From Constraints to Opportunities: Redefining Museum Experience Through a Small Museum Lens

By: Stephen Wisniewski

Recognizing the depth and usefulness of a small museum approach, and centering it in our field, can allow us to see much more expansive possibilities by thinking and practicing from the bottom up, rather than seeing compromise and limitation from the top down.

When I joined the FFACES project as a small museum advisor, I didn’t know what to expect. Of course, I understood the basic contours and goals of the project—to adapt a traveling exhibit series that had previously visited mostly very large, well-resourced institutions so it could be permanently installed in smaller children’s museums and underserved areas—but it also seemed like I was entering an entirely different world.

Like many of us in small museums, I had never considered hosting a traveling exhibit. As the sole member of our exhibits team, I occasionally saw promotional materials or received email offers for them. However, the rental fees were often triple our annual budget. Additionally, the reality of our facilities made it clear that traveling exhibits were not designed to be accessible to us in the first place—with no loading dock, small doorways, and limited exhibit and storage space, most traveling exhibits were both financially and logistically impossible.

Moreover, I doubted whether the large exhibits I encountered would align with our audience and mission.

Conversations with colleagues from larger institutions revealed stark differences in our perspectives and terminologies. We lacked shared understandings of terms like “immersion” and “consumables,” highlighting the communication gap between our worlds. It became evident that adapting large exhibits for small museums required more than just scaling them down. This project offered an opportunity to completely reimagine the design and fabrication process, placing small museums at its core.

I believe that this reframing is part of a larger conversation that should be happening across the field; one that encourages us to think critically about resources, practices, and about what and who we value, both in terms of institutions and audience. Most importantly, this reframing recognizes small museums as not simply a limited version of a larger museum, but as fully formed, sophisticated, innovative institutions that can serve as models for any museum.

So what does it mean to think from a small museum perspective? It’s tempting to answer this question with a clear set of practical guidelines, since from the outside, it might seem that much of what defines a small museum is resource or facility limitations.

How do you accommodate weird, repurposed spaces?

Limited electrical outlets?

No tech support or regular maintenance?

In fact, designing to a set of “rules” for small museums is perhaps not even useful, because the diversity of small museums is so wildly broad—it’s difficult to apply standardized design principles to a 1,000 square-foot strip mall storefront and also a barely renovated Victorian house. Rather, it is far more useful to holistically reframe our thinking about exhibits and operations to be expansive and from the ground-up, using broadly inclusive principles and resource-conscious creativity. 

One common small museum consideration that seems to consistently surprise larger museum colleagues is that most small children’s museums don’t have the staff resources to facilitate activities, or even restage them regularly. On a busy day, most exhibits on my museum’s floor might not have any staff attention for hours, or even until after closing. This represents one of the most illuminating examples of something that might seem like a practical limitation, but actually reveals a core strength of small museums, which is the embrace of a truly self-guided, discovery-based approach. Small museums by necessity need to provide experiences that work for a wide range of ages, that are intuitive with minimal instructions and signage, can work without being reset or maintained for long periods of time, and can maintain engagement with repeat visitors over multiple visits and many years. That’s not just difficult, that’s almost magical. And we’re able to do that magic because we are small, not in spite of it.

Designing for low/no technology, no facilitation, and low maintenance is not a constraint or a compromise, but an opportunity for museums of any size. Choosing materials that can safely remain on an exhibit floor without daily laundering benefits both those who do—and don’t—have an on-site washing machine. Consciously using exhibit pieces that have the lowest possible replacement rate and cost benefits the staff at any museum. Recognizing that “special exhibit fees” make our institutions exclusionary benefits all visitors. A small museum perspective is accessibility in practice.

Advocating for the importance of a small museum perspective, and not just for consideration of small museums per se, is important beyond a single phase of this project. And that perspective can ultimately give us more inclusive models for building experiences and building relationships to the communities we serve.

5 Key Takeaways:

Reframing Perspectives:
Recognize the depth and usefulness of a small museum approach by reframing perspectives from the bottom up, rather than seeing compromise and limitation from the top down. This shift allows for more expansive possibilities in thinking and practicing within the field.
Adapting to Challenges:

Small museums often face unique challenges such as limited resources, space constraints, and minimal staff support. However, these challenges can be opportunities for creativity and innovation in designing exhibits and operations.
Embracing Self-Guided Exploration:

Small museums excel in providing self-guided, discovery-based experiences due to limited staff resources. This approach fosters engagement across a wide range of ages and encourages intuitive exploration with minimal instructions or facilitation.

Opportunities for Accessibility:
Designing for low/no technology, minimal facilitation, and low maintenance isn’t a constraint but an opportunity for museums of any size. Prioritizing materials with low replacement rates and inclusive pricing structures promotes accessibility for all visitors.

Advocating for Inclusivity:
Advocating for the importance of a small museum perspective extends beyond individual institutions. It promotes more inclusive models for building experiences and relationships with the communities served, benefiting the broader museum field.

About the Contributor:
Stephen Wisniewski has worked with and in small children’s museums for 20+ years primarily designing and building exhibits. He is currently an independent consultant specializing in small museum operations, exhibit design, and content. Stephen has a PhD in American Culture with expertise in Museum Studies and Cultural Studies, as well as an extensive background in visual art, DIY design and building projects, and independent art and education spaces—but mostly likes to make cool things for kids to play with.

This blog post is the first in a series of small museum perspectives that emerged from the ACM Freeman Foundation Asian Culture Exhibits Series (FFACES). Introduced as a traveling exhibit model, FFACES has been effective, with a total of twelve impactful exhibits created for two national tours. Each tour reached 3.4 million people—or 6.8 million visitors—total.The latest new round of the FFACES features modular exhibits about East Asian cultures for museums, which can be used in galleries and in outreach events. These new exhibits have a smaller footprint (500–1,000 square feet), and museums can rearrange them to fit in smaller or larger spaces. By remaining at the museum and in the community, the modular exhibit’s content becomes a part of children’s long-term memories, and can create a deeper experience than the temporary attraction of a traveling exhibit.

Children and Museums: You Can’t Start Early Enough: An Article featured in The New York Times, in Collaboration with ACM

The Association of Children’s Museums recently worked with The New York Times on an article highlighting the emphasis and importance of children’s programs in museums in the United States! The article dives into the trends within non-children’s museums and discusses the work of various children’s museums across the country, highlighting quotes from Arthur Affleck and ACM member museums. You can read the full article in The New York Times here:

ACM Executive Director Honored with AAM Advocacy Leadership Award

Arthur G. Affleck, III recognized for advocacy and leadership representing children’s museums and the museum field

ACM’s Executive Director Arthur G. Affleck, III with AAM’s Interim CEO/Chief of Staff Brooke Leonard and fellow honoree Brenda Granger, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Museums Association (OMA), at Museums Advocacy Day 2024. Photo by © AAM/Todd Buchanan 2024

ACM is pleased to share that the association’s executive director, Arthur G. Affleck, III, has been honored by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) with a 2024 Advocacy Leadership Award.

The award, which was presented during AAM’s Museums Advocacy Day on February 26, 2024, is presented annually to advocates who demonstrate exemplary leadership in their advocacy for the museum field.

“As Executive Director of ACM, Arthur brings a passion for education and equity as well as a proven record of accomplishment in the nonprofit sector,” says Brooke Leonard, Interim CEO/chief of staff at AAM, of the recognition. “Arthur’s commitment to elevating children’s museums and enriching the lives of children and families has led ACM to new levels of activity, visibility, and impact.”

Arthur joined ACM as Executive Director in January 2022, to lead the association which serves more than 470 members in 50 states and 11 countries. Under his vision and leadership, ACM has expanded programs, established new partnerships, and prioritized advocacy at all levels of government and across the museum field as critical for not only children’s museums, but for museums of all types. This work is guided by ACM’s new strategic plan, introduced in January 2023. The plan includes four aligned priorities which include elevating the children’s museum community, lifting up children and families, advancing the field through advocacy, policy, and research, and strengthening the organization. ACM’s participation in AAM’s annual Museums Advocacy Day, as well as the concentrated strategic initiatives, research, and professional development, reflect the importance of amplifying the field and championing issues that effect it.

Upon receiving the award, Arthur shared the recognition with the ACM Board of Directors, professional staff, and members of the field, and emphasized, “this award belongs not just to me, but to my colleagues at ACM and the countless individuals and organizations dedicated to advocating for museums and their essential role in our society so that we may all better support children and families.”

“This award belongs not just to me, but to my colleagues at ACM and the countless individuals and organizations dedicated to advocating for museums and their essential role in our society so that we may all better support children and families.”

Arthur Affleck, upon receiving the award, shared the recognition with the ACM Board of Directors, professional staff, and members of the field.

Please Touch Museum Kindergarten Readiness Program Fosters Preparation for New Adventures in Learning

With the waning weeks of the summer of 2023, children continue to make the most of every moment at Please Touch Museum (PTM) in Philadelphia. This is especially true for rising kindergarteners, who are getting ready to pack their backpacks, find their cubbies, and meet new friends. And the 80 children and their caregivers who participated in PTM’s Kindergarten Readiness Experience this summer are well-prepared for new adventures in learning. The program was recently featured in The Inquirer, highlighting the importance of social and emotional skills in preparation for kindergarten.

PTM’s Kindergarten Readiness Experience is advancing how children prepare to transition to kindergarten, ensuring they enter the classroom on their first day full of creativity, compassion, confidence, and curiosity. Entering kindergarten is a milestone for young children and families. PTM remains committed to supporting the journey from home to school by building the critical social-emotional skills needed for a successful transition.

The Kindergarten Readiness Experience was also highlighted in the American Alliance of Museums’ recent reaccreditation report, which specifically cited the program as worthy of study by other museums. Together, these remarkable endorsements help celebrate yet another way in which PTM changes a child’s life as they discover the power of learning through play.

“There’s a lot of research to suggest that if a child is ready for kindergarten, they’re going to do better in the future academically and socially [and] emotionally.

It’s so important to intervene as early as possible with children and make sure they have all the skills they need to be successful in kindergarten so it sets their trajectory on a positive pathway.”

– Alyssa Liles-Amponsah, the senior director of community programs and inclusion at the Please Touch Museum via The Inquirer

Young V&A Showcases how Children’s Museums are Growing Quickly Across the Globe

With approximately 40 emerging museum ACM Members, we are thrilled to see more intentional and meaningful spaces for children’s museums coming together across the globe!

This week, ACM Executive Director Arthur Affleck represents the association at the Grand Opening of Young V&A in Bethnal Green, London. After seven intensive years of dedicated planning and design, the free, national museum will showcase the power of creativity in children’s lives as they build new skills and develop the creative confidence needed to thrive in our fast-changing world.

Photo: © David Parry/ V&A

Co-designed with children, Young V&A demonstrates what it means to be a children’s museum by serving as a local destination that encourages positive child development and adult/child interactions through naturalistic and child-centered learning.

Emerging museums are an important part of the children’s museum community. Representing those institutions that are not-yet-opened, emerging museums bring new vision, new perspectives, ideas, and talents.

In recent years, many of our emerging museums represent the international growth of children’s museums. We are pleased to have welcomed attendees from across the globe at our recent InterActivity 2023: Leveraging Our Voice conference in New Orleans. This included attendees from Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Israel, Germany, Curaçao, China, and Poland, as well as the U.K.

“Children’s museums are the fastest growing sector of the museum community because there is an increased recognition of the power of the hands-on, interactive, and playful learning exhibits and experiences they provide…

We have found children’s museums and targeted programming serving as extension of the home and school environments. This ‘third space’ allows for stronger communities, safe spaces for growth and discovery, and a world of opportunity.”

– ACM Executive Director, Arthur G. Affleck, III via The Financial Times

ACM Information Brief on Mental Health

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Mental health is important.

Children’s museums have long been invested in creating environments where children thrive. Mental health is a pressing current issue for the children in our communities, and children’s museums have expansive opportunity to meet those needs with comprehensive, collaborative experiences that supplement the essential work of mental health professionals—providing all children with the skills to navigate their world with joy, wonder, and wellness.

ACM’s latest information brief The role of children’s museums in supporting children’s mental health, provides an overview of some primary research trends about children’s mental health and then shares insights about how children’s museums—community-serving organizations that reach millions of U.S. children each year—can bolster children’s mental health.

Paper commissioned by ACM | Written by KT Todd, Director of Learning and Research, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

Empowering the Next Generation of Climate Innovators

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. Children’s museums also fulfill their roles as responsive, audience-focused institutions by striving to reflect and address community needs through the experiences they create.

While ACM and the children’s museum community cannot eliminate all the threats to children’s health, safety and well-being, the organization is committed to using its playful learning approach, and its advocacy, programming, and community partnerships to address these problems proactively and with a sense of urgency.

Recently ACM’s Executive Director, Arthur G. Affleck III participated in a special roundtable discussion hosted by the National Children’s Museum in Washington, D.C. Joined by Ginger Zee, Chief Meteorologist and Managing Editor Climate Unit at ABC News, and Kim Noble, Senior Advisor for Environmental Education at the US Environmental Protection Agency, Arthur explore the topic of Climate Action Heroes: Empowering Future Climate InnovatorsThe full roundtable discussion can be viewed here.

Moderated by Crystal Bowyer, President & CEO of National Children’s Museum, central themes from the panel focused on climate and humanity, easing climate anxiety, partnerships, and the power of play.

Children, as the most vulnerable group affected by climate change, also hold the greatest potential as agents of change and resilience. To nurture the next generation of climate innovators, it is crucial to instill a love for nature and science through play-based, interactive learning, emphasizing hope rather than fear. It is the shared duty of public and private sectors to forge partnerships that promote awareness and inspire action in this endeavor.

Some key panel takeaways:

“This isn’t about science, it is not about statistics, it is not about how high the water level was… it’s about the humanity of the people … that’s what we can give children.  Not just the education and the information but where and how do I take action with whatever I have in front of us?”

Ginger Zee

“We can talk to children in a way that doesn’t come from a place of fear but a place of possibility. We can confront climate change and talk to our kids in a way that teaches them about creativity, innovation, resilience. We can teach them what it means to imagine a world with a planet with clean air, clean water, for everyone. That learning can come from a place of growth.”

Kim Noble

“The reason why play is so important is that you want the lesson to stick, you want children to want to know more about it. If you make it fun, if you make it interesting, if you make it interactive, and iterative, and joyful: they are likely to get the lesson. We use play-based approaches to teach about climate and so many other concepts.”

Arthur Affleck

Climate Action Heroes is part of the National Children’s Museum innovative educational programming. More information may be found at the NCM website.

ACM Anniversary Blog

On March 1st, the Association of Children’s Museum (ACM) celebrated its 60th anniversary with a reception in Washington, D.C. Held at the Washington Plaza, the event followed Museums Advocacy Day and the ACM board meeting. Guests included member museums, allied associations, public sector collaborators, strategic partners, vendors, and sponsors, as well as current and former board, staff, and donors.

In addition to celebrating the association’s impressive legacy, programs, and membership; the event showcased the commemorative special edition Hand to Hand, edited by Mary Maher, and highlighted the organization’s new 2023–2028 Strategic Plan. On stage, ACM board chair Joe Hastings (Explora, NM) and ACM Executive Director Arthur G. Affleck, III welcomed distinguished speakers: 

• American Alliance for Museums President and CEO Laura Lott, 

• Boston Children’s Museum CEO Carole Charnow,

• Institute of Museum and Library Services Deputy Director Laura Huerta Migus, and

• Institute of Museum and Library Services Director Crosby Kemper.

ACM notable programs such as Museums for All, Trends Reports, CCLI and year-round Professional Development programs were celebrated on stage and touching and informative remarks from Charnow, recounted the genesis of ACM and the strong link between these organizations. The progenitor to ACM was started at an AAM Annual Meeting in 1962, by BCM’s former leader, Mike Spock and others. A transcript of Charnow’s remarks can be found here.

The event also celebrated Affleck’s first year as Executive Director and welcomed back former ACM Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus with a warm embrace.  The heartful milestone honored the impressive work ACM’s members and all those that support children’s museums field.

Festivities for the anniversary celebrations will conclude on April 27, 2023 at the MarketPlace at the ACM InterActivity 2023: Leveraging Our Voice conference hosted in partnership with the Louisiana Children’s Museum in New Orleans.   

Value Pricing and the Cultivation of Public Trust

This post was originally published as ACM Trends Report 6.1, the first report in the sixth volume of ACM Trends Reports, produced in partnership between ACM and Knology.

Members are the lifeblood of many children’s museums. They are loyal patrons who trust museums to provide playful learning opportunities for their children, often complementing trips to the zoo or aquarium. But when children “age out,” families may turn to other cultural institutions and start to reconsider the value of their membership. Understanding value seekers’ calculations can help children’s museums cultivate trust through transparency.

In this Trends report, we look at what membership pricing and attendance data can tell us about children’s museums. We focus on what museums might want to think about when attempting to stabilize their membership base, and on how to forge trusting relationships with prospective members.

National data related to membership pricing has been of particular interest to the ACM leadership community in recent years, especially as it relates to post-pandemic operations. Prompted by a specific request from an ACM member, this report contributes to these ongoing discussions. We used data from the Spring 2022 targeted ACM member survey and collected additional information from member museum websites. We developed a dataset from 90 children’s museums to see if there were differences in membership costs between small, medium, and large museums. We also compared admission prices across these categories and calculated a “pay less” point—that is, the number of times a family of four would need to visit in order to make the
purchase of an annual membership a cost-saving act.

Our analysis yielded two main findings. First, even though admission prices and membership costs are highest for large museums, the number of single visits needed by a family of four to “pay less” is lower for these museums than it is for their small and medium-sized counterparts. Second, we confirmed that admission prices and membership costs tend to rise in parallel, which means that even though base admission prices may be determined based on local cost of living concerns, ACM members can still compare their rates to other children’s museums, Taken together, these findings can help children’s museums determine how to align pricing decisions with the needs and interests of value-seeking visitors—that is, those who purchase memberships based on a calculation of savings.

ACM Trends #6.1

In Spring 2022, the ACM Trends Team circulated a survey to ACM member institutions requesting data on attendance, admission prices, membership costs, and other operations. After supplementing this data with information gleaned from member websites in August 2022, we assembled a dataset of 90 museums (30 of each size). We summarize the data in Table 1 below.

Admission Prices and Membership Costs

Table 1 compares admission and membership prices for a family of four at small, medium, and large museums. Admission prices are based on the general admission price for adults and children. When prices for adults and children were different, a family of four was calculated with two adults and two children.

We calculated these figures for a two-adult, two-child family on account of current US Census data (which shows that the average US family contains 3.13 people), and because this aligns with demographic research showing that a plurality of mothers in the US today report having two children (Pew Research Center, 2015).

The bottom row in Table 1 presents the average number of times a family of four would need to pay admission before achieving cost-savings through a membership purchase. The fourth column illustrates the mean cost across all size categories—which is an appropriate way to calculate averages in a dataset like this one, as it contains few outliers.

Clearly, the larger the museum, the higher the membership and admission costs for a family of four. Nevertheless, the number of visits needed for a valueseeker to “pay less” for multiple visits through a membership is lower (2.62) for large museums than for their small (3.88) and medium-sized (3.52) counterparts.

Figure 1 presents data from the bottom row of Table 1 as a “box and whiskers” plot. To create this, we “normalized” pricing data to show membership costs (for a family of four) as a multiple of admission costs for each children’s museum. The “box” part of the plot illustrates the middle half of the data (in other words, where 15 of the 30 museums in each size category sit), while the “whiskers” indicate those museums where prices are higher or lower than their peers.

When a museum stands alone compared to others, the box and whiskers plot expresses this with dots, considered outliers. When multiple museums lie in the same range, this is indicated by a line placed above the box. The line in the middle of the box illustrates the median, or the exact middle of all of the data in that category. We can see from those lines that medium-sized and small museums tend to be near one another. To see how many visits a family of four would need to make before generating savings through the purchase of a membership, look at the Y-axis, which plots the ratio of membership costs to visit price. This data can be used as a foundation for making decisions about membership pricing, especially in connection with data on premiums.

We also collected data on additional benefits provided with museum memberships—for example, discounts for rentals or birthday parties (n = 60), member-only events (n = 53), and reciprocal admission to other ACM (n = 24) or ASTC (n = 13) member institutions. Most museums offer these in some form; 8 out of 10 small museums, 9 out of 10 medium-sized museums, and all large museums indicated additional membership benefits. The total number of additional benefits did not appear to be related to a higher value of memberships.

One benefit, however, did have a significant effect on “trips to match cost.” Offering a discount on space rentals, after accounting for museum size, was related to higher membership costs. Though some have suggested that early access or discounts on summer camps are perceived as an incentive for families who can afford summer camp experiences, our analysis did not provide any evidence that the benefit is related to higher or lower membership prices.

Changes in Attendance and Membership Rates

We also looked at a subset of the data from fifty-one museums (1 small, 15 medium-sized, 20 large, and 3 yet to be classified) who responded to the Spring 2022 ACM member survey and provided information on annual attendance and member attendance from FY2016 to FY2021. Looking at the data, we can determine historical trends in museum attendance, and also calculate the proportion of overall attendance consisting of museum members.

Prior to the pandemic, in FY2016 through FY2019, the median number of memberships purchased per year for these museums was between 2200 and 3000. In FY2020 and FY2021, this value dropped to 968 & 1188 memberships purchased, respectively. Along with this decline, the proportion of overall visitors who were
museum members decreased roughly 6% in 2021 for these museums. While these museums are just a portion of the overall ACM field, the decline likely reflects the impact of the pandemic across the sector.

Key Takeaways

People purchase museum memberships for different reasons. These purchases provide a reason for frequent visits—which not only benefits children but can also help museum leaders advocate for children’s access to the healthy spaces of learning and discovery children’s museums provide. For some, a membership is a valueseeking purchase, one made through a consideration of future costs, benefits, and savings. Value-seekers become members because they want museum-going to be a regular part of their children’s lives. These pricing data tell us that museums anticipate four visits a year by their value-seeking members, setting prices that justify at least four or more visits in a membership year.

For others, purchasing a membership may not be driven by monetary concerns. They may simply want to invest in an institution that is doing good work, or to support a local institution that is good for children. Some individuals may purchase memberships to build social capital, because they want to support an organization whose values they identify with, and because they want their membership to reflect something about who they are. They may also become members because they want to encourage their grandchildren, nephews, nieces, or other relatives to visit them, or because they want to provide gifts to families with children. These “affinity members” may also care less about free admission than about membership perks, premiums, or about symbolic value—for example, discounts on birthdays or group tours, reciprocal admission at other ACM member museums or other cultural institutions, access to priority registration, exclusive programs, or behind-the-scenes content.

In other words, value is a complex, multidimensional thing. When thinking about those who see the primary value of a museum as its price, children’s museum leaders can also consider how decisions related to pricing might impact the perceived trustworthiness of their institutions. As ACM Trends #5.3 discussed, in order to cultivate public trust, museums need to demonstrate competence, reliability, sincerity, integrity, and benevolence. During the height of the pandemic, many museums demonstrated benevolence through refunds or by pro-rating existing memberships. At present, some museums are considering increased fees to recoup pandemic-related monetary losses. Doing so may risk the trust built through the pandemic, especially as cost-of-living increases may make more members value-seekers.

About this Research

Data for this report was collected through: (1) an online survey distributed by ACM in April 2022; (2) a review of ACM member institutions’ websites. This dataset contains information from 90 current ACM member museums.

Our analysis used the size categories developed in ACM Trends Reports #1.1 and #1.7. We use these categories because institutional size predicts a range of outcomes for children’s museums. We note that museums offer many types of reduced priced tickets or free admission, and some unique premiums that were not used in this analysis.


Voiklis, J. (2022). Key Concepts: Trust. ACM Trends 5(3). Livingston, G. (2015). “Childlessness Falls, Family Size Grows Among Highly Education Women.” Pew Research Center.

US Census Bureau (2021). America’s Families and Living Arrangements. Retrieved from: [

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

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

Virtual Programming in Action: National Children’s Museum

This post was originally published as ACM Trends Report 5.4, the fourth report in the fifth volume of ACM Trends Reports, produced in partnership between ACM and Knology.

For this ACM Trends Report, we invited staff from National Children’s Museum in Washington, DC, to write about their experiences with virtual programming during COVID-19. Staff from the museum participated in the October 2021 discussion forum focused on virtual programming (See ACM Trends Report 5.1 for details).

After seventeen years without a permanent home in Washington, DC, National Children’s Museum (NCM) reopened as a science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) focused institution on February 24, 2020. Eighteen days later, the Museum temporarily closed as a precaution against COVID-19, and committed to providing families and educators with free, meaningful experiences at home. When the institution reopened, NCM continued to offer virtual programming for children under twelve and their families, garnering more than three million impressions to date.

While preparing to reopen, NCM conducted a survey to better understand the community’s engagement with the museum, including its virtual offerings. Fifty percent of respondents indicated they would be likely or very likely to engage with virtual offerings once NCM opened. Although the virtual offerings were initially developed in response to a need created by the pandemic, they are now part of the museum’s ongoing programmatic strategy.

This ACM Trends Report describes the survey items related to virtual programs and the current “evergreen” programming that will be retained based on these data.

ACM Trends #5.4

When NCM reopened to in-person visits in September 2021, it began complementing its on-site programming with the on-demand resources developed during the pandemic. As NCM looks to the future, staff are committed to maintaining, and in some cases, expanding the museum’s virtual offerings. All of the virtual experiences created during NCM’s pandemic closure are fully aligned with its mission and continue to be essential to its ability to promote its mission to audiences locally and abroad.

Social Media Video + Digital Resources

Between March and May 2020, NCM produced free STEAM videos that premiered seven days a week on its social platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). Funded by Booz Allen Hamilton, the series called “STEAMwork” featured experiments, projects, design + build challenges, story times, and demonstrations.

These videos and accompanying resources were made available free-of-charge on NCM’s website and continue to be featured as “STEAM At Home” opportunities in the museum’s newsletter. Staff also send the videos to educators as a post field trip resource for continued learning.

One NCM exhibit that was successfully adapted is its Climate Action Headquarters. In the pre-pandemic era visitors had participated in monthly missions and climate challenges. The virtual format introduced during the pandemic allowed visitors to determine their own climate action hero persona by answering a playful online quiz. This virtual version is available as part of NCM’s STEAMwork series. At this writing, NCM staff anticipate producing additional STEAMwork videos and related resources with ties to curriculum standards to promote classroom use.


With funding from GEICO and The Akamai Foundation, NCM launched the STEAM Daydream with National Children’s Museum podcast in June 2020 to provide tailored content to young audiences.

Staff engaged 3rd– to 5th-graders as interviewers. The first season had 18 episodes on critical, timely issues. Each episode allowed young learners to hear from STEAM experts, ask questions, and understand the world around them. Topics included:

• What children want to know about the COVID-19 vaccine with Dr. Roberta DeBiasi, the Chief of Infectious Diseases at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC,
• The wonder of animation with Dave Cunningham, Supervising Director of Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants.

The Museum’s podcast, featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Vox, was streamed 5,000+ times, with 15% international listenership for the first season. In 2022, NCM began production for the second season of the podcast for debut in the fall, followed by an assessment to determine the feasibility of a third season.

Virtual Field Trip Videos + Live Virtual Extension Sessions

NCM also developed two 20-minute virtual field trip videos based on in-person offerings. These virtual trips were offered to educators and families free of charge. Both virtual field trips are aligned with Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. So far, the videos have been requested by thousands of educators across all 50 states.

The first video, “Head in the Clouds,” prompts budding young scientists to observe and identify different types of clouds. When this video was released in May 2020, the museum received 475 initial requests for it from educators and caregivers. Of those 475 requests, 285 were from educators, who almost universally expressed interest in having their class participate in virtual extension sessions related to the video.

This demand enabled the museum to secure funding from a media company to develop a second video, “Climate Action Heroes.” This video explored the difference between weather and climate and introduces learners to seven real-life climate action heroes from across the country.

To extend learning beyond the videos, NCM has offered classroom teachers the opportunity to sign up for “live virtual extension sessions’’ with museum educators. These hour-long sessions, held over platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, help youth in formal classroom settings delve deeper into complementary content, participate in virtual activities, and ask museum educators questions.

Grant-funding through the end of 2021 offset the fee-based model for local Title 1 schools to book the sessions at no cost. Between May 2020 and June 2021, NCM fielded requests from 1,401 educators interested in live classroom sessions. Overall, NCM received 2,382 overall requests for access to the “Head in the Clouds” and “Climate Action Heroes” videos.

At this writing, staff plan to focus on content designed specifically for 3rd to 5th grade, which make up the majority of onsite field trips at the museum. Staff believe that this audience will be best served through live virtual field trips led by museum educators.

Based on the scale of these programs, NCM added a dedicated second full time educator to focus on teaching live extension sessions. The internal analysis also confirmed the museum will require dedicated space for a virtual field trip studio to allow educators the privacy and technical setup to teach effectively.

Lastly, the team recognized that programming developed during COVID tended to be longer than newer audiences anticipate. They concluded that offering shorter, fee-based classes, as well as promoting live virtual field trips to a national audience may be an effective use of resources.

Re-opening Survey

Figure 1. Responses to NCM’s re-opening survey question on digital offerings used (N = 316).

NCM shared a re-opening survey through their newsletter, which had nearly 10,000 subscribers at the time of distribution. The 316 returned surveys translate to a (roughly) 3% response rate.

The survey asked two questions on virtual programming:

• During National Children’s Museum’s temporary in-person closure, did you use any of the museum’s digital offerings? If so, please check all that apply.
• How likely are you to continue to use–or begin to use–the museum’s digital offerings once our institution and others are open for in-person visits?

While only 15 percent or less of respondents utilized the museum’s digital offerings (Figure 1), 24 percent said (Figure 2) they would be likely or very likely to use digital offerings in the future. An additional 24 percent indicated they were neutral to digital programming.

Figure 2. Responses to NCM’s re-opening survey question on digital offerings (N = 316).

With roughly 50% of respondents neutral or likely to consider virtual offerings once NCM re-opened, the Museum felt there was sufficient interest to continue some types of virtual programs, especially given prevailing health and safety concerns. Coupled with the data on educators’ interest in virtual field trips and live educator extension sessions, NCM felt compelled to retain virtual programming as an asset for the museum moving forward.

Key Takeaways

There are a few important takeaways from the NCM’s experiences with virtual programming:


• NCM’s reach across the country has expanded through free virtual content, contributing to its identity as a national institution. For example, as of September 2021, the Museum has served educators in all 50 states, which is a 90% increase from February 2020.
• Creating new categories of experiences and content has strengthened a culture of innovation amongst staff members, providing the opportunity to think creatively and develop new skillsets.


• Balancing the allocation of resources, especially staff time, between designing and implementing onsite programming and keeping this digital exhibit dynamic with fresh content is highly challenging. Virtual content creation is extremely labor and time intensive, as well as requiring additional investment in equipment and even reallocation of physical space.
• The content available to the public on demand via social media or podcast platforms is free. This has depended on continued success in corporate fundraising.


• By demonstrating its ability to adapt and fulfill the NCM mission in a new environment, the organization was able to tap new funding sources. This extends beyond grants to support content creation; our experience suggests is an opportunity to generate revenue on an ongoing basis from fee-based live virtual trips for primary school classrooms nationwide.
• NCM’s profile has been raised by the significant attention its high-quality virtual programming has received in national media coverage.


• Public engagement plays a key role in sustaining virtual programming, especially in terms of justifying the allocation of labor. A reduction in online consumption would affect the ability to create new content.


Association of Children’s Museums. (2021, March 18) Reflecting on One Year of the Pandemic for Children’s Museums and the Communities They Serve.

Flinner, K., Field, S., Voiklis, J., Thomas, U.G., & ACM Staff (2021). Museums in a Pandemic: Personnel & Rebuilding Teams. ACM Trends 4(12). Knology & Association of Children’s Museums.

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

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

Key Concepts: Trust

This post was originally published as ACM Trends Report 5.3, the third report in the fifth volume of ACM Trends Reports, produced in partnership between ACM and Knology.

This ACM Trends Report delves into the topic of trust, which is particularly important as museums reach out to new audiences with activities such as virtual programming. Knology researcher John Voiklis shares what research suggests about the nature of trust and its impact on the relationship between a museum and its audience(s).

Virtual programming became an unplanned necessity when children’s museums had to close their doors to the public during the pandemic. Nevertheless, it began to fulfill a long-sought goal of children’s museums: reaching previously unreachable audiences.

This benefit was cited by participants in the surveys that were reported in Volume 4 of the ACM Trends Report series, and by participants in the first annual discussion forum hosted by Knology and Association of Children’s Museums (see ACM Trends Report 5.1). During the forum, participants talked about using virtual programs to cultivate trusting relationships with new audiences.

This ACM Trends Report differentiates between two types of trust identified by social scientists: identity-based trust and experience-based trust (Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, & Camerer, 1998). It reviews evidence from a large-scale study Knology conducted with institutions that share audiences with children’s museums and play a similar role in the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children: zoos and aquariums. The study shows the particular importance of experience-based trust in building trusting relationships with a broad audience. Lastly, the report explores how children’s museums might apply what Knology learned about experience-based trust to outreach efforts such as virtual programming, focusing on two facets: Reliability and Benevolence.

ACM Trends #5.3

Trust ranks as a major concern in the museum field (Museums and Trust 2021). Moreover, it plays a foundational role in all human relations. The anthropological and psychological literature makes it clear that without help from others, people cannot meet their material, emotional, and intellectual needs (Tomasello & Gonzalez-Cabrera, 2017). Trust is how people manage the risks associated with such high levels of interdependence (Cvetkovich & Lofstedt, 2013).

Almost every scholarly field has developed one or more theories of trust. This report will introduce two consensus varieties: identity-based trust and experience- based trust (Rousseau et al., 1998), focusing on the latter.

Sometimes, people choose to trust those with whom they share some kind of identity or affinity. For example, as a research psychologist, I tend to seek career advice from other research psychologists. This is identity-based trust. At many organizations, the marketing department manages identity-based trust by convincing people to see the organization as a likeable friend. For example, a children’s museum might market itself as a fun place where families feel welcome.

More often, people choose to trust those whom prior experience has shown are trustworthy; this is experience- based trust. Research shows that whether people are judging another person, an organization, or even a robot, they use the same five criteria when conferring experience-based trust: Competence, Reliability, Sincerity, Integrity, and Benevolence.

For example, I trust my hair stylist because she gives me great haircuts (competence) on every occasion (reliability); she is transparent about pricing (sincerity), which is consistent for everyone (integrity); and she both asks after my wellbeing and actively listens to my responses (benevolence). This report will look most closely at Reliability and Benevolence (see section Trust in Children’s Museums).

First, it is useful to summarize some of what Knology has already learned about trust from zoos and aquariums.

While zoos and aquariums are different institutions than children’s museums, all three play a role in the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children.

Further, all three institutions work to build trust as both mission-based organizations that serve their audiences (at least in part) through publicly accessible facilities.

Trust in Action: Believing Zoos and Aquariums

Zoos and aquariums work to promote the conservation of wildlife and wild places. Typically, they rely on identity- based trust to gauge the credibility of their conservation messages: to learn whether their audiences believe their messages they instead ask whether those audiences like them (favorability) and feel attached (affinity) to them as places. This approach is not wrong, but it is incomplete. Although the conservation mission extends far beyond their facilities, people decide whether they trust in the institution’s conservation mission based on what the experience firsthand when visiting and what they hear about through their social networks

Theories of persuasion posit a much larger role for the criteria of experience-based trust (trustworthiness) in deciding whether to believe a message about conservation or any topic.

ACM Trends 5.3 Figure 1

Figure 1. Model of how trust contributes to message credibility. Blue and green arrows show the contributions of experience- based trust. This report pays special attention to the contributions of the green arrows.

Figure 1 shows how the criteria of the two varieties of trust fuse into “epistemic authority”—i.e., whether people see you as a thought leader. The icons represent collections of behaviors the public judges when deciding whether to trust a potential thought leader. The arrows show the influence of epistemic authority on whether people believe the potential thought leader, i.e., believing the conservation messages that zoos and aquariums offer as potential conservation leaders.

Knology worked with zoos and aquariums to identify nearly one hundred behaviors that sampled every aspect of daily operations and mission-related work, including caring for animals, interacting with visitors and the local community, supporting staff, managing their finances, etc. (Voiklis, Gupta, Rank, et al., In Press).

We might call this activity “what is your trust fall?” In identifying these behaviors, Knology was asking zoos and aquariums to imagine each one as a piece of evidence for why members of the public should take the risk of trusting them. Two thousand people from around the U.S. participated in two surveys to assess the importance of these behaviors and how well zoos and aquariums performed them.

The results matched the theory: trustworthiness, with its five experience-based criteria, was the strongest predictor of message credibility. Identity-based trust criteria also mattered, but more so for specialized publics: For example, those who regularly sought out conservation news and likely identified as conservationists.

Trust for Children’s Museums

These findings from Knology on zoos and aquariums offer insights for the children’s museum field. Of course, children’s museums have a distinct trust profile that reflects their focus on children rather than conservation.

Further research is required to identify the key reasons behind children’s museums’ message credibility, as detailed with zoos and aquariums above.

Nevertheless, museum professionals can run an activity akin to the “what is your trust fall?” exercise. They can identify behaviors that provide the evidence their audiences need to assess trustworthiness. Virtual programming can provide evidence for almost every criterion of trustworthiness. Here, we focus on two criteria—Reliability and Benevolence—that audiences are likely to use when judging the trustworthiness of a children’s museum with which they are newly acquainted.

Virtual Programming as Evidence of Reliability

Children’s museums have long sought to reach audiences who cannot visit their facilities due to geographical distance and/or costs. Virtual programs, originally intended as an emergency response to the pandemic, help accomplish that goal. Continuing to produce virtual programming may tax resources for some museums, making these programs unfeasible. However, museums interested in sustaining virtual programming can use it as a way to cultivate the museum’s reputation for reliability and build trust with new audiences.

Virtual Programming as Evidence of Benevolence

Producing virtual programming can also serve as evidence of goodwill for audiences who cannot otherwise access the children’s museum. Again, continuing to offer consistent virtual programming would further cultivate the museum’s reputation for benevolence.

Market research (e.g., Dilenschneider, 2020) shows people avoid museums after a negative experience, including a seeming “bait and switch” in programming. It is possible to repair a breach of benevolence (Xie & Peng, 2009), but the process is slow and resource intensive.

Key Takeaway

Research shows that trust is crucial to successful engagement by public institutions, although much work remains to be done on the specific trust profile of children’s museums. Museums can get a head start by assessing their exhibits and programs—including virtual programming—from the perspective of their audiences. Museums can ask what does this exhibit or program reveal about my Competence, Reliability, Sincerity, Integrity, and Benevolence? Research can then test whether audiences agree when deciding whether they trust children’s museums and believe their messages.


Cvetkovich, G., & Lofstedt, R. E. (2013). Social Trust and the Management of Risk. Routledge.

Dilenschneider, C. (2020, June 24). Why People Say They Won’t Visit Cultural Entities, COVID-19 Aside (DATA). Impacts Experience.

Field, S., Fraser, J., Thomas, U.G., Voiklis, J., & ACM Staff (2022). The Expanding Role of Virtual Programming in Children’s Museums. ACM Trends 5(1). Knology & Association of Children’s Museums.

Museums and Trust 2021. (2021, September 21). American Association of Museums.

Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., & Camerer, C. (1998). Not so Different after All: A Cross-Discipline View of Trust. The Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 393–404.

Tomasello, M., & Gonzalez-Cabrera, I. (2017). The Role of Ontogeny in the Evolution of Human Cooperation. Human Nature, 28(3), 274–288.

Voiklis, J., Gupta, R., Rank, S. J., Dwyer, J. T., Fraser, J. R., and Thomas,

G. (In Press). Believing zoos and aquariums as conservation informants. Zoos & Aquariums in the Public Mind. Springer Nature.

Xie, Y., & Peng, S. (2009). How to repair customer trust after negative publicity: The roles of competence, integrity, benevolence, and forgiveness. Psychology & Marketing, 26(7), 572–589.

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

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

Museum Resources for Talking about Tragic Events with Children

Traumatic and tragic events in the news can deeply affect the children and families our field serves. As community resources and advocates for children, children’s museums serve the critical function of helping to build socioemotional supports for children and those who love and care for them.

In the words of Kansas Children’s Discovery Center President and CEO Dené Mosier, “It is our duty as a community to make sure our children are given a peaceful environment in which to heal and connect to community resources.”

Read on for resources from children’s museums on talking about and processing tragic events.

Talking With Children About Tragic Events
Boston Children’s Museum (MA)
“Some activities in the Boston Children’s Museum activity library are specifically aimed at promoting healthy coping mechanisms and self-expression during stressful times, which may be relevant for your family right now.”

Coping with Traumatic Events
Children’s Creativity Museum (San Francisco, CA)
“Parents and caregivers play an important role in helping children recover from the exposure of traumatic events. For a young person, coping with death and loss can be difficult, so we’ve assembled some trusted resources for how to talk with your child(ren) and family.”

Tips for Helping Children Cope with Tragedy
Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose (CA)
“No matter what age or developmental stage the child is in, you can start by asking your child what they’ve already heard. Most children will have heard something, no matter how old they are. After you ask them what they’ve heard, ask what questions they have.”

Resources for Parents During News of Tragic Events
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (IN)
“We believe in the power of children to help change the world. The Children’s Museum is a place where all children and families can learn from one another—regardless of our differences. The core of our mission at The Children’s Museum is to help transform the lives of children and families. We hope these resources can be a starting point. Let’s partner with our children and help to make the world a better place.”

Community Resources
The Doseum (San Antonio, TX)
“Navigating tough topics with our children can be difficult—especially after a tragic event.  Your support and care can go a long way in creating a positive impact in their lives as well as those around you. Our commitment is to continuously seek and share valuable resources to educate and assist the Community during these trying times.”

Helping Children Cope: Talking with Kids About Violence and Tragedy in the News
Minnesota Children’s Museum (St. Paul)
“When violent acts dominate the news, it can be hard to know how to talk to kids about such tragedies. The instinct for many adults might be to shield children from the scary or upsetting news.

“But kids are often more aware than we realize, picking up on body language and physical cues from grownups and absorbing information from their peers and surroundings. This can leave them scared and confused.

“It’s important for parents and caregivers to proactively talk to kids about tragic events when they happen. Adults can help kids put traumatic events into perspective in an age-appropriate way so that kids can understand and process the messages they are hearing. Having these conversations also helps establish a sense of safety while allowing children to work through emotions they are feeling.”

Resources and Letter from the Executive Director
National Children’s Museum (Washington, DC)
“At National Children’s Museum, our mission is to inspire children to care about and change the world. We truly believe that children can affect lasting change. Throughout history, children have been at the forefront of progress, and they are valued citizens who have inspired action. We encourage you to empower the young learners in your life to make their voices heard.”

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

Museums and Pediatricians Are Key Partners on COVID-19 Vaccine Education

We Can Do This logo for blog

By Dr. Michael Yogman

I may be a pediatrician, but it doesn’t take a doctor to know the last two years have been profoundly challenging for our nation’s children. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all areas of children’s lives, including canceled playdates and school closings—all exacerbated by prolonged delays in vaccine eligibility for my youngest patients. Many children have lost caretakers and other family members and faced severe illness themselves.

Today, I write to the Association of Children’s Museums as part of the We Can Do This campaign—a collaboration among the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and many other organizations committed to the health and wellness of our nation and its children—that seeks to increase public confidence in and uptake of COVID-19 vaccines while reinforcing basic prevention measures such as mask wearing and social distancing.

The Association of Children’s Museums and its members are key partners in this effort. As the past board chair of the Boston Children’s Museum, I believe strongly in the vital role of museums in the effort to educate families about COVID-19. Museums promote hands-on, playful learning and discovery; cooperation; collaboration; and concern for all our fellow citizens. The work the association does is more important than ever, and I am grateful for our ongoing partnership.

COVID-19 and Kids in 2022

The impact of COVID-19 on kids has been devastating. As of April 2022, one in six children under age 18 have been infected with COVID-19. Contrary to what some believe, children are not immune to the devastating effects of this virus. Over 100,000 have been hospitalized, and over 1,500 have died. It’s hard to fathom that scale of loss—the equivalent of 30 school buses full of kids. We are also concerned about the symptoms of long covid in children.

However, those numbers alone do not adequately illustrate the impact the pandemic has had on children’s health. One of the most alarming outcomes has been the mental health crisis that continues to unfold. In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, writing:

As health professionals dedicated to the care of children and adolescents, we have witnessed soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating the situation that existed prior to the pandemic.

Fortunately, thanks to the tireless work of medical researchers, children ages five and older are now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine that is safe, effective, and freely available for all families. The pediatric COVID-19 vaccine has been rigorously reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversaw the participation of thousands of children in clinical trials and continue to monitor the safety and efficacy of the vaccine as we surpass 27 million vaccinated kids. Hopefully, the vaccine for younger children will be available soon.

To move past the pandemic, it is crucial that as many children are immunized against COVID-19 as possible. That requires us to concentrate our efforts on vulnerable populations by working together to reach them and supporting the immunization of all our citizens. This will not only prevent severe illness and death, but it will also help to keep classrooms open, allow kids to socialize with significantly lower risk of contracting serious illness, and help to protect children’s caretakers who may be in a higher risk category for severe illness and death from the virus.

Vaccinating children—along with deploying other basic prevention measures as needed—will protect their health and allow them to fully engage in all the activities that are so important to their health and development. As pediatricians, we are working directly with families to educate them on the importance of protecting kids from COVID-19.

The Role of Museums in Fighting COVID-19

Each of us has a role to play in protecting children against COVID-19. Museums are particularly important partners in this effort. Museums support education, promote empathy, and support caregiver–child relationships—all critical to buffering stress and promoting resilience. Despite being one of the hardest-hit institutions during the pandemic, museums and the work you do are more important than ever.

When museums were forced to close at the beginning of the pandemic, you did not abandon your mission to educate the public. Museums across the country, including the Children’s Museum Houston, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, and my very own Boston Children’s Museum, began building out digital resources to provide accessible, free educational resources for kids. By inspiring curiosity in our children, museums are shaping a generation of young minds who can make informed choices, solve tough issues, and critically evaluate sound scientific advances. This is key to not only helping us move past the COVID-19 pandemic, but also preparing a generation to intervene in future public health crises.

Museums are also crucial in promoting empathy and concern for all our fellow citizens. When we wish to learn about other cultures, museums are often one of the first places we go, because they provide insight into the past, present, and future of ourselves and each other. Developing empathy and respect for one another is vital, especially when dealing with a public health crisis. For children, it helps them understand the sacrifices we make to protect others and reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness when times are tough.

Finally, museums provide a necessary space for introspection. Amid a mental health crisis, museums provide children and adolescents with a place to think, reflect, and develop informed opinions. Whether it’s reflecting on history or appreciating the beauty of the natural world, museums provide perspective and peace in a nonstop world.

The gifts that museums provide are timeless, but they are particularly invaluable as we work to respond to COVID-19 and to protect our kids. As a pediatrician, I urge museums across the country to continue prioritizing education, empathy, and introspection. You can help us in our work by continuing to innovate on delivering virtual learning opportunities for families and providing COVID-safe physical spaces for children to learn. It takes all of us together to prioritize children’s health and well-being during such an uncertain time.

Museums are key allies in the work we do, and we are grateful for their partnership as we work together to create the next generation of educated, informed citizens. Check out for resources museums can use to help with your COVID vaccine education and outreach.

Click here to hear more from Dr. Yogman about the relationship between museums and the fight against COVID-19.

Dr. Michael Yogman is a leading Boston area pediatrician, Immediate Past Board Chair of Boston Children’s Museum, and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Parents & Caregivers Preferences for Virtual Programming

This post was originally published as ACM Trends Report 5.2, the second report in the fifth volume of ACM Trends Reports, produced in partnership between ACM and Knology.

For this ACM Trends Report, we invited Scott Burg from Rockman et al to write about his team’s research during the pandemic around parents and caregivers’ preferences for virtual programming by children’s museums. Scott was a speaker at a discussion forum with ACM members focused on virtual programming in October 2021 (See ACM Trends Report 5.1 for details).

ACM Trends Report 5.2

Due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, museums had to make critical decisions about conditions for opening and closing as well as virtual programming based on limited evidence. This shift left children with limited options to engage socially with peers and an increased reliance on parents and caregivers to manage school activities and after-school opportunities. One outcome of the pandemic was an increase in online museum offerings, many of which were targeted at children.

Most museum studies during the pandemic focused on health and safety concerns and returning visits (e.g., mask wearing, social distancing, capacity levels, etc.). This report focuses on results of a study of the potential value of continuing to offer virtual learning activities following the physical reopening of museums. Researchers at Rockman et al (REA) wanted to learn what parents and caregivers felt about children’s museums’ virtual programming, and the types of virtual programs that children’s museums could develop to address families’ needs, interests, and concerns.

In the fall of 2020, REA collaborated with the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco to survey northern California Bay Area children’s museums. The survey collected parent and caregiver feedback on the types of virtual programs they would like to see for their children. Following the first wave of data collection and validation of the instruments, a second wave expanded the research opportunity to other institutions in the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) network ( In total, 13 different children’s museums across the country distributed the survey to their members and mailing lists.

Background on the Survey

The REA study focused on understanding the types of virtual programming that parents and caregivers want from children’s museums. Their preferences for types of virtual programs might be influenced by a child’s school or care situations, child age, amount of screen time, cost, and other factors. Each participating museum received real- time access to aggregate study findings as well as their own museum’s individual data through customized digital reports.

Between November 2020 and January 2021, REA gathered more than 1,200 responses from museum patrons. Not all survey respondents answered every question. The bulk of respondents were parents or caregivers of children aged 2-7 (Figure 1). School and care situations varied among participants’ children, spanning those attending school or daycare in person; and those attending virtually either in a hybrid solution (in-person and remote) or being homeschooled or cared for at home (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Percentage of Respondents by Child’s Age (n = 941)

Findings from the Survey

We found that parents and caregivers’ interest in virtual programs was mixed. About half of all respondents said they had “no interest” or “slight interest” in virtual programs. The other half expressed “moderate” or “high” interest (Figure 2). One overriding concern for participants was the amount of screen time their children were already exposed to. One in five respondents reported that their child spent more than three hours each day on a computer or digital device. Surprisingly, more screen time did not coincide with less interest in virtual programs. These findings suggest that everyone’s threshold for screen fatigue is different.

Figure 2. Percentage of Respondents by Interest Level (n = 945)

Our survey showed a correlation between parents and caregivers’ interest in virtual programs, and the type of schooling or care their child was receiving at the time of the survey. Parents and caregivers of children who attended school or daycare in-person were less interested in virtual programs than those whose children were being home-schooled, attended school online or were in a hybrid situation (Figure 3). A child’s age was not related to their parent or caregiver’s interest in virtual programming, suggesting that these issues are based on values rather than a common consensus on developmental concerns.

Despite concerns about screen time, the survey results showed that many parents and caregivers wanted to reconnect with their local children’s museum. They also wanted to replicate museum experiences either at home or in a remote environment.

Figure 3. Parent & Caregivers’ Interest in Virtual Programming by Schooling Type

Parents and caregivers prioritized museum approaches in both virtual and in-person settings that:

  • • Provide greater socialization opportunities for young children;
  • • Promote enhanced creative and critical thinking skills;
  • • Facilitate more kinesthetically oriented experiences; and
  • • Offer activities that promote independent learning while also furnishing time for caregivers to learn alongside their children.

Parents and caregivers also indicated an interest in programs that offered the kinds of experiential learning that children’s museums succeed at. These included programs that actively engage participants (e.g., science, art) vs. activities that are more passive (e.g., read alouds, learning study skills). Parent and caregivers were not interested in activities that duplicated virtual school lessons. Nearly three-fifths of respondents said they would consider paying for virtual programming.

Most parents and caregivers preferred virtual programming scheduled on weekends. They indicated a slight preference for weekday virtual programming that allows independent child participation (Figure 4).

The survey did not reflect the many opportunities for children’s museums to educate parents and caregivers on methods to regulate and participate with their child’s virtual learning activities. Research suggests that when parents and caregivers participate and scaffold their children’s activities (asking questions, extending play), this results in higher retained learning (Takeuchi and Stevens, 2011).

Figure 4. Parents & Caregivers’ Interest in Virtual Programming by Time and Day

Anxiety over prolonged screen time can undermine this type of support. What it means to be an effective ‘digital parent’ can be perceived as contradictory, as parents and caregivers try to minimize the negatives of screen time while benefitting from the affordances of the technology.

Parents and caregivers need support to better understand the content of what their children watch and do on screens, the context of where they watch and do, and the connections they make (or do not make) while watching and doing (Livingstone et al, 2017).

This integrated approach provides more insights into the positive or negative impact of digital media use than a simple measure of time. Parents and caregivers need to be encouraged to think critically about how to support positive uses and minimize negative consequences. This is where children’s museums can play a valuable role.

Looking to the Future

As the pandemic restrictions are lifted, the needs and expectations of museum audiences will evolve. This survey provided insights into the minds of audiences during the fall and winter of 2020, and but cannot predict what else may change as schools and museums continue to reopen. These data provide some insights that can support analysis and monitoring of how virtual programming is valued in the future.

Key Takeaways

To put these findings to work, virtual programming offered by children’s museums can respond to these key takeaways:

  • • About 85% respondents expressed some degree of interest in virtual programming offered by children’s museums. For children’s museums considering investments in virtual programming as a core institutional activity, this finding suggests that such investments may be worthwhile;
  • • Some respondents were willing to pay for virtual programming. This indicates that parents and caregivers believe virtual programming can promote a child’s educational and social-emotional growth and are willing to invest in those activities;
  • • Parents and caregivers value virtual programming but are concerned about the amount of screen time children experience. Children’s museums are well positioned to help them think critically about how they can support positive uses of screen time and minimize negative consequences; and
  • • Parents and caregivers preferred virtual programs that actively engaged their children, like science and art activities. They were less interested in more passive activities such as read aloud sessions.
Next Steps

Are parents and caregivers tired of virtual programs, or has remote learning become a mainstay of education? Is virtual programming enabling visitors to form a new kind of relationship with children’s museums? Can museums use virtual programs to extend their reach to underserved audiences, increase access to diverse communities, or add value to their institutions as trusted sources of information and learning? Where could collaboration between children’s museums or between museums and school districts strengthen both the informal and formal education landscape? What role can researchers and evaluators play in facilitating this discussion?

To answer those questions and build on this study of virtual programming that parents and caregivers want from children’s museums, the researchers hope to expand the number of institutions involved in any future studies to ensure the data are representative and determine if regional variation or museum size influence perceptions. Ideally, future research will recruit a more inclusive sample of community participants including parents and caregivers who may not visit children’s museums regularly or do not have access to virtual programming.

We also hope to encourage the development of research- practice partnerships, which can serve as a critical tool for generating actionable data that children’s museums need to navigate the post-COVID world


Field, S., Fraser, J., Thomas, U.G., Voiklis, J., & ACM Staff (2022). The Expanding Role of Virtual Programming in Children’s Museums. ACM Trends 5(1). Knology & Association of Children’s Museums.

Takeuchi, L., & Stevens, R. (2011). The new coviewing: Designing for learning through joint media engagement. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Livingstone, S., Lemish, D., Lim, S. S., Bulger, M., Cabello, P., Claro, M., Cabello-Hutt, T., Khalil, J., Kumpulainen, K., Nayar, U. S., Nayar, P., Park, J., Tan, M. M., Prinsloo, J., & Wei, B. (2017). Global Perspectives on Children’s Digital Opportunities: An Emerging Research and Policy Agenda. Pediatrics, 140(Suppl 2), S137–S141.

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

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

Invitations to Learn and Play through Video: Practical Tips for Museum Professionals

By Kim Koin, Chicago Children’s Museum

Chicago Children’s Museum (CCM) closed its doors to the public in March 2020 to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Like many learning spaces, CCM needed to switch from in-person to online interactions to continue connecting with our community during the pandemic. Museum educators soon began making videos at home, building upon our best practices for interacting with guests at the museum. Here are some tips gained by staff that we hope other museum professionals can use and adapt for your online programming!

Setting up a shot to film on the floor, complete with a stack of books. A selfie stick angles the phone camera down, and a book is placed on top to keep it steady!

Prep: Give yourself LOTS of time to figure things out beforehand. Museum professionals already know the importance of planning your workshops and activities. This is especially important when there’s a digital component to your programming. For a five-minute video, consider that you’ll need to create a concept, gather and test materials and processes, write a script, set up the camera, and do numerous dry runs.

  • • Choose your filming space: At the museum, our learning spaces included exhibits, studios, and labs. With the transition to digital experiences, our homes have become the environments for learning. Try to use a well-lit, sunny space, such as a room with a big window. No windows? Turn on all the lights and bring in a lamp, if you can. Have the light source in front of you, not behind. The camera should be between you and the light source.
  • Assess how your space looks on camera: Check your space—both foreground and background. Is it distracting? Interesting? Can people see laundry on the floor?

“Camera” & audio set up:  Filming was new for many of us at the museum. We spent time experimenting with our smart phones, thinking about framing, background noise, and prototyping.

Framing the shot: In this photo, many of the items on the table are going to be obscured by the captions. All the materials should be moved up a few inches.

  • Steady your camera: Place your cameras on a stable surface—a stack of books or a laundry hamper can work. It’s very hard to hold the camera steady by hand.
  • Use the right video settings: Make sure your phone is on “video mode,” not “camera mode.” It’s a different ratio!
  • • Frame your shot: You want your viewers to be able to see what you are doing. If you are sitting at a table, place the camera above you and tilt it slightly down so your table is in view. Also, try not to have any important materials at the bottom of your shot so you can add captions at the bottom of the screen in post-production.
  • • Reduce background noise: It’s amazing what the mic can pick up! Make sure any televisions, radios, and even fans are off.
  • • Enhance sound absorption: If possible, record in a space that has sound absorption elements like carpet and curtains. The sound quality will be better than recording in a space with all hard surfaces—which can create an echo.
  • • Do a test run: Take a short video (not just a photo) of your setup. Watch it twice, first to focus on your framing, and then to focus on sound. When you start and end your video, pause for a few seconds while the camera is rolling. This gives time to cut and paste a transition.
  • • Edit out mistakes: If you trip over your words, no need to do the whole video again! Just stay still, pause for 5 seconds, and begin your sentence again. Through video editing, you can cut out the “extra,” previous line.
  • • Look at the camera when you are talking: Pretend you are talking to a guest or friend. Keep your eyes on the lens to maintain a happy connection. You can also place script notes behind the camera at the same height. This way, you can still look in the direction of the camera when you are looking at notes.
  • Talk louder than normal: Pretend someone is the in the back of the room and is hard of hearing.

Action: Before we began creating content at home, we museum educators were used to being in front of a crowd—but not a camera! We had to learn how to do a few things differently. However, our core facilitation style stayed consistent.

Though there can be some shyness to overcome, try to focus on the way you would facilitate without a camera in front of you. What’s your teaching style? How do you like to engage your students and audience? Use the same tone, sense of humor, playfulness and “voice” that characterizes you when you are facilitating in-person at the museum. By being yourself, your virtual facilitation will be most natural and engaging.

Last tip: Take a deep breath and smile—you’re doing great!

Kim Koin is Director of Art & Tinkering Lab Studios at Chicago Children’s Museum.

How Children’s Museums Can Leverage Relationship-Building for Fundraising Success

By Bob Harvey

NOTE: I recently received a request to comment about fundraising during the COVID-19 experience, specifically around the topics of donor communication and cultivation strategies. I decided to use this request as an opportunity to speak with several of my current and former colleagues and then I created the following summary. (By the way, this group has about 300 years of experience in fundraising circles.)

Relationship building is the very foundation and core of nonprofit development. Both donor communication and cultivation strategies fit nicely under the relationship building umbrella.

The Giving Landscape

First, let me assure you that people, foundations, and corporations are giving. Two of my firm’s clients have received $500,000 contributions in the last two months, one of real estate and one in cash.  A third (a developing children’s science museum) just received notice of a $6.1 million federal grant that was submitted two years ago!

Remember, nearly 70 percent of all giving is from private individuals, not foundations, grants, and corporations. Why are they still giving? First and foremost, “People give to people more than they give to causes.”

The most productive solicitation is, “The right two people, calling on the right prospect with the right story and the right ask.”

You might be tempted to say the economy is so disrupted that people aren’t going to give and if they do, they will give less and be reluctant to make a pledge.

There is no indication that is true. If you look at individual giving, much of the money is in the form of “discretionary funds” that are most often generated by invested wealth. Even today, the stock market continues to reach record highs.

If you consider corporate giving, many U.S. firms have received “bail-out money” in the form of emergency funds. Others are formally committed to 5 percent giving levels. There are also have divisions of national and international corporations. They are giving.

When you consider private foundations, most have a legal and moral obligation to continue with funding deserving projects. They are giving.

The fact is that funders and donors are looking for progress and new programs. They are urgently seeking you.

Developing Your Relationship Building Program

So how do you go about developing a solid “relationship building” program?

First, review and evaluate your existing donor records. This is true no matter what system you are using to develop a list of bona fide prospective donors.

What does your analysis tell you? In relatively recent history, have any of your prospective donors indicated interest in your mission? Have you had meaningful communication lately? If not, why? What are you going to do to make them your friend or renew the relationship?

How accessible are these prospects? Remember the “right person” requirement? That person might not be on your board or immediately available to you. You must contact them, inform them and educate them, and then ask for their assistance in setting up a meeting with the prospective donor. But don’t make that call until you have already solicited your new friend, donor and volunteer.

The fact is that the public, in general, wants to learn more about children’s museums. They want to know what STEAM is all about. After all, it’s relatively new. It’s exciting. It’s science, AND KIDS, for Pete’s sake!

Children’s museums are most often thought of as being in the education industry, but I believe we more correctly belong in what is collectively called the hospitality industry. Why? We are providing goods, services, and experiences to the public. We are competing for the discretionary dollars that are generated when the consumer makes a decision to do “this” rather than “that.” We must provide a positive experience for those who choose us. We are competing with all of the other diversions, appeals, and activities. We are competing for the public’s attention, participation and funding, and we’re only going to be successful if we are better at what we do.

Children’s museums should form relationships with many different networks to remain fresh and fascinating. We are vital components in economic development. We impact tourism and lodging. We should network more closely with the educational systems in our market area. We should also talk frequently with local manufacturing concerns about what we need and ask for their help for in-kind donations. Plus, there is an ongoing need to be on the lookout for new opportunities for sponsorships of programs and exhibits.

Reevaluating Existing Strategies

Relationship-building can lead to some unexpected—but successful—partnerships. Recently, my firm encouraged a developing client to make a presentation to the leadership of a huge military airbase in their market area. Most of the board members said “Why?” The answer was easy. You see, there were several thousand air force personnel on that base and most of them were looking for something new and rewarding to get involved in.

We contacted the base and explained what we were doing. Since there was a huge contingent of technology-based personnel there, we told them we would welcome their participation in brainstorming, designing, and building new exhibits.

The word went out and, guess what? More than 300 people responded “yes, I’ll help.” The base commander said they would be willing to help financially.

There is never an end to relationship building. You can get new people and energy involved simply by asking for their short-term assistance. Sometimes you have a need for a particular skillset for a particular task. Sometime it’s as simple as needing someone who lives in a distant location to help with conducting an outreach program.

In these peculiar times, it is sometimes wise to consider reevaluating your development strategy. One of our clients recently agreed to take their big, relatively clumsy project and break it down into “phases.” These bite-sized phases were more easily understood. Hitting a series of smaller goals demonstrated success and progress. Ultimately, they hit their $2.9 million goal in the same amount of time it would have taken to labor through the larger strategy that required individual giving at a much higher level. Remember, your future requires you to continually seek out the smaller gifts too. It is those gifts that grow up to become major gifts later on in your relationship with the donor.

Leveraging Exhibit Sponsorships

Exhibit sponsorships are related to fundraising—though they are not always considered as such. For those children’s museums working with exhibit or display sponsorships, we are learning that it is not a good idea to give “lifetime” sponsorships. It appears that the right amount of time is about five years for sponsorships, particularly for those of $500,000 or more. Why? Every display has a lifetime. They will eventually need to be renovated or retired. Five years seems to be the right number. Donors don’t seem to consider that five year term to be too short or otherwise inappropriate, particularly if your signage and recognition programs allow for long-term recognition, even after the exhibit is retired.

Learning What Others Think Of You

At some appropriate time in your development curve, it would be wise to conduct three studies:

  1. 1. Community Attitude Survey: What does your audience think of your programs, your people, and your value to the community?
  2. 2. Financial Feasibility Study: You have a good idea, but does it work financially? Is it sustainable?
  3. 3. Fundraising Feasibility Study: Who will support you? Why? How much? What do they need to hear?

In many cases, the Community Attitude and Fundraising Feasibility Studies can be accomplished with a single effort.

For best results, these studies should be conducted in that order, and each should be done by a professional firm. Why? There is no validity to the outcome of any of these studies if it isn’t conducted in such a manner as to ensure honesty, confidentiality, or objectivity. Your community leadership will not speak frankly about your programs, services, and leadership when they are concerned about “who is going to hear what I am saying?” Responses need to be solicited, recorded and reported without compromising confidentiality and that is best accomplished through an “outsider.”

Now, go out and build a new relationship or resurrect an old one.

Bob Harvey is CEO and President of Bob Harvey Associates and vice president and COO of Harvey Nonprofit Development. An industry leader in fundraising since 1974, his string of successful campaigns include clients in healthcare, environmental causes, animal organizations, education, history and arts. He can be reached at

The Founding of the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center – An Excerpt from International Thinking on Children in Museums

The following is an excerpt from “Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center … The gathering place – where East meets West” by Loretta Yajima. It is an Accepted Manuscript of a book chapter published by Routledge/CRC Press in International Thinking on Children in Museums: A Sociocultural View of Practice by Sharon E. Shaffer on October 12, 2020, available online.

Incorporated in 1985, the Hawaii Children’s Museum was the first and only museum in Hawaii designed especially for children. Its mission: to bring information and experiences about the world beyond our Island shores to the children of Hawaii and to instill in our keiki a pride in themselves and their ethnic and cultural heritage. By offering audiences of all ages a wide variety of experiences in a world-class participatory learning environment, it was our hope that this would be a place that inspires and educates both the young and the “young at heart.”

In 1988, the organization, led primarily by a small group of volunteers, raised the funds to construct an initial temporary facility in the Dole Cannery Square, space donated by Castle & Cooke Properties. The museum celebrated its grand opening at its 5,000-square-foot site on January 24, 1990. It immediately proved to be a popular gathering place for Hawaii’s families. Where else in Hawaii could children learn about science, the human body, culture, and communications while having fun? Where else in Hawaii could parents participate in self-discovery activities with their children in a creative yet nurturing environment?

The demand for services by school and community groups was so great that the facility was obviously not suitable for the long-term development and growth of the museum. Relocation to a larger, permanent site was deemed a priority. After considering many options, then Governor John D. Waihee offered a site in the State’s newly developing Kaka’ako Waterfront Park with the idea that the museum would serve as the anchor tenant for the area. The plan was that the park would become a gathering place for Hawaii’s families as well as for tourists who came to visit Oahu.

So, out of the “ashes” of an old city incinerator was born a dream – literally. To say that the story of the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center is a unique one would be an understatement. In 1998, the newly developed Children’s Discovery Center rose from the renovated and expanded shell of an old incinerator next to a city landfill near downtown Honolulu. With the support of government officials, major corporations, and the community at large, millions of dollars were raised for the construction of a permanent facility. The 38,000-square-foot incinerator was renovated and transformed into a world-class children’s museum – a remarkable feat considering Hawaii’s economy was in a prolonged slump at the time and funding was scarce.

The former Kaka’ako landfill was transformed into a gem of a waterfront park, and the former city incinerator became a beehive of activity for children from across the Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center, the first and only museum of its kind in Hawaii, was known largely through word of mouth and its growing reputation as a world-class children’s museum. Local families, school groups, and tourists flocked to the museum, which quickly grew to serve over 125,000 visitors a year. While many children’s museums typically start out in donated space, Hawaii’s children’s museum has the unique distinction of being the only one in the world that started out in a pineapple cannery and ended up in a city incinerator.

The first and only children’s museum in Hawaii dedicated to serving the children and families of the state, the Center’s mission remains to provide an interactive learning environment that will motivate and inspire children to new heights of learning and discovery. Through galleries of hands-on, interactive exhibits and educational programs, the Center helps children develop positive self-concept in a nurturing environment where children can learn through play. Here they can develop an understanding of themselves and others in Hawaii’s multicultural community and have a “window to the world” beyond the beauty of the island shores.

The Center serves children of all ages, abilities, and origins. It hosts a culturally and economically diverse audience throughout the island state, as well as a broader audience throughout the country and world. An educational resource for young children, the Center enhances and extends learning opportunities that children have at home or in the classroom.

While there are many outstanding children’s museums across the nation, the Discovery Center in Hawaii is unique in its focus on Hawaii’s history and rich cultural diversity. Its hands-on, child-oriented, carefully designed exhibits say to the communities’ keiki o ka aina (children of the land), this is a place about them and the people of Hawaii, about what they share in common, about who they are and where they came from.

The Center’s cultural galleries are, first and foremost, about the experience of discovery, about Hawaii’s immigrant population, and about the one common denominator that is shared by all, whether one lives in the middle of the Pacific or along the stormy shores of New England: It is about the immigrant’s need and search for community and hope. Theirs were voyages of discovery and wonder, similar in many ways to the daily experiences of the thousands of young children from throughout Hawaii and from all over the world, who visit the Discovery Center every day.

What makes the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center unique is its focus on the cultural mosaic that is Hawaii: the history of its people, the challenges they faced as newcomers to a strange land, and the successes they achieved despite overwhelming odds; the celebration of their music, dance, food, ceremony, and commitment to each other; and the unique overarching community they created in spite of language, cultural, and prejudicial barriers. The Center and Hawaii’s children are indeed Hawaii’s “rainbow connection to the world.”

The Children’s Discovery Center has matured and fulfills its mission of being Hawaii’s “rainbow connection” to the world, each and every day. As the inspiration and model for the early childhood education movement that is taking place in China today, Hawaii’s very own children’s museum continues to be respected and admired by children’s museum colleagues both nationally and internationally. In 2017 the Center hosted the Asia Pacific Children’s Museum Conference, an international gathering of children’s museum professionals, in Honolulu. Most importantly, early education in the Islands has no stronger advocate and ally than the Children’s Discovery Center, and we are proud of the learning opportunities it provides to our young children and their families.

Loretta Yajima is Chair of the Board of Directors of Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center.

Sharon E. Shaffer is a museum consultant specializing in providing programming to younger children and works with museum professionals around the world. She is a former Executive Director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, USA, and is the only educator ever to receive the Smithsonian Institution Secretary’s Gold Medal for Exceptional Service. She has a PhD in Social Foundations of Education and is an adjunct faculty member with the  University of Virginia.

Reopening with Equity in Mind

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

Opportunities for Culturally Relevant Practice in Museums

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

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

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

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

Find more definitions at the CCLI website.

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

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

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

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

Dana Whitelaw, High Desert Museum

Museum Practice for Reopening with Equity in Mind

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

Embedding DEAI in Strategic Planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three Bears Model: Identifying Just Right Partnerships

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

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

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

How to Approach Authentic Partnership:

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

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

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

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

Mobilizing Your Museum to Be a Resource for Equity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Museum Resources for Talking about Racism with Children

Please contact ACM to add your children’s museum’s resources to this list.

Demonstrations continue to unfold around the world calling for an end to racist systems that oppress Black people and people of color. As institutions with a responsibility to the children and families in their communities, children’s museums are sharing tools to help families navigate difficult conversations about race and racism—including these resource guides:

6 Books That Can Help You Talk to Your Child about Race and Diversity
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (IN)

“We believe in the power of children to change the world around us. We cannot raise world-changers if we shy away from tough topics. We hope these books may empower children and their grown-ups to address these challenging topics with sensitivity and compassion, empowering children to make a difference in our communities—no matter how young.”

Anti-Racism Resources
National Children’s Museum (Washington, DC)

“For parents, for kids, for educators, and for all dreamers.”

Mourning and Making Meaningful Change
Minnesota Children’s Museum (St. Paul)

“We want to support kids and families as we find a path forward to unite, heal, and make meaningful change toward a just future where everyone in our community and throughout the world is treated with kindness, dignity and respect.”

Racial Equity Resources
Marbles Kids Museum (Raleigh, NC)

“Marbles believes in the power of play to unite communities around building bright futures for children. We believe in the power of play to break down barriers, celebrate diversity, and foster friendships. These beliefs shape our commitment to help a community shaken by unrest and racial inequity that impacts us all.”

Resources for Talking about Race and Equality
Children’s Museums of Pittsburgh and MuseumLab (PA)

“Racism and prejudice have a profound impact on children and families in Pittsburgh and across the world. We must teach our children to be kind and compassionate to everyone. We are all neighbors.”

Social Justice
Glazer Children’s Museum (Tampa, FL)

“We have created a page on our website filled with free resources for families about racism, trauma, violence, and the historic context of activism. This is just our small piece of the puzzle. To the black and brown families in our community – we are here for you. We will help you help your children through this.”

Talking to Children About Race (from Play Is Essential Work: A Parenting Guide)
The Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum (IL)
“Conversations about racial justice must start at home. Parents bear the responsibility of educating their children about race and racial injustice, no matter how difficult that conversation may seem to be. Your children are not too young to have a conversation about race. Below are some resources to start that conversation.”

Talking to Your Child about Race
Pretend City Children’s Museum (Irvine, CA)
“Children as young as infants can recognize differences in their appearances. As they explore the world around them, they begin to form their identity in relation to others. It is never too early to start having conversations that address the differences they see. Here are four ways you and your family can introduce race conversations to your child.”

What To Say When There Are No Words
Boston Children’s Museum and Children’s Services of Roxbury

“At this moment, we need to keep our children close and show them our ever-present unconditional love. Even the youngest children have a keen sense of fairness and right and wrong so we can talk to them honestly about justice in a way that is appropriate for their age and stage of development.”

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

Children’s Museums Respond to the Death of George Floyd and Ongoing Demonstrations

Starting in late May, demonstrations have unfolded throughout the United States—and around the world—in response to the death of George Floyd, seeking an end to racist systems that oppress Black people and people of color.

Children’s museums have a responsibility to the children and families in their communities. This time is an upsetting one, and children feel this keenly. Over the past few days, many children’s museums have shared statements responding to the protests and sharing resources for caregivers to talk about race and racism with their children. We share these statements and resources here.

This list is incomplete. Please contact ACM to add your children’s museum. Last updated July 1, 2020.

Minnesota Children’s Museum (St. Paul)

Minnesota Children’s Museum mourns the death of George Floyd and would like to express our deepest condolences to his family and friends. We are further saddened by the scenes of destruction we wake up to each morning.

Our organization values racial equity. We work toward equitable outcomes for members of racial and ethnic groups. We know that people of color and indigenous people in Minnesota experience levels of socioeconomic, legal and educational inequality that are among the worst in the nation.

Children in our community feel what’s happening. The museum wants to do what we can to support families. Please know that play helps. Play reduces anxiety. Play mitigates the effects of toxic stress. Play brings people together.

Read the full statement.

Bay Area Discovery Museum (Sausalito, CA)

The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery—three names in a too long list of others—have prompted all of us at the Bay Area Discovery Museum (BADM) to reflect on our role in our community and the values that guide us. We create play-based experiences that help young children and their families explore and make sense of their world. Right now, as we see families hurting, across our region and the country, that work feels especially daunting and also more important than ever. We are committed to doing the work to be a more inclusive and responsive community organization—to educating ourselves, to listening to the voices of our community, and to using our resources and power to tackle the inequities that divide and hurt us.

Read the full statement.

Betty Brinn Children’s Museum (Milwaukee, WI)

The Betty Brinn Children’s Museum believes that equity is foundational. We stand with the black community and those seeking transformative change against racism.

The Museum remains committed to providing inspiring and safe spaces for all children and families to play. We celebrate diversity and all that we can learn from one another to create a better, kinder world for our children. As lifelong learners, we have much to discover and much to do. Let’s do it together.

Read the full statement.

Boston Children’s Museum (MA)

The killing of George Floyd unleashed a deep anguish, not just in the Black community, but across humanity, sparking protests around the world.  The determination to be heard, to demand justice and recognition of a people’s humanity superseded the risk of becoming ill with the coronavirus.  In fact, we are reminded that in this nation, racism, has been and continues to be the most pervasive pandemic in our American story. …

At this moment, we need to keep our children close and show them our ever-present unconditional love. Even the youngest children have a keen sense of fairness and right and wrong so we can talk to them honestly about justice in a way that is appropriate for their age and stage of development.

Read the full statement.

Brooklyn Children’s Museum (NY)

Today, Brooklyn Children’s Museum makes the following commitment to our community:

1. In all that we do, we will acknowledge and recognize that BCM exists in a historically Black neighborhood and that we owe a debt of gratitude to our community, mostly people of color, who have nurtured and sustained our institution for 120 years.

2. Understanding our role as a community anchor, BCM will work to open its doors to families as soon as it is safe. Stay tuned for more information about programming and performances on BCM’s roof as soon as the PAUSE is lifted.

3. We will continue to create experiences that ignite curiosity, celebrate identity and cultivate joyful learning. We will do this in an explicitly anti-racist way, in partnership and solidarity with our community.

Read the full statement.

Cayton Children’s Museum and Sharewell (Santa Monica, CA)

As an institution dedicated to guiding children, youth and families to work together toward justice and expanded possibilities in their communities, we have a responsibility to speak up. All children, but especially Black children and other children of color, are traumatized by racism and inequality in our society. And, in times like these, they sense the fear and uncertainty felt by their grownups.  
We know it is never too early to start honest, age-appropriate discussions with children about these issues. Our goal is to help you in your efforts to have these difficult but essential conversations. 

Real the full statement.

Chicago Children’s Museum (IL) and Kohl Children’s Museum of Greater Chicago (Glenview, IL)

38 Chicago-area organizations coordinated to share this statement from Chicago Community Trust, along with coordinated messaging.

As cultural organizations serving the people of Chicago, we stand in unified opposition to racism and injustice. We must each wrestle with the persistent stain of systemic inequality and its devastating impacts on our staff, members, guests and neighbors.

See Chicago Children’s Museum’s post and Kohl Children’s Museum’s post.

Children’s Creativity Museum (San Francisco, CA)

To create, play, and learn, one must first feel safe.

The Children’s Creativity Museum stands with Black children, caregivers, educators, and the entire Black community.

We ask our visitors to use their imagination to envision a future they would like to live in. In order to create the inclusive and equitable future we hope for, we must first actively speak and take action against the structural racism that holds us back.


Read the full statement.

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose (CA)

As a children’s museum, we are in the unique position to combat historical and systemic racism by promoting diversity, tolerance, inclusion, and cultural competence that starts with our community’s children. We want to help your family navigate these times in a hopeful and honest way that honors your children’s fears, curiosity, and anxiety. The goal for each of us should be to better understand the racial realities of the world and commit to what role we can all play in healing these wounds.

Read the full statement.

Children’s Museum of Atlanta (GA)

Children’s Museum of Atlanta believes that play fosters learning, and playing in an environment that exposes us to new ideas, beliefs, or values can teach us to appreciate and understand our differences and to celebrate our commonalities. In many ways, Children’s Museum of Atlanta serves as a ‘town square’ where all families are able to safely gather, connect, and learn together. We look forward to welcoming families back into our space and will continue to work towards mutual understanding, opportunities for open communication and exploration, and equitable outcomes for members of all racial and ethnic groups.

Read the full statement.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (IN)

We believe Ruby Bridges said it best: “Racism is a grown-up disease.”

Talking about racism, prejudice, and discrimination can be uncomfortable. If we want to see real change in our world, we cannot shy away from these difficult conversations with our children. Through our words and actions, we must teach our children to be kind, compassionate, and caring to everyone.

Read the full statement.

Children’s Museum of Manhattan (NY)

The Children’s Museum of Manhattan condemns racism of all kinds. We are both town square and city park, a safe place for families of diverse backgrounds to gather side-by-side and learn together and from each other. What is happening now, and historically to the black community, is anathema to all we stand for.

By three years old, children have already absorbed notions of bias from those around them. Our job is to support families in raising open-hearted citizens. Over the next days and weeks, CMOM will be developing new initiatives that we can incorporate into our online Parenting in Place and CMOM at Home programming.

Read the full statement.

Children’s Museum of Richmond (VA)

Our mission is to inspire growth in all children by engaging families in learning through play. We strive to be a place that provides equitable solutions for our community as a safe space for all families. We want our community, especially the members of our community who have been oppressed for far too long, to know that we are here for your children and family.

Children are experiencing stress during this time. The value of play cannot be underestimated for our youngest citizens; play reduces stress and brings people together. As families are looking for ways to talk to children about what is happening in Richmond and across the country, we want to help make resources available. Visit our blog for articles, activities, and books your family can use.

Read the full statement.

DISCOVERY Children’s Museum (Las Vegas, NV)

Talking about race, although hard, is necessary.

If we wish to inspire the change we want to see in the world, we need to engage in these difficult conversations with our children today.

See the full statement.

Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum (Salt Lake City, UT)

We at Discovery Gateway are incredibly saddened by the death of George Floyd and all acts of racial injustice. At Discovery Gateway it is our mission to inspire ALL children to imagine, discover, and connect with their world to make a difference. As a children’s museum, we are committed to bringing families together, celebrating diversity, being a catalyst for inclusion, and offering a platform for all communities to have a voice and teach our children.

Read the full statement.

Discovery Place (Charlotte, NC)

While we are saddened to see the physical damage to the building, we realize there is a much deeper hurting across our community and country. Our windows can be repaired but a much longer process lies ahead to change the systemic issues that are fueling these events. We remain committed to helping Charlotte become a better community for everyone.

Read the full statement.

Glazer Children’s Museum (Tampa, FL)

We are heartbroken by the trauma occurring across our country in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. As a children’s museum, we want to speak to parents at this moment.

We often help children cope with traumatic events by referencing the advice of Fred Rogers to ‘look for the helpers.’ In times like this, it may be difficult to know who the helpers are. So, with respect to Mr. Rogers, today let’s be the helpers. For many children in our community right now, connecting to the world around them feels scary. It feels frustrating and confusing. But it is our job as adults to help our kids navigate the scary and learn to be helpers.

Read the full statement.

Grand Rapids Children’s Museum (MI)

A message from our CEO, Maggie Lancaster

In addition to the damage to our building and to those of our downtown neighbors, our community woke up this morning with more questions than answers.

One thing is certain: loss of property pales in comparison to loss of human life. We understand that there is a lot of hurt within our community, and this knowledge bolsters our commitment to our mission and the important work of the museum. The need for play and the benefits that come through play are needed now more than ever. Open-ended play experiences, like the ones we’ve provided for nearly twenty-three years, have been proven to be effective interventions against chronic toxic stress, as well as proven tools for building empathy, self-love, and interpersonal communication skills. We are an incredible community, coming together to collectively prioritize the needs of children and families, especially those affected by systemic injustice.

Read the full statement.

Kidspace Children’s Museum (Pasadena, CA)

Kidspace Children’s Museum condemns the violence and injustice that systemic racism inflicts on our communities, families and children. Black lives matter. As we prepare to reopen as a place of welcome and healing, we are collaborating with community partners to listen, learn, and together build an inclusive, anti-racist environment where all children are invited to play, create, grow, and thrive.

Read the full statement.

KidsPlay Children’s Museum (Torrington, CT)

KidsPlay values all members of our community, especially those impacted by the traumatic effects of racism, violence, and discrimination. We stand in solidarity with the Black community and all other minorities and people of color to speak out against racism and injustice. We are committed to lifelong learning, positive change, and creating space for empathy, diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. We will continue to work with our community to do our part towards a peaceful and inclusive future.

Read the full statement

KidsQuest Children’s Museum (Bellevue, WA)

As an educational institution, it always has and will be our mission to support families. During this time, we are standing with all black children and families. Conversations about race should start at home and using books as a tool to start those discussions can be a great resource. We have included two links that provide a variety of books that can help children of all ages see the faces of people that look like them or don’t and can be a step towards your learning journey. #blacklivesmatter 

Read the full statement.

Madison Children’s Museum (WI)

The damage and violence in our city is frightening and discouraging, but we should not let it diminish from the message of the peaceful demonstration, which drew much larger crowds earlier in the day. We stand with those who are demanding justice for George Floyd and an end to the systemic racism and white supremacy plaguing our country. This scourge diminishes every community’s capacity to raise whole, happy, healthy children.”

There’s much work to be done. As an organization deeply invested in creating a more just society, where all children and families can play and learn together, and as a cornerstone of our downtown, we will stay active in the conversation and the work. Please stay safe.

Read the full statement.

The New Children’s Museum (San Diego, CA)

The New Children’s Museum embraces cultural diversity and welcomes children and families from all walks of life. We are united with our colleagues across the U.S. through the Association of Children’s Museums in being a safe and friendly place where we value people of all ages, abilities, races, ethnicities and economic circumstances. We are committed to being a community resource, both within our Museum as well as in economically and culturally diverse communities throughout San Diego.

Read the full statement.

Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum (IL)

The Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum believes in celebrating the diversity of Central Illinois and in providing opportunities for ALL children to become explorers and creators of the world, no matter their race, income, or background. Parents bear the responsibility of educating their children about race and racial injustice; PlayHouse staff want to support parents in this critical work by providing resources and programs to help. Your children are never too young to have a conversation about race. Teach them to speak out against injustice and fight for those whose voices are squandered by the systemic inequalities written into the fabric of our nation.

Play Africa (Johannesburg, South Africa)

Play Africa stands against racism. We stand against all forms of injustice and inequality that Black people have faced and continue to face in South Africa, and around the world. We loudly and proudly proclaim that Black lives matter.

We believe using our platforms to learn, and to promote ubuntu, understanding, compassion and justice. We strive to create real, positive and lasting impact to help create a world where racism and injustice no longer limit abundant human potential.

Read the full statement.

Port Discovery Children’s Museum (Baltimore, MD)

We are heartbroken by the grief, pain and trauma that all of our community and our country are experiencing in the wake of the recent death of George Floyd. Far too often, people of color experience racism, injustice and numerous socioeconomic, legal, and educational inequalities – and we stand with and behind our visitors, members, staff and community who are experiencing hurt and sadness as a result.  

Children in our community see and feel what is happening. This is a time to see their pain, help them understand and cope with it, and help them learn. And, in the spirit of Mr. Rogers—who suggested that children “look for the helpers”—we are here for you, we are listening, and we want to help.  

Read the full statement.

Portland Children’s Museum (OR)

We believe that human rights are universal and embrace humanity in all of its diversity. Therefore, Portland Children’s Museum reaffirms its commitment to:

• Amplify action for social justice on behalf of children and their rights to be safe, protected, and educated.
• Work toward an inclusive future in which societal institutions reinforcing systemic racism are replaced by ones that are open and accessible to all.
• Listen with an open heart and mind, with empathy, to families of every race, religion, and cultural background, so that their stories find expression and power.

Read the full statement.

Providence Children’s Museum (RI)

Children’s museums serve not only as a place for play and joy, but to provide guidance and support. It is our role to support children and their caregivers as they navigate these feelings, and we have curated resources on our social media pages to speak to children about racism, trauma, violence, and activism.   

We will always work towards greater equity and justice as that is the ultimate support for children.

Read the full statement.


6 Books That Can Help You Talk to Your Child About Race and Diversity, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Addressing Racial Injustice with Young Children, EmbraceRace
By Marianne Celano, PhD, ABPP, Marietta Collins, PhD, and Ann Hazzard, PhD, ABPP Illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin

An Activity Book For African American Families: Helping Children Cope with Crisis, National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI) and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Resources for Talking about Race, Racism and Racialized Violence with Kids, The Center for Racial Justice in Education 

Social Justice Resources, Glazer Children’s Museum

Talking about Race, National Museum of African American History and Culture

Talking to Children About Racial Bias,
By ​​​Ashaunta Anderson, MD, MPH, MSHS, FAAP and Jacqueline Dougé, MD, MPH, FAAP

Your Kids Aren’t Too Young to Talk About Race: Resource Roundup, Pretty Good Design

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

Reopening with Equity in Mind: Opportunities for Culturally Relevant Practice in Museums

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

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

On May 19, the Cultural Competence Learning Institute (CCLI) hosted a webinar about the opportunities for culturally relevant practice for museums during this time of crisis. During the webinar:

  • Cecilia Garibay, Principal, Garibay Group shared concrete areas of operations for rebuilding with an equity lens, drawing from CCLI’s Fall 2019 study on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) practices in the museum field (from 7:20 in the video below).
  • Museum leaders from CCLI alumni organizations offered reflections on how they are thinking about equity amidst this pandemic (from 19:58 in the video below).
  • Dana Whitelaw, Executive Director, High Desert Museum (Bend, Oregon) discussed her thinking around strategic planning, navigating staffing, and skilling up through an equity lens.
  • Jennifer Farrington, President & CEO, Chicago Children’s Museum (Chicago, Illinois) shared her experience with prioritizing authentic and effective community relationships and partnerships.
  • Elizabeth Pierce, President & CEO, Cincinnati Museum Center (Cincinnati, Ohio) offered how she is mobilizing her museum as a resource for equity in her community.
  • Laura Huerta Migus, Executive Director, Association of Children’s Museums moderated a Q&A covering creative ways to center equity in membership, partnership, revenue generation, and more in this challenging time (from 41:45 in the video below).


  • Slides from the webinar can be found here.
  • If you would like to assess where your institution is in its DEAI journey, check out this self-assessment tool to take stock of your institution’s cultural competence.
  • See more resources, case studies, and information about the CCLI program at the CCLI website.

Cultural Competence Learning Institute (CCLI) is a partnership between the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, the Association of Science and Technology Centers, the Association of Children’s Museums, and the Garibay Group.

Conversations with Children’s Museum Leaders around COVID-19

The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) held a series of three hour-long CEO Calls, sponsored by Blackbaud, on March 24, 25, and 26, 2020. These calls provided a space for ACM to connect with children’s museum executive leadership—and for leaders to connect with each other—in the aftermath of mass closures in our field due to COVID-19.

ACM research shows that all U.S. children’s museums, and most around the world, are currently closed. We started each call with a short update from ACM on U.S. federal advocacy efforts to support museums and nonprofits. For up-to-date information about ACM’s advocacy work, and current relief opportunities available to children’s museums, see ACM’s website.

The majority of each call was spent around CEO discussion of two broad topics: museum staffing and operations decisions in the coming weeks, as well as efforts to virtually engage with audiences. A through line throughout these conversations was the challenges children’s museums will face—and what  our field may look like—when they are able to reopen. 

Operations and Staffing Decisions:

When making staffing decisions, CEOs took into account their museum’s reserves, insurance, relief opportunities, and unemployment options (which vary state by state). All children’s museums are nonprofits, and most are lean organizations with limited reserves that rely on admissions to cover operational costs. Based on an analysis of the 34 museums that shared information about their staffing decisions during these calls, 32 percent reported furloughing staff and 26 percent reported laying off staff.

Some CEOs were advised to lay off workers so they could collect unemployment, rather than slowly reduce their hours over time. Museums also considered staffing decisions with their museum’s business interruption insurance in mind. (See CEO discussion on business interruption insurance on Groupsite here).

CEOs shared their staffing plans over the next few months. These staffing plans fell into a few broad categories:

  • Continuing to pay all staff, with plans to reassess after a few weeks or months.
  • Continuing to pay all full-time staff, but laying off or furloughing part-time staff.
  • Laying off or furloughing the majority of both full- and part-time staff, but keeping a few key positions (often with reduced pay and/or hours).
  • Keeping on all staff, but reducing pay and hours across the board.
  • Laying off the majority of staff, but continuing to pay healthcare and benefits for the next few months.

CEOs suggested additional strategies to mitigate costs, such as letting full-time staff use all vacation and sick leave and freezing 403B contributions.

Furloughs and layoffs were the most common options for reducing payrolls. CEOs discussed the many considerations that went into their decisions to furlough or layoff staff.

  • Unemployment Options: Unemployment options in each state affected whether museums opted to furlough or lay off staff. Some states have softened unemployment criteria, such as search for work requirements, making layoffs a better choice for staff without work.
  • Furlough Categories: Some CEOs said they furloughed staff through “unemployment without job seeking” as the best option. Others furloughed staff under “standby” category, which allows staff to collect unemployment, without having to look for other jobs.
  • Legal implications: CEOs noted the need to consider the legal implications for laying off or keeping on staff, in consultation with an employment attorney.
  • Health Insurance: CEOs considered the issue of layoffs vs. furloughs through the lens of health insurance coverage. One CEO recommended touching base with your organization’s health insurance carrier, as some are delaying payments without penalty to help businesses preserve cash.  
  • Relief Funding: One museum had furloughed staff, but was deciding whether to terminate to meet the fifty employee threshold to qualify for SBA loans.

CEOs also discussed their communications with major funders over the past few weeks.

  • Several CEOs reported their funders had encouraged them to continue to pay all staff.
  • One CEO scheduled one-on-one discussions with all key funders. As a result, some funders come forward with operating support or released funding ahead of schedule.
  • Some funders were allowing museums flexibility within existing grants, as long as museums could report out on their work.
  • CEOs requested an example of letters museums are sending to donors and supporters. (See one example on Groupsite).

Virtual Activities

CEOs also discussed the work their museums are doing to bring the museum experience online, with virtual activities, often retaining staff to create this virtual programming. Content is often designed to keep the museum’s community engaged. It focuses on repurposed museum activities families can do at home, such as experiments, physical activities, storytimes, and more. (ACM is tracking these virtual activities—see our ongoing list here).

CEOs shared other virtual content ideas.

  • Some museums are sharing lesson plans for various grade levels, and developing lessons for caregivers to support children with different developmental needs.
  • Additional content models include live events, interactive parent sessions on Zoom, Facebook groups, and virtual field trips.
  • Several museums surveyed their members to get their input on their preferred content and distribution methods.
  • Many museums are sharing content from other museums, to supplement making their own.

CEOs shared positive results so far.

  • Some CEOs found that major donors as well as corporate partners appreciate their museum’s virtual activities, and share it with family members with young children.
  • Some museums had seen an increase in engagement on social media, resulting in fun stats to share with their board members and funders.
  • Activities are seen as a good way to connect with the museum’s community and members. CEOs cited seeing familiar faces from the museum during live events. They create “normalcy” by taking a museum’s already-existing programs online.
  • One CEO shared they’re thinking about the content they’re developing as a new toolset. They may put it behind a member’s-only site or use it in other ways when their museum reopens.

CEOs noted a need for support around a few areas related to virtual activities, as well as posed questions for consideration.

  • Because museums are getting requests to offer content for different ages and needs, how can museums collaborate to create content that’s segmented by audience? 
  • CEOs flagged the need for a standard hashtag for social media (ACM launched the hashtag #ChildrensMuseumsatHome).
  • CEOs asked, how do we not bombard our members, who are receiving a glut of information? Should museums resist creating too much content, and rather encourage parents and kids to take a break and play at home? How do museums ensure they don’t “get lost in the craziness”?
  • CEOs noted that the current virtual activities model may change, asking, how do we leverage this crisis to articulate the big message about children’s museums and our reach, impact, connectivity to family, and community?

As most virtual activities are offered free of charge, CEOs discussed different creative money-makers they can explore related to their current efforts.

  • Offering gift certificates to local business with membership push.
  • Creating pay-to-attend digital camps (i.e. one hour daily via Zoom) to expand on their free activities to keep some revenue coming in.
  • One CEO shared they had converted a state arts council grant to from a performance at the museum to a livestreaming event, allowing them to keep the funds while delivering on their grant project.
  • One CEO shared that a local restaurant franchise had reached out to sponsor their online resources.

CEOs also discussed some of their museum’s offline activities.  

  • One CEO is considering redeploying their staff to help run regional enrichment childcare centers for essential workers.
  • One CEO noted their museum may use Zoom to connect educators with childcare centers, such as local YMCAs, for program delivery.
  • One museum noted specific efforts to serve children with disabilities in this time.

ACM will draw from the conversations of the first CEO Calls as we continue to identify opportunities for museum leaders, and all children’s museum professionals, to convene and share knowledge. Stay tuned for more information!

The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. Follow ACM on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. Are you a children’s museum with online programming? Contact Follow and share museums’ virtual activities with the hashtag #ChildrensMuseumsatHome.

Museum Strategies for Event Cancellation, Rescheduling, and Refunds

By Elissa K. Miller

As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, children’s museums, science-technology centers, and other cultural and educational attractions are facing unprecedented challenges in every aspect of operations. After your team meets the most urgent physical safety requirements and addresses other urgent matters, you’ll need to determine how to move forward during a period of extremely limited or altogether ceased operations.

One of the many challenges facing museums is how to handle cancellations of scheduled events, birthday parties, and group visits. In this post, we’ll look at some different options for handling large numbers of cancellations.

IMPORTANT: Check Your Payment Processor’s Daily Refund Limit

Your payment processor is the company that handles credit card, debit card, gift card and e-check transactions. Some registration systems require to you use their payment processor while others allow you to choose the organization you want to work with.

As part of fraud prevention, most payment processors place a limit on the dollar amount of refunds that can be issued in a day. While this limit is usually more than reasonable in normal circumstances, you might reach the limit quickly if you plan to refund a significant number of registrations.

When you know the daily refund limit, you can plan the number of refunds accordingly. So, be sure to check with your payment processor before you start issuing refunds; depending on the answer, you may want to ask them to temporarily raise the daily limit so you can process refunds more quickly.

Customer-Friendly Cancellation Alternatives

Your visitors and members appreciate your programs and understand your value to the community, and chances are good that many of them want to support your mission, especially during COVID-19. Instead of automatically issuing refunds for canceled events, ask your customers to consider the following options.

Offer Gift Cards Instead of Refunds

By converting registration and reservation fees to gift cards delivers the best of both worlds to your customers and your museum. Gift cards will bring families back to your doors as soon as it’s safe, and can be spent on admission, memberships, another camp or program, another birthday party and even merchandise (depending on how your museum store operates).

Your customers don’t lose any money because the gift card covers the value of their payments, and your museum can keep the money on your books to support your operations during this uncertain time.

As an added incentive and thank you, consider rounding up the value of the gift cards or adding an additional flat dollar amount to make customers even more positive toward your organization. 

Offer Memberships Instead of Refunds

If your museum doesn’t offer gift cards or you don’t have a practical way to offer them, or if you simply want to boost memberships, you can offer to apply registration fees to one or more kinds of memberships. As with gift cards, consider rounding up the value as a thank you to your new members.

For customers who paid more than the cost of a membership, you’ll still need to consider issuing a refund or gift card, or asking if they’d like to convert the balance to a donation, discussed in the next section.

Speaking of memberships, you may want to consider extending the expiration dates of all memberships to account for the time that your museum is closed.

Offer to Convert Fees to Donations

Many organizations are asking registration owners if they’d like to convert all or part of their registration fees for canceled events to a donation instead. Depending on your museum, donations may be used as unrestricted funds to support your continued operations without the quid pro quo of a membership or gift card.

Event Cancellation and Rescheduling Tips

The procedure for cancelling events depends entirely on your event management provider, so some of these suggestions may not be available to you.

  • Keep the event on your public calendar, with CANCELLED or RESCHEDULED before the event name. Be sure to close registration first!
  • Update the event’s information page for the event (usually the first page in the registration process) with details on the cancellation or the newly scheduled date.
  • If the event is rescheduled and your event management solution allows you to transfer registrations directly, offer to transfer the registration to the new event. All registrant information and payments should be applied to the new event, and new tickets, confirmations, and receipts should be issued automatically. 

Elissa K. Miller, M.Ed., is communications director at Doubleknot, an integrated online, on-site, and mobile solutions provider for nonprofits and cultural organizations. As the former development director for a regional nonprofit, she’s passionate about helping nonprofits and youth-serving organizations harness new technologies to streamline operations and support their missions.

What Do You Love about Your Children’s Museum?

There are more than 300 children’s museums in the world serving millions of families, but each one is unique. We know that children’s museums are joyful spaces for learning and play, but they are much more than just places to visit. In fact, all children’s museums—regardless of size —function as local destinations (with designed spaces, like their exhibits), educational laboratories (with programming for children and families), and act as community resources and advocates for children.

There’s so much to love about children’s museums everywhere. In honor of Valentine’s Day, we asked children’s museum staff: What do you love about your children’s museum? Here are some of their answers!

Children's Museum of Findlay
Children’s Museum of Findlay

“I love that we are a safe place for kids to learn and grow through self-guided play. They get to experience different careers and practice the examples they see in our homes and community in our different exhibits. I love that I get to use my formal education background to help the kids learn in an informal setting… without even knowing they are learning new things!”

-Erica Bickhart, Children’s Museum of Findlay (OH)

“I love working for a children’s museum because every day welcomes a new adventure! Whether it’s leading one of our fun educational classes or dressing up as a princess for an event, no day is ever the same.”

-Allison Armstrong, Sacramento Children’s Museum (CA)

“Sacramento Children’s Museum is a great place for young guests to grow, learn, and explore! Our programs and classes are so much fun. Our Van-Go mobile museum is a great way to reach out to the community when it’s hard for them to come to us. We play, we inspire, and we reach out.”

-Denver Vaughn, Sacramento Children’s Museum (CA)

“I love how embedded our museum is within our downtown community. When there are events in our town we are right in the middle of it. We have built longstanding relationships with the other downtown businesses.”

Sacramento Children’s Museum

-Gracie Chaffin, Louisiana Children’s Discovery Center (Hammond)

“I love watching kids be able to play and learn and have a safe place to come to! I love our nature room—and one thing we just added to it is a tower garden. We always wanted to have plants, and this is so easy and kids love to see the veggies growing each week!”

-Robin Kussmann, Playzeum Yuba Sutter (Yuba City, CA)

LOVE seeing families playing together. Less heads down with phones and more heads up for play!

-Mandy Volpe, Interactive Neighborhood for Kids, Inc. (Gainesville, GA)

“We love that we are the first children’s museum in the state of Mississippi located one block from the Gulf of Mexico in the renovated Mississippi City Elementary School, constructed in 1915 and an architectural exhibition itself. Lynn Meadows Discovery Center offers 15,000 square feet of indoor hands-on exhibit space, seven and a half acres of outdoor play space, a spacious theatre, Viking kitchen and other great facilities for children, families and community use. Just like the children who enter our doors, Lynn Meadows Discovery Center is continually growing and improving, expanding and changing our exhibits, adding and enhancing our offerings and constantly learning along the way!”

-Sonja Gillis, Lynn Meadows Discovery Center (Gulfport, MS)

There are so many things to love about Cheshire Children’s Museum! One special thing we do is recognize early childhood educators in our region. Each year, we celebrate all early childhood educators at an event at the museum, culminating in naming one Early Childhood Educator of the Year! He/she is selected by a panel of judges ahead of time after reviewing nominations from colleagues, directors, and family members of children they serve. We have donated prizes for the winner and door prizes. This year we will have a proclamation from our mayor.

-Deb Ganley, Cheshire Children’s Museum (Keene, NH)

“There is so much to love. On the amusing side—I really love how kids dress  for PLAY.”

-Sharon Stone Smith, Sacramento Children’s Museum (CA)

What do you love about your children’s museum?

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

Top photo courtesy of Lynn Meadows Discovery Center.

Five Ways Children’s Museums Can Participate in Endangered Species Day

By David Robinson

The fifteenth annual Endangered Species Day on May 15, 2020 provides children’s museums with an opportunity to highlight their educational/other programs while also recognizing this nationwide celebration.

First approved by the U.S. Senate in 2006, the purpose of Endangered Species Day is to expand awareness of the importance of endangered species/habitat conservation and to share success stories of species recovery. Every year, Endangered Species Day events are held at museums, schools, zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens, conservation groups, parks, wildlife refuges and other locations throughout the country.

Event/Activity Ideas

Here are a few ideas for Endangered Species Day activities:

  • Create an endangered plant/animal species display, with a series of Endangered Species Infographics (see Resources below), books, photos and a map that identifies local/state species.
  • Develop a self-guided tour (with basic map/flier) of all museum exhibits relating to threatened/endangered species and local habitats.
  • Invite a biologist, Audubon Society or Sierra Club chapter representative, or other expert to make a presentation on the importance of endangered species/habitat protection, success stories of species recovery and actions young people can take.
  • Organize activities such as a coloring table, and a scavenger hunt with participants visiting several stations to collect an item (bookmark, sticker) and learn more about a specific plant or animal species.
  • Hold a story hour, reading excerpts from one of the Endangered Species Reading List/other books.

Activities can be held on May 15, that weekend, or earlier in the month.


To help you plan for an event, the Endangered Species Day website features a variety of resources, including:

  • Information for planning your event.
  • A series of three infographics, outlining endangered species definitions, causes, the Endangered Species Act, success stories of species recovery, and things young people and adults can do to help protect endangered species. These can be downloaded and printed to create an Endangered Species Day display.
  • An Endangered Species Reading List that can be distributed to your visitors.
  • Color/activity sheets, masks, bookmarks, a passport (ideal for use in scavenger hunt), stickers, and other material that can be downloaded and printed.


In addition to your own promotion in local media outlets, we can help promote your activity on the Endangered Species Day Event Directory. People in your community will visit the website directory to find a nearby event. Register it yourself or send the information to David Robinson, Endangered Species Day Director:

Supporting Organizations

A project of the Endangered Species Coalition, Endangered Species Day is also supported by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), along with numerous education and conservation organizations, including the American Library Association, North American Association for Environmental Education, National Association of Biology Teachers, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, National Audubon Society, Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, Jane Goodall Institute,  National Garden Clubs, Sierra Club, the National Science Teachers Association,  San Diego Zoo, Earth Day Network, National Wildlife Federation, and Defenders of Wildlife.

David Robinson is Endangered Species Day Director at Endangered Species Coalition. Learn more at

Playing Together: Engaging Part-Time Floor Staff in Co-Creating the Museum

The following post appears in the latest issue of Hand to Hand, ACM’s quarterly journal.

By Rebecca Shulman Herz and Kristin Vannatta

This article appears in the most recent issue of Hand to Hand.

About a year ago, I spoke to Janice O’Donnell, former director of Providence Children’s Museum, about training floor staff. Janice shared an experience she had at the InterActivity conference years ago: during a rare moment of quiet on a bus to an evening event, Janice shouted, “Floor staff!” All of a sudden the bus was abuzz, everyone talking about the challenges of hiring, working with, and retaining the team of part-time, entry-level staff who may be the only museum staff members most visitors ever meet.

What can a children’s museum do in order to have floor staff who are knowledgeable, engaged, and invested in the museum? For years I thought of this as a retention challenge: When you find wonderful staff, and their jobs are part-time and underpaid, how do you retain them for more than a year? But now I think of this as a cultural question. How do you create a museum culture in which these valuable staff members are engaged and invested? When there is turnover, how can new staff members quickly become a part of this culture?

What Is Engagement?

Kevin Kruse, founder & CEO of LEADx, an online learning platform that provides free leadership development, has noted that employee engagement is not synonymous with happiness or satisfaction. Rather, it is “the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals. This emotional commitment means engaged employees actually care about their work and their company. They don’t work just for a paycheck, or just for the next promotion, but work on behalf of the organization’s goals.” According to Kruse, engagement is driven by strong communication, opportunities for job growth, recognition, and trust.

When we think about bringing on new staff, we often focus on training: what do they need to know to do their job? In part this is practical—staff need training in order to have the necessary tools and knowledge to admit visitors to the museum, clean toys and exhibits, or sell memberships. It is also efficient, and most museums have developed formal or informal training modules that can be easily repeated when new staff come on board.

While cleaning is critical, it does not lead to an emotional commitment to the museum. It is not why we do what we do. Megan Dickerson, senior manager of exhibitions at the New Children’s Museum, describes the dichotomy between training staff to clean and engaging staff in the museum’s mission as “efficiency vs value.” We often prioritize teaching staff practical skills, like cleaning and resetting, because we know how to do this efficiently. Engaging families in playful learning is of critical value, but we cannot necessarily train efficiently for this. Engagement is individual and emotional; it is not essential for staff to operate the museum at its most basic level, but it is essential in creating a museum that offers visitors and the community a wonderful experience and true value. How do we deeply engage part-time floor staff in our missions, in the importance of the work we—and they—do?

There are as many ways to engage staff as there are organizations. The Peoria Play-House Children’s Museum went through three phases in its experience pursuing staff engagement. The first phase was a grant-driven experiment limited to one of our exhibits; the second was an expansion to all staff. The third, which we are still in the middle of, is an exploration of how far can we push it: what can an engaged floor staff contribute to the museum’s programming and exhibits, and how collaborative can we truly be?

Real Tools: Developing Our Model

In 2017, the PlayHouse was awarded an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to improve Real Tools, our makerspace. We worked with our evaluation partner, the University of Illinois, to think about what visitors were learning. Time and time again, we returned to the importance of staff in the space, both as facilitators and as experts in the visitor experience. With this in mind, Adrienne Huffman, the PlayHouse’s education coordinator, held monthly meetings during which staff visited children’s makerspaces around the region, read articles, discussed successes and challenges, and identified prototype solutions to these challenges, all rooted in staff experience and informed by readings. Rather than telling staff how to do their jobs, Adrienne developed a space in which staff told us and each other how to do their jobs and improve the exhibit.

On the one hand, this sounds obvious. On the other, most of us know firsthand this is not how many organizations work, or how entry-level part-time staff are often treated. It captures three of the four drivers of engagement Kruse identifies: strong communication (bolstered by monthly meetings), recognition (asking staff to share best practices, and acknowledging they are experts in their work), and trust (allowing staff to drive changes in the Real Tools exhibit).

The results of these monthly meetings exceeded expectations. Because staff were able to prototype different solutions quickly, this exhibit continues to change and improve. Visitors comment on how much they enjoy some of the new solutions, including, for example, information posted on the walls, changes to exhibit signage, and the transformation of individual work stations into a collaborative work table.

Staff began to take ownership of the space in new ways. One staff member, Haley, noted that children often looked at the finished projects on the walls, and wanted to copy what other children had done. She decided to experiment with what we hung on the walls, taking down the finished projects and replacing them with materials samples that could inspire kids. Haley described this as akin to looking at clouds and seeing forms—what can a piece of foam become? An egg carton? Collectively, staff also designed a new drop-in maker program offered monthly on a weekend morning, each dedicated to a specific tool or practice. The first three focused on bookmaking, embroidery, and wood burning.

These weekly meetings were successful in truly engaging Real Tools staff, and improving their work with visitors. It did not stop staff from leaving. We still had staff who graduated, or were hired for full time jobs elsewhere, or moved away. But when new staff join the Real Tools team, they are quickly engaged in the mission of the museum, the seriousness of the work, and the importance of their own voices in making this work better.


Playwork: “At its most basic level, playwork is about removing barriers to play, and enriching the play environment… The role of the playworker is to create flexible environments which are substantially adaptable or controllable by the children…”
Theatrical Improvisation: “The improvisational mindset is rooted in an open and flexible attitude, based on a set of fundamental principles that are learned through engaging in improvisational games and activities.”
Kaboom / Imagination Playground: Kaboom believes that “The well-being of our communities starts with the well-being of our kids. Kids who live in low-income communities face many structural obstacles to play, such as a lack of safe play spaces or any place to play at all. We want to make it as easy as possible for all kids to learn, explore, grow and just be kids.” Play facilitators do work such as staging materials in fun ways, observing children, building relationships, promoting fair and caring behavior, and encouraging teamwork.
Play Therapy: “Play therapy differs from regular play in that the therapist uses play to help children address and resolve their own problems. Through play therapy, children learn to communicate with others, express feelings, modify behavior, develop problem solving skills, and learn a variety of ways of relating to others.” ()
Montessori Education: “The art of engaging children is at the heart of the Montessori class- room. Capturing interest is the key to motivating further exploration, practice, and mastery…. Adults are tasked with the responsibility of maintaining an enriched environment always prepared for the children’s work.”
Reggio Emilia Education: “The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education views young children as individuals who are curious about their world and have the powerful potential to learn from all that surrounds them…. Reggio teachers employ strategies such as exposing children to a wide variety of educational opportunities that encourage self-expression, communication, logical thinking, and problem-solving.”

Play Facilitation: Expanding the Model

Inspired by the impact of the Real Tools monthly meetings, and supported by PNC Grow Up Great funding, we began to use monthly all-staff meetings to explore play facilitation. Previously, PlayHouse job descriptions classified “playologists” (our term for floor staff) as staff who engage children and families in play, along with straightening, cleaning, and troubleshooting exhibit and visitor problems. However, discussions about play facilitation were not a regular part of our dialogue with floor staff. During training and supervision, the emphasis was on efficiency rather than value, cleaning and resetting rather than learning through play. In the fall of 2018, we launched a meeting series on play facilitation, led by the museum’s education manager, Courtney Baxter. Staff were trained in reflective practice, and encouraged to experiment. They were given free rein to try things that failed, and share these failures, along with their successes.

During 2018 and 2019, we dedicated seven two-hour meetings to different approaches to play, and the role of adults in children’s play. We learned about playwork from the New Children’s Museum, theatrical improvisation from The Engaged Educator, play therapy, Montessori education, Reggio Emilia education, and Kaboom’s approach to working with Imagination Playground. (See above sidebar.) At the beginning of each meeting, staff shared the successes and failures they experienced when experimenting with these new methods. After each presentation, the group brainstormed ways in which these new ideas might apply in our context. For example, staff found the improvisational approach of “yes and…” to be a good tool for building on a child’s creative imaginings. They also valued the play therapy idea of not correcting a child, but rather entering their world. Other approaches were more difficult to relate to daily interactions in the museum, but inspired staff to think about staffing patterns and possibilities in new ways. For example, the Imagination Playground presentation was inspiring, but our playologists were unsure about how to incorporate these methods in the current way we use this interactive block set at street festivals. Perhaps there are other ways we can staff or present Imagination Playground?

This series has helped staff to think about play and play facilitation. Perhaps even more importantly, it has sent a clear message that all staff are empowered to offer visitors the best experience possible at the PlayHouse. This has led to unexpected results. Floor staff have taken responsibility for creating grassroots programming, including staff and visitor dress-up days and storytimes. And staff have created solutions to real problems, such as setting up a scavenger hunt of objects hidden near the entrance in order to keep kids occupied while parents pay or fill out a membership form.

Further, the dialogues that happen during these staff meetings have helped managerial staff get to know part-time, front-of-house staff better. We are learning about their individual strengths and interests, which allows us to find ways to leverage individual talents and passions for the benefit of the museum. This is good for the PlayHouse, but also key to staff engagement: allowing staff to use their personal skills deepens their emotional and intellectual connection to the museum. We can rarely offer promotions in our small museum, but we can work with individuals to tweak roles in ways that are beneficial for everyone.

Co-Creation: Pushing the Model Further

The PlayHouse now has a new structure for all-staff meetings: they are monthly, collaborative dialogues. Of course, sometimes we share information about upcoming exhibits or programs, or conduct safety-related trainings. But we also use these meetings for discussions such as, are the props currently out on the floor working, or should we rethink some of them? If we are able to grow our volunteer program, how do we balance offering volunteers engaging tasks working directly with visitors, while still respecting the interests and abilities of the floor staff who want to engage visitors in educational activities? What are ideas related to programs for next year?

We are finding that by opening up discussion and asking for feedback we can expand the work we do. For example, while planning an event called Enchanted PlayHouse, one floor-staff member decided we needed an area that looked like a pirate ship. So she enlisted her husband to build a pirate ship with her. Visitors loved it.

Not surprisingly, we have unleashed a host of new challenges through this approach. One of the most critical is communication. When staff decide they want to do something—for example, a themed dress-up week—management staff need to know about the event, have the opportunity to voice any concerns, help promote it, and be able to answer questions about it. We used to worry that front-of-house staff were not getting all the information they needed; now we need to address this in the other direction as well.

Another challenge is capturing the results of staff experimentation. We know from discussions during staff meetings that staff are indeed experimenting and finding new ways to interact with visitors on the floor. How do we capture this information, and learn collectively from what has worked and what has failed?

Perhaps the biggest challenge is financial cost. With the new structure of our all-staff meetings, we have committed to gathering and paying part-time staff for two or more hours every month to engage in discussions that, in other museums, are the job of full-time or back-of-house staff. We are always looking for ways to cut expenses, and to many this might seem like an unnecessary one. However, the positive impact on our staff, and then on our visitors, is apparent. And we believe that, in the long run, the cost of an unengaged staff is much higher.

Despite the challenges of continued turnover, communication, or financial strains, a staff that is committed to the museum leads to improved experience for everyone involved. When management demonstrates that all staff are valued and essential to the success of an organization, and that each person has the autonomy to influence that success, we create a culture of fulfillment and engagement. We strongly believe that engaging all staff creates a vibrant and visible culture of valuing individuals that is palpable to visitors. Our mission is to help children become explorers and creators of the world. We engage our staff in this work by empowering them to be explorers and creators of the warm and captivating environment of the PlayHouse. 

Rebecca Shulman Herz has served as the director of the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum since 2015. Previously, she spent fifteen years in art museum education at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Noguchi Museum, both in New York City. Kristin Vannatta was the operations manager of the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum from 2015 until August 2019. Previously, she worked for six years as the volunteer coordinator and operations manager for the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust in Chicago, Illinois.

To read other articles in the “HR” issue of Hand to Handsubscribe todayACM members also receive both digital and printed complimentary copies of Hand to Hand. ACM members can access their copies through the Online Member Resource Library available in the Hand to Hand Community on ACM Groupsite.

Small Town Dreams Big

The following post appears in the latest issue of Hand to Hand, ACM’s quarterly journal.

By Sharon Vegh Williams, PhD

This article appears in the most recent issue of Hand to Hand.

The North Country Children’s Museum is located in Potsdam, New York, a remote, rural, low-income community in the northern corner of the state. The North Country Region is near the Canadian border, north of the Adirondack Mountains. The county is the largest by square mile in the state and the most sparsely populated. We’re seven hours from New York City and five hours from Buffalo. All of Upstate New York is downstate for us. There is a palpable remoteness to the region, with miles of flat farmland, rivers, and woodlands. One of our fastest growing communities is the Amish, as farmland is inexpensive and not amenable to large-scale farming. Adding to the geographic isolation, the North Country has long cold winters and very little access to cultural or educational enrichment for families. Although institutions such as Clarkson University and SUNY Potsdam in Potsdam and St. Lawrence University and SUNY Canton in our neighboring town, Canton, are a defining feature of the region, university resources are not always easily accessible to the greater community. To address the cultural and educational gap for families, a group of local educators, university faculty, and parents began discussing the idea of a children’s museum in early 2012. That summer, leveraging university resources, we launched our first Museum Without Walls traveling exhibit. For the next six years, the museum trailer with pop-up interactive exhibits and programs traveled weekly to small town festivals, bookstores, bakeries, schools, camps, and community centers.

The Origins

As co-founder of the North Country Children’s Museum, the seed for the museum germinated eight years before that first traveling exhibit, when my eldest son was two years old and we were living on the Navajo Nation in Shiprock, New Mexico. The closest city was Durango, Colorado, where my family had joined a small children’s museum. At the time, the Durango Children’s Museum was on the second floor of a downtown storefront. The creative spirit behind this small institution was inspiring. The exhibits were community-made and low-key, but truly engaging and innovative. Visits were worth the hour-and-a-half drive, especially with the limited family destination options in our rural New Mexico town.

While we were new members of this small museum, I had years of experience as a museum educator and classroom teacher. I had worked at the Boston Children’s Museum for five years before going back to school for a master’s degree program in education and creative arts at Lesley University. I went on to teach elementary school for over a decade, in low-income, diverse public schools in urban and suburban Boston and later on the Navajo Nation. My time as a classroom teacher taught me how to engage learners. And teaching in diverse communities that had historically been disenfranchised from schooling challenged me to develop curriculum and a learning environment that was intrinsically interesting and motivating for kids. At times, that required working around restrictive public school standards. As an educator and parent, I have always been interested in how informal and interactive education can provide rich and powerful learning experiences for children.

As my family had plans to relocate to northern New York, I realized I could contribute by helping to bring a small town children’s museum to my new community. From the inception of the idea in 2004, to the opening of museum doors fourteen years later, I traveled widely with my family, visiting every interactive museum along the way, collecting ideas. When my family arrived in Potsdam in 2008, I was ready to get started on the museum. However, I soon realized it was too big an undertaking to do on my own. My friend and neighbor, April Vasher-Dean, director of The Art Museum at SUNY Potsdam, was ready to embark on this journey with me. April had twenty-five years of experience in art museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art in Indiana. Because we both had museum backgrounds, we came to the project with a shared vision. This team effort was critical, as our community had no idea where we were headed. Many people envisioned a basement playroom, while April and I saw the Smithsonian. We had a lot of work to do educating the public about children’s museums, what they are, and why they matter.

We also had a lot of naysayers. Many did not believe we could find the funding or the audience in our remote, rural region to start or sustain such an institution. My guiding words of wisdom came U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ quote, “Most of the things worth doing in the world were declared impossible before they were done.” And my silent sentiment was, “Get out of my way, I have a museum to build!” To say I was on fire with our mission would have been putting it mildly.

The Build Up

While April and I had worked in museums for years, we had never started one. We connected with the Association of Children’s Museums and worked our way through their publication Collective Vision: Starting and Sustaining a Children’s Museum. Following the guidance in the book, we created a traveling “museum without walls” to build an audience. April and I also traveled together to Boston and New York City to meet with children’s museum professionals in both large and small institutions. Back home, we gathered a group of educators, scientists, engineers, artists, musicians, accountants, lawyers, business owners, general contractors, and parents to contribute their expertise and form a nonprofit board. We are fortunate to live in an area with a wealth of skilled professionals, including university faculty eager to volunteer their time, energy, and resources. Clarkson University Business School faculty and students conducted a feasibility study, which gave us the confidence to move forward with fundraising and program development. While our museum without walls traveled the region, bringing sophisticated, state-of-the-art exhibits and programs to rural communities, we got to work on a capital campaign.

The end game was always a permanent location for the museum, though we had no idea of either scope or scale when we started. Neither April nor I had any idea how to raise money. And as it turned out, no one else on the board did either. Fortunately, through a shop owner in town, I heard about someone living temporarily in the area who had just completed a multimillion-dollar capital campaign for the Young At Art Museum in Davie, Florida. This was an amazing stroke of luck, since most people in the North Country had no idea what a children’s museum was, let alone had worked for one. We brought Melissa Wagner on board to steer us in the right direction. For me, she was a mentor and teacher for the two years she lived here. I learned about government funding, foundations, in-kind donations, and how to write grants. I learned how to reach out to businesses, universities, and individuals for support. We put together marketing materials and packets to reach potential donors. We formed a founder’s circle and created a series of high-end cocktail parties that showcased our programming, bringing some black-tie to a distinctly flannel-and-Carhartt community. We raised the bar and exceeded expectations both in the events and in our institutional vision. Navigating our rural, high-poverty region without deep pockets, we left no stone unturned. Six years later, we had raised over one million dollars, purchased and renovated a long-vacant historic downtown building, and hired professional exhibit designer Wayne LeBar to collaborate with teams of local content specialists.

The Exhibits and Programs

When our permanent location opened in 2018, the exhibit concepts, developed by the board and local content experts in a variety of fields, had been in the works for years. Many exhibit prototypes had been tested and modified through our museum without walls. Since most of our visitors are local, membership is our bread and butter. Our exhibits needed to engage families who were going to come weekly; each exhibit component needed to be endlessly compelling. Not everything brought to the table passed that test. For example, the designers suggested a sugar shack as part of our maple tree exhibit, but there wasn’t enough activity involved to keep visitors engaged. There was also a proposal for local maker video interactive, which I didn’t feel would be varied enough to keep repeat visitors interested. My twenty-five years as an educator gave me a fine-tuned sense of what to keep and what to weed out.

Ultimately, our exhibits built on the strengths and supported the needs of our rural, low-income community. We highlighted local farmers in our Natural Foods Grocery store exhibit, celebrated our maple traditions in a digital tree interactive, and explored the science of hydroelectric power though the Adirondack Waterplay exhibit. We collaborated with university faculty to create our STEAM Power exhibit, and designed our sensory Playspace for our youngest visitors. We filled 3,500 square feet of exhibit space with bright, open, beautifully crafted exhibits that tell the story of our community. We also collaborated with a local farming museum and skilled trades high school to restore a historic tractor for outdoor play that complements our building, a renovated barn and livery circa 1840. In an economically depressed county where one-third of families with children live below the poverty line, we brought a sense of pride and celebration of our community assets.

We also added a program room, drawing from the university community to hire an amazing staff of skilled science and arts educators. The North Country Children’s Museum now offers STEAM workshops throughout the week, free for visitors and members. We are working to bring more cultural knowledge into the mix, meeting with community members and farmers to explore ways in which we can bring agriculture more explicitly into our programming.

We believe that giving children opportunities to explore mathematics, engineering, language, and the arts in playful ways nurtures the creative problem solvers our world so desperately needs. Our mission is to provide children, regardless of socioeconomic background, with the space to try on the role of scientist, engineer, and artist. In the media, we often hear outside experts weigh in on the economic and social challenges facing rural America. However, those without a deep understanding and compassion for these struggles will never fully address them. To solve the issues that confront humanity and the planet, from income inequality to racism to climate change, we need to provide all children—urban, suburban, small town, and rural—with resources and intellectual tools. Our museum’s role is to create an environment, in rural northern New York, where children can grow to become active and engaged problem-solvers in much the same way as children from relatively resource-rich urban areas can. The world needs their voices, insights and creativity.

As the only children’s museum within a two-hour radius, we have become a much-needed resource. Our community has responded with 600 member families, 15,000 visitors, and 75 school groups in our first ten months of operations. To ensure we are serving all members of our community, we offer $25 annual memberships to families with children eligible for free or reduced school lunches. These costs are offset by donations from the local hospital, banks, and individual families who can donate a “giving membership” to a local family in need. With limited funding allocated to rural public schools, the museum has become a supportive learning resource for the region.

Big Role, Small Community

Started six years ago on a shoestring budget, the North Country Children’s Museum raised over $1,000,000, purchased and renovated an historic building, and created a state-of-the-art interactive museum, despite the challenges of raising capital in a low-income area. In other words, the community believed in our mission and viability. In our first ten months, we have fully maximized and practically outgrown our space. Fortunately, we have a second floor with an additional 3,500 square feet in which to expand. Plans are in the works to double the museum’s exhibit and program capacity by renovating the unused part of the building within the next few years. We hope to create a dairy farm and an Amish home exhibit in collaboration with those communities.

As passionate as we are about promoting our educational mission, we are ultimately a community museum. And the community takes ownership of the space. The other day, I noticed a group of parents from very different socioeconomic, cultural, racial, religious, and linguistic backgrounds gathering and chatting before our drop-in early childhood STEAM program. These families had formed real connections and friendships through our weekly programing—connections that lived beyond the walls of the institution. In such politically and culturally divisive times, before the museum opened, many of these parents in this small, remote community would not have had another space to reach across perceived barriers. As this part of the country evolves along with the rest of the world, the true mission of the museum will unfold in its own way, and North Country Children’s Museum will be here to usher that future in.

Sharon Vegh Williams, PhD, is the co-founder and executive director of the North Country Children’s Museum in Potsdam, New York. She teaches courses in museum studies and multicultural education at St. Lawrence University. Her book, Native Cultural Competency in Mainstream Schooling, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018.

To read other articles in the “The Big Role of Children’s Museums in Small Communities” issue of Hand to Handsubscribe todayACM members also receive both digital and printed complimentary copies of Hand to Hand. ACM members can access their copies through the Online Member Resource Library. Contact to gain access if needed

7 Effective Ways to Increase Revenue for Education Programs

By Elissa K. Miller, M.Ed.

Even though outsiders may think it’s an oxymoron for a nonprofit museum to earn revenue, all nonprofits must bring in money to support their missions. It’s a wise practice for museum education departments to increase revenue and reduce overhead so that more funds are available to support and expand mission-delivering programs.

There are a number of different ways that children’s museums can increase revenue and minimize administration costs while expanding education programs.

These budget-friendly methods leverage museum software and streamline museum operations to create both the funding and staff time to develop new programs that extend your reach and your mission.  

Ready to boost your museum’s education revenue? Let’s get started.

1. Reduce Registration Paperwork for Families and Staff

If your education department is still relying on paper registration forms and spreadsheets to manage events, camps, classes, field trips, and birthday parties, you could be wasting valuable time and money better spent on enhancing the quality of your program.

The first step toward increasing revenue and reducing paperwork is implementing online registrations and reservations.

Moving registrations online doesn’t mean you’ll lose the personal touch. By eliminating the need to juggle calendars, update spreadsheets, record payments, and send invoices and confirmations, well-designed online registration actually frees your team to spend more time helping people who need assistance.

An online registration system is also more eco-friendly, eliminating printing and postage costs. And, online registration can help you reach a broader audience through online ads, articles and social media posts.

The best registration software will be flexible enough to meet your museum’s unique requirements. To read more information about evaluating museum software solutions, check out Doubleknot’s museum software guide.

2. Ask for Donations During Online Checkout

Asking for a donation during a purchase is a proven-successful method of raising additional funds. People are already opening their wallets to make a payment, so asking them to add a few more dollars to their existing bill to support your programs is an easier proposition than responding to a standard donation request. Consider updating your registration and payment pages to:

  • Present a donation page just before the payment page. The benefit of this method is that you have a full page for your appeal, with enough space to include compelling images, text, and donation options.
  • Create an optional item on your registration form. This could be as simple as a checkbox agreeing to donate an additional amount to the museum. This is an easy way to ask for donations to make programs—like the one they’re registering for—available to youth whose families couldn’t otherwise afford it.

Be sure to coordinate any donation requests with your fundraising and development team to ensure that your plans complement overall fundraising activities instead of competing or interfering with them.

3. Family Cultural Events

Along with day camps and birthday parties, family events are often the bread-and-butter for children’s museums, offering a range of fun and educational opportunities to learn about different cultures within the communities you serve.

Consider holding these kinds of eye-opening programs to celebrate the countries and cultures in your service area.

You can expand the cultural awareness of your youngest visitors by planning museum events to guide them through multicultural exhibits, create culturally-inspired crafts, or read insightful children’s stories.

4. Add-on Opportunities

Products that support your mission (and incidentally build your brand) are always appropriate and acceptable add-on opportunities.

For example, if your museum software supports mobile sales, you can also sell camp- and event-related products at check-in and check-out for these programs. Families may be more inclined to make an on-site impulse purchase when they see how happy and engaged their children are in your programs.  

Birthday parties offer income opportunities that also provide a valuable service for busy families. Your team can reduce parents’ stress and increase revenue by offering add-on options such as:

  • Themed decorations
  • Food and drink options, especially birthday cake
  • Party entertainment like face painting and balloon animals
  • Gift bags and party favors

Check to see whether your registration and reservation system allows you to display upsell options after a purchase is completed. An ideal system will allow you to promote products and events in categories related to the items in the purchase.

Plus, the revenue you make from these upsell opportunities can help provide more money for your mission and educational programming.

5. Expanded Group Opportunities and Materials

With the increased emphasis on STEAM education, children’s museums are uniquely positioned to develop programs that are aligned with important educational standards. If your museum’s group visit programs are primarily unstructured visits under the supervision of teachers and chaperones, you may have an opportunity to offer more tailored programs. These could include teacher- or staff-led lessons and activities that rely on materials and facilities at the museum.

Additionally, scouting badge programs can provide an opportunity to generate more revenue and encourage more learning. Your badge “menu” could include self-guided activities to complete badge requirements; add-on kits and materials for use by leaders; and structured badge achievement activities led by staff.

6. Tween and Teen Programs

Most kids who grow up visiting a beloved children’s museum will eventually decide they’re too old to go anymore. While older children will age out of floor activities designed for younger learners, there are many ways that older children and teens can continue enjoying your museum in age-appropriate ways.

For middle school students and younger high school students, after-school and weekend STEAM programs provide important enrichment opportunities and allow youth to continue their relationship with the museum they loved as younger children.

School districts and regional education centers can help identify scope and sequence for themes and topics that complement, strengthen and extend subjects covered in school. Your museum can then use these themes and topics to design programs at your museum.

In most locations, it’s difficult for parents to find summer programs for tweens and young teens who’ve “aged out” of traditional day camps but are too young to be camp leaders or hold other summer jobs. Parents are likely especially happy to enroll older children in summer programs that balance the right amount of supervision and structure with independence and autonomy so important at that age.

7. Parent and Teacher Education

Children’s museums are in a unique position to provide formal and informal information about positive youth development to parents and caregivers.

Parents are likely interested in programs that show them to nurture and support their children’s love of experimentation and learning. For example, evening workshops on easy at-home science experiments or “STEAM Power at Home” can generate additional revenue and empower families to carry out your mission in their own homes and neighborhoods.

Another option is creating and offering continuing education (CE) courses for educators, developed with input from districts and education centers to ensure that they meet your district’s and state’s standards. Some event ticketing and registration solutions designed to support museum education will even automatically generate and email a personalized certificate of completion after the workshop is over.

The educational (and revenue-generating) opportunities that children’s museums can provide are almost limitless. We hope that this brief list will spark ideas for events and programs as unique as your museum and the communities you serve.

Elissa K. Miller, M.Ed., is communications director at Doubleknot, an integrated online, on-site, and mobile solutions provider for nonprofits. As the former development director for a regional nonprofit, she’s passionate about helping nonprofits and youth-serving organizations harness new technologies to streamline operations and support their missions.

STEM in Children’s Museums

The following post appears in the latest issue of Hand to Hand, ACM’s quarterly journal.

By Charlie Trautmann, PhD, and Janna Doherty

The most recent issue of Hand to Hand focuses on all things STEM.

STEM exhibits. STEM programs. STEM events. We hear a lot about children’s museums adding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) to their educational offerings. Some museums also add an “A” for Art (STEAM). But what does STEM really mean in the context of a children’s museum, or in an early childhood area of a science center? What constitutes a “valid” STEM experience? And how can a museum set up appropriate learning goals for STEM experiences for early learners?

One useful framework for thinking about these questions starts with three broad aspects of STEM:

  • STEM Content
  • STEM Skills
  • STEM Habits of Mind

STEM in children’s museums encompasses a broad range of activities and when developing such activities, it increases the learning impact to include as many of these three elements as possible. Children’s museums often include STEM in much of what they do—sometimes without even knowing it. But museums can have the greatest impact when they help learners and/or their caregivers recognize how an activity specifically supports STEM learning.

STEM Content

Widely available STEM content offers many opportunities for introducing concepts through exhibits, programs, and activities. The content matter for Science, the “S” in STEM, spans from astronomy to zoology. Technology includes materials and objects that range from tiny devices to software to huge facilities, which can encompass building structures, water play, and working with model trains and traffic signals. Engineering includes concepts such as strength, flexibility, and balance, plus the design of things that people use. Math includes geometry, numbers, and patterns, among many other concepts. All of these STEM content areas can find a home among the exhibits, programs, and events of a children’s museum, and endless print and online resources provide ideas for creative staff who wish to include STEM in their offerings.

However, research on learning has shown that developing activities with the goal of simply teaching content, including STEM, can actually be counterproductive in the preschool years. There is little research showing that rote acquisition of STEM facts at an early age leads children to consider STEM careers or even to develop useful STEM skills later in life. Instead, we advocate using STEM content as a platform, or base, for meaningful learning about STEM skills and STEM habits of mind.

STEM Skills

Skills, the second key element of STEM, utilize critical thinking and problem solving to make connections across multiple domains of children’s development. STEM skills have their basis in science process skills, such as observing, classifying, asking questions, predicting, experimenting, and modeling. Everyday tasks in a child’s life, such as solving a puzzle, learning to get dressed, or testing out the properties of primary colors, can reinforce STEM skills. Each discipline involves further skills such as identifying categories in science, ushiing tools in technology, repurposing materials in engineering, or measuring in math, which build on proficiency and mastery across STEM practices. These competencies can be learned and practiced from an early age, and activities based on children’s natural curiosity form an ideal way to build STEM skills.

In science, for example, process skills include asking a question (e.g. “Are all of my fingerprints the same?”), creating a hypothesis, designing an experiment to test it, analyzing the results, and communicating the findings effectively to others. Young scientists are often curious about concrete things, like their own body or the food they eat, from their worldview. Taking this curiosity a step further and asking children to share their reasoning for a hypothesis or observation promotes more advanced science thinking.

Technology is generally seen as the process of making things, or using tools, materials, and skills to improve something or create novel solutions or products. Building with blocks is a time-tested introduction to technology skill building. Through exhibits, programs, and events, children’s museums have many other opportunities for young visitors to learn about the process of building by using simple tools and materials.

Engineering, the third element of STEM, is a process for designing solutions to problems that involves meeting a goal while working within constraints. The photo on the cover of this issue shows students engaged with the problem: “How can we design a model windmill that will lift a cupful of pennies on a string (the goal), using the materials and equipment provided (the constraints)?” Iteration, controlling variables, and persisting through failure are key elements in early engineering experiences. It is important to break down the engineering design cycle into smaller parts (build and test) or to simplify materials (paper strips, straws, and paperclips), so young children can focus on using familiar materials in new ways. This removes extraneous information and allows the engineering thought processes to come through.

Mathematics, the fourth element of STEM, is vast and influences the other three at almost every step. Math skills include the ability to count, measure, estimate, and solve problems, as well as perform other activities such as sorting a series of 3D objects by color, shape, or size, identifying patterns, or making inferences based on statistical reasoning. While these seem like complex activities, children do them every day. Children’s museums can help visitors improve their motivation and skills by providing engaging, challenging activities based on math.

While each area of STEM has a set of process skills, in reality, these skill sets overlap and reinforce each other. For example, being able to count and measure (math) is key for collecting data needed to test a hypothesis (science) or assessing whether a constructed model (technology) adequately solves a problem (engineering).

Habits of Mind

Perhaps the most important part of STEM for museum visitors is the set of habits of mind that lead children to engage with STEM in the first place, or make use of STEM later in a career or daily life. STEM habits of mind are ways of thinking that become so integrated into a student’s learning that they become mental habits. Key habits of mind associated with STEM include traits such as curiosity, creativity, collaboration, communication, confidence, critical thinking, and leadership, along with other traits such as open-mindedness, skepticism, and persistence.

Most of these traits could apply equally well to non-STEM fields, such as drama, sports, or music. So how does a children’s museum offer a program in creativity and convince parents and other stakeholders that they are supporting STEM learning?

What Is STEM in a Children’s Museum?

STEM surrounds us, but the key element that distinguishes STEM in a children’s museum is intentionality. When museum staff and volunteers make connections to the STEM in a mirror, a pile of stones, a child’s scooter, or a texture wall, they transform these items into STEM exhibits. For example, a museum educator reading the “Three Little Pigs” to a child parent group can easily turn the story experience into a STEM learning experience by asking children about the strength of various materials used to build the three houses (which of course has a big effect on whether the house will “blow down”). They can ask children about wind, the ways that they have experienced it or whether they have ever seen a tree blown over after a storm. By taking a STEM habits-of-mind approach, the educator could also discuss how experiments, teamwork, and communication could have affected the outcome of the story.

Another important way that museums can foster STEM learning is to encourage caregivers to take activities, games, concepts, and STEM habits of mind home from a museum visit. When adults engage their children in simple STEM activities (“What do you think made that burrow in our lawn?”) or daily activities (“Let’s bake some cookies together, and you can measure out two cups of flour.”), they are building STEM literacy through content, skills, and habits of mind. Celebrating moments like these during their museum visit or modeling how child-directed inquiry and play can lead to STEM learning can empower caregivers to build STEM literacy with their young learners.

How Children’s Museums Can Include STEM

Take a look at your exhibits with STEM glasses on. Observe how children and caregivers use the exhibits   and materials. In what ways can you highlight STEM learning that is already happening? How can you make small (or big!) changes to enhance STEM learning? Dramatic play areas are rich with opportunities for STEM learning, as children are already engaging in narratives that help them make sense of the world and develop self-regulation, collaboration, and perspective taking—important skills for the STEM field and beyond. Play areas such as grocery stores encourage math skills (order of operations, balancing equations, dividing resources). Veterinary clinic or farm exhibits can open conversations about animal behavior and traits, and medical clinic exhibits can prompt questions about the human body.

Light, magnetism, and air are examples of physical science content often found in children’s museums that can be explored through cause and effect. Understanding causal relationships leads to experimentation, creative use of materials, finding solutions, or making models.

Art studios and makerspaces provide interesting mediums for using STEM concepts and skills. Approaching art and STEM simultaneously, rather than as separate entities, creates additional entry points for learning. Capillary action is a great example of science content that can be authentically explored through art using primary colored markers, coffee filters, and water: a true STEAM activity.

Importantly, it is not necessary to be a scientist or engineer to develop good STEM programming at a children’s museum! It is far more important to be comfortable with the processes of STEM and confident in helping children and adults explore together. Exhibits and programming can be very simple: open-ended activities that promote trial-and-error experimentation work well in almost any setting. The best exhibits often have no right answer. Designing activities where children and adults can freely try alternatives and discuss the outcomes generates authentic co-learning moments.

Lead by Example

There are still many barriers to STEM learning for young children, whether it’s a lack of science identity among adult caregivers, persisting social biases (across gender, socioeconomic status, or race), or an increase in screen time leading to a decrease in outdoor play. Many community members have limited access to high quality STEM programming, which is why it is critical to embrace the work children’s museums already do to advance STEM and be thoughtful in how to make these experiences inclusive and accessible to all. Children’s museums already play an important role as conveners in their STEM communities. They can also serve as resources for adults and children within networks of early learning organizations (preschools, libraries, Boys & Girls clubs, etc.). In doing, our field can pave the path for embracing STEM as a process and as a way of learning about the world.

Charlie Trautmann, formerly a children’s science center director and ACM board member, is a visiting scholar at Cornell University’s Department of Human Development. Janna Doherty is program manager of early childhood programs at the Museum of Science, Boston.

To read other articles in the “STEM” issue of Hand to Handsubscribe todayACM members also receive both digital and printed complimentary copies of Hand to Hand. ACM members can access their copies through the Digital Resource Library. Contact to gain access if needed. 

Museums Advocacy Day: Mr. Shanklin Goes to Washington!

This post first appeared on Kidspace Children’s Museum’s blog on March 19, 2019.

By Michael Shanklin

Museums Advocacy Day 2019 took place February 25-26 in Washington, DC. A new Congress convened facing an enormous list of timely policy debates, including support for museums.

In the museum field, we must keep making our case. Beyond federal funding, museums are significantly impacted by tax reform, education policy, infrastructure legislation, and more. Legislators do not know how museums are impacted if they don’t hear directly from us—the museums and people they represent. 

Kidspace CEO Michael Shanklin, along with many of our colleagues from AAM (American Alliance of Museums) and CAM (California Association of Museums), set out for Washington DC to advocate for our museums! He met with the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and six Members of Congress. We spoke with Michael after his trip to find out what this event means to him for the greater good of all museums across the country.

Why is Museums Advocacy Day important to you? And what are some highlights from the trip you’d like to share?

“As someone who has been to Washington, DC, a number of times on business and personal travel, I had never taken part in efforts to advocate on behalf of museums, zoos, and aquaria. After receiving excellent training from the American Alliance of Museums, 300+ advocates met with their elected officials where our individual and collective voices were heard. Congressional staff members were so excited to meet with us, receive our appreciation for their hard work, and hear our requests to support our field. It was exciting to take part in our national political system. While we all know we are not perfect, we still have an amazing process and it was meaningful to be a part of that process.  

“There were a number of highlights that I experienced while taking part in the American Alliance of Museums’ Advocacy Day. The first was the California delegation met with Senator Dianne Feinstein’s legislative aide who was bright and enthusiastic. He expressed gratitude for our collective efforts to visit with their office and share our support for museums. He also asked us to keep his office updated on California legislation that impacts museums as the Senator often looks to the California State Legislature for positive bills that she might introduce at the federal level.

“Another exciting moment was when we went into the Capitol building to meet with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s team. It was a very busy day on Capitol Hill and we did not have much time with her team, but they were clearly supportive of our efforts to advocate on behalf of museums across the nation. They shared that there was wonderful bipartisan support for museums.

“One final highlight was as I met with the eight California Congressional offices on my list, which involved eight miles of walking to and from offices, it was fun to see the pride of California represented in the various districts.  I saw LA Dodgers logos, artwork from Californians, and local civic pride. It reminded me that our differences as United States citizens are what make us strong.” – Michael Shanklin, 2019             

Are you inspired and wondering what you can do? Learn about advocating for museums here: YES, You Can Advocate!

Michael Shanklin is CEO of Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena, California. Follow Kidspace Children’s Museum on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.