By Natalie Bortoli
At the entryway to Chicago Children’s Museum (CCM), a vibrant collection of nearly 400 self-portraits greets visitors, proclaiming, “We are Chicago Children’s Museum.” The faces of children, teachers, community leaders, parents, and caregivers from a variety of backgrounds are intermingled with mirrors so that all visitors are reflected in the museum’s community.
This collection is much more than a “monument” to diversity and inclusion. Each portrait was created by an individual as an expression of his or her personal story. The collection reflects CCM’s approach to community engagement, which focuses not only on representation but on inclusion, participation, and first-person voice. Diversity is not simply about the statistics of audience makeup; it is about ensuring that communities and individuals leave their mark on the museum and have a hand in shaping the experiences they encounter here.
Since CCM’s founding more than 30 years ago, the museum has been striving to be an innovative, diverse, and relevant organization that encourages creative problem solving and dialogue among staff. As a reflection of this culture, CCM staff launched an institution-wide initiative in 2009 called the Position Paper Project. An interdepartmental team tackled the topics of diversity, inclusion, and accessibility to define a museum-wide policy, confirm organizational commitment to CCM’s values, and lay out best practices. The Position Paper Project also spurred the initiation of an internal committee tasked with monitoring the organization’s progress to make good on its commitments and periodically revisit papers to capture new best practices. As a result, CCM updated its Diversity Position Paper in 2015 to reflect recent thinking and resources; the paper is available here.
Early experiences with diversity are critical to helping children develop a healthy, inclusive worldview. Children’s museums have a powerful set of tools (exhibits, programs, staff, and multiple approaches to learning) to help children interact with one another and experience the sense of pride and empowerment that comes from contributing their voices, actions, and ideas to a larger community.
At CCM, building a community-engaged experience includes three parts:
- Creating a public “town square” that attracts and welcomes people from diverse backgrounds
- Helping people from diverse backgrounds find and use that space
- Engaging community members, including children, in the process of shaping the experience.
The result is a museum described by one of our visitors as a place of “warmth and welcome to all.”
Create a place of welcome
A museum is a physical space for all kinds of people to come together and engage in positive and meaningful ways. At CCM, public spaces, exhibits, programs, materials, and staffing all reflect Chicago’s diverse community and contribute to creating a place of welcome. Internal museum committees, including the Play for All committee (focused on engaging visitors of all abilities); the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Inclusion committee; the Cultural Programs team (focused on engaging artists and performers of diverse cultural backgrounds); and the Diversity Committee (focused on diversity and inclusion practices broadly across the institution) help to ensure that every visitor feels welcome.
Museum staff members receive regular sensitivity trainings and diversity workshops. Bilingual (English and Spanish) signage and universally understood graphics are displayed throughout the museum. Images of people from diverse backgrounds are prominently featured in museum graphics and promotional materials and on the museum’s website. Exhibits are aligned with universal design principles to be inclusive to children and adults with a variety of abilities and experiences. Special equipment and adaptive tools enable visitors with disabilities to fully immerse themselves in the hands-on learning that takes place daily. LGBTQ-friendly signage and gender-neutral bathrooms are proudly featured in the museum along with gender-neutral books in the museum’s gift shop. Guest-facing staff members are trained to create avenues for constructive dialogue among families around the issues of race, ethnicity, ability, identity, and nontraditional families, and to model productive and positive interactions.
Make an invitation
It is one thing to create a welcoming museum, but how do you ensure that diverse communities know about it, and that all museum visitors actively participate in inclusive activities? Through an extensive and in-depth process of on-the-ground community engagement work, CCM develops long-term, meaningful relationships with organizations that provide direct services to families from diverse backgrounds. Using this networked effort, the museum hosts events for diverse communities coupled with programming elements to encourage all visitors to celebrate and welcome the inclusion.
For example, CCM partners with Dare2Tri, a para-athlete triathlon club to host an annual Play for All Adaptive Sports Event to highlight the limitless possibilities for athletes with disabilities and invite visitors with or without disabilities to participate in a variety of adaptive sporting activities. On the first Sunday of May for the past five years, the museum has celebrated International Family Equality Day, a worldwide celebration dedicated to recognizing all families, particularly those families that are led by or include LGBTQ and/or gender-expansive members (those who do not conform to the gender binary (boy/girl, male/female, woman/man)). The celebration kicks off two months of programming designed to invite all museum visitors to reflect on the qualities of a family through play-filled activities. The hallmark program asks museum visitors to help transform a two-story staircase into a rainbow of ribbons as a physical expression of the museum’s primary tenet: be welcoming to all above all else.
Acknowledge diverse voices
When children, families, and community partners come to CCM, they must not only feel welcomed and represented but empowered to share their voices and make the experience their own. Regular surveys and feedback sessions ask community members for input on their relationships with the museum, including suggestions for how to better meet their needs. CCM surveys its visitors and members annually and asks their degree of agreement to the statement, “The museum is welcoming and easy to navigate.” In the past four consecutive years, more than 90% of survey respondents have agreed or strongly agreed.
Ensuring a visitor experience that is both for and by our community requires commitment and resources, yet the rewards are great. We invest deeply in community-engaged practices and in our commitment to diversity and inclusion. We are here to give children the best possible example of a global community modeled on respect and celebration—a place where every voice is valued and included.
Natalie Bortoli is vice president of programming and experience development at Chicago Children’s Museum.
About the image: A collection of nearly 400 self-portraits of community members greets visitors in the entryway of Chicago Children’s Museum. Photo courtesy Chicago Children’s Museum.