By Brian King, Betty Brinn Children’s Museum
Back in March 2020, COVID-19 swept through the country unlike any force in recent times, essentially breaking the children’s museum industry, and our inertia, overnight. Exhibit floors fell silent. Too many beloved museum personnel lost their jobs. Our future became uncertain, bewildering, scary.
How does a children’s museum, a place-based institution where people congregate, achieve its mission during a pandemic? Every museum has confronted this same question with its own unique set of circumstances. For the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the answer has been to embrace our newfound state of “rest”—to slow down, even stop, and give ourselves the time and space to innovate so that we can one day go fast again. As a result, we decided almost immediately not to focus our energy and resources on reopening to limited attendance, burdensome COVID restrictions, and an untenable expense profile. Instead, we would seek long-term, transformative change through synergistic partnerships with people and organizations whose skills and reach far exceed ours.
The past ten months of public closure have been both devastating and liberating, providing an unprecedented opportunity for renewal, experimentation, and risk-taking. We’ve enjoyed the freedom to be open to new possibilities, especially by mining our extended network for opportunities. And sometimes it all starts with a simple exploratory conversation. In one example, through staff connections we were able to forge a new partnership with a local artist and performer, Wes Tank, whose videos rapping Dr. Seuss books to Dr. Dre beats went viral early in the pandemic. Tank now produces “Story Raps” content for streaming service Kidoodle.TV entirely at our museum—using our exhibits, props and playful environment as inspiration for his work. We are also planning joint content and events for virtual and (eventually) in-person audiences.
The museum and Tank share the same values and target audience. His reach and popularity as an emerging streaming media star are very attractive to the museum—just as our facility and constant stream of visitors are very attractive to him. Together, we are stronger, more relevant, and have more opportunities than we would have individually… and that’s the magic of synergistic partnerships. Would we have even identified, much less explored, this possibility if we had been open to the public or working feverishly towards reopening? I doubt it.
Slowing down also provided much more freedom to think, listen, and read. While COVID hasn’t stopped the relentless barrage of emails, voicemails, messages, and social media, we can pay attention to that data differently now, with an eye towards discovering new opportunities. And we’ve found some gems.
In late spring, for example, I received an email from someone at an exhibit company I didn’t know. The first sentences were a bit salesy in tone, but I read it carefully even though I thought it would be a waste of time. It wasn’t. That email seeded a licensing agreement in which the exhibit company is now marketing, selling, and fabricating two of our flagship exhibits in every market worldwide except for North America. While it’s early, I am optimistic that the long-term passive income possibilities will transform the museum’s finances—all because I slowed down and read my email carefully.
In addition to slowing down and widening our gaze, the museum has also been careful to know our limitations and seek partnerships to fill our deficits. Like most children’s museums, our superpower is that we understand kids and the importance of play; we are experts at translating that knowledge into fun, educational experiences on our exhibit floors. When the pandemic shuttered museums and exiled families to an extended quarantine, our natural inclination was to “go virtual,” to somehow repackage an intensely three-dimensional experience into small, two-dimensional rectangles on a screen. But as creative as the staff at Betty Brinn are, I knew immediately that we lacked the expertise to make a high-quality pivot to virtual. So, we searched for a partner with an overlapping mission but very different skill set. That’s how we found GLOMADO (GLObal MAkers and DOers), the educational technology company that became our partner in bringing live, interactive, virtual workshops to children anywhere in the world.
Our new virtual learning platform, Play in the Cloud, offers a rich array of hands-on workshops led in real time by instructors around the world. Teachers are increasingly using it to enrich their curricula and as field trip alternatives. Right now, almost all of the usage is schools—many in underserved communities—and it’s 100 percent free for them thanks to funding. This program has established a new avenue for fundraising not only for schools, but eventually for families. The platform’s real value will grow over time, especially in a post-COVID world when virtual engagement becomes a valuable option instead of the only choice. If that reality comes to be—and I’m optimistic that it will—this strategic partnership will transform the museum into a global institution with no boundaries. And that, ironically, would be thanks to COVID.
These are just a few examples of how the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum is innovating our way through crisis. With the pandemic raging on, our industry’s “new normal” probably won’t be clear until 2022. That means for better AND for worse, we all have more time to explore the possible. Opportunities are out there. We just have to slow down, widen our gaze, and look for them.
Brian King has served as the executive director of the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, since 2019.