Macro to Micro: Developing a Cohesive Social Media Strategy

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

Mary Maher | Interviewer

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

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

How does the museum develop a social media strategy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does the museum use any printed communication materials anymore?

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

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

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

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

What are some overlooked avenues of communication?

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

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

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

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

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


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

Ongoing challenge:

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


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

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

  • • Goals and objectives for the year

Example from 2021: Recapture general attendance

  • •  Messaging priorities for the year

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

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

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

Centering DEAI in Staff Recruitment and Hiring

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 Angela Henderson, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Like many cultural institutions and recreational venues across the country, the pandemic forced The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis to close its doors to the public in March 2020. What started out as a two-week closure became three and a half months. Institutional priority shifted to the safety and well-being of our staff, volunteers, interns, and visitors. Although the museum was closed to visitors, our need to act as a community anchor became more important than ever before. Museum staff worked hard to provide virtual experiences for online visitors that were both engaging and worthwhile. With the support of our board of trustees, we also were able to continue paying all staff during the entire closure without any furloughs. Because of these efforts, the museum continued to operate with a full staff throughout the closure.

In July 2020, the museum reopened to the public at 25 percent capacity with mask mandates and additional cleaning and safety protocols in place. Visitors were encouraged to purchase tickets online prior to their visit. Because on-site staff members were included in the museum’s capacity figure, those staff members who could work remotely were strongly encouraged to do so. Staff members working on-site were required to conduct daily self-health screenings and temperature checks upon entry. We also tracked daily staff, volunteer, and interns’ comings and goings in order to be prepared to perform any contract tracing, if necessary.

In fall 2020, as a result of decreased visitors and revenue, the museum made the tough decision to reduce the number of staff members by 5 percent. During this same time, the museum took a long hard look at staffing, visitation, and revenue projections for 2021. Fortunately, spring 2021 saw an increase in museum visitation, necessitating the recruiting and hiring of key positions across the organization. When we began the process of hiring again, we had rededicated ourselves to ensuring that our hiring practices were purposeful, inclusive, and equitable, to ensure we sourced and selected diverse candidates.

The Summer that Changed Everything

In the midst of challenges presented by the pandemic, the civil unrest during spring and summer 2020 also created opportunities for the museum to reexamine how we source, recruit, select, nurture, and retain staff members, especially people of color.

The injustices suffered by George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other African-Americans sparked difficult listening sessions and conversations both in our museum and throughout the country. To help with this very important work, in fall 2020, the museum engaged the expertise of Decide Diversity, a training and consultant firm that fills the gaps that traditional diversity and inclusion programs unintentionally create. These gaps are often seen in an organization’s lack of access and equity in practices; representation in exhibits, marketing materials, partnerships; inclusion of diverse people in leadership positions, and inclusive decision making.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis originally opened in 1925. Keeping in mind that it took nearly 100 years for our institutional culture to become what it is today, taking things to the next level and changing the perceptions of the community, our staff and volunteers, and our visitors will not happen overnight. The work we have begun with Decide Diversity is the first step to recreating our work environment and culture, and ensuring it is diverse and inclusive for all staff and volunteers.

Concurrent with the museum’s work with Decide Diversity, museum leaders decided to rethink and restructure the talent acquisition manager’s role with a strong emphasis on diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI). As DEAI talent acquisitions manager, I am responsible for the sourcing and recruitment of job applicants, as well as working closely with each department and its designated hiring managers—who, along with other duties, are responsible for staffing their particular departments—to further establish and maintain a work environment that is diverse, equitable, accessible, and inclusive for all. I previously worked in the museum’s community initiatives department, and before then held positions with Dayton Public Schools and the Indianapolis Public Schools Innovation School Network, where I saw firsthand how the lack of equity in education affects our youngest citizens. To my professional experience, I add my own personal history, as a mom of Black children and the daughter of two working class parents. This role supports my passion for working to combat and unravel systems that have been stacked heavily against communities of color.


Creating a diverse hiring pool of candidates that represent various cultures and backgrounds while remaining true to the work-related tasks required of various positions is directly connected to where and how candidates are informed about available jobs.

Although the museum has historically tracked recruiting and sourcing information, we are being much more purposeful in our efforts to determine where candidates are coming from. We have increased our scrutiny of established sourcing activities, including career sites and job fairs, to see how many applicants they pull in and how many are hired. We have also begun to identify missed opportunities to reach a more diverse candidate pool through community and neighborhood engagement. We work with various community partners, including the museum’s own Community Initiatives department, Fathers and Families, Inc., Dress for Success, and several college and university partners. We now post open positions to new or under-utilized talent recruitment networks, such as Ascend Indiana, which allows employers to create organizational profiles where they can post open positions. Ascend Indiana also suggests candidates from their pool of job seekers, allowing our hiring managers to send personal invitations to these qualified candidates.

As we incorporate these additions and tweak other recruitment and sourcing activities, we are challenging ourselves as a division and an organization to track data that we can use to move the museum in a direction that not only shows that we are the “biggest and best children’s museum in the world” for our guests, but also for our staff, volunteers, and interns.

Screening Applicants for Diversity and Staff for Bias

A large institution like The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis requires a large, talented staff. Our organization is made up of nearly twenty-four departments with more than 330 employees. More than eighty of these employees serve as “hiring managers” for their departments.

As DEAI talent acquisitions manager, I work closely with the hiring managers throughout the sourcing, recruitment, and hiring process. Together, we discuss the scope of the posted position as well as ways to ensure equity and diversity within the candidate pool, identify other sources for recruitment, and establish hiring timelines. We openly talk about how they plan to incorporate DEAI strategies in the hiring process and how they can address—or avoid—their own biases that may have an impact on who they hire.

The first step to sourcing a more diverse candidate pool is to have a clear understanding that biases exist in all of us. Working to address and correct these biases will help to minimize them in the recruitment, hiring, nurturing, and retaining of staff members. People are naturally inclined to want to socialize and work with people they feel they have something in common with or that they can relate to. For some departments, this proclivity extends to selecting candidates in the likeness of themselves. As we do the work to identify homogeneous groups, we note that this could signal that there are biases that need to be addressed and that tools and resources are needed to help correct them.

Creating a culture that emphasizes and places a high value on DEAI and its impact on our community requires purposeful action. For the recruitment and placement piece of our business, DEAI involves making sure we are equitably and consistently giving all under-represented groups an opportunity to be considered and hired for jobs at the museum. We want our hiring managers to know that being purposeful in our DEAI efforts is essential to achieving our ultimate goal of hiring the right people for the right jobs. Hiring a candidate who doesn’t meet the job requirements simply because of their race or gender does an enormous disservice to the individual and the organization.

Responses to Unprecedented Challenges Create Lasting Change

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is changing the culture of the organization and developing an even more inclusive workplace and workforce. This work is not limited to HR; it is the work of everyone in the museum. We are expanding decision-making to include staff and volunteers at all levels of the organization and have established a DEAI task force. In pushing for change, the DEAI task force is looking at five key areas of museum business:

  • • Neighborhood Inclusion
  • • Internal Inclusion
  • • Equity & Accessibility
  • • Establishing a DEAI Learning Culture
  • • Hiring and Retaining Diverse Staff, Volunteer & Interns

2020 brought about changes and hardships we could never have imagined, but it also brought about a tremendous opportunity for The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis to examine who we are and who we want to be. It has forced us to prioritize what matters most to us as an organization and in doing so has reminded us that we are about and for all children and families; we must do our part to look like and be a safe space for everyone.

Angela Henderson has served as the DEAI Talent Acquisition Manager at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis since April 2021. Previously, she served in a number of community educational support roles, and was a Community Activist Fellow for the Wayfinder Foundation.

The First Four: Origin Stories of the First Children’s Museums in the United States

Pictured clockwise from top left: Brooklyn Children’s Museum (1899), Boston Children’s Museum (1913), The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (1925), and Detroit Children’s Museum (1917)

The following post appears in the “History and Culture Summit” issue of Hand to Hand, ACM’s quarterly journal.

By Jessie Swigger, PhD

In the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century, four museums for children opened in the United States: Brooklyn Children’s Museum (1899), Boston Children’s Museum (1913), the Detroit Children’s Museum (1917), and The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (1925). These four museums—opened by different individuals and groups in different places and at different times—were linked by more than their shared focus on young audiences.

First, they were all shaped by the progressive education movement, which was then at the height of its power and influence. Second, at each museum, women played significant leadership roles (which was unusual in the museum profession, or anywhere). Many of these women knew one another and created a new professional network for their particular brand of museum work. Reflecting on the origin stories of these pioneer children’s museums sheds light on current trends and directions in the children’s museum movement.


Brooklyn Children’s Museum (BCM) opened in 1899, less than one year after Brooklyn became a borough of New York City. The museum originally operated under the umbrella of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (BIAS), then in the process of moving into a new and much larger building under construction on Eastern Parkway. The children’s museum opened just a few blocks away in what was known as the Adams House in Bedford Park (now Brower Park) in Crown Heights.

BCM was open to the public, free of charge, and sought to provide young people with an introduction to the natural sciences that supported the “various classwork of the public schools,” particularly along the “lines of nature study.” The BIAS Annual Report of 1901-1902 included a special invitation to teachers encouraging them to draw on the museum’s resources when developing “class work in nature-study.” This focus on nature study is perhaps unsurprising—New York’s recently appointed superintendent of public schools, William Henry Maxwell, was an advocate for nature study in the curriculum.

The nature study movement, part of the increasingly popular progressive education movement, encouraged young people to learn by observing and interacting with the natural world. Historian Sally Gregory Kohlstedt explains that “at the core of nature study was a pragmatic insistence on using local objects for study emphasizing the connection between those objects and human experience.” It was particularly popular in urban areas, where progressives feared the lack of contact with nature in America’s growing cities would be detrimental to the Americanization of newly-arrived immigrants.

In 1902, Anna Billings Gallup, a teacher, nature study advocate, and recent graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, joined BAIS as an “assistant” at the children’s museum. Two years later she was named curator-in-chief. At a time when few women held significant positions in museums, Gallup was a pioneer.

Brooklyn Children’s Museum’s collections certainly reflected a commitment to nature study, but they also addressed the wide range of childhood interests and the breadth of the public school curriculum. Inside BCM, children found collections illustrating zoology, botany, U.S. history, mineralogy, geography, and art. Gallup explained in an article for Popular Science that the exhibits were “attractive in appearance, simple in arrangement, and labeled with descriptions adapted to the needs of children, printed in clear readable type.”

Gallup’s work was well recognized by her peers. In 1907, she was one of five women who attended the Second Annual Meeting of the American Association of Museums (AAM) in Pittsburg, PA, where she presented a paper titled “The Work of a Children’s Museum.” For the next thirty-four years, Gallup and her staff worked to expand the museum’s collection and physical presence.


Delia I. Griffin was one of the other women attending the 1907 AAM meeting, where she presented her paper, “The Educational Work of a Small Museum.” At the time, she was director of the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, VT. Like Gallup, Griffin was trained in nature study techniques and had even produced a pamphlet titled Outline of Nature Study for Primary and Grammar Grades. At St. Johnsbury, she created lesson plans in nature study at the museum for local public schools. Griffin and Gallup became friendly, and when a second museum for children opened in Boston, Gallup recommended Griffin for the job of curator.

In 1909, members of Boston’s Science Teachers’ Bureau began building a collection of natural history objects that could be used in public school classrooms. By 1913, the bureau had founded the second children’s museum in the United States, the Boston Children’s Museum. Like Brooklyn Children’s Museum, it was housed in a former mansion. Located at Pine Bank in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood, the museum offered children access to ethnographic, natural history, and historical collections. Griffin would later write that the goal of the children’s museum was to train the “plastic minds of children to observe accurately and think logically.”


In 1917, the Detroit Museum of Art, undergoing its own growth, opened a children’s museum, with yet another woman at the helm. Gertrude A. Gillmore, a supervising teacher of the Martindale Normal School, was appointed curator. She explained that the museum’s purpose would be “two-fold: to loan illustrative material to the schools and to attract the children to the Museum through monthly exhibits appealing directly to their interests.”

In 1919, Gillmore reflected on the Detroit Children’s Museum’s (DCM) progress in a report. Like Brooklyn and Boston, the museum’s work developed in tandem with that of public schools. While the collection was drawn from the Detroit Museum of Art’s holdings, the children’s museum reported, “in general our policy has been not to organize material as a collection until a wish for it has been expressed.” This approach meant that collections were created in response to requests from public school teachers in an even more direct way than at Brooklyn and Boston. By 1919, the children’s museum had hosted exhibits on the “History of Detroit,” “Common Birds and Mammals of Michigan,” and several exhibits on “phases of art of interest to children.” In 1927, the Detroit Museum of Art changed its name to the Detroit Institute of Arts and moved to a new and larger building on Woodward Avenue. Two years earlier, the DCM had been placed directly under the Detroit Board of Education. The Detroit Children’s Museum found a new home in a building type that was now a familiar one to children’s museums—a former mansion—the Farr Residence at 96 Putnam in Detroit.


The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis opened in 1925. Discussions about children and museums had begun two years before, when the Indianapolis Progressive Educational Association (PEA) held its first meeting at the Orchard Country Day School. Founded in 1922, the Orchard School was a fitting location for the meeting. The curriculum followed Marietta Pierce Johnson’s “Organic School Model.” Johnson drew from progressive educator and philosopher John Dewey’s ideas about learning by doing. Two of the school’s nine founders were Martha Carey and Mary Carey Appel, daughters of wealthy socialite Mary Stewart Carey. In fact, Mary Stewart Carey had donated her home and apple orchard for the cause.

There were several items on the PEA agenda, but most pressing was a desire to make the museum collections housed in the Statehouse available to the city’s public school children. Faye Henley, newly appointed director of the Orchard School, argued, “The material should be put into traveling cases and sent around to the schools.”

Mary Stewart Carey may not have been at this meeting, but it’s quite likely that she knew about the Indianapolis PEA and their conversation given her association with the Orchard School.

The next year, Mary Stewart Carey visited Brooklyn Children’s Museum while on vacation in nearby Asbury Park, NJ. Soon, she was on her way to the Adams House. When she returned to Indianapolis, she was determined to create a similar institution in her hometown.

Carey was well positioned for this kind of endeavor. Her philanthropic activities expanded beyond the recently founded Orchard School. For example, she played a key role in selecting the Indiana state flag in 1917, and was a member of the Indianapolis Woman’s Club and the Art Association of Indiana. Carey’s connections would prove useful in garnering support and resources for the museum.

Soon, an organizational committee was formed with Carey at the helm. They quickly formalized their commitment to creating a museum centered on their intended audience rather than a collection, writing that “the viewpoint of the child should be considered in providing for the equipment and installation of all materials.” Over the next few months, the museum wrote a constitution, elected a board of trustees, and began developing partnerships with the local public schools and with clubs for children.

The museum board had members and interest, but they lacked the funding to purchase a collection. So, the board called on the local community to donate objects they believed would educate children. Museum lore claims that the first donated objects were a few arrowheads that Carey’s grandchildren had found and given to her. They received an overwhelming response from community members. One woman tried to donate a live alligator, perhaps knowing the Brooklyn Children’s Museum included a live animal collection, but the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis turned it down. While its sister institutions had solicited collections from established sources, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, the children’s museum was the first to directly invite the community to participate in the creation of the collection.

In July 1925, the museum found its first home when the board rented a carriage house behind the Propylaeum, the city’s women’s literary society. By November, the board hired E.Y. Guernsey as curator. Guernsey was formerly an archaeologist for the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles and at the Spring Mill State Park in Mitchell, Indiana. When Guernsey oversaw the museum’s first opening to public school classes the following month, there were no cases. Instead, the objects were placed on tables, out in the open.

Two years later, primarily due to high rent, the museum moved out of its first carriage house home and into Carey’s former home on North Meridian, where children visited a larger collection distributed among themed rooms that included the Geology Gallery, the Natural Science Gallery, and the Pioneer Gallery.

Connecting Past and Present

The four museums discussed here were created more than 100 years ago, but their origin stories raise questions for the contemporary movement. Each museum had strong links to the progressive education movement and to public schools. In many ways, the first four children’s museums saw themselves as partners with public schools. How do current children’s museums work with schools, and how do they view their relationship with them? Second, women played a central role in founding each museum. As an extension of the public schools, where a majority of the teachers were women, it was acceptable for women to take on the role of curator or director of a children’s museum. These women formed an unofficial but important network as they shared ideas about how best to do children’s museum work. Do women continue to play a larger role in the children’s museum profession than in other fields, or has this changed over time? How has the presence of women from the very beginning impacted the approach of various children’s museums?

There are many other similarities that these first four museums shared. In studying the connections among Brooklyn, Boston, Detroit, and Indianapolis, we can learn more not only about the foundational history of children’s museums, but also about the current state of the field.

Jessie Swigger is the director of Western Carolina University’s Public History Program. She earned her MA and PhD in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to presenting at numerous regional and national conferences, her work has appeared in The Encyclopedia of Culture Wars and The 1980s: A Critical and Transitional Decade. In 2013, she received the North Carolina Museums Council Award of Special Recognition. Her award-winning book, History Is Bunk: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2014.

To read other articles in the “History & Culture Summit” issue of Hand to Handsubscribe todayACM members receive both digital and printed complimentary copies of Hand to Hand. ACM members can access their copies through the Online Member Resource Library–contact to gain access. 

Why Do We Need Children’s Museums?

In December, ACM’s executive director Laura Huerta Migus traveled to Poland for “Why Do We Need Children’s Museums?” a two-day conference jumpstarting the conversation around starting a children’s museum in Warsaw. The meeting was organized by the arts organization Artanimacje Association and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.

Six ACM member institutions sent staff to give presentations about their museums: Boston Children’s Museum, Brooklyn Children’s MuseumThe Children’s Museum of IndianapolisLondon Children’s MuseumMUZEIKO – America for Bulgaria, and Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling.

We asked them about their experiences traveling to Warsaw and sharing expertise with an international audience. Read their responses below!

Leslie Swartz, Senior Vice President for Research and Program Planning, Boston Children’s Museum, presented, “Boston Children’s Museum: It All Started with Collections.”

What most impressed me about the “Why Do We Need Children’s Museums” conference in Warsaw was the sophisticated, independent and progressive thinking among the organizers and participants. I was inspired by their high-level of organization and dedication to achieving the goal of starting children’s museums in Poland, a place where opportunities for creative playful learning are sorely needed. They are a group of smart, well-informed and determined people who want to effect change. They are also realistic about the obstacles they may face, and are gathering significant support to overcome barriers. By tapping into existing expertise in the field, they’re starting out more fully-equipped to reach their goals.

My talk was about collections at Boston Children’s Museum, reaching back to the museum’s founding in 1913 by progressive educators seeking to improve learning among all children and to nurture the development of good citizens. That was revolutionary at the time in the US.  (Maybe it still is revolutionary.) The history and evolution of children’s museums in the US seems particularly pertinent to Poland. The prairie fire of children’s museum development around the world is heartening and makes me hopeful.

Erin Hylton, former Education Programs Manager, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, presented, “Programming for Over a Century: Addressing the Needs of Children and their Families since 1899”

The meeting highlight was connecting with colleagues in Warsaw and hearing about the incredible projects they have created for children and young people in Poland. It was inspirational and illuminating to be a part of the beginning stages of the development of a children’s museum in Poland.

It was an incredible opportunity to connect with colleagues from around the world in Poland, as well as hear about the work happening in children’s museums across North America and Europe. The children’s museum field is as diverse as the families and communities we serve through a variety of programs, projects and exhibitions. It was encouraging to hear how we are all working through similar questions and solutions, including teaching empathy to our family and community audiences.

Susan Foutz
, Director of Research and Evaluation, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, presented, “Value of Research and Evaluation for Children’s Museums”

I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Warsaw and meeting new colleagues in the children’s museum field. As a tourist, the highlight of any trip is always visiting museums, and I had an incredible visit to POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. This museum tells of the rich, and heartbreakingly tragic, 1000-year history of Jews in Poland. As a children’s museum professional, the highlight of the two-day meeting was the passion of everyone involved—from the presenters to the attendees and most especially the organizers.

I really appreciated the opportunity to hear from those representing museums in Europe and Canada. I am always amazed at the diversity of ways we meet our missions—we might use many different approaches (like art-making, facilitated play, object-based learning), but ultimately all children’s museums are powered by passionate people who are driven to enrich the lives of children. Seeing how this plays out in communities around the world is truly inspiring.

Milena Savova, Learning Team Leader, MUZEIKO – America for Bulgaria Children’s Museum, presented, “Design of Educational Programs for Children’s Museums”

The highlight of the trip for me was the possibility to meet my colleagues from other children’s museums. Since Muzeiko is the only children’s museum in Bulgaria, it is very motivating for us to know that we are not alone in our noble work. Seeing so many professionals dedicated to their work with kids gives us the sensation that we are a part of a big family.

After participating in the meeting, I understood that we can widen our focus of interest and further enrich our programs.

Jennifer Ifil-Ryan,
Deputy Director & Director of Creative Engagement, Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling, presented, “The Power of Storytelling and the Arts for Young Children”

The highlight of the trip was learning about the genesis and continued work of my colleagues in the field. There are so many approaches to working with children and families, all of them valid and important. Some were focusing on cognition, while others focused on investigation and program assessment. The opportunity to learn from each other was rich and I have taken many valuable lessons home with me.

The size range of children’s museum represented gave me a broader perspective on what our work looks like in different areas across the globe, as well as the consistencies in our values of honoring the spirit and potential of the child. That reinforcement was priceless.

Amanda Conlon, Executive Director, London Children’s Museum, presented, “Family Learning as a Tool in Children’s Museums and the Role Permanent Exhibitions Play in This.”


These presentations generated fruitful discussions that brought together the past, present, and future of the children’s museum field. Each speaker shared their museum’s story in a way that broadened the audience’s understanding of what children’s museums can do. We can’t wait to see how children’s museums continue to develop in Poland and beyond!

Alison Howard is Communications Director at the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM). Follow ACM on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook

Photo courtesy of Susan Foutz.