Thursday, April 15, 2010

Children’s Museums Organizational Structure

It is often the case that our role as exhibit developers and designers lacks clear boundaries. On the one hand, the line between where exhibits stop and the building begins is not fixed. This is especially true given our belief that museums are at their best –for communicating a sense of place, creating a memorable experience, and eliciting playful learning behaviors – when the exhibits and architecture are integrated.

On the other hand, exhibits are only fully realized when they are being used. So museum operations and organizational culture, from staffing to risk tolerance, are a necessary part of the exhibit design conversation. In that model, although the physical space of the museum is a design problem, educational questions are at the center of any solution.

Yet the traditional organizational chart for a children’s museum distinguishes between exhibits (the physical environment) and education (strategies for delivering on visitor outcome goals). Recently, we have seen a surge in Visitor Experience Departments that create an umbrella, bringing design and learning together into a single conversation. We wondered how many Visitor Experience departments there are in children’s museums, and whether the balance has tipped in favor of this new model.

From the data we collected, it looks like the traditional chart in which an Education and an Exhibit Department work side-by-side is still the most common. 33 Museums in our survey have both of these departments. In comparison, only 26 museums in our survey have Visitor Experience departments.

Moreover, it appears that some museums have kept their Education and Exhibit departments while adding a Visitor Experience department.

This is very interesting. To me, a Visitor Experience department suggests there may be multiple strategies for serving visitors –exhibits is one strategy, educational programs and staff-facilitated experiences are another, and there may be others as well under the same umbrella (including perhaps overall customer service issues) - while establishing one overarching coordinated effort that encourages people with different skills and perspectives to collaborate on multi-faceted solutions.

Retaining Education and Exhibits under Visitor Experiences seems to contradict this approach, and suggests that those two departments are still both delivering discrete services to the museum’s audience. I am curious how that structure functions, and why it was selected in those cases. What role does the Visitor Experience department play when Education and Exhibits both continue to exist as well? And to what extent do the Exhibit and Education departments in fact merge their efforts into a single visitor experience?

Another question that we asked was whether children’s museums have Collections Management departments. Some children’s museums are collecting institutions –think of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Boston Children’s Museum, and Please Touch, for example. Nonetheless I was surprised to see that 7 of the museums in our survey have Collections Management departments. This is a small number, but larger than I expected. It suggests that collecting may be more widespread than I realized, and that it is not limited to larger, older institutions.

Not surprisingly a few museums in our survey are still small enough that they have no departments at all.

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