Story 04: Where Did the Ideas Come From?

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Sidebar: Letting Go of Ideas We Never Did

Written by Signe Hanson

We could all learn a great deal about exhibit development by looking at the ones we hoped to do, held onto in our memory attics, taken out one last time and fluffed up before ruefully putting them aside. There are recurrent reasons why some themes work in exhibit formats and some are better in books or other media, why some have been discarded by one museum for every ten that did them, and why some ought to be done but never will be.

Sometimes we outgrow an idea like a childhood friend, turn fickle and walk home with some other concept. Some ideas stay with us and we stubbornly work them out in pieces of other exhibits, cleverly disguised so that even we may not recognize them: career leit motifs.

An idea may not be fundable or graspable or big (or little) enough or suited to our audiences or safe or timely or pushed forward by a true advocate. Staffs are sometimes sleepy, skeptical, fragmented, overworked, in love with their own ideas, not taking risks this year, not suited to this particular idea. The building is too small; the audience is too large, nobody loves the idea but you, the only person who would fund this one is your mother and you're too embarrassed to ask.

Good ideas are cheap; good ideas that get done well are harder to come by—and it always takes more time than we think. Maybe someday we will get around to doing that old one we've been hanging onto. One museum had an "Ideas for Sale" list that gets reviewed twice a year. No idea can be done until a person with real passion for that idea stands up for it.

Below is a representative but not exhaustive list of exhibit ideas from The Children's Museum staff that never got done and some of the reasons staff regretfully gave them up.

Exhibits That Never Happened...and their would-be advocates/presenters/detractors/opponents:

  • Nutrition: So universal, so basic, so wholesome, so fundable. But if you can't eat the food, where's the fun? Perfect for kit development where you get a teacher and the possibility of cooking and tasting. —Dorothy Merrill
  • Child Abuse: Exhibits have served as catalysts for family conversation about serious but touchy subjects (bowels, death, AIDS, disabilities), but could we deal with an exhibit that would help children and their families deal with this subject? Would we be able to provide appropriate staff to back up the exhibit so a curious or needy visitor could take the next step? (Not so far). —Dorothy Merrill
  • Tree House: The fantasy: kids building, working pulleys, climbing, peering bravely down from high limbs, swinging their legs from branches, taking a respite in the cozy, hideaway space. The reality: accidents with tools, with props, from falls, from overcrowding. Suddenly frightened kids unable to climb back down and irritated kids in wheelchairs unable to climb up. —Dorothy Merrill
  • Feelings: When parents name a feeling for their child, sometimes they get it wrong and the child gets confused. We wanted to do an exhibit that would help kids reconcile feelings and their names, but we put it on hold because I couldn't figure out how to do most of the feelings other than "competition" and "frustration" and "cooperation." —Elaine Heumann Gurian
  • Outdoor Climbing Sculpture: A glass box with platforms to climb through and suspended off the front of the building, allowing children to swarm like ants across that face. But how to keep it warm and clean? The insurance man was still with us, but we never called his bluff. We did one indoors over the central stairwell where the vacation week noise made me wish we had been able to do it outside. —Signe Hanson
  • Stereotypes: I have collected and used hundreds of stereotypes of American Indians (cereal boxes, greeting cards, toys) in classroom teaching with everyone from kindergarteners to adult educators. But translating this concept into an exhibit format doesn't work. Putting these images on the wall tends to reinforce rather than eliminate visitors' negative preconceptions. People walk by, recognize an image and say, "Oh yes, I know that one," and walk on without ever reading the labels which dissect and question the images. —Joan Lester
  • Hopi Pueblo: Several museum staff went twice to Arizona and New Mexico to explore the idea of a Pueblo Indian environmental exhibit. We chose the Hopi because their culture appeared to be rich, intact and identifiable by our audience as Native American. We visited the mesas, bought Hopi artifacts, talked with Hopi people and fell in love with the area and culture. When we came back, we realized we couldn't do the exhibit. It felt like it would be "exposing" without their approval, and exhibiting the very people who had opened their homes to us. Somewhat later, it also became clear that the Hopi religion, at the every core of Hopi life, was absolutely off limits to us. We had no right to display or interpret sacred objects or private rituals. Instead, we focused on Native Americans in New England and finally created We're Still Here, Indians of Southern New England, Long Ago and Today, with an active and ongoing advisory board, which seems to be much more integral to our own institutional personality. —Joan Lester and Signe Hanson

This article was edited from the original version published in Hand to Hand, the quarterly journal of the Association of Children's Museums (Winter/Spring 1990, Volume 4, Numbers 1-2).

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