Kindred Spirits: Q&A among Seven Regional Museum Networks

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This article is part of the “The Power of We: Local/Regional Support Networks Flourish” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

Africa Play Network
NorCal Small Museum Cohort
Louisiana Children’s Museums
North Carolina Science Network
Ohio Children’s Museums
Small Museums Collaborative
Virginia Children’s Museums

•  What’s the glue that holds you together?

AfricaPlayNetwork: We share 1) our love for all African children and the potential they represent; 2) our agreement that spaces—and in particular for Amowi, natural spaces—support and facilitate children’s development; 3) play-based, child-centered approaches to learning; 4) a deep and abiding mutual respect for how hard our work is, and 5) a commitment to deep laughter when we are at the point of tears!

The network has been a source of encouragement, support, and strength during tough times. There is a sense of solidarity because we really have nowhere else to look for a better understanding of the contexts we are working in.

NorCal: Camaraderie, shared experiences, these particular women, our need for mutual support through the pandemic, and Zoom technology making it possible.

Louisiana: We bond over the same goal: We want all children to have access to stimulating, hands-on and educational exhibits and programming that promote physical and mental development, curiosity, creativity, and exposes them to local culture.

NCScienceNetwork: A common purpose: to stimulate interest and excitement in STEM education, helping to promote science literacy throughout the state of North Carolina. Sharing best practices and addressing collective issues is beneficial to all.

Ohio: Mutual respect and having someone to talk to who understands exactly where you are coming from and the challenges you are facing. With only fourteen children’s museums in Ohio, the number of people who understand our plight during the past year is extremely small. Meeting regularly with colleagues has brought a sense of stability and calm to us all.

SmallMuseumCollaborative: Trusting in the friendship and collegiality we have built, we feel safe to be open and honest about our challenges and the issues. This diverse group always offers good suggestions, new tactics, or additional resources to pursue. The fact that we are all smaller museums in a specific region of the country leads to natural commonalities.

Virginia: Similar missions, wanting to learn, connect, and create best practices for post-COVID re-emerging.

•   What are you able to accomplish as a group that you might not be able to as individual museums?

AfricaPlayNetwork:  Representing a range of African countries, we are working to evolve a continental vision of new frontiers in play and learning which would be much harder to do as individual organizations. We are building a collective and specific expertise to inform and invigorate global exchanges in the world of children’s experiential learning environments.

NorCal: We have shared many resources that no one of us could compile on their own. We have a Google Drive folder containing opening procedures, policy statements from other museums, etc.

To raise awareness of the impact of the pandemic closures on children’s museums, Gina Moreland drafted an op-ed piece for the San Francisco Chronicle about our plight. Group members reviewed and edited it, and became signatories. It was published in December 2020. Recently, we have joined forces with southern California children’s museums and arts groups to claim some of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) federal dollars. We are considering pooling resources to hire a lobbyist to advocate in our very large state for children’s museum resources.

Louisiana: When everything shut down in March 2020, and remained closed for months, we all canceled annual fundraisers, programs, camps, etc. When our state started a slow, phased reopening, we saw that children’s museums would probably be one of the last types of businesses to reopen. We collectively came up with policies and procedures to ensure visitor and staff safety and presented them to local and state agencies. By working together and agreeing to adhere to the guidelines we produced, we were allowed to reopen sooner than expected.

Currently, our group is working on a state travel promotion to highlight regional children’s museums as tourist destinations and show the impact each one has on its community’s children. This effort also celebrates the variety of locales and different learning experiences offered by each museums. We want to encourage exploration and travel across the state of Louisiana as well as bring in families from surrounding states.

NCScienceNetwork: We look for opportunities to share exhibit and program resources, which many smaller museums may not have the funding to support. For example, the network offered a small traveling exhibit about Nano science to member institutions at no cost (other than inbound shipping). We are replicating that model with a new exhibit about space science. We continue to seek state funding in one form or another. Our collective voice is much stronger than multiple entreaties by individual members.

SmallMuseumCollaborative: Formed a year before the pandemic, we were just beginning to explore ways to partner. In our first year, each executive director would lead a discussion during the monthly call on a chosen topic, such as “fundraising ideas and special events,” “evaluating programs,” or “audience engagement.” Participants knew about the topics in advance and took turns sharing perspectives or strategies and asking questions.

We originally intended to broaden the collaborative to include other museum departments—educators talking to educators, for example—with like departments managing and leading their own group meetings. However, in 2020, the group coalesced around COVID-19. We did not simply commiserate but shared strategies and plans about closing and reopening our museums and keeping our visitors safe. We kept each other up to date about federal relief packages and resources from various museum associations. We often talked about how to help our staff manage stress and visitor interaction.

Virginia: This grassroots effort in a time of crisis arose from a need for on-the-ground thinking and support. Similar demographics help us relate easily to each other.

• Competition vs. collaboration among member museums?

AfricaPlayNetwork: Based in entirely different countries, with diverse languages and cultures, we are not in competition with one another for audiences or staff. We also tend to get funds from different sources, often with a focus on African development. Our network is characterized by a supportive culture that is not based on a scarcity mindset, but rather trusting that there is an abundance of resources in the world to support our work. We inform one another of funding opportunities and look out for sources that could help the network as a whole.

Every one of our organizations is highly responsive to its own local context. But all of us are creating original programs, projects, exhibits, advocacy campaigns, and media content to champion children and their right to play and learn.

NorCal: Competition is not a problem. Our museums are relatively distant from each other and draw from different audiences and funding sources. We have shared exhibits, and even offer reciprocal admission discounts to museums in the group.

Louisiana: We are geographically far enough apart that this is not really an issue. We actually want families to museum-hop and visit all of the museums in the state. We do occasionally compete for state-level grant dollars, but not too often.

NCScienceNetwork: Generally speaking, geographical distance minimizes direct competition. We often collaborate on grant programs that include multiple institutions as partners.

Ohio: The issue of competition has not come up. We focus primarily on how to help each other deal with state requirements and how to operate during the pandemic.

SmallMuseumCollaborative: It’s a non-issue. We share and borrow ideas back and forth with no hesitation. We cheer each other on, celebrate successes and achievements, and offer that pat on the back that we all need at times. We have talked about working together on grants, exhibit fabrication, and program development, but we haven’t been able to pursue those ideas yet.

Virginia:  We don’t have a ton of competition since we are all far enough apart that we don’t have much audience overlap. We all come together to learn, discover, and share.

•  What have you learned—or what has surprised you—about this group?

AfricaPlayNetwork: While we advocate for increased access to play opportunities for children all over the continent, each organization and leader has a unique approach. A surprising benefit has been learning about work we have already been doing—networks created, lessons learned—increasing our respect for each other’s work and impact.

NorCal: I needed and have come to enjoy close contact with fellow executive directors, particularly ones nearby in similar circumstances! With most of us working from home, we had time to connect and set up a dedicated time to do so.

Louisiana: Nothing surprises us in Louisiana anymore, especially dealing with this past year’s pandemic and natural disasters. We really enjoy visiting with other on our Zoom calls.

NCScienceNetwork: I have been surprised (or at least heartened) that such a collaborative organization exists and has such a convivial and mutually supportive character. Having been a member of numerous museum-related organizations throughout my career, few seem to have such a high degree of collegiality and genuine recognition of the benefit of sharing rather than competing.

AFRICA PLAY NETWORK
ImagiNation Afrika (Dakar, Senegal)
Mmofra Foundation (Accra, Ghana)
Play Africa (Johannesburg, South Africa)
The PlayHub (Kigali, Rwanda)
 
The Africa Play Network is an informal group of executive leaders of four pioneering organizations that promote children’s play and playful learning in their own contexts on the continent: two children’s museums (Play Africa and ImagiNation Afrika), a children’s park (Mmofra Park) and a creator of playgrounds and public spaces (The PlayHub).

They have been meeting since 2013, when Karima and Gretchen, founders of different children’s museums—6,000 miles apart—found each other and organized a Skype call to swap notes and share ideas.  Due to the extreme distances (Amowi spends much of the year in Spokane, Washington) the group has met almost exclusively virtually—on Zoom and Skype.  They communicate between calls with short messages on WhatsApp and actively support each other on social media such as Twitter.
    —Gretchen Wilson-Prangley, Play Africa
        Karima Grant, ImagiNation Afrika
        Amowi Phillips, Mmofra Foundation
        Julian Ingabire Kayibanda, The PlayHub
Nor Cal Small Museum Cohort
Children’s museums located in Northern California with budgets under $2 million
 
Children’s Creativity Museum (San Francisco)
Children’s Museum of Sonoma County (Santa Rosa)
Habitot Children’s Museum (Berkeley)
Kidzone Museum (Truckee)
MY Museum (Monterey)
Sacramento Children’s Museum
Santa Cruz Children’s Museum of Discovery
 
The cohort was organized in April 2020 by Collette Michaud (Children’s Museum of Sonoma County) who reached out to four other museum directors.  Meeting primarily on Zoom, it soon evolved through word-of-mouth and mentions on the weekly ACM Leadership Calls.
    —Gina Moreland, Habitot Children’s Museum
Louisiana Children’s Museums
Membership open
 
Bayou Country Children’s Museum (Thibodaux)
Children’s Museum of Acadiana (Lafayette)
Children’s Museum of St. Tammany (Mandeville)
Knock Knock Children’s Museum (Baton Rouge)
Louisiana Children’s Discovery Center (Hammond)
Louisiana Children’s Museum (New Orleans)
Northeast Louisiana Children’s Museum (Monroe)
The Children’s Museum of Southwest Louisiana (Lake Charles)
T.R.E.E. House Children’s Museum (Alexandria)
 
The group was organized in April 2020 by Julia Bland (Louisiana Children’s Museum) and is currently managed by Arianna Mace (Bayou Country Children’s Museum).  All members contribute and actively participate through emails and monthly Zoom calls.
    —Arianna Mace, Bayou Country Children’s Museum
North Carolina Science Network
Membership criteria:
• Designated 501(c)(3) or a governmental agency
• Located in North Carolina with a
regional audience and a significant focus on science
• Open to the public for at least two years and operating at least 120 days per year
• Have at least one full-time professional staff

 
This large group has forty-four members,
including: 
Catawba Science Center (Hickory)
Discovery Place Charlotte
Fascinate–U Children’s Museum (Fayetteville)
Greensboro Children’s Museum
Hands On! Children’s Museum (Hendersonville)
Imagination Station Science and History Museum (Wilson)
KidSenses Children’s Interactive Museum (Rutherfordton)
Kidzu Children’s Museum (Chapel Hill)
Marbles Kids Museum (Raleigh)
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (Raleigh)
Port Discover (Elizabeth City)
The Children’s Museum of Wilmington
Western North Carolina Nature Center (Asheville)
 
In the mid-1980s, eight North Carolina science center directors gathered to discuss issues including the possibilitiy for state funding.  In 2000, the group formed the NC Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative, an independent 501(c)(3) organization with advocacy for state funding as a key purpose.
 
That same year, the collaborative received a $1 million grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund to create an endowment, which continues to support it. By the late 2000s, membership had grown to thirty-four institutions. In 2016, the state funding model changed from direct grants to museums to a competitive program based partly on regional economic need.  Working in collaboration with the membership to determine the future of the organization, in 2018 it was rechristened as the NC Science Network. The network connects, unifies, strengthens, and champions museums and allied organizations throughout the state to enrich the lives of its citizens by engaging with science.
      —J. Willard Whitson, KidSenses Children’s
         INTERACTIVE Museum
Ohio Children’s Museum Directors Meeting
Membership open to any children’s museum in Ohio

AHA! A Hands-On Adventure, A Children’s Museum (Lancaster)
Akron Children’s Museum
Boonshoft Museum of Discovery (Dayton)
Children’s Museum of Findlay
COSI (Columbus)
Duke Energy Children’s Museum (Cincinnati Museum Center)
Explore-It-Torium Children’s Museum of Marion
Imagination Station (Toledo)
Little Buckeye Children’s Museum (Mansfield)
Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery (Athens)
The Children’s Museum of Cleveland
Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones
Children’s Center for Science & Technology (Youngstown)
SPI: Where Science and Play Intersect (Mt. Vernon)
The Works (Newark)
 
The first meeting came out of a conversation between Fred Boll, executive director at Little Buckeye Children’s Museum, and Johnna McEntee, executive director of the Ohio Museum Association.  Johnna is the current group organizer.  In June 2020, the group began monthly Zoom meetings.
    —Fred Boll, Little Buckeye Children’s Museum
Small Museum Collaborative
Membership currently stable
 
Children’s Museum of Brownsville (TX)
Don Harrington Discovery Center (Amarillo, TX)
Discovery Center at Murfree Spring (Murfreesboro, TN)
Hands On! Regional Museum (Johnson City, TN)
Mayborn Museum (Waco, TX)
Mayer Museum at Angelo State University (San Angelo, TX)
Mid-America Science Museum (Hot Springs, AR)
Museum of Texas Tech University (Lubbock, TX)
The Discovery Science Place (Tyler, TX)
 
Diane LaFollette, executive director of Mid-America Science Museum, wanted to create an informal collaborative group to share and address issues unique to smaller museums. The group started with seven museums in 2019; two more joined in 2020.  Participating museums are located in states bordering Arkansas, in or near a population area of less than 200,000, with operating budgets of less than $3 million.
 
The group began meeting in-person or on group phone calls and later through monthly one-hour Zoom meetings. Initially planned and organized by LaFollette, meetings are now led by mutual agreement.
    —Diane LaFollette, Mid-America Science Museum
Virginia Children’s Museums
Membership open
 
Amazement Square (Lynchburg)
Children’s Science Center (Fairfax)
Children’s Museum of Richmond
Discovery Station (Hagerstown, MD)
Explore More Discovery Museum (Harrisonburg)
For the Kids: By George Children’s Museum (Martinsburg, WV)
Kids Square (Roanoke)
Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum (Winchester)
Virginia Discovery Museum (Charlottesville)
Wonder Universe, A Children’s Museum (Christiansburg)
 
Organized in the spring of 2020 by Dawn Devine (Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum).  Meetings held primarily on Zoom.
    —Dawn Devine, Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum

Play Africa

Ohio: Everyone thinks their museum is unique, but we have learned that we are much more alike. Our differences are very small in comparison to the overall needs of children’s museums during this pandemic.

SmallMuseumCollaborative: How quickly the group gelled once we started the monthly calls, which speaks to the need for more of these groups. Since we had been meeting for a year before COVID, we already had the support system in place when we needed it the most.

Virginia: We have all learned so much about the re-emerging processes going on in different communities and to hear how like-minded folks are solving similar challenges.

• How do you handle inclusiveness?

AfricaPlayNetwork: Over the years, we have developed a deep sense of deep trust and mutual respect. The group provides a confidential, mutually-supportive space to share our successes and challenges. We want to expand but have kept the executive group small, because we are all so constrained for time/money—we simply don’t have the resources to allocate to expansion. However, we would love to share knowledge and practice with others in this field working in various contexts across Africa. We are currently looking for partners to help us expand the network to include others across the continent who share a commitment to amplifying Africa-led initiatives to promote play and playful learning.

NorCal: Although we have extended the invitation broadly, the group has established an equilibrium among the regular attendees. But it’s not exclusive, and we would welcome more members who have time to participate. In fact, with the intense lobbying for funding/ARP relief going on, we are reaching out to others to join.

Louisiana: Our group is open to all children’s museum directors in Louisiana.

NCScienceNetwork: We are open to anyone who meets the membership criteria.

Ohio: We ask each institution to send a representative to the monthly meeting, but we let that representative be determined by the institution.

SmallMuseumCollaborative: Keeping the group small fosters relationship building and makes the monthly conversations manageable so all participants can have a voice. We aren’t intentionally limiting membership, but we aren’t actively looking for more members either.

Virginia: We include anyone who asks to be invited.

•  Have any of the past year’s COVID-focused conversations sparked ideas for ways to work together in the future?

AfricaPlayNetwork: Working together more through digital media is one intriguing idea. COVID has exposed digital divides, but each of us has also seen how increasingly accessible technologies (e.g. smart phones with WhatsApp and other low-data apps), can be used to promote locally relevant content for children, parents, and educators.

Amowi: “I have been so deeply impressed with the way Play Africa Children’s Museum and Imagination Afrika used the virtual space to address the socio-emotional and physical wellbeing of children and parents through regular virtual African storytelling events, dance, and movement sessions and parenting guidance. The COVID period has simply amplified and validated existing practice—which has evolved organically—of attentive, active, and generous interaction online.”

NorCal: We haven’t gotten there yet, but we may share exhibits or other tangible resources, grant writers or other staff, and have discussed coordinating on a capacity-building grant that would benefit all of us.

Little Buckeye Children’s Museum

NCScienceNetwork: The fact that we all faced some level of peril motivated us to seek support. We shared best practices regarding the health and safety of our visitors and staff, and sought funding to distribute among the member institutions. I hope that this sort of exchange and dialogue will continue into the future regarding non-COVID issues.

SmallMuseumCollaborative: Once all the museums in the group are operating sustainably, we intend to resume our plan to broaden the collaborative to other museum departments. This will build more working relationships among our organizations and provide professional development for staff, which is often unaffordable. We have discussed partnering on various projects, however, the group’s core purpose is to be an informal support system, which has been proven to be the most valuable part of the effort.

Virginia: Our conversations include all aspects of the museum field. We talk about how to solve problems in our own museums, as well as future collaborative grant efforts.

•  What makes this group function so well? Tips for other people looking to start their own groups?

AfricaPlayNetwork: We share a fundamental integrity of purpose, mutual respect and a clear Africa-centered focus. It helps to know who you are and what you stand for right from the beginning. This is an amazing group of women, leaders and pioneers in any circumstances, even outside of the field.

NorCal: As with any well-functioning volunteer group, every member needs to be committed and consistent. Our commitment has grown over time because our biweekly meetings have provided real benefits, including social and emotional ones. The women in our group support each other—we are all going through the same crisis. But even when one museum is facing a unique challenge, the group listens, commiserates, and offers helpful ideas.

As leaders of institutions, we all have executive functioning skills, but we bring our people skills to our Zoom meetings as well—making sure everyone has a voice and time to share. Interestingly, none of us claims a leadership role. Our conversations and group work have been much more mutual and collaborative. Members express appreciation for each other regularly. That certainly builds connection and sustainability.

Amazement Square

In our most recent meeting (June 10, 2021), even though most of us are now re-opening, we unanimously agreed to keep the group calls going. Everyone concurred: it’s the most fun meeting we have, and there will always be needs in the future that we need to talk about.

Louisiana: We have learned so much about our work, our memberships and families, our donors, our staff, and most importantly ourselves, and we have helped each other think outside of the box so many times this past year. Our tip to future groups? Use your collective strengths and passion for what you do to your advantage.

NCScienceNetwork: Be prepared to work. In the past, the network had a full-time director whose principle responsibilities included fundraising and administrative responsibilities. Now, those responsibilities are shared among the volunteer board of directors and other members. Diligence and consistency are required by all. It may help a new group to source start-up funds to ensure that necessary tasks can be accomplished, e.g. financial records and reporting, meeting scheduling and arranging, program development, etc.

Ohio: The group functions well out of mutual respect, a willingness to ask questions, and the openness of our members to share unconditionally their best advice.

SmallMuseumCollaborative: There are no attendance requirements, financial commitments, by-laws, or minutes. People join the call as their schedules allow. We have no plans to develop any kind of formal structure or association. Keeping the number of participants low ensures equal and active participation.

Virginia: We all come together openly, share a deep respect for each other, and appreciate the support.