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.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Adventure Playgrounds: Putting ADVENTURE in the Playground
Part 3 in a 3 part series

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London.

There are concerns afloat about whether or not playgrounds have gotten too safe and sterile. A summer New York Times article addressed this issue and discussed how playgrounds and parks that offer some risk-taking can be places that encourage children to address their fears and have the opportunity to conquer them. Have adventure playgrounds in London found the right balance?

My observation is that some have worked hard to create environments that are unique and interesting, but that most are staying away from any actual danger or risk. Here, the words “health and safety” only need to be uttered and any risk is squashed out of any idea involving children or presentation to the public in which someone will have to take responsibility for any potential injury. That said, there are a quite a few public places where children and families can have a big adventure, but public playgrounds don’t necessarily seem to be those place.

Adventure playgrounds in London do seem to be succeeding in creating spaces that are unique and different from “off the shelf” playground equipment. In researching the best adventure playgrounds in London (and awards are given annually), several rise to the top. Two of the most highly ranked include:

The Charlie Chaplain Adventure Playground, and

The Kilburn Grange Adventure Playground

Like playgrounds in the United States, the Adventure Playgrounds in London have many goals. Along with the desire to provide imaginative and fun places for children to create their own play and environments, the playgrounds are also seeking to meet universal design and green building standards. Construction materials are often re-claimed and climbers need to offer ramps and alternative ways for children with different abilities to interact with the activities. Sometimes these goals conflict, but all are important to the community and can force interesting and novel solutions.

A lovely way to use re-claimed materials at the Kilburn Grange Adventure Playground.

Many of the adventure playgrounds in London serve children in need and are part of housing projects (the Glamis Adventure Playground is associated with the Tower Hamlets). These larger organizations, along with the local council, supply needed funds as the operations of adventure playgrounds is expensive. Cost seems to be the most limiting factor in providing risk – providing supervision and reviewing safety concerns are staff-intensive endeavors and high cost. As a result, these Adventure Playgrounds have limited hours (after-school and weekends) but provide staff to help and offer more complex opportunities for building and fort/den making.
Glamis Adventure Playground.

So where are these bigger adventures occurring and how are they financed? Across Europe and the United Kingdom both for-profit and non-profit outdoor centers are giving children and families access to scarier adventures.

One of these is the “Go Ape” series of parks in the United Kingdom.

With 27 centers throughout the UK, Go Ape parks are located in forests with tree-top wires, crossings (using ladders, walkways, bridges and tunnels made of wood, rope and super-strong wire) and zip wires all taking place in tree-tops. Attendees are required to attend a safety briefing and training and instructors can be found throughout. It’s not in-expensive with three hour sessions costing £30 per adult ($47) and £20 ($31) per child.

I must admit that the most adventurous museum experience I have seen was at the Tate Modern in 2006/2007. Artist Carsten Höller installated enormous five story steel slides within the turbine gallery. The longest slide was 182 feet long with Holler claiming that slides can help combat mental health problems and viewed the installation as a “playground for the body and the brain.” The slides could be enjoyed as a participant or a voyeur as the top sides were transparent. During the run of the exhibition, children of all ages could be found leaving their adult concerns behind as the experienced the thrill of feeling like a child again and experiencing an activity that made one feel like they were taking a big risk.

The slides were not necessarily for children. Only people taller than two feet and 35 inches could go in the small slides and visitors had to be at least four feet 55 inches to ride the tall slides. Free timed tickets were available for the tallest slides with the smaller sides offering rides on a first come, first served basis.

Safety did remain a concern and the Tate brought in an expert from Germany to check the weldings and screws. Holler reported that the inspector had a great time for half the day! The slides attracted more than 500,000 visitors with the gallery reporting only five injuries.

In conclusion, Adventure Playgrounds in London provide much needed access to outdoor space and spaces that children can create themselves, but increasingly these spaces must limit the interactivity and staff-intensity of their offerings due to cost constraints. The private marketplace is providing adventurous outdoor play spaces for those who can afford to pay for them and some institutions are choosing to take risks to offer visitors of all ages opportunities to take risks and have an adventure.

Let us know what your museum has been doing to provide visitors with some adventure and/or what adventurous experiences you’ve seen recently in the world!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What Does it Take to Nurture a Successful Human Being and Can Museums Help?

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

A recent article in the New York Times profiles the Riverdale Country School and its head, Dominic Randolph, as he and his prestigious private school aim to graduate students that demonstrate strong character. As part of Randolph’s exploration of character, he engaged with Martin Seligman (one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement) and David Levin (superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City) on the topic of developing character as part of the education system.

Seligman recently co-authored a book called “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification,” which outlines 24 character strengths that reach across cultures. These include traits like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity as well as love, humor, zest, self-regulation and gratitude. They found that a cultivation of these strengths represents a reliable path to a life that is not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.

Levin discovered that of his graduates that went to college or university, those that stayed on through graduation were not the students with the highest IQ, but the students who showed the highest character strengths. Added to the mix was the work of graduate student Angela Duckworth, whose research showed that measures of self-control are a more reliable predictors of grade-point average than IQ. But she found that outstanding achievement was accomplished by people who combined passion with unswerving dedication, a combination that she terms “grit.”

Duckworth, Randolph and Levin condensed their lists down to a final list of strengths that they believe are likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

Some of the changes in their schools have been the abolishment of AP classes and standard tests and include systems to train their students in standard curriculum of math and language, but also in perseverance and empathy. Students receive grades and assessments on their academic work but also on their character. Messages about behavior and values permeate the school day and are included in assemblies and explicit talk about character strengths are incorporated into every lesson.

These schools are also working with parents to help them understand that their children may need some hardships in life to overcome in order to establish their own “grit.” The struggle to pull oneself through a crisis, to come to terms with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them is what is missing at many academically excellent schools and many of the everyday lives of American youth.

Museums are well positioned to assist in building character traits in visitors of all ages. Some ways of doing this include:
• Helping to develop a sense of empathy through diverse programming and exhibitions, as well as presentations that tell individual stories;
• Building persistence through programs and exhibits that encourage visitors to create something, test it, tinker with it, and try again;
• Developing and encouraging passion in individuals through engagement with meaningful problems to be solved and beautiful objects;
• Inspiring curiosity and creativity through interactions with valued cultural objects with opportunities to take apart, create, explore;
• Setting up situations in which visitors can work together socially while problem solving.

Any other ideas about how Museums can help nurture happy, productive and high-performing citizens?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Adventure Playgrounds: A History

Part 2 in a 3 part series

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London, Maeryta Medrano, AIA LEED AP, President of Gyroscope, Inc; Chuck Howarth, VP, Gyroscope, Inc.

What is an Adventure Playground?
The broadest definition of an Adventure Playground is a public open space where children can play and climb on structures usually made of wood, ropes and old tires (Cambridge Dictionaries Online). Early Adventure Playgrounds contained building materials and discarded industrial parts that were used by children to build with, hide in, climb on, or use in any way that they themselves directed.

Some Adventure Playgrounds continue to follow the model of building while others focus on safe but exhilarating play such as zip-wires, ropes courses and tree climbing. The level of “danger” is frequently in proportion to the level of supervision, with some Adventure Playgrounds offering no adult supervision and, therefore a lower risk of injury, and some that are closely supervised.

Overall, Adventure Playgrounds have some key attributes:
• The child acts as leader. As early childhood educator Jean Marzollo explains,“A common mistake parents make is ignoring the special ability of children to teach themselves.”
• Real stuff. Children have access to real environments and real materials. Pound the nail. Catch the frog. Build the tree house of your dreams.
• Adult support-there to help, there to encourage, but not to direct.

Adventure Playgrounds in Europe
There are some 1,000 such playgrounds in Europe, offering children the chance to build their own huts and forts from scrap materials, care for animals, or help out in the community garden. In the USA, there are still only a few such public places although many schools and pre-schools have been including elements of Adventure Playgrounds in their outdoor spaces.

The first Adventure Playground opened in Emdrup, Denmark in 1943. It was conceived by the Danish landscape architect C. Th. Sørensen, who noticed that children were more interested in playing in junk or construction areas than in official playgrounds. In 1946, Lady Allen from England visited Emdrup and was impressed enough to bring the idea of this type of playground to London.

Early pioneers in the European Adventure Playground movement also observed that children were naturally drawn to the destruction left in the wake of World War II. Rather than explore purpose-built playgrounds, children were attracted to the bomb sites of their cities and towns and could frequently be found creating their own imaginative play from materials found in these places of construction and de-construction.

The movement grew from there to include Adventure Playgrounds for children with different abilities and the concept of Adventure Playgrounds spread throughout Europe, most particularly to Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France and Germany. The first playgrounds in Switzerland opened in 1955 and in Germany in 1967. Currently in Germany, there are some 400 adventure playgrounds, Japan has a significant number, and there are 80 in the city of London alone.

While London does contain many Adventure Playgrounds, most of them describe their play areas as within the “adventure” framework, but do not have dedicated staff and therefore follow the model of lower risk and fewer opportunities for children to design their own spaces. Many of these playgrounds and parks are extremely popular and over the years I have been making the rounds with my children to see how successful they are in person.

One approach that Adventure Playgrounds have adopted is to provide a dramatic theme that children can use to organize their play and create stories around. Three of this type that are very popular in western London are the Peter Pan (Princess Diana Memorial Park) Park in Kensington Gardens, the exhibits for children at Kew Gardens, and the children’s exhibits at the London Wetlands Centre.

The Peter Pan Park includes a large boat, tepees, climbing structures, treasure chests and a water feature (only open in summer).

Children of all ages and families can be found in the park climbing and creating/acting out their own stories in these spaces. A sign at the entry mentions a staff member being present to enhance play, but I have never seen anyone there. When we first moved to London the ship included a net that kids could climb up to get to the watch tower, but this was removed by my next visit. The strength of this park is the strong narrative build around a familiar story that children can use to base as a framework for their play.

Kew Gardens has several areas for full body play for children. The two main outdoor areas are the Badger Sett and the Treehouse Towers outdoor play area.

The Badger Sett offers children the opportunity to crawl around an oversized badger nest and explore underground. Throughout the tunnels are speaking tubes, small interpretive elements about how badgers live, and light shafts to above ground. My children usually spend at least an hour here making friends with other children, inventing some group story and running through the tunnels.

The Treehouse Towers exhibit is a more traditional type of playground with the use of natural materials so that children are climbing and using real wood on their adventures.

This area is extremely popular and has a few elements that are novel, such as a zip line and large basket-like swings made of recycled materials that multiple children can use at once.

The London Wetlands Centre also contains several areas for kids to play and does a wonderful job of including beautiful landscaping with outdoor elements that children can play on. Their outdoor play area includes traversing walls, two outdoor water features, large swings and a zip wire with a launcher, which allows kids to go faster than on many zip lines.

General Playgrounds:
London is a city with a large amount of public green space and most parks contain playground areas for children. Many of them do not differ from those in the United States, but some elements are more unique.

Many playgrounds in Europe contain play equipment that spins (these have been removed from most in America) and climbing features that allow kids to get quite high. The style of play equipment in Europe has a more modernistic style, but is also being widely adopted here in the United States.

Some parks are attempting to create a hybrid and create some narrative as well as try to adapt the play equipment to be place-based and reflect the park’s unique surroundings. One such park is the new Northola Park in Ealing, which includes several small play spaces (one like a ship) and a larger play area. Surround the play areas are climbing mounds build above industrial waste sites and the large play area has small mounds that reflect the larger mounds for small children and adults who may not be able to climb the large mounds.

There continues to be great interest in providing exceptional nature and outdoor play environments for children and families. In current events, a free Nature and Play Symposium will be taking place in Austin Texas on September 1st for those interested in pursuing outdoor play further.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Adventure Playgrounds: An Introduction
Part 1 in a 3 part series

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London; Maeryta Medrano, AIA LEED AP, President of Gyroscope, Inc; Chuck Howarth, VP, Gyroscope, Inc.

Museums, zoos, botanic gardens, playgrounds and parks within the United States have been observing and learning from our neighbors abroad about how to maximize the benefits of outdoor play environments for children and families. It is always a challenge to balance safety, maintenance, and general staffing while also providing child-led learning and creativity that natural environments can provide.

As human beings, we intuitively seek connection to the natural world and some have described this connection as “biophilia.” The term was originally used by Erich Fromm to describe being attracted to all that is alive and vital. Naturalist Edward O. Wilson suggested that biophilia is the connection that all human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life and he proposed the possibility that the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology. Howard Gardner recognized the important of this connection and added “naturalistic” intelligence (having to do with nurturing and relating to one’s natural surroundings) to the now nine types of intelligence modalities included in his Frames of Mind framework.

When thinking about designing outdoor play environments for children, many American organizations have been inspired by the Adventure Playground movement that began in Europe in the 1940s. Inspired by the realization that children are currently growing up in over-scheduled, highly supervised and sanitized world that frequently keeps the natural world at a distance, a growing number of organizations (including schools and parks) are moving toward free play, natural environments.

Where it was once commonplace that kids got muddy at the edge of a pond, or skinned a knee on an old oak tree, children today have extremely limited access to wild, natural environments. In fact, in many neighborhoods, children are not allowed to explore, build forts, follow a creek, or even climb a tree due to development, covenants, zoning, liability issues, and fears of lurking danger. This lack of free exploration in the natural world cuts them off from their own adventures, narratives and discoveries. It also prevents them from learning their own boundaries, managing risk, navigating with their peer group, and utilization of their inherent creativity.

How has the movement away from unsupervised outdoor play affected children? A number of studies point to the rise in obesity, the increased use of medication for children’s behavioral problems, high blood pressure and other physical and emotional health issues that have grown over the same period of time that outdoor play has decreased. But what researchers are finding is that there is growing evidence that access to the outdoors provides important and significant benefits for children (and adults).

In Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, there are a number of compelling statistics and studies that support this theory. When children interact with the natural world, they build their problem-solving and creative skills, learn to work with others, and gain confidence in their own abilities. What’s more, they gain a sense of ownership and mastery of their space, a sense of belonging-this is MY space. Children are natural explorers. All they need is opportunity.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

CELEBRATE EARTH DAY! Science-Based Approach for Selecting Green Products

I am following up on Scott's post last week about Sustainability to let other museum professionals and designers know about new online software called BEES that helps you select green products. I'm asked all the time if there is a 'certified' green products list and the truth is, there is none. There are lots of different lists and standards, as well as just plain old marketing claims. But this software tool, developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology can help.

Years ago, one of our first clients was the California Energy Commission who first told us about the BEES software. At the time, it was in Beta testing and only for Windows users. It was not user friendly at all. Now, this version is for Mac platforms too and it's FREE!

BEES uses a science-based approach to evaluate environmentally-preferred building products including performance data and cost factors. It uses a life-cycle assessment approach and all stages are analyzed: raw material acquisition, manufacture, transportation, installation, use, and recycling and waste management.

Economic performance is measured using ASTM standard life-cycle cost method, which covers initial investment, replacement, operation, maintenance and repair, and disposal. The software then combines environmental and economic performance into an overall score. Here is the link to BEES software

So the next time you are evaluating so-called 'green products' for your museum project, you might want to check this out. ENJOY THE EARTH EVERY DAY!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Sustainable Design is Good Design

by Scott Moulton

I had the pleasure of attending the second professional advisor meeting for the OMSI’s sustainability project last week. The meeting was a chance to see what they had been up to for the last year and review prototypes of 6 exhibits, 2 cell phone stories and the green exhibit checklist. Over the course 2 days of meetings with these dedicated, engaging and insightful people a few key points stuck out for me.

The 3 pillars is can lead to a transformative approach
OMSI has chosen define sustainability using the 3 pillars (economy, environment and equality). This is a common approach to sustainable development but design typically focuses on environmental impact and specifically on material choices. Economy is not commonly recognized as a key part of sustainable design but it is absolutely vital and I hope that it becomes a more valued measure. Equality is a challenging value that at first seem a tough fit in thinking about exhibit development and design. Ben Fleskes, Director of Production, consistently pulls in this social dimension by providing good working conditions as well pulling people from the community to work on the design and production of the exhibits. The goal of this approach is to engage the community, provide job training and skills and make the museum a more interesting place.

Sustainable Design is Good Design

We were asked to come up with what would be best practices for sustainable development and design and I am happy to report that they look a lot like what I call good design. The overriding principles included: Be process focused, set clear goals, make sure things are going as planned, include your community, design for the capacity of your client or institution, think about what you are designing from multiple perspectives, the perfect is the enemy of the good, check yourself and celebrate success. Sustainability can be a powerful framework to help make decisions that lead to good development and design.

The Power of the Prototype
There is no better way to have the necessary insights and find your blind spots than to stand in front of a prototype. Our own Maria Mortati has written on this and even organized an exhibit on it here. You may say this is just good design and it is, but prototyping will result in fewer exhibits that miss the mark, require remediation or end up worthless and that has a greater impact than using any green material.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

British Libraries Case Study: Can Museums with shrinking budgets learn from Library Advocacy Efforts?

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

Government cuts in the United Kingdom are beginning to hit the arts but other areas within the public sector are also taking a beating. In London, many neighborhoods are losing libraries: Croyton will lose six libraries, Barking and Deganham will lose five, and Hounslow, the borough next to mine, will lose eight. Libraries scheduled for closure are not necessarily the least used and many of these libraries serve upwards of 50,000 visits annually.

For many Londoners (myself included), this is a catastrophe. But some communities have not been taking the news without a fight. When they learned of their libraries plan to close, The friends of Stony Stratford Library in Milton Keynes started a campaign to show how important the library was to the community. Called “Wot no books?” their grassroots efforts started with a Facebook and email call from a community member asking everyone she knew to take out the maximum number of books allowed on their card (usually 15) with the goal of emptying the library of all its resources by the end of January. The librarians supported to campaign and were please to be checking out up to 380 books an hour, although they admit that re-shelving when the books are returned will be a challenge. The librarians even arranged that the last book checked out would be Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. The community succeeded and shelves were emptied and have now had a really thorough cleaning.

The story has been picked up by press all over the world including the United States, Australia and New Zealand and is being replicated by libraries throughout the United Kingdom. The BBC covered the story in the UK and flyers were made available for those who wanted to support the effort.

The current economy puts libraries and museums in the position of articulating and evaluating their worth to the community and supporting or launching campaigns to keep or raise public and private funding. But how deep is the problem and it is uniform across institutions? How are libraries measuring their impact within their communities and how organized are their communication efforts?

Answering these questions has been a challenge as it has not been clearly articulated how the decision was made about which London libraries to close. In speaking with the senior librarian at the main branch of the Ealing Library (my main library), she explained that she has not yet heard about how cuts will affect our individual libraries. She expects that the leaders at the Borough level will be making the decisions and that these will be pushed down with little input from the community or libraries effected. A review of library services has been announced, looking at buildings and services to search for savings.

Ealing seems to have fared better than most boroughs with no closures to date. Cuts made thus far have been in personnel with open positions frozen and not filled. The senior librarian was hesitant to discuss it further because she explained that the Council is very strict about messaging and librarians are not encouraged to give their opinions.

All the same, the Ealing Libraries are doing what they can to show how the community values their services. Sponsored by the Campaign for the Book and the Ealing Alliance for Public Services, a “Read-In” was held on a recent Saturday. Participants were encouraged to bring or borrow a favorite book and read in the library, participate in discussions about their favorite work and the importance of libraries, and show how much libraries are valued in the community.

It is uncertain for both Ealing and Stony Stratford that any public display of support for the libraries will save them. Emily Malleson, the mother who started the “Wot, No Books?” campaign has said “We are still in a period of consultation on the library’s future. If 1,000 people sign the petition, the issue will automatically come up for discussion at a Milton Keynes council meeting. Despite the huge response, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We may not necessarily have made a difference.”

Although it is unsure what the impact of these actions will have, there are several positive outcomes that have come as a result that can also work for advocacy efforts in Museums:

  • The community can voice their support of an organization through concrete actions, which decrease their feelings of helplessness and deepen their commitment to that organization.
  • The network of friends for an organization can grow exponentially as the community galvanizes around a cause. As a result of the Stony Stratford campaign the library friends and Facebook groups now have hundreds of members.
  • Significant advocacy efforts can become big news stories, which can be used to show public support and make a case of the importance of public services to a community.
  • An organization can gather statistics related to its importance in the community to use for further advocacy or fundraising efforts.

As discussed in previous blog entries, museums and libraries are doing amazing and creative work in our communities. With cuts in public funding affecting everyone, the need for innovative partnerships between both types of institutions will only continue and force us to become equally creative about mobilizing our users to show and quantify their support.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Beyond the Didactic" a CAM Conference session on social media

Scott Moulton LEED AP

I am following up on my previous CAM post to talk about an interesting session I attended.

"Beyond the Didactic - Engaging Visitors in a Social Media World."  piqued my interest. The first panelist was Maria Gilbert from the J. Paul Getty Museum. At the Getty they participate in all the expected forms of social media but had a few interesting ways to use them to provide additional depth and engage the public. She showed how they are using Flickr to juxtapose master's work with visitor's work and show non Getty photos of historic sites to illustrate the context of a given artwork or artifact.

Sorel Denholtz is a Social Web Strategist who helped the Cal Academy use social media to engage a new audience and drive attendance to their Nightlife program. These strategies were less about moving "beyond the didactic" and more about connecting to visitors and social marketing. Nightlife is a weekly event aimed at a 21 - 35 year old crowd and features science programing, DJ performances, and drinking all within the Cal Academy. They identified 6 visitors that would become Nightlife Insiders and were given free tickets and special treatment in exchange for regular Facebook posts. The relationship was totally transparent and it helped Nightlife FaceBook page gather 19,000 fans (as compared to the 20,000 Cal Academy fans) and become a huge success.

Lisa Sasaki from The Japanese American National Museum described how their institution was using thing like QR codes and Facebook to provide more depth to an exhibit and also to be relevant to a younger generation. She pointed out the value of having more than one voice on the museum's social media and reinforced the need to have the posts or tweets  adapted to fit the different platforms.

I left feeling excited by the ways these institutions were using social media but was a bit disappointed to see that these online resources were impossible to find in the case of the Getty, and not very heavily used in the case of JANM. The NightLife Facebook page was impressive in terms of the level of activity on the site and the way they are making themselves relevant to a traditionally hard to reach audience. It will be interesting to see if other institutions can use this social marketing approach as effectively to connect to specific audiences.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

2011 CAM Conference

Scott Moulton, LEED AP

Ron Davis, Elena Merlino and I took a trip to Pasadena for the California Association of Museums conference last week. This year the conference had 486 attendees from a wide range of California Museums. It was a great opportunity to talk with this diverse group ranged from a single room schoolhouse museum, the Reagan Library, the Charles Paddock Zoo in Atascadero, to The California Academy of Science. The one thing that impressed me in all my conversations was the passion and unique interests of this group of museum professionals.

Conversation at the opening event (photo: California Association of Museums)

In addition to the conference we had a chance to visit a few local museums. One highlight was out trip to kidspace. The museum is a series of small buildings linked by outdoor exhibit spaces. This arrangement is similar to the Bay Area Discovery Museum and I have to say it is a great way to organize a Children's Museum (especially in a place with weather as nice as Pasadena.) A few highlights at kidspace were the 2 large indoor climbers, the Nature Exchange, and the Interpretive Arroyo which is integrated into the adjacent hillside and garden. Of all the exhibits it was Trike Tracks that got us the most excited. The exhibit is as simple as a stamped concrete path that defines a road, a few road signs, a variety of trikes, and helmets for the kids. As you can imagine all sorts of fun emerges as kids (and exhibit designers) race and negotiate the course. 

The entrance to the museum leads to an indoor / outdoor space

The stream is nicely integrated into the hillside and garden. Note that they offer places to sit and enjoy it.

Lookout!!! Gyroscope exhibit designer Elena Merlino breaks all the rules by riding the wrong way without a helmet .

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Convergence of Museums and Libraries

Maeryta Medrano, AIA LEED AP, President, Gyroscope, Inc.

I've been interested in the convergence of museums and libraries since my grad school days at UC Berkeley. Some of the greatest examples can be found in Greek and Roman architecture where a museum and library were almost always paired together, often in conjunction with the forum, marketplace, and bath houses. These public places functioned together as the hub of civic life and a community gathering place.

Libraries, according to this article are seeing significant growth over the last few years, even though digitization has been replacing physical books. This statistic from the article is telling- "from 2002 to 2008 their ranks rebounded astonishingly, rising 7 percent among adults and 9 percent, the biggest growth, among teens, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Moreover, public libraries in the United States have seen record usage, up 23 percent between 2006 and 2009, according to the American Library Association (ALA), partly due to the job-seeking resources they offer. So the future of libraries in a computerized world is potentially bright."

Some libraries, such as our client in Rancho Cucamonga, have taken it one step further by offering a place to record oral histories and activities for young children within the stacks. I know if my local library had these amenities, my family would take advantage of them and spend even more time there. As it is, we go almost every Saturday morning to check out books, videos, and sometimes magazines.

This summer, while in London on business, I spent hours at the British Library where I not only checked out a cool exhibit on maps, but also had an excellent lunch. Situated not too far from the stacks at a comfy couch with free wi-fi access, I emailed design ideas back to the office while enjoying a latte and a delicious chocolate torte. What's not to like?
I'm hoping other libraries will pick up on the trend to include more programming, amenities, food, coffee and comfortable seating.

I would argue this trend is important for museums as well. Although many do offer some visitor amenities, the right mix of programming, technology, books, cool architecture and great coffee is a sure way to make patrons feel comfortable and engaged.

See the article below for the full story and reader’s comments.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Speak Up For Museums

Tuesday, March 1 is Speak Up For Museums day in Washington, DC. This year more than ever it is essential that we all help AAM get the word out about the value that museums bring to our communities and our nation. Whether you can be there in person or not, there are lots of ways to help, but time is short. We encourage all of our friends and colleagues to visit AAM's web link for details about what you can do. Let's make our voices heard. Here's the link:

Friday, February 25, 2011

Congratulations, Justine

Two roads diverged, as Robert Frost once wrote. And so it is now for Gyroscope. Our longtime colleague and friend Justine Roberts has come to a crossroads and will be moving on to an exciting new assignment as director of the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire. Justine has been with Gyroscope for…. well, let’s not count the years. Let’s just say that we have grown up together as museum professionals and as a firm. The Children’s Museum could hardly have made a better choice. Justine is a natural leader, a leading advocate for early childhood education, and deeply knowledgeable about museums and how they work. She will still assist Gyroscope from time to time as a senior advisor. We will miss her greatly, and wish her all the best with her new assignment.

Chuck Howarth and Maeryta Medrano

Thursday, February 10, 2011

We've Come A Long Way, Baby

Justine Roberts, Principal

I have been going through old papers, as I occasionally do, and came across an internal memo from 2006 discussing museum use of emerging technology.  Its really a summary of research we were doing at the time to see what was starting to trend, and what might have staying power.  Of course, technology has changed since then and the ways museums are using it has too.  But in the day-to-day its easy to lose track of how far we have come.  Most of the talk is about how far we still need to go. And fair enough - the world doesn't stand still around us and it can seem like no matter how fast we move we can't keep up.  But its also useful to take a minute and reflect on what has changed, and how much more nimble we are compared with 5 years ago.  After all, in the lifespan of technology 5 years is old age.  And also to appreciate the continuity of issues despite this rapidly changing external environment.

So jump into the time machine with me and travel back to 2006.  A few important projects were just starting to be recognized as breaking new ground:

The first was launched by renegade media teacher David Gilbert from Marymount Manhatten College who had just created Artmobs, almost by accident.  It started as a class project in how to use ipod technology by producing reviews of artworks at MOMA.  In the end Artmobs published "tours" produced by the general public, and made them available for download via itunes.  In April 2006 they were getting thousands of hits a week on their site.  

David Gilbert described Artmobs as "a way for anyone to curate their own little corner of MOMA."  And what was so revolutionary about this project was that even after it was established, no one really understood how you could make and distribute audio tours without institutional approval.  This was a breakthrough which forced the question of audience participation and collaboration. In this case, technology really led the way on social change.

Very quickly SFMOMA realized the potential of producing material for the ipod and tweaked Gilbert's idea into an open call competition for high quality podcasts. These were more official guides than what Artmobs did because they had to meet certain criteria, had much more polish, and overall higher production values.  But they were still visitor contributed. Today we would say "crowdsourced".  Winning entries were selected by a jury and were featured in monthly SFMOMA Artcast installments.  The winner also received a one-year membership to SFMOMA.

SFMOMA also produced their own podcasts working with Antenna Audio and visitors who had one of these on their ipod could get a discount on admissions.

At the same time, technology innovators were already working on projects from outside museums.

  • Guide by Cell was producing audio guides for cell phones, and had already determined that cell phones were not the best technology to use in hands-on museum settings like the Exploratorium.  
  • Liberty Science Center was also in the process of launching a phone and mp3 audio tour which would allow visitors to call into a phone number printed on labels in one gallery to hear more detailed information about the exhibit.
  • Ideum was already making ipod Vodcasts which plays video on the screen on an ipod, or on your computer through itunes.
  • And those flash mobs? Well they had already been invented also, just under a different name.  A company called Improv Everywhere ("we cause scenes") was a serious and very silly organization which had already sponsored 50 events between 2001 and 2006.  These included a hilarious synchronized swimming in Washington Square Park event (the water is 6" deep) and another where people were invited to download Michael Jackson's Thriller to their ipod, then hang out anonymously in Central Park in NYC until noon. At the sound of a klaxon everyone was supposed to start the soundtrack and start walking like a zombie.  Over 200 people participated.  The only problem was the music was silent but imagine if you had been there what you would have thought! 

In every case the assumption was to rely on visitors' own devices. There was a sense that the technology visitors were carrying in their pockets were the right platforms to be delivering content on - the beginning of a shift away from those audio tour wands and toward acceptance of people seemingly on the phone in the Museum.  

The big questions of what content, by whom, and how it interacts with the exhibits are the same questions we are asking today.   Ipods were, at the time, uniquely portable devices and that made them particularly attractive.  The landscape has become more diverse and advances in technology make it possible to download content at the Museum, or for visitors to share content with other visitors in a way we couldn't 5 years ago.  So if anything it is more complex to answer these questions today than it used to be.  Peter Samis and Stephanie Pau wrote a paper at the time exploring their Artcast series as a case study and their analysis still resonates.

Here are some of the issues we flagged as important at the time.  All of which are still at the core of successful media integration today:

  • Podcasts can be automatically updated via an aggregator so the power of this is as a subscription based relationship rather than just a one-time download.
  • Technology is driving visitors' expectations about inclusion of multiple voices (including their own) and an ability to customize museum experiences.
  • The relationship between museums and their audience goes in both directions - from the Museum out to the visitor, and from the visitor in to the Museum.
  • The voice of our communication with audiences is changing - less formal and more discussion-oriented, more diverse and inclusive - but what does this mean for production values? This question is relevant to physical exhibits as well as digital elements.
  • Podcasting, like audio tours, are not likely to be major revenue generators.
  • How do you support older technology and still make your content work on the most up-to-date devices?
So much has changed but the core questions are the same. As Samis writes in the case study on the SFMOMA project "iPods are a vector for injecting art ideas into the daily lives of people at home or on-the-go. The opposite is also true: iPods are a way of bringing voices from the community into the Museum."  

Replace "iPod" with any other technology channel we have access to today and the thought still resonates.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Parent Communication Strategies

Justine Roberts, Principal

I wrote recently about how some museums are using technology to extend their relationships with constituents beyond the space and time of a visit. This is a strategy in service of a bigger goal, which has to do with positioning the museum as an ongoing resource for its audience – not just a place to go but a trusted advisor, friend, and information base.  This is a big strategic idea, and one that holds a lot of appeal.  On the one hand, it differentiates museums from the leisure time activities we often think of as their natural competition – city parks and playgrounds, the movies, music lessons, computer games, play groups etc.  On the other, it differentiates museums from out of school time and social service organizations like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs

This is not a new idea – The Boston Children’s Museum has always spent a lot of time and care on community relationships.  Take for example programs like Countdown to Kindergarten which is as much about creating an activity for local families to celebrate a major life transition (kindgergarten), as it is about weaving the Museum into the fabric of the learning community (see their success in bringing the Mayor and Superintendent of Schools together, literally). 

BCM is actually a good segue for what I’m thinking about which is that adults are one of the key audiences for these on-going relationships with Children's Museums in particular.  As a field we increasingly understand that there are good reasons to move adults to more involved roles with their kids.  Research has shown that adult participation leads to deeper inquiry and more durable learning for children, while at the same time enhancing adults’ understanding of and ability to support children’s informal science learning.   

But let’s be honest - adults come to museums for many reasons, including taking a break and socializing with peers, and have their own learning styles.  So I am really intrigued by the idea that museums can develop umbrella relationships with adults in which the moment of the visit is one touch point among many opportunities to engage with the organization.  This might give us more room to allow that the visit may not always be the best moment to reach adults, but it also suggests that that’s okay because we have many more opportunities to connect with those adults.  We don’t have to pack it all into 2 hours on a Saturday.

How about these as goals for adults?
  • Help adult visitors understand their possible roles, and responsibilities, in the museum setting
  • Scaffold adults’ learning
  • Show caregivers what their children are doing, but also how and why they behave in particular ways
  • Help staff and visitors understand and share the ways children construct knowledge
The key to achieving these goals is to increase adults’ understanding of the museum as about learning

To do this, museums need to accomplish three main things (1) make children’s learning evident, (2) offer adults opportunities to participate in children’s learning, and (3) give adults tools they can use to enhance children’s learning.  Some of these may lend themselves more to implementation in the exhibits but all of them can happen off-site as well.

What should parent communications sound and look like?

Parent message need to be a mix of didactic, intimate and informal communications. Some parent communication will be explicit for adults who are interested in learning why the museum looks the way it does, and what their kids are getting out of the visit.  These “decoders” may take the form of maps, labels and graphics in the galleries, “parent guides” and questionnaires, or verbal communication through staff interaction. Other communication is more discursive and needs to be structured so that adults can make connections between the messages and their children’s behavior.

Here are 3 examples of how this might translate into graphics.
Staff at MCM carry these cards.
Pittsburgh Children's Museum projected graphics are in adults' immediate line of sight and provide a quick prompt.
An "exemplar" graphic from Skyline at CCM features photos of real visitors and first person quotes - the graphics stand in for staff by modeling adult roles in the gallery.
Strategies for use in the Museum 
These three examples of actual printed graphics get at some of the key strategies for adult communications during the museum visit.  They are designed to help adults see what their kids are doing and learning.  And they offer interpretation and explanation of the Museum's philosophy and intentions.

There are other strategies museums can use to facilitate adult outcomes including:

  • Engage adults in collaborative work with their children and offer multiple possible roles for adults throughout the museum so that sometimes they are leading and other times they are supporting the primary inquiry.
  • Train staff to articulate children’s learning to model interactions that support the expression of learning.
  • Train staff to recognize adult learning in the museum setting and in how to support adults in gaining confidence and skill as partners in their children’s learning.     
More specifically, museums can: 

·      Design for the diverse needs of the adult audience, including participatory activity, quiet observation, and socializing with other adults.
·     Offer expert perspectives on informal science learning through partnerships with researchers and teachers in training.  Such as they do at MOS and BCM.  
·      Offer opportunities for adults to create documentation projects that facilitate children’s reflection on their own activity. 
·      Provide ideas for how adults might continue the inquiry and projects started in the Museum at home, and support visitors’ efforts to implement these suggestions through web-based, newsletter, and other resources.

Extending communication with parents beyond the visit

This last point takes me to the off-site long-term relationship piece.  One tenet of museum education is that a visit will continue to resonate in people’s lives long after they leave. Being a place to go when museum users have follow-up questions or comments is a piece of the way museums can extend their work beyond the walls of the building.  This support also allows adults to articulate and reflect on the connections they make between their lives and their Museum visit. Following are some ideas that are tuned to adults - easy to access, relevant, and helpful, fun, playful and participatory. So bridging this need with the right set of materials is a win-win.

  1. Have an “Ask an Expert” email system that puts adults in touch with education and child development Graduate Students
  2. Set up an email newsletter with a monthly Hot Tip that goes to visitors’ email, is displayed on the museum's home page, and is also included in the “hold” soundtrack on the phone.
  3. Create a screen saver that people can download at home featuring images from around the Museum.
  4. Create an interactive timeline that encourages adults and children to talk about events in their lives and to compare where they were and how they felt at those moments.  The timeline might be seeded with some starter ideas that span the generations and include both large global events as well as local, personal experiences.  Imagine The Mint Museum interactive site framed this way.
What has your museum tried?