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Explaining the Chicago Children’s Museum

(Photo: Opening imaginations opens minds at the Chicago Children’s Museum. Credit: David London.)

On Friday, I requested and was given unfettered access to interview the administrative staff of the Chicago Children’s Museum (and why a local blogger and not a Tribune or Sun-Times reporter was the first person to do that is beyond me). I wanted to learn the point of the museum–its civic importance, its programs, its reputation. More than that, I wanted to figure out why instead of reporting on those things, in the midst of the ongoing controversy over the museum’s proposed move from Navy Pier to Grant Park, Chicago’s local dailies have instead dismissed the museum in language such as “a glorified activity center for kids” (Sun-Times).

I already knew the gist of their mission: “To create a community where play and learning connect.” I also knew their history: founded in 1982 by a coalition of groups led by the Junior League of Chicago in response to cuts in arts funding by the Chicago Public Schools district. Not the first Children’s Museum by any means (that was in Brooklyn), but likely the first to manage to create traveling exhibits while housed in a hallway at the old Chicago Public Library.

According to Elaine Bentley, longtime Director of Family Programs, from the beginning the museum sought to be a place where children could discover their creativity. “There are an awful lot of children who don’t get that opportunity,” she told me. “For financial reasons, for emotional reasons, because their parents ‘super-book’ them with activities. We don’t see the value in simply telling a child ‘good job’. We prefer language like, ‘You put a lot of work into that drawing, tell me why you choose those two colors?'”

Natalie Bortoli, the Director of Student and Educator Programs, zeroed in on why. We talked about the direct correlation between play and learning, especially among early learners, the museum’s main audience. According to Bortoli, when children are given a guided environment in which to express their creativity, hidden talents often emerge that help them be better thinkers, or problem solvers, or almost anything else you could imagine. “It’s the theory of multiple intelligences, and it’s what we base all of our exhibits and programs around.”

As Bortoli continued, I was impressed to learn that all programs at the museum are designed to meet Illinois educational goals in a variety of areas–goals that are reinforced in the guided pre- and post-visit activities suggested to teachers in the museum’s student-visit materials. But I was more surprised to discover that the Art Institute of Chicago and the Shedd Aquarium look to the Children’s Museum for guidance on how to reach an early-learning audience. I asked why that’s never appeared in a news story.

According to Natalie, for museum staff it’s hard to know where to begin to tell their story. “When we get a new employee, it takes an entire day just to tell them about all the departments and programs.”

“Don’t you have an elevator pitch?”

“An elevator pitch?” asked Public Relations director Natalie Krieger.

“You know, a focused, 30-second speech that you can use to pitch the story of the museum to people who don’t know what you do. Don’t you have one?”

“With all of our diverse programming, I don’t know where we’d start. We usually use our mission statement.”

That’s the same resistance anyone unfamiliar with these common, 30-second marketing pitches usually gives. Last year, when I learned to write them in a (helluva useful) spring spent studying at Chicago’s venerable Community Media Workshop, almost none of my mid-level nonprofit-manager classmates thought they could come up with one for their organizations. An afternoon of brainstorming happily proved, however, that each and every one of them could. Which is a good thing, since a mission statement so rarely–if ever–is written with the media in mind.

I pondered that and pressed on to learn more about the museum’s message. I asked Creative Director Joan Bernstein whether she thought that after 25 years there was still a need that the Children’s Museum was fulfilling. Her answer was emphatic. “Schools are even more standardized today, trying to fit kids into these expected, limited roles. There’s a need for unstructured play opportunities where kids can lead the way. To chalk up play as being frivolous is to deny the impact play has on early childhood learning.”

I told Bernstein it seemed to me that Chicago media were looking for a tangible product of the museum to report about, a sort of masterwork. The Field Museum has Sue. The Art Institute has the Impressionists. Finding nothing so obvious at the Children’s Museum, could it be that the media were missing the whole point?

“We’re like a launching pad for other museums. Kids learn how to be involved in a museum here and go on to those more adult museums as they grow.”

“So maybe the product is the process?”


Later in the day, I recounted to suburban hip-chick Val the “A-Ha!” moment I shared with Bernstein. Val countered with a question I hadn’t anticipated. “Well, isn’t it the media’s job to figure out who the Chicago Children’s Museum is, anyway?”

Well, no. Maybe in a perfect world. But in the real world of short attention spans, tight deadlines, and myriad competing agendas, I think it’s reasonable for a reporter to assume that a citywide cultural institution will be able to clarify who and what they are over a quick fact-checking call. I suspect it’s the lack of being able to do just that that has earned the Children’s Museum so much negative column space: it’s criticism borne, simply, out of confusion.

It’s not as if the Children’s Museum isn’t already proactive. Director of Cultural Programs Keith McCormick calls his title a misnomer. “I don’t create programs. I spend my day brokering relationships between the museum and Chicago’s cultural communities. Our cultural programs build themselves out of those relationships. I spend a lot of time out in the community, sometimes it’s like I’m never in the office.”

For McCormick, cultural programs at the museum are a way for children both to explore a window into other cultures and to experience the delight of having elements of their own cultures mirrored back to them in someone else’s. “Kids have a natural curiosity, and we’re a safe environment where they can ask questions.”

And a fun environment, as well?

“The misconception is that play is play and learning is learning and that they don’t meet. But they do. They absolutely do.”

Leaving the museum, I was of two minds. I was astonished at the depth of the educational theory and the fervor of the public outreach that goes on there on the western end of Navy Pier. Yet I also had a funny urge to head back inside and shake someone (definitely not one of the brilliant, hard-working people I’d just met, but who is a good question).

While I don’t have an opinion on whether the Chicago Children’s Museum should move to Grant Park, I certainly am rooting for the museum to find its voice in the debate. Composing one well-focused elevator pitch could do wonders towards getting the museum and its mission understood by Chicago media–not to mention understood by rank-and-file Chicagoans.

Given the museum’s all-encompassing mission and diverse programming, I can understand the overwhelm of museum staff in the face of such an endeavor. So while I was in the shower a few minutes ago, I decided to try my hand at the impossible, myself (after all, you have to start somewhere)…

“You know the delight you feel when you figure out a problem? Well the Chicago Children’s Museum aims to give kids a fun environment to figure out the world around them. We do that because when young children discover learning can be fun, it frees their imaginations and unlocks hidden talents they can explore for a lifetime. We’re kind of like a soccer coach for young minds. But instead of learning to play better, our little visitors are playing to learn better.”

Then again, as Nelson Mandela said, it always seems impossible until it’s done. And if I can do this with waterlogged ears (and did), think of the pitch your paid staff can come up with on dry land, dear CCM. It’s time to focus and speak with one institutional voice. Your mission, your expansion, and your ability to continue to serve your little visitors deserve no less. I’m rooting for you. The batter’s up. Time to focus.

Start pitching.

Categories: Best Of Chicago Carless Chicago Children's Museum Museums and Galleries

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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12 replies

  1. “Lots more rabbits and squirrels…”

    (Photo: Nary a beast in Lakeshore East?) The title a beautifully incisive quote from New East Side resident Eric Frost, poobah of the nascent downtown discussion board WindyChat, when asked why his kids prefer to romp in the playground…

  2. The Field house is tiny compared to what is being proposed.. the bandshell also does not compare.

    I don’t think NEAR engineered anything, it was only recently that I heard NEAR take a stance on the issue..

    It is the CCM who knew they would have a tough fight trying to propose the Daley Bi location again after last year, saw an opportunity with a new Alderman they thought they could steamroll, ran radio ads and a web poll, hired a telemarketing firm to cold call residents, hired college students to roam the neighborhood with a petition, put boxes around city children’s activities such as the Family Fun Tent in Millenium Park, gave slick presentations with consultants to more than half a dozen area residential buildings, who tried to engineer a knee-jerk reaction.

    So now their carefully crafted campaign has gone to shreds and they are now in crisis mode – for instance – hey these people didn’t buy our slick presentation and with all our resources we haven’t been able to drowned them out –
    let’s accuse them of being racist and elitists.

    Come again?

  3. I don’t think Gig Pritzker evaded any question on CT, except, perhaps, for whether she had ever, er, been verbally critical of the mayor. I do think that a lot of people have had a veritable knee-jerk reaction about Grant Park, engineered by NEAR, without thinking through all sides of the issue–and this surely includes me as well. Still, as far as I’m concerned, if a Field House and a bandshell can exist east of Columbus, the decree is toothless. You can’t hide behind it only when it’s convenient.

  4. “But as Gigi Pritzker said on Chicago Tonight last week, there needs to be more of a discussion about the museum, itself. Not just about Grant Park.”

    The issue is NOT about the merits of the museum or their desire to expand, it is about where to put it should they determine they definitely need to move from Navy Pier…

    Just talking about how wonderful the museum is or can be evades the issue. (Much as she evaded many of the questions posed by Ponce.)

    Rarely have I seen people like Cheryl above lay into the museum, although my 2.5 year old is too young for a lot of the activities, we still enjoy what they do have to offer for toddlers and look forward to an expanded Children’s Museum wherever, except Grant Park.

  5. You’re far nicer than I am, Mike. I would have posted this as a ‘crappy museum run by the clueless’ rather than what you wrote.

    I’m glad you’re still here too.

  6. Great post. Thoughtful and thought provoking. I think your elevator pitch is terrific. (I still can’t believe they didn’t know what one was.) If they’re smart, they’ll hire you to complete the job for them.

    Also glad to hear you’re sticking around. You’re a great advocate for this city.

  7. Thanks, Tony. I’m glad I’m staying, too.

    Dave: I’m not of an opinion one way or another about the museum’s potential move. But as Gigi Pritzker said on Chicago Tonight last week, there needs to be more of a discussion about the museum, itself. Not just about Grant Park. We’ve obviously put other things in Grant Park over the years besides grass and trees, and there was debate then on the merits, too–and not just Millennium Park…two words: Art Institute.

    If my blogpost can help clarify the museum’s reason for being, that’s a good thing. I do hope the museum starts doing that for itself, though, no matter where they end up.

  8. Nice post! It does sound like the Children’s Museum needs some more cohesion to their message, but everything they said was great–and I think shows how valuable their mission is.

    That said, not a single thing they said made me think they need to be in Grant Park to do it.

  9. To pay rent, considering that I gave up a nonprofit communications director gig in my New York City hometown to stay in the city I love more (a lot more, this one).

    Seriously, though, I’m as progressive and civic-minded as my bio would make me out to be. If you know of a public affairs/community outreach/media relations opportunity in an upstanding Chicagoland nonprofit or PR firm, I would love to hear about it. Feel free to email me at mike (at) chicagocarless (dot) com. And thanks for the words of encouragement!

  10. I started reading your blog a few months ago and appreciate the insight into my great city. This particular blog made me think about the fact that for a blogger, you really make an effort to understand and know all sides of the story rather than just throw an opinion onto the internet. As a freelance communications consultant, what are your goals now that you’re sticking around?

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