Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reasons Not To

Justine Roberts, Principal

A girl and her horse.
In my most recent post I talked about some of the reasons I love seeing familiar materials in museums.  Frankly, cardboard and make-dos and space to spread out can keep me and my family occupied for hours and deeply satisfied with the experience.  

But museums can be skittish about using recycled materials.  

Space, Time and Money

There are operating implications of using recyclables, and those have real impacts on staffing, budgets, and space.   Keeping exhibit areas supplied with repurposed materials does take staff time.  Someone has to build relationships with donors, sort materials when they come in, and keep track of what is needed.  Space is required for drop-off, sorting and storage.   

These are real, but I wondered what that commitment looks like in practice.  So I called the Recycle Shop at the Boston Children's Museum.

Boston Children’s Museum has run their Recycle Shop program since 1971.  They staff it with one full time Supervisor, and there are other folks who pitch in part time (either interns or art department staff).  So the program takes the equivalent of 2 FTEs. 

Generally they do not have problems stocking the shop.  There are things they do not take – 3-ring binders, books, computers eg – but they get a steady stream of supplies and have a sustainable roster of donors.  There are approx. 30 folks who contribute twice a year and many one-shot donors.  Twice a week they drive a van to pick up material from commercial donors.  These are all within a one-hour radius of the museum meaning that their relationships extend from Southern Maine and New Hampshire, West to Worcester and South into Rhode Island.  The only reward donors get is recognition in the annual report. If someone donates material of real value they can take a tax write-off and there are occasionally passes to the museum available, but the Recycle Shop Supervisor wisely gives those to the guys at the loading dock.

Now, BCM has taken this to a HIGH level of commitment by making these materials available to the general public through their shop.  The public can come into the museum and shop for supplies without paying admission - and the supplies are very affordable, sold by the bag for $4 or $7.  The museum does use the same supplies in house and the art department gets to pick what they want before they stock the store.  But the program is bigger than just supplying the art room.  It might sound like a lot of work to prep donations and ready them for sale to the public but the Supervisor estimates it takes 10% of his time to sort and break down materials.  That's only 4 hours a week.

As far as space required to run the program, BCM does maintain 1,500SF of off-site storage where they have a 6 month backlog of supplies, another 100SF of on-site storage, and the 400SF shop.

I'm not trying to say Boston is the model for a recycle art program, I realize its an investment.  But because of that it is a good reference point for understanding what you can do with less space, fewer FTEs, and no public store.  

East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, CA
On the other hand, I can imagine a kind of swap shop event where a few times a year the museum throws open the doors to the public and sells materials, bringing the makers and doers and crafters and tinkerers into the museum and building audience while raising money at the same time.  Imagine the potential for relationships with corporate donors that can transition into other kinds of support over time.  Imagine the good will and public value that can be built by demonstrating that "green" is not something you buy - its something you do.  For one weekend the museum could become like the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse or Extras for Creative Learning in Boston, MA.

Loss of Predicability

Another operating issue I hear about is concern that recycled materials are less predictable and standardized.  Staff may need to spend time assessing what they have to work with and coming up with appropriate projects for visitors. This takes time, requires skills and flexibility that may not already be on staff, and means that staff have to split their time between interacting with the public and developing activities – effectively pulling them away from what is most likely their first priority.  

There are a host of related issues of course such as: Where are staff supposed to develop these activities?  Is it appropriate to have staff doing their own creative work in public?  Is it realistic to expect staff to juggle visitor needs in the moment with advance planning for the next day? Does this model require new or different people?  These are questions that need to be answered within the culture of each organization.  But the flip side is that staff who invent the programs they run have more at stake, and the goal would be that their own feelings of investment will spur them to be more creative and engaged.  Their job pushes more toward education, and they become more integral to the visitor experience.  And there are resources out there for inspiration and structure - my favorite being the book Beautiful Stuff.

Some museums have solved these challenges by allowing visitors to invent the project.  These museums are offering materials, context, workspace and a social environment.  Visitors bring the imagination required to figure out what to do. 

That is understandably anxiety provoking. What if visitors are lost in the space, or need help, or don’t know how to get started?  Well, it depends what you want them to learn. Is this about creative problem solving? About finding new ways to look at the familiar and seeing new opportunities in the everyday?  Is it about tapping into their inner genius and creativity?  Is it open-ended and process oriented?  If the answer to these questions is "yes" it seems like giving visitors more room to contribute is a net positive.

And what about the mess?

And what about how messy these materials looks to the public?  When you have lots of legos on the floor it looks messy. When you have scraps of fabric, wood and string the concern is that it looks dirty – like waste.  How do these pictures read to you?

Chicago Children's Museum
But the reasons to use repurposed materials extend beyond the sense of possibility they communicate.  Their presence in the museum also speaks to organizational values and ethics.  They embody sustainability.  Using everyday materials to reinvent with also challenges visitors to consider how the same energy and innovation used to create original products can be turned toward addressing leftover materials.  What should we do with the things we no longer need? With the waste products of our manufacturing processes?  With the used and old?  Working with these materials empowers visitors and gives them direct experience with their own ability to reimagine, and reinvent, what is, ultimately, their world.  And what a lesson that is!
Mega Model, Austin Children’s Museum Maker Faire 2008.  A collaborative city made from trash and leftover materials by visitors.

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