The Children’s Museum History & Culture Summit

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The following post is condensed from the introduction to the latest issue of Hand to Hand, ACM’s quarterly journal. 

The first museum designed for children, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, opened in 1899. By 1960, thirty-eight children’s museums were in operation in the U.S. By 2012, this number had increased to 300 children’s museums worldwide, and continues to grow today.

Looking at the timeline of children’s museums, it’s possible to identify the social and cultural trends that fueled the field’s different periods of growth. However, in addition to empirical research, it’s critical to engage the people behind this growth, and learn their firsthand experience.

With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), ACM convened a small group of children’s museum leaders, past and present, for The Children’s Museum History & Culture Summit on May 5, 2017, following InterActivity 2017. The Summit engaged leaders active in the children’s museum field in the past twenty-five years, with a focus on the explosive development of the field between 1995 and 2005.

This meeting was part of an ongoing project to collect stories and data to help tell the story of the recent history of the children’s field, building off the last major effort of this type, 1999’s Bridges to Understanding Children’s Museums project and report. A related goal of the Summit was to reconnect past leaders who have left the children’s museum community, many to retire or join related fields.

Over the course of an afternoon, panelists and participants engaged in reflection, camaraderie, and storytelling. Together, they reviewed themes from ACM’s initial data collection about the history of children’s museums, using this as a jumping-off point for a far-ranging discussion about the field.

The conversation was guided by the following questions:

  1. How has practice in children’s museums affected practice in the broader museum field? What are the implications for how object-based museums present exhibits and programs to children and/or family audiences?
  2. How does the lens of the humanities and academic study help ACM understand how children’s museums affect children’s learning?
  3. How have children’s museums influenced the idea of childhood? How has the idea of childhood affected practice in children’s museums?

The Summit unearthed themes and ideas that were of critical importance during the children’s museum field’s early growth—and continue to resonate today. With further insight from leaders of the field during the 1995- 2005 era, the “History & Culture Summit” issue of Hand to Hand naturally extends the conversation about the connection between our field’s history and future. (Look out for key quotes from the Summit throughout the issue.)

Telling our own story with confidence is the way forward as children’s museums continue to professionalize. How can we empower individual museums to gather their own stories to contribute to this field-wide effort? How can we use these stories to build the institutional self-confidence that comes from knowing who you are?

Alison Howard is Director, Communications at the Association of Children’s Museums. Follow ACM on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

To read other articles in the “History & Culture Summit” issue of Hand to Handsubscribe todayACM members also receive both digital and printed complimentary copies of Hand to Hand. ACM members can access their copies through the Digital Resource Library–contact Membership@ChildrensMuseums.org to gain access if needed.