Thursday, December 22, 2011

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

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.

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, 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?