Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hearts and Minds

I just read a post on the blog Blayne Sucks by Aaron Massey, a doctoral student in computer science at NC State. In other words, a computer geek. Aaron just wrote a 1000 word paean, a lengthy love letter, to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. He actually throws down the gauntlet, daring any other children’s museum in the country to compare itself to CMI. This guy is trying to start a flamewar arguing the merits of museums across the country! You can’t pay for this kind of publicity.

I suspect Aaron fits James Chung and Susie Wilkening’s definition of a “Museum Advocate.” In their new book “Life Stages of the Museum Visitor” they note that usually these advocates become stuck on museums at an early age, influenced by some experience that moved them in a profound manner. In his post, Aaron describes growing up in the Indianapolis area and taking part in ICM’s Museum Apprentice Program (called MAP), spending about 200 hours on the floor and behind the scenes over the course of a summer. As he describes it: “I setup props for science shows, and I did demos of cool science experiments about things like angular momentum or water surface tension. I got special access to some of their storage areas and I used my lunch breaks to explore the areas where I wasn’t working.” Wow, that investment on the part of the museum sure paid back. When, and if, Aaron has kids (or nephews or nieces) I bet he brings them to museums, too, and they will have their own transforming experience, and become life-long museum advocates.

Susie and James challenge museums to consciously explore how to create the kind of “sticky experiences” that catch kids’ hearts and keeps them for life. While some remember being bowled over by individual exhibits, I bet opportunities for involvement are even stickier. My own museum conversion experience was mucking out cages and doing live animal demonstrations with an opossum at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History as a youngster. I would love to learn more about other museum programs that engage children in meaningful work, and make them feel like they have “special access,” that a museum is truly “theirs” in a personalized way. Tell me your favorites! And if you had a museum “conversion” experience as a kid, what was it?

1 comment:

LCBrisson said...

I was recently on a visit to my hometown where I proudly announced to my three children that I had shoveled hay and manure "in that very animal pen." About 30 years ago I went to zoo school at the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul, Minnesota. I remember little else about that week-long experience but I vividly remember the hard labor involved and the realization that it was incredible to actually be in an animal pen at the zoo.
At about the same age, I was a junior interpreter (or something like that) for an exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota. My job was to tell people about the anemone. I remember how much I enjoyed telling people the name of the creature, especially once I knew how to pronounce it.
I forgot about both these experiences for decades, and my entrance into the history museum world was from a completely different direction. I remembered them after becoming a parent and when I began to tell my children about my life growing up. But once I did remember them, I realized how much of an impact they had on both my career path and what I do with the rest of my time.
During that same visit to Como Zoo last week, I saw young people working as volunteers everywhere. Several were at carts showing my children animal skulls and hedgehogs and one was collecting donations after the Sparky the Sea Lion show. Their presence at the Zoo made our fabulous visit there even better, but it also made me happy to see young people having such a connected experience. I laughed when I saw a small group donning plastic "booties" over their shoes. I was hoping they were headed for an animal pen!