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The latest issue of Hand to Hand is all about Communications in 2022! Read each article on the ACM blog, and find the full issue PDF in the Hand to Hand Community on ACM Groupsite.
This issue explores the different approaches children’s museums take to get their messages out and stay connected to their audiences. From creating a communications plan, to curating social media content, to experimenting with new platforms, museums share success stories and new questions about maximizing efforts in uncharted and constantly changing territory.
Read the issue!
In Search of Kindness: A Call to Action
Mike Yankovich and Gretchen Kerr
In January 2022, when the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus closed for ten days to support staff navigating guest anger over mask policies, the story went viral. Museum leaders ask, what role can children’s museums play in fostering kindness?
What Is a Communications Plan and Why Do I Need One?
A communications expert shares the value of creating a communications plan to ensure your organization’s mission and message reaches your community, keeping your Goals, Audience, Messages, and Tactics front of mind.
Content Front and Center: Minnesota Children’s Museum Talks about Racism
Building on their strategic goal to “champion children’s healthy development,” Minnesota Children’s Museum’s Vice President of External Relations shares the importance of messaging that addresses the negative effects of racism and racial inequities on children.
Responding to Public Reviews: Dos and Don’ts
In a time where everyone has an opinion and the opportunities to voice them are endless, how do museums respond to public reviews? San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum’s Marketing & Events Manager shares top dos and don’ts.
Macro to Micro: Developing a Cohesive Social Media Strategy
This Q&A with Jenny Holland, Director of Digital Strategy, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, delves into how building an engaged community on social channels helps drive museum visits.
Keith Ostfeld and Henry Yau
Children’s Museum Houston has learned how to optimize TikTok to maintain connections with their audiences on this popular platform, including through their popular DeTok and Science Snacks series.
In Pursuit of an Online Audience: Using Stories to Cultivate a Community
Rebecca Tucker Nall and Molly Noah
Learn how the Mayborn Museum Complex expanded their organic reach on social media by embedding science content in stories about real people.
Social Media Communications Today: It’s the Wild West
With new social media platforms on the rise, children’s museums are faced with the challenge of content creation, distribution, and expectations for monetization. What does success look like?
Social Media: Successes, Challenges, Surprises, and Questions
Learn insights about social media from staff at Amazement Square, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire, The Children’s Museum at Saratoga, Discovery Center Museum, Greentrike, The Iowa Children’s Museum, KidsQuest Children’s Museum, Mighty Children’s Museum, Mississippi Children’s Museum, The Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum, and Please Touch Museum.
|This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.|
By Mike Yankovich and Gretchen Kerr, Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus
For nearly fifty years, the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus has been a gathering place where people in our community can share moments of wonder and joy. Our staff takes this mission seriously, and strives to help families create memories in a safe and welcoming environment.
The past two years have been trying for everyone, including our staff and the families we serve, and accomplishing our mission has become increasingly difficult. Our community has faced countless challenges, leading to uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. These emotions have spilled out in big, small, and unexpected ways, often affecting those around us.
In January 2022, as the pandemic continued and Omicron hit the scene, the museum continued to follow Denver’s public health guidelines, which included wearing masks in indoor public spaces. Regrettably, some guests who objected to the city-wide policy were inappropriately directing their anger toward our staff. With these incidents increasing in frequency and intensity, the museum made the decision to immediately close our doors for ten days to support our staff and bolster our policies with the hope of preventing this type of behavior in the future.
An email to our members and one social media post regarding the closure was all it took for the news to spread quickly through our community and soon, the country. In addition to the hundreds of comments of love and support that appeared on our post, phone calls and emails poured in from all over, many from children’s museums experiencing similar struggles. Unfortunately, the bad came in with the good—negative comments, indignant emails, and even cancelled memberships—all due to our call for kindness.
Disappointing, to be sure, but there was work to do. We met as a team to share the disheartening situations our staff experienced. The conversation was difficult, but vitally important to lay the foundation for the work ahead. Our staff voiced that they appreciated the time and space to work together to support each other and to develop strategies to make the museum a better place for our internal and external community.
As a part of this process, we reflected on our How We Play guidelines. These long-standing signs are posted throughout the museum and offer a simple reminder to share, be kind, and treat others with respect. We were looking for ways we could further embody this sentiment and encourage positivity and joy through all aspects of the museum.
So when we reopened, in addition to new and improved processes around guest orientation, de-escalation, and accountability, we employed some more playful options to encourage kindness. We installed a giant conversation heart at the entrance of the museum where guests shared simple acts of kindness they planned to engage in. Children and adults alike took part, and the ideas flowed: smiling at a stranger, helping an elderly neighbor, or calling mom… all small actions with potentially big impacts.
Next up for us: High Five Highway. Inspired by a similar activity developed by the Exploratorium in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, High Five Highway will live on our plaza and encourage strangers to interact and connect with one simple action.
Though the mask enforcement days are behind us (for the moment), something else has become abundantly clear: it was never just about masks. We live in a time where a little kindness can go a long way, although it seems many have lost interest in demonstrating this human-centered value. And unfortunately, as we learned from the conversations we had with our friends across the country, this is a shared issue that affects all of us, and acting alone won’t cut it.
As we look ahead, we ask the community of children’s museums for help answering the following questions:
The task at hand may feel daunting. But we are never stronger than when we are together. We look forward to working with you all to make the future a brighter, and kinder, place.
Mike Yankovich is president and CEO and Gretchen Kerr is COO of the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus.
|This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.|
By Maureen Wolsborn, Hamilton Place Strategies
A communications plan is an organizational road map to ensure that your mission and message reach your community. While the initial creation of the plan takes time, it will pay dividends down the road as it provides the organization with internally agreed-upon processes and expectations. Outlining clear deliverables and timelines empowers your team to execute your messaging strategy while reducing the need for day-to-day oversight.
Developing a plan can seem daunting if you do not have a communications background. However, creating an effective plan is a simple matter of organizing and writing down what you already know about your organization and how you’re currently communicating about it.
Start by dividing the plan into the four integral parts: Goals, Audience, Messages, and Tactics:
Why are we doing any of this in the first place? What is the purpose of updating the website? Why do we need to post about events on social media? This may sound pedantic, but going back to the beginning and defining what you are trying to accomplish is a vital step in the process. Below is an example from one of my plans created for a school district bond program.
Prove the value and impact of the 2018 bond measure through accurate, up-to-date, culturally appropriate, and easily accessible information and communications on bond projects and their long term-term impact on student experience and the greater community.
An example for a children’s museum’s goal could look like this:
Keep each goal to one or two sentences—brevity and clarity are paramount. While there can be multiple goals, remember that a dense message can be challenging to follow. The purpose of the “goals” section is to help everyone pull in the same direction.
Establishing your goals will help you understand who you need to reach to achieve them. If one of your organization’s goals is to expand access and visitorship amongst culturally diverse populations, then identify those groups. It is not about singling out one population, but rather ensuring you are creating communications that are culturally and linguistically appropriate for a specific audience.
Audiences can be as broad as “teachers at our K-12 schools” or “parents of children ages 0-18 in Denver.” If you get stuck on completely defining them all, start with a broad view and go back later to refine the list as your plan develops.
Message creation can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Start with the obvious sources for inspiration: mission, vision, and strategic plan. Then jot down any commonly used phrases or terms specific to your organization. This will give you an idea of the consistent tone and voice your communications should convey.
Next, write a few key messages to guide the rest of your plan. Key messages don’t need to encompass everything you’re trying to say. They exist to ensure future team members understand how to write in your organization’s voice. Keep those goals and audiences in mind as you write. An example of a key message might be “the children’s museum welcomes children and families looking for fun ways to play and learn together.”
If there are specific audiences, events, or benchmarks you are trying to reach or accomplish with your communications, it’s a good idea to write a few key messages that are targeted to those needs. Think about your supporter base: getting an existing supporter to sign up for a new program offering (e.g., “Sign up now for the museum’s new and improved Summer of STEM!”) is different than trying to recruit brand new supporters (“Instill a love of science in your kids by exploring STEM at the museum!”). Goal-specific messaging should be tailored to each deliverable.
What are you already doing to get your messages out? Is it working? How do you know? It is tempting to jump right into tactics, but make sure you have tools set up to monitor your metrics and performance first (more on this later). Perhaps you’ve seen another museum do something cool—like a great TikTok post or YouTube video—and you want to do one too. It’s great to seek that creative inspiration, but before you take that leap, ask yourself if that new strategy will help meet your goals and reach your audience.
For example, let’s say you have new summer program offerings for kids:
Tactics include updating your website, posting to social media, and calling the local reporter who gives you column inches every spring to publish summer programming for families. Organize these tactics in a way that makes sense to you and that matches your organizational capacity. The easiest structure to follow focuses on each of your channels. Channels are the communications tools that you own and control: your social media, website, newsletters, etc.
Perhaps you need to update the website a certain number of times with camp registration information in order to reach that previously stated goal. In this case, that tactic would go under “website.” You can then attach any additional details—such as messaging, graphics, timeframe—to this category.
Time and resources are major limiting factors for any plan. Before you build out a lofty communications plan, think about how much time you and your team are able to put into executing it. If one person is able to spend four hours a week on it, be sure your plan reflects that reality. One person won’t have time to shoot, edit, and post six TikTok videos a week while also doing the other necessary functions of their job. Based on what you already know about which channels work best for which audiences in your community, establish work focus priorities. Setting realistic expectations gives your team the opportunity to succeed and the foundation to grow your skills as you become more comfortable in this work.
Every organization today wants compelling and engaging social media content to be a key component of its communications plan. But how do you get there? The most important pillar when building a social media presence is consistency. Working off a schedule of where and when you post and then assessing engagement will allow you to continually tailor your social media strategy.
Consider your audiences. What do you know about their interests in your organization? Where do they get their information? What messaging has been successful in the past? Answering those questions will lead you in the right direction.
The styles, content, and schedules of different social media is a topic too vast to sum up in a couple of paragraphs. However, a key attribute across the board is that social media should be interactive. Engage with your audience through direct messages, posts directed at your organization, and comment threads on whatever platforms you use. If someone tags you in an Instagram post about the fantastic experience they had at your museum, respond with a comment to say thank you. Conversely, maybe someone didn’t have a great time and chose to vent online; a sincere response from the organization may turn that feeling right around, or at least let the venter feel heard.
If you don’t have the time or know-how for any social media posting, turn to the users! Have a social media contest where people submit content for you to publish on your channels. Or consider an “Instagram takeover” on your account, handing the reins over to a social media user you trust who creates great content. For example, hand over the reins of your Instagram account to a media-savvy member of your floor staff for a day. They can post the sweet or funny things that happen while playing with kids in an exhibit. Or run an Instagram LIVE during a program launch.
Despite the current focus on social media, print ads and promotions are still popular and effective with many audiences. How people like to get their information changes constantly, and there are plenty of people out there who get overwhelmed by the noise on social media.
A community newspaper, for example, could be a great place to run a focused earned media piece. The better you understand your audience(s), the easier it will be to reach them with your communications. The myriad options can be intimidating, so test out different messaging and delivery methods to see what works best. You might be surprised at what you find.
This part is hard. Start by determining how you define success for a campaign, what data you need to measure it, and how to get that data. This is where digital platforms provide the most insight. If your organization has the budget for it, use paid ads on various platforms with different messages and examine the performance analytics to determine what succeeds.
As a baseline, be sure your website and newsletter platforms have an analytics tracking component that allows you to go back and run reports on performance for specific time periods, campaigns, and audiences. These simple viewership numbers can provide insight into how your communications are performing and what items within your communication strategy are drawing the most engagement.
There are no silver bullets for any of this work. A communications plan provides a guiding structure for the organization, but it is a living document. Don’t hesitate to make changes. You’re going to learn along the way, so it helps to be adaptable. When in doubt, get some people in a room and try a good, old-fashioned conversation to start identifying your museum’s Goals, Audience, Messages, and Tactics.
Maureen Wolsborn has nearly a decade of experience in Colorado public policy, citizen engagement, and communications. She managed bond communications for Jeffco (Jefferson County) Public Schools and Denver Public Schools. She recently became a creative director at Hamilton Place Strategies, an analytical public affairs firm.
|This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.|
By Kathleen Sandoval, San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum
Thanks to cell phones and the internet, we are all connected in ways never before experienced. While the opportunities to engage with your favorite musician, actor, or brand are endless, it also means organizations are open to even more criticism through channels like Yelp, Google My Business, TripAdvisor, and more.
According to a Local Consumer Review Survey conducted by Brightlocal, 98 percent of consumers read online reviews for local businesses. This means your guests are researching you before deciding to step foot in your doors, and those reviews can make or break your museum’s image. The customer experience at your institution impacts your overall rating, so when a negative review appears, it’s important to respond. 89 percent of consumers are “highly” or “fairly” likely to use a business that responds to all of its online reviews. Your response could be one of the easiest ways to save your museum’s reputation.
How do marketing and communications professionals respond to the reviews posted about their institutions? From the good, to the bad, to the really bad, we break down the top dos and don’ts when acknowledging and responding to reviews left on public channels.
Whether the review is good or bad, take the time to respond to each and every one. Someone is taking time out of their day to share their experience. A good customer experience means that every customer feels valued and heard.
Now is not the time to get into a debate or endlessly thank your reviewer. Responding is simply an acknowledgment of their kind words or feedback. There are plenty of ways to gather more information, if needed, without writing a novel. Try to keep it to two to three sentences for a positive review. We’ll dive more into negative reviews below.
Someone once gave us a 3-star review because they thought our free, donated coffee was terrible. What?! People will always find reasons to be upset. It isn’t personal. Again, keep it short and sweet when you respond. If the matter is concerning or if you’d simply like to understand the reason for a low-star review, see Rule #4.
Regardless of whether or not a reviewer’s feedback is legitimate, always acknowledge their concerns. The big complainers often just want to vent and have someone listen. You may need more information to determine what happened, so don’t be afraid to ask them to directly message you or email you at a general email like info@[museumname].org.
Just as guests have access to these sites, so do your employees and board members. It’s easy to get heated and want to defend your workplace. However, only a designated representative of the museum should respond to reviews or comments about the museum. It’s all too easy for an employee to misstep and create a mountain out of a molehill. A social media policy will keep employees from speaking on the museum’s behalf.
Whether the reviewer got you mixed up with another museum, or misrepresented or downright lied about their experience, don’t be afraid to report the review. We once had a reviewer complain about our mask policy, but they openly admitted they hadn’t even come inside. Since their review wasn’t based on a legitimate experience at the museum, we reported it, and the review was taken down. Yelp, Google My Business, and many others allow you to report reviews. Assuming your report follows their guidelines, they’ll take it down. If they don’t take it down, refer to Rule #3.
Mistakes happen. Once a reviewer said an employee told them we clean only with essential oils. Yikes. Other reviewers have taken interactions out of context, such as when a guest complained we tried to charge their family of four $40 for an hour (in reality, they had the entire day to enjoy the museum, but chose to leave early). Your employees are the backbone of your organization, so don’t throw them under the bus. Privately talk to your staff about the incident and take the steps necessary to resolve the issue before responding. Once you respond, acknowledge the feedback and briefly mention how you are working to resolve the matter.
Feel free to use these review response templates: positive, top; negative, bottom:
Kathleen Sandoval is the marketing and events manager at the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum in Escondido, California.
Former reporter turned content marketer Jenny Holland has served as the director of digital strategy for The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis for nearly ten years. In this role she leads strategy for integrated digital marketing campaigns for museum initiatives and exhibits, including the recently expanded and reopened Dinosphere®. Her work involves the development of social media campaigns with onsite and online components to boost social reach and engagement and increase attendance; developing lead email acquisition, engagement, and retention strategies for all museum departments; and spearheading lead generation and online sales strategies for childrensmuseum.org to maximize online revenue.
Prior to her work at the museum, she served as marketing communications specialist at Conner Prairie in Fishers, Indiana, and was a reporter/producer for WTHI-TV in Terre Haute. Jenny holds a degree in journalism/Spanish/telecommunications from Indiana University Bloomington. She is also a board member of Hoodox, Indiana’s first and only streaming service featuring nonfiction, Indiana-focused content that entertains while helping people connect to their community and create positive change.
How does the museum develop a social media strategy?
In the fourth quarter of each year, we work with our leadership team to understand the museum’s overarching priorities for the next year. Our marketing team then conducts a SWOT analysis to discuss the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that we foresee. These can include anything from how COVID uncertainty affects our dynamic pricing strategy to how we conquer the challenge of marketing an exhibit like Dinosphere®, which has more depth and complexity than a single ad or series of ads can include. We also look at applicable visitor survey data, content analytics from the previous year, and current socil media trends. Drawing on all this information, the digital team creates its strategic plan, which includes both organic and paid social media strategies, for the year as well as individual marketing plans for each new exhibit that will open. Social media is big part of our advertising spend for the year. Of our total advertising buy, which includes TV, radio, display ads, social, and search, 12 percent is spent on social media advertising.
Among several popular social media platforms, how do you decide what messages go where?
In 2020, we worked with an outside company to help us create a guiding document for our organic social media strategy. Organic social media involves posting content (text, photos, video, graphics, stories, etc.) for free on social media platforms hoping to engage audiences.
The bones of our plan stay the same each year, but we revisit the goals, strategies, and tactics annually. We adjust as needed based on the changing platform landscape, analytics from previous years, information we’ve gleaned from our constituents, and priorities of the museum.
One section of that strategy document includes channel differentiation. What is the mission, role, and audience of each of our social media channels, and what kind of content works best for each? To determine this, we use what we know about the overall demographics of each social platform coupled with analytics data around content performance from previous years. This tool not only helps us do a gut check when we are creating our campaigns, but also helps us educate other departments on what channel might work best for their particular event or content idea.
To determine our optimal social platforms, we surveyed our audience asking them which platforms they use. We combined these results with historical engagement data from our channels. For example, our data shows that 75 percent of adults surveyed use Facebook and less than 5 percent use TikTok. If we just went off the survey data, we would have overlooked TikTok entirely. However, after investing some time into testing that channel, we saw incredible engagement results and the potential to reach a new audience. TikTok has become a priority channel for the museum over the past year. We take our time when deciding to invest in or add a new channel. We have a small team, so we want to make sure we are not spreading ourselves too thin.
Walk us through your social media strategy for the recent opening of the newly expanded Dinosphere® exhibit?
Since 2004, Dinosphere® has taken visitors back in time to the Cretaceous Period, when the last dinosaurs walked the Earth. The new Dinosphere® digs even deeper into the prehistoric past, presenting two massive new sauropod fossils from the Jurassic Period, amazing aquatic creatures of the Mesozoic Seas, and a Dino Art Lab that pairs science and creativity.
Reopening Dinosphere® included lots of layers of marketing, public relations, digital, and overall communication strategy. The campaign, which lasted more than a year, had several phases. During this time, we closed the original exhibit while the new one was being completed, and continued digging for new fossils at our site in Wyoming. Here are a few of the tactics from each of those phases.
— Updated all of our communications (web, email, and social media) to make it clear Dinosphere® was closed.
— Created an online Dino Hub, embedded with a 360-degree tour of the old exhibit with hot spots to some evergreen dino content.
— Sent a monthly dino e-newsletter to all of our members.
— Created a Dinos A to Z video series that we shared bi-weekly on our social channels.
— Posted a weekly Fossil Friday behind-the-scenes moment to show exhibit progress.
— Went to the dig site and covered the dig with live and in-the-moment content across social channels.
— Created a mini-documentary to show the full backstory of the exhibit from dig to preparation to display.
— Began our social advertising campaign, including a two-month membership campaign on Facebook and Instagram followed by a campaign to drive spring break ticket sales on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.
— Hosted an influencer preview party to generate social chatter.
— Conducted a city-wide dino egg hunt.
—Worked with our mayor to declare it Dinosaur Day in Indianapolis.
— Mounted a huge sound and light show downtown in our city center that made it feel like dinosaurs were taking over the city.
— Created a thunderclap moment by having all of our staff, influencers, sponsors, and partners post the same graphic and copy at the same date and time.
Each of these tactics played out differently across each of our digital communication platforms, but layered together to create a cohesive campaign that reached all of our audiences. As the campaign continues, we have moved into sharing visit tips, user-generated content, and deeper information about what you can learn, see, and do in the new experience!
What is the goal of your social media strategy? Is it online engagement, or do you want it to lead to actual involvement with the museum, e.g., in-person visits, memberships, donations, camps/program enrollment?
All of the above, but it depends on the piece of content. We want to build an engaged community on our social channels, provide extraordinary customer service, and ultimately drive people to visit the museum. We do post some content where the goal is pure engagement or amplification; other content is pure promotion (e.g., buy tickets to an event) and some content is both. It’s important to strike a balance.
On the paid social advertising front, the goal of almost all of our content is to drive online ticket, membership, or event sales.
How do you know if your communications are hitting the mark? How do you measure success?
It depends on the post. We measure engagement, amplification, reach, and transactions from our social content. However, we don’t necessarily measure all of those for every single post. While we have had a few posts go truly viral, ultimately this didn’t drive the uptick in ticket sales you would expect based on the online engagement we saw. Other posts have seemed to do poorly engagement-wise, but the click-through and transaction numbers were through the roof. It all depends on what the goal of the post is.
For our paid ads, we also measure total transactions (total number of completed sales), conversion rate (transactions divided by clicks), cost per conversion (campaign spend divided by transactions), revenue (total money earned from sales), and return on ad spend (revenue divided by campaign spend).
Online media is a rapidly changing environment: new apps and platforms emerge and existing ones abruptly change how they work. Audiences can be fickle. They might love your Instagram posts for a while, then that love vanishes. How do you stay nimble?
This is one of the most frustrating and exciting parts of this job. We review our social media strategy quarterly. It’s a fluid document, so if it needs to change based on content we see performing well or not performing like we thought, then we make that change. We don’t wait a whole year to react to what we are seeing. We also have a pretty flat approval process. If we want to change our content strategy or try a new trend, we don’t have a lot of layers for approving the move. We aren’t afraid to try something and miss.
Bad news and tough topics: How does the museum use its social media platforms to deliver important but not fun news? For example, pandemic-related information over the past two years (and ongoing)—closures/mask/capacity policies?
We try to be honest, transparent, and keep an open line of communication. Our small department is not making decisions in a vacuum. The museum has a large team of people who approach decisions and messaging from a lot of different angles and viewpoints to make sure we are thinking through all of the scenarios. When it came to the pandemic, we saw very quickly that there were some topics that were going to be incredibly polarizing. We did our best to remind people that we are human, and we are looking out for safety of visitors and staff. We also hid or deleted comments that did not follow our community guidelines.
We also tried to couple our information with resources for parents. We created content around tips for helping your child get comfortable wearing a mask, social narratives to prepare families for the changes at the museum, and live Q and A’s with health experts.
How do you handle negative online reviews or social media posts?
We used to reply to every single bad review and comment. In the past year, as we’ve seen commentary get more and more divisive and at times unproductive, we have been much more liberal with shutting down those conversations, banning people, and deleting/hiding comments if they do not follow our community guidelines. We do, however, reply to every legitimate bad review when it is relevant. We find that sometimes you can take what is perceived to be a terrible experience and turn it around just by showing the person that you are listening. We’ve had many examples of turning complainers into promoters by letting them know they were heard.
Does the museum use any printed communication materials anymore?
Yes, we still send very targeted direct mail communications. A few examples include renewal notifications (in combination with email and text reminders), lapsed member postcards, and our member magazine.
Communications 2012 vs. 2022: What has changed? Where do you see it going in the future?
Social media has become more and more dominated by the use of video. I also think content, especially video, has become less polished (not to be misconstrued as sloppy). When we first started our TikTok channel, for example, I had a very hard time with how raw the video was and how the copy we were using wasn’t 100 percent grammatically correct. Same with our first live video! But I think the trend of authentic, unpolished content will continue. I also think social media platforms will start putting emphasis back on more meaningful engagements. I hope this means we will see more genuine conversations and connections with the community.
From the advertising perspective, social media has gone from being fully organic to being a key player in our ad mix receiving 12 percent of our overall ad buy in 2022.
What are some overlooked avenues of communication?
These may not be overlooked by everybody, but these are some areas where we’ve seen success.
What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to effectively communicate with their audience(s)?
One of the biggest challenges is trying to step away from the content—what you are trying to communicate—and see it through the eyes of the different people you are trying to reach. We tend to be so close to the topic that we may overlook something obvious that needs to be clarified in the messaging. I also think it’s important to observe or assume various roles throughout your museum so you can better understand the pain points visitors might be having. It’s one thing to hear about a struggle or a miscommunication from the customer service team; it’s another to see it happen with your own eyes.
What is your biggest social media success story? What is your biggest communications hurdle/challenge?
This is from a while ago, but I still consider it one of the best campaigns we have ever done. Back in 2014, when Dinosphere® was turning ten, we decided to throw a birthday party for our Spring Break experience with very limited dollars and resources. We ended up crowdsourcing a ten-day dino birthday party with a new user-generated idea featured each day. Each person who suggested a winning idea got to come to the museum with their family and experience it in person. One little girl suggested we turn our dino dome into a giant dino-sized birthday cake, so we did! Another child suggested we have carnivore and herbivore pizza, so we handed out free pizza in our café. We ultimately drove a ton of engagement and excitement around the birthday party and got to celebrate the creativity of some of our amazing community members. On top of that, we engaged other museums around the globe to wish Dinosphere® a happy birthday on their social media channels. We ended up with some really wide-reaching, creative mentions from our colleagues around the world.
Too many exciting things to talk about and not enough resources or digital real estate to cover it all!
Digging deeper into our strategy document, the core areas include:
Example from 2021:
Example from 2021: Recapture general attendance
Example from 2021: The museum provides a safe and FUN experience. Provide resources to prepare for your visit; show the ways we are keeping people safe; share testimonials from visitors.
Examples from 2021: Building our TikTok audience; increasing focus on Pinterest to drive a bigger virtual audience; redefining our influencer strategies.
By Keith Ostfeld and Henry Yau, Children’s Museum Houston
For years, Children’s Museum Houston has been using social media to reach our audience for announcements, special deals, silly puzzles, and especially fun videos and livestreams. Like most children’s museums that use social media, our focus has been on engaging parents and caregivers, who are the primary users of social media, with content they can also share with their kids (at least until the kids get savvy enough to demand the videos themselves). Facebook, YouTube, and, more recently, Instagram have served us very well in reaching our audience. But then things changed…
We first became aware of TikTok back when it was still called Musical.ly, which began in 2014 and changed to TikTok in 2018. Back then, the demographics of users skewed heavily into the teens—not our core audience. But we kept an eye on it, figuring that, much like younger parents were choosing Instagram over Facebook, as TikTok’s users aged, it may become a popular social media choice for young parents.
And then…well, you know. During the first quarter of 2020, while we were all trapped in our homes and hungry for entertainment, TikTok had the biggest quarter of any app ever with over 315 million downloads. It currently boasts more than 138 million monthly active users in the U.S., of which 29.5 percent are 20-29 and another 16.4 percent are 30-39—the userbase aged up quickly!
A little sooner than expected, it was time to get onto TikTok. And while it was uncharted territory, the Children’s Museum Houston, driven by our passion for discovery and lifelong learning (and fueled by coffee), loves to delve into new experiences. We quickly discovered that TikTok has some unique quirks that make it very different from other platforms. Our challenge lay in how to produce the videos to optimize the platform.
First and foremost, TikTok is a mobile-first platform. Many social media platforms started with content shared through computers, so horizonal video formats worked well on computer monitors. Over the years, as how we consume content has shifted towards mobile devices, vertically formatted videos—like the videos on TikTok—have become more popular. The popularity of this format on TikTok has led other platforms, including Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Google, and even Netflix, to add mobile-first options.
In addition, while many of our videos that we shared on Facebook and YouTube could be lengthy, TikTok videos had to be short, snappy, and visually engaging. Most TikTok users decide whether to continue watching a video in the first three seconds, plus there is typically a time limit to the videos. In addition, TikTok users also tend to skip videos that look too professional; a homemade feel is more popular.
With this in mind, we restructured our shooting formats. First, we made sure that we shot clips vertically, often opting to use a mobile phone for the shoot. Second, we started planning and scripting our videos differently, aiming for a quick visual grab and shorter timeframe. Finally, we started using a different style during production, opting for less structure and encouraging more free-form movement of the camera. The result were videos which both aligned with our programming and how TikTok audiences consume content.
We first ventured into creating content for TikTok to tap into a new audience base in the summer of 2021, during our post-pandemic reopening. We had hired two amazing young interns who were already regular consumers of TikTok and familiar with its trends. Since we were launching, we gave our interns the liberty to explore different types of formats to see what would work best to create views while remaining in line with our brand.
Some of their first explorations involved “tiny mic interviews,” where they would interview our staff and visitors with simple questions about current trends like superhero movies. While these interviews were fun to produce, we didn’t get very consistent viewership.
Next, they tried “museum exploration” videos, where they explored different exhibitions, sometimes focusing on a few exhibits, as a way of “touring” visitors through the museum experience. These videos created consistent viewership, but not huge numbers of viewers.
However, the third type of videos they created, which included TikTok viral trends, was more successful. (You can see what’s trending on TikTok under their sounds option. “TikTok Viral” includes a current list of widely used tracks.) They would look for trending styles and challenges that were in alignment with the museum’s brand and riff off those. These by far produced the most views, into the thousands.
By the end of that summer, we established that there was both an audience for and interest in what we do on TikTok. With this information in hand, we went back to the education team to begin developing a plan in sync with our other video work to create TikTok-specific content. This effort resulted in two main standouts:
With this success, we have started exploring other ways to adapt our existing video work for TikTok, including creating shorter and/or sped-up versions of previously recorded videos and new styles of video content that take advantage of current TikTok trends.
But we aren’t doing any #stupidchallenges.
Keith Ostfeld is director of educational technology and exhibit development and Henry Yau is director of communications at Children’s Museum Houston.
By Rebecca Tucker Nall and Molly Noah, Mayborn Museum Complex
Children’s museums are in a unique position on social media.
Our direct audience is not there.
How do we communicate our museum’s value and create a robust online community? Let’s talk about how children’s museums can successfully advocate for their experiences and build a strong social community with their indirect audience—parents.
At the Mayborn Museum Complex at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, we use storytelling techniques to encourage parents to choose the museum as a resource to supplement learning and fuel a love of science. Our storytelling begins with our brand values—creativity, curiosity, and collaboration—and then considers our audience’s needs.
Attracting the attention of potential visitors on social media is a privilege, and museums must earn that to create genuine trust and credibility. But who are they? Everything starts with research. At the Mayborn, we dig into who our audience is and is not. Through our participation in ASTC’s COVES initiative (astc.org/impact-initiatives/coves/), we know a fair bit about who walks through our doors—and how our experience resonates with them. For example, we know our audience is composed of mostly college-educated, young families who want high-quality experiences and the opportunity to learn something new. For our digital visitors (anyone who visits our website, social channels, or opens an email), we study user analytics and in-app insights to create user profiles. After exhaustive research, we know who they are and that they want safe, hands-on, and awe-inspiring experiences for their family—oh, and a new experience each time they visit! Now that we know their needs, we can create social media content that we think they want.
Mayborn Museum is the leading center for youth science and education in Central Texas. While some members of our community remain skeptical of science, everyone can relate to our brand values of creativity, curiosity, and collaboration. When visitors walk through our doors, fact-based science is presented with a sense of wonder. We recreate that same sense of wonder and trust on all of our marketing materials, including each of our social channels. We want the audience to see us as the place to be if they want their kids to be creators, inventors, makers, or researchers.
One of my favorite sayings is, “information comes in casual conversation.” Children’s museums can package their brand values and marketing messages while also meeting their audience’s needs by creating original content around something people are already talking about—other people’s stories.
Black History Month, one of the most important months of the year, offers an incredible opportunity to tell the stories of the contributions of Black Americans to science and museums. While our institution had in-person engagement opportunities focused on Black history throughout the month, our marketing team took the opportunity to feature local, Black scientists and museum professionals who embody our museum’s values like curiosity and collaboration on our social media channels. We brought them to the museum for a tour and an informal photoshoot, building content that would go in our newsletter and on all our social platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
We met Dr. Bessie Kebaara, a scientist who believes yeast holds the key to understanding human RNA, in 2021 when she went through our Portal to the Public program, an Institute for Learning Innovation collaboration that connects our audiences with current science through conversations with Baylor University scientists. Normally Dr. Kebaara would bring her yeast canisters and research presentation to the museum and catch wandering visitors for a quick talk about RNA’s transformational qualities. But for Black History Month, we invited her to come to the museum for a photoshoot and an informal interview. We wanted to hear about her work and what drove her to become a scientist, in the hope that she could inspire future scientists here in Central Texas. You can read her interview here.
Brandice Nelson is a public historian and the Director of Engagement at National History Day, a nonprofit that engages middle- and high-school students around the world in conducting original research on historical topics of interest. Nelson graduated from the Mayborn’s Museum Studies program in 2016 and now lives between Waco and Austin, Texas. We invited Nelson to “take over” our social media accounts to show a day in her life. She walked our audience through her morning routine, said hello to her hamster, and watched her prepare for a big National History Day Fair coming up soon. Our audience caught a glimpse into life as a public historian. You can view her takeover in our Instagram story highlight “Brandice Nelson” on our Instagram profile.
We’re grateful to Dr. Kebaara and Brandice Nelson for sharing a bit about their lives with our audience, and we hope their stories inspired Central Texas parents to bring their children to the museum to explore a career in science or history. We found success through embedding our science content in stories about real people. These features received double the organic reach of our regular posts and triple the shares! Shares are the incredible currency on social: they tell you who is connecting to your content while also signaling to the algorithms that this is high-quality content. The higher quality of the post, the higher it will rank in the feeds. Now we have more eyeballs on our museum—and our mission! While social media algorithms change, one thing does not, and that is the value of time. Each app wants the audience’s eyeball for as long as possible and they will reward creators who can keep an audience for a long session.
One of my favorite marketers, Allie Wassum, global director, social & integrated media at Jordan (Nike) said, “In paid social, you make a brand promise. In organic, you deliver on it.” If you work in social, then you know that organic reach is disappearing on Facebook and Instagram. Hashtags are questionable in efficacy, and the algorithms change all the time. It is challenging work to stay in front of your audience. We keep a targeted, paid ad on our social channels to make sure we stay in front of the right audience. Our paid ads are visual reminders of the value of a Mayborn experience and always include a powerful call to action. In our ad below, we show two children embracing in front of our T. rex, Stan, with their t-shirts saying, “I love the Mayborn.”
We attracted more than 3,000 new followers during our paid campaigns in November and December 2021. Once you follow us, we make a promise that the stories we are telling are worth your time—brand marketing married with awareness. Our social channels are a place you can spend a lot of time. This is a good thing, because social media algorithms prioritize your content based on how much time people spend looking at it.
Parents do not follow museums on social media so they can see our calendars of events or exhibit upgrades. They follow us to be entertained, educated, and learn how to spend quality time with their family. Developing original, creative storytelling may seem time-consuming, but investing time and social real estate in original content is where you deliver on the promise you made in your paid advertising. It’s a powerful one-two combination. We know that people are hungry to build a real community online. Through powerful storytelling, children’s museums can be part of that online community while successfully advocating for their experiences.
Rebecca Tucker Nall, currently assistant director of exhibits, communication, and visitor services at the Mayborn Museum Complex in Waco, Texas, has served in various roles at the Mayborn since 2007, overseeing the museum’s marketing and front-of-house staff for the last five years.
Molly Noah is the marketing coordinator at the Mayborn Museum Complex. With a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and master’s degree in museum science, she has been working in social media within the museum field for the past four years.
By Amanda Sobczak, Betty Brinn Children’s Museum
In the early spring of 2020, it’s likely that we all shared a similar feeling. Unlike many other businesses and institutions, most children’s museums could not accommodate the developing and rapidly evolving recommendations for combating COVID-19. Children don’t social distance and they want to touch everything. Plus, mask wearing was a very new concept in the United States. I vividly remember Betty Brinn Children’s Museum‘s CEO, Brian King, solemnly saying, “This isn’t going to be just a few weeks.” And he was right.
By April 2020, the majority of the U.S., and even the world, was in shutdown. After the initial shock, children’s museums began to regroup and reimagine communications without a facility open to the public. With only limited means of connecting with our audiences, many of us were forced to develop a communications plan that made sense in a suddenly new environment that didn’t. What information would be helpful? What would keep us relevant? While these questions are always at the forefront of marketing and communications, many of us were not prepared for a lengthy pandemic, or the changes it brought to communications in general.
Initial, post-shutdown online content from our peers included simple activity videos, messages of encouragement, and reminders that our industry needed help to survive. If, like me, you spent a good amount of time on social media, you were able to see which museums were able to adapt quickly. Soon, online content became more sophisticated. Videos were polished and well-branded, activity and programming prompts became more elaborate, and donation appeals popped up left and right. Suddenly, with no intentions of ill-will, online messaging became extraordinarily competitive. It was hard not to be envious of larger children’s museums with specialty functions like theater departments. At the same time, it was hard not to feel distraught the first time I saw a social media post about a children’s museum announcing they were closing their doors for good (although, amazingly, very few did). The day-to-day anxiety kept many of us going.
Present day, the world is itching to return to a state of normalcy. At Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, we took the steps to reopen, with evolving best practices for health and safety guidelines, including masking. I cannot begin to describe the mixed emotions behind photographing children’s smiles after two years. What started as a crash course in crisis communications ended with a more gradual transition back to what feels familiar, although colored by new trial-by-fire learning. I doubt any of us will be able to shake the lingering thought of future pandemic experience. That worry might stay with us for the rest of our careers.
So here we are. Open and growing. Undoubtedly, many institutions are still rebuilding their teams. Shout-out to the one-or-two-person departments. Shout-out to all the marketing professionals who orchestrated triumphant communications plans to reopen with as much umph as they could manage. As the excitement of an industry rebirth settles, we are all faced with the challenge of our new plans.
As we all know, no matter what the environment, there are some marketing and communications principles that do not deviate much. We monitor reach, growth, and KPIs, but marketing strategies have always changed, and they always will. We try to keep up, but also use our experience to anticipate where we think we are headed. Who else has recently had the discussion about the efficacy of printed marketing materials? Does location-based advertising through cell phone data make anyone else a little uncomfortable? Audience acquisition and marketing resources will continue to develop and become more refined. In tandem, people will continue to rely more and more on their smartphones and computers. And, like it or not, marketing departments, in turn, will continue to track and plan for that.
In the expansive world of social media, video content continues to serve as the most popular means of engagement. Platforms like Instagram and TikTok have made creative video construction achievable for anyone with a smartphone or tablet. Balancing our need for advertising with general entertainment among multiple platforms means curating a substantial amount of content. A recent marketing recommendation suggested 30 percent of social media posts should be focused on event or other promotional advertising and the rest of it—70 percent—should be about everything else. Audiences will expect a children’s museum to post information about membership and a link to a purchase page. For interested families, this is a quick and easy way to access pertinent transaction details. But connections to audiences can also be made with no call to action at all. Videos of our museum mascot or an April Fool’s Day post about installing a waterslide in our climber exhibit have been very popular. When more serious topics have presented themselves, such as conversations around social justice in summer 2020, it was imperative to reiterate our support for equality. In addition to being the voice of the museum, social media posts offer opportunities to show its soul.
When The Weeknd performed at the 2021 Super Bowl, some children’s museum social pages were quick to equate his chaotic visuals with how it looks when a child plays in the museum. One caption read, “When the museum closes in 15 minutes and your kid needs to see everything one more time.” It was clever, and if you were one of the first to share the post, you may have reaped the benefits from your audience. Applause and appreciation to the originator. It was relevant, relatable, and quickly created—three concepts that lead to social media success, in my opinion.
There is certainly no lack of ideas for content, but marketing professionals sometimes wonder if oversaturating their online platforms really aligns with and advances the organization’s mission. In inevitable bouts of frustration, I find myself questioning if it is really worth interrupting a guest’s experience to add one more post to a social story. I doubt the three-year-old will do the little dance again if I ask. They don’t really realize what they did to begin with. How often are we committing to being present to capture those click-worthy moments that pass so quickly? When to jump in? It’s difficult to make hard and fast rules about when to approach visitors for photos. I make sure to approach when it just feels right, such as if a parent is taking a photo, or if someone makes eye contact with me or acknowledges me.
Most nonprofit organizations face the same budget constraints, and we all know click-through rates don’t necessarily equate to a profit. Just because a user follows your page, it does not mean that they will support your content. Some posts, no matter how strong you felt in development, just won’t yield the results we hope for. Facebook and Instagram have created exceptionally unpredictable roadblocks for the success of organic content. I have a hunch (supported by numerous online media articles) that pauses in social media activity can be beneficial in fighting algorithms meant to suppress impressions. But the pattern is loose. I have seen spikes in numbers a few times after a pause. But the parameters have been very specific: the post has to yield impressions through organic interaction before a pause yields the attention you’re hoping for.
With online resources and new platforms on the rise, children’s museums are faced with the challenge of content creation, distribution, and hopes for monetization. What does social media success look like? Of course, it all depends on the goals of each post, but if we all understood the alchemy behind getting a lot of likes, shares, and comments, we would all be using the same template. If we could go viral every day, the concept wouldn’t be as sought-after. It really is the Wild West: new territory where children’s museums continue to build their social media skills and understanding, hoping that their follower counts build along with it.
|When The Weeknd performed at the 2021 Super Bowl, some children’s museum social pages were quick to equate his chaotic visuals with how it looks when a child plays in the museum. One caption read, “When the museum closes in 15 minutes and your kid needs to see everything one more time.” It was clever, and if you were one of the first to share the post, you may have reaped the benefits from your audience.|
Amanda Sobczak serves as the director of marketing and communications for the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
We posed four basic questions around the use of social media among children’s museums around the U.S. Responses from the museums listed below left reflect the new and ever-changing territory navigated daily by staff charged with communicating in an increasingly and pandemic-accelerated digital world.
Amazement Square (Lynchburg, Virginia)
Morgan Kreutz, Vice President
Brooklyn Children’s Museum (New York)
Winston Williams, Manager of Communications
Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose (California)
Joey Sanchez, Director of Marketing & Communications
The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire (Dover)
Neva Cole, Communications Director
The Children’s Museum at Saratoga (New York)
Ben LaPoint, Digital Media Coordinator
Discovery Center Museum (Rockford, Illinois)
Ann Marie Walker, Director of Marketing
Greentrike (Tacoma, Washington)
Rolfe Bautista, Communications Manager, and Rebecca Schrack, Communications Coordinator
The Iowa Children’s Museum (Coralville)
Amanda Thys, Director of Marketing & Communications
KidsQuest Children’s Museum (Bellevue, Washington)
Melissa Berger, Digital Marketing Manager
Mighty Children’s Museum (Chillicothe, Ohio)
Kelcie Pierce, Executive Director
Mississippi Children’s Museum (Jackson)
Clara Williams, Digital Media & Website Coordinator
The Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum (Illinois)
Jada Culberson, Community Engagement & Marketing Manager
Please Touch Museum (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Amanda Mahnke, Director of Marketing & Communications
Over the last two years we have exponentially increased our social media presence and audience and have “found our groove” with content that resonates the most with varied audiences.
Brooklyn Children’s Museum
In winter 2021-2022 we opened our rooftop ArtRink: a synthetic-ice skating rink meets winter wonderland meets visual arts exhibition. A little out of left field from our typically offerings, this complex concept also faced a well-established competitor with both a polished message and faithful audience.
First, we designed it to be as visually appealing as possible, with strategic branding placement throughout the experience to increase word-of-mouth when shared.
Opening into the headwinds of Omicron, we also invested in collateral advertising and doubled down on targeted advertising on social. Rather than launch it as the big holiday experience we originally envisioned, we positioned ArtRink as a safe, smaller-scale opportunity for families to play outside and where children could learn to skate. To emphasize the “wow” factor of the physical space, we hired an agency to produce a couple of high-impact videos including some drone footage of the rink with the NYC skyline in the background.
It was a huge hit. Thousands of families from Brooklyn and beyond came to the museum just to experience it during its three-month run; plans for a bigger, better 2.0 version are slated for the end of this year.
Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose
Our year-end performance on social, and in particular, Instagram. Two giveaways that included museum tickets and a family membership generated significant excitement, engagement, and follower growth. It was so successful that we plan to integrate giveaways into our quarterly strategy. We’ve also seen a lot of success with photo carousels and user-generated content on our social media pages.
The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire
With a robust YouTube page and educators willing to make videos, since March 2020, we have created 155+ educational videos that have been viewed across all our platforms (Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram) a total of over 225k times (as of January 2022)! This growing library of videos makes excellent social media content throughout the year.
The Children’s Museum at Saratoga
Spending more time developing and making consistent posts as well as making efforts to increase engagement, our social media analytics have shown positive growth.
Discovery Center Museum
For Discovery Center Museum’s 40th anniversary in 2021, we had anticipated a huge celebratory public event, a private event for donors, an event for members, as well as other happenings. Then COVID hit. With Illinois’s COVID restrictions and locally high case numbers, for months our capacity was limited to 50 guests. Large events were out of the question, but we still wanted to share this milestone and feel the gratitude we had for our members, guests, and supporters over the years. Through a social media campaign, we solicited photos, favorite memories, and testimonials from the public with fantastic results. Through social media and our website, we shared user-generated content and created an anniversary video. Connecting with current members and volunteers as well as many from decades past, we now have a wonderful collection of digital images and testimonials to use in the future as well!
Over the last six months, we have integrated a variety of scheduled updates. The regularity and transparency of these communications have built expectations among our audiences for what kind of information and resources they can expect us to provide.
The Iowa Children’s Museum
Our education and exhibits team created a puppet version of our mascot, Pete the Turtle, which provided new social content and opportunities to collaborate with community partners. In the last six months, ads, giveaways, and special discounts for memberships have been crucial to rebuilding our membership base post-pandemic.
KidsQuest Children’s Museum
Reaching out to patrons to ask them to submit names for our two exhibit animals, a sheep, now called Lady Baba, and a cow named Mooriah. Fun and playful, comments and likes were up more than 50 percent.
Mighty Children’s Museum
Capturing 10k followers in roughly fifteen months through our story, which began on Facebook and then expanded into other platforms (Instagram and TikTok).
Mississippi Children’s Museum
Our announcement that the museum had won the 2021 National Medal for Museum and Library Service organically reached over 2 MILLION people on Facebook!
The Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum
Experimenting with contests, videos, staff stories, and sharing mission-related posts from other sources, the staff stories and mission-related posts seem to be doing best.
Please Touch Museum
The name recognition alone of our next traveling exhibit, The Wizard of Oz Educational Exhibit, guaranteed excitement. But we were still surprised when our Facebook announcement post reached 23,475 people, with 131 likes, 62 comments, and 53 shares! Our highest reaching post in the past two years.
Getting our constituency to commit to attending events. While we have an abundance of interest and “virtual confirmations,” the translation to physical attendance has been difficult.
Brooklyn Children’s Museum
Communication of multiple goings-on across many channels on a tight budget with a team of limited bandwidth. It’s a constant balancing act to maintain a consistent message and presence.
Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose
Having enough capacity to create new content for the website/blog, which can then be repurposed and promoted on social. With programs moving from all virtual, to hybrid, to all in-person, the pandemic also provided a whole new set of challenges in representing content visually. Masked vs. unmasked photography of our activities made a big difference in the way our audience perceived us. Gauging their comfort level to return was difficult, and we took—and continue to take—a lot of criticism from the anti-mask side.
The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire
Switching to an online registration/pre-payment system, which we love, but communicating the ins and outs of that system is still prone to misunderstanding. From finding the right ways to spell out reservation steps to ensuring that the process doesn’t actually prevent people from visiting is a big concern. We try to mitigate any difficulty by making sure guests can reserve their spots quickly and easily over the phone. We also offer a $0 option to simply reserve a date and time online and then pay at the door upon arrival making the museum more accessible to people using EBT cards or free passes.
The Children’s Museum at Saratoga
Money. Social media basically costs time and is accessible to everyone, but content can easily get lost in the ocean of posts, especially ones with broad and popular appeal. Utilizing other forms of communication, such as radio ads that better target our core demographics would be great, but many of them are out of our price range. We have explored the idea of geofencing, but again, the cost of initiating and running both options long enough to gauge response is an investment outside a budget focused on the more immediate needs of our audience, donors, and sponsors.
Discovery Center Museum
Internal: Training new staff and keeping them up to date as our policies change. Several key staff positions vacated during COVID have not been filled. It has been challenging for our small staff, often taking on new duties, to get the communication they need to be effective and feel well connected to the organization.
External: With a reduced budget, maximizing communications to help rebuild our membership base, communicate changing mask, capacity, and reservation policies, and marketing classes and events.
Reaching new audiences in an increasingly crowded digital communications space. We have revitalized existing communications methods and launched new systems, but new audience growth is happening at a slower pace than pre-pandemic levels.
The Iowa Children’s Museum
Sharing our nonprofit mission and looking for more ways to communicate all the ways we serve our community. Many local residents see the museum as more of an “indoor playground in the mall” and are unaware that we provide accessible, educational play opportunities in our museum and outside our walls.
KidsQuest Children’s Museum
KidsQuest is much more than just a physical space so it’s tough to keep our followers up to date on all we have going on—from in-museum programs, to outreach, to our work in the community and with community partners—without confusing or overwhelming them with messages.
Mighty Children’s Museum
Attracting new visitors! We hear the phrase “I didn’t even know this place was here” far too often. In a small town, this comment makes us wonder how we can attract (and keep) our online visitors, but we would like everyone who is liking or following our pages to step foot inside our doors!
Mississippi Children’s Museum
With so much happening at the museum, it can be difficult to find the line between keeping our followers informed and overwhelming them with too much content.
The Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum
Staff time. We are only seven years old and lots of people in our community don’t know we are here, or even what a children’s museum is!
Please Touch Museum
Keeping up with changing social media algorithms. Right now, Instagram Reels are important for engagement, but will they be in six months? Reels require significantly more work to create than photo-driven posts, which formed the majority of our previous posting plan.
Getting engagement on our posts, particularly when we ask viewers to share something in the comments. We have a significant follower count on our platforms, but they are not active commenters, which hurts our organic reach.
We monitor our social media posts and catch problems before they go too far, but it is so easy for messages to be taken out of context and publicly disseminated to hundreds at the click of a button.
Brooklyn Children’s Museum
You have to give people what they want—and quickly—or they move on. At the beginning of COVID we experimented with digital-only programming, including short videos for YouTube and public broadcast television. As wonderful as these experiments were, it showed us that our biggest fans aren’t looking for that, at least not from us. They want one-of-a-kind programs and performances they can experience in-person to form lasting memories and be exposed to entirely new ideas and ways of life. Reopening to visitors and resuming regular hours and live cultural festivals reminded us how essential it is to align all of our content—in-person and online—with our audience’s desires. Don’t fight uphill battles—focus on giving people what they want.
Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose
We are more resilient than we thought we could be with reduced staff. Different kinds of content can work well on organic versus paid. For example, text graphics don’t typically do well on our organic social, but event text graphics do very well on paid social.
The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire
Spending more time crafting content doesn’t always translate to more views. Don’t be afraid to be silly and human. Not in a million years would I have predicted having to defend a museum health and safety policy like mask wearing. We learned when to respond to comments, when to let extreme opinions sit without response among more balanced opinions from other followers, and when to turn off comments if things get out of hand!
The Children’s Museum at Saratoga
How much tracking of an individual’s habits and locations takes place. Useful from a marketing standpoint, but it really opened my eyes to just how much information about you is out there.
Discovery Center Museum
How TikTok has grown and been utilized by museums.
Although social media has been a primary vehicle for organizations to self-promote and share information for the last decade, the ways in which different age groups engage with it remains incredibly varied. For some, following organizations to stay in the know is second nature, while others need to be directed to our social media accounts by other means, such as televised promotions and word of mouth.
The Iowa Children’s Museum
The quick shift to video content! We have a lot of work to do in order to keep up with this new emphasis on TikTok/Reels videos.
KidsQuest Children’s Museum
Our followers are invested in the community and engage particularly well with posts about Black Lives Matter and BIPOC-focused stories about individuals or organizations.
Mighty Children’s Museum
How accessible we can be. We can post changes to programming and daily experiences virtually; we can even convert programs to solely online offerings through Facebook live or posted videos if we need to. The pandemic accelerated our skills in using online platforms to deliver both messages and content.
Mississippi Children’s Museum
How much things change in such a short amount of time! Staying up-to-date on social media trends is a challenge in this digital age.
The Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum
The posts that you think would do really well aren’t always the ones that do. Sharing pictures from programs doesn’t do well. Sharing from other sources does (but not reliably). We shared a Cuddlebug post that did really well.
How can we secure nonprofit donor status for our Facebook page so that we can build a donation page? We have provided the necessary information but we keep getting rejected and can’t reach anyone to figure out why.
Brooklyn Children’s Museum
What’s next (besides TikTok)? How to succeed in a digital world that is becoming more privacy-minded, where users are allowed to opt-out of analytics?
Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose
Any tips on the fastest and most efficient ways to create blogs and other longer-form content? So worth it, but so time-consuming.
The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire
Is it really worth the money to advertise consistently on Facebook and Instagram? Should it be worked into your annual budget or can you get away with “here and there” event-related boosting?
The Children’s Museum at Saratoga
What is the best way to monitor how social media posts impact real world results? How can I find out how many people came to an event because of our social media posts?
Discovery Center Museum
For small marketing departments with limited staff and resources, which social media platform(s) should we focus our attention on?
With social media platforms maturing from purely social networks into ones geared towards monetization, what are your predictions and recommendations for platforms yielding the most organic audience growth, brand content growth, and audience engagement with museums?
The Iowa Children’s Museum
Given the ongoing shifts in social media platform usage, especially for younger generations, what are the most effective ways to reach today’s parents of young children?
KidsQuest Children’s Museum
How to continue to grow our followers and up our engagement with them in an authentic way.
Mighty Children’s Museum
How to reach more followers and keep our news on the top of social media pages. The current algorithms make it incredibly difficult to continue to see up-to-date info.
Mississippi Children’s Museum
Which social media platform do you think is the best to invest in as a children’s museum?
The Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum
How does social media marketing translate to getting people in the door? How do you know/track this?
Please Touch Museum
With so many social media platforms and limited staff bandwidth, is it better to go wide—maintaining a presence on many platforms with fewer posts—or to go deep—creating a lot of good content for fewer platforms? What platforms are on the horizon to reach young parents that we aren’t thinking about yet?
The latest issue of Hand to Hand, “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” is now available! Read each article here on the ACM blog, and find the full issue PDF in the Hand to Hand Community on ACM Groupsite.
This issue delves into how children’s museums are exploring climate-related issues experienced by the communities they serve. Pieces share ideas and strategies around how our institutions can help children and caregivers learn the facts in age-appropriate ways while developing the skills needed to adapt to a changing world.
Read the issue!
Children’s Museums and Climate Change
Talk, Act, Hope: Pushing Together to Save Us from the Effects of Climate Change
A Conversation with Katharine Hayhoe, PhD, along with Jonathan Patz, MD
In this interview led by Brenda Baker, Madison Children’s Museum, leading climate experts discuss the challenges that prevent climate action, and how using your voice and focusing on health and wellbeing can help mitigate these challenges.
Building a Climate of Hope
The Natural History Museum of Utah utilized research, expert advice, evaluation, and exhibit prototyping to create their forthcoming exhibit, A Climate of Hope, which will empower visitors to take meaningful climate action in their communities.
Science from the Past and for the Future: Learning from Indigenous Knowledge for Climate Change Adaptation
Lauren Butcher and Rachel Zollinger
Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum is developing at-home STEM activity cards that highlight local Indigenous peoples’ Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), showcasing how traditional practices effectively utilize science and engineering principles.
Seeing the Future and Taking Steps to Get There
After first articulating its commitment to environmental sustainability in 2007, Discovery Museum has worked to “walk the talk,” with a framework of sustainability commitments, and turn its vision into reality, using data to develop concrete goals and actions.
How to Engage a Community in Fire Season Education
The Discovery in Reno, Nevada, is utilizing its Spark!Lab Smithsonian gallery to teach families about fire season while engaging them through play, with support from community leaders and resources.
Learning from Nature, Not Only about It
A Conversation with Billy Spitzer and Al DeSena, interviewer
In this conversation, former National Science Foundation program officer Al Desena interviews Billy Spitzer, executive director of the Hitchcock Center of the Environment in Amherst, Massachusetts, about how children’s museums can engage with the domain of climate change. A recording of this live interview is also available.
Building Sustainability, Inside and Out
With a commitment to sustainability solidified in its 2020-2025 strategic plan, the Museum of Discovery and Science has hired an environmental sustainability manager, created educational programming focused on sustainability and resilience, and more.
When to Begin? Early Memories Build the Foundation for Environmental Learning
Charlie Trautmann, PhD
By understanding the basic elements of how human memory works, museum professionals can design for the types of memories they want children and families to have when developing experiences related to climate science topics.
For Our Children, the Planet, and Our Budgets: Museums Learn to Manage Energy
Stephanie Shapiro and Sarah Sutton
The co-founders of Environment & Culture Partners share how Culture Over Carbon, a new research project to improve the museum’s field understanding of energy use, will help museums plan for the future.
Climate Action Heroes in the Museum, Online, and Soon at Dulles Airport
Langley Lease and Paige Childs
With input from educators and experts, National Children’s Museum’s Climate Action Heroes framework empowers young activists to defeat climate “villains” while exploring the science behind climate change.
Rebounding through Making and Tinkering
Rachel Daigre, Cate Heroman, and Alexandra Pearson
As a regional hub for MakerEd’s Making Spaces program, Knock Knock Children’s Museum uses making and tinkering experiences to support the emotional needs of children during traumatic events and help deepen their knowledge and understanding of weather-related events.
|This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
By Lisa Thompson, Natural History Museum of Utah | University of Utah
A Climate of Hope is the working title we’ve adopted for a new exhibit on climate change under development at the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU). Like our colleagues at natural history and science museums around the world, NHMU is shifting away from an older, more data-driven approach to climate change exhibits (also known as the “doom and gloom” approach—largely focused on the dire nature of the crisis). As our working title suggests, our goal is to create an exhibit that inspires hope and empowers visitors to take meaningful climate action in their communities.
This article highlights a few of the “guiding principles” shaping the content and design of our exhibit that we have learned from research on effective climate communication, consultation with wonderful advisors, front-end evaluation with visitors, and evaluation of a full-scale cardboard prototype of the exhibit. Although our exhibit is not aimed specifically at young children, we hope some of these ideas will be useful in exploring how children’s museums can create hopeful, empowering experiences that support children and families.
Some inherent challenges come with tackling climate change in an exhibit. Even a title mentioning climate change could turn away visitors whose political identity tells them, “This exhibit isn’t for me,” as well as people who are worried the exhibit will add to the anxiety and stress they already feel about climate. In contrast, other audiences may not have strong feelings about climate change or perceive its personal relevance because it seems remote in time and distance, a problem for other people far away in the future.
One key idea that emerged from our initial dive into the rich body of climate communication research was the importance of “side doors.” When tackling a polarized issue like climate change, side doors frame the issue in ways that aren’t clearly marked as belonging to one partisan group. They focus on shared values that resonate across groups with diverse perspectives and create a space for taking action together. Talking with local organizations working on climate solutions and our visitors in a front-end evaluation helped us identify some of the side doors that resonate with Utah audiences.
At the top of the list is Utahn’s deep concern about the impact of the poor air quality in many parts of the state on their health. While the greenhouse gases that cause climate change and the particulates and ozone that damage our health are distinct, they are often emitted by the same sources. For example, focusing on how measures that improve Utah’s air quality can also reduce greenhouse emissions offers a side door to climate action. Other side doors that resonate with our audiences include concern about the decline of Utah’s famous snow that supports our ski industry, a strong tradition of emergency preparedness that could carry over into creating climate resilient communities, and the opportunities for Utah to benefit economically from developing and implementing climate solutions.
The local nature of these side doors reflects another key idea that emerged from our research—the power of telling local stories to make climate change immediate and relevant for our audiences. While melting glaciers and rising sea levels seem remote to many Utahns, stories that demonstrate local climate impacts in relatable ways made a big impression on visitors in our prototype exhibit. For example, one story in the prototype that visitors often discussed illustrated Utah’s warmer, shorter winters with a historic photo of ice skaters on a well-known park pond that rarely freezes today. The prototype also offered visitors a chance to share their own observations of local climate impacts and what they mean for them at a talk-back station.
Stories about the many existing, feasible climate solutions already being implemented in communities around Utah also connected with prototype participants. They expressed excitement, surprise, and pride upon discovering the numerous efforts underway in Utah along with some of the innovative ideas in development. Focusing on solutions is another key principle of effective climate communication. Solutions, after all, offer hope and inspiration. Stories about people implementing effective solutions also serve to counter common misperceptions our visitors expressed in our front-end evaluation—“Nobody is doing anything” and “Solutions don’t exist yet”—which serve to discourage and disempower.
Our front-end evaluation with visitors provided important context for developing our exhibit. When we asked participants how thinking about climate change made them feel, they predominantly expressed discouragement, fear, anger, confusion, and other negative emotions. Their responses reflect the growing number of people who report experiencing climate anxiety or climate grief. However, according to research in psychology, fear and uncertainty can shut down our ability to act.
A growing number of climate communication researchers emphasize the importance of acknowledging the powerful emotions climate change evokes, helping people understand how their emotions impact their ability to act, and emphasizing that taking action can lead to feeling more hopeful. This approach presents hope as a practice to be cultivated, not something you can obtain simply by wishing for it. As Dr. Katharine Hayhoe explains: “Hope doesn’t come to me if I just sit there waiting for it to show up.”
In A Climate of Hope, we are seeking ways to explicitly address the emotional component of climate change and give visitors a chance to share their feelings through an interactive, which will have a therapeutic or cathartic quality. The exhibit will also introduce visitors to the idea of hope as an outcome of action. One idea we are considering is a set of short “TikTok” style videos of community members responding to the prompt, “What gives me hope…” with a description of the action they are taking.
Both the front-end evaluation and exhibit prototype showed that visitors were extremely interested in knowing what actions they could take to reduce climate change. In fact, in the prototype it was clear that visitors expected—almost demanded—to learn about what individual actions they could take in their daily lives in an exhibit about climate change. While individual actions can be a good start, climate science indicates that they aren’t sufficient for addressing a problem that requires systemic change. Plus, placing the onus of addressing climate change on individuals—especially through their consumer choices—fosters “climate guilt” and is inequitable to those who can’t afford those choices.
A Climate of Hope will seek to provide visitors with a different set of tools for taking meaningful action. We envision opening the exhibit with an immersive interactive that engages visitors in imagining a future where humans and nature thrive in a changing world. Many visions of the future related to climate change in our culture are dystopian if not apocalyptic. Several climate communication scholars are emphasizing the need for new cultural stories that help us know what we’re aiming for and envision paths to getting there. Even the very low-tech version of the interactive we created for the prototype was compelling for visitors, and many reflected on the content of the videos during their wrap-up discussion.
The prototype also included a Venn diagram that provided visitors a framework for thinking about how they could take action at the community level—a level at which actions have more possibility of affecting systems change. Our goal is to encourage visitors to take the next step beyond individual actions to actions in their networks that still feel personally relevant and achievable. The three circles of the Venn diagram contained a set of questions visitors could answer to identify ways they could act:
We realized that this framework would be a significant shift from the messages focused on individual actions most visitors are accustomed to receiving. We were pleasantly surprised that many prototype participants called others over to the Venn diagram to discuss it and mentioned it in their conversation with evaluators.
One individual-level action the exhibit will highlight is talking about climate change with family and friends—not to persuade or debate, but to listen and share. Surveys from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication indicate that more than 70 percent of Americans are worried about climate change, but only 35 percent talk about climate change even occasionally. Talking about climate change is critical for processing our emotions, imagining and telling new stories about our future, and finding and building networks for community action. Climate communicators have developed great resources outlining how to have a constructive climate conversation.
While visiting the prototype, several parents asked for resources on talking with their children about climate change. We are just beginning the process of developing family resources for the exhibit. We are considering the approach of encouraging families to focus on building the social and emotional skills we all need for being resilient, such as empathy, talking about our feelings (especially when we’re worried), and working together to tackle big problems. Because children’s museums excel at creating experiences that foster the development the social and emotional skills for resiliency, they are already doing important climate solutions work.
Other climate communication approaches align well with the strengths of children’s museums and could even be worked into existing exhibits and programs. For example, stories about local people and organizations working to implement climate solutions fit naturally with exhibits about the people who make our communities safer, healthier, and stronger. Activities that invite children and their caregivers to imagine the future of their community could include challenges for designing new kinds of climate adaptations. And children’s museum could host activities or partner with other organizations to connect families with opportunities to take action in their community, such as planting trees or community gardening.
Children’s museums are well-situated to play an important role in building a climate of hope that empowers children and their caregivers to take meaningful climate action and develop the resilience and empathy we’ll need to navigate climate change. We’re excited to see how you do it.
Lisa Thompson has worked as an exhibit developer at the Natural History Museum of Utah at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City since 2013. Prior to this, she managed Public Programs teams at NHMU and Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Building A Climate of Hope Resource List
A short and by-no-means-comprehensive list of climate communication resources to get you started.
Organizations with great research and tools:
Voices for hope:
Climate Communication in action:
|This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
By Lauren Butcher and Rachel Zollinger, Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum
How can we equip our children for climate change? One way is to look to long-established knowledge of climate and place. Since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have made their homes in New Mexico’s arid lands, experiencing climate events such as extreme drought and devastating wildfires. At Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum, we are developing at-home STEM activity cards that highlight local Indigenous peoples Traditional Eco-logical Knowledge (TEK) around water conservation, forest management, and living within arid conditions. The cards showcase how traditional practices have effectively utilized science and engineering principles—and continue to do so.
One exemplar STEM activity card focuses on waffle bed gardening. This water conservation technique arose independently in cultures living in arid lands around the world, including in the Southwest, where Diné (Navajo), A:shiwi (Zuni), Zia, and Laguna peoples use waffle bed gardening to grow corn, beans, squash, and other crops. The card provides instructions on how to construct a simple waffle bed by digging out a small square of earth and building walls around the edges. The bottom of the square is filled with gravel, sand, or mulch to prevent evaporation. Water is poured directly inside the square. The activity fosters science and engineering practices by asking children to meet challenges and test different variables: what would happen to the damp soil in the square if the walls were taller or the square was deeper? How might more gravel, sand, or mulch affect the evaporation? What soil composition makes the strongest wall?
STEM activity cards are a way to share education resources on a range of topics for at-home learning, a pathway Explora has utilized for reaching individuals and communities outside the museum. Climate-focused cards invite young children to play with ever-fascinating water, soil, and rocks in the new context of positive climate change solutions. They provide an arena for family conversations by promoting an interactive play experience. The cards encourage children and their families to expand their conversations to include local knowledge holders such as traditional gardeners, farmers, and elders. Climate change is a community concern, and the cards prompt families to look to community assets to address it. The Southwest is projected to experience more intense drought and storms as a result of climate change. Proven agricultural and land management techniques developed in response to extreme natural weather patterns are especially effective for adapting to the region’s future.
Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum will continue to work with community partners across New Mexico to develop STEM Activity Cards that highlight both conventional and indigenous science-based climate mitigation strategies so the next generation will continue to adapt and thrive. We would like to acknowledge our funding from IMLS Planting Seeds of STEM, the NISE Network Earth & Space Project-Based Professional Learning Community, and the IMLS Howtosmile At-Home Activities project for the development, printing, and translation of the cards.
Lauren Butcher is school and community programs manager and Rachel Zollinger is an educator at Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
|This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
By Neil Gordon, Discovery Museum
The news about climate change, the environment, and the state of our planet is frightening and discouraging. In the face of it all, how do we create hope? John Fraser, noted conservation psychologist, has stated that a focus on solutions and actions can reduce fear and increase hope. And hope, Fraser says, “is a targeted way of seeing the future and taking steps to get to that future.”
Children’s museums are all about hope for the future, but actions to fight climate change that are environmentally positive have not been a focus for many of them. I share the experience of the Discovery Museum in the hope that any insights it yields will help us all take more action and inspire our visitors to do the same.
This year we are celebrating Discovery Museum’s fortieth year. Over the last decade, we have grown from two small museums into one large museum with pre-pandemic attendance over 200,000 and a $2.7 million budget. The museum has a strong focus on science and nature, with 4.5 acres of accessible, outdoor exhibit space adjacent to 180 acres of town-owned, wooded trails that we program. Connecting kids and families with nature and operating sustainably have long been important goals for us.
Discovery Museum first articulated its commitment to environmental sustainability in 2007. Asserting that “we are keenly aware of the interrelationships of humans and the natural world and our obligations to be good stewards of that world,” the organization adopted a vision statement to become “a premier community museum that embodies discovery learning and environmental stewardship.” Formal goals included becoming a “green” organization and encouraging others to take responsibility for the environment. Two years later, in 2009, a new Master Plan for Campus Expansion included a concept for building a new Environmental Discovery Museum featuring photovoltaic panels, a windmill, a composting area, and an aquifer recharge zone. Unfortunately, the 2008 recession forced the museum to focus almost exclusively on shoring up finances and building our audience. It was not until 2013 that the museum was in a place to contemplate a future campus renovation and initiate a capital campaign to fund it, this time with a focus on accessibility—by then, a pressing capital need and programmatic focus.
Over the last decade, our environmental work focused on the goal of connecting kids with nature, both to raise awareness and promote the physical and mental health benefits of outdoor play. In 2015, we hired our first Outdoor and Environmental Educator. The following year, we opened Discovery Woods, an award-winning, one-acre, fully accessible nature playscape and treehouse. With a goal of encouraging “every kid, every day, outside to play,” we also deepened our Backyard and Beyond program series to offer a range of year-round outdoor experiences for children of all ages and levels of comfort with outdoor play. Coinciding with the opening of our expanded and renovated, accessible building in 2018, we also changed our longtime tagline, “Hands On, Minds at Play,” to “Science. Nature. Play.” This change reflected our programmatic evolution, elevating our message that getting kids outside is a first step to developing an appreciation for the natural world and a sense of responsible stewardship of its resources.
We have also taken steps to advocate publicly for these values, including signing the We Are Still In (WASI) pledge, a joint declaration of support for climate action, signed by more than 3,900 CEOs, mayors, governors, tribal leaders, college presidents, faith leaders, health care executives, and others; joining America Is All In, a coalition to develop a national climate strategy; supporting the Town of Acton in declaring a climate emergency; becoming a member of the Acton Climate Coalition; and presenting programs addressing environmental topics through our Discovery Museum Speaker Series.
We have increasingly wrestled with how to take concrete steps to be visibly and demonstrably sustainable in our own operations as a key strategy for inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards.
Our actions—how we operate and what we model for the world around us—are as important and maybe even more so than what we strive to explicitly teach as a museum. W.E.B. Du Bois said, “Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” The environment we create, and what kids and families take from that, is an influential tool. The goal is to motivate families to adopt more sustainable viewpoints and practices at home, and support environmentally sound public policy. We wanted to more visibly “walk the talk” as a critical element of our educational approach.
Recognizing this, we knew we needed a plan.
One of the first things we decided to do was look for advice and guidance. We had lots of questions about scope, level of detail, what kinds of goals we should have, and even how we should define “sustainability” for our organization. Luckily, we had some prior experience working with Sarah Sutton, who helps places like ours through her organization Environment & Culture Partners. She provided positive feedback on our goals, an invitation to join with other cultural institutions as part of We Are Still In, and some great links to useful resources.
One especially useful resource for us was the WASI list of commitments. Sarah noted that others had used this list as a framework for creating their own sustainability plans. A white paper from Museums Australia had a very similar list. Based on a review of these examples, it made sense for us to follow their approach.
Our framework was built around a set of “commitments”:
The process for developing our plan was relatively simple and streamlined. Given our long commitment to environmental education, little discussion was needed about whether to formalize our goals and objectives. We moved straight to researching and producing a plan focused on action steps. Key to this was establishing the museum’s baseline environmental impact, which we did with the tremendous support of a skilled intern who self-described as a “sustainability geek.” With her help, we found answers to a range of questions. How much energy do we use, and in what ways? What level of greenhouse gas emissions do we produce? What does our water consumption look like? How many miles are we driving? How many deliveries do we get? How much waste do we generate? What are our cleaning supplies and the materials in our exhibits and programs made of? In what ways do we talk about the environment? And many more.
For some of these questions the data was readily available. Our utility company is very good about keeping track of our electricity, oil, and natural gas usage. Our water company was a bit trickier, as they do a poor job in regularly reading the meter. In some areas, no real good data source existed. For example, the waste collector empties the dumpster on a regular schedule, whether it is full or half empty.
There are a number of models that can estimate greenhouse gas emissions based on energy usage or miles driven; our goal was to find one that was relatively simple to use and easily available to us. The model used by our intern produced easy-to-understand visual representations of our greenhouse gas sources. This was useful for discussing our action steps with staff and the board, as it made the priorities much clearer.
One interesting data point stems from our being a suburban museum with effectively no public transportation option. Everyone (mostly) drives here, so we used visitor zip code data to come to a pretty good estimate of miles driven by our visitors. As it turns out, this is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions for the museum, and as you would expect, not the easiest to address.
We recognized that our data collection efforts were not perfect, but we decided rather than devote lots of time and resources to get perfect data, we would create objectives for filling in the blanks later. Even though our measures of progress would be less than precise, we were moving forward.
Our analysis of this imperfect data became the platform for the development of concrete goals and actions, and what we hoped were reasonable timeframes for accomplishing them. We also committed early on to implementing our plan transparently and allowing for flexibility as we make progress and learn along the way.
The most visible part of the plan is our project, to be completed in mid-2022, to produce solar electricity onsite to meet 100 percent of our campus energy needs—and then some. The plan also outlines our approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and becoming carbon neutral; reducing water usage; minimizing waste generation; investing sustainably; and advocating for climate action. All of this will support an environmental education effort that will connect kids and families with nature, help them learn in partnership with the natural world, and inspire them to advocate for sustainability—all in the fun, hands-on Discovery Museum way. The final plan includes 29 action steps, spanning all areas of museum operations, to be taken over the next several years. These actions include discrete tasks such as replacing pavement with permeable surfaces and redirecting stormwater to groundwater recharge. The plan also outlines goals for ongoing action, such as investing sustainably, building community partnerships to advance our environmental work, and advocating publicly for our values.
Implementation of our plan is now underway. We have created a Sustainability Plan Team made up of staff members throughout the museum who have primary responsibilities for one or more of the action steps articulated in the plan. The team meets monthly to review progress on each of the steps, share ideas or concerns in moving steps forward, and identify new or modified actions that we might take. In this way we have peer support and peer accountability for the plan, making sustainability more of an organizational norm.
The Sustainability Plan Team holds regular discussions on our progress, providing a good tool to address the built-in imperfections of the plan itself. For certain action steps, better ideas have emerged from the work together. The team has become comfortable with the idea that we are both implementing the plan and improving the plan at the same time.
A good example of this approach centers on our ideas about visitor vehicle emissions. The plan calls for the museum to implement a system of visitor-purchased carbon offsets as a means of mitigating the emissions, not eliminating them. The plan anticipated a mandatory approach as well as a significant visitor education component. The team realized, however, that the logistics of promoting, educating about, and collecting offsets would be challenging. We will likely need to implement the plan on a targeted basis first, such as to members, to work out the kinks. Efforts to address this biggest source of our greenhouse gas emissions continue.
Importantly, we also want to model external accountability. We engaged outside voices to review our plan drafts, adding perspective. The current version has been published on our website and shared across our audience with a request for feedback. The Board of Directors has formally approved and adopted the plan, and we have begun to recruit for an external Sustainability Advisory Group, which will conduct an annual review of our progress and report on recommendations for improvements and changes.
We recognize our vision will take time and resources and are honored that many have stepped up to help support our work. Most notably, the Sheth Sangreal Foundation has committed $1 million over the next five years to activate our sustainability and inclusion goals, and has challenged the community to match their investment in our plans. We will be asking everyone to join them in helping us leverage our culture of play-based learning to inspire families to help sustain our world.
It’s also important to note that we are approaching our sustainability work with full knowledge we must also be engaged in its intersections with racial and social justice. We know that the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately affect people with low incomes and people of color. And we know that access to the outdoors and nature-based learning experiences are less available to many. To us, becoming more sustainable is about more than just leaving our children a planet with adequate resources. It is also about achieving greater harmony in the present between the environmental, economic, and social outcomes—both locally and globally—of our choices and actions. We are therefore committed to pursuing our sustainability objectives in ways that also promote equity. In many ways, all of this is integral work for the museum. In other ways it is new and fresh, because we’ve made a renewed commitment to sustainability, made urgent by the world around us. We are energized and motivated and we hope others in our field will join with us, with combined, greater effect on both our communities and the natural world.
Neil Gordon has served as CEO of the Discovery Museum in Acton, Massachusetts since 2009.
|Financially Sound Solar
Once you decide that solar electricity is the right thing for your organization, the question quickly turns to: does it make financial sense? In the Discovery Museum’s case, we were pleasantly surprised by the financial sense that an investment in solar made.
We started with a very simple model in mind: we would fundraise for the cost of installation and use the annual electricity savings to support our environmental education programs. Thus, we would describe the investment in solar as an endowment of the programs. This idea made some sense pre-pandemic, but quickly looked silly in the face of needing to raise funds just to stay open. That led us to understand the economics in much more detail.
We quickly identified several companies that specialize in working with nonprofits on solar projects and chose to work with Resonant Energy, based in Boston. Resonant was able to show us a model of solar financing that involved “selling” the federal tax credits (obviously, we would not be able to use them directly), estimating our energy savings, selling excess electricity to other nonprofits at a discount, and maximizing other incentives (in our case, solar incentives offered by the state of Massachusetts). The access to the federal credits is a bit complicated and you’ll want a lawyer for that work, but it results in a 12 to 15 percent “savings” right off the top. Resonant was able to show a 25-year financial model that accounts for decreased production over time (we were surprised to learn that panels wear out), operating costs such as maintenance, changes in electricity rates, and so forth. To support our analysis, we put together a Solar Task Force of board and non-board experts that reviewed the modeling and evaluated our options.
The Solar Task Force was able to recommend to our board that the museum finance this project. With low interest rates and a good bank, we put in place a loan that should be paid back in about eleven to twelve years. The projected cash flow is positive in year one, thus actually meeting one of our original goals to support programs using the sun!
|This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
By Chris White, The Discovery
When I first moved out to Nevada from Maryland to join The Discovery team, one of the first phrases I had to get used to was “fire season,” the time of year when fires naturally occur in the drier parts of Nevada and other western states. Over the past few years, these fires have become more common, more intense, and more devastating.
Fire season is evolving faster than normal, and it’s drier now. We either get no rain or dumped on. Sometimes if there is no rain at all in the fall, we have to wait for winter snowfall to provide moisture. Fire season used to run for about three months, starting at the end of August; now it runs five to six months, starting end of June and going late into fall. The cycle is out of whack.
Fires happen often in remote mountain areas. Some are due to natural causes, such as lightning strikes, but some result from human activities, such as shooting, campfires, and cigarettes. In 2021, the Portola, California, fire burned just fifty miles away. Reno sits in a bowl—once smoke comes, it settles in for weeks. We can wait for a “Washoe wind” (a strong, late-day summer wind that blows from the west to southwest) to blow it away, or just sit tight until it dissipates. But in 2021, school was cancelled due to poor air quality, and people were warned to stay indoors and keep windows shut. Not everyone has air conditioning; it became a social issue.
Fire season isn’t all bad. It is a crucial part of the region’s ecosystem. The West wouldn’t be as beautiful or environmentally diverse without these fires. However, the fires are getting bigger and more destructive. According to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, over the past two years, California and Nevada have lost more than 6,000 square miles of land. For comparison, that is 80 percent of New Jersey’s landmass. As a science museum, our responsibility is to provide useful information about this climate-related change to our community while engaging and empowering them with that knowledge.
To that end, we have developed a three-part plan to help us create a vibrant and dynamic collaborative space within our existing Spark!Lab Smithsonian gallery, in which half of the gallery’s footprint will be dedicated to teaching families about fire season while still engaging them through play. Visitors will be able to meet community members to whom fire season matters most—instructors and graduate students from the University of Nevada, Reno, local firefighters (if they aren’t fighting fires…), and members of the Bureau of Land Management—and learn how they respond to this increasingly longer time of year.
We are also working with these key community members to create easy-to-understand infographics that visually convey what happened in past fire seasons compared to what is happening now. Infographics that not only describe what is happening, but why will be placed throughout Spark!Lab and in some parts of our Nevada Stories exhibition. For our family audience, messages will be directed primarily to parents in an effort to get them involved in the education process with their kids
The second part of the plan involves the creation of interactive, collaborative activities in which visitors work together to solve fire-related problems. The first will be a firefighting game where up to three visitors will assume the roles of community leaders tasked with managing assets affected by fire season. By pulling connected strings, they can work toward extinguishing as many fires as possible in the time allotted. Also under development is a tile-based, firefighting board game, similar to Catan (a popular electronic seafaring discovery game). In our game, one player is the wildfire, and the other player(s) try to contain the spread while each tries to fulfill roles within the community.
The final pillar of the plan will bring community leaders and stakeholders most involved in protecting our community during fire season to the museum for a “meet and greet.” We want our visitors to put a face to the heroes in our community who choose to take on this yeoman’s work. Visitors will hear firsthand the issues affecting our hometown and what these frontline experts think we can do to mitigate and manage what is happening.
It is hoped that fire season content, launched in Spark!Lab and periodically distributed among existing exhibits at The Discovery, may eventually become a portable exhibit available for outreach events or temporary installations in other community organizations and businesses.
Fire season is an integral part of what makes the West special. But for many reasons, the fires have begun to take more than they previously provided and more than we can replace. It falls to us to educate ourselves and our community if we hope to pass the beauty of living in this spectacular environment on to future generations.
Chris White is The Discovery’s Spark!Lab Smithsonian Coordinator. Prior to joining the team at The Discovery, Chris worked at the original Spark!Lab in Washington, DC, which is part of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation located in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
|This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
Billy Spitzer, executive director of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst, Massachusetts, is a member of the coordinating team for the Action for Climate Empowerment National Strategic Planning Framework and a member of the leadership board for the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network. Before coming to Hitchcock Center in August 2021, he was vice president for learning and community at the New England Aquarium in Boston, where for more than twenty years he applied learning and social science research across education programs, exhibits, visitor experience, and community outreach. He served as principal investigator for numerous informal science education projects funded by the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Institute for Museum and Library Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency. These include a series of projects focused on public engagement on climate change, including the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation. With more than thirty years of experience developing and implementing science education programs, exhibits, and materials, he has been recognized by the White House as a Champion for Change for engaging the next generation of conservation leaders.
Al DeSena retired in 2019 after fourteen years at the National Science Foundation, where he was a program director in the Advancing Informal STEM Learning Program.
Listen to a recording of this live interview!
AL: For years, children’s museums have provided experiences for children and their families pertaining to nature, the weather, the earth, the environment, etc. But now, given the considerable global attention to climate change, worldwide loss of biodiversity, a green economy, and environmental justice, many children’s museums have been considering what opportunities they should be providing for their audiences to improve the knowledge and skills that affect their individual lives and humanity in general.
What are the overarching questions behind the important decisions that children’s museums are wrestling with on this topic? How are these decisions affected by the implications of the last two years of the pandemic as museums move forward?
BILLY: Having worked in the science education field for a long time, my interest has always been: How do we give people in a participatory democracy the scientific understanding, tools, and ways of engaging that are critical to enabling us as a society, not just as individuals, to make good decisions and pursue the right courses of action? About twelve years ago, at New England Aquarium, we were wrestling with the most important issues facing the ocean. Climate change kept coming up as a major issue in the zoo and aquarium world, which I think went through what the children’s museum and science museum world is going through now: if we really care about the future, what issues do we need to address in our public programs and exhibits?
We realized that we needed to start working with other aquariums and zoos to figure out how to talk about climate change. We started with the fundamentals: trying to understand the science—and the communication science—better, and then looking for what kind of interventions would make sense. Should we be developing educational materials? New exhibits? What would be the most effective way to get going? We settled on exhibit interpretation as the place to start. It’s harder to change physical exhibits, but it’s a lot easier to work with staff. We started a collaborative program to help educators and interpreters at aquariums and zoos talk about climate change in a way that was true to the science, but also reflected what we know about effective communication. Over time this collaboration grew into a national network that exists to this day with about 400 highly-trained climate communicators in thirty-eight states across the country who have, in turn, trained about another 40,000 informal educators and other communicators in the last ten years. Children’s museums are at an interesting point now: new issues are impinging on child development—climate change being one, and the pandemic and related health issues being another.
AL: How does your work at the Hitchcock Center—and previously at the aquarium—relate to children’s museums that primarily serve families with younger children?
BILLY: The Hitchcock Center started almost sixty years ago as a traditional nature center. Committed to focusing on sustainability, in 2016 they built what’s called a “living building,” and also committed to working on climate change and environmental justice. That new direction drew me out here last year. Like a lot of museums, the center is focused on education, particularly for children. We do programs for adults, but we have a really strong set of programs for kids from preschool to high school, along with afterschool and homeschool programs, summer camps, and leadership programs for teens, including a climate summit program. A lot of our programs are analogous to what you’d find at a children’s museum. We have a small nature exploration center inside the physical facility. So, in many ways, this place looks and feels like a lot of children’s museums.
AL: How might children’s museums define or frame the actual domain of climate change and what activities it entails? Should they be thinking about it as a way to develop systems thinking in children? What does it mean to learn from nature instead of about it?
BILLY: I think dealing with climate change is about shifting our perspective from thinking of it as a science or environmental issue to thinking of it as a societal issue, a social challenge. You can think about it as a crisis of public health, as an issue of social and environmental justice, as an issue related to developing a future workforce and building healthy and resilient communities. All of those perspectives are important to consider when framing the subject of climate change and a museum’s role in relation to it.
Once you start diving into climate change as an issue, it becomes not so much about learning climate content, but more about developing the skills, habits of mind, attitudes, and behaviors that will enable us collectively to find a path forward in terms of what we need to do to both mitigate and slow down climate change and also adapt to it. Systems thinking is a great example of that approach. Young kids are natural systems thinkers; educators can cultivate that skill. Kids are also very natural problem-solvers. And we need creative and hopeful problem-solvers to help us work our way through all that we need to do to respond to climate change.
At the Hitchcock Center, we’ve been focusing on moving from learning about nature to learning from nature, using the principles of ecological design, like those we used to design our living building, to help us design better human systems.
AL: Many children’s museums are wondering whether they should engage in the climate change domain at all. What are some of the major factors that are important to consider when museum leaders are deciding whether their organizations should get into it?
BILLY: Start with your organization’s mission: what does it tell you? A lot of museums, and a lot of children’s museums in particular, have strong community-based missions. What are your community needs in relation to climate change? Who is already working on this issue that you could talk to, learn from, and partner with? What do you know about what’s going on in your own community around climate? What are public attitudes? What is the general level of knowledge people have? Where are the gaps?
The Yale Project on Climate Communication, a great resource, offers a wealth of data on public knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors around climate. People are often surprised by the fact that the vast majority of the public understands climate change is a problem, is looking for help in figuring out what to do about it, and often look to places like museums for those answers.
Understanding the readiness levels of both staff and your board is also really important. If you’re facing a lack of readiness in either group then you need to figure out how you’re going to work on that. But again, there are probably a lot of good resources in your community already, including community organizations or public health agencies. Many cities and towns have climate action plans. Figure out what’s already happening and where can you connect to it.
AL: How can children’s museums customize their programs based on what they know about their audiences? Visitors of different ages, knowledge, abilities, interests, skills, cultural backgrounds, etc.?
BILLY: There’s a mantra from environmental educator David Sobel, “No global disasters before 4th grade.” Years ago, kids learned about the rainforest before they learned about their own backyards. You have to start with where your audience is already in terms of environmental education—what kind of prior experiences do they have, what are they interested in, what kind of questions are they asking—and respond to that. In the case of climate, you don’t want to start with, “Well, here’s what’s happening to the planet.” Instead, “Here’s what’s happening that you can see and observe.”
You can introduce systems thinking at many different ages or levels of sophistication and depth. For example, if you’re talking about a squirrel, how do you help kids understand that it’s not just about a squirrel, but it’s also about the acorns and the trees and the forest, and what other animals are like squirrels. How do squirrels relate to chipmunks? What do squirrels eat, and what eats them? Where do they fit in the big picture? Using that perspective to look beyond an individual animal or phenomenon and think about the bigger system, is the skill you need eventually to understand what’s happening with the climate system and how it interacts with ecosystems and with us.
Finally, what worldviews are your audiences coming with? They might not be all come from a western scientific or cultural worldview. What cultural backgrounds are your audience coming from, and how do you incorporate these different perspectives? These aren’t new ideas to people working in children’s museums: the same principles that apply to good child education in general apply to climate education.
AL: In your programs at the Hitchcock Center, what different approaches do you use for preschool kids vs. kids who are nine years old, for example?
BILLY: At all age levels, but particularly at younger levels, we incorporate a multi-sensory approach, combining experiential and tactile learning with social and emotional learning. For really young kids, it’s important to foster physical comfort in the natural world. An affective connection and appreciation are really, really important ingredients to build on. But if you’re working with older kids who haven’t had much experience with nature or environmental education, you need to start there.
AL: Are there particular experience formats that might be more appropriate to children of different ages or cultural backgrounds? The Hitchcock Center’s tagline is “Education for a Healthy Planet.” What kinds of learning experiences relate to that basic idea?
BILLY: Things often overlooked are the aspects of an experience that you provide that are not necessarily what you consider formal parts of the program. Take our building’s composting toilets, a wonderful example of how nature never wastes anything. Kids—especially young kids—are incredibly fascinated by them. They often go home and when their parents ask, “well, what did you do today?” that’s what they talk about first. Kids who spend a lot of time at the center end up taking it all for granted. Of course, you get your energy from the sun and your waste gets recycled, and that’s just how things work.
In our programs, the games may change depending on the age level, but the concept of play and using the arts as a form of expression are common threads all the way through. Although language abilities and attention spans differ by age, kids’ interests are quite similar. Activities that we’ve done with young kids come back in a slightly different format with older kids. Maybe the program is a bit longer and the level of depth is a bit greater, but some of the same program formats work across a wide range, whether it’s an afterschool format or a summer camp format. As kids get older, we emphasize learning and applying their learning to some kind of community action. As kids get into the teen years, we focus on programs that develop leadership skills. We participate in the Youth Climate Summit, where we bring teams together to learn how to create climate action plans and programs and projects in their schools. So, staff-led preschool programs eventually lead to youth-led work.
AL: At what age do you think that the approach should align with what kids are hearing on TV or other media about climate crisis? There are reports of many kids experiencing anxiety about it.
BILLY: Unfortunately, there have been more and more reasons to figure out how to help kids process really scary and difficult things, from terrorist attacks to school shootings, pandemics, climate change, disasters and so on. Often, the first thing kids want to know is, “Am I safe? Is my family safe? Are we going to be OK right now?” Usually the answer is yes, and it’s really important to provide that reassurance.
And then listen to what kids are asking about rather than just dumping a lot of information on them. They’re not necessarily asking about the same things that are on an adult’s mind. From educators, to interpreters, to visitors—kids and adults—fostering hope and self-efficacy are the keys to keeping people motivated and involved. The idea isn’t to ignore the problems, but to understand that collectively we have the power to change things. We can be creative problem-solvers and come up with collective solutions. If we see things in the world that we don’t like or don’t think are right, we have the power to change them. That’s really a critical attitude to cultivate in people of all ages, but particularly young people.
AL: Are there strategies you might suggest to children’s museum professionals for how they might make timely adjustments to the conditions of our fast-changing world, and in particular to challenges their communities and regions might be facing?
BILLY: First, understand which things aren’t changing quickly. What is enduring? The kind of values you want to help promote in people, the kind of skills and habits of mind you want to develop and encourage, tend to be more durable than the latest crisis. Second, you should do this work alone. This is an opportunity to work with other organizations in your community that have their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening—people working on public health, social justice issues, poverty alleviation or racial and environmental justice. People working at the grassroots level, who see people facing daily challenges, and who are very focused on responding to those challenges. This gives you a very good perspective on which of today’s concerns are really important in the community around you.
AL: Circumstances are going to be quite different for different institutions at different locations and points in time, whether a hurricane has just gone through a region, or whether fires or a drought are dominant issues, as well as how active individual communities are in terms of being responsive to such things.
BILLY: There have been some wonderful examples of museums responding in times of need or crises, whether serving as physical places of refuge for people in the aftermath of natural disasters, or as places for COVID testing and vaccination clinics. There are all sorts of ways in which museums can participate in community and civic life which helps build trust and familiarity that can be really helpful the next time a crisis or controversial issue comes up.
AL: Ideas about climate change have evolved. Are we engaged in crisis mitigation or adaptation? Some geoscientists think we’re probably beyond the possibility of humanity to mitigate. We’re just going to have to learn how to adapt. How do you deal with local/global adaptation/mitigation issues?
BILLY: To mitigate or adapt is not a choice. We need to do both, and there are actions that meet the criteria for both. As people learn about what we need to do to prepare and adapt to all of the consequences of climate change, their reaction is, “Oh, my god, how are we going to do it? Is there anything that we can do to make it easier?” And then you start getting into mitigation: “Well, if we start shifting where our energy comes from and become more efficient, then we will have less to adapt to.”
There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “the best time to plant a tree is fifty years ago, but the second best time is today.” There is not the time for delay. This is a time for doing everything we can. We need a big transformation in how we operate as a society, as an economy. But a lot of the technology and resources we need are there—what’s not there is the political will. And that’s where public engagement is so critical.
We also need to work at a scale that’s bigger than the individual but smaller than the whole planet. Working at a community scale, where people have the strongest sphere of influence and can actually see change happen, feels doable. You can take advantage of the social diffusion of innovation and knowledge that tends to happen among people who have some kind of a connection, whether it’s a town, a neighborhood, a faith community, a school, a workplace, etc. And you can build from there—from local to regional to global. If you start with the global it tends to be really, really overwhelming and puts people off. It doesn’t enable you to cultivate that sense of self-efficacy as effectively.
AL: In the beginning of this discussion, you talked about staff training. Do you have any thoughts about the role of staff training and the best approaches to it?
BILLY: Education staff at museums—even more than exhibits or programs—are an incredible resource to help effectively engage the public. Because they can have the responsive and adaptive conversations, whether it’s with kids or adults, needed to develop human relationships. Educators can be very, very skilled at reading their audience and responding to their questions and interests. But to do that effectively on an issue like climate, you need to understand what effective communication looks and sounds like and develop the skills to do it.
In a project with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, originally funded by the National Science Foundation and now continuing with funding from NOAA and other sources, we developed an effective training model for acquiring these skills. The training program, which originally took about 100 hours, is now available as a “crash course” that takes about 25 hours and can be done online. We’re happy to partner and share that work with children’s museums.
But it’s not just about training, it’s also about building a supportive community of peer professionals, at your institution and at other institutions, so that when issues come up you can share resources, problem solve together, and give each other emotional support in what can sometimes be very challenging work. The network worked a lot with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Association of Science and Technology Centers to advance the state of the art in climate communications. Organizations like ACM can play a really important role in the same way.
AL: Some children’s museum they might say they don’t have sufficient in-house expertise to work successfully in the climate change domain. What recommendations do you have about possible collaborations that could bring the required expertise to the table to maximize their impact?
BILLY: Start locally: who can you work with? It could be another museum, your public health department, a university, or another community organization. If museum leadership is ready and willing, think about what kind of role you want to play. A museum can directly engage and educate the public, but it can also be a place for conversation, a forum for deliberative discussions to engage the public. Think about how you want to demonstrate sustainable practices at your institution. Or about how you want to partner with community organizations to help strengthen community resilience, which could be about climate, or it could also be about building social capital and social cohesion. Think about working with youth organizations to help cultivate youth leadership and advocacy in some form.
More broadly, think about how you want to work regionally and nationally, whether it’s with other children’s museums or other organizations to be part the larger public engagement movement around climate change. Over the past couple years, I have been working with what is now called the US ACE (Action for Climate Empowerment) Coalition, which focuses on a part of the Paris Agreement that’s focused on promoting public engagement, and not just reducing carbon emissions. We’ve started building a nationwide coalition of non-government actors who are involved in that kind of work to join those on the government side. There are a lot of opportunities for coalition building and collaboration at multiple levels.
AL: In seeking climate education collaborations, aside from the public health entities you mentioned, what other folks in the community should we be paying more attention to?
BILLY: Think about community organizations that are working on issues that you might not immediately think are climate-related. A lot of artists and arts organizations are interpreting climate issues. In my work at the Hitchcock Center, I’ve been talking to folks who are doing different kinds of community work—health, housing, economic opportunity, or food security. They’re really interested in the intersection of their work and climate and partnering with other groups like us to explore that. Children’s museums have some incredible assets as places that focus on holistic wellness and child development, and those are important resources to bring to the table. Once you start stating your interests and intentions, you find more and more people interested in exploring partnerships. Every time you talk to a potential partner, ask them, “Who else should be I talking to?” The number of contacts starts to grow exponentially. Cast a wide net.
AL: How does the issue of environmental justice factor into the work that you do?
BILLY: The intersection of climate and environmental justice issues is becoming more apparent. Who is disproportionately impacted by environmental issues, climate and other economic disparities, social risk factors, health risk factors? They’re all interconnected, and folks in the public health world really see that intersection systematically. A population with some vulnerability is likely to have multiple vulnerabilities in multiple areas. At the Hitchcock Center, we used Census data to identify populations facing a predominance of risk factors—economic, social, and health—and then overlaid them with the environmental and climate risk factors to help target who’s most important to reach first in terms of programming and partnerships. The unfortunate fact is that the populations who tend to bear the brunt of climate-related issues are the ones who can least afford to deal with it, and have done the least to contribute to the problem.
AL: Final thoughts?
BILLY: It’s clear we’re facing some really, really big challenges around climate, and as a society. This is the time for all of our institutions to think about stepping up to the plate and understanding how critical education is to a healthy and effective democratic society. This is our opportunity to think about how the work we do is so necessary and can become even more impactful. We have a high hill to climb but we can do this together. I’ve seen so much progress in the last few years in the aquarium and zoo field. Climate has gone from an issue that was rarely talked about to the norm. The children’s museum field can take heart in that and really get excited about working together.
|This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
By Lance Cutrer, Museum of Discovery and Science
The Museum of Discovery and Science (MODS) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has embarked on a journey to claim our position in the community as a leader in sustainability and resiliency. Our vision is to create a hub for learning, planning, and community discussion focused on tackling issues related to climate change. This comprehensive approach, built upon decades of environmental education and science-based learning, began at our founding in 1977 (when we were called the Discovery Center). In 1992, we opened our current location and took another step toward environmental education with the introduction of our EcoScapes exhibit. Still open today, an updated EcoScapes carries museum guests through the various ecosystems of South Florida to highlight the importance of a healthy natural environment. Our next step, in 2011, allowed us to enter the world of green building when we opened a 25-million-dollar expansion called the EcoDiscovery Center. The center, which doubled our public space, was designed to meet LEED Silver designation under the U.S. Green Building Council LEED rating system.
In 2019, CEO Joe Cox and the board of trustees built upon this long history and solidified our commitment to sustainability with our 2020-2025 strategic plan. Along with early childhood learning, health and wellness education, and physical science education, the strategic plan now incorporates environmental sustainability as the museum’s fourth content pillar. The new pillar has led us to take numerous industry-first steps. In addition to hiring our first ever environmental sustainability manager, MODS has begun the design process for a new permanent exhibit focused on addressing climate issues. We have also implemented new internships designed to educate youth on resiliency issues, and taken steps toward lowering our own resource footprint. To fulfill our vision to become a community hub for resilience and sustainability, MODS is joining forces with dozens of local partners and experts to bring the community together and show that large-scale action can show real results when addressing climate change.
Being more sustainable, focusing on more efficient building processes, and seeking green energy alternatives is not new. Many institutions have successfully undertaken such initiatives, often to great success. Like many others, we believe we must become good stewards of the Earth and address many issues to ensure that future generations inherit the same, or better, living standards currently available. These issues include carbon pollution, sea-level rise, extreme heat, more extreme weather events, environmental degradation, resource scarcity, and environmental justice. Our South Florida location is ground zero for negative outcomes related to all these issues. Hurricanes are predicted to become stronger, sea levels have already begun to rise, and extreme heat will put our most vulnerable stakeholders at risk. So, becoming more sustainable and resilient is an easy decision.
However, MODS is not embarking on a stealth or siloed operation. Leveraging our long history of institutional sustainability and green building practices and building on society’s trust in museums, we will actively involve as many stakeholders as we can to bolster the whole community. According to the American Alliance of Museums, people believe that museums, and especially science centers, are a highly credible source of information (Merritt, 2019). In addition, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that people trust science news from museums more than any other institution or news outlet (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2019). MODS wants to be a good steward of that trust and make positive change not only for the museum, but for the entire community. Through various education initiatives, the museum will focus on solutions to address the effects of climate change and lead museum guests, employees, and outside stakeholders to action.
Luckily, we are not starting from scratch. The City of Fort Lauderdale and, more broadly, Broward County, have already started research and policy implementation on a number of issues related to sustainability and resiliency. MODS is partnering with government and business interests to educate the community on climate issues and the solutions being implemented and developed, including the Broward County Resilient Environment Department and its Chief Resiliency Officer, plus the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance. This work is guided by the Broward County Climate Action Plan; a multi-disciplinary and inclusive document that focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emission and making sure communities are equally adapted to the changes coming through a warmer world.
Despite a global pandemic, with the creation of the new strategic plan in 2020 and the support of new and existing funders, MODS began several new sustainability initiatives.
In the summer of 2021, MODS invested in creating a new staff position, Environmental Sustainability Manager (ESM). Because of our education-first mindset and our mission to connect people to inspiring science, the position is appropriately housed in the education department. The ESM creates new educational programs and curricula focused on sustainability and resilience issues. They are also charged with incorporating these principles into existing educational offerings.
Along with educational goals, the ESM is also responsible for helping museum leadership manage the museum’s overall sustainability plans. From aiding in the design of a new resilience exhibit, to creating a Sustainability Action Plan, the ESM’s role at MODS crosses boundaries into exhibits, building operations, and procurement departments.
Because environmental sustainability is one of the museum’s four core pillars, a cross-departmental perspective and interdisciplinary cooperation are essential to create a good sustainability action plan. To this end, the museum has adopted a philosophy from the sustainable business world: the Triple Bottom Line (TBL), is an accounting framework that measures an organization’s success not only in terms of monetary success but includes positive outcomes in the environmental and social realms. To put it simply, the Triple Bottom Line endeavors to drive positive change for people, planet, and profit. As MODS continues to evolve toward higher levels of sustainability and resiliency, we plan to incorporate the TBL philosophy more and more into every day and strategic planning.
Since starting in the summer of 2021, the ESM began implementing educational programs centered on sustainability and resilience, the first being the Everglades EcoExplorer Internship, a paid internship intended to motivate high school students to become Environmental Ambassadors. EcoExplorer interns learn about the environment of South Florida, namely the Everglades, and how the natural resources of the community contribute to social health and prosperity. The students then become museum ambassadors, taking the knowledge they gain from field excursions and classroom experiences and delivering it to museum guests. This supports the internship program’s goal to help students develop their work readiness by teaching them professionalism and public speaking skills.
In addition, the ESM, with help from museum leadership and several community partners, has begun a monthly guest speaker series focused on careers in resilience. Through this series, interns gain valuable insight from professionals in the sustainability and resiliency arena and learn about a number of possible career pathways, including careers in public policy with local/state government or private consulting firms, careers in engineering and architecture specializing in building resilient infrastructure and green buildings, careers in education specifically focused on climate education and healthy ecosystems, and careers in scientific research to find the best solutions for adapting to a changing climate. In addition to sparking interest in new fields, the series will create future change-makers for our community. Following its first-year success, the Everglades EcoExplorer internship program will nearly double enrollment, growing from thirty interns in four high schools to fifty interns from eight high schools. In addition, we will be moving from paying the interns a set stipend to paying them an hourly wage to promote accessibility and equity.
Furthering our goal to become a hub for resilience and putting our outside spaces to better use, the MODS Food Forest was installed during the summer of 2021. The once simple grassy area surrounding our outdoor Science Park is now planted with saplings and seedlings of a plethora of tropical fruit trees and shrubs. This rejuvenated space was generously brought to life by our partner organization, Thrive Lot, a public benefit corporation that designs, installs, and maintains edible landscapes and forest gardens in collaboration with local master growers and skilled specialists. The Food Forest demonstrates our commitment to community-scale actions achievable through partnerships—we would not have been able to install the garden without them. Utilizing local knowledge through an organization called New River Gardens, Thrive Lot helps us maintain the Food Forest as well. The Food Forest is also a great example of an initiative that drives Triple Bottom Line positivity. Planet: Replacing grass with drought-tolerant plants means less maintenance and lowering irrigation needs means saving water. People: Carrying forward our mission of connecting more people to inspiring science, we are showing them where food comes from and giving them ideas on how they can do the same at home or in their neighborhood. Prosperity: The Food Forest has already garnered positive attention from community leaders and the local school district and has raised the profile of MODS as an organizational leader. Through their involvement in the Food Forest project, the ESM has become a new liaison for Broward County Public Schools (BCPS). Deepening this existing partnership allows MODS to collaborate with county educators to create impactful curriculum for both the county’s youth and MODS guests.
The partnership with BCPS is not limited to the Food Forest. MODS collaborates extensively with BCPS on many efforts; however, one event stands out for advancing sustainability and resiliency education: the Youth Climate Summit which will engage over 3,000 middle and high school students from all over the county on issues related to climate change. This upcoming summit is the fourth annual meeting and plans to expand on previous summits by offering two events: a virtual two-day conference and an in-person, in-depth climate solutions summit. Taking place this spring at MODS, the Youth Climate Summit will bring in local, regional, and national experts to lead sessions focused on solutions and how to take action, with a particular focus on environmental justice and inspiring youth to work toward fair and just solutions.
In leading a museum-wide transformation toward sustainability and resiliency, we see a bright, at times challenging, future. We are ready to adapt to the effects of a changing climate and lead our community to a better future by taking what we are already doing and expanding it one-hundred-fold.
At the center of our efforts lies a new permanent exhibit solely focused on resilience. Pathways to Resilience, now in the early stages of development, will occupy approximately 4,000 square feet on the museum’s first floor. This exhibit will aim to educate museum guests on current issues related to climate change and inspire them to take action of their own. By concentrating on solutions to local issues, such as water conservation, lowering individual carbon footprints, and learning how to successfully advocate on neighborhood issues, as well as highlighting aspirational actions across the world, we anticipate that guests will leave with concrete ideas of what they can do to address the issues that are most important to them. In addition to creating a new exhibit, we are also updating current exhibits with an increased focus on resiliency. These updates will key in on topics such as hurricane and extreme weather preparation in our Storm Center exhibit, the benefits of healthy ecosystems provide, like flood protection and natural cooling through shade, native species conservation in our Ecoscapes area, and the science of human-induced climate change in the Prehistoric Florida exhibit. These updates will align with messages in the new exhibit, creating a cohesive guest experience.
All building operations are also being evaluated to ensure internal systems are as efficient as possible. We are planning to expand the existing efficiencies of our LEED Silver designed Eco Discovery Center to the entire museum; the Sustainability Action Plan will detail steps to reduce energy, water, and waste and improve the indoor and outdoor experience for all stakeholders. Specific actions such as switching to all LED-powered lights, renewing our building envelope to ensure unwanted warm air isn’t leaking in, and installing low-flow water fixtures throughout the museum are low-hanging fruit we know will help us save resources. Going beyond these simple fixes will include developing a Sustainable Purchasing Policy and Green Cleaning Policy to ensure environmentally and socially favorable products are brought into the museum, installing more renewable energy generation on-site via solar, wind, or green hydrogen, and installing rainwater catch systems for outside irrigation needs. As MODS takes steps to bolster our own sustainability and resiliency, we will share our experiences and encourage as many community partners and stakeholder as possible to work together to drive positive change for TBL’s planet, people, and profit.
We have set a high bar for MODS: transform our community into one that is more resource responsible and able to bounce back from disruptions caused by a changing climate. But we will fail if we tackle this issue alone. We don’t have time for a world where individuals all try their hardest; we must work together to avoid catastrophic failure. We believe that museums have a unique power to bring communities together and lead them to a better tomorrow.
Lance Cutrer is the first environmental sustainability manager at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Prior to this, he was a middle school science teacher and educational coordinator for an environmental learning program.
|This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
By Charlie Trautmann, PhD, Cornell University
Many children’s museums are thinking about whether to introduce the difficult but increasingly important topic of climate science into their programs. They are looking for guidance not only on where to start, but does it make sense for their primary audience of very young visitors. Will preschoolers even remember anything about this complex and sometimes scary topic?
Whether the purpose of a visit to a children’s museum is education, relationship-building, entertainment, or some other goal, the visit often involves making memories. When museum professionals understand the basic elements of how human memory works, they can design for the types of memories they want children and families to have when developing experiences for their audiences.
Before we apply the science of memory to museums, it is helpful to understand the time element of memory. Psychologists use three timeframes when discussing memory: sensory, short term, and long term.
Sensory memory is ultra-short, ranging from a few milliseconds to seconds. Our five senses provide information continuously, and most of it cannot be processed fully or stored (Sperling 1963; Orey 2021a). The image of a giant robotic dinosaur, the sound of the spark from a Van de Graaff generator, or the voice of the staff member who asked us not to run are all sensory memories. Some sensory information does survive and moves to a different part of the brain, becoming retained in short-term memory.
Short-term memory, also called “active” or “working” memory, lasts for only 20-45 seconds (Miller 1956). We have a relatively small capacity to keep information in working memory, with a limit of five to nine items, and so after sensing something, we need to do something with the information, or it will be lost (Miller 1956).
Some short-term memories become preserved, or “consolidated,” into long-term memories (Dudai et al. 2015). Long-term memories can last a lifetime. However, since short- and long-term memories occur in different parts of the brain, a transfer of information is required. In many cases, consolidation takes place during sleep. Key Point #1: Getting adequate sleep promotes improved memory (Ruch et al. 2012).
To describe five common types of long-term memory, psychologists usually divide them into two groups: conscious and unconscious, as shown below in Figure 1 on preceding page (adapted from Saylor Academy 2012).
Conscious Memory: Conscious memory involves consciously recalling information, such as what that happened a minute ago, or last year, or what two plus two equals (Cherry 2020). Within this broad category, episodic memory is recalling specific personal events, such as the time, place, and description of something that happened to us. Can you remember your first kiss or the senior high-school prom? These are episodic memories. In contrast, a semantic memory is a piece of general knowledge that has no specific time or place associated with it, such as “dogs have four legs” or “grass is green.”
The two types of conscious memory interact: semantic knowledge often starts as a sensory experience and becomes an episodic memory for a period of time. The child who releases a blown-up balloon taped to a straw on a string experiences the phenomenon of jet propulsion, which might stick in her mind as an episodic memory for that day. Eventually the time and place will become lost to her, and the concept of Newton’s Third Law—that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”—will just become part of her general (semantic) knowledge about the way the world works.
On the other hand, episodic memory relies on our framework of semantic knowledge: the more we know about a subject, the more likely we are to be interested in further learning about it, paying attention to new sensory information that comes to us, and remembering it. The young boy who can watch birds at a window feeder during breakfast is much more likely to engage with an exhibit about the migration of birds at the museum. Key Point #2: Episodic memory and semantic memory can support each other.
Another important fact is that most humans have few episodic memories before the age of four or five. This universal phenomenon, called “infantile amnesia,” means that although children hungrily learn from the time of birth, young children are unlikely to reward their caregivers or museum educators with descriptions of their learning experiences.
Unconscious memory: In contrast to conscious memories, unconscious memories, also called “implicit” or “automatic” memories, are those that we don’t think about on a conscious level (Squire and Dede 2015). These kinds of memories are also important, because they influence our actions and behavior. Three primary types of implicit memories are of particular interest to museums.
Procedural memory refers to motor and cognitive skills that allow us to walk, talk, ride a bike, or type without consciously thinking. Children’s museums provide many opportunities, particularly for children with the fewest opportunities, to develop their procedural memory. In designed spaces, early learners can develop and practice gross motor skills, fine motor skills, observational skills, and sensory perception, often in ways they can’t at home. Although some would consider such activities frivolous, children at play are often testing their theories about the way the world works and, in so doing, are developing the foundations of scientific thinking (Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl 1999). Key Point #3: It is important that we emphasize the concept of learning through play to our stakeholders, and particularly to funders, who sometimes balk at the idea of supporting “play” with their funding.
Priming refers to how recalling information from one domain can trigger memories in another domain. In other words, by strategically activating knowledge in one area, we can use that activated knowledge to elicit knowledge in another area. Staff and volunteers can use priming questions with museum visitors, activating their prior knowledge—perhaps in an unrelated field—as a way of engaging them with a topic (Tulving and Schacter 1990).
Classical conditioning, the third kind of unconscious memory was discovered by Pavlov, who found that one stimulus can become associated, through repetition, with an unrelated stimulus that has a specific response (Cherry 2019). In his famous experiment, Pavlov rang a bell when feeding dogs, and this feeding caused them to salivate. Eventually the dogs would salivate whenever he rang the bell, even if no food were present. Marketers employ classical conditioning when they associate a logo or audio jingle with a pleasurable experience; the McDonald’s jingle can conjure up images, thoughts, and even smells of burgers and fries on the radio. Museums seeking to evoke positive thoughts and increased visitation can use their sounds, logos, and other images in much the same way.
Now that we have an understanding of the common types of memory, let’s apply it to a current topic of interest to many children’s museums: climate change. How can we prepare our children for the future without: 1) boring them with semantic knowledge about the climate they will largely forget, 2) traumatizing them with episodic memories of climate change in a way that scares them and prevents them from connecting with the topic, or 3) conditioning them, through repetition, to simply ignore or shut down on the topic of climate change?
One approach is first for children’s museums to capitalize on their ability to inspire relationships among people, objects, places, and concepts. As poignantly expressed by Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught” (Valenti and Tavana 2005).
Museums are well-positioned to inspire a child’s love for the natural environment by creating positive semantic memories about animals, places, water, and other elements of the environment that will last a lifetime. These positive memories about the environment can form a foundation to support later learning about the environment and its key systems, in a way that is age-appropriate and in line with a child’s cognitive learning abilities.
Second, through their programs and exhibits, children’s museums can encourage children to improve their critical thinking skills, which are important in countering much of the disinformation about climate change. Museums can help children become more comfortable in asking good questions, and simultaneously building children’s confidence to seek help from adults in answering their own questions. Museums can advance these goals by helping adults understand how children learn and form memories so that they can support childhood learning most effectively.
The science of climate change is complex. Many children’s museums struggle with the decision to include it at all for their primarily very young audiences. What engaging activities related to climate change could be presented in a playful way that a four-year-old would even remember? But as many other authors in this issue have stated, the early years are the optimal time for laying a learning foundation of critical thinking skills and building a sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world, which in time, can blossom into a conservation mindset. By understanding how memory works, children’s museums can enhance learning and other positive impacts for the children and families they serve. Positive episodic memories and semantic memories can enhance each other, and museum educators can use this understanding to create the most effective programs and exhibits.
Charlie Trautmann is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. He is director emeritus of the Sciencenter of Ithaca, New York, and a past board member of the Association of Children’s Museums and the Association of Science and Technology Centers. At Cornell, he teaches Environmental Psychology and directs the Environment and Community Relations (EnCoRe) Lab. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
By Stephanie Shapiro and Sarah Sutton, Environment & Culture Partners
Culture Over Carbon is a research project designed to improve the museum field’s understanding of energy use by examining data from five types of museums (art, science, children’s, history, and natural history), plus zoos and aquariums, gardens, and historic sites. The two-year research period, which began in September 2021, will cover at least 150 institutions in all geographic regions of the United States, spanning varying sizes and types of buildings (e.g., office vs. collection storage). The project will collect enough information to establish an energy carbon footprint estimate for the museum sector, while creating individual “roadmaps” to help participating institutions understand and use energy more efficiently. Resulting aggregate data will boost the cultural sector’s broad understanding of its current energy practices and help to plan for future expected changes in energy availability, policies, and regulations.
Culture Over Carbon is funded by a National Leadership grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to the New England Museum Association, which leads the project in partnership with Environment & Culture Partners and the nonprofit energy consultants New Buildings Institute (NBI).
Very few museums have the ability or resources to monitor and assess their own energy use, especially during this prolonged period of economic stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet without this data they are unable to make strategic energy management decisions to save money or reduce the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) that worsen the climate crisis.
Museum staff interested in benchmarking their energy use and comparing use reductions struggle with the lack of comparisons. While the Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building certification program and the Environmental Protection Agency’s EnergyStar program provide energy performance ratings for buildings, there is no comparison framework/Energy Star score specifically for museums. (There are too few museum-user entries to create appropriate comparisons from a broad base of information.) Museums can join the International Association of Museum Facilities Administrators, which provides access to comparative data from about 200 institutions, but at a cost. Even with this information, staff and leadership often still struggle with how to make good energy use choices and how to pay for them, especially when they may require sometimes costly changes to existing operations.
Nearly every other major US sector understands that its energy use impacts the climate in some ways and has paths to strategically reduce their emissions. Without this context or guides to implementation, it is difficult for museums to find the means to make these shifts. As codes and regulations change—and budgets get tighter—museums need a strong case for competing for public and private funding for compliance.
The Culture Over Carbon project seeks to build a research foundation by focusing on the following questions:
The climate challenge is so significant that all who can possibly participate in creating solutions must do what they can. Until now, the museum sector has done little research on its own energy use, spent little time looking ahead to predict changes, and has expended minimal effort into articulating the need for investment in our energy systems to make better decisions. As nonprofit institutions, many museums recognize that they have a mission-driven responsibility to limit negative impacts of their work while modeling thoughtful, responsible behavior. Recognizing our fiduciary responsibility, this project tackles both the global and institutional issues that are so important to our futures.
Participating museums provide general building information describing their building design and construction, and how it is used. Based on their submission of twelve months of past energy use data, they will receive a profile of their site which prioritizes areas of concern and provides a roadmap of next steps, including working with an energy technician or engineer to achieve results. Many are eligible to receive a stipend for sharing their data.
Using all the data collected during the project, NBI will create a free report that identifies the variety and extent of energy formats and uses in the museum sector, comments on the most common areas for improvement, and offers recommendations for how the field can collectively reduce energy use that contributes to global warming.
Culture over Carbon participants share their energy use data through Energy Star Portfolio Manager (ESPM), a free online software program provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Anyone running a home or a building can use ESPM to understand how much energy is used on a monthly and yearly basis, and what the GHG emissions are. Many museums of all types or sizes already use ESPM for budgeting and managing energy consumption. However, the Carbon Over Culture project will move beyond this basic level by processing the data through First View, a software program developed by NBI with EPA funding to explore the research questions stated earlier.
Stephanie Shapiro and Sarah Sutton co-founded the nonprofit organization Environment & Culture Partners (previously Sustainable Museums) in 2021 to strengthen and broaden the environmental leadership of the cultural sector. Sutton, CEO, now lives in Tacoma, Washington; Shapiro, managing director, lives in Washington, DC.
|This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
By Langley Lease and Paige Childs, National Children’s Museum
Engaging children and their families in a meaningful dialogue around climate change can be tricky, to say the least. How do we playfully introduce children to this serious topic and inspire them to take action?
Answering this question became a priority in 2018 during the early stages of developing the newest iteration of National Children’s Museum, which opened in February 2020 in Washington, DC. It was evident that climate change lacked representation when assessing the landscape of children’s museum content at that time. As an institution that combines children’s museum experiences with science center content, it felt both natural and necessary to dedicate exhibit space to such a timely and critical science topic.
With the help of educators and experts, the museum developed its Climate Action Heroes framework, which empowers young activists to defeat climate “villains” while exploring the science behind climate change. Located in our Innovation Sandbox space, this exhibit will live in our museum for at least the next two years. (More can be learned about the museum’s in-person and virtual Climate Action Heroes experiences in the November 2020 issue of Hand to Hand.)
Since the museum’s reopening to the public in September 2021, the in-person Climate Action Heroes experience has been named a favorite exhibit by 28 percent of visitors who complete a post-visit survey. The climate science-dedicated space in the museum has influenced our on-site and digital programming priorities, community partnerships, and future exhibit development. In fact, a Climate Action Heroes experience will soon make its debut at Dulles International Airport, where children will be invited to discover climate-friendly travel tips and challenges. Content is continuously added to the digital experience at www.climate-heroes.org, including monthly missions that share small ways young activists can help protect the planet.
At National Children’s Museum, our mission is to inspire children to care about and change the world. Our changing climate is one of the most important issues facing our world today. As stewards of the next generation, we believe it is our duty to empower and inspire young innovators and activists. This means committing to and expanding upon our work in climate science. Climate change and the important role today’s children will have in tomorrow’s solutions will remain an undercurrent in every facet of National Children’s Museum’s work, from our daily operations to the programs we offer. Climate Action Heroes is just the start.
Langley Lease is exhibits + experience manager and Paige Childs is communications + digital specialist at the National Children’s Museum in Washington, DC.
|This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
By Rachel Daigre, Cate Heroman, and Alexandra Pearson, Knock Knock Children’s Museum
In 2019, MakerEd, a nonprofit organization that brings maker education to communities, selected Knock Knock Children’s Museum to be a regional hub for Making Spaces, a two-year professional learning and capacity-building program designed to support local leadership around maker education, with an emphasis on sustainability and growth. Knock Knock then selected program participants, including fifty preK-third grade educators and administrators from eight elementary schools as well as staff from the nearby public library.
After Hurricane Ida passed through our region in August 2021, Knock Knock provided resources and guidance to help children cope after this natural disaster. To extend our reach, we decided to use our October Making Spaces training as an opportunity to help educators create supportive learning environments in response to severe weather events. We brainstormed how we might use making and tinkering experiences to accomplish two goals: 1) support the emotional needs of children during traumatic events and 2) help deepen their knowledge and understanding of weather-related events in our community.
To reach the first goal, we wanted to inspire teachers to create environments and provide experiences to help children:
To achieve the second goal, we talked about all the things that children might experience during hurricanes: strong winds, power outages, downed trees, flooding, community helpers, lost or destroyed toys, lost pets, gas shortages, long lines, no electronic games to play, giving/receiving donations, damaged buildings, evacuating, relocating, and more.
With these two goals in mind, we set up activities throughout the museum that educators could explore and later implement in their classrooms. The public library assisted by sharing children’s books—both fiction and nonfiction—to support children’s understanding of this weather disaster and to help them cope with their feelings. Teachers quickly realized how they could use the making and tinkering experiences listed below to help children recover from the effects of severe weather events:
Big Backyard: creating weavings and faces with items from nature;
Maker Shop: creating homemade circuit switches in a homemade neighborhood that could be broken by tree limbs, making battery-operated fans and flashlights, making whirligigs powered by wind;
Art Garden: creating miniature Zen gardens, making string art by hammering nails and wrapping them with string, wrapping sticks with yarn to make patterns;
By-You Building: exploring wind at the wind tunnel, building strong houses and water bottle forts;
Paws & Claws: designing and building pet carriers, creating lost pet posters;
Geaux Figure! Playhouse: creating homemade board games;
Go Go Garage: using a homemade grappler tool and working as a team to move roadblocks and ease traffic on the racetrack, playing with model bucket trucks;
Bubble Playground: making floating boats, discovering items that sink or float;
Story Tree: exploring books related to hurricanes as well as supporting the emotional needs of children.
After an hour of exploration, the educators met by grade levels to reflect on these questions:
With the increasing occurrence of hurricanes and floods, children in our community are experiencing phenomena that are difficult to comprehend. Planning new ways to help them and their families understand and rebound after disasters is critical. Making Spaces teachers walked away with making and tinkering strategies to use now and in the future to help children cope, deepen their knowledge, and spark their curiosities.
Rachel Daigre is director of learning innovation; Cate Heroman is education committee chair; and Alexandra Pearson is Maker Shop manager at Knock Knock Children’s Museum in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The latest issue of Hand to Hand, “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” is now available! Read each article here on the ACM blog, and find the full issue PDF in the Hand to Hand Community on ACM Groupsite.
This issue presents stories of what museums have learned since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Pieces delve into new ideas and strategies around staffing, audiences, programs, and more, and how this information is impacting current operations and future planning.
Read the issue!
Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual
Stand Back: Watching and Learning from Returning Families
Glazer Children’s Museum is leveraging lessons learned during the pandemic to inform their playwork practices and help families build deep connections through play.
Gardens Grow, and So Do We
Q&A with Liz Rosenberg
Let’s Grow Together, a visitor-created art exhibit, celebrated Chicago Children’s Museum’s reopening to the public in June 2021.
Welcome Back: Our People Have Missed You
Children’s Museum of South Dakota’s reopening communications plan reintroduced visitors to the people behind the work—and the play—at the museum.
Think Big, Act Small: Innovation Principles and Process for Organizations in Recovery
The CEO of San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum shares fundamental principles for successful innovation to generate creative solutions.
Building the Plane as We Learn to Fly It
Hilary Van Alsburg
In navigating reopening, the Children’s Museum Tucson | Oro Valley found opportunities to work across the organization to support frontline staff.
Intention and Resolve: Moving to a New Better
Kari Ross Nelson and Stephen Ashton, PhD
Thanksgiving Point researchers share results from an analysis of data collected through ACM’s Museums Mobilize initiative, which highlighted museum programming in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Necessity: The Mother of Invention
In responding to the pandemic, Madison Children’s Museum has instituted a data-driven cycle of decision-making and a more efficient organizational structure.
The Good from the Bad: Pandemic Silver Linings
From scheduling improvements to a stronger, closer staff, the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge has found silver linings amidst the challenges of the pandemic.
Centering DEAI in Staff Recruitment and Hiring
The last year and a half has changed how The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis recruits, nurtures, and retains staff, interns, and volunteers while making sure they create and maintain a culture that is inclusive.
Support Our Mission: Donate Crypto
The Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn is diversifying its revenue streams as the first children’s museum in the U.S. known to accept cryptocurrency donations.
By Peter Olson
“How are we going to survive?” was the first question many children’s museums faced in March. While many strategies have been developed, it remains an open question. The coronavirus pandemic is still affecting all aspects of society, and children are experiencing upended lives. With many museums’ doors still closed, children’s museums are innovating safe ways to be of service to their audience while protecting staff and fighting for institutional survival. It’s not an overstatement to say we are living through an unprecedented juncture, one at which every children’s museum in the U.S. initially closed to visitors in mid-March, the duration of the pandemic is unknown, and it remains unclear how post-virus attitudes will affect hands-on museums.
In this context, in March, I spoke with three children’s museum leaders to learn about their real-time efforts to keep their museums sustainable through the pandemic. Stephanie Hill Wilchfort, president and CEO, Brooklyn Children’s Museum; Tanya Durand, executive director, Greentrike (Children’s Museum of Tacoma); and Tammie Kahn, executive director, Children’s Museum Houston, all shared strategies and tactics for surviving closure, preparing to reopen, and re-imagining missions and adapted operations.
In late June, I checked in again with all three regarding specific aspects of their reopening progress. These conversations often spoke to the dire realities of these tough times, but they all shared the hope that the children’s museums field will reemerge as relevant, vital resources for children, families, and communities after the pandemic.
WILCHFORT: Even though New York was not in lockdown yet, we started seeing an unexpected decline in visitation the first weekend in March. The following week we started grappling with closing. This wasn’t our first emergency health situation. We dealt with similar issues during a measles outbreak earlier in 2019, so we had developed some messaging and protocols on how to communicate. But this time we had to invent a framework for helping determine when we should close. To start, we created a basic four-point guideline. We would close:
We did not originally anticipate two other considerations. The first was that public health experts were clear that closure of spaces like ours could help mitigate the potential crisis, and that public sentiment shifted to feeling like museums should close. On March 12, both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History closed. We closed on Saturday, March 14. Second, at some point, with very few visitors and almost no revenue, staffing the museum was costing substantially more than we were earning. Does it make financial sense to run the museum when no one is coming? We later amended our closure framework to take public health experts into account, and to include an additional decision point related to non-attendance.
To determine when to reopen, we take our cues from New York City and New York State. We’ve been looking at how museums in other countries have handled this, and it seems like there is likely to be a twelve-week timeline for sheltering in place. Based on that, we initially assumed a July 1 reopening date. (That date was later moved to October 1.) Even if the world returns halfway to normal by then, our institutions may still be unable to reopen, either because large crowds will still be discouraged, or because we have had to contract so substantially that ramping up will take some time. We also know that, even when we do reopen, there will likely be a period of lower attendance and revenue.
New York City was initially one of the hardest hit COVID-19 areas in the country. What’s the mood in your city today? What do people want from a children’s museum now?
WILCHFORT: The mood is cautiously optimistic as the impact of the disease seems to be waning locally. Recently, we were heartened by the return of 600 survey responses from our visitors in two days. People seem to be willing to imagine coming back in the fall with safety measures in place.
DURAND: Our Pacific Northwest CEO group had been talking about the possibility of closure since mid-February. Examining models and various scenarios, we had been working on how to stay open as long as possible, right up to the day before everyone closed. What we thought was right one day, wasn’t right the next day. In a twelve-hour span, the conversation transitioned from “let’s be that place for families that is safe, clean, and has resources” into “it’s not socially responsible to be a place to gather.” On March 12 we closed our outreach program and on Friday, March 13, we closed the museum. Our childcare center stayed open until March 17, when a parent called us to report their child had symptoms. She never was tested, but we decided to close anyway for at least two weeks. Then another family called to inform us that their child also had symptoms. We’ll reopen the museum when it’s safe to do it. We’re not in a red-hot hurry.
In response to overwhelming community need, the museum reopened some day camps and its childcare center. What has been community response to these shifts? Have other needs emerged that you’re dealing with or planning to?
DURAND: We are now coordinating an extension of the day camps into the summer months, and are poised to lean into the needs that fall may bring. The community’s response is one of gratitude and encouragement.
KAHN: We closed the museum to the public on March 16 and initially hoped to reopen in July. (The museum reopened at limited capacity in June). When visitors walk through our doors again, we know they’ll have much higher expectations than previously. With children out of school for so long, parents will be looking for educational, enriching resources. Our educators will be working in the galleries providing more personalized, content-rich experiences. We’re still going to have fun, but we’re going to provide value where and when it’s most needed.
Children’s Museum Houston (CMH) jumped out early in the production and dissemination of video and online learning programs. How have these digital offerings been received? What have you learned that may shape future work in this area?
KAHN: Our videos have had 2.8 million views. Our eblast initially had 70,000 subscribers; it’s now down to about 68,000. As far as content, we know that reading programs are oversaturated. Keeping at least digital connections with children is good for their mental health, but are they learning their ABCs? We just don’t know yet. Our videos have produced some museum “stars”—kids come in and ask for educators by name.
Millennial audiences approach life differently. They are harder to reach and less interested in the physical interactions with the museum. To continue to reach them, be ready to go digital. That said, we also know there are still digital deserts in Houston’s lower income communities. We have learned from local educators that only 42 percent of students logged on 1x/week to all the online learning programs the schools have been pumping out. School administrators figure they have lost contact with about 50 percent of students. Social justice needs to shape mission-directed museum work: if we can’t reach them, how can we serve them?
DURAND: As our community called upon us to spread the mission to honor children and champion play in diverse ways, last fall, our organization made an identity shift and changed its name to “Greentrike.” We’ll always operate a great children’s museum and, in fact, we’re opening a satellite. But we will also be an advocate, a disrupter, an educator, and a partner in ways that go far beyond typical museum operations. In addition to the museum and our emerging satellite, we operate a childcare center and a school. We’re leading a community-wide effort to explicitly brand our community as child-centered. Partnering with schools, the Boys & Girls Club, the YMCA, and the parks department, Greentrike has been tasked with coordinating the effort to provide childcare for children of emergency personnel, healthcare professionals, and others on the frontlines.
Based on your experiences in the past four months, do you see the mission of Greentrike evolving in any specific ways?
DURAND: Yes. For example, Greentrike is partnering with another agency to lead a conversation about ending the childcare crisis in our community.
Our nimbleness and our lack of bureaucratic structure enable us to advocate pretty strongly for important issues as they come up. We can “go to bat” for partners who lack the resources or the capacity to do so on their own.
WILCHFORT: We are all about in-person, sensory, physical programming and object-based learning. We do not have a robust digital team nor many resources in this area. So we have convened a cross-department team with staff from marketing, programming, exhibits, and live animal care, and started to create units of digital outreach programming in three big areas: Amazing Animals, which will showcase some of the museum’s animals in a digital format; Earth Science, based on content we’ve developed for a new earth science garden to be opened in a few years; and Cultural Festivals, creating content that brings in our partners, with activities, recipes, and dancing that normally happen at our in-person festivals. We hope that through this process we will build competencies around digital resources and new ways of presenting content that will continue after the immediate pressing need is over.
KAHN: We transformed our website to offer fun and engaging at-home learning opportunities for families. We provide both livestream broadcasting along with a database of school-related, curriculum-based activities and videos created by our staff. We launched this while we still had access to the museum, but then educators began “broadcasting” from their homes. Their children and pets starred in some of the programs. It’s all about connecting our audience with our stars—our educators—now that classrooms are closed.
WILCHFORT: We realized right away that there would be no work for most of our part-time floor staff in a closed museum. We had to make the heartbreaking decision to lay them off. We called two staff meetings, both of which I led, on two separate days, and all staff completed a Google form indicating which meeting they could attend to ensure that no more than thirty-five people were in the room for each meeting. When staff arrived at the museum, we kept everyone at least six feet apart. We tried to make it as safe as possible while recognizing that a level of respect needs to be afforded to them. We also reduced hours and salaries by 20 percent for all full-time staff, but have made a commitment to retain as many people as possible, protecting their healthcare benefits throughout this process.
Our board engaged in conversations about our annual fundraiser benefit scheduled for May 27. The initial idea was to do something like a Zoom party as an engagement and cultivation event as much as a fundraiser. The reality is that in this moment, children’s museums are not at the forefront of people’s needs. When emergency workers are on the frontlines, often working without proper PPE, it does not seem like the right time for us to fundraise aggressively. It’s so hard to say this might not be our time, when we love our organizations so much. However, it is important we advocate with donors and public funders in ways that aren’t tone deaf to what is happening around our city and country. Because we have amazing city support, wonderful trustees, a robust foundation community in New York, as well as local support for a future arts and culture stimulus, I am cautiously optimistic about our future.
Has your temporarily restrained approach to fundraising changed in the past few months? Where are you now with regards to raising money for core operations or special projects?
WILCHFORT: We elected not to do the May 27 event, but instead held a virtual board gathering and unveiled designs for our science garden exhibit that’s in development. Board members still gave money. We have reengaged in fundraising. Now that we’re reopening, donors are coming back. Two months ago, none of us understood how long this would last. Now we have a better sense of defining our response and a more refined understanding of where our organization falls: cultural organizations are more relevant than ever in providing safe ways to gather for learning experiences. Parents and children are fraying at the edges. We’re all asked to play roles we never expected to play, working full-time, and limiting outside contact. It’s a real crisis, and parents are anxious. Our fundraising aligns with meeting the needs in our community today.
DURAND: I worry about people’s livelihoods. We reduced our team from sixty-nine to twenty-two. On average, the furloughed team members received two weeks paid leave, and it’s our intention to continue to pay for their healthcare benefits during the furlough. Our board cares deeply about our staff and is looking at the long game.
Like all of my colleagues I’m worried about money. We’ll probably have to dip into our line of credit. Our museum admission is by donation, so we don’t rely on the gate income that other museums do—a blessing in disguise in times like these. We actually save money by being closed. Our financial forecast is that we’ll end our fiscal year with a $150,000 shortfall for the first two and a half months (mid-March through May). This is not great news, but it certainly could be worse, and I feel for colleagues facing deeper deficits.
KAHN: We’re in the middle of complex financial modeling, including significantly dampening predictions for the coming eighteen months. For years we’ve studied worst case scenarios, but this crisis rivals our worst nightmare. We initially laid off 150 part-time staff and gave them two weeks’ severance to help bridge them to unemployment benefits. Many of this team live in families all dependent on part-time employment. Locally, massive layoffs due to required business closures have been devastating. For decades, Texas has attracted people who came here willing to work two or three jobs to give their kids a chance at the American Dream. We are proud to hire people from the demographics we serve. But we never planned on extended, universal unemployment for our entire region. And our biggest economic engine is still the energy business, which has hit several lowest-ever markers in the past few weeks. There’s a sea change taking hold in that industry as well.
Federal payroll assistance does not cover part-time employees. Normally we have plenty of cash on hand, even a cash reserve in our endowment. However, our shut down eliminated spring break and the start of our summer peak attendance. We are predicting an overall loss of $500,000 at the end of our 2020 fiscal year (June 30), even with short term federal relief for full-time staff. Our endowment value is at its lowest in ten years. We were fortunate to be running a surplus before the crisis, and we have been authorized to consider spending up to $1 million from our reserve fund including cash held in our endowment.
But our museum is people-dependent. Our mission model is about transforming communities through innovative, child-centered learning. Our level of community engagement requires a lot of fully engaged talented people. Our efforts to have collective impact and work collaboratively are taking a major hit. Most of our community-based partners are shut down, libraries are closed, schools may not open until fall, and people are isolated. Our digital efforts are producing high contact numbers, but we are just beginning to learn how to build robust digital relationships. We are already evaluating learning outcomes from these efforts, but the evidence will require we rethink the new nature of the value that we bring.
As staff were gradually brought back to work in the museum, what new trainings did they need to meet today’s audience needs (safety standards, audience expectations, etc.)?
KAHN: Our staff training is not much different than before. The museum visit was re-structured as an “Epic Adventure” with a clearly mapped entrance/exit that paces the visit and allows social distancing. Each visitor receives an Epic Adventure bag that contains 80 percent of the materials need for the adventure, and which they can take home. Normally, the museum is full of frontline staff, but now, only our full-time educators are working in the galleries.
What are you working on now that you are most excited about?
WILCHFORT: Our 20,000-square-foot, outdoor Earth Science Garden, a big capital project in partnership with the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus, and by far our most exciting large-scale project. While it won’t come to fruition for a couple of years, it’s going to change the organization. The narrative for the eight exhibit areas is rooted in the history of Brooklyn and how it got its slopes and heights.
WILCHFORT: If there’s one thing I’d say to other children’s museums in this moment, you may think you should put the brakes on big capital projects, but don’t. One, it’s good for the institution. When we do come out of this, people will need these new projects and programs. Two, content development, construction, and fabrication can be part of a stimulus program. If we keep the capital projects going, we’re creating jobs. If we stop these big projects, we won’t have that ability. It’s essential that everyone keep their capital and major exhibit work moving.
KAHN: We’ll be reducing our hours and days of operation, further cutting personnel expenses. However, we will increase the depth of educational experiences for visitors. Even before the pandemic, this generation of caregivers tend to display a heightened level of control over all aspects of their child’s safety, as well as the selection of environments and experiences to which their child is exposed. As a public venue designed for young children, we will be subjected to higher cleanliness and safety expectations than ever in the coming “post-COVID” era. As a nation, we have spent spring 2020 retraining our citizenry to assume new behaviors that are not in sync with our pre-pandemic missions or business models.
Since you have reopened, what are some of the biggest changes and challenges related to health/safety standards compliance?
KAHN: Visitors’ temperatures are scanned at the door. Masks are required for everyone age two and older–no mask, no admission. (Masks are sold in the museum store for $3.95!) Ever since Sandy Hook, the museum has posted a guard at the door. A typical compliance issue is visitors pulling their masks off their nose once they’re inside. Visitors who do so are reminded by staff, and if they still don’t comply, the guard will ask them to leave. Only one family so far has requested a membership refund over the masks rule.
Like most reopened museums, we have initiated an aggressive cleaning program, and have spent $400,000 on upgrades and cleaning supplies (HEPA filters, UV lights, cleaning products, etc.). Our lobby’s former Yogurt Snack Bar is now a Hand Sanitizer Bar.
A separate but related issue involves staff. Their temperatures are taken daily, and masks must be worn in the museum at all times. To date, one staff member tested experienced COVID-19 symptoms after returning from New York; five of the remaining hundred employees were believed to have been exposed to the virus so were sent home out of caution. Each of these employees required individual fourteen-day quarantines. It has been difficult to lose staff due to exposure from families and friends, while still paying full-time salaries for people who are in quarantine.
Do you think adjustments to the children’s museum experience are temporary or permanent? What is your level of optimism for children’s museums to continue to be relevant with hands-on, in-person learning?
DURAND: Children need to play to learn, and they need to play with others to gain social skills. That won’t change. We are waiting longer to reopen because I don’t think it’s right to ask a child to come back to a beloved familiar environment that we designed specifically to engage them in play, and now ask them to engage in different and difficult-to-explain ways. It does not set the child, or the family, up for success. Our field needs to advocate even more strongly that play is the right of children. We need to keep them and their families safe, but we need to push for a return to the rights of childhood as soon as we can.
DURAND: This is a basic operational and philosophical question that the entire museum field is considering. Greentrike will advocate for what families need. Childcare and access to the fundamentals will be important. The museum, I think, will experience a slow ramp back up to “business as usual,” whatever “usual” will mean at that time. We are working with our colleague museums to do a combined launch with consistent messaging. This obviously impacts budget: we are losing most earned income for almost five months. We are applying for CARES support and will continue to raise funds.
As far as changes to the children’s museum audience, everyone will be enhancing their cleaning and safety protocols and thinking about social distancing. But, since our gallery experiences are hands-on, interactive, and often involve close contact with other visitors, these changes will certainly impact the way we serve our audience and it will certainly feel different.
For children’s museums in general, I don’t think it’s a terminal situation, but a hibernation. My hope is that there won’t be a decreased demand for children’s museums. I don’t anticipate a time when we say we shouldn’t have safe, rewarding, enriching places for children to go. The wake up, however, is going to be fascinating. I don’t know how extensive the hangover will be for families who do not want to return to public places. We need to watch our friends across the ocean, where there is a chance for a second wave, and how they handle it. This edition of Hand to Hand is almost like a time capsule, but one you’re not sure what to put in, because everything is changing on a daily basis.
Peter Olson is currently the owner of Peter Olson Museum Planning, LLC, and is the museum project director of the emerging Region 5 Children’s Museum in North Central Minnesota. Peter has served as the founding executive director at Knock Knock Children’s Museum and the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota, and as the director of exhibits at Minnesota Children’s Museum.
In a year filled with rapidly changing responses to a still fluid environment, Children’s Museum Houston just announced that it will launch All-Time Access, an online initiative to enhance distance learning. This program will be open to families all over the world from an all-time digital landscape. As kids return to school, in whatever configuration that may be, the museum will take a break beginning August 31 to focus on All-Time Access meeting children and their families where they are —at school, at home, at play. The museum will reopen once again as soon as it is feasible.
This article is part of the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.
The Zoom call ends, the hangout disperses. You sign off, then what? What are the first thoughts that come to mind as you return to solo work in a home office, living room, kitchen, silent museum office? In this collection of short pieces, museum staff talk about what they thought about, privately, during those many, many shelter-in-place days. How did they summon the energy to keep going? What worries them the most? These writers share what they have learned about their museum and themselves during the pandemic pause as they continue to fight for their museums’ future.
I get off the Zoom calls and I think: this wasn’t what I had planned at all for the spring of 2020. I was so sure we would be planning our expansion and capital campaign, a creative and fitting way to end my career. But instead: a pandemic, closing the museum, stay-at-home orders, economic freefall, and then worldwide demonstrations in response to the killing of George Floyd.
I find myself struggling to pivot, to prioritize, to make sense, to give myself a little time when I am not working and worrying, and all the while I’m missing my museum, my staff, and being in the company of others. Internally, I find strength in my relationships with colleagues, my decades of weathering other crises, my ability to stay calm and focused, and in all I have learned from my mentors who have helped shape my career. Externally, I find strength in what the LICM staff, board, and I have built over the years—a museum that always strives to do better, to do good, to stretch itself and face challenges together and head on. More broadly, the support of the full museum community provides the collegial support necessary to navigate the current crises in our field and in our nation.
I am honored and proud of staff members who have stayed the course, worked so hard and with so much passion for what we do. Questioning, debating, moving forward together. Facing our challenges with the certainty that, although this is not what we had planned, we will be steadfast in meeting the challenges and be a better organization in the future for it. New learning of a different kind. But the biggest challenge really—beyond the financial, of course—is trying to figure out what role a children’s museum plays in a non-touch world. How do we now communicate our value? How can we turn some of these challenges into opportunities?
In the end, in spite of a delayed expansion project that I was very much looking forward to, I made my peace with this: my strengths as a leader are needed and well matched for this kind of challenge, for this moment.
After I hung up, my mind wandered back to the time some of my Leadership Akron group colleagues convinced me to run a leg of a marathon with them. After some friendly cajoling about how I had what it took and could easily do it since I would be on a team, I agreed to run the shortest leg in the race. On race day, my husband and two sons came out to cheer me on. Once they saw me on route, they’d drive up ahead to catch me somewhere along my next mile point. Once they were out of sight, I slowed down to walk a bit. Just as I slowed my pace, they reappeared, driving up beside me. Naturally, I picked up the pace and kept running while they cheered me on and gave me several air high fives.
I have been in need of similar air high fives since museum life came to a sudden halt on that eerie Friday the 13th last March. I often feel like I’m in a Grand Prix race and the announcer has just said “racers start your engines.” He counts down 3-2-1 as I’m revving up to make my best start only to suddenly and unexpectedly be slowed down by multiple surprise twists and turns newly added to the track. The constant engine “revving” is my ongoing brainstorming of new ways to generate revenue while the physical doors to the museum are closed.
Although I long for more riveting reasons—like a sudden influx of revenue—to receive high fives, the ongoing support of my board of directors and other museum supporters motivates me. Seeing the mayor wearing one of our museum face masks and collaborating with volunteers who are committed to seeing the museum weather the storm keeps me going. The support of fellow arts organization colleagues, ACM Leadership Call discussions, and state museum association meetings help me feel connected and inspired to keep up a steady pace in the race to preserve, protect, and reopen the museum.
Paradigm shifts for organizations often come planned and over a period of time, but the pandemic paradigm switch arrived swiftly like a thief in the night.
Prior to St. Patrick’s Day, when the i.d.e.a. Museum closed, we were thriving. Attendance and revenues had increased, and we had received $5 million in city bond funds to support Phase I of our Site Master Plan. The i.d.e.a. Museum Foundation was conducting a philanthropic feasibility study while the City of Mesa’s Engineering Department conducted a facility feasibility study. Our long-anticipated vision for growth was nearing reality… and then COVID-19 hit.
We immediately shifted gears, immersing ourselves in quickly making multiple decisions even with incomplete information. How long would we be closed? Should we cancel our annual fundraiser? How could we realign our city and our museum foundation’s budgets? Could we quickly create virtual programs to stay connected to our audience? How could we revise our interactive exhibits to meet new sanitation protocols? These questions and more occupied my thoughts 24/7.
After stakeholder discussions and over the short course of a few weeks, the annual fundraiser was cancelled, thirteen part-time and two full-time staff were laid off, we lost $260,000 in combined revenues, social media and web content increased, a one-way route was devised throughout the museum with a revision of fifteen interactives, and an outdoor space was planned for activation.
I have distaste for the “new normal.” There’s nothing normal about this. We are a resilient team that has been through four paradigm shifts in fourteen years. We use Susan Kenny Stevens’ book Nonprofit Lifecycles: Stage-Based Wisdom for Nonprofit Capacity to gauge our approaches and progress. We share with each other ways to stay healthy, and despite the sudden and pervasive upheaval, we know that “this too shall pass.”
When we closed our doors on March 13 to protect the safety and wellbeing of our community, we thought it would be short lived. As the days passed and the shelter-in-place orders became mandated, it was evident we were headed for unprecedented times. The world was changing fast. No industries had planned for serious environmental disruption, and our “high-touch” children’s museum was no different. We were grappling with issues we couldn’t have predicted, and the only certainty was uncertainty. Public, private, for-profit, and nonprofit sectors all faced the same problems.
Questions were endless: How long will this last? What do we do with staff? What can we continue to provide? How will all this affect children and their families? What does this do to our value proposition to the social capital we have developed through our programs? How will the museum survive? (Just to name a few.) What plagued my middle-of-the-night sleep were thoughts of limited cash reserves and no endowment. Our budget is based on 85 percent earned revenue. To close even temporarily was tantamount to a possible and permanent end. Without guests, school tours, outreach, events, memberships, and more, our daily earned income dried up overnight. And even though we had contingency plans for “normal” disasters, our current situation was worse than 9/11 and the 2008 recession combined. The road ahead looked impossible. As someone who usually thrives in crisis and can usually handle the curveballs thrown my way, I felt overwhelmed and a little scared. Would this thirty-year-old organization end under my leadership?
Enter the Zooms, the webinars, and the PPP money to keep my chief operating and program officers employed. Overwhelmed by what needed to happen, working with these two staff members and listening to my peers on our invaluable weekly calls, I realized this was not something I alone had to “fix.”
COVID-19 has asked humans to do something that the rest of nature does nearly every day—adapt. I focused on accepting that this was a pivotal time to not let what we couldn’t do interfere with what we could do. Present circumstances didn’t determine where we could go, they merely determined where we needed to start.
Some of my happiest moments in life are when I find a way to squeeze in an extra activity between commitments. If I fly into a city for a meeting, I try to arrive a little early, so I can explore the city before the meeting starts. If I go to a conference, I may stay an extra few days in the area to explore a nearby National Park before I head back home and to work. Sometimes when I am at the museum and one meeting ends early, I’ll take a walk along the river before the next meeting begins.
Now that life has been upended by COVID-19, I’ve found new hours to use in similar ways. With stay-at-home orders, instead of commuting to work in the morning, I now take a long walk in those early hours with my two Labradors, Abby and Arlo. Instead of commuting home in the evenings, I now grab my camera or flyrod and walk down to the river near my house.
I am thankful to have not lost a friend or loved one due to the pandemic. But I have lost the momentum my museum team has built over the past five years. Projects are on hold. Open staff positions are frozen. Budgets have been cut. Previous operations and revenues numbers—including those from the recent first quarter of 2020—are now meaningless as predictors of the future.
But my morning and afternoon walks with my dogs have helped to buffer the professional loss I feel because of COVID-19, and I feel more ready to face another uncertain day.
Recently, ACM Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus referred to us all being on the Corona-coaster! I, for one, want off this roller coaster.
In January, at Wonderscope, I deemed this year was “our” year. We had worked hard for many years preparing for and launching a capital campaign and starting construction on a new building. Construction was nearing completion; we would soon close our campaign and prepare to move into a bigger and better Wonderscope. We were due this good year.
January started well, February started to slide, then came March. This was not what we had scripted. We are now hoping we can open our new doors in October.
Despite this dire time, I’m finding pockets of joy, friendship, and solidarity. The team at Wonderscope has rallied; we have found joy and success in little things. Our board has rallied to support furloughed staff, and most importantly, I have found true friendship, collegiality, and solidarity with other museum CEOs, particularly those in the middle of the country. We call ourselves the Central U.S. Museums. We Zoom every other week. We share resources and ideas. We sympathize, and listen. The combined wisdom is extraordinary and so openly and bravely shared.
The weekly Leadership Calls hosted by ACM have been a lifeline too. We may be spread throughout the country and the world, but we are all in this together. These new friendships and support have sustained me. If you haven’t yet found a group of like-minded roller coaster riders, I urge you to do it. These conversations will be some of the best hours you will spend in the COVID-19 theme park.
THIS is it. This IS it. This is IT. This I sit. Every way you place the emphasis is a chuckle. Try it. Each moment is the only one that matters—my approach to life. Opportunities to practice equanimity knock at my door every day, as they always have.
On 3/12/20 my journal says …“And the world tilts.” But that wasn’t my first note about something stirring. Turns out on 2/7/20 I began logging symptoms. I’d just spent time in China, consulting for a children’s museum project. Touring an international school, I saw staff checking kids’ temperatures, tongues, and hands before they entered the building. “That’s normal here.” LOL. On the third day of exciting progress making plans, Debbie hit the Downer button to talk with the Chinese project team about risks. Government closures? Sure. Pandemic? Naaahhh. A week later I was sick as a dog.
We closed the museum on 3/14/20, and by 3/20/20 I terminated employment for twenty-nine people, and cut hours of thirty-one more, all done safely distanced by email, no less. By 4/11/20 we’d secured a PPP, and renewed forty jobs. Great news. But Joy was working from someone else’s home and had taken her toys with her.
As a long-time CEO, I generally bear the weight of my entire museum. I try to do right by its people—staff and visitors who bring it to life—its resources, and its many exposures (economic, legal, market, etc.). I accept that weight, and try to bring stability, curiosity, and patience to whatever comes up in a day, giving space to discover the gift every person or situation offers. That’s where the joy comes for me.
After five weeks I’d had no days off, no exercise, no nature, little sleep, and I’d cut my own hair (badly). I had ignored all the mental health advice—“Be kind to yourself,” “Who do you want to be through this?” So, I slept on that question, because 2:30 a.m. is a CEO’s golden hour.
By sunrise I had a plan to better nurture myself, and my sense of humor showed up. I thanked Anxiety for doing its job pointing out that there was a problem to be solved. I remembered that every moment of this whole thing IS what it is, and has within it all the gifts and possibilities, just as every kid who comes through the museum’s front door has within themselves. Be the kid. This is it.
I manage a program that broadly focuses on making our institution more accessible for visitors with various disabilities. I see this goal come to fruition when families first visit the museum for an event designed for visitors with disabilities, and most of them keep coming back. There is no better experience than seeing a child laughing, comfortable enough to just be who they are. For a lot of these families, just playing and enjoying themselves is not something they always get to do. It’s a big deal to have the opportunity to be a family without looks or judgment from others. Not being able to provide these opportunities is one of the major reasons I have been struggling during this pandemic.
I have a distinct childhood memory: sitting in the cafeteria at a table smaller than all the others and wishing to be “over there.” For two years, with two neurodiversities, I was in a self-contained class for second and third graders whose disabilities included learning disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and blindness or low vision. These two years were by far the two most influential of my life. Despite my teachers’ efforts to make us feel like everyone else, we lived in another world—one that always felt like it wasn’t quite made for us. Not much changed for me in middle school or high school. I was not fully mainstreamed until the last semester of my senior year in high school. To this day I feel like I never quite left behind that label of “otherness.”
Even though I had completed an internship and worked as floor staff at the children’s museum during my college years, I never intended to work in one. I wanted to be a teacher. But in 2016, a month before graduating with a master’s degree in elementary and special education, I realized teaching wasn’t for me. But how could I serve the kids I wanted to serve, and help them break the cycle of that familiar feeling of being “other”? Then, I got a call from my museum supervisor inviting me to interview for this job.
Like many cultural institutions now, we have altered our content to be delivered virtually. Through online programming, we are probably reaching even more families who may not have been able to access our museum in the past. But I am struggling, folks. Millennials often talk about FOMO (fear of missing out) when it comes to seeing what their peers are up to on social media. But for me, quarantine has evoked an intense feeling of FOMO…for my museum.
Engagement is a large part of what I do at the museum, and virtual engagement is not scratching that itch for me. As educators, we help visitors connect through conversations and sometimes just smiles. As I write this, those conversations and smiles aren’t happening. I now try to spark that engagement and connection in videos. I enjoy making videos in my new role as a museum vlogger, but I am used to “live” gleaming friendly little faces looking up at me. Now I just stare at a screen, hoping for a comment or a like—a completely new form of “engagement.”
I miss my kids. I miss the laughs. I miss the joy. I miss the smiles. I often think about the kids we serve and wonder if they are struggling too. My feeling of not being able to do enough for them is crushing. But I remind myself that we are doing the best we can, and many people in this nation feel similarly frustrated during these odd times. I have no doubt that many our museum families are feeling this way too. I just hope that everyone is being kind to themselves, and I’ll try to remember the same for me. I look forward to seeing my kids again. It is hard to say when that will be, but I am counting the days.
I finish my last digital task of the day…maybe. It is 7:00 p.m. I am sitting at my kitchen table, which has now become my pseudo-command-post-desk-family-gathering space. My eyes burn and blur. I have always had less than stellar eyesight, but over the past few short months my vision has become somewhat hazy. The house is quiet, for now. With my five-year-old out of school for close to three months, working from home has been a juggle and a struggle. My guilt is immense. Will this pandemic damage us—our children—forever?
I am surprised though at how much I have accomplished work-wise in the past few months. Dozens and dozens of grants written and submitted in hopes of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars waiting to be distributed. Donors grateful to see our organization’s response to ensure the learning doesn’t stop. Social media and virtual programming ramped up. Staff pivoting in all sorts of directions. We are an amazing, hardworking team with an incredible leader and supportive board. All that being said, sometimes I feel like I am treading through COVID-19 quicksand.
I am and have always been grateful to work in this industry. Instead of shrinking from the pandemic, we reevaluated, took action, and kept our focus. Here in Santa Fe, our donors, our executive director, and our board are immensely strong and caring. During this period of uncertainty, the culture of our institution and our industry shines through. There’s a lot to be said for the steady, often behind-the-scenes work of building strong foundations.
At the end of each day, I say thanks because I know that no matter what happens, I will always feel proud of my work, whether it is in an office, or straight from a coffee-stained kitchen table. I am working to make a difference for our kids and families. As I close my computer and look out at the southwestern skies—a particularly beautiful sunset amidst all of this chaos—I reflect upon one of my favorite quotes from John Lennon: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” And he was right. It’s the end of a day, but it’s not the end.
By Alix Tonsgard and Laura Diaz
Building and maintaining trusting relationships is at the core of early education and care programs, whether part of a preschool, a social service agency, or a children’s museum. As DuPage Children’s Museum has continued our community outreach programming to vulnerable families in a pandemic, we have expanded and ultimately deepened our approach to building relationships. In the face of a global crisis, with normal communications patterns disrupted, our Partners in Play (PIP) program is still able to meaningfully impact the lives of children and caregivers through a previously underutilized path: texting.
The caregivers we serve often need support in recognizing the growth and development that takes place during open-ended play for young children (ages birth to three). Through a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), we created a program to take place in our Young Explorers exhibit gallery, originally designed for families with children under two, and intentionally redesigned to make child development information and milestones more visible.
We began with two cohorts of twelve families each, the first group selected by a social service agency and the second consisting of teen parents recruited from a support group. PIP was scheduled to take place over the course of one year, during which all families would attend monthly sessions at the museum.
The first few PIP sessions were designed to establish trusting relationships between museum staff and caregivers. Once families—some first-time museum visitors—became comfortable, sessions became more content-focused on specific aspects of young children’s development, such as memory, communication, and fine motor skills.
Two months into the program, COVID-19 hit and the museum closed. How could we keep these families engaged in meaningful and accessible ways ? We started group-texting families twice a week with a friendly greeting (“Hi, how are you doing?”) and a simple activity that could be done at home. We also called them individually from time to time just to connect and hear about what life during COVID-19 was like for them. We enlisted the help of a particularly outgoing PIP mother who helped spark replies and conversations among the families. Initially it was difficult to stay connected with teen parents. However, we learned that by postponing the text drop from mid-afternoon to around 7-8 p.m., when bedtime was near and they might finally be able to pick up their phones and relax on the couch, our messages got greater response.
The more we learned from texts and phone calls, the more we were able to tailor PIP activities, developed to take place in a carefully designed museum environment, to new realities—a home, often with other family members, including children of all ages, milling around. One text from a PIP staff member showed a picture of her own two-year-old who had decided to dump every single toy on the floor while Mom was on a Zoom work call. Not only was everyone able to share a laugh about what life is like “working from home,” but PIP staff suggested parents turn messes like this into clean-up and sorting activities, perfectly appropriate for young children.
The response has been incredible. During the first few weeks of the pandemic, social service home visits paused and other organizations scrambled to come up with a plan for how to work with families from home (both the provider’s home and the caregiver’s home). At this time, the PIP program was the only support some families had. Many PIP caregivers are frontline workers who do not have the privilege of working from home. Throughout the shelter-in-place period, they continued to do what they could to meet the basic needs of their families. Regular texts and calls from DCM staff gave them something to look forward to and focus on beyond their daily struggles.
“The upbringing of ages zero to three is beautiful but very difficult and… very tiring because they need full time care. Programs like PIP help us with our stress and are great and fun dynamics for our babies.
For families who have low resources it is a huge support because we know that there are an infinite number of organizations…but sometimes they are unreachable for us. Now more than ever with the pandemic, we need to gather and share ideas with one another to help with the upbringing of our children from home.”
Almost every family has a phone, but some families don’t have access to computers or reliable internet connections, making Zoom-delivered programs not fully accessible. Many social service agencies already use texts to stay connected with families. We talk a lot about access, but the pandemic has presented us with a unique opportunity to take a harder look at the realities and needs of the families we serve—in the extended stay-at-home COVID-19 environment and after. We are grateful for how supportive IMLS has been as we tweak this program to meet families where they are in a time when they need us the most
At this writing, there are ten sessions left in our program. We are packing up all the PIP materials and in two scheduled pick-ups at the museum, will give five kits each time to program families. Each kit contains instructions, materials, and child development information for an activity. Later we will text them short videos of how to use these kits. We are looking forward to seeing our families again at pick-up time, but are also excited about the expanded possibilities for keeping these connections strong under any circumstances.
Alix Tonsgard is an early learning specialist and Laura Diaz is a community & family access specialist at the DuPage Children’s Museum in Naperville, Illinois.
This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
By Luke Schultz
After closing on March 13, Madison Children’s Museum (MCM) staff decided there were still too many pandemic unknowns to even project a reopening date. Policies and plans were created to reduce the overall risk of exposure to our visitors and staff. But at this writing, barring any miraculous medical treatment or prevention breakthroughs, we will most likely remain closed until at least March of 2021.
Early discussions about reopening ultimately remained consistent with the museum’s mission and philosophy. We determined we could not provide children with the same freedom of open-ended play and discovery learning without an extensive—and in our view, experience-limiting—set of rules. The Madison audience is well informed, conscientious, and expects high standards. Even if we felt we could prevent or significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19 while serving young children and their families, the costs of doing so would be prohibitive, especially with the reduced numbers of visitors expected.
I have been the director of facilities at the museum for the past ten years. Before that, I worked in the field of building management. I am also married with two young children. But in a field focused on creating exhibits, programs, and social gathering places, I write from the perspective of someone charged with keeping the building clean, safe, operational, and all on budget.
Coming from the business world, I have seen a need for greater understanding of and focus on simple practices related to the physical plants, operations, and facilities side of museums. Among both existing and emerging museums, there is a field-wide focus on the museum experience, but not enough emphasis on the essential underlying facilities that deliver it. New safety requirements that have emerged as a result COVID-19 are bringing this issue to the forefront. In 2011, the museum was very lucky to have received a seven-year matching grant from the Kresge Foundation to help support upkeep and replacement of fixed assets like mechanicals, windows, the roof, etc.
There are building and maintenance issues, large and small, with all museums. But two primary areas of concern in my role for the museum’s pandemic response planning involve cleaning products and equipment and building air quality.
Just to have all the right equipment and sanitizers on hand is a daunting prospect. Even at the time of this writing (July), our museum has found that sanitizing products remain inconsistently available. Distributors sometimes aim products at “essential business,” and withhold them from “nonessential.” In some cases, distributors have been directed not to sell at all to nonessential businesses. Meanwhile, the same products can be available directly to consumers through Amazon or other retailers, but at a prohibitively high price for businesses buying in sufficient quantities to take care of large buildings.
U.S. Communities, a national cooperative procurement organization for the public sector that has been helpful in the past, reports that many of the products formerly made in the U.S. are now made in China and can be more difficult to obtain.
How clean is clean enough? There is “visual” clean. Traditional cleaning methods have done a good job. Everything looks clean, but how effective is that level of cleaning in this new COVID-19 environment? Our museum reached the conclusion: not good enough. We explored stronger cleaning methods and products, including a “biodome” probiotic spray-on surface coater. This statically charged sprayer encases surfaces, and protection supposedly lasts for ninety days. It is advertised to “work on mud [and other natural] surfaces.” It costs seventeen cents/square foot. It was also deemed safe for children, but when we looked at it, was still in lab studies to see if it works on COVID-19.
Cleaners that work on natural surfaces is a key selling point for us. MCM’s exhibits are known for their creative use of and commitment to natural materials. While green and environmentally friendly—and some people think less hospitable to viruses than hard surfaces—they are now harder to clean than plastic or laminate products. And many exhibit components are not COVID-cleanable at all, as many museums are now finding out, and must be removed from public access.
MCM’s HVAC system includes a “variable refrigerant volume” (VRV) system, an energy recovery unit, and boilers. Overall it is a ductless building with individual smaller cooling units in specific spaces. If the building is closed in the summer, and systems are off, humidity levels build and have a corrosive effect on materials and surfaces. Even a closed building requires maintenance and energy costs to stay ahead of the game. MCM has been running the fresh air system at night, when energy costs are lower, to keep air circulating/cooler.
What new levels of HVAC filtration will be needed to protect people from air-circulating particulates, e.g. coronavirus? We are continually checking with ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) for new COVID-19 standards. It has been suggested that some parts of the HVAC system can be enhanced with additional filters (e.g. MAVR-13 filters), but our other smaller units are not designed to accommodate additional, individually attached filters.
At one point, rough estimates for some of these add-ons would cost the museum, at a minimum, an additional $6,000/quarter.
Like all children’s museums, MCM is very protective of the health and safety of children, their caregivers, our staff, and everyone in our community. We want to open, but knowing that we’re not essential and still feeling too much uncertainty about the pandemic, we remain closed. An initial PPP loan covered salaries through June. Through two difficult rounds of staff layoffs and conversion to a part-time work/share plan, some remaining staff like me have stayed employed, with health insurance.
Meanwhile, while we remain closed, the maintenance/upkeep needs of the building don’t stop. I frequently go to the museum to check on overlooked facility details common in closed or under-utilized buildings. Plumbing, for example. When toilets and sinks aren’t used, hard water buildup affects the fixtures. They will need to be replaced much sooner than they would in an actively used building. So, I go around and flush the toilets to circulate the water, waiting for the day when the museum will again be humming with activity.
Luke Schultz is director of facilities at Madison Children’s Museum in Madison, Wisconsin.
By Mary Maher
On March 16, due to the rapidly spreading coronavirus, DISCOVERY Children’s Museum (DCM) in Las Vegas, Nevada, closed. Some staff, who had been tracking local response to the pandemic wave, were not surprised; others were caught off-guard by the museum’s swift decision. At first, most staff, like most people in the U.S., thought their regional shutdown would be short—two weeks. At the time, even that seemed drastic, but no one was prepared for the lengthy unknown that has followed.
When the announcement came, all staff felt supported by a “heartfelt email” from museum CEO Melissa Kaiser assuring them that their jobs were safe, and that those who were able to work from home would be able to do so. Many of front-line staff’s extended families fortunately were able to keep their jobs as well, and even though other aspects of the quarantine, including juggling work and family responsibilities at home, were challenging, financial hardships did not immediately emerge.
This article shares the stories of the many DCM staff who deal daily and directly with museum visitors. From interns to learning educators to visitor services staff, how did they handle the quarantine. What did they learn about themselves, both personally and professionally, in this mandatory timeout? And how will they take this new knowledge back to their work with visitors since the museum reopened on July 2?
Visitor services staff Ayesha Inayat: “Visitors make our job!” While most staff were grateful to able to work from home and regularly connect with coworkers through video team meetings and emails, all agreed it felt odd.
Lisa Esterkamp, assistant director of visitor services: “It was very weird. I deal primarily with the visitors, and I spend the majority of my time in very close physical contact with my team. It was a big adjustment to move to online/phone meetings and communication.”
Sales Coordinator Connor Tetter: “I didn’t realize how much I missed my coworkers until we were finally able to start returning to the building.”
But perhaps Marketing Content Specialist Jessica Duffin summed it up best: “The museum felt so lifeless without hundreds of kids running around. In a way, this has been a good reminder that, beyond exhibits and programs, kids give the museum its magic.”
Shortly after closing, however, museum staff began planning for the reopening, adhering to evolving state and local guidelines. Every aspect of the facility was cleaned and scrutinized for health and safety precautions related to COVID-19. Staff worked to close or adapt exhibits, make museum admissions reservation-only and establish capacity limits, and create new signage to (playfully) keep visitors informed about new rules.
Floor staff, key in ensuring returning visitors stay safe while enjoying a much-needed return to fun, were involved from the beginning in reopening plans. Discovery Children’s Museum’s floor staff, known as the Learning Education Team, and members of the museum’s internship program, YouthWorks, worked along with other staff to create a plan. Before determining how to best support returning visitors, all staff were asked to think about what situations might arise and what new mindsets they might encounter among once familiar audiences, many venturing out for the first time.
Staff at all levels agreed that many families need a break and are eager to get out of the house and enjoy a relaxing and fun museum visit. Kids especially, cooped up for months, might be ready to really cut loose. Staff thought they would be dealing with a range of mindsets—from anxious parents needing reassurance about their and their children’s safety to those who seem unconcerned or resistant to following safety guidelines. It was agreed that every visitor would be treated with the same patience and empathy to ensure a great experience.
To that end, the museum created an Empathy Policy, guidelines created to assist staff in engaging with visitors in today’s sensitive climate. During its creation, following the popular notion that people will support what they help to create, all staff were encouraged to think about putting themselves in the shoes of the person with whom they’re engaging, and trying to understand their situation. For example, prior to closure, most interactions with visitors were brief. Coming out of lockdown, people might be eager to start talking again—to anyone—which could lead to them to confide their quarantine trials and tribulations to staff unprepared to deal with that level of personal information.
Lisa Esterkamp: “The guidelines document is more of an addendum to our current visitor engagement training. It takes a deeper dive into four topics we felt were the most important for today’s ‘new normal’: Empathy, Active Listening, Transparency, and Patience. Not only will we be interacting with visitors, who will all have different thoughts and feelings about current events, but our employees are also going through this as well and may need additional support to help navigate their own experience. It was important to create a training that prepares them for both visitor and team member interactions.
“The new document shows the team how to slow down and spend time with the visitors. Pre-pandemic, we were high traffic, often with a line out the door. Quick, friendly, and efficient engagement was a focus, because visitors waiting in long lines can have a negative experience. Now, with physical distancing and attendance caps, wait times are inevitable. We hope to use them as opportunities to spend quality time with our visitors, getting to know them, seeing how they’re doing, and asking how we can help. The greater, more personalized engagement we can deliver today will keep them coming back in the future.”
YouthWorks intern Nayeli Lara: “… during their visit, I want them to have the best day of their life for however long they stay. I’ll refrain from heavy conversations or topics and let them immerse themselves in whatever gallery I am in that day. So at least they can rest easy that night knowing they had an awesome day at the museum.”
Learning Education Team member Kurt True: “I’ve been concerned since the beginning of the shutdown that children, especially the younger ones, will think that they are responsible for the sudden radical changes that they’ve experienced in their lives since the middle of March. It’s not unusual for small children to engage in this kind of self-blame when they experience an unexpected loss, for instance when parents divorce, or a pet dies, or a family moves to a new neighborhood.
“Children experiencing that kind of self-blame can become socially withdrawn and often lose ground developmentally. All of us on the floor are going to have to give a lot of extra encouragement to children who’ve been emotionally impacted by enforced social distancing over the past few months, but also we need to remember that children who are having emotional or developmental difficulties are going to need time to find their way back to their respective baselines. We can’t force or coerce them back. The best we can do sometimes is be a calming presence.”
Prior to pandemic closure, most museum staff who dealt directly with visitors agreed that working with visitors—especially kids—was the most rewarding part of their jobs. They loved helping a child learn a new skill or work through a knotty problem. They enjoyed helping parents and caregivers feel comfortable in the museum, ready to engage in learning activities with their kids or just have a fun, relaxing time. Even the occasional hard-to-please visitors, though sometimes challenging, inspired professional growth. For a few intern staff, it was sometimes nerve-wracking but ultimately gratifying to successfully deal with “codes” (direct radio messages to staff about serious problems in the museum, such as a missing child).
So, what was it like for people staff to suddenly be disconnected from their people? Again, although everyone was grateful to still be employed, it varied. Some staff were surprised at how much they enjoyed working from home; some felt even more productive working alone. But through technology, they were able to stay connected with and supported by their team members and leadership staff.
Ania Lopez: “I am most surprised at how I am still able to interact with guests through the museum’s website and social media pages. Personally, I am surprised at how creative I’ve become with my work-from-home assignments.” Many staff were also grateful to have work assignments that helped focus their day.
Alondra Rocha: “Six people, including me and my two older sisters plus two dogs sharing a two-bedroom house has taken a toll. My weekly museum assignments were fun and kept me feeling it would all go back to normal soon.”
Ayesha Inayat: “Working from home isn’t as fun as it was in the beginning. Staying home every day has been trying. But our team has come together in an astounding way. Our CEO continued to boost morale, letting us know that she valued all of our work. It definitely helped me feel good about the work that I was doing even though at home.”
For some, especially YouthWorks interns—high school students used to busy, but structured schedules—the change caused them to suddenly dig deep for personal motivations. Some were surprised and buoyed by discovering a continued interest in pursuing their goals; others experienced a mix of motivational levels, but relied on friends and family (and pets!) to get them back on track. A few enjoyed the lack of structure and social engagement that freed them up to pursue dormant interests.
But the majority were eager for the museum to reopen, for visitors to return, and for them to get back to what they love.
Akira Tate: “Fourteen weeks working from home has made me realize how much I miss being at the museum.”
Some staff have learned that working from home is probably not a future option they would willingly choose.
Nicholas Coffey: “I have learned that I will never voluntarily work from home. Turns out I need to leave the house to feel fulfilled.”
Otila Prive: “I realized how much of a positive mental impact work has on me. Being out and interacting with other people is something I didn’t know I would need so much. Staying in my house all day—and every day in the beginning—started to take a toll on me.”
Everyone expressed complete trust in the museum’s new cleaning, safety, and operational procedures.
Marina Chavez: “The museum is taking lots of precautions to make sure staff and visitors are safe, following the guidelines like checking everyone’s temperatures and making sure visitors and staff are using hand sanitizers. The museum is probably the safest place to go compared to other places.”
Kurt True: “Who or what has been most helpful to me during the quarantine? That’s easy. The Facilities staff. Without them, I wouldn’t have a job to go back to tomorrow.”
All staff are looking forward to reconnecting with visitors and with their coworkers. The silver lining, if there is one, of this sudden and extended personal and professional retreat is that floor staff and all staff who deal daily with visitors are eager to return to what they feel they excel at: helping children and their families have fun learning experiences at the museum. They feel prepared to deal with the new museum environment and supported by their directors and managers. The future is still uncertain. We are not back to “normal,” but for this group of Discovery Children’s Museum floor staff the pause has given them time to think about their roles on their teams and what they can now bring back to the museum and its visitors.
Ashten Davis: “…having just been at the museum for five days before we closed, the quarantine has been difficult in some aspects but I am excited to go back, and I am leaving quarantine a better person.”
Jessica Duffin: “These past few months have opened my eyes to just how lucky I am to work for the museum. Our higher ups, especially our CEO, have handled this shutdown with more compassion and grace than any of us could have wished for. From the very beginning, they made us feel important and that they were going to do whatever it took to protect our jobs and our pay during these difficult times. I love my job and what I do, but even more, I love the people I work for.”
Mary Maher is the editor and designer of Hand to Hand.
Thanks to Jodi Gutstein, director of marketing and communications at Discovery Children’s Museum, for collecting thoughts from the following staff members included in this article:
Ayesha Inayat, assistant manager of sales and visitor services and data specialist; Conner Tetter, sales coordinator; Daniela Flores-Bello, visitor services coordinator; Jessica Duffin, marketing content specialist; and Lisa Esterkamp, assistant director of visitor services.
Learning Education Team members: Ania Lopez, Ashten Davis, Emma Agundez, Joselyn Gurrola, Kurt True, Lexi Keaton, Lidia Macario, Mahaleah Murdock, Marina Chavez, Nicholas Coffey, Otila Prive, Samantha Sleigher, Serio Lopez
YouthWorks Interns: Akira Tate, Alondra Rocha, Angela January, Christian Manriquez, Clarisa Del Toro, Kahleia Corpuz, Nayeli Lara, Nigel Simon.
In light of the extraordinary circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest issue of Hand to Hand, “Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations,” will be published online rather than printed. You can read the issue in full here on the ACM blog, and also find the PDF in ACM’s Online Member Resources Library.
When this issue was originally scheduled last year, it was planned to focus on how children’s museums could maximize core operations, examine existing structures and practices, and fine-tune operations to be prepared to withstand “economic fluctuations and other curveballs.”
No one could have predicted the curveball of COVID-19. While most articles in this issue were written in early 2020, before the pandemic reached its peak, all have been updated to acknowledge our current challenges. The next issue of Hand to Hand, scheduled for August 2020, will focus entirely on the children’s museum field’s response to COVID-19.
We are currently evaluating future topics beyond this summer, as well as distribution models to ensure all ACM members have access to Hand to Hand.
Read the issue!
A Note from the Editor
An introduction to the issue from Mary Maher, editor of Hand to Hand.
Thriving (in a Downturn)
Charlie Trautmann, Sciencenter
Consider three keys to success for museums looking to increase their strength and capacity: building community value, managing finances wisely, and practicing appropriate governance.
From Protests to Virus: Operational Changes with an Eye on Survival
Serena Fan, Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Museum
Learn how the Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Museum has adapted to the back-to-back challenges of ongoing protests and COVID-19 across staffing, scheduling, cleaning, and more.
Navigating with Knowledge: Using Data Strategically to Maximize Impacts and Benefits
John W. Jacobsen with Laura Roberts, David Ellis, George Hein, and Lynn Baum
The authors of the recently-completed Assessing Museum Impact (AMI) Research Project discuss the importance of using data to get where you want to go.
AMI: What We Learned about Data—Collecting It, Analyzing It, Using It
Q&A with Jane Bard, Children’s Museum of New Hampshire
Hear from the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire, one of six museums that participated in the Assessing Museum Impact Research Project, about how their lessons learned to build a more sustainable operation.
Positioning for Growth: Thanksgiving Point Restructures to Ensure Long-Term Sustainability
Stephen Ashton, PhD, Gary Hyatt, Lorie Millward, and Mike Washburn, Thanksgiving Point
Since opening in 1996, Thanksgiving Point, a museum complex in Lehi, Utah, has restructured for sustainability, unifying its different venues under a united leadership structure.
What We Learned from 2008:
Reflections from two museums that weathered the 2008 recession
Operating in Five Locations Since Opening in 2006 Has Taught Us Flexibility
Lisa Van Deman and Melanie Hatz Levinson, Kidzu Children’s Museum
Museum leaders reflect on the many changes Kidzu Children’s Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina has undergone since first opening in 2006.
Contingency Planning, Multiple Budget Scenarios, and Creative Operating Models: Then, Now, and Always
Patty Belmonte, Hands On Children’s Museum
Hear how Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia, Washington, leveraged in-kind donations to move to a new location in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis.
By Mary Maher, Editor, Hand to Hand
In June 2019, I met with ACM staff to plan topics for the coming year. At the time, blips were showing up on ACM Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus’s broader nonprofit radar indicating an economic downturn coming soon. Exactly when or how bad, no one could say, but many people were certain that it would occur.
In that light, this issue, themed Tighten Up: Streamlining Museum Operations, was planned to focus on how children’s museums could maximize core operations, examine existing structures and practices, and fine-tune operations to be prepared to withstand “economic fluctuations and other curveballs.”
In the fall of that year, with the stock market booming and other economic indicators trending up, concerns about a downturn receded a bit. Nevertheless, with many museums working toward strengthening their financial positions for an always uncertain future, a focus on economic flexibility still seemed apt.
In late February 2020, as first drafts appeared, two of them mentioned operational issues related to current and anticipated problems with the emerging Coronavirus. The Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Center was actively dealing with that city’s full-blown health crisis. Ending the original version of her piece about financial planning lessons learned in the 2008 recession, Patty Belmonte, CEO of Hands On Children’s Museum (Olympia, Washington), said, “Right now I’m thinking…what if coronavirus spirals in the U.S.? We are making contingency plans for that scary possibility.”
Within two weeks, the “other curveballs” slammed home. Countries went from watching COVID-19 unfold in other places to an unprecedented nearly country-wide shut downs. In the U.S., all children’s museums closed within a week. Many staff were furloughed or let go. Remaining staff worked from home, revising budgets to keep their museums alive and creating new or packaging existing museum programs to stay connected to quarantined children whose educations were now being directed by their parents. With no “all-clear” date in sight, museums around the world monitored health-related developments while beginning the monumental task of preparing to safely reopen.
Amidst the field’s currently triaged efforts at survival, would the information gathered for this museum operations issue still be relevant, and would museum staff be in a mindset to find it useful? After much discussion and a thorough review and update of articles to respond to today’s priorities, a decision was made to proceed. As museums continue to plan both long- and short-term throughout this crisis, we are hopeful that readers will find the information helpful in reopening even stronger museums that will continue to serve the many children and families who sorely miss us.
By Charlie Trautmann, Sciencenter
As with all of the contributions to this issue of Hand to Hand, the text of this article was written before the current outbreak of the novel coronavirus that caused all children’s museums to temporarily close their doors in March 2020. To preserve relevance, the editor and I have made a few minor modifications to the original article, but because I believe that leadership at all levels involves short-term management decisions made in the context of long-term thinking, I hesitated to make major changes. While the details of how children’s museums will operate after re-opening is still unclear, what is clear to me is that the key points made in the article will likely remain relevant—and become perhaps even more so—in the future.
How can a children’s museum withstand short-term fluctuations of the economy and also thrive in the long term? Although many factors are involved, three areas that stand out as keys to success include:
In this article, we’ll examine each of these broad topics and show a few examples of how children’s museums can use them to increase their strength and capacity to succeed.
Successful museums are, first and foremost, essential to their community—not just nice, but necessary. During downturns, communities rally to the aid of their most essential assets—and this is where children’s museums should strive to position themselves. There are several ways to build this sense of being “necessary” in a community.
Recognize that the more a museum gives away, the greater the return of community support. It might seem counterintuitive that giving away admissions, programs, and other benefits can lead to greater income. However, when a museum provides free or low-cost services that a community wants, it is more likely the community will value the museum as necessary and worthy of philanthropic support, especially in tough times.
For example, several years ago the Sciencenter held informal meetings over coffee with our county’s Head Start coordinators. We found that early STEM learning was a high priority for them, but was an area in which they had no expertise. A natural partnership evolved over the next several years, starting with the museum providing free programming. This led to a modest budget for regular events for caregivers and children at the Sciencenter. Head Start supplied hot dinners, coordinated the schedule, and publicized the events, while the museum provided space, activities, and staff educators. Members of the local government, donors, and educators now consider this partnership an important asset and a key part of the educational infrastructure in our community. More than one million dollars of new program support has followed, much of it from private donors who became inspired with serving those families with the fewest opportunities.
Create exhibits, programs, and events your community is passionate about. How can a museum do this? It’s simple, just ask! Talk with museum members, guests, and others in the community to learn about their interests and aspirations. Advisory groups, parent groups, and teachers are all happy to share their ideas. The Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum, while listening to its audience, found that food security was a top issue. As a result, they initiated a weekly farmers market in a pavilion on their site and rapidly won the praise of their community. Food turned out to be a versatile topic for education about nutrition, STEM, and culture.
At the Sciencenter, staff and volunteers were losing enthusiasm for a long-running offsite Egg Drop event, in which participants designed a device to protect an egg from breaking when dropped from three floors. But our community readily provided a solution by suggesting an onsite Halloween event. The new event drew twice the attendance of the former event and attracted people to the museum instead of to an offsite location; sponsorship for the new event increased five-fold over the old event.
Actively work for diversity. When developing activities for new audiences, it is important to remember that removing barriers to participation is necessary, but not sufficient to ensure that the activity will be truly embraced by a new audience. For example, free entrance admission and transportation alone won’t cause families from traditionally underrepresented communities to flock to a museum. Many museums incorrectly believe that if they promote their programs broadly enough, everyone will respond by participating. However, making new audiences feel welcome requires hard work: to demonstrate a sincere commitment to inclusivity and cement a true sense of welcome, you must reach out over the long haul and develop new relationships. Consider inviting members of the new audience to serve on the staff or board or as volunteers. (Trautmann et al. 2018; Dawes 2017).
The Sciencenter became aware of a need for families with children with sensory processing disorders to have a safe space to take their children. Rather than just offering free admission, the museum partnered with a local nonprofit serving families with disabilities and learned about the specific needs of this audience. The resulting pay-as-you-can Sensory Hours program—held on Sunday mornings when the museum was otherwise closed—became highly used by families and their children, and within several years received generous multi-year support from New York State.
The best financial managers work to meet both short-term metrics as well as long-term goals that transcend their own tenure. It’s a philosophy that requires transparency of financial results, conservatism in estimating income, long-term thinking, and the indirect benefits that come from giving back to the community. Here are several ideas for maintaining strong financial hygiene.
Develop a diverse mix of income sources. Work toward a mix of earned, contributed, grant, endowment, and other forms of support. At the Sciencenter, we maintain five primary sources, none of which provides more than 30 percent of total income. Combined income from admissions plus memberships is maintained below 20 percent of total revenues.
Recognize that earned income comes in two categories. Earned income can come from either visitors (e.g., memberships, entrance and program fees, gift shop, food service, parking, etc.) or non-visitor sources (venue rentals, grants, exhibition rentals, educational services, leasing of unneeded space, etc.). Having a business model that actually minimizes income from visitors is a great way to strengthen community relationships and increase the incentive for donors to support your museum. Some museums, such as the Children’s Museum of Tacoma, have gone as far as instituting a “pay as you can” model. Many others have embraced Museums for All, a cooperative initiative between the Association of Children’s Museums and the Institute of Museum and Library Services in which visitors showing an EBT card at the front desk pay $3 or less for museum admission.
While some museums attempt to squeeze every dollar from their visitors during each visit as a way to close the nonprofit funding gap, museums that take a different approach and subsidize operations through non-visitor revenue sources (and thereby promote frequent visits and being a child’s “home away from home”) are much more likely to be regarded as “necessary” if and when financial difficulties appear. Museums that charge $20-25 admission per person hardly tug at the heartstrings of most donors.
On the other hand, increasing earned revenue from non-visitor sources, such as rental of unneeded space, exhibition rentals, or sales of educational materials, is viewed positively by communities. It signals an entrepreneurial spirit that reduces costs to visitors, diversifies income sources, and bodes well for long-term financial wellbeing.
Know the difference between capital vs operating costs. Many museums have unknowingly entered into financial trouble because they ignored the difference between capital and operating costs. Capital costs, such as one-time costs of constructing a new building or addition, are relatively easy to raise, because donors are generally inspired by the vision of a new, tangible asset. However, boards and staff are transitory, and often the board and staff that raised the money for a new facility are gone when the need for ongoing operating support becomes the reality.
The best insurance against these kinds of costs is for a museum to be conservative and realistic regarding its projected attendance and the operating budget estimates for a new facility. Interactive museums in the U.S. typically see about six visitors/sq ft/year, with children’s museums slightly higher than average and less-interactive natural history museums slightly below average. Be wary of any estimate for a new museum of greater than eight visitors/sq ft/year, and of greater than two to four visitors/sq ft/year for an addition to an existing museum (Trautmann 2017).
Start (or grow) your endowment. All museums should have an endowment, if their governance allows for it. If your museum does not have an endowment, start one. A good rule of thumb is to shoot for an endowment equal to twice the annual operating budget, which will produce enough annual income to support about 10 percent of the annual budget. The Sciencenter began its endowment in 1994, just as its first capital campaign was ending; many board members were opposed on the grounds that operational needs were more critical and that “we can always start an endowment in the future.” With a steady drumbeat of promotion, however, the museum’s endowment grew to $5 million in the twenty-five years that followed and now provides almost 10 percent of the museum’s operating income—slightly more than the museum’s annual fund.
Avoid debt! Museums should avoid taking on debt of any type, but especially long-term debt. This discipline requires conservatism during capital campaign planning to avoid starting a construction project that ends up costing more than can be raised. Debt makes a museum highly vulnerable to financial downturns, because debt service remains, even if revenues decline. In addition, debt service is about as un-appealing a case for support as it gets, and donors often shy away from supporting an organization if they learn that their support dollars are going to a bank to service a debt, rather than delivering programs to the museum’s audience.
Unfortunately, debt is often advocated by business-savvy board members who are used to the tax advantages of debt financing of for-profit organizations. Because nonprofits have no tax advantages, however, debt financing brings few advantages and, on the other hand, can be debilitating. The only type of debt a museum should take on is short-term borrowing for well-defined cash-flow purposes, such as when receipt of a confirmed grant or donation is expected after the expenditures of a program or other project are incurred. For construction projects, building in phases is the best way to complete a large capital project with reduced financial risk and without long-term debt.
Improving governance is easy to ignore, because even though it’s important, it is rarely urgent, and therefore rarely rises to the top of a CEO’s list of priorities. However, at least 5-10 percent of a museum’s efforts should be devoted to “sharpening the saw” of governance. Good governance makes every other activity of a museum more efficient and effective, and helps a museum avoid debilitating issues that can absorb large amounts of management time and attention later on. Here are several suggestions for improving governance.
Develop short but strong mission, vision, and values statements (MVV) and use them regularly in making decisions. Short, specific statements are easier to remember than long, inclusive paragraphs and are more likely to inspire staff, board, volunteers, members, and friends to use them in daily decision-making. Well-crafted MVV can serve as effective initial filters for accepting or rejecting ideas that cross a director’s desk. All museums are constantly approached by those who offer partnerships with strings attached, and starting with “Does this idea advance our mission, vision, and values?” is a good way to begin the decision-making process.
Think of diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) as a process, not a destination. Many museum board members and staff think of diversity as a destination (“We’ll recruit two members of color to our board and then we’ll be diverse.”) Instead, think of DEI as a journey, which we start, continually get better at, and continue for as long as we serve our museum audiences.
While good museums are resilient, the best museums seek to be “anti-fragile.” Good museums weather storms, but the best museums have an active process for learning from them, so they can become stronger and better over time, much as a muscle ultimately becomes stronger after being temporarily weakened by exercise. A muscle needs more than just exercise, it needs nutrition and rest. Trainers call this the “Fitness Cycle,” characterized by stress, recovery, and adaptation. Similarly, the best museums do post-mortem exercises to learn from stressful events, whether financial, operational, governance-related, etc. In this way, they become more able to avoid similar situations in the future as a result of their learning. For these museums, problems become a laboratory for learning and continuous improvement. COVID-19 is no exception, and once museums are (hopefully!) able to view the current pandemic in hindsight, it will be helpful to document their experiences, share them, and learn from both theirs and others.
Prepare for the Black Swan. A Black Swan is an event that is so unlikely that it literally doesn’t fall on any reasonable distribution of statistical likelihood (Taleb 2007). The novel coronavirus that is currently affecting people worldwide is an example of a Black Swan: no one had predicted that such a viral outbreak in Wuhan, China, would cause such widespread disruptions to business and life worldwide. On a more local level, the sudden illness or death of a key staff or board member; a fire, hurricane, or earthquake; or even a water main break that closes the street by a museum’s entrance—all of these events can severely affect a museum’s capacity to deliver on its MVV and survive as an organization. The best way to prepare for a Black Swan is to conduct periodic scenario planning, train board and staff, discuss options with an insurance carrier, and maintain a liquid reserve fund equal to three to six months of operating expenses.
Building community value, managing finances wisely, and practicing appropriate governance are three broad areas of museum operations that directly affect a museum’s capacity to thrive, especially in the difficult environment caused by a financial downturn. While I have shared a few specific ways in which museums can address these topics, there are many other actions that could be appropriate for individual museums and their communities. These examples are meant to provide a starting point for discussion; creative staffs and boards can brainstorm other specific measures that make the most sense from the perspective of their own communities and financial contexts.
Charlie Trautmann teaches and conducts research on early childhood education in the Dept. of Psychology at Cornell University. He was previously director of the Sciencenter in Ithaca, NY for twenty-six years and has served on the boards of the Association of Children’s Museums and the Association of Science-Technology Centers. He holds a PhD in Civil Engineering from Cornell.
Dawson, E., “Not Designed for Us: How Science Museums and Science Centers Socially Exclude Low-Income, Minority Ethnic Groups,” Science Education, 89:6, Nov. 2014, p. 981-1008 https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.21133
Taleb, N.N. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Random House, 2007, p. 400.
Trautmann, C.H., Bevilaqua, D., Chen, G., Monjero, K., and Valenta, C., “Reaching New Audiences at Science Centers and Museums,” Informal Learning Review, Denver, CO, May-June 2018, pp. 13-19.
Trautmann, C.H., “The Business of Science Centers,” ASTC Dimensions, Association of Science-Technology Centers, Washington, DC, May-June 2017.
By Serena Fan, Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Museum
After almost three years of planning, Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Museum (HKCDM) opened in September 2018 on the first floor of a commercial building in a family-friendly district on Hong Kong Island. The 6,600-square-foot space has more than forty exhibits for families with children ten years old and under to explore, create, and express themselves. During our first year of operation, 60,000 visitors came to the museum, including field trip visitors from 210 kindergartens, primary schools, and other community organizations. HKCDM opened with eighteen full time and twenty-three part time staff.
Due to capacity issues, this city’s first children’s museum initially opened on a reservation-only basis. (By law, HKCDM has a maximum capacity of 200 people, including staff.) Three daily fixed-time sessions allowed visitors to explore the museum for up to two and a half hours. The timed reservation system helped ensure we would not have to turn visitors away, as our online ticketing platform could show when a session was full. Visitors could purchase tickets before coming or, take their chances: if the session was not full upon arrival, they could purchase tickets onsite.
In addition to legal capacity, the three fixed time slots were important because of the one-hour break in between them. This respite allowed us sufficient time to clean thoroughly, as Hong Kong parents are hyper-vigilant about cleanliness. More importantly, it provided time for staff to process what we just experienced and to quickly share how we could do things better in the next session.
There were downsides to the ticketing platform. If a family pre-purchased tickets and a child became ill, we had to help them rebook their visit to another day. It was also challenging in the event of sudden inclement weather, like typhoons or heavy rain, during which we would have to rebook multiple sessions. We also learned that the fixed visiting times were restrictive for a primary demographic—families with toddlers—as each child’s eating and sleeping routines could vary from day to day.
Almost ten months after opening, as staff gained experience, the need for the hour-long cleaning and debrief intervals was reduced. So we started planning to move to a more traditional museum visitation model, where visitors could arrive at any time. Still bound by maximum capacity levels, we would keep visit durations at two and a half hours.
Less than a year after HKCDM’s opening, Hong Kong experienced a major citywide disruption. In June 2019, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against the Hong Kong government’s proposed extradition bill, which would allow criminal fugitives to be extradited to places with which Hong Kong currently does not have an extradition agreement. Notably, one of those countries is mainland China. When the government decided to proceed with the reading of the bill, a much larger demonstration was organized, which ended with the deployment of tear gas and rubber bullets. From there, weekly weekend demonstrations, often ending with tear gas, were common.
As time progressed, weekday boycotts called for citizens to stay home from work as a way to show support against the extradition bill. At the height of the anger against the government, demonstrators successfully shut down the city’s transportation system for a week. The Mass Transit Railway (subway) was so damaged at some major stations that it became unusable. In addition, roadblocks were set up at key areas around the city. Between the two, it was practically impossible to go anywhere. During that week, schools closed and more than half of our staff were unable to come to work.
Needless to say, these unprecedented events left us scrambling to put protocols into place. Furthermore, it pushed us to quickly change the way we operated, especially because it was predicted that protests could last for months and it was clear visitor attendance was already being affected. New and unforeseen variables added to the known limitations of the reservation system.
In July 2019, we piloted open sessions for two weeks. Visitors could come experience HKCDM for two and a half hours at any time during our regular hours. New visitors thanked us for the change, as some had always wanted to come, but could never find a session time that fit their schedule. Now they could come at a time that was most convenient for them. We learned some things about ideal visit start times as well. Our previous 12:30 p.m. fixed session start times were not as busy as our 4:00 p.m. sessions, because most families were still eating lunch midday. Once we moved to open sessions, we saw a rise in families coming at 1:30 p.m. On the weekend, this flexibility became important, because families would come in the early afternoon and leave in time to get home before the protests started again in the evening.
However, during the two-week pilot, we learned that the museum would need to implement major operational changes before this system became permanent. For example, we required a more sophisticated point-of-sale system. Open admissions required staff to handle all ticketing directly, instead of relying on the online ticketing platform formerly used to make reservations. We also needed a dedicated phone line and staff member to answer visitors’ inquiries about fluctuating daily capacity. We determined it would take us two months to adequately prepare for a permanent change to open sessions. So, we returned to our original fixed session system once the pilot was completed. This was painful, as the protests continued and families were limited to when they could come. The decrease in attendance was drastic, but we remained committed to a return to the fixed session system until staff was completely comfortable with a more sustainable plan.
In early November 2019, we switched permanently to open sessions. By then, protests were somewhat dying down, although families were still planning weekend activities around where ongoing protests were scheduled to take place. On weekends when rumors indicated that protests would occur near us, attendance would be low. Furthermore, the hot and humid summer had changed to cool and crisp fall weather, so fewer families were searching for engaging indoor activities. Thankfully, school field trips resumed so we were busy during the weekdays.
In mid-February 2020, Hong Kong experienced its second major citywide disruption within eight months. The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, closed schools and government facilities, such as libraries and swimming pools, until further notice. As news of the virus began to emerge, our first response was to purchase an enormous supply of face masks and cleaning supplies. The day after this purchase was made, both masks and supplies were either completely sold out or twice the price all over the city. Thankfully we made a timely decision to purchase additional supplies, as the stress of not having enough masks or cleaning products would have been tremendous and extremely costly. It may also have hindered our decision as to whether to open and for how long we could operate.
We also reverted back to fixed-time sessions. Once again, people need to make a reservation before coming to the museum. However, a new part of the reservation process requires potential visitors to answer a travel-related question: has anyone in the group wishing to visit been anywhere outside of Hong Kong in the past fourteen days (the virus’s supposed incubation period). In order to avoid discriminating against people traveling from different countries (mainland China, for example, as opposed to Canada, where the virus was exceedingly rare at the time), we made the difficult decision to impose a blanket ban on all destinations outside of Hong Kong. If anyone in the group answers yes, staff politely asked that the family book at a later date.
We also established new guidelines. All visitors and staff must wear a surgical facemask throughout their time at the museum (if they do not have them, the museum will supply them) and we lowered our maximum capacity number to fifty people. With fewer visitors, everyone can spread out and if a sick person, often yet to be diagnosed, is in the museum, the chances of infecting others are lower. Despite these precautionary measures, reservations are understandably still down. Although we were only able to open four days in February, some families were grateful that we were open at all so that their children could run around and to do something different from being cooped up at home.
After three years of conscientious planning, the museum opened with every expectation of success. However, these two unparalleled, back-to-back challenges have not only severely reduced admissions revenues, but have drained our three months of operating revenue cash reserves as well. Fortunately, museum donors are still supportive of HKCDM’s work, so the goal is to try to survive this period of unknowns.
In the meantime, we reduced expenses in order to sustain the museum through an indefinite period. For starters, beginning in February, temporary salary adjustments were put in place in accordance with Hong Kong employment regulations. All twenty of the museum’s full-time staff members received about 62 percent of their normal salaries. Fortunately, staff were in agreement with this arrangement. However, if the virus persists and the government continues to advocate that public places be closed, it is unclear whether this salary arrangement will continue to be acceptable to all. During this temporary reduced-salary period, the operations manager and myself are working full-time; remaining staff are working half-time, and sometimes from home.
Staff responsibilities have also been temporarily adjusted to make best possible use of available time and skills to meet the needs of the museum and our audience. For example, initially it was difficult to determine what additional tasks could be assigned to floor staff, working half their hours and with fewer visitors. Social media content, typically created and managed by the marketing team, was essential for keeping the public updated about health and safety measures as well as museum operating hours. We have now combined the skills of all teams to create social media content to keep our audience engaged. Floor staff and the education team are working together to create activities for children to do at home, which the marketing team then posts on the museum’s social media channels.
The above paragraphs were written in mid-February. Now, as we move into June, after a one-month mandatory closure by the government in April, we cautiously re-opened in May. People have gradually resumed going out to public places. Our reservation-only fixed-time sessions are often reaching our lowered maximum capacity. In the summer of 2019, many groups booked visits, but with the uncertainty of whether a second wave will occur in 2020, there have yet to be any similar bookings for the remainder of this year. We are planning to hold our own summer workshops to hopefully help generate additional revenue. While the past year has been difficult, we can confidently say we are a team of flexible, creative problem solvers, and that no problem is too big for us to tackle!
Serena Fan is the founder and executive director of the Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Museum.