Sometimes, we forget that museum education is a long game. Next month, I’ll celebrate my 13th anniversary at DHV–and I’m still working on something that I first thought about on Day 2.
When I started in March 2004, I was able to shadow my predecessor for a few days. I remember asking her “Have you ever tried a preschool storytime?” Her response: “Oh no! My mom is a preschool teacher, and I really don’t like working with kids that age.” About a year later, I launched Barnyard Buddies, a program still going strong. It wasn’t an unusual concept–a book, a spot at DHV that connects to the book, an activity, maybe a song, and a craft.We had a blast, and the program grew, and it caused me to think a little bit differently about how to use DHV to teach.
But I also remember the reaction of some of my colleagues at other museums. I vividly remember a late night at the state museum conference, where we were having some tasty beverages in someone’s hotel room. Somehow, Barnyard Buddies came up and one man said “Why on earth would you let anyone younger than 4th grade into your museum? Young kids can’t understand HISTORY.” I was dumbfounded. Yes, these kids didn’t understand the origins of the Civil War, but they sure understand that life was very different a long time ago. And that’s enough to start.
Over the years, I started collecting examples of great programs and great spaces for young children. And I started collecting examples for my Hall of Shame as well. Too often, I was seeing the “children’s area” tucked into a corner, separate from the other exhibits. Too often, I was seeing very little thought put into these spaces. If we’re to stop the decline of museum attendance, shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to attract young children and their families?
In 2010, we developed a new strategic plan for DHV that included setting aside one building for a preschool play space. The building, formerly a Law Office exhibit, needed some serious repair work. A leaking roof had to be fixed first, before we ever explored other repairs and our ideas for the space. We also began to integrate more hands-on areas in other buildings, most dramatically in our General Store.
In Summer 2013, we learned that Vogel Alcove (a non-profit providing childcare for homeless children up to age 5) was moving into the recently vacated City Park Elementary School–located directly across the street. I reached out to Karen, their ED, and we began to work together. They moved to their renovated building in March 2014, and by that summer, their kids had started visiting us regularly. And we realized that the Law Office project needed to head to the top of our priority list because we had kids itching to have a space just for them.
In 2015, we managed to get the roof fixed. We started talking to the donors who funded the initial Law Office exhibit project. And we submitted a Community Anchors grant to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We wanted assistance to complete the playspace, but most importantly, we wanted the money to do a long-term evaluation of early childhood learning at DHV. Because my list of shining examples of early childhood spaces and programs at museums hadn’t grown much. And there definitely weren’t too many history museums on that list.
In September 2016, we got word that we had gotten the grant. I was in the middle of a luncheon at the AASLH conference, and all I wanted to do was dance and shout with joy. I restrained myself. Barely. I definitely can’t tell you what the speaker said that afternoon. And now the real fun has begun.
Last week, my educator, Mandy, and I did a two-hour “baseline” interview with our evaluators. We were forced to really think deeply about our educational philosophy, how we approach early childhood learning, and what our goals are for the 3 year grant period. In a way, I was also reflecting on my career at DHV.
When the succession plan was first announced, I had colleagues tell me that I needed to think twice about becoming director at DHV: “You don’t want to wake up one day and realize you’ve spent your entire career there.” I nodded and smiled, but inside I thought to myself “If I spend another 5 years at DHV as director, I’ll only be 40.” But today I started thinking about the value of that continuity–though my job has changed dramatically over the years, we’ve been able to strengthen and grow our programs in a profound way. We now have kids that were first Barnyard Buddies and are now Junior Historians. Through this program, we’ve gotten to know families. We know that our museum is an important part of their lives. How much harder is that to do at other museums where the average tenure of an educator is 2 years?
The kids that joined me at Barnyard Buddies in 2005 are now in junior high or high school. With this grant, sometimes I feel like our work is just getting started. And sometimes I feel that it’s the logical climax to the work that I began all those years ago. I truly believe that this grant will be transformative, and one result of this IMLS grant will be a new chapter in DHV’s history. We’re finally putting into words and collecting the data on all of our ideas about ways to teach history, and we plan to share it with the wider museum community.
There are so many things that energize me at work right now–whether it’s neighborhood development, fundraising, or this project. Every now and then, I get the question: so, where will you head to next? And when are you going to start thinking about that? And the simple answer is: I have no idea. I’m having too much fun right now. It’s a long game, but it’s a game that’s worth playing.