with a thought I’m stuck on. A random memory pops up. Or something happens that totally changes my perspective. I write it in my notes app where I have dozens of ideas stored in no particular order. If an idea triggers a really big feeling, I will sketch out the comic, super messy, to get it out. Then later refine it.

Other times I’ll just go to the notes app and scroll until I find something that resonates with me at the moment. I tell my teen students to go with your gut, go with what you like. Art is about sharing with others things that give you a big feeling—good or bad. Preachy moment: art does not have to be made for a museum (except when it can?!). There is so much emphasis on the idea that art has to have some ultimate destination or objective—which also relates to the fact I’m a total play expert. If you want to get geeky about the definition of play (I got a comic about it), play is just doing a task for no particular reason.

Welcome Back: Our People Have Missed You

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Kerrie Vilhauer, Children’s Museum of South Dakota

Following a fifteen-month closure, Dora Castano, custodian at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota, was looking forward to getting back to the little things—like cleaning fingerprints.

“I can’t wait to see little fingerprints on the windows again!”

Given the many tasks involved in a custodian’s work at a children’s museum, especially during a pandemic, it’s not often one would ask for more work to do. But, for Dora, those fingerprints aren’t just little messes.

They are a symbol of what was missing. They represent the unique role the people of the Children’s Museum of South Dakota play every day. They are the stories the museum learned to amplify, bringing our staff and volunteers to the world even when the world couldn’t come to us.

Health and Safety + Personal Connection

When it came time to reopen the Children’s Museum of South Dakota to visitors, it’s no surprise the bulk of the plan addressed health and safety. Messaging, talking points, and signage all focused on what guests would need to know when they came back to play.

As the team dug into the reopening communications plan, they quickly realized a more personal approach could go much further in reconnecting with visitors. After all, families had not been able to enter the museum’s doors—or connect with staff and volunteers in person—for over a year.

There’s precedent around this. The side effects of the pandemic—stress, developmental issues, and mental and physical health challenges—are real. Having a friend (or playmate) who is experiencing things in a similar way can be a comfort as society begins to move forward.

Which is why, when writing the reopening communications plan, we knew it was important to reintroduce the people behind the work—and the play—at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota. This strategy imparted empathy, showing how much a museum friend like Dora is ready to get back into the swing of things.

In a way, that set of fingerprints is a beautiful way to start a conversation.

 “I can’t wait to watch people connect and learn!”

Children’s museums are built for community. They are safe spaces for children, caregivers, and the surrounding area. As the only museum of its type in the state, this community space takes on an even more important role for the Children’s Museum of South Dakota.

Located inside a 40,000-square-foot repurposed elementary school on the edge of downtown Brookings, the museum takes on a more personal tone when guests arrive. Whether they are members who visit weekly, or  tourists from many states away, the open-ended, child-led, inquiry-based way of play invites people into a relationship.

For many guests, it’s like coming home. It’s not uncommon for children to walk through the door and ask for a specific staff member or play guide. Some arrive and immediately look for a special loose part or toy—the life-sized stuffed sheep, or the large plush border collie, for example.

But as we all know now, reopening a children’s museum in a pandemic doesn’t mean things go back to the way they used to be. The museum knew we had to share safety protocols and guidelines that might make the play experience look different. We also knew that some protocols, like masking or limited capacity, could be controversial for some.

Here’s where those people and that community came into play again: by sharing the human side, guests could see that not only was health and safety a top priority, but so too was the fun.

This personal approach happened in two ways, first with a project headed up by museum educator Lauren Dietz and second, with the Museum’s Kidoodle Council Youth Advisory Board.

What Are You Most Excited for?

Tasked with freshening up a documentation wall in an exhibit just outside the art studio, Lauren wanted to show how excited the museum staff was to reopen. She connected with each staff member and asked what they were looking forward to the most.

She took photos of each person in their favorite exhibits. Because staff would be wearing masks upon reopening, she made sure one photo was with a face covering, and one was without, creating a balance of friendly smiling faces and safety protocols.

The project not only resulted in an inclusive, on-site display, but it also drove content for a digital campaign that spanned Facebook, Instagram, and the museum’s email list.

Amid messages about safety protocols, limited capacity, and adjusted hours, were the museum’s friendly faces—faces excited to reconnect, spark imagination, and learn through play. These faces belonged to long-lost friends who were ready to play again, even if it might look or feel a bit different at first.

And if engagement on social posts and guests sharing their excitement online and on-site is an indication of success, this was exactly what the museum’s audience was looking for.

Welcome Back! We Missed You!

The Kidoodle Council Youth Advisory Board is a volunteer group of nine six to twelve year olds who work as ambassadors for the museum and help generate ideas for programs and exhibits.

Throughout the museum’s closure, the board continued to meet through a combination of video conferencing and in-person meetings.

The Kidoodle Council had the honor of experiencing the first run-through of the exhibits prior to the indoor exhibit reopening. The council saw firsthand how to open and turn on exhibits, getting a behind-the-scenes sneak peek. In return, the museum staff could not only confirm everything worked as expected, but they also had a glimpse of how children would re-engage with the space following the closure.

The meeting resulted in a YouTube video that gave a time-lapse tour of the museum and shared what each board member was most looking forward to when they came back to play.

The video was shared with the public and used for staff training purposes. It offered new hires and those who haven’t visited in quite some time a chance to see the museum in action through the eyes of a child.

Some Things Have Changed, Some Things Are the Same

The pandemic put a hard stop to paid advertising. Even today, as the museum operates at limited capacity, advertising is on hold since play space continues to fill organically. However, the museum continues to look for ways to stay top of mind.

Whether it is offering ways to play along at home on the blog at, continuing conversations on social media, or playing along in person, the museum will continue to focus on taking a personal approach. They know it’s these people—the ones who are excited to clean up fingerprints—who will help bring the museum back to life.

To stay in front of people. To follow the child. To be a resource. And to spark imagination that is as big as the sky.

Kerrie Vilhauer is director of marketing at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota in Brookings, South Dakota.

Think Big, Act Small: Innovation Principles and Process for Organizations in Recovery

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Krishna Kabra, San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum

Inventiveness and ingenuity are stimulated by difficulty. When the going gets tough, we are forced to think in ways we never have, stretch beyond convention and comfort, and focus on positive outcomes or, at least, solutions.

People are creatures of habit. We stick to what we know and focus on what we’ve mastered (and can be bothered to do). We regulate for rote and plan for predictability, and it is in this overall balance that we find flow. We function with familiarity. The last year, however, has thrown a royal wrench in that highly evolved and deeply conditioned human tendency. The children’s museum field, like many others, has been flung into lands unknown, inadequately sourced, staffed, and skilled. Overnight, we have become artful adaptors, from mastering digital content production to going from staff commanders to staff counselors.

Research shows that leaders believe that to advance their missions they need to imagine and create new approaches to solving social challenges — they need to innovate. But innovation isn’t easy. More often than not, innovation is an enigma — an amorphous intangible “thing” that is challenging to scope, shape, and size. Despite this, we value attempts to pursue it. No doubt there has been an unprecedented degree of innovation in our organizations over the last year. We have needed to innovate to in order to survive.

So, how have we adapted and adopted new ways of functioning so adeptly in such challenging times? Necessity is clearly one reason, but I would argue there’s more to it than that. Albeit anxiety ridden, many of us found ourselves operating in an environment where the rules of the game changed overnight. With the absence of lines within which to color, opportunities for the unstructured, unexpected, and unfamiliar were born, a perfect breeding ground for creativity. However, innovation and the creative process require structure, familiarity, and intention. It also requires a shared vision around which key stakeholders can coalesce and feel inspired.

In this piece, I have identified fundamental principles and cultural prerequisites to successful innovation. This is not a finite list by any means, rather it includes the ones that have served my organization well over the last year and a half. To accompany them, I will briefly share a very simple three step process organizations might follow to help infuse a regular heartbeat into the innovation practice.

Innovation Principles

The first principle is visionary thinking. To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat’s conversation with Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Vision-led innovation is fundamental to success. A clear North Star provides destination, inspiration, and ambition. Most visionaries are thought to have a poorly developed sense of fear or understanding of the odds against them. A blessing, if there were ever one, over the last year when we took all kinds of risks amongst pervasive fear and unknown odds.

Uncontrollable external events make vision setting on the fly very challenging, and any innovations as a result might only be reactive. It’s like trying to draft a military strategy while in the trenches and under attack. When I worked in the for-profit world, one of the executives I worked with had an incredible vision for our start-up, almost akin to Frodo being guided by the power of the ring. He knew exactly where the organization was headed. I once asked him, “How do you know where our North Star is?” “Intuition,” he said, an arresting and alluring conviction of what could be. Even with an inspired vision in place, the everyday challenge is figuring out the pathway(s) there and staying on course.

Second is the principle of diverse and curious teams. I have had the opportunity to build my own team over the last year. One of the key criteria for hiring solid talent has been looking for people who have an innate sense of curiosity, creativity, and courage. We actively lean towards professionals who exhibit critical thinking — those with a “yes and…” attitude, a “what if…” perspective, and a willingness to get creative. Collaborative, inquisitive multi-disciplinary teams, whether in nonprofit or for-profit organizations, bring distinct perspectives that present a rich and fertile ground for innovation. It may be led by a specific department, but it’s the smorgasbord of skills that brings the magic to the method.

The third principle is identifying pathways towards the vision. Innovation can be non-linear and nebulous but establishing pathways and processes can help achieve meaningful outcomes. As an example, one of our museum’s strategic imperatives is to create a welcoming and inclusive environment where every family feels they belong. We want to engage visitors from rural communities in San Diego County, who can be difficult to reach directly due to financial and/or geographic barriers. We have identified three possible pathways: The first is to leverage partnerships, such as with school systems, other nonprofits, or even retail outlets. For example, we drew on our existing relationship with county libraries to deploy them as distribution partners for our hands-on STEM education kits.  The second pathway is to reach these communities ourselves with our mobile museum or pop-up museum experiences in high traffic areas within those communities. The third is to franchise a micro version of our museum experience to local education partners and parent communities/groups, packaging the best of what we do as a ‘plug and play’ off the shelf experience with educators and parents guiding children through specific hands-on (and digital) educational and enrichment experiences.

Given that the most obvious pathway is not always the only one, creative solutions can lead to alternate pathways. It’s worth the time and effort to come up with smarter, leaner, and more impactful approaches. Our museum recently talked about the idea of having an ‘R&D fund,’ a pot of money that allows us to explore new ideas. In today’s climate, this may sound nonessential, but it’s worth it if the resulting innovation could lead to greater efficiencies and/or even systemic change.

Creating an Innovation Culture

Have you ever heard the phrase, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”? It’s real. Culture determines the success of any endeavor, no matter how well briefed, organized, or executed. Innovation is not simply a practice or a singular strategy, it defines a culture and a philosophy kept alive by leadership. I have worked with many for-profit corporate clients that have the most brilliant and bountiful new product pipelines or the most well-honed processes in place. However, when an organization’s culture does not embrace a healthy innovation culture (which includes failure), there is very little, if any, progress or growth.

A key part of an empathic organization’s culture is understanding who you are innovating for and what their needs are. For our museum, that means understanding the families we serve, including their concerns, motivations, and both reasons for and barriers to visiting. Before joining the museum, I once worked with a medical device company that manufactures pioneering heart health products, and despite their cutting-edge technology, success was stifled. Sales agents were equipped to describe the superiority of their devices to doctors, but their talk track lacked any patient needs narrative. They consistently failed to capture the voice of their end patient and, therefore, had a limited understanding of the emotional needs of a typical heart patient. They were disconnected in a way that mattered and, pun intended, their approach lacked heart.

Below are three aspects of an organization’s culture that are key to successful innovation.

  1. 1. Adopt a beginner’s mindset where all ideas are open to vetting and consideration.

    If you had to build your organization today from the ground up with exceptionally limited resources, what would you do? How would you make it happen? The flip side: if you had to build your organization today from the ground up but with plentiful resources, what would you do? These hypothetical questions allow you to flex an entrepreneurial mindset, feeding creative thinking, curiosity, bravery, and resilience. They challenge established ways of thinking and force you to consider how you could do things differently and better.

    One of our strategic plan’s organizational imperatives is to create insight-informed and needs-based programming by understanding the lives of the families we serve and using those insights as a basis for innovation. Empathy is everything. Our museum recently formed a “community circle,” a diverse focus group of patrons that represents our visitor base (members, non-members, sensory needs families, educators etc.). Through quarterly in-person meetings, we are gaining a better understanding of our audiences and, in that context, exploring meaningful ways we can add value to their museum experience.

  1. 2. Embrace the ambiguity that is inherently part of a process that is plagued with unknowns.

    Typically, innovation starts at an uncomfortable and sometimes frightening place where you have some ideas, but few (if any) answers. You might experience internal contention, asking, “Why are we dedicating resources to this while we’re trying to recuperate from last year? Is it really a priority?” I often hear the phrase, “nonprofits do not have the luxury to spend time innovating.” However, as resource-challenged organizations, we must be more innovative. We will never have all the answers, but if we don’t try, we’ll never have any.

    The paradox of success is that you need to fail to achieve it. We must embrace failure as part of the innovation process. Employees need the freedom to try new things, to smartly, fail fast, learn from their mistakes, and continue to refine the process and keep trying as they move along. Again, this might seem like a luxury after the past eighteen months we have had, but our missions are driven by highly passionate and purpose-driven employees. In Daniel Pink’s book Drive, autonomy, mastery, and purpose are identified as motivation factors for most people. Autonomy is the feeling of being self-directed; mastery is the feeling of getting better at things that matter by getting feedback; and purpose is knowing you are doing something meaningful.

  1. 3. Settle into the churn.

    German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said an important idea must “endure a hostile reception before it is accepted… At first the idea is ridiculed, second, it is violently opposed, third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Innovation requires breaking ranks and challenging convention. Responses may be accompanied by a degree of “Are you nuts?” Be prepared for it and hold on to your vision, intuition, optimism, and passion. Historically, most innovators were ridiculed for their ideas at some point. The rebuttal and resistance are part of the process.

A Brief Overview of the Innovation Process

The innovation process is deliberately simple. Inspired by global design company IDEO’s human-centered design thinking model, it is a non-linear process where each stage has contours and character, with the person you are innovating for at the center.

The three stages of innovation are inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Here’s what each one looks like:

Inspiration includes opening yourself up to creative possibilities while immersing yourself in the lives of your core (or design) audience. During this first stage, frame challenges to be simple and vision-aligned and, with your team, create a project plan that includes critical milestones. Throughout the process, identify natural points of divergent and convergent thinking. A team that is diverse in skills and expertise will focus on harnessing insights from their audience and perhaps even other secondary sources. For example, what do we need to understand about this group of kids? Which experts might we talk to for additional insights? At the outset, your primary purpose is to scope the project and capture insights in advance of any generative ideation work. The goal is to ensure that all your team members are on the same page — informed, inspired, and aligned with the task at hand.

All the insights gleaned in the process described above are leveraged to spark the second stage, ideation, where lots of ideas (good or bad, big or small, incremental or disruptive) are generated. Insights from your core audience become platforms for new ideas; some human truths as present challenges that require creative solutions. As an example: “Some kids in the digital divide, who might benefit from STEM education, are not able to physically visit our museum, how might we solve for that?” From there, the ideas begin to emerge — mobile programs, pop-ups, partnerships, expanded and more accessible online programs, etc.

Finally, the implementation stage is a time for prioritization, prototypes, and pilots. Essentially, you must rank the ideas generated, build first run versions of them to see if they have legs, and identify metrics for success. You must consider which metrics might be important to various audiences and how you might want to share your story with different stakeholders. Not every prototype will work. For those that do, you ultimately want to know why so you can build a roadmap for future success.

The entire innovation process lives at the intersection of empathy and creativity. Each stage can be simple or complex depending on the tasks and resources at hand and your level of experience.

Innovation as a New Way of Life

We all know that we live in a world of increasing uncertainty, which isn’t likely to change any time soon. The need to adapt is essential — in fact, it is the new way of life — so we might as well develop the skills to help us get good at it. Right now, many of us are focused on just keeping going, continuing what we have been doing over the last year while at the same time pausing to reflect on what can be done better going forward. What have we learned from limitations? Are there any new processes or approaches to consider? Where and how can we be leaner and more impactful? Which philosophical or operational fundamentals do we need to reconsider or redefine?

Evolutionary steps achieve revolutionary goals. Successful innovation is not an event, but a continuous process embraced by all. It need not be cumbersome. By starting with small novel ideas, piloting, experimenting/testing, learning, and refining, we can achieve our basic objective of maximizing social impact. The needs of our respective communities have never been greater, and we have all shown we can indeed navigate unchartered waters. Now is the time to examine lessons learned over the last year and consider where disruption has empowered and accelerated our museums to better serve our missions.

Krishna Kabra has served first as executive director and later CEO of the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum since September 2020. Previously, she was executive vice president of The Value Engineers, an innovation and brand strategy organization serving Fortune 500 companies. As a certified Positive Parenting educator and child mediator, she was also previously founder/owner of Atlanta-based Squeeze My Soul.

Building the Plane As We Learn to Fly It

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Hilary Van Alsburg, Children’s Museum Tucson | Oro Valley

Who knew ramping up out of a pandemic would be as hard (or harder!) than spiraling into one? As an organization, Children’s Museum Tucson | Oro Valley (CMT) is facing the same challenges as others in our industry and community and we have gotten nimble in anticipating and tackling them. We shifted to remote working, rolled out our first virtual programming and activity kits, introduced private play dates, and focused on fundraising for things we were inventing at the same time. In the last eighteen months, we have often used the phrase “building the plane as we learn to fly it.” What began as a sprint soon turned into an endurance marathon. We thought reopening to visitors would be the finish line. Wrong again. Opening turned out to be just the end of the first leg of a relay.

When we first closed to visitors, there were maybe fifteen cases of COVID-19 in our state. By September 2021, there were 3,000 new cases reported every day. And we are open. When we closed to in-person experiences in March 2020, we didn’t receive a single complaint. Our community was in solidarity with us, we were all in it together. When we reopened a year later, our community rallied and celebrated along with us. Six months later, our staff is weary from navigating the fickle and sometimes hostile public opinion about masks, social distancing, and visitor engagement. The vast majority of guests appreciate the rules, and the policies are not a source of contention. The joy in being back at the museum and having a place for kids to play is very real. But for a vocal minority, the policies around masks are an invitation to snipe, challenge, and verbally abuse staff. Pile that responsibility on to a brand new team just learning their jobs—and a team primarily made up of staff under age twenty, entering the workforce for the first time, and facing their own anxieties about working in a public-facing position—it can be overwhelming. These are the challenges of reopening we hadn’t anticipated and are learning to navigate.

The hiring landscape has also completely changed, not only for us but for all organizations and businesses. After being closed to the public for a year, we knew that most of the frontline staff we were forced to let go would not be returning. Our core team of eleven people had worked in the trenches all year, but now, we were looking at hiring all new frontline staff, more than tripling our staff, adding twenty-three new people, in just a month.

Prior to the pandemic, when a position opened up at the museum, we would post the job description widely, seeking diverse applicants. Since most of our frontline staff are college or high school students, targeting school advisors to share the job has been very helpful. We would then review applications, email applicants to schedule initial phone conversations, then set up follow-up in-person interviews. On average, the process took about three weeks. As the museum began to re-open, that process proved unworkable very early on. Half the people who applied didn’t show up for the interview. Many who were hired often didn’t show up to work on the first day, and many others who were hired left after a short duration to take another position.

Now, in a world where every industry is hiring and can’t meet the demand, we do it all in one day. The second we get an application, we call, interview, and decide on the spot to extend a job offer to the applicant. Yes, it is now that competitive. This buyer’s market mentality has unanticipated ripple effects. You take a gamble on folks who might not really be the best fit. You risk sacrificing diversity for immediacy. It is a hard enough landscape to hire and keep people—add to that grumpy visitors who feel entitled to take their frustrations out on young staff, and we have scrambled to sharply refocus and invest in staff support measures.

We are focused on building an all-new customer engagement team. In addition to the normal training, bonding, and layering of organizational culture, we are investing in a good vibe. We are role-playing and modeling how to deal with tense situations and de-escalate confrontation. We are working across the organization to support our frontline Guest Experiences team. Back office staff shares more face time with the frontline team, and together we diffuse tension and laugh. We listen to the banter on the walkie-talkies in case senior staff needs to go to the front desk to offer support when a team member needs assistance with a difficult customer. Every time additional staff needs to support a frontline staff member in enforcing policy, it takes them away from the daily work needed to run a museum. It’s exhausting and disheartening. But it also has unanticipated benefits. This newly focused support helps us build trust, break down silos between front and back of the house, and share experiences that create opportunity for discussion and reflection on our mission and role in the community. We value feedback from all staff and encourage reflection with daily debriefings. We share highlights and focus on our entire team in ways we never did before. This helps us navigate the hurdles and will have lasting benefits. When we do finish this race, we will do it together, and the museum experience will be all the better for everyone. Even the grumps.

Hilary Van Alsburg is the executive director of Children’s Museum Tucson | Oro Valley. Prior to this, she was the chief development officer at University of Arizona Libraries, The Humane Society of Southern Arizona, and the Children’s Museum Tucson | Oro Valley.

Grabbing the Brass Rings

Vanessa King, director of education, along with Michael Bilharz, associate director of guest experiences, and his three managers, Manny Gomez, Roshea Meyers, and Christine Peterson, are jointly responsibly for hiring and training a highly flexible crew frontline staff.  Vanessa describes their approach to navigating a wild job market, retaining new hires, and making organizational change.

Tucson is home to the University of Arizona, so many of our frontline staff are college students. In addition, students and interns from local high schools fill these positions.  For many of these young people, working at CMT is their first job.  So, our training focuses on not only the usual museum components—family learning in exhibits, program delivery, customer service—but on how to have a job—being reliable and punctual, working with other staff.

In “normal” times, we would hire and train one or two new staff at a time, giving them opportunities to shadow experienced staff before they were on their own.  Recently, we hired fifteen people in two weeks and trained them as a group.

To make these mostly part-time jobs more appealing and retain as many staff as possible, we have become even more flexible, adjusting to ever-changing schedules and a competitive job market.

The silver lining?  Relatively new to the museum, I wanted to make some changes anyway, including giving frontline staff more opportunities for interaction and the education team more ownership of programming.  So, when we re-opened, staff (and visitors!) expected some things to be different.  And they were.  We didn’t have to pretend that everything was the same.

Intention and Resolve: Moving into a New Better

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Kari Ross Nelson and Stephen Ashton, PhD, Thanksgiving Point


Events of the past eighteen months have created opportunities for children’s museums to become more resilient and to position themselves as significant advocates for children and families in their communities. Children’s museums launched new efforts and transformed existing ones to address unprecedented needs. Two surveys distributed as part of the Association of Children’s Museums’ (ACM) Museums Mobilize initiative documented these efforts, as well as some of the resulting transformations in children’s museums themselves. As we consider ways in which some museums have changed, and the impacts of this change on current and future planning in the field, we would do well to consider that many currently front and center community challenges will not subside when the pandemic or protests have ended. Moving forward, the good that children’s museums can do as advocates for children and families must continue with intention and resolve.

Museums Mobilize

ACM launched Museums Mobilize in November 2020, in the thick of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The initiative sought to highlight and amplify the efforts of children’s museums around the world to support children and families during the pandemic. ACM sent two surveys to their more than 300 museum members. The first produced a landscape view of efforts; a follow up survey was sent to the first survey’s respondents, exploring more deeply the efforts they reported and the resulting transformations of both the museums and their communities.

This landscape survey captured the big picture of how museums activated during the pandemic. Eighty-seven museums across thirty-four US states and foreign countries reported on 195 programs ranging from virtual learning to activity kits, to school and community partnerships, to parenting resources, to learning pods. ACM reached out to Thanksgiving Point’s Research and Evaluation team to help analyze the large number of responses. Thanksgiving Point is a member of the ACM Research Network, an IMLS-funded collaboration between ACM, the University of Washington’s Museology program, and fifteen children’s museums in the US and Canada. During its initial three-year grant period (2015-2018), the Research Network conducted four full-scale research projects on the learning value of children’s museums.

As described above, initial survey results showed how many and what kinds of programs were happening. But what did it all mean? How could the data be analyzed to illuminate children’s museums’ commitments to serving the needs and interests of children, and the unique and important ways in which these actions were being carried out? To facilitate this kind of analysis, we used ACM’s guiding document, “The Four Dimensions of Children’s Museums,” as a structure to sort and classify responses.

Evidence of The Four Dimensions of Children’s Museums

For many years, the field has been wrestling with the defining question, “what is a children’s museum?” In an attempt to come up with a succinct answer that would resonate both inside and outside the field, ACM articulated the key attributes of a children’s museum in a 2019 document. In short, they are much more than just places to visit. All children’s museums, they argue, function as local destinations, educational laboratories, community resources, and advocates for children.

Using these Four Dimensions as a coding scheme in the context of Museums Mobilize data, the survey responses began to illustrate a picture of the myriad ways children’s museums contribute to the wellbeing of children and families in their communities. The table {below} describes each dimension and a few examples of how each one was evidenced in survey responses. (The lines between the dimensions blur easily; many efforts fit into more than one dimension.)

When ACM drafted “The Four Dimensions of Children’s Museums,” they could not have anticipated how these roles would be challenged and magnified in the coming year. Nevertheless, we found evidence of all four in the Museums Mobilize survey responses.

Dimension Examples
Local Destinations

Designed exhibit spaces elevate child-centered learning and development while striving to reflect and address community needs.

Even when they were closed to general visitors, many children’s museums welcomed visitors to dynamic virtual spaces. Some were able to accommodate visitors in their physical spaces in the form of learning pods, highly controlled special group visits, and modified or expanded outdoor exhibits.
Educational Laboratories

Play-based pedagogies are developed and tested.

Staff used their expertise in learning theories, child development, and pedagogy to design and execute meaningful programs, testing the possibilities of play-based remote learning.
Community Resources

Helping to build child-friendly communities and places where parents and teachers can turn for information and training.

Children’s museums produced resources to help parents and caregivers recognize and foster developmental milestones during a time when professional services and evaluations may have been put on hold. They helped children process a new environment full of isolation, fear, and grief. They helped parents/caregivers connect and support each other as they navigated parenting in the pandemic. Others initiated outdoor community events such as farmers markets, sidewalk art, and socially distanced festivals.
Advocates for Children

Responding to current needs of children and families in their communities, while cultivating cross-sector partnerships for wide reach and high impact.

Many museums pivoted to online programming and creating activity kits and distributing them through food banks, schools, libraries, and other community organizations.

Perhaps most poignantly, we found children’s museums shining in the role of advocating for children. Merriam-Webster defines an advocate as “one who supports or promotes the interests of a cause or group.” This definition is reflected ACM’s explanation of the “Advocates for Children” dimension and how museums fulfill it:

  • • Children’s museums are constantly responding to the current needs of the children and families in their communities, from health to academics to social issues, as seen in their exhibits, outreach, and programming.

One of our (Learning Pods) program participants lost access to his classes in March when his school went virtual. He did not have wifi or a device to use at home to connect with his classes. In August he was provided a Chromebook from his school, but he still did not have access to wifi. When he arrived at the museum he had pages of overdue assignments. He came in, took a deep breath and immediately relaxed when he saw he could access our Internet. He opened up his breakfast and began eating while he logged in, for the first time to join his class. And in two weeks of being in the program he was able to catch up on his work.

–Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (TX)


  • • Children’s museums cultivate deep and wide-ranging relationships with partners from all sectors to best serve all children and families in their communities and address critical social issues affecting them.

The kits are designed to meet the needs of young children who are missing out on interactive learning experiences during the pandemic. There is a particular focus on children who are low-income, underserved, and at-risk. The inspiration for the kits was sparked early on in the pandemic when the Family Support Center asked the museum to create free learning kits to provide homeless children with enriching activities while quarantining at a hotel. The success of these early kits triggered a wave of similar requests that continues to grow. To date, we have distributed nearly 10,000 free kits to schools, libraries, and community organizations, with support from grants and individual giving.

–Hands On Discovery Museum (Olympia, WA)

One of our initiatives involved distributing Play Packs to children and families encountering difficult situations – from food insecurity to homelessness to not having access to places to play and learn. One partnership involved the distribution of a series of three Play Packs to children involved in area Judy Centers (which provide early education services via area Title I Schools), plus lunch, and live programming with Port Discovery educators. Judy Center staff and families regularly expressed their gratitude for the program. One participant told us how the Port Discovery program was the one thing that she would get excited about participating in; others expressed appreciation for the chance to continue live, early enrichment programming.

–Port Discovery Children’s Museum (Baltimore, MD)


  • • Children’s museums share a commitment to equity and inclusion, with subsidized attendance programs such as Museums for All, programs for children and families with special needs, multicultural programming, and more.

We created 4,000 ThinkerPlayerCreator Boxes for an entire school district’s Title One kindergarteners because the families and children were REALLY struggling with online work. The district told us that when the kids got their boxes, the dropout rate among the families slowed dramatically. Also, one of the parents told the district that the materials in the box were the first time the child ever had their own book, scissors, and crayons.

–Children’s Museum of Phoenix (AZ)

The Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum opened the Poughkeepsie Waterfront Market in summer 2017 to connect city residents and families with fresh, affordable and locally-produced food. In doing so, it became the first children’s museum in the country to open and operate a public farmers’ market as a strategy for fighting urban food insecurity and advancing community health. The market is a certified SNAP market and participates in the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Programs to ensure the affordability of fresh produce and farm products for low-income individuals and families. In spring 2020, in response to the near total disruption of the local food system in Poughkeepsie due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the market rallied its vendors and opened one month early to help bring fresh healthy food to downtown Poughkeepsie during the public health crisis. Support for this pre-season opening came from multiple private and public organizations. Due to the continued COVID-19 crisis, for the first time, the market extended its season through October 2020.

–Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum (Poughkeepsie, NY)


In reviewing the results of the landscape survey, the Thanksgiving Point team wanted more details that could show, beyond numbers, the impact of programming during the pandemic. This second survey more deeply explored transformations to museums themselves and to their communities as a result of these many new programs and practices.

Bear in mind that all responses are self-reported and may be deemed subjective. While about half of respondents indicated they did collect evaluative information beyond numbers, they were asked only to provide key findings, not methods of measurement or data-based evidence.

As seen in Graph #1, the 51 respondents to the second survey reported eight distinct impacts (plus a ninth “other”) on their museums:

Along with the stories included in the discussion of the “Four Dimensions of Children’s Museums” above, other stories shared by the respondents provide concrete examples of some of these transformations.

An elementary school in Chicago reached out to us who had seen our videos on YouTube. They asked us to put together a virtual field trip for their students to teach the art of shadow puppetry. It was a wonderful experience to reach new audiences and gain a new opportunity for meeting our mission!

–The Woodlands Children’s Museum (TX)

The owner of our local Chik-Fil-A franchise purchased 100 kits to distribute to foster families in the area. This was a new partner for the museum, and we have since been able to partner again with them on future projects. The museum was thrilled to be able to provide these fun family kits to a new audience as well.

–ExpERIEnce Children’s Museum ( PA)

With help from a local funder, the museum was able to provide two sets of PAL kits to a fourth grade class last year when they had to quarantine at home for two weeks. The school was incredibly grateful for an opportunity to provide hands-on learning and we were able to reconnect with a funder to not add a financial burden to us. The experience was amazing for the museum and for the students.

–Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum (Saginaw)

Additionally, museums recognized the impacts their work was having in their community, as seen in Graph #2, and reported seven distinct community transformations (plus an “other” category):

Again, more stories from the respondents show what these transformations look like in the community.

A social service agency was able to use our boxes as part of their therapy sessions now that they were doing them virtually. It allowed children at home who were not in therapy something to do while another child/parent had therapy. Families could engage after the therapy together.

–KidsQuest Children’s Museum (Bellevue, WA)

 One parent expressed that she did not know anything about our museum but when her child received a take-home kit he immediately recognized our logo and began telling his mom all about the fun times he had at the museum during monthly field trips with his kindergarten.

–Lynn Meadows Discovery Center (Gulfport, MS)

One single mother was a loyal kit user and requested eight different kits. She messaged us several times that the kits were “lifesavers” and that she especially appreciated that her special needs teen son and her two-year-old daughter could both find activities to enjoy. Another time she wrote that her daughter put together her first sentence talking about the balls and tubes in our Infant/Toddler kit.

–The Children’s Playhouse (Boone, NC)

In open-ended questions, respondents expressed that while there is no replacement for in-person programming, they learned to stretch, adapt, and practice new skills. They stayed connected with existing audiences and even reached new ones both local and remote. They recognized that partners were an important part of making an impact. All of this helped museums feel validated in their work and bolstered their commitment to understanding needs and serving children and families everywhere.


In the past year and a half, children’s museums have stepped up—and continue to step up (the pandemic is not over)—with responsive and caring work in service to children and families. Although we will remember the pandemic as one of the most stressful times in recent history, Museums Mobilize findings serve as an inspiration to move forward with intention and resolve, magnifying our role as advocates for children and fostering a new, better normal in the years to come for our audiences and for our museums.

With media focused on social, political, and pandemic unrest, are children being lost in the agitation? Last fall, one Washington Post op-ed writer surmised, “American children are out of school, out of food and increasingly getting chucked off their health insurance. Yet somehow, they seem to be an afterthought in [the November 2020] election.”[1] Children bear a disproportionate share of the hardships caused by the pandemic. The August 2021 online tracker from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities[2] shows that households with kids report higher rates of food insecurity, housing instability, and other metrics of financial insecurity. Add to this inadequate or uncertain health insurance, childcare, and schooling and the picture becomes even more dire.

Children’s museums cannot be the solution to all of these hardships. However, we are uniquely positioned with facilities, expertise, creativity, and a dedication to children that can be leveraged to make children’s lives better. This deeper perspective, hard won in the past year and a half, could form the foundation for a more meaningful approach to advocacy, but also challenges us to take a look in the mirror. Most children’s museums, known as joyful spaces for learning and play, have promoted those concepts in fun, positive ways. Does “learning and play” need to be reframed as surviving and thriving, and perspectives shifted accordingly? Has the pandemic expanded our answer to the question, “what is a children’s museum?”

Kari Ross Nelson is research and evaluation associate and Stephen Ashton, PhD, is the director of audience research and evaluation at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah.



Necessity: The Mother of Invention

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.

—Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark

By Jonathan Zarov, Madison Children’s Museum

The pandemic forced Madison Children’s Museum, like many children’s museums, to pare down staffing and operations drastically. Though it is not a path anyone on the museum’s staff or board would have chosen, stripping back created opportunities to reorganize departments, roles, and systems as we rebuilt. The result is a more sustainable and efficient organization—more data-driven, and stronger in many ways than before COVID.

The museum closed March 13, 2020 and reopened to the public on June 3, 2021. Over that period, our staffing levels dropped from seventy-five employees to twenty, most working part time. Staffing levels wouldn’t increase until spring 2021, as we prepared for reopening, and current staffing remains at approximately 50 percent of pre-COVID levels.

During the long closure, the museum served the community with COVID-safe outreach, such as hopscotch games painted on sidewalks in more than 70 neighborhoods; take-home activity kits; outdoor drive-through events, cross country ski classes at a local park, and online programming.

Some of the most important work during closure, though, was gestational, as leadership engaged staff in considering what a reimagined, post-pandemic museum would look like and then planned for reopening.

Some opportunities to create efficiencies arose in the wake of staff departures. When two members of our leadership team moved on to new positions, we restructured and reduced the team from seven to five, a more manageable number for meetings and decisions. Remaining leadership team members took on additional responsibilities to support development work, meeting with supporters, writing grants, and helping to shape and support a major campaign, “Our Future in Play: a plan to survive, thrive, and play outside in 2021.” The campaign has raised over 4 million dollars to date, which, together with relief funds, has sustained the museum through the pandemic and reopening—and funded a new, 10,000-square-foot outdoor exhibit for active play called the Wonderground, opening at the beginning of October 2021.

But the institutional reorganization that most affects—and improves—day-to-day operations was the creation of a new Visitor Services Division.

Pre-COVID, the education and marketing departments each managed separate teams responsible for different aspects of the visitor experience.

When we merged the teams, we increased pay and benefits for these public-facing positions. We were able to re-hire several experienced staff who had been laid off for nearly a year. Having one combined team creates efficiencies through cross-training, enabling many staff to assist with front desk admissions, visitor engagement in exhibits, and membership processing.

We are currently employing John Doerr’s Measure What Matters approach to work strategically toward a small set of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)—with the help of volunteer employees from the Madison-based American Family Insurance’s Ignite team. Many of the key results (measurable goals) were focused on the visitor experience and our objective to “welcome visitors and wow them.”

To keep us on track toward that goal, we collected data through visitor surveys. The museum had shifted to advance ticketing during the pandemic, and a useful side effect was having every visitor’s email address. As a result, we can now send a post-visit “How was your visit?” survey to each day’s visitors. The regular stream of survey results has been highly useful.

We asked the classic Net Promoter Score question (“Would you recommend Madison Children’s Museum to a friend or family member?”), the gold standard for gauging customer satisfaction. Responses allow comparisons to other businesses and cultural institutions. Our scores are holding steady at around 83 percent (the average for science centers is around 71 percent, which is much higher than the average for most businesses). This number is one indicator that we’re on track—and it would sound an alarm if it were to drop suddenly.

Other questions assess visitors’ feelings about our mask policies (for the first few months, a museum-created policy required them for all visitors three and up; since September 10, a public health order mandates them for everyone two years and up). When mask-wearing was not mandated by law, it was helpful to know that visitors generally rated our mask policy as midway between too lax and too strict.

We also ask more open-ended questions about what visitors like best and what we could improve. We often correlate those comments with other data we collect. For example, we now count visitors in each area of the museum every hour. By correlating the timed admission numbers with the museum counts, we can estimate average time spent in the museum (about 1 hour and 40 minutes, a little shorter than we had guessed). Knowing how many people are in various areas, and when, helps us interpret visitor comments about crowding.

Perhaps most importantly, we have found new and improved ways to use data to guide operational decisions. Each week, our data and process specialist collects, analyzes, and presents data, combined with other factors we watch, such as changes in County health policies, weather for the week, and relevant news headlines. This short summary report provides the background for a weekly meeting in which we review the previous week’s operations and consider adjustments. The report informs decision-making around ticketing, capacity, and other COVID safety protocols.

Before the pandemic, most operational and policy decisions were made by directors. Now a more inclusive process—data collection through decision-making—involves staff at every level of the organization, fostering growth, development, and ownership for those involved.

Like everyone else, we look forward to putting the pandemic behind us, losing the masks and regaining full capacity. But a more data-driven cycle of decision-making and a more efficient organizational structure are positives we’ll take away from this challenging time.

Jonathan Zarov (he, him, his) is director of marketing & communications at the Madison Children’s Museum in Wisconsin.

The Good from Bad: Pandemic Silver Linings

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Beth Shea, Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the staff of the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge (CMOR) did not know if their small institution, founded in 1973, would survive. But almost eighteen months later, not only has CMOR survived financially, but changes in practice forced by the pandemic helped the museum and its staff become stronger. This is a brief look at the good things that have come from the pandemic: things that have helped the museum not just survive, but thrive, in this challenging time.

Operational Changes

In June 2020, after a nearly eleven-week closure, the museum reopened on a part-time basis. One year later the museum returned to a “full-time” schedule, but one that was not the same as its pre-pandemic version, which had longer hours (9 am – 5 pm) on weekdays and included being open on Mondays in the summer.

During the year of part-time operations, the museum was open on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 10-4, and later added Sunday afternoons from 1-4. On the two shortened weekdays the staff made good use of the two additional hours to clean, do repairs, and other behind-the-scenes work (fewer on-site weekend staff had no time to do those activities). It was an overwhelmingly positive change worth keeping. Looking at attendance data, the extra hour at the beginning and end of each museum weekday were never busy anyway, making it easy to economically justify this change. The same was true for the summer Mondays. Now the museum’s hours are the same on weekdays and Saturdays (10 am – 4 pm), and the schedule is the same all year round—no more summer Mondays. The good that came from the bad: the pandemic was the perfect time to examine, and change, the museum’s schedule.

The pandemic also forced staff to critically examine–and improve–the cleaning protocols for the museum’s exhibits and other public spaces. Reviewing cleaning products and schedules, the facility manager made changes where needed.  Food service was now problematic. The honor system, self-serve snack bar and other areas where food and beverages had been allowed before the pandemic were closed, and drinking fountains were covered. New picnic tables had been purchased for the museum’s grounds before the pandemic began. At first, they were not used that much by visitors (the museum’s neighbors, however, loved them), but now they have a real purpose–visitors have somewhere to safely eat and drink outside. When the pandemic allows, the drinking fountains will be uncovered and indoor tables and chairs will return in the snack area, but a decision has not been made yet on whether or not to sell snacks at all again. The good that came from the bad: CMOR is a lot cleaner, and the picnic tables are more popular than ever with visitors.

Staff Communications and Team Building

Before the pandemic the museum’s staff met weekly in person, every Monday morning, for a briefing from the executive director. This gathering also offered opportunities for everyone to share what they were working on.  When the museum closed, these weekly meetings continued online, using Duo, a free Google app that allows easy videoconferencing with no time limit. When it became apparent that the pandemic was going to continue, a WebEx subscription was obtained for the use of the executive director and board, but Duo remained the preferred tool for staff meetings. Duo is easy to use. It does not require you to find and click on a meeting link; you simply answer the incoming call either on a smart phone or computer. Using Duo also allows part-time employees to participate from home, saving time and fuel. Regular Monday meetings on Duo is a pandemic-forced change that will continue.

While CMOR has a small staff, the museum building is large— 54,000 square feet to be exact. With offices located far apart in different wings of the facility, building a spirit of camaraderie was not always easy. COVID-19 changed that. The museum’s small staff had to band together on many new tasks, such as identifying which items needed to be removed from an exhibit because they could not be safely cleaned, or taking turns doing a new, mid-day disinfection of high touch/high traffic areas that was beyond the scope of what the part-time janitors could do. The good from the bad: COVID-19 was an extreme team building exercise. It showed that the museum’s staff could be flexible and it also instilled a sense of pride–that this small group of people was able to quickly change gears and run the museum, safely and successfully, in a pandemic. The good from the bad: a stronger, closer staff.

Administrative and Financial Changes

The pandemic forced the executive director and board to review the museum’s 2019-2021 strategic plan with a new focus in mind: which goals and objectives were being impacted by the pandemic, and how could we correct things midstream? Some aspects of the strategic plan, especially those related to increased programming and building the museum’s volunteer and internship programs, have been slowed by the pandemic, so it was decided to extend the plan by one year. The plan’s goals and objectives were not updated; a review will take place in the fall of 2022 when work begins on the next strategic plan.  Waiting a year to make any major, long-term decisions will allow for some perspective as the museum is still very much in “pandemic mode.” The good from the bad: the pandemic forced the museum to pay closer attention to the strategic plan and critically evaluate what was still feasible, and what had to be postponed.

At the beginning of the pandemic, before the special COVID-19 grants and stimulus programs were created, CMOR’s future was uncertain. The museum had a history of lean budgets with no safety cushion. During the museum’s temporary closure, donors were asked to give generously to help make up the loss of admissions revenue. Donors cared and wanted to see the museum survive. Years of relationship building meant their support was strong. COVID-19 also forced the museum to find and apply for new sources of support, such as special COVID-19 grants from the Tennessee Arts Commission and the East Tennessee Foundation. Another lifeline was the Small Business Administration (SBA). Two forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and a long-term, low interest Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) put the museum’s finances in good shape. Like a mortgage, the EIDL’s repayment plan is $600 a month for a thirty years— affordable terms for the museum.

Currently, the museum is in a financial holding pattern. Except for some much needed building repairs that have long been on the back burner due to budget limitations, spending remains very conservative in order to keep as much COVID funding in reserves as possible. In 2022, as the museum’s fundraising committee reviews and revamps the fundraising plan, the end of the COVID-19 money will be factored in as we continue to include a diverse revenue stream.  The good from the bad: donors came to the rescue of their beloved museum; a long-term, low interest loan; and a new connection with the Small Business Administration.

In Closing

 The COVID-19 pandemic has been quite a roller coaster ride—ever changing, and at times exhausting—for the small staff of the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge.  With hard work and support, the museum is weathering the pandemic, improving its operations, and looking ahead to its 50th anniversary in 2023.

Beth Shea has served as executive director of the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge (Tennessee) since 2016.