Transcript – Episode 73

Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities and sciences, to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.

Neil Gordon: One of the real beauties is that good universal design is good design for everyone. So if you think about it, it’s things we should be doing anyway, to serve as a whole audience and it makes it more welcoming and more valuable to other folks.

Anita Walker: Hello, I’m Anita Walker, Executive Director of the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Our guest today is Neil Gordon. He is the CEO of the Discovery Museum. And welcome to our program.

Neil Gordon: Great, Anita. It’s great to be here.

Anita Walker: You have had quite a lot of exciting things going on at the Museum, in particular, an amazing expansion.

Neil Gordon: Yes. So we’ve spent a number of years working on growing the Discovery Museum, based on demand and need, we’ve been sort of bursting at the seams and wait lists to get in. And after four or five years of fundraising, we recently opened the new and expanded Discovery Museum. It’s twice its size and people are loving it.

Anita Walker: Your specialty really, is early childhood development and early childhood education. Talk a little bit about when you had the opportunity to plan a new environment, a new space, how did you think about it in the context of children and early childhood development?

Neil Gordon: Right. So a lot of our audience is very young. I mean our focus is that we’re a children’s museum with a strong science emphasis. So we thought about how do we integrate kids of all ages, but particularly kids under the age of 10, and then how did we grow our audience of the really youngest kids? And we’ve made sure that all of our new exhibits are really welcoming for a broad range of kids and we added some new crucial pieces to our exhibit repertory that really focus on the youngest kids, particularly kids from birth to age three.

Anita Walker: So talk about that specifically. What are some of the things that — what would a child from birth to age one month do at the museum? <laughs>

Neil Gordon: So it’s really the critical thing about kids at that age is how to integrate their parents into the exhibit experience. And we built an exhibit that we’ve called Brain Building Together that emphasizes the fact that in the first three years of life, 90 percent of brain development happens and we try to give parents an environment to observe and experience the growth and development of their own kids and sort of get the chance to reflect upon that, talk to our staff about that and learn from that experience. It’s– it– parental education in Brain Building Together as much as important to us as the play, the value that the kids are having themselves.

Anita Walker: So can you describe, since we can only hear this podcast, we can’t walk through and show pictures of this particular experience, tell us what it looks like.

Neil Gordon: So first off, it’s built in very natural materials. We used a veneered plywood that’s kept very natural state. And the exhibit itself is broken into four distinct areas, all of which is separated from our main hallway by a picket fence that you can peer into and basically observe from the outside these very young children. But the first thing when you come in is a toddler corral and it’s a space that’s sort of with padding and walls and it’s really for pre-walkers. And it has a little bar that kids can lift themselves up on that’s backed by a full-scale mirror. So kids are– I mean little kids love seeing themselves and here’s a chance to sort of pull yourself up, see yourself or crawl around. And we want the parents to be in that space as well. So it has seating on its edges, so kids– parents can be right there with their kids. It’s great- great to watch and has really resulted in parents taking their infants into a space that mother– otherwise they might have kept them strapped on in those of, you know, things that parents wear or in a stroller, but now they’re out and playing. The second big element is the climbing structure, that is sort of multi-tiered, has multiple ways up, it has a ramp, it has stairs, and it has lots of little hidden experiences all through it, balls to play with and doors to open. So it’s a chance for slightly older kids who are now beginning to walk to get out and explore and climb in a skill that’s appropriate for them. The other two areas are a reading area that’s really about dramatic play and emphasizes literacy and the importance of finding cozy spots to curl up with your kid and use picture books. And the last space is a messy sensory area where we put out activities, like splashing water or, you know, finger paints or other things that really little kids, less and less unfortunately, have the experience with at home. And then, of course, in this space we’ve also provided a sort of a cozy little nursing space as well. So it’s a cozy and intimate space. The most important part for us is the parents feel comfortable, they let their kids have at it, and we have staff in there full time who can help their parents reflect on what they’re seeing, their kids.

Anita Walker: Talk a little bit more about that, this interaction with the staff. What might a parent ask, “Is my child doing what it should be at this age?” Or is it that kind of concerns?

Neil Gordon: Yeah. I think parents are fascinated by their own– their kids’ own development. And yeah, the developmental milestones can be too emphasized and they can be too much out there. And I think what we’re trying to counteract is that they’re– parents are assaulted by the amount of information you can get on child rearing and child development. And our experience is not about giving parents more information, because they don’t really need more information. They can get that anywhere. What we’re about is giving them, you know, experience. And you think about the Discovery Museum, the whole basis of our learning for kids is hands-on, learning by doing. It’s exactly what parents are doing in this thing, they’re getting the chance to practice the kinds of things that we want them to do. I should point out that, you know, this was not sort of a willy-nilly exhibit. We had a really strong group of advisors. The stuff that we’re doing in Brain Building Together is based on the research that’s out there about what facilitates brain building in children. And we’re trying to help parents’ get- get their hands around that by doing it, rather than reading about it.

Anita Walker: One the other areas that I know that you have really excelled in is working with populations that typically may not find their way into a museum and populations, for example, who may be on the spectrum of autism.

Neil Gordon: Right. So, you know, one of our main goals is a pretty simple goal. We would say that we want to be there for every kid. And, you know, some kids can’t come because the economic circumstances or maybe the, you know, cultural differences or differences in learning styles or learning abilities. And we’ve made a real effort and commitment to try to take away as many of those barriers as we possibly can. So from economic perspective, last year 26 percent of our audience came either completely free or highly subsidized and that’s a number that we’ve doubled over the last six years. And that’s a– that’s a commitment that the Museum has made. But as you mentioned, helping reach kids with, you know, some disability or another, or a learning difference or another, is also really important. And for a number of years, we’ve done programs for families with kids on the autism spectrum, kids with hearing loss. Last couple years we’ve done more for families with kids with vision impairment. And now, because we’ve completely renovated the Museum, we’ve uni– you know, adopted all the principles of universal design, and the building and our exhibits really reflect that commitment. And obviously, the work that we’ve done with the Cultural Council through the UP Program was an important part of that and, in fact, in introduced us to a really important innovation for us, which was the sort of reflection by User/Experts.

Anita Walker: Talk about that, in case some of our listeners may not be familiar with the User/Experts.

Neil Gordon: Well, you know, the part of the challenge of trying to serve a community that, you know, may be new to us sort or we don’t necessarily have a lot of expertise, is how do you know that you got it right? And we’ve benefited from bringing in families and individuals who may be on the spectrum or have hearing loss or vision impairment, they are User/Experts. They are people who use the Museum and are expert in experiencing a space with some kind of challenge. And we encourage them to come in and then tell us what they found. And, you know, it’s been really helpful. It’s both it’s rewarding in the sense that we get very positive feedback about, you know, the things we’ve been doing and the level of effort and things we’re trying. And it’s also really helpful because there are nuances to this that and subtleties that you may not necessarily know. And I wish I could think of a great example, but people tell us if you did this it would be a little bit better. We’re able to make those changes and that’s really valuable.

Anita Walker: And it isn’t necessarily a huge capital investment to make the change.

Neil Gordon: One of the real beauties is that, you know, good universal design is good design for everyone. So you think about it, it’s things we should be doing anyway to serve our whole audience and it makes it more welcoming and more valuable to other folks. Changing our building was a crucial part of that. You know, because we, you know, the original museum was in an 150 year-old Victorian house, it was never going to be even ADA compliant and, you know, that needed to change. We now feel like we have a building that’s really very welcoming to people and we’ve had a group of User/Experts in since we opened our new building. We’re really excited about the positive feedback. I’m really excited about just, you know, the amount of people I’m now seeing in the building who have an obvious physical limitation. And those were people we were not seeing before. People, you know, people in wheelchairs or people with walkers. And it’s really good to know that the word is getting out that that we’ve made these changes and we’re now more accessible than we were.

Anita Walker: If I’m not mistaken, you also did some fun things outside.

Neil Gordon: So another important part of our mission is that kids are spending way too much time inside, disconnected from the natural world. And so two years ago, we opened Discovery Woods, which is a fully accessible nature based play area. It’s a little over half an acre, centerpiece of it is a 550 square foot tree house. The whole area, including the tree house, is fully accessible. And, you know, that’s just been an incredible success, both from a perspective of broadening our audience and from getting people outside. We set a– we set a goal for that that was we wanted at least 50 percent of our audience to spend at least 25 percent of their visit outside. And, you know, we measure this through survey tool, so the data’s imperfect, but we’re seeing 65, 70 percent of our audience spend, you know, upwards of 35, 40 percent of their visit outside, and so we’re really happy about how that’s going.

Anita Walker: How do you make a tree house accessible? That almost seems like a contradiction in terms. <laughs>

Neil Gordon: Exactly. Well, you could build it right on the ground.

Anita Walker: That’s true. <laughs>

Neil Gordon: But that’s not what we did. So we were very fortunate that we had a site that quite a bit of slope. So we built the tree house in the middle of a wooded area and then basically ran a level ramp from a point oh, 200 feet away, straight out to the tree house that- that is now a really nice walkway through the woods. It never feels like an accessible ramp. It feels like a walkway through the woods, but anybody can get out there. And again, it’s very– it’s the whole space is very inclusive. A good example is we have a nest swing. And you think about swing sets and often you go to a playground and they’ve tried to meet the accessibility standard and there will be side-by-side swings, a swing for a typically abled kid and a swing for a kid with some limitation. Well, that’s acceptable and there are parallel experiences. You know, through inclusive design you try to find an experience that everybody can use and this nest swing is the best example of that. And, you know, and it’s just ridiculously popular and the screams and thrills that come off of the nest swing you can hear all the way across the campus. It’s great.

Anita Walker: <laughs> The Discovery Museum is truly, truly for everybody. If you haven’t found your way out, absolutely do it. Neil Gordon, CEO of the Discovery Museum, another one of our “Creative Minds Out Loud.”

Neil Gordon: Thanks, Anita.

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