Editor’s Note: This blog is part of a series highlighting the Museums for All program, a cooperative initiative between IMLS and the Association of Children’s Museums to offer a signature access program that encourages families of all backgrounds to visit museums regularly and build lifelong museum habits. Any museum can participate. To register your institution, click here!
By Saleem Hue Penny
Chicago Children’s Museum
“Is this your first time joining us at Chicago Children’s Museum?” The parents just smiled and nodded, “We’re celebrating her sixth birthday.” If you’re like me, you know that these moments make museums special. If you’re like me, you also know it takes focus and commitment to build relationships and welcome families into our spaces.
When Chicago Children’s Museum decided to become the first museum in the state of Illinois to join Museums for All, we didn’t have the perfect cost-benefit data, or a slew of marketing slogans, or answers to all the FAQ’s. What we did have was a commitment to engage SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participants and our neighbors from low-income communities throughout each stage of program planning and implementation. For example, focus group feedback highlighted transportation barriers to accessing our museum. We incorporated English/Spanish tear-off sheets with public transportation directions in our marketing materials. We extended our member parking validation to Museums for All families. We plan to form an Museums for All Advisory Board comprised of Museums for All guests, nonprofit partners, city/county representatives, and museum staff as we near the six-month mark to ensure that diverse voices and a range of perspectives continue to shape our program.
(Photo Courtesy of Chicago Children’s Museum: The Chicago Children’s Museum aims to improve children’s lives by creating a community where play and learning connect.)
This collaborative spirit is rippling through our museum as staff from guest services, marketing, and community engagement teams work together to sustain an Museums for All program that has increased 61% since our first month. We are refining our “ground game” of “Relationships Before All Else” with nonprofit caseworkers and home-visitors, as well as city and county administrators of nutrition programs, housing assistance, and social services. Word of mouth continues to drive program interest and we’ve built convenient online systems for partners to request promotional materials. When SNAP participation increased, we began seeking community feedback about meaningful expansion. Beginning March 2016, we extended an invitation to families participating in the WIC program (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children).
(Photo Courtesy of Chicago Children’s Museum: Chicago Children’s Museum was the first museum in the state of Illinois to join the Museums for All initiative.)
Museums for All is unique because although it is an admissions and audience development program, we are excited to use it as a community engagement strategy. We are forming individual relationships and new entry points in economically-isolated and historically-disenfranchised neighborhoods throughout the Chicago metropolitan area. Understanding the obstacles and resources of a wider range of families can allow us to develop responsive programs that benefit every guest. As relationships develop, families can also become ambassadors for our mission, extending the “community where play and learning connect” beyond the museum walls and into their homes, schools, and neighborhoods.
(Photo Courtesy of Chicago Children’s Museum: The Chicago Children’s Museum has three floors of exhibits, including sensory experiences and engaging educational content focusing on literacy, science, math, visual and performing arts, and health.)
We are currently documenting our entire implementation process and hope to continue being a resource for other museums that are considering joining Museums for All, particularly those in large metropolitan areas. Through conferences, webinars, or professional learning communities, I look forward to learning from the museums currently participating in Museums for All. With the support of IMLS and ACM (Association of Children's Museums) through Museums for All, we can each open our doors a bit wider and ensure that more families create their special moments in museums.
Saleem Hue Penny is associate vice president, community and educational partnerships at the Chicago Children’s Museum.