Sunday, January 19, 2014

What's a Family Anyway?

I'm beginning work with the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia re-visioning their family programming.  The Rosenbach's collections are incredible, including Maurice Sendak's archives and they undertake a wide variety of programming.  New opportunities abound with a merger with the Philadelphia Free Library Foundation so it's an exciting time to be pondering what makes a great family program with the staff.

But we began with some conversations with staff and docents about what a family is.  To museum educators, family programs has quite a specific meaning.  Generally, it's programming designed for parents and elementary age children.  But is that how we should be defining a family?  Here's some of the responses:
  • They choose to be together and consider themselves to be a family
  • Wide range of ages
  • Group or unit that's somehow connected together but not necessarily living together
  • Some relationship:  love, blood, dependency
  • Self-defined as related to one another
  • 2 or more people long-term invested in each others well-being
  • Caregivers too?
  • Extended family who choose to associate together
  • A hierarchy of relationships, within an established group
  • and, as one docent definitively remarked, "It's not the 1950s any more!"
That's a giant pile of definitions that go far beyond the parent and young child relationship so often assumed in museum family programming.  I've found the USS Constitution's Family Learning Forum website incredibly useful in so many ways, so I went back to check out what they said about family definitions.  On their site, Lynn Dierking came to much the same conclusion we did.  Here's her definition:
Two or more people in a multi-generational group that has an on-going relationship; they may be biologically related but not necessarily. In fact, the general rule is that if a group defines itself as a family they are one!
We asked the volunteer docents at the Rosenbach to share their most memorable family experience in a museum.  Lots of intergenerational work at play:  grandmothers sharing recent visits with grandchildren;  a look behind the scenes at Williamsburg with family members;  learning a story about a family at a historic site.  One docent shared the experience of going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for an open evening event with friends, people she considered family.

Does this mean that we'll rename family programming at the Rosenbach?  Not necessarily, but I think we'll be asking this question as we go forward in conversations with all sorts of audiences and potential audiences and be particularly aware of barriers to participation that the lack of thoughtful language might bring.  How do you define families at your museum?


Amanda said...

I feel like "family programming" is usually museum shorthand for "arts and crafts that parents can help their kids do." I think a broader interpretation can only be for the good!

Linda Norris said...

Amanda--great comment! We did talk a bit about whether we should just think about programming for Falk's classifications of visitors. Don't know whether we'll get to the renaming, but it was a pretty interesting discussion....

Rainey Tisdale said...

You might be interested in the Museum of Vancouver's Chosen Family project, Linda:

Katrin Hieke said...

I had this discussion latetly with museum marketing staff, too! They noticed that their old concept of family (usually it reads "up to two adults and up to 3 (sometimes 4) own kids") on which they based the calculation for the entrance fees, doesn´t fit reality anymore. Subsequently, discussion started with visitors about the fee if they did not (visually) fit into this scheme (sometimes just assuming they want to cheat) - which of course is just about the worst start of a museum visit one can imagine!

Margaret Middleton said...

Love this! So glad to hear about museums critically examining their own philosophies. It's great that you're facilitating these discussions at the Rosenbach. You might be interested in this short piece I wrote about welcoming families in museums by adopting an inclusive definition of family:

I'm also going to be speaking about this at the California Association of Museums conference in March so if you don't mind sharing, I'd love to hear more about your process and outcomes from the discussions.

Ginny MacKenzie Magan said...

What an interesting--and relevant--discussion. I've been trying to decide on a theme for our next history quarterly. I think I've found it. And after I've done a bit of research about our earlier locals and their relationships, I bet I'll end up concluding things haven't changed that much. THANK you.

Gobae said...

The American "family" is changing. This last spring we purchased an annual "family pass" from our local science museum. This pass is accepted, via part of a reciprocal agreement, by other museums in our area and surrounding States. The catch? Each museum in that reciprocal arrangement has a different way to define "family". Along with the list of participating museums was a guide to those definitions. Suffice it to say, that those with a narrow 1950's definition of "family" will not be seeing us, nor our granddaughter who we are raising.

In an age where museums' funding is tight it can be tempting to be miserly with "family" promotionals. But in the all that does is make sure the next generation hasn't had the opportunity to experience and value museums.

Linda Norris said...

Great observations, everyone! Margaret--would love to share ideas and keep me posted about your CAM presentation--be in touch to talk more. Gobae--unbelievable that you had to meet a different family definition at different museums with the same pass! So glad that this provoked conversation and interesting, that in several cases, revolves around money and marketing.

Lauren McCormack said...

Hi Linda, everyone - It's so exciting to know that others are having these discussions. Back at the USS Constitution Museum, we are building off of our families in exhibits work, featured on Family Learning Forum, to study what design and facilitation techniques help make successful intergenerational programs. Our new project, Engage Families, is funded by IMLS and will allow us to study this over the next two years. We'll be posting our results on We'd love to hear what other people think and what work you are all doing on this topic, so please keep in touch

Linda Norris said...

Thanks Lauren--I've used your site SO many times for different things, so I very much look forward to these next steps! And we'll definitely keep you posted on our work at the Rosenbach.