Northwest Association of Youth Museums: Regional Network Powerhouse

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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.

By Alissa Rupp, FAIA, FRAME | Integrative Design Strategies

In 1989, a group of children’s museums in the Pacific Northwest came together to set a collegial standard that has persisted: they decided to collaborate, rather than compete, and to stake a regional claim on the emerging field of children’s museum professionals.

In Washington State, along the I-5 corridor, children’s museums in Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia joined the Oregon museums in Portland and Salem to anchor the newly formed Northwest Association of Youth Museums (NWAYM), a regional subset of the Association of Youth Museums (now ACM). At the time, due to considerable geographic distance, and with online communication its infant stages, there was a sense that the larger organization did not have as strong a connection to the Pacific Northwest museums as they did to members in other regions. Travel to national conferences, expensive and time-consuming, was limited to a handful of senior staff. There were also opportunities and challenges common to the museums of the Pacific Northwest, and it became clear that there was an advantage to sharing knowledge and resources locally.

NWAYM directors and senior staff held joint gatherings, rotating among member museums and sharing what they learned in their still-fledgling field. A larger number of museum staff gathered more easily and inexpensively at NWAYM regional meetings, catching up and comparing notes. They welcomed emerging museums and visited en masse when museums opened in Skagit County, Washington, or Medford, Oregon. Over time, more children’s museums sprouted in an ever-widening region. When children’s museums opened in Alaska and Idaho, they were invited to join.

Thirty-three years later, the group has grown and expanded its reach. It welcomes allied professionals as well—including designers, architects, and exhibit fabricators—and invites inspirational business and civic leaders to engage with the group. Today there are twenty children’s museums and science centers, of all shapes and sizes, established anywhere between one to seventy-five years ago, who work together in NWAYM to make each other—and the field—better.

NWAYM: By the Numbers
Current members: 21
Cost of membership: $50, $75 or $100 per museum, depending on annual budget
Admission discount: 25% off admission for up to 4 people, with a peer museum                          membership
Size of the region:  
Four states: OR, WA, ID, AK
Bellingham, WA to Medford, OR: 530 miles
Seattle, WA to Boise, ID: 490 miles
NWAYM-participating museums:
Adventure! Children’s Museum (Eugene, OR)
Children’s Museum of Eastern Oregon (Pendleton, OR)
Children’s Museum of Idaho (Meridian (Boise), ID)
Children’s Museum of the Magic Valley (Twin Falls, ID) (emerging)
Children’s Museum of Tacoma (Tacoma, WA)
Children’s Museum of Skagit County (Burlington, WA)
Children’s Museum of Southern Oregon (formerly Kid Time, Medford, OR)
Children’s Museum of Walla Walla (Walla Walla, WA)
Eugene Science Center (Eugene, OR)
Fairbanks Children’s Museum (Fairbanks, AK)
Gilbert House Children’s Museum (Salem, OR)
Hands On Children’s Museum (Olympia, WA)
Imagine Children’s Museum (Everett, WA)
Kids’ Discovery Museum (KiDiMu) (Bainbridge Island, WA)
KidsQuest Children’s Museum (Bellevue, WA)
Mobius Discovery Center (Spokane, WA)
Seattle Children’s Museum (Seattle, WA)
Umpqua Discovery Center (Reedsport, OR)
Whatcom Museum Family Interaction Gallery (FIG) (Bellingham, WA)
Wonder Works Children’s Museum of the Gorge (The Dalles, OR)
Yakima Valley Museum (Yakima, WA)
NWAYM Loses One of Its Own: Portland Children’s Museum

NWAYM members supported staff and community members of the Portland Children’s Museum (PCM) when its board announced a sudden and permanent closure earlier this year.  Front desk staff at children’s museums from Eugene, Oregon, to Burlington, Washington, got many questions from visitors.  What happened, and would their own local children’s museum be in danger of closing, too?  The group discussed ways in which it could welcome members from the now defunct museum, or at least communicate with PCM members to let them know that their reciprocal admission coupons would still be honored.  Board members noticed as well, and worked with staff to understand and steer their museums clear of the dangers Portland had faced.  Among NWAYM directors, a sense of grief and mourning ensued, as the doors closed on an important and influential museum that brought innovation and thought leadership to the field for seventy-five years.

Growing a Regional Association

In the last decade, NWAYM has become a more formal entity, providing several annual opportunities for cooperation among the region’s children’s museum and science center professionals. It holds an annual spring conference, generally trading off between Washington and Oregon locations. This allows large groups of staff and board members—sometimes 150-200 attendees—to gather for keynote presentations, themed discussions, and updates from each museum on programs, accomplishments, and initiatives. Each year, in the fall, ten to fifteen museum directors gather for transparent, honest, “cone of silence” conversations, acting as both colleagues and mentors to each other as their organizations face changes in growth, staffing, impact, advocacy, and community engagement.

The advantages of this regional cooperative are numerous. But perhaps the most intriguing, and least measurable, advantage is a region-wide contingent of children’s museum members who visit and support museums outside of their home towns. Each member museum has a unique, place-based personality, from Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia, with 28,000 square feet and extensive outdoor exhibits, to the Victorian house and contemporary climbing structure at Gilbert House in Salem, to the museums in Skagit County and Boise whose staff have beautifully repurposed unused commercial space. The options for families and travelers are wide-ranging, and this cross-pollination is encouraged and appreciated by museum leaders. Members have increased attendance and awareness, and helped to open the region’s children’s museums to visitors from across the four states with a long-standing regional reciprocal visitation program. Members also increasingly utilize Museums for All, an access initiative for visitors presenting SNAP EBT cards, of the Institute of Museum and Library Services facilitated by the Association of Children’s Museums.

The museums that are part of NWAYM are quite different from each other. They each reflect their community: founders, board members, and staff have their own sense of what will resonate with the children and families they serve. Each museum has its own aesthetic sensibility, and each has developed a unique range of both on-site and outreach programs. The strength of the association is not that it encourages museums to converge or imitate each other. If anything, it has strengthened their individuality, as each museum team is encouraged to find and cultivate its own voice, and anchor itself in its surrounding community. Member museum staff are innovative and creative—sometimes borrowing ideas or techniques from each other, but usually putting their own twist on what initially inspired them. Museum staff and leadership are supportive and encouraging of their peers, and are deeply invested in each other’s success. Finally, as KidsQuest CEO Putter Bert said in a discussion for this article, “We all just really like each other!”

While this Pacific Northwest organization cultivates local/regional museums, NWAYM members have a national impact. Several children’s museum CEOs and executive directors have built and led multiple museums, served on the ACM board of directors, and brought decades of experience to not only regional but also national and global conversations. As many readers of this article will attest, these individuals are notoriously generous with their time and knowledge; they choose to share their hard-won expertise with each other and with their newer peers, growing the knowledge base and advancing the work of the field in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

NWAYM Members Speak
In our smaller, rural area, we don’t have a local museum community to share experiences or exchange ideas.  Having the NWAYM group as a resource, not just for myself but for our entire team, has been a tremendous benefit for our organization.  It’s built our enthusiasm for our industry, and given us a true sense of community.  And it has consistently reminded us that we really belong to something so much bigger.
—Sunny Spicer, Executive Director, Children’s Museum of Southern Oregon (formerly Kid Time Children’s Museum)
The most valuable benefit of participation in NWAYM is the collaboration, rather than competition, among member museums. When I mentioned during a call that our newly opened museum would welcome exhibits that were no longer being used, we received donations from three museums in the region.  One set of exhibits had already been adopted once before—they traveled from KidsQuest to Skagit County several years ago, and are now installed in Boise!  These exhibits have a new life, rather than being in storage, and we are so happy to have them.
—Pat Baker, Executive Director and Founder, Children’s Museum of Idaho
Our board of directors regularly asks me to check in with my colleagues at NWAYM to see what other museums are doing as we navigate complex situations.  Knowing first-hand how other museums in the region approach challenges gives us all the confidence to move forward with our plans.  This was particularly important when we contemplated re-opening during the pandemic, and when we tried out timed ticketing.  But it has also helped us think about developing benefits packages for staff, and other operational questions.  The collective wisdom is invaluable.
—Meredith Maple-Gitter, Executive Director, Fairbanks Children’s Museum

2020 Hit Hard

Across the country and around the world, the last eighteen months have presented a whole new set of challenges for everyone, including NWAYM members. The health concerns of the pandemic, the turmoil of the election and its aftermath, the heightened understanding of anti-racism and social justice practices, and the various economic crises resulting from shutdowns created unprecedented conditions for children’s museums. Throughout the Pacific Northwest region, museums closed to visitors, re-opened, and in some cases re-closed and re-opened again. Sadly, the Portland Children’s Museum, established more than seventy-five years ago, closed permanently. Significant projects were put on hold, while some capital campaigns emerged at full strength. Fundraisers were canceled, restructured, or moved online.

Through all this, NWAYM museums’ staff have continued to serve their communities in myriad ways— through online programming, kits, videos, and remote lessons, as well as diaper banks, food drives, internet hot spots, outdoor play spaces, and activities for kids at vaccination sites. They also worked diligently to create safe, clean, un-crowded spaces in their museums once visitors were welcomed back.

In April of 2020, NWAYM directors canceled their annual fall in-person gathering and began meeting on bi-weekly video conferences. At first, these calls were a place to commiserate and compare notes, but they soon became a crucial lifeline for rebuilding, recovery, and reality checks. NWAYM directors also attended weekly ACM Leadership Calls, and applied the information they gathered to their states, counties, and cities. When funding options varied from state to state and county to county, bookkeepers and CFOs compared notes. And while COVID regulations varied widely with the region, staff members shared information about PPE, PPP, COVID testing, and operating protocols. They offered each other moral support and practical coaching, with directors hearing each other’s concerns and asking, again and again, “How can we help?” The spirit of collaboration that had been nurtured over thirty-two years became a reliable and steadfast source of true cooperation. In a very real way, this association, which was already a helpful resource, saw its own transition from nice to necessary.

Advantages, Collaborations and Cooperative Programs: What makes NWAYM so great?
(And how could your local/regional network grow its reach?)
The museums in NWAYM have found many creative ways to leverage their alliance.
Reciprocal admission discount: As a benefit of membership, NWAYM museums provide a 25 percent discount on admission for up to four visitors for members of participating museums. This encourages people to expand their children’s museum horizons, and to travel to their “next nearest” museums with their friends and families.
Regional conference: While it can be cost-prohibitive to send more than a few staff members to InterActivity, most museums can send larger contingents to a two-day event nearby. Staff members get to know their colleagues in similar roles, and enjoy the professional development opportunities.
Big ideas: In recent years, the organizing museum has been encouraged to invite local business, civic, and cultural leaders to provide a “keynote” for the conference, bringing some bigger ideas and expansive thinking to the event.
• Shared expertise: Museum leaders across the regional association collaborate closely, assisting each other as they come to similar growth points, face questions related to staff or organizational development, or choose systems or equipment. From comparing notes to sharing written policies, it is hard to overstate the value in a having up to twenty close colleagues with whom to consult.
• Collaborative funding opportunities: Several of the museums have teamed up to develop funding opportunities or to jointly pursue specific strategies.
• Exhibit exchanging and re-housing: Several exhibits have been sold or donated to other NWAYM museums. Much-loved exhibits that are well-built can be refreshed and given a new life in a new community once the museum of origin goes in a different direction.
Staff knowledge: When staff members have visited other museums in the region, they recommend other museums that might be a good fit for local members, or traveling visitors. The Pacific Northwest experiences a significant amount of regional tourism, so it is great for all of the museums when informed staff can welcome visitors from other places and make them feel at home. Visitors and staff alike have a sense that they are part of a bigger community, and that children’s museums are valuable additions everywhere.
• Automatic colleagues: NWAYM fosters an affinity that ACM supports, reinforcing the existence of a thriving children’s museum field, and that important things are happening at every institution.

A Rising Tide

Several NWAYM museum directors have noted that the individual success of each museum improves the outcomes for all the museums: if they focused on competing with each other—for audience share, funding, board members, media attention or political visibility—they may miss opportunities to grow together and become stronger as a group. To their minds, it is in everyone’s best interest for children’s museums throughout the region to thrive, and to be seen as essential, valuable, and important parts of families’ daily lives.

The NWAYM-associated museums have shared members and visitors, as well as staff. Several museums are close enough for families to easily visit and maintain multiple memberships, and as staff moves around the region, they have found positions at sibling organizations. In general, NWAYM museums take a pragmatic approach: it is challenging for families with young children to drive more than forty-five minutes to visit a museum, and there is sufficient audience in each travel catchment area to support each city or region’s children’s museum. While direct participation levels have varied over time, it has become more and more clear that the advantages of collaboration outweigh the temptation to compete. The region’s kids, families, educators, and communities are all better for it.

Alissa Rupp, FAIA, LEED, is Principal, FRAME / Integrative Design Strategies. She is currently serving as acting director of the Seattle Children’s Museum as they move to their next stage.

Cover photo: Left to right, Gretchen Wilson Prangley, Play Africa; Putter Bert, KidsQuest; Patty Belmonte, Hands On Children’s Museum; Sunny Spicer, The Children’s Museum of Southern Oregon (formerly Kid Time Children’s Museum); Tanya Durand, Greentrike; Susie Glass Burdick (former executive director), KiDiMu; Ruth Shelley, (former executive director) of the now-closed Portland Children’s Museum.