Thursday, October 25, 2012

Place-Based Learning in Museums

By Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

Many museums use place-based learning to keep their offerings unique and closely linked to their communities. But what is place-based learning and how can place-based learning ideas be incorporated into overall institutional planning?

Place-based learning is an educational approach that involves the use of the local community and environment as the central content in the development of institutional learning goals, programs and exhibitions. Place-based education promotes learning that is rooted in what is local - the unique history, environment, culture, economy, literature, and art of a particular place – to benefit both the community and the learners. Using this approach, an institution begins with its “place” as a starting point to connect concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum. Emphasizing hands-on, real-world learning experiences, this approach to education has proven to increase academic achievement according to researchers at the Orion Society.

Why chose this local and place-based focus? One of the main reasons is to promote the uniqueness of the institution within its community so that it does not resemble any other museum in any other part of the world. A unique mission and vision based on a particular place can help with fundraising and audience development as the Museum can clearly articulate why it is different from other Museums of their type as well as how the organization is tied to the community. Another important reason is that people have connections to specific places and learning is stronger if new ideas presented by the Museum link with emotions or knowledge that visitors bring with them.

Many museums of all types are using their unique locations to present place-based learning that can only happen right in that location and draw on the resources found only there. Here are some examples of Museums of different types that use their “place” as a central theme.

History Museum Example:

The Mill City Museum in Minnesota focuses very specifically on the story of the mill that existed at that site. Looking out the windows, visitors can see the mill’s foundations, the river beyond, the transport ships and the city that grew up around that place. Exhibitions focus on how the building was used, but then radiate out to address issues that affect everyone, no matter where they are from.

The site is used to address the topic of the intertwined histories of the flour industry, the Mississippi River, and the city of Minneapolis.

Children’s Museum Example:

Underneath the Golden Gate Bridge in the San Francisco Area, The Bay Area Discovery Museum has created programs and exhibitions that use the unique site and historic buildings to address the natural, built and cultural environments of the people, plants and animals that make their home there. One of the reasons the Museum chose this local approach was that childhood experts advised staff that by getting children to care about one plant, person or animal that the child was more likely to come to care about the overall environment and the living things that shared the habitat with them as they grew older. Exhibitions focus on art, science, and the built and natural environment of the San Francisco Bay area in order to build empathy and stewardship toward their communities no matter where they visitors are from.

The Museum’s mission is focused on place and staff developed an interpretive framework that guides exhibition and program development around this idea of place.

Science/Environmental Museum Example:

Another place-based institution is the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. Built on the site of a former mine, his collection of biomes was built using sustainable building techniques and served as a catalyst for economic regeneration in the area.

The location itself tells a dramatic story of renewal and regeneration while inspiring visitors to care for their world and gives hope that even the most polluted environment can be turned around. Exhibits and programs focus on gardening, people and learning, the environment and climate change all with the aim of influencing the everyday choices we make and how those affect the world around us.

The Eden Project addresses issues of environmental recovery and the relationship of the buildings with the landscape and the landscape with the people. Visitors can engage with the plantings, art works and exhibitions or engage with programs about planting and connections to local towns. A video is available if you are interested in learning more about the Eden Project.

You can learn more about place-based learning at:
The Center for Eco-Literacy
The Promise of Place
Place-Based Learning UK

Tell us about how your Museum is using place-based learning!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Special Museum Spaces

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

Museums are always looking for ways to increase the impact of learning for our visitors. One way to increase impact and memorability is through special spaces and dramatic environments as we are more likely to remember learning messages when they are tied to an overall memorable experience. Historic surveys have shown that some of the most memorable and influential exhibitions are those that take place in special spaces, such as the walk-through heart at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and the grain chutes at the Minnesota History Center. By experiencing the learning goals as part of the overall environment, the exhibits and educational messages are more memorable and powerful over longer periods.

By strongly linking important collections and immersive environments to special places, learning goals are enhanced and re-enforced. In fact, spaces influence all of us in many more subtle ways: researchers are finding that memory is enhanced when university students regularly change the locations in which they are studying, resulting the topic of study having additional hooks within the brain.

Does a space have to be immersive and dramatic to be special? What makes a space special anyway? For children, special spaces and places are frequently those where they remember doing something unusual, where they remember being especially happy or a favorite place they often visit rather than somewhere very dramatic.

Through their work with children, the Geographical Association in the United Kingdom has created a word cloud (you can create one here) of words that children use when discussing their favorite places on their school grounds:

As you can see, features of the natural environment, along with special people, are the words most frequently cited.

David Sobel has studied children and their special places and is the author of the book Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood. Throughout the book he explores the secret world of children in which they find and create their own environments. In these special places, children develop and control environments of their own and enjoy the freedom from the rules of the adult world. In addition to helping children situate themselves in the social world, special places may assist the child in the transition to adolescence.

Examples of Special Places
Some special museum environments I’ve seen recently have been very effective in creating magical spaces and have provided very enjoyable and memorable experiences. One of these was the playground area of the Berlin Zoo. There were several climbing areas that had novel shapes, allowed for some basic change, and provided unique climbing experiences. My children were particularly entranced by the uniqueness and playfulness of these unusual spaces and I almost needed to bribe them to go see some animals (including a giant Panda). While being a great place to let off steam, these spaces encouraged conversations about eggs (who makes them and who doesn’t) and characteristics of animals and was one of my children’s favorite experiences in all of Berlin.

Two fairly recent exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery in London have also provided special spaces that were incredibly appealing to visitors of all ages. The first was the Psycho Buildings exhibition, which featured a metal, climb-within, change of perspective piece, a maze created by a fiber artist along with visitors, and a rooftop rowing pool among other installations. More recently, an Ernesto Neto exhibition included walk around spaces made of padded fabric with spices sewn in, providing for smell as an additional component of place-making. These immersive, dramatic and fun spaces allowed the Hayward to expand their audiences and broaden the community’s overall assumptions about modern art.

Recently in London, the Tate Modern opened the Tate Tanks, subterranean former oil tanks that have become a space for live art, performance, installation and film. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the new tank spaces are also intended to provide room for enhanced live encounters between artists and audience.

Early reviews of the space emphasize that the tanks have been kept as close as possible to their original identity, resulting in naked, concrete spaces. The stark spaces are meant to act as a neutral backdrop to the live artworks that will take place here. Like the Turbine Hall, which retains the feel of its industrial past, the use of the tanks also allows art to occur in a found space that maintains industrial echoes of its past.

Museum director Nicholas Serota says this about the tank spaces: "It will bring the kind of work that has traditionally been seen in alternative spaces, for short durations and often barely recorded, into the museum. It will bring it into our own sense of art history as something that is not on the margins, but something central to art."

What special places have made an impact on you or your Museum?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Serious Side of Play
Lessons learned from the book: Play, by Dr. Stuart Brown

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing,” and Dr. Stuart Brown is in full agreement. Dr. Brown’s recent book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, supports the idea that play is central to our being human and necessary in order to be creative, productive and happy members of our communities.

Dr. Brown is a medical doctor, psychiatrist, clinical researcher and the founder of the National Institute for Play as well as the producer of a three-part PBS series, The Promise of Play, and has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times Magazine.

In the book, Dr. Brown highlights play through biological evolution and gives examples of how play makes the brain more adaptable and smarter. He also give examples of how fun, purposeful play is important in developing social and emotional intelligences in addition to sharpening skills needed for everyday survival even in animals. He gives evidence of the correlation between brain size and the amount of play in different animals and play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.

One of the most compelling stories in the book is that of the hiring managers at the jet propulsion labs in California. As their top engineers were retiring they were hiring young hot-shots who had done well in the best engineering programs, but found that many of these engineers couldn’t solve complex problems as well as the older generation. The human resources folks began a study of why this was and conducted a vast number of interviews in order to determine factors that differed between the older engineers and the younger ones to improve their hiring decisions. What they found was that both the older and younger engineers who excelled at solving complex problems were those who worked with their hands in their childhoods – the ones who took radios and clocks apart, built tree-houses, and had an understanding about how things worked in a three-dimensional environment.

One of the types of play highlighted is that of physical play, including being able to play with, manipulate, and alter real materials in your hands, which connects to powerful areas of learning and creativity in the brain.

Other observations highlighted in the book include the study of animals that partake in differing amounts of play. Animal and human play researchers have found that animals that stop playing exhibit more compulsive, rigid and purpose-driven behavior whereas beings that include play throughout their lives are more open to change, exhibit sustained curiosity and are better able to incorporate new information.

Play is frequently used to provide relief when struggling with a big idea or when interacting with others where conflict may be present. A joke at the right time can relax and open people to being able to communicate and listen to another when that might not have been possible without a playful ice breaker. Group play encourages creativity and creates bonds, which is why corporations hold brainstorming sessions and off-site team-building days.

Dr. Brown makes the case that not only does play help our brains to function better, but that there is evidence that play increases our immune strength. Not only is play key to adaptation and survival but it is our culture: our music, art, sports, dance and festivals.

As the knowledge economy is overtaken by the creative economy, play becomes crucial as our brain’s ability to innovate is linked to play. Work can be play, as almost anything can be play if a playful attitude is present. As James Michener wrote:
“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he’s always going both. “

What part can Museums take in encouraging play for all? Museums of all types have the ability to encourage play in visitors of all ages. Children’s museums can create playful environments that parents and grandparent can engage in and all Museums can find ways of allowing visitors to manipulate real things with their hands and experience with their whole bodies. Some of the tips Dr. Brown suggests lend themselves particularly well to the Museum environment:

1. Connect to an individual’s play history. When interviewing adults about play in their childhood, many quote the opportunity to make something with their hands, using specific toys such as dolls, blocks and Lincoln logs and engaging with drama. Museums can encourage these connections by providing manipulative toys that allow generations to talk about their play histories while also providing things like costumes in adult sizes.

2. Expose your visitors to play. Create opportunities for visitors to slow down, sit quietly and listen, pick up a ball or sit on the floor with a child.

3. Give permission to play. Create an environment in the Museum where play feels welcome, un-judged, and people are given the opportunity to laugh at themselves in a safe place.

4. But also give permission to skip play if it’s uncomfortable for anyone.

5. Be active. Museums can creatively present so many ideas and objects through innovative means and can include movement. One of my favorite programs at the Tate Britain was in conjunction with an exhibit of Francis Bacon paintings. They had a movement program called “bend it like Bacon,” which invited visitors to mock the sometimes very strange positions of models in the paintings.

6. Create a safe environment. Free your visitors from the fear that they might fail or look silly when playing. Staff can model play and put visitors at lease and areas where visitors might make funny faces or do something silly might have some privacy walls.

Dr. Seuss’ was an individual who never stopped playing or encouraging play in others through his many books. In honor of his birthday last month here is one of his quotes: “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.” I think Dr. Brown couldn’t agree more.

Click HERE to hear Dr. Stuart Brown talk about play on TED.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Me in 3D: Live Science Research in a Museum Setting
Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

The new identity exhibit at the Science Museum in London, Who am I?, includes a gallery called Live Science in which real scientists come into the Museum to carry out their research using Museum visitors as volunteers.

The current partnership is called “me in 3D” and involves having one’s face photographed by a three-dimensional camera. The study is in partnership with the National Health Service, the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, and the Institute for Child Health in which they are hoping to record the differences in facial shape in order to help improve facial reconstruction surgery. While much is known about the bones of the face, little is known about what makes a face the shape it is and about the skin and muscles that make up our faces. By having more information about our faces, researchers will have greater opportunities to plan and perform the best facial surgery they can in the future.

I went and had my face scanned this week and it was a quick and easy process given that the area was not very crowded. Visitors must sign a release form, which is the most time-consuming part of the process, and then remove any earrings or other metal from their head, put on a paper cap and get ready for your close-up! Apparently nine lenses are used, but all of this is accomplished through what seems like one photo as all photos are taken simultaneously.

Once your photo is taken you get a slip with a copy of your release and a sticker with your number on it. There are computers located in the area in which you can access and manipulate your image - I assumed I could go home and access my image from home, but that doesn't seem to be the case. It would certainly be an improvement if you could also access your image at home with your personal access number, but it was satisfying to feel like part of a bigger project that might benefit children and adults in the future.

How are you using live science or resources in your community to link science to your visitors?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Up in the Canopy, the Treetop walk at Kew Gardens

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

In 2008, Kew Gardens opened The Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway on International Biodiversity Day. The Treetop walkway is a series of paths and platforms 18 meters (59 feet) up in the air, allowing garden visitors to walk about the tree canopy. At a cost of £3 million, it was designed by Marks Barfield Architects, the firm who also designed the London Eye.

The experience starts underground as visitors enter a crack in the ground to explore an exhibit about the natural world beneath the trees. In this dark space, a mechanical system of cogs and wheels animates different creatures that live under the soil and highlights the relationship between tree roots and micro-organisms. There is no signage but there are video screens showing these micro-organisms and there is something very compelling about the mechanical and industrial aesthetic of the space. Along the flooring is a row of stained glass, which adds color and magic to the exhibit.

The walkway itself was a challenge for designers to install as they were trying to get as close as possible to the tree canopy while also protecting the root system below. In order to protect the trees, a radar survey was taken so that the structure could be placed in a way that would not damage the trees between major roots. In addition, traditional concrete footings were replaced by shallower steel grills so that the smaller, fibrous roots would not be harmed. Each support is tied together but custom-made welded grills.

I usually visit the garden with my children and they always insist on doing the walkway. The elevator has never worked, but we always enjoy the climb and the children especially like the donor element at the top. Visitors can slide a coin into one of three slots and listen as the money clinks through the structure down to a collection box below.

It is a big thrill to be up so high and we are always taken in by the stunning views and the slight vertigo we experience as you can see down to the ground through the flooring of the walkway. The signage is very simple and we do always read it – the signs are brass plaques in relief with one interesting sentence about tree biology. However, we rarely talk about the trees while we are up there and more could be done to draw our attention to the trees while we are up so high.

Once back at the bottom, there is an overturned tree that has been sculpted so that the “circulation system” of the tree is exposed. There are always lots of children climbing on the tree and we always look at the exhibit because as we have become much more interested in learning about trees through experiencing the walkway. It is inspiring to be up so high and be reminded of the beauty of our surroundings when we can really take them in!

Have you experienced a treetop walkway or treetop canopy exhibit elsewhere? Let us know your thoughts about being up in the trees.