By Michael McHorney, Children’s Museum of Eau Claire; Deb Gilpin, Madison Children’s Museum; Anne Snow, Children’s Museum of LaCrosse; Andrea Welsch, Children’s Museum of Fond du Lac
When hearing the name of our state, Wisconsin, non-residents typically associate our culture with beer and cheese. Yes, Wisconsin leads the nation in cheese production and often ranks at or near the top in per capita rankings for beer consumption. Wisconsin also ranks first nationally in the production of horseradish, ginseng, and cranberries and is known for producing butter, bratwursts, and corn. Wisconsin also leads the nation in something else: it has the most children’s museums per capita in the United States. Basically, you could say folks from Wisconsin live in a state of PLAY.
The value of a regional or state children’s museum network cannot be over-estimated. Many function as key sounding boards and support groups for museum practitioners scattered around a broad area. They can also harness the expertise and reach of member museums to develop a more powerful collective voice, one that can be harder to escape the notice of local government leaders. There is indeed strength in numbers.
Children’s museums in Wisconsin have long been engaged in collaborative efforts. An annual gathering, which began in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, in 2009, has traveled the state ever since, increasing in participation and frequency. At these events, children’s museum professionals discuss thought-provoking ideas and share each other’s best practices. This collaboration, known as Wisconsin Children’s Museums (WICM) has resulted in greater quality for exhibits and programs and nearly doubled children’s museum traffic from just over 500,000 (2009) to nearly 1 million (2019). To assist in navigating the pandemic, WICM held virtual meetings almost weekly. Discussions concentrated on uncovering critical and necessary funding sources and sharing best practices around reopening.
In November 2020, after working together to research state funding opportunities, more than a dozen children’s museums shared a combined total of $650,000 in COVID relief funding from the Wisconsin Department of Administration. This modest portion of statewide funding, available to all arts and cultural organizations, helped some children’s museums in the state, but more support is needed. Recently, members of the group again put their heads together to create messages for their county executives, mayors/city managers, etc. A powerful letter, signed by the group, details how children’s museums play an essential role in healthy, thriving communities and asks for their support in allocating American Rescue Plan funds to keep museums alive. It is hoped that these latest joint communication efforts will lead to additional opportunities for Wisconsin children’s museums to collectively advance goals of the Department of Children and Families and Department of Education, as well as provide critical support for our community’s children as they are healing from the effects of the pandemic.
What started as a group meeting periodically to share best practices has evolved into a collaborative that meets bi-weekly to coordinate and discuss museum issues and trends. Our first statewide project in 2018 implemented the national initiative Prescription for Play (RX4P) through a state media campaign in cooperation with medical institutions and pediatricians.
Wisconsin children’s museums demonstrated how effective the statewide partnership can be in this campaign, which highlighted information released by the American Academy of Pediatrics about the importance of play to a child’s health and development. A plan created collaboratively by the Fond du Lac and Madison Children’s Museums was endorsed and supported by all thirteen children’s museums in the state. On a single day, the campaign reached more than 100,000 people through social media posts alone. In addition, approximately two dozen healthcare entities and local radio and television outlets joined forces to shed light on a topic that directly impacts social, emotional, physical, and intellectual development of children.
Collaborating with colleagues from around the state allowed us to effectively and creatively develop a unique Wisconsin Prescription for Play logo and press release that each museum could customize, resulting in sweatshirts, stickers, signage, and opportunities to incorporate expertise from physicians in our own communities. Working smarter, not harder, we reached more people in a more impactful way. These efforts were acknowledged by the Association of Children’s Museums, who invited us to present the results of our awareness campaign in a national webinar.Andrea Welsch, Children’s Museum of Fond du Lac
Wisconsin Children’s Museums have moved from intermittent to consistent advocacy of play, starting through relationship building at our annual Children’s Museum Day at the Capitol. This became the foundation for realizing outcomes for positioning children’s museums as major partners of state government. In January 2019, Madison Children’s Museum hosted the Governor Evers’ Madison Kid’s Gala, and Michael McHorney was appointed by Governor Evers to the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board. In 2020, all children’s museums were successful in receiving COVID funding relief. These three examples were direct results of that initial relationship building.
Governor Evers leveraged our audience reach when he hosted three Inaugural Kid’s Galas across the state, in children’s sites, two of them children’s museums. In Madison, he funded a free Saturday at the museum, but he won us over when he held a press conference in the museum, but only took questions from kids. The press conference made it clear—the welfare of children would be front and center in his new administration.Deb Gilpin, Madison Children’s Museum
Momentum has been building, but more work is needed. Moving forward, efforts will involve telling the story of children’s museums and how they are an essential part of a thriving community. And thriving communities mean a flourishing state of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin children’s museum group’s latest project involves a push to educate the citizens of Wisconsin on the inequities surrounding pandemic relief funding.
Over the past twenty-five years in the field, I have witnessed children’s museums evolve from “a nice thing to have” to being an important resource, not only to families but also to communities. Some of our largest employers use the museum as a recruiting tool. They bring potential new hires to visit the museum when touring the city. Our statewide network of children’s museums makes the state a great place to work and live.Anne Snow, Children’s Museum of La Crosse
The value of a regional or state children’s museum network cannot be over-estimated. Many function as key sounding boards and support groups for museum practitioners scattered around a broad area. They can also harness the expertise and reach of member museums to develop a more powerful collective voice, one that can be harder to escape the notice of local government leaders. There is indeed strength in numbers. State networks like the Wisconsin Children’s Museums are showing the potential of strategic solidarity to support each other and advocate for the children and families in the communities they serve.
Michael McHorney is executive director of the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire; Deb Gilpin is president and CEO of Madison Children’s Museum; Anne Snow is founder and executive director of the Children’s Museum of La Crosse; and Andrea Welsch is the executive director of the Children’s Museum of Fond du Lac. They are all located in Wisconsin.