For many, the image conjured for museums looks musty, old, and focused on the past. How far from the truth that really is. Here in North Carolina, our museum partners are some of the most innovative and unifying organizations in the state. They are adapting to a changing 21st century landscape in exciting ways and creating new opportunities for our communities to learn and engage with others.

A few years ago, I joined a panel of nonprofit folks to talk about taking risk in our marketing/communications roles. Sitting to my left was Beck Tench, then Director for Innovation and Digital Engagement at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC (yes, her job title may have served as some inspiration for yours truly). Among many insightful things she shared was that she was given a failure quota each month and was required to report to her manager about all of the risks she was taking and where she erred. If she didn’t make mistakes, she wasn’t taking enough risks. I watched much of the audience begin chattering amongst one another with mouths open wide. It seemed so foreign, and exciting. And of all the organizations represented, this person’s role existed at an institution that conjures more images of dinosaur bones and stuffy tour guides than technology and forward-thinking experimentation.

Fletcher Foundation would later grant money to the Museum of Life and Science, to support the installation of two nature-based learning environments and the museum’s partnership with the East Durham Children’s Initiative. One of the new exhibits, Hideaway Woods, is what I like to think about after the Museum interviewed every kid in Durham and asked “what would your dream backyard look like?” It’s spectacular. It’s clear they went through a careful, deliberate, and unique process to design an environment that would serve these purposes instead of looking through a catalogue under “outdoor play structure.” It’s original and exciting.

As much fun as all the kids have exploring, the space brings families together from all parts of the community as they traverse the wooden bridges and stand in ankle deep water as their kids splash around together. The smiles on parents’ and caregivers’ faces are sometimes larger than the kids.

Museum of Life and Science is also focused on tinkering and technology. They are sparking curiosity in their visitors by integrating mathematical, scientific, and design thinking, and creating authentic experiences that are more about questions than answers. Their tinkering programs are popular with families across the area because the skills and experiences are highly valued and due to their fundraising efforts, they’re able to provide the programs to everyone, regardless of income.

As I mentioned, part of our grant to the Museum is to support their outreach to East Durham communities through the Ignite Learning program. What’s particularly innovative about this initiative is that it’s member focused. They bring families into the larger community through a special membership program for those who may not be able to afford a full-membership or price of admission, rather than offering free days or ticket discounts. They ensure all families in Durham have the same options.

Their calendar is full of exciting events that bring people together, kids and adults alike. I once attended a Science of Beer event where local scientists were on hand to share their knowledge of brewing while we sampled local food and drinks. It was ingenious and a wonderful way to engage folks who don’t regularly think of themselves as museumgoers.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, another one of our amazing partners, opened its new 79,400-square-foot wing, the Nature Research Center (NRC), in 2012. It’s now the most-visited cultural destination in the state, with an annual attendance of one-million visitors and the leading field trip attraction for schools in North Carolina (not to mention, the fifth most-attended museum in the US!). In 2014, the Museum received the National Medal for Museum Service from First Lady Michelle Obama from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, the nation’s highest honor conferred on museums and libraries for service to the community. In her remarks, she acknowledged the Museum’s significant and successful efforts to engage diverse and nontraditional audiences.

The mission of the NRC is to engage the public in understanding the scientific research that affects their daily lives. There are three Investigate Labs (iLabs) where visitors are guided by full-time scientists and science educators to learn skills, participate in ongoing research, or engage in other hands-on activities that illustrate how research is done. Scientists from around the state are able to use the Museum’s state-of-the art laboratories for their research and then connect and share their findings with their colleagues and public audiences.

In North Carolina, museums aren’t just for cities. Last year, Fletcher Foundation partnered with the NC Humanities Council to expand its Museum on Main Street (MoMS) program. They collaborated with six rural host sites across the state for an exhibit entitled Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America. Visitors engage with programming to better understand the value of sports in history ranging from ancient Cherokee Indians with anetso, the ancestor of modern day lacrosse, to current day professional players and teams such as the Carolina Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes. The small organizations they partnered with often serve as community centers in rural areas and are well positioned to offer exciting public programs, but are often restricted from doing so by limited budgets and human resources.

This program also offered a digital component, an online space showcasing the work of past sites and fostering collaboration amongst everyone. The Council even hosted a workshop to build digital capacity in the community of small, rural cultural institutions throughout the state, teaching them about social media as a place to have critical conversations about their work. For me, this work demonstrates the importance of museums valuing both physical and virtual spaces as places of exploration and learning.

All of these organizations have gone through painstaking steps to prepare and sustain themselves for the future, all the while thinking about how they may best serve and unify their communities. They employ some of the best minds — researchers, program teams, fundraisers — and clearly challenge them to push boundaries and take risks and be a part of what’s next and new.

I love that our organization can play a role in supporting this important work. There is a clear return on our investments. Not only are millions of visitors’ lives changed through the experiences they provide, but millions of dollars are being pumped into local economies by way of the conferences and convenings these organizations host, due to colleagues around the world wanting to come and learn from their example. But perhaps more selfishly, I love that my family can drive down the road, flash our membership card, and regularly experience the magic that being a part of the Museum of Life and Science community provides. We all clearly learn a great deal from our visits, but more importantly, we feel embraced by an organization that values our experience and strives to be an innovative, unifying force in the community.

Top photo: Children play at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC.

Video: Hideaway Woods – Museum of Life and Science-HD from Museum of Life and Science on Vimeo.

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