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|This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.|
By Kerrie Vilhauer, Children’s Museum of South Dakota
Following a fifteen-month closure, Dora Castano, custodian at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota, was looking forward to getting back to the little things—like cleaning fingerprints.
“I can’t wait to see little fingerprints on the windows again!”
Given the many tasks involved in a custodian’s work at a children’s museum, especially during a pandemic, it’s not often one would ask for more work to do. But, for Dora, those fingerprints aren’t just little messes.
They are a symbol of what was missing. They represent the unique role the people of the Children’s Museum of South Dakota play every day. They are the stories the museum learned to amplify, bringing our staff and volunteers to the world even when the world couldn’t come to us.
When it came time to reopen the Children’s Museum of South Dakota to visitors, it’s no surprise the bulk of the plan addressed health and safety. Messaging, talking points, and signage all focused on what guests would need to know when they came back to play.
As the team dug into the reopening communications plan, they quickly realized a more personal approach could go much further in reconnecting with visitors. After all, families had not been able to enter the museum’s doors—or connect with staff and volunteers in person—for over a year.
There’s precedent around this. The side effects of the pandemic—stress, developmental issues, and mental and physical health challenges—are real. Having a friend (or playmate) who is experiencing things in a similar way can be a comfort as society begins to move forward.
Which is why, when writing the reopening communications plan, we knew it was important to reintroduce the people behind the work—and the play—at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota. This strategy imparted empathy, showing how much a museum friend like Dora is ready to get back into the swing of things.
In a way, that set of fingerprints is a beautiful way to start a conversation.
Children’s museums are built for community. They are safe spaces for children, caregivers, and the surrounding area. As the only museum of its type in the state, this community space takes on an even more important role for the Children’s Museum of South Dakota.
Located inside a 40,000-square-foot repurposed elementary school on the edge of downtown Brookings, the museum takes on a more personal tone when guests arrive. Whether they are members who visit weekly, or tourists from many states away, the open-ended, child-led, inquiry-based way of play invites people into a relationship.
For many guests, it’s like coming home. It’s not uncommon for children to walk through the door and ask for a specific staff member or play guide. Some arrive and immediately look for a special loose part or toy—the life-sized stuffed sheep, or the large plush border collie, for example.
But as we all know now, reopening a children’s museum in a pandemic doesn’t mean things go back to the way they used to be. The museum knew we had to share safety protocols and guidelines that might make the play experience look different. We also knew that some protocols, like masking or limited capacity, could be controversial for some.
Here’s where those people and that community came into play again: by sharing the human side, guests could see that not only was health and safety a top priority, but so too was the fun.
This personal approach happened in two ways, first with a project headed up by museum educator Lauren Dietz and second, with the Museum’s Kidoodle Council Youth Advisory Board.
Tasked with freshening up a documentation wall in an exhibit just outside the art studio, Lauren wanted to show how excited the museum staff was to reopen. She connected with each staff member and asked what they were looking forward to the most.
She took photos of each person in their favorite exhibits. Because staff would be wearing masks upon reopening, she made sure one photo was with a face covering, and one was without, creating a balance of friendly smiling faces and safety protocols.
The project not only resulted in an inclusive, on-site display, but it also drove content for a digital campaign that spanned Facebook, Instagram, and the museum’s email list.
Amid messages about safety protocols, limited capacity, and adjusted hours, were the museum’s friendly faces—faces excited to reconnect, spark imagination, and learn through play. These faces belonged to long-lost friends who were ready to play again, even if it might look or feel a bit different at first.
And if engagement on social posts and guests sharing their excitement online and on-site is an indication of success, this was exactly what the museum’s audience was looking for.
The Kidoodle Council Youth Advisory Board is a volunteer group of nine six to twelve year olds who work as ambassadors for the museum and help generate ideas for programs and exhibits.
Throughout the museum’s closure, the board continued to meet through a combination of video conferencing and in-person meetings.
The Kidoodle Council had the honor of experiencing the first run-through of the exhibits prior to the indoor exhibit reopening. The council saw firsthand how to open and turn on exhibits, getting a behind-the-scenes sneak peek. In return, the museum staff could not only confirm everything worked as expected, but they also had a glimpse of how children would re-engage with the space following the closure.
The meeting resulted in a YouTube video that gave a time-lapse tour of the museum and shared what each board member was most looking forward to when they came back to play.
The video was shared with the public and used for staff training purposes. It offered new hires and those who haven’t visited in quite some time a chance to see the museum in action through the eyes of a child.
The pandemic put a hard stop to paid advertising. Even today, as the museum operates at limited capacity, advertising is on hold since play space continues to fill organically. However, the museum continues to look for ways to stay top of mind.
Whether it is offering ways to play along at home on the blog at www.prairieplay.org, continuing conversations on social media, or playing along in person, the museum will continue to focus on taking a personal approach. They know it’s these people—the ones who are excited to clean up fingerprints—who will help bring the museum back to life.
To stay in front of people. To follow the child. To be a resource. And to spark imagination that is as big as the sky.
Kerrie Vilhauer is director of marketing at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota in Brookings, South Dakota.
Many children’s museums around the world have mascots that represent their museum’s mission, history, and sense of fun. We talked to eleven ACM members about what their mascots mean to them.
When Buell Children’s Museum was first founded, the name of the museum was P.A.W.S., for Pueblo Art Works. The dog theme originated from the idea of paws. Sparky the Art Dog has a black spot in the shape of a heart, and he loves reading and birthday parties!
Moe Monster was imagined by the Children’s Museum of Houston in 2013 with the idea of a quirky character who embodied childlike qualities—fierce and free spirited; unique but relatable; and with a willingness to take on the world head on! Moe Monster first made an appearance as an animated character during the Children’s Museum of Houston “Summer of Epic Adventure” commercial in 2013.
Mary is short for “mariposa”—Spanish for “butterfly.” Inspired by Mary, the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County uses the lifecycle of a butterfly woven throughout the exhibits in their outdoor space, Mary’s Garden. The museum has evolved from a small, volunteer-only mobile museum to a medium size children’s museum—and Mary’s lifecycle supports their evolution as they continue to grow. Every year, the museum sets up a small voting booth and holds elections for President of Mary’s Garden. This encourages children and families to engage in their communities, stay informed, and (most importantly) learn the process of voting and how important it is.
The name is a combination of two words: Kid and Doodle. Kidoodle was designed to be inclusive with the hope that everyone could see themselves in Kidoodle, and to showcase the museum’s playful, creative, and fun spirit. The colors of the museum’s logo and the Kidoodle shape were chosen with the help of children who identified green, purple, and pink as their favorite crayons to draw with. Kidoodle was introduced at the museum’s groundbreaking in October 2008, and has been serving as the museum’s ambassador ever since! Right now, a plush Kidoodle is traveling Germany with one of the museum’s play guides who is studying there (@prairieplaysd).
Gnarkles was created by Ben Brown for the museum in 2009. Gnarkles isn’t one specific thing, and can be interpreted to be something different based on the perspective you have! His name was chosen from a local contest. Gnarkles is completely created from kitchen pots, pans, and utensils!
Geo is made up of colorful 3-D shapes forming a person. He represents a playful spirit, based in an educational foundation. Geo stands outside the museum in statue on top of a podium scaling around ten feet tall! He also is in the museum’s logo and represents the museum’s brand to their community.
The museum didn’t choose Bessie—Bessie chose the museum! Visitors like to climb, sit on, paint, wash, and hug Bessie. She stands at the front of the museum’s property, and children love to look for her as they pass by in their parents’ care to see what hat she is wearing that day!
Before Discovery Place Kids opened in Huntersville, the museum worked to develop Can Can as a physical representation of the spirit of their efforts to create a children’s museum. Can Can was developed as someone children could identify with. To this day, the mascot represents the personality of Discovery Place Kids, now in two locations. Both Discovery Place Kids museums have an overall focus of encouraging children to believe in themselves, evidenced in the exhibitions all being named “I CAN …,” which is how Can Can was named!
The Wooly Mammoth is the Alaskan State Fossil. The museum has an enormous chicken wire Wooly Mammoth sculpture, made by local artist Lacie Stewing, that visitors are encouraged to tie yarn to as a collaborative art project!
The mascot was born as part of Please Touch Museum’s rebrand in May 2018 and was unveiled in October 2018 through a PTM Birthday Bash. Squiggles’ name was chosen in a citywide naming contest with more than 1,400 creative entries. As part of the museum’s commitment to inclusivity, Squiggles is gender non-binary and referred to using the pronouns they, their, and them.
Wilbur is based on the sun in the museum’s logo. He was created to serve as the mascot for their grocery store in the Farm to Market exhibit. The museum wanted a fun and whimsical mascot who would make people smile just looking at it. Another goal was to replicate a mascot kids might see in a real grocery store, adding a level of reality to the imaginary play happening in the exhibit. In April 2019, the museum is continuing their 30th anniversary celebration with a campaign called “Where’s Wilbur?” Wilbur will hide in the museum every day, and children who find him will get their photo with Wilbur on our photo wall.
Thanks to Buell Children’s Museum, Children’s Museum of Houston, Children’s Museum of Sonoma County, Children’s Museum of South Dakota, Children’s Museum of Tacoma, The Children’s Museum of the Upstate, Discovery Museum, Discovery Place, Fairbanks Children’s Museum, Please Touch Museum, and Wonderscope Children’s Museum of Kansas City for sharing their stories!