Sunday, May 13, 2012

Portland Takeaways (InterActivity 2012 Impressions)

What do a Chinese Garden and a Children's Museum have in common? That's one of the things I'm thinking about as I ponder the conversations, lessons, and visits that have taken place this past week in Portland, Oregon as the annual InterActivity conference draws to a close. Over 800 Children's Museum professionals from around the world came to share the stories, triumphs, and challenges of their existing (or emerging) institutions.

Aside from obvious themes like the power of play in the lives of children, here are a few other common threads that I noticed during InterActivity:

The Maker Movement has definitely gotten the attention of the Museum World in general, and the Children's Museum World in particular. Many sessions and hallway conversations focused on how museums can form additional partnerships with all segments of the "maker" community (inventors, artists, crafters, etc.)  One big question is how to convince museum administrators to pony up the cash to hire and train additional staff to work in, and facilitate, museum maker spaces.

• Prototyping and testing: Several sessions focused on the many ways to prototype and test exhibit and program concepts with visitors.  My favorite takeaway about prototyping from one of the sessions I attended was that, as far as prototyping is concerned, something is better than nothing, no matter what your museum's size or circumstances.

• Attention to detail(s) Little human touches and details really add up.  In my visits to both the Portland Children's Museum and the Lan Su Chinese Garden  (pictured at the top of this post) you could find small details seemingly around every corner.  In both places a welcoming "human touch" was apparent. I especially admired the wonderful hand-painted murals and the thoughtful use of materials at the Children's Museum that said simply, "the person who made this really cared."

• This is your Brain on Exhibits:  Many sessions and speakers dealt with the work scientists and researchers are doing that help us understand not only "what" our brains learn, but "how."  Thinking about ways to translate brain research into exhibit development is fascinating.  (Plus I learned more about dopamine than I ever expected to at a Children's Museum Conference!)

• The Power of The Object. Last, but certainly not least, Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors spoke about her latest study of museums, and the memories people retain of their museum visits.  A very interesting finding was how "sticky" objects are in visitors' recollections of their museum experiences --- even stickier than hands-on experiences!  What this means to the bulk of Children's Museums (which are not collection-based institutions) is something very interesting to consider.

Congratulations to the ACM staff for putting on a great conference, and thanks to the staff of the Portland Children's Museum for being such great hosts!

If you attended InterActivity in Portland, what were some of your takeaways?  Let us know in the "Comments" section below.

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  1. Thanks for your observations. Your brief points are thought provoking. Please tell us more about the "brain research" sessions and take-away ideas for exhibit makers and museums in general on this topic.

  2. I thought your mention of the Power of the Object- Susie Wilkening's talk- was interesting. A couple of years ago, Sherry Turkle, who has written insightfully about how people relate to computational objects, gave a Thought Leader talk at AAM, where she discussed how objects are the symbolic repositories of memory and meaning. I think these observations, Turkle & Wilkening, underline the basic cultural power of museums, which is linked to objects. Participation is good, events are cool, being popular is a necessity for many, but somehow, the definition of museum seems to come back to objects. . . .

  3. @Michael

    You might like to check out the ACM website to see the conference final program so you can then Google researchers who spoke and gather additional information about their work: < >

    Some Google-able folks from my own list include: Drew Davidson, Michael Connell, Walter F. Drew, Ann Lewin-Benham, and Gina Lebedeva

    Also John Seeley Brown's keynote presentation is available as a PDF: < >

    Briefly my main "brain takeaway" was that research about memory, engagement, etc. can be used to help frame the creation of "better" exhibits.

    For example, some brain research shows that if a game format is layered on top of content that may actually work against information acquisition by visitors.

  4. @Jonathan

    Totally on the mark regarding the power of objects.

    Museums = Stories + Stuff.

  5. Thanks for the download on the conference. Sounds like a thought provoking conference. It's great to get away and just share thoughts. Thanks for sharing yours.

    Chris Meyer