For many youths, going to a museum still sounds like, “We’re doing something dull that’s supposed to be good for us.” That’s why, for years, program designers have been experimenting with entertaining forms of learning at art museums, science and technology centers and natural history museums – often with rewarding results.
Most of these efforts begin with the premise that youth are actually attracted to what museums can offer. Stephanie Miller, founding director of the Museum Club at the New York State Museum in Albany, N.Y., created a learning enrichment program after noticing a growing number of youths hanging around her museum after school. When she launched a pilot program, the number of youths who showed up was nearly triple what she expected.
“Even though many of the kids were not interested in school, they were still interested in learning,” Miller says.
These programs can be partnerships as well, with existing youth programs providing the youths, and museums providing the activities. For example, the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington runs its Art After School program at local Boys & Girls Clubs.
While the initiatives typically focus on the museum’s discipline – such as art, nature or history – they can also focus on a segment of the local population, such as at-risk youth, specific ethnic groups and disabled children. Most are created because the museums “have detected unmet needs based on their observations or on an assessment of the community’s needs,” according to Jeannine Mjoseth, spokeswoman for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency that awards grants for museum projects.
In fact, the federal budget for fiscal 2009 includes 19 earmarks from the IMLS to educational youth programs at museums, including the Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose, Calif., the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art, History and Science in Fresno, Calif., and the Metropolitan Library System in Chicago.
According to a 2007 IMLS study, Museums and Libraries Engaging America’s Youth (www.imls.gov/pdf/YouthReport.pdf), the most effective programs include youth in the design and decision-making processes, actively focus on building and maintaining connections with families and communities, and are characterized by long-term, trusting relationships between youth and staff.
With the knowledge that long-term contact yields results, program managers have increasingly focused on enrolling youths and having them follow courses of study to complete goals over semesters and years, as opposed to one-day or one-week fairs, Mjoseth says. And while the programs tend to focus on a museum’s own exhibits, collections and technology, activities often go on outside the museum, with field trips, fairs, camps, lectures, films and stage performances.
The programs also go beyond having youths absorb information, to having them create their own activities and museum displays, such as those at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
Innovations are also driven by the Association of Children’s Museums (www.childrensmuseums.org), which reports that it has 515 members and offers links to various services and best practices resources. Most are children’s museums, but others are museums that run youth programs.
Funding comes from four primary sources, Mjoseth says: local, state, or federal grants; private donations; entrance fees; and investments. The IMLS study of youth programs showed that entrance fees accounted for 25 percent to 60 percent of museum revenues devoted to such programs.
One pitch for funding is that the benefits of the programs exceed youth enrichment, because they help communities by supplementing local schools and youth programs. “Museums are stepping in to fill voids in the social service network,” says Dewey Blanton, spokesman for the American Association of Museums. In their simplest form, the programs provide safe after-school venues for youth.