Justine Roberts recently became the executive director of the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire in Dover, N.H. During her own time of transition, she reflects on museums, exhibitions, and change. She will be discussing the topic during a session at the upcoming Association of Children’s Museums meeting in Houston, May 19. Thanks to Justine for contributing this guest post.
How often should a museum change its exhibits, and how extensive should those changes be? These are not new questions. I first encountered them working on Exploration Place, Inc., where we —White Oak Associates, Gyroscope, Inc., and Talking Spaces, led by Museum President Al DeSena—talked about creating a “delta museum.” The core concept was that large parts of the exhibits could be reused and rethemed, making it less expensive to refresh the museum. The Delta Museum moved past reliance on a changing exhibit gallery, and instead looked at the whole museum as changeable.
The Big Lab, at the California Science Center in Los Angeles (right), designed by Gyroscope, Inc., is an example of this. The scale of the exhibits supports collaboration, the activities encourage creative problem solving around science-based inquiry, and they are flexible enough to allow daily use by children even as those users gain in skill or their interests change.
Explora, in Albuquerque, takes this to another next level, treating even walls and work surfaces as flexible. There is almost no infrastructure. In the middle is the idea of an exhibit “platform,” which provides a designed environment, but leaves room for staff and for visitors to co-create the final museum experience. (This image, left, is from a review by Nina Simon.)
There is a significant cost difference between a traditional exhibit that visitors are invited to use until they grow tired or it gets old, and one that staff and visitors are encouraged to change seasonally, if not hourly, and incrementally. The first model is capital intensive, the second is staff intensive. This is an important difference since many museums find it easier to raise money for new exhibits and harder to fund staff. Although when I think about why change matters, I am more drawn to the co-created model as a way to support active participation, customization, and durable relationships.
At the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire, where I recently became the executive director, we do not have a changing exhibit gallery in the traditional sense. Instead, we focus on staff-driven change throughout the museum. We also seed change with Gallery 6—an art and craft gallery in the physical and emotional center of the museum—which hosts 3-4 shows a year. These shows create a continuum between the playful investigations of our young visitors and those of professional artists, and they inform drop-in activities, workshops, and evening events.
The question remains how much to change, and what types of change are meaningful. Each organization struggles with its own challenges around supporting change and each is dealing with a different physical plant, and other constraints. Jennifer Farrington of the Chicago Children’s Museum, will be hosting a conference session at InterActivity in Houston on Thursday, May 19, on this topic. In addition to CCM and CMNH you can learn about the innovative strategies being piloted at Zeum, in San Francisco, The Children’s Museum of Phoenix, and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.