By Julia Bland, Louisiana Children’s Museum
Louisiana Children’s Museum‘s venture into the world of mental health support began September 12, 2001, when I called Andy Ackerman, then-director of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM). It was the day after 911, and he was already arranging to bring grief counselors into the museum, a perceived “safe place,” to help parents process the international disaster. CMOM’s response was an example of compassion, relevance, and child-centeredness—a lesson I was glad to have learned when, four years later, our museum was struggling with another type of disaster, the Category 5 hurricane Katrina.
With CMOM’s help, we began a ten-year healing journey that included big doses of mental health support, even sharing our resources with three other hurricane-ravaged and flooded cities in need. In the process, we learned that children—even very young children—pick up on the anxiety and worry of their caregivers. Whether it stems from widely publicized events, like a terrorist attack or a natural disaster or a pandemic, or arises quietly from pernicious sources, such as family violence or poverty. No matter the cause, the anxiety is real. Children’s museums can help families understand the needs of young children and the roles of caring adults as we go through many challenges including those presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The morning after the museum closed to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, I reached out to our partner at the Tulane Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health. We began mapping prioritized ways to reach local families in this time of great need. Ultimately, three projects emerged from this collaborative effort. First, our weekly Zoom series called In Dialogue, presented by various Tulane mental health experts, offered information on topics such as maintaining kids’ friendships while social distancing; the ABCs of trauma; self-compassion and mindfulness; promoting healthy sleep; and parental self-care. Second, we developed a set of resources called “Building Resilience,” a tip sheet with links to nearly forty additional resources for guidance. Finally, we created a new initiative called The First 1,000 Days, designed to help parents grow into their important role as their child’s most important caregiver.
Additionally, when the museum closed its doors to the public, we opened them to a nearby charter school, welcoming 120 Pre K and K students to use our facility and grounds as their school for seven months of the school year, ensuring in-person education and the joy that comes with going to school in a children’s museum.
Having weathered a variety of disasters since that call to CMOM in 2001, we’ve been rethinking our role as a children’s museum. We have learned a lot about caring for our families—both in our community and on our staff. How do we take heart and comfort our weary souls while telling our children that “it’s going to be ok” even when we don’t always believe our own words? What can we do as a welcoming community institution, even a temporarily closed one? Each museum follows a different path, but for Louisiana Children’s Museum, which in 2019 completed a thirteen-year project to build a new museum, only to close it six months later due to the pandemic, the focus remains true: finding meaningful ways to help families replace fear, loss and uncertainty with information and straight talk a parent can use to navigate everyday life in good times and bad.
Julia Bland has served as the executive director of the Louisiana Children’s Museum in New Orleans for the past twenty-four years.