Archive for November, 2013

My life as a museum evaluator preceded my life as a parent, and over the past 15 plus years, I have learned a great deal about child development, family learning, and parent-child interactions in informal learning settings.  I know what I know from academia (Piaget and Vygotsky), from classic studies on family learning, and from hours and hours spent pouring over data collected from observing and interviewing parents and children in all kinds of museums.  I have even written an article about parent-child interactions, published in Museums and Social Issues, based on research we did at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia.  I know that many museum professionals would describe ideal parent-child interaction as parents guiding and scaffolding their child through a museum experience that is primarily child-directed.  The image of a parent crouched down at a child’s level, together actively engaged in observing, asking questions, and speculating on the meaning of a particular experience or object comes to mind.  So, as you can imagine I entered motherhood with all kind of fantasies about what it would be like to take my own children to museums.  While pregnant I imagined me and my unborn boy/girl twins (I’ll call them F and E) at The Met looking closely at and wondering about hieroglyphs in an Egyptian tomb or at the American Museum of Natural History hypothesizing about what we could see in all those amazing dioramas.  I can happily say that almost nine years later, I have had both of those experiences with F and E, but for many years, my experience with them in museums was anything but ideal.

Instead of the idyllic scene I describe above, for many years, taking F and E to museums was actually kind of tortuous.  As the researcher pre-motherhood, I knew nothing of the reality of dirty diapers, snack containers, winter coats and hats, tantrums, or corralling two toddlers with sticky hands though a crowded gallery.  Let’s just say in those early years, had “researcher me” observed “mommy me” in a museum with F and E, “researcher me” would have been horrified.  “Researcher me” would have seen “mommy me” slumped over on a bench, covered in dried cheerios, texting, yawning, or maybe having a conversation with another mom, while F and E bounced around like pin-balls from exhibit to exhibit or laid on the floor having a melt-down because they wanted to go to the gift shop or get candy out of the vending machine. That’s not to say that it was all bad in those early years—there were moments of wonder in the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the Newark Museum, the New York Hall of Science, and others. But those moments of wonder were outnumbered by moments of chaos.  So, when F and E were about four years old, I threw in the towel and pretty much stopped taking them to museums.

E shooting a cannon aboard the USS Constellation in BaltimoreThen, I’m not sure what happened, maybe it was because they doubled in age, but last March I took F and E on an Amtrak trip to the Mid-Atlantic States and decided to take them to a few museums.  And, to my utter amazement, we had a blast.  Over the course of three days, we went to the Constitution Center, the National Aquarium, the Sports Legends Museum, and took a self-guided tour of the USS Constellation (a naval fighting ship built at the end of the 18th Century).  I let F and E lead the way in every case and was there to gently guide them in observing and experiencing everything.  They looked at everything, asking a ton of questions and speculating on what it might have been like to sleep in the bowels of a wooden ship, to play on an NFL football team, F in the huddle at the Sports Legend Museum in Baltimoreand what the heck kind of fish is that?  Since our train trip, we have visited many other museums in the New York City area (and they visit a lot of museums on school field trips, too).  In each case, I have been amazed and so proud to realize that we are experiencing museums in exactly the way I imagined all those years ago.  It took awhile, but we finally got there (although, I have fully accepted that vending machines and gift shops still rule…).

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Earlier this week our Founding Director Randi Korn was featured as a guest blogger on Carol Ann Scott’s blog Museums and Value.  You can check out Randi’s guest blog post on the importance of intentional planning HERE.  To learn more about Carol’s new book Museums and Public Value: Creating Sustainable Futures, take a look at her guest post our own Intentional Museum blog HERE.

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Every day I am reminded how much power passion has—for those who feel it—we are driven to do what we love; for those who have the pleasure of hearing others talk about their passion—we are struck by the depth of their love for something—whether contemporary art, medieval manuscripts, or organic chemistry.  Last night I attended a “Senate of Scientists” dinner and lecture at the National Museum of Natural History.  These events are not open to the public, and I am lucky to have attended so many of these events over the years because my husband is a scientist at the museum.  I always enjoy myself.  Oh yes, the lectures are wonderful, and I always learn something new—that’s one reason why I enjoy attending.  What I realized last night (I’m not sure what took me so long) is that part of what makes the experience special is the people who attend.  All have a passion that they pursue, and while their passion may be different from the passion of the guest speaker, all are engaged in the evening’s topic.  When different passions fill a room, the questions that follow the presentation are always bold, owning to people’s differing perceptions and ways of viewing the world.  Discourse has always been friendly, even when a challenge is put forth.

Last night’s experience stands out.  While the speaker, a female scientist from Stanford, was inspiring, my evening was invigorating for another reason.  Just as I was about to sit down with my plate of food, a young woman (16 years) came over to me with her grandmother (whom I recognized) and said, “My name is Sahara, like the desert; may we sit with you?”  So, when young people attend these lectures, they stand out—there may be one or two other teens who attend with their parents, but essentially they are sitting with adults who are their parents’ or grandparents’ ages.  I thought I had seen this girl before, but I wasn’t sure, so I started asking questions.  Within less than 30 seconds, I learned that Sahara was passionate about chemistry.  She couldn’t wait to share with anyone who would listen that she wanted to be a chemical engineer because she “has to”; she has no choice!  Her passion was so strong that there just wasn’t anything else that she could possibly do in life.  As I was talking with her, I realized that I had met her some years earlier; she was a girl then, and now she was a young woman who was going after her dream.  She told me that she wanted to attend the lecture because the speaker is from Stanford and she will find out on December 16th if she has been accepted to Stanford—her number one choice.  She said she was trying hard to not get her hopes up, but when I asked her about her GPA (4.2) and scores (SAT: 2200/2400; ACT 32/36), I just smiled.  I thought it was good that she was a little worried, showing her humility and recognition that there are many smart people in the world.

Sahara like the desert (which is how she introduced herself to everyone she met) will do just fine in life, and I hope she will attend future lectures when she visits her mother and grandmother during school breaks from Stanford.  Her passion will pull her through (along with her charm and delightful manner) any hard times she may encounter.  Sahara like the desert made my evening memorable, and she warmed my heart.   I suspect we all know remarkable young men and women who are following their passions; I just wanted you to meet Sahara.  She is special and I suspect she will be an amazing chemical engineer.

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