April 2007: Manhattan and New Orleans Children’s Museums Offer Mutual Support in Turbulent Times
The Louisiana Children’s Museum (LCM) in New Orleans was planning a festive celebration of its 15-year anniversary on September 15, 2001. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, LCM Executive Director Julia Bland decided to refocus the celebration on families and on ways to help the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM).
"We all felt the need to help in whatever way we could," Bland said. On LCM’s birthday, children and staff at LCM folded 1,000 origami cranes for peace, created a huge, colorful banner, and collected $4,500.
"Little kids were literally emptying out their piggybanks," Bland recalled. LCM Education Director Erin MacInnes, who had two sisters living in Manhattan, packed the paper birds, the banner, and the donation into a big box and hand-delivered it to CMOM Executive Director Andrew Ackerman and his staff. This was the first contact CMOM had had from outside of New York City, and it forged a strong bond between the two museums and its directors.
"They were so incredibly generous. Support from the Louisiana Children’s Museum emboldened us so much that we dropped the admission charge to the museum for the month of September," Ackerman said. A year later, Ackerman thanked LCM by lending it a wildly popular interactive exhibit called the Body Odyssey, waiving the $45,000 rental fee.
Fast forward to August 2005: Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, causing $1 million of damage to the Louisiana Children’s Museum.
"Andy called and told me, ‘I know what you’re going through. It’s going to be tough.’ He was really there for us in every way," Bland said.
In 2006, CMOM received a grant from the Toy Industry Foundation (TIF) to develop PlayHelps, a program to help children and families living in the midst of extreme hardship. The program was based in part on CMOM’s PlayWorks exhibition, a project funded by a 2006 Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
CMOM and TIF chose New Orleans as the first recipient of the three-month program. Children Pre-K through sixth grade engaged in block building, painting, storytelling, puppetry, and music in three colorful domes located on the tennis courts at the Andrew Jackson Elementary School. The high-performing school is located in St. Bernard Parish, the most devastated parish in New Orleans. CMOM trained onsite staff to work with the teachers so the program would complement the school curriculum.
"In New Orleans, every family was in crisis. PlayHelps was like oxygen to the kids and staff. The domes were a safe haven where they could be kids again," Ackerman said. During weekends, PlayHelps held toy-making programs at LCM.
"Their program has had enormous therapeutic value," said Bland. PlayHelps ran seven days a week from Dec. 1, 2006 to Feb. 28, 2007, and served 1800 children a week. LCM is replicating the PlayHelps program in six library trailers this summer.
LCM also worked to restore the well-being of its children and families through a program called, Re-Connecting, Re-engaging, Re-Building, which was funded by a 2005 Museums for America grant from IMLS. The high-quality play programs have helped children deal with anger problems and with the ongoing stress of living in cramped trailers.
"The children lost all their toys and their artwork and their lives are filled with so much work," Bland said. "Play is a rare thing. It’s a privilege to bring laughter, joy, creativity and imagination into their lives."
The art that has come out of these children is amazing, Bland says. A little boy filled his journal with stories about the beloved dog he left behind. A crew of pint-size city planners has rebuilt the city with extra skate parks, recreation centers, and pools. Children draw new homes for their families, always including a room of their very own. And, as the children have started feeling better, parents’ moods have improved too.
"It’s so rewarding. I’ve never worked so hard but I’ve never felt so satisfied," Bland said. "Children’s museums attract giving, selfless people. Plus, anytime anything happens around the community, we share it. This high degree of camaraderie has helped us weather the tough times."
Directors of the Children’s Museums of Manhattan and the Louisiana Children’s Museum
Share Lessons on Dealing with Disaster
How to deal with the initial shock. Remember that you are a professional, but you are also dealing with your own personal shock. You have to determine what your role is in the community. After major disasters, children will be in crisis for three to five years, said Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM) Executive Director Andrew Ackerman. "After 9/11, families came to the museum and told staff, "We trust you to be an emotionally safe place for the kids," he said.
In times of crisis, people need to tell their stories and be heard. Museums are in a wonderful position to work in disaster areas because museums are all about story telling, said Ackerman. Set aside enough time for individual stories and responses to them. Be willing to scrap your own ideas and schedule.
Be relevant. Staff members at the Louisiana Children’s Museum (LCM) realized that they had to focus on mental health issues because the children and parents were traumatized. LCM now has a child psychologist on staff three days a week. LCM made a decision not to refer to the hurricane at the museum, but it comes out in the children’s artwork, Bland says. The museum needs to be a constant, safe, and cheerful place.
How to deal with staff burnout. Set up a safe room for staff who are working seven days a week under enormous pressure, Ackerman said. CMOM had a partnership with psychologists, therapists, and graduate students from New York University to help deal with psychological issues.
Use your group’s association as a centralized information station. After the hurricane, LCM Executive Director Julia Bland contacted the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) to let them know that her house was flooded and that she had evacuated to Nashville. Bland’s staff got in touch with her though the ACM national office. Before the storm, LCM had 40 people on staff. After the storm, staff members were in 40 different places. Through the linkage provided by ACM, LCM was able to organize its first post-Katrina staff meeting at the Children’s Museum in Houston in October 2005.
Use your group’s association as a brain trust. ACM convened member museums to help guide LCM through the tough time. The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia had developed a brochure after the Gulf War on how to help children deal with trauma. In coordination with ACM, they sent LCM copies of the brochure, which are also posted on the LCM Web site.
LCM is developing programs so it can reach more people. Children’s museums are town squares where people of all ages and backgrounds mingle together, Bland said. It’s a natural setting for families to reconnect. In July 2005, LCM’s director of community engagement created a new initiative focused on the well-being of families. The plan celebrated the diverse cultural heritage of Louisiana’s arts, music, and literature through play and play therapy. With Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, the program was timely and desperately needed. LCM focused on cultural heritage because Louisiana is not a melting pot, it’s a gumbo where you can taste the okra and the shrimp, Bland said. Each month, museum programming has a different ethnic focus. LCM has connected to community cultural experts and artists and has invited them in record numbers to share their talents and paint a full picture of Louisiana’s cultural heritage.