The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is a non-profit institution committed to creating extraordinary learning experiences across the arts, sciences and humanities that have the power to transform the lives of children and families. Founded in 1925, it is the world’s largest children’s museum. Situated on 29 urban acres in the American Midwestern city of Indianapolis, the 475,000 square foot, five-level museum houses eleven major thematic exhibitions, three temporary galleries, a children’s theater, planetarium, and a collection of more than 120,000 artifacts and specimens. Its 1.2 million annual visitors consistently place it among the top twenty most visited museums in North America.
Creating experiences that really have the power to transform the lives of children and families is a lofty goal. Those of us who work in museums and heritage institutions believe that our sites, collections, exhibitions and programs are important and have the potential to change people’s lives. But do they really? How does The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis create its extraordinary learning experiences, and how does it measure whether they actually have the power to transform?
Family Learning and Memories
Unlike most museums that are focused on a specific subject (Paleontology, Archaeology) or historical site (battlefield, castle), or artifact type (modern art, ceramics), The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is driven by a specific audience: families with children. Besides children who come through its doors as a part of a formal school group, the majority of its visitors are children who visit as part of a larger family unit with parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles, and siblings. These groups are multi-generational and often include members at different developmental life stages and who come to the museum for different reasons. Some are knowledgeable museum-goers, but for many The Children’s Museum is their first ever museum experience. They represent different generations, but have come together to have a quality shared experience, and even to create new family memories.
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis studies how these families interact and learn together in its exhibits and programs, and then designs its experiences to meet specific goals aimed at increasing the success of these interactions. Over time, The Children’s Museum has developed systems for measuring desired behaviors to determine if families are learning together. Its Family Learning Assessment System (FLAS) measures how successfully family learning occurs in its family programs. The Assessment of Learning Families in Exhibits (ALFIE) uses social science evaluative tools like questionnaires, prototyping, and tracking and timing to measure family learning interactions and behaviors within exhibitions. More recently, with this significant base of knowledge about what inspires learning and extraordinary experiences in programs and exhibitions, the museum has begun to develop a new system, the Family Learning Object Research and Evaluation System (FLORES), which will enable curators to make decisions about which artifacts and specimens should be added to the collection by predicting whether the objects will be interesting to families and will foster family learning.
Fun, Imaginative, and Real
All of this results in museum experiences that are truly unique. While there are many science centers, art galleries and history museums in the United States, few create exhibitions aimed at the kind of collective learning that happens among family members at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis. There are also many children’s museums in the United States, but only a handful of them utilize the kinds of real and iconic artifacts and specimens that can be found in The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis’ experiences. These include articulated Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops fossils in Dinosphere, one of the largest displays of juvenile dinosaurs in the world. They also include coins, anchors and cannons from Columbus-era shipwrecks in the Caribbean in the permanent National Geographic Treasures of the Earth exhibition. These experiences also include working paleontology and archaeology labs, where scientists and conservators work in full view and even reach of visitors, who are encouraged to ask questions and even participate in the processes used to prepare and stabilize the objects.
Professional Actors Inside Exhibits and Galleries
The commitment to the “real” also includes the employment of professional actors inside galleries, where they interact with visitors in theatrical performances to bring discussions of history to life. In The Power of Children: Making a Difference, traditional didactic displays surround immersive theatrical spaces focused on the stories of three 20th-century children who fought intolerance and discrimination to make a positive difference in their worlds: the tremendous message of hope of Anne Frank amidst the 1940s Holocaust; the bravery of Ruby Bridges who was among the first black students to integrate the white school system of New Orleans in the 1960s; and the tenacity of Indiana teenager Ryan White who fought fear and misinformation about AIDs in the 1980s.
Commitment to Vitality of the Community
The Children's Museum of Indianapolis also takes its commitment to transforming the lives of children and families outside of its walls and into its community. Situated in a once vibrant area of the city that has experienced profound urban decay, the museum has become a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization and education. Working together with community leaders, the museum led the creation of a Quality of Life Plan for area residents. The museum set aside funds for the construction or rehabilitation of neighborhood homes, and led the improvement of major traffic corridors in its area with new sidewalks, landscaping, improved outdoor lighting, and safety measures. In 2000 it established InfoZone in partnership with Indianapolis Public Library, the only public library branch located inside a museum in the United States. The museum’s service to low-income and underserved audiences includes free memberships, special free days and access passes, preschool scholarships, neighborhood summer camps, after school programs, and youth volunteer opportunities.
Making a Difference, One Life at a Time
Despite rigorous testing and evaluation, sometimes the best way to measure whether a museum can transform lives is one personal story at a time. One such example presented itself when eight year old boy Spencer Hahn testified to U.S. senators and congressmen on Capitol Hill about how The Children's Museum of Indianapolis changed his life. Before he was even born Spencer suffered a neo-natal stroke, which induced symptoms of cerebral palsy, grand mal seizures, and autism spectrum disorder. He was never expected to walk or talk, so his mother made a new plan focused on how Spencer could be happy. Using her membership to The Children's Museum of Indianapolis they visited weekly. There they found an environment where he felt happy, safe, and stimulated. Over time he was befriended by museum staff, who witnessed many developmental milestones he was never expected to pass. He took his first steps at the museum, and spoke his first words there as well. In 2014 his inspiring story led the American Alliance of Museums to name Spencer as one of two Great American Museum Advocates, and was a factor in the presentation of the National Medal for Museum and Library Service to The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.
Yes, museums do have the power to transform the lives of children and families.
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