Langley Lease, National Children’s Museum
After nearly twenty years without a permanent home, National Children’s Museum finally reopened its doors to families on February 24, 2020. Located in downtown Washington, DC, this next-generation institution sparks curiosity and ignites creativity for children and their families through interactive STEAM-based exhibits that invite everyone to learn and discover together.
In its first few weeks, the museum welcomed nearly 10,000 visitors and delivered twenty-four free, hands-on field trips to local public schools. After only eighteen days, COVID-19 forced the museum to temporarily close. This closure was swift and necessary, as the virus spread quickly in the metropolitan area, but left us scrambling to maintain our momentum.
In order to continue to serve new members and families, we needed to find ways to support STEAM-based learning from home. From the jump, our small Climate Action Heroes exhibit was a natural fit to achieve this objective, while staying true to our mission “to inspire children to care about and change the world.”
Presenting exhibits and programs that are thought-provoking and relevant to children’s lived experiences and challenges is at the center of our design goal. The museum’s exhibits focus on inspiring children to become the next generation of thinkers, doers, and innovators, and present topics that most affect children today. Arguably, no topic is more relevant than climate change.
Climate Action Heroes
In 2018, the museum contracted with Design I/O, a creative studio specializing in the design and development of immersive, interactive installations and new forms of storytelling, to present Weather Worlds in our Innovation Sandbox rotating exhibit space, focused on emergent technologies and topical content. Weather Worlds invites visitors to use their bodies and gestural movements to create, manipulate, and control the weather through greenscreen technology and to explore the broader impact of human activity on the planet.
Early in the development process, we decided to engage children and families in climate activism by creating our Climate Action Heroes: Community Captain, Water Warrior, Pollinator Patrol, Mighty Meteorologist, and Arbor Avenger. These characters and the corresponding exhibit, adjacent to Weather Worlds, were developed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to ensure that the content was solidly based in science.
Through a series of playful and thoughtful questions in the Climate Action Heroes exhibit, visitors identify their inner climate action superpower. The questions twist, turn, and jump throughout the space much like the classic hero’s journey. At the end, based on their answers, visitors are led to one of five large panels highlighting each character’s mission and superpowers. Water Warriors, for example, “protect our ocean and freshwater by keeping them clean. You focus on access to clean drinking water. You also help with drought preparation and response.” Each panel includes factual information about each hero and the rotating climate action challenges they face, encouraging repeat visitors to stay engaged in the fight.
Climate change can be a scary topic for children. Superheroes, however, are both hopeful and powerful figures. In Weather Worlds, children engage in imaginary play in ways that allow them to control the weather with superhero-like powers. By donning an imaginary (or real!) superhero’s cape, children have the courage to tackle any issue.
Five Characters and an Exhibit Lead the Way
After closing our doors on Friday, March 13th, the entire team came together the following Monday to decide how to pivot. Our team is small, our member base is new, and we don’t have the sometimes burdensome historical expectations to navigate. Plus, we had newness on our side.
Before the museum opened in February, the team had begun to develop a website, climate-heroes.org, to house additional climate action content to engage children and families after their visit, as well as support field trips. Head in the Clouds, the museum’s in-person field trip for children grades PreK-2, used Weather Worlds and the Mighty Meteorologist superhero to support learning about weather and climate and the science of meteorology. Because Climate Action Heroes had a previously-established digital platform, these five characters and the small exhibit quickly became the focal point for our digital offerings during the museum’s initial closure.
In June, the team premiered our STEAM Daydream podcast on all available streaming platforms. The August episode focused on climate action and drove listeners to climate-heroes.org and the virtual exhibit superhero identity quiz. Through all of these digital offerings, we are able to tie our climate action content to our physical space, even though our doors remain closed. The generous support of donors and grants has allowed us to keep all of these resources free for families, educators, and partner institutions. As our physical closure has continued, we have garnered more and more attention for these virtual offerings, inspiring further expansion in that realm.
What We Learned
The new iteration of the National Children’s Museum has been a virtual museum ten times longer than a physical one. But this closure has taught us invaluable lessons in the power of digital expansion. We have reached nearly 650,000 people from all over the world through our digital offerings. As soon as we are able to safely re-open, we plan to maintain, and continue to expand, this virtual presence.
Children are already living in an increasingly digital world, and now one which has expanded exponentially due to COVID restrictions. But this world is also increasingly disrupted by climate change. Though this daunting challenge is currently eclipsed by immediate COVID-related and other crises, developing Climate Action Heroes helps inform and inspire children about this escalating planet-wide problem. A second virtual field trip will focus exclusively on the Climate Action Superheroes in a way that will extend its relevance beyond our COVID closure. Because the Climate Action Heroes exhibit is only a temporary installation, this virtual field trip will continue to use the content and brand in future applications.
In a time when children and families are spending more time online, it is important to create digital content that supports and promotes learning away from screens. The Climate Action Heroes website sparks the learning and discovery for families to help in their homes and communities in real time. The COVID closure process has also taught us an important lesson in designing physical exhibits with the digital experience in mind. The demand for online learning will continue into the future, by both families and educators, with or without a global pandemic. Expanding our reach outside of our local and tourist communities is will drive our work in the future. If we want to inspire children to care about and change the world, we need to be able to reach that world.
Langley Lease is the exhibits coordinator at the National Children’s Museum in Washington, DC.