By Kate Preissler, Digital Media Marketing Manager at the Berkshire Museum and Alumna, Department of History
Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road…So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.
–President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, February 12, 2013
There is currently a movement amongst some museums to become involved in the development of our very youngest citizens. Spending significant resources to create opportunities for toddlers used to be the exclusive realm of children’s and maybe science museums, but now many more institutions — historical, arts, music — are getting into the game. The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, founded in 1903 by Zenas Crane to be the Berkshires’ version of a Metropolitan Museum of Art or Smithsonian, is one of them. Finding ways to integrate early learners into a setting designed for adults presents many challenges but also makes for some very innovative programming. As a part of this initiative, titled WeeMuse, the Museum has added an Early Childhood Specialist staff position in the Education Department, started a series of programs and activities in the Museum for kids 18 months to 3 years, increased networking and direct outreach to early childhood education and care providers, and become a partner in the Pittsfield Transition Team — a group of educators, school administrators and organizational representatives who meet to address the needs of young children, especially as they transition from home or daycare to the public school system.
Out of the Museum’s participation in the Transition Team came the newest WeeMuse offering: In Kindergarten, a book for parents and children that addresses many of the things that kids will experience when starting school for the first time. It’s not a manual, but appears in the style of a storybook with engaging graphic images, activity pages, and even stickers.
In Kindergarten is the kind of result that most networking groups of which I’ve been a part only dream. The school system had previously produced a take-home packet for parents of incoming kindergarteners which had the same goal: help families ready themselves for the transition to kindergarten. The members of the Museum’s Education staff who sat on the Transition Team heard this and recognized that the Museum had strengths — an interpretive team experienced in taking educational content and bringing it to life — and resources — designers, printers and others who had worked to produce high-quality publications for the Museum — that could turn this fairly standard introductory packet into something more valuable to families. With support funding from Berkshire Bank, the Berkshire Museum produced, printed and distributed In Kindergarten to every incoming kindergartener in Berkshire County for free.
By now, the idea of a participatory museum, where exhibits are designed to draw people in, provide opportunities for interaction, and content that challenges and stimulates thoughts relating to their own lives is a fairly common concept. Taken to its extreme, we’ve even begun to discuss the future of museums as community centers — places of gathering, play, and conversations — as much as with the size and quality of their collections.
As museum professionals, we also talk a lot about “community.” In my experience, most discussions focus on that word in relation to bringing a broad spectrum of the individuals in a community (and their ideas and voices) into the space of a historic site or museum. This is what we talk about when we discuss community input, community participation, and integrating community voices. In conversations about offering benefits to a community, the strategies often involve uncovering or publicizing hidden histories, giving voice to marginalized constituents, providing better access to more populations, and providing space for cross-cultural and cross-generational exchanges. When we talk about community service, it’s often about bringing the content and stories from our sites or museums outside of our walls and into the community.
We all talk about community within these parameters for a very good reason: by mission we are bound to the walls, collections, programs, or other distinctive facets of each of our organizations. The creative challenge has been to figure out how to use our collections and spaces to create experiences which will attract and be meaningful to the members of our communities. But almost constantly, as we work out in our communities, we witness problems and struggles with which we feel powerless to intervene because they just fall too far outside of our core mission. And let me be clear, I truly believe that avoiding mission-creep in any organization is crucial. Focus and strategic direction are vital to maintaining organizational sustainability and producing high-quality work, especially in today’s world.
However, I can’t shake the feeling that In Kindergarten, which does not directly engage early learners with content related to the Museum or bring them through our doors, is one of the most exciting projects that has come out of a cultural institution of which I have been a part. This project was more about the Museum recognizing its assets and stepping up to the plate to lend them to the community as it was about the mission of the Museum. When talking about the WeeMuse initiative I have heard our Education staff refer to the “it takes a village” concept of raising kids. They see the Museum’s role in the community as unquestionably part of the “village” that is responsible for developing young children into engaged citizens; life-long learners; and lovers of art, history, science and the exploration of ideas. The project and the attitude of my colleagues embodies the value of being in service that I hold dear to my heart and have long hoped to see more organizations take on.
So how do we reconcile these two conflicting impulses that so many of us hold: the strong urge to make real, tangible change within a community and the longing to lend a hand when we have what may be needed to positively change lives VS the desire to uphold and forward the mission that directs our institutions and to continually work to ensure the survival of historical and cultural institutions into the future?
There may be no easy immediate answer for many institutions, especially with resources stretched so tight, but for me the question has everything to do with the very long view. No longer can small, local history and cultural institutions hold ourselves separate from the issues and crises facing our communities, regardless of the content of our collections and the stories we need to keep telling. We need to become more involved in some of the issues we have kept out of before, not just because it feels good or it makes it look good, but because it’s increasingly important to our survival.
With visitorship to historical and cultural institutions plateauing or declining; with the incoming generation predicted to have fewer resources than their parents’ generation; and with more and more organizations competing for the same sources of funding, we must take an active role in keeping our community members healthy, economically stable, and with access to quality education. Historic sites, museums, and other cultural institutions depend on visitors with some level of disposable income and leisure time, with an interest and desire to explore ideas, and a curiosity to learn more about humanity, the arts and the past.
If our missions — written in 1891, 1903, 1974, or any year — hold us back from projects which will cultivate the next generation of visitors and stabilize the sustainability of the communities in which we reside, it may be time to revisit them, to reassess what it means to be a part of a community, and direct our mighty creative talents towards figuring out how we can both preserve the cultural legacy and intentions of our institutions and work beyond our walls in ways that our founders may never have imagined we would need.