Q&A: Jane Werner on Reimagining Children’s Museums and the Future of Learning

“You can’t flunk at a museum,” says Jane Werner. The executive director of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh sees museums as labs that can inspire the next generation of artists, scientists, engineers and their teachers.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his week the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh welcomes museum professionals from around the country for InterActivity 2013: Reimagining Children’s Museums. This is part of a three-year exploration of what it means to experience a children’s museum in the 21st century. In addition to educational conference panels, the Association of Children’s Museums asked four interdisciplinary design teams to come up with design concepts that reimagine architecture and exhibits, media and technology, and urban design. They’ll be presenting their vision this week. 

Named one of the nation’s ten top children’s museums by Parents magazine in 2011, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh welcomes more than 250,000 visitors each year. In October 2011 the museum opened MAKESHOP — an exhibit space where kids and adults can access real tools, the latest digital media, and physical materials to tinker and create the inventions of their dreams. We sat down with the museum’s executive director Jane Werner to discuss the museum’s role in the future of learning.

Remake Learning: Why are you hosting an event/conference to talk about museums in the 21st century? Why now?

Jane Werner: We’re at an important moment in time. There’s a lot happening in society, and children’s museums are interested in being at the forefront of thinking about education and children’s learning.

Our design teams are presenting May 2nd after spending a year investigating that question. We have some ideas about where they’re headed. And remarkably, none of it has anything to do with structure, or the building itself or architecture. It’s more about interesting ideas on sustainability, about how to actually teach children about place, about spaces within the city, and how children’s museums can become more centers of innovation in the city.

One designer, for example, is specifically interested in play. He’s asked: why do we have to have these spaces specifically for play? What does this mean about what has happened to play in society, and the role of play, and curiosity in learning? Why do we have these institutions [children’s museums] at all? Play should be everywhere.

We’re always fascinated by pushing the envelope a little bit. We see museums as labs. You can’t flunk at a museum.

Remake Learning: I’m interested in the idea of play. How do we reawaken its importance in our culture?

Jane Werner/ Photo: Ben Filio

Jane Werner/ Photo: Ben Filio

JW: I actually don’t use the word “play” that often except when talking with other early childhood professionals. I find that play is off-putting when you are talking to powerbrokers. They easily discount it because “it’s just play” and “we all know how to play.” Instead I usually talk about “curiosity” and “creativity,” and “collaboration” — the outcomes instead of the actions, which I think is the right thing to talk about. All government officials and employers now want creative individuals. And we all know that comes from play.

Remake Learning: Many of the events and activities at the museum seem more like crafts or arts programming. Where is the “museum” in all of this?

JW: You know, the old joke is that children’s museums have stuffed children in them. We are the only museum defined by the audience rather than by the discipline. Many children’s museums including the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh went through branding exercises years back, to find out if we should use the word “museum” at all. But the root of the word goes back to the muses who inspired artists, scientists, and musicians. We decided to keep it because we want to inspire the future artists, scientists, and musicians. And we decided to put the word “children” first in our title.

I think craft has gotten a dirty name over the years. Craft is artisanship. There’s something wonderful about learning how to do something that helps you lead a fruitful life. There’s enjoyment in knowing that you can do things. I think this idea of craftsmanship we’ve sort of lost over the years. I’m a big believer that if you provide materials for kids and if you provide them with inspiration and you provide them with mentors, they will be inspired.

I sew, it’s my hobby. My husband always says I can relate everything back to sewing. I relate architecture to sewing. And he’s right.

Remake Learning: It’s the lens through which you see the world?

JW: Yes, exactly. We learn these things as a 10- or 12-year-old and it helps us feel capable. I can understand the world, because I sew. A lot of people can have those little hidden things. What we’d like to do is to help kids find that lens.

Remake Learning: Why are out-of-school spaces so important to 21st-century learning and skill development?

We’ve had centuries now of content, of feeding kids content. Right now any kid can get any information they want on the Internet. The content is really there. The thing that everyone needs help with is context. They need to be able to ask, “OK, what do I need for this learning?” They need to be able to sit and figure out the problem. Children’s museums are especially good at creating context.

We’re really interested in mentoring. You hear a lot about the “sage on the stage” vs. the “guide by the side.” We’re interested in this guide by the side. We’ve pulled back on creating exhibits that are content focused. Instead we’re investing in talent, and we’re much more interested in the reactions that people have. It makes for a richer learning experience. We’ve hired talented people. We have people who can help visitors figure out what they want to do and how to do it. We’re fortunate in the fact that we can think that way and experiment. It’s the most exciting thing we’ve seen in museums since the eighties. The conversations are incredibly rich.

Remake Learning: Will museums and formal education ever converge fully?

MAKESHOP/ Photo: Ben Folio

MAKESHOP/ Photo: Ben Folio

JW: Museums can work on the edges. We can say, “look at the learning that’s happening here. Look at these spaces.” We can be an example for schools to look toward and then maybe schools can figure it out.

We have a Ph.D. student working as director of learning and research and she’s looking at what kind of learning is going on in the MAKESHOP, for example. Until we have that proof, I don’t think schools are going to embrace it. And I understand why—they’ve got kids to educate and the way the system is still set up, it’s all based on measurement and test scores.

I hope informal spaces just keep pushing forward so they are always on the edges. Once formal takes over the informal methodologies, there won’t be an edge. And we need the edge for innovation.

Remake Learning: How does the museum’s programming loop back into classrooms?

JW: We have two Pittsburgh Public School Head Start classes in the museum itself. One day I walked into a classroom and I saw handmade paper mobiles hanging up, from work the students had done in MAKESHOP. We’ve started to creep into the classroom. We see our influence on the teachers. It takes time to get used to each other, to working together and to get used to each other’s issues. More partnerships can help both informal and formal education.

We’ve been doing more professional development, more with teachers and preservice teachers, to help inspire teachers before they get into the classroom. To get them to experience different kinds of spaces, to think about how they can set up their classroom differently, to be a little subversive. We’re interested in giving teachers and preservice teachers confidence with the materials, so that they know that they can do it and use them in their classroom.

Remake Learning: What do 3D printers mean for children’s museums?

JW: We have one in the MAKESHOP. We’re experimenting with it right now. I think 3D printing is going to have a huge effect on people, so even just demonstrating it is really good.

Truly I am not the scientist in this. I leave it to the folks in MAKESHOP. They are fooling around and sussing out the possibilities. 3D printers are good for introducing kids to this new technology. It inspires them to think, “I wonder how I can use this.” It allows kids to imagine the technology as part of their future.

Remake Learning: What’s happening in the MAKESHOP that’s unique? What about the space is different than what families are experiencing in other spaces in their lives?

JW: In the MAKESHOP people are working on their own projects side by side whether they are 8 or 50. They are also experimenting with technology in a very hands-on way. What is really interesting is the conversations that happen between the adults and the child. Both are trying to figure out what’s going on, and they have this really great conversation back and forth.

Remake Learning: How important is hands-on/experiential learning to children’s development?

JW: For a while there I was seeing 5-year-olds come in to the museum who’d never used a scissors, because they’d never been given one at home. And I’ve also found that parents don’t want the mess.  But hands-on exploration of materials is so important to understanding the world and your place in it and the fact that you can control parts of your world. You learn your social aspects from that. You learn communication. You learn all the important parts of growing up healthy and becoming a healthy individual. It’s so important to provide these opportunities and children’s museums can do that. We can inspire parents to say “yeah, I can do this at home.” And to see “look, I’m having a good time doing it with them.” And that “It’s also really fun to be out in the world with my kids.”

Remake Learning: What does Pittsburgh have that other cities don’t that makes your programming come together?

JW: I’m not from here originally. But I’ve grown to love Pittsburgh. It has this amazing work ethic and this amazing notion of “let’s just get it done and just go for it and try something.” It’s a spirit of innovation.

The other amazing thing about it is we tend not to get territorial. There’s so much work to be done, we all realize it, and we all work together. I moved to Pittsburgh in the 80s when there were no jobs in Pittsburgh, and all the young people were leaving. It was bad. The downtown was falling apart. The steel mills were closing. Now we have rivers we can kayak on, young people are moving here. I’ve lived in New York City and Philadelphia, and I’ve always said Pittsburgh is a small city with big city amenities. I’ve never been so hopeful for Pittsburgh as I am now.

Published April 30, 2013