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'Reimagining Children's Museums' conference stimulates ideas

| Tuesday, April 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

In an ideal, futuristic children's museum, perhaps visitors could see the sky through the roof. Maybe the museum would include some kind of animal habitat.

Maybe wood or water would power the museum instead of electricity. Maybe the museum would even be inside a submarine.

These and many other ideas joined the brainstorming in Pittsburgh at the annual InterActivity Conference, this year called “Reimagining Children's Museums.”

The three-day conference — with sessions at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh, Downtown, and other locations — has drawn between 800 and 900 people from around America and some other countries, and is called the largest annual conference for children's museums in the world, says Chris Siefert, deputy director of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.

Many children's museums send staff members to the conference, where professionals meet and network, listen to speakers and exchange ideas for museum development.

The point of “Reimagining Children's Museums” is to exchange ideas among museums that will make the attractions more inviting and stimulating for the modern family, Siefert says.

“What's wonderful about the children's museum industry is that we are interested in what the world will be,” says Siefert, who worked with the Arlington, Va.-based Association of Children's Museums to help carry out the conference in Pittsburgh. “A lot of museums are interested in what the world was — in the past tense. We're interested in what the world will be ... (and) what an experience in the children's museum would be like in this century as we move forward.”

One of the challenges children's museums face is competing options for overscheduled family time, although the Pittsburgh museum's attendance is increasing and doing something right, he says. Museums also have to provide entertainment to a high-tech generation of kids who play with iPads.

“I think it's important as an industry to understand that family does a lot with each other, and we have to provide something that's of value to them,” he says. “Because we have a broad range of offerings, if technology is something that we feel families are spending time with, then we need to embrace technology and find a way to make it acceptable and make it work for families with children.”

In the lobby at the conference, attendees could explore the “Exhibition of Ideas,” which Siefert curated. The display shows research, analysis and concepts from four international design teams trying to show what a 21st-century children's museum experience should be.

One of the boards displayed a series of cards with handwritten “What-if” questions: What if all schools could make field trips to children's museums? What if all these museums offered free admission? What if they got their employees to spend the day playing? What if the museums pledged not to serve any unhealthy food?

In a speech during a “SmallTalks” session at the Byham Theater on April 30, Maria Rosario Jackson, an urban planner who teaches cultural policy at Claremont Graduate University in California, told the audience that the arts, including children's museums, play an important role in what makes a city a good place to live.

A city cannot have a plan “that's adequate without these provisions,” Jackson told the audience.

Betsy Adamson, executive director of the Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert in Rancho Mirage, Calif., says she gets a lot of inspiration from the conference and enjoys hearing about what other children's museums are doing.

“It's nice to step out of your everyday environment ... and free your mind,” Adamson says.

The presence of a children's museum, Adamson says, can make a city more appealing to visitors, who often make a point of coming to her museum with their kids when they are in the area.

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at kgormly@tribweb.com or 412-320-7824.

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