Intention and Resolve: Moving into a New Better

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

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


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

Museums Mobilize

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

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

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

Evidence of The Four Dimensions of Children’s Museums

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

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

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

Dimension Examples
Local Destinations

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

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

Play-based pedagogies are developed and tested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (TX)


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

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

–Hands On Discovery Museum (Olympia, WA)

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

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


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

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

–Children’s Museum of Phoenix (AZ)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

–The Woodlands Children’s Museum (TX)

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

–ExpERIEnce Children’s Museum ( PA)

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

–Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum (Saginaw)

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

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

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

–KidsQuest Children’s Museum (Bellevue, WA)

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

–Lynn Meadows Discovery Center (Gulfport, MS)

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

–The Children’s Playhouse (Boone, NC)

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growth and Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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