Lighthouse in the Water Gallery at The Children’s Museum of Green Bay   

Development: Joanna Fisher, Toni Burnett, Mike Tennity, Friends of the Fox

Design: Joanna Fisher, MurphyCatton Inc.

Lighthouse Fabrication: Algoma High School, Ganther Construction, WPI Modern

Boat Fabrication: Pacific Studio

Mural: Painting by Ron Cohen, Production by Olympus Group

Graphics : Design by Kraemer Design + Production, Production by Wild Blue Technologies

Learning is an adaptive process, a dynamic interaction between the learner and his or her environment and experiences. In informal learning situations, children are influenced by the personal context (what the learner brings to a situation, such as prior knowledge, interests, and expectations), the sociocultural context (the influence of people, including peers, family, teachers, and culture), and the physical context (setting, design). When presented with vibrant and authentic environments, children use their natural desire to explore and to understand the world around them to connect the varied contexts. When we provide opportunities to experience new places, objects and perspectives, they respond with efforts to investigate and determine relevance.

Modeled after the Grassy Island lighthouses, the Lighthouse is set within the Water Gallery, a place alive with the sights and sounds of the Fox River, Green Bay and the Great Lakes. The gallery includes three authentically styled scenario areas: a Fishing Boat, a Lighthouse and a beach area. Real objects, sounds and large scale murals help to transport visitors into these varied settings. The authentic places are illustrative of important touch points when people interact with these local bodies of water. Each area includes opportunities to explore properties of water and specific ways that people use water.

 Visitors are encouraged to:

  • Investigate a lighthouse and participate in its work.
  • Better understand safety in and around the water.
  • Climb, move, look and change elevations.

The exhibit contains:

  1. Lighthouse: Spiral stair access to top of lighthouse modeled after the pair at the mouth of the Fox River. The structure was designed by Murphy Catton and then built by a group of students from Algoma High School. There is some pretty tricky geometry here. The stairs are really steep, but visitors can go right up to the top for a view of the entire museum and out to the street.
  2. Light: Operable light that can be turned on and off by visitors. This light is really amazing. It was built by the folks at WPI in Green Bay. It turned out beautiful and of such high quality that there is little difference between this light and the real thing, except that little fingers can’t get trapped and its not glass so it won’t break.
  3. Operator desk/work station: This little desk gives us a place to explore some of the responsibilities of a lighthouse keeper before automation. Visitors get maps and charts, and there is the all-important log book. Keepers were charged with keeping a record of everything that happened at or near the lighthouse.
  4. Operator Controls, Top Level: At the panel, visitors can press the button to activate the ”CB” to communicate with the boat. This seems to be most exciting for adults, calling down to their families. The panel also introduces the impact of weather. Rain, wind and fog can make it difficult for ships to see or know where their destination is. If they can see or hear a lighthouse, they can avoid danger and safely navigate to their destination.

 What I love most:

The lighthouse is tightly connected to a real place. The museum was able to draw on the experience and support of local enthusiasts to develop the environment and the character to be very much like the real thing. The exhibit contains what is most important and skips what it doesn’t need. The bits of content about the lighthouses, keepers, lights, and weather are concise and interesting without being “dumbed down.” These provide enough information to interest and engage adults and older children without being heavy-handed. This also helps adults to facilitate deeper play for their children.


In the book Change by Design (HarperCollins 2009) Tim Brown writes: “What we need is an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective, and broadly accessible, that can be integrated into all aspects of business and society, and that individuals and teams can use to generate breakthrough ideas that are implemented and that therefore have an impact. Design thinking, the subject of this book, offers just such an approach.” – Designers integrate what is desirable (what we want) with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. The next step is to take these tools and have them used by non-designers to solve problems. Design Thinking relies on intuition, the ability to recognize patterns, construct ideas that are functional and emotional, express ourselves in more than just words and symbols.

Design thinking purports that there is no one best way to move through a project. This reminds me of my search for steps and process for creating exhibitions. I was introduced to museum work through public programming and customer service. I quickly immersed myself in developing and presenting demonstrations, classes, field trips and exhibit tours. After many years, I found myself working more and more on the physical spaces. This felt like a very natural transition for me since I naturally paid close attention to the physical spaces that influenced the success (or flop) of programs. I discovered that there were people who spent all their time developing these surroundings. This sent me on my quest to figure out how they did it. What process did they follow? What were their steps? How did they work through from idea to completed product?

“There are useful starting points and helpful landmarks along the way” When we can identify these, we can construct a roadmap that includes certain steps to follow:

  1. inspiration – problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions.
  2. ideation – the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas.
  3. implementation – the path that leads from the project room to the market.

In reality, ideally, this will function as a “system of overlapping spaces rather than orderly steps”.

Exhibition development moves through the ideation stage (concept development, approvals and deeper schematic design) to implementation (prototyping, design development, shop drawings when a process and fabrication). Projects will loop back through these spaces more, even readdressing what the original “problem” was/is. It is an exploratory process, and makes discoveries throughout the process.

“While testing a prototype, for instance, consumers may provide us with insights that point to a more interesting, more promising, and potentially more profitable market opening up in front of us. Insights of this sort should inspire us to refine or rethink our assumptions rather than press onward in adherence to an original plan”

A lesson I learn from this is that when trying to hold a designer to “the PLAN” I should be careful to not be throwing out really good ideas, or hanging on to the unrealistic ones. This is “not as a system reset but as a meaningful upgrade”. Brown points out that when preparing the design brief, we are looking for the right balance between the constraints.


How often does the management pull together the list of “contents” that they would like in the exhibition without much thought to outcomes and activity? The designer can do little other than deliver the package that replicates the specified exhibit units in a unified color scheme. I believe the outcome is best when we begin a project by specifying our desired outcomes and then rely on a design process to develop the best methods to reach that goal.

“The project is the vehicle that carries an idea from concept to reality.” This is not open-ended, anchored in the real world. Each time we embark on a new project, we will follow a somewhat different path. Our willingness to be flexible with the process, keep our eyes open for opportunities, and be responsive to emerging patterns will determine our success in the long run.

Museums (in general) are a model for socially responsible organizations. At their basic level they are about serving their communities (This is why they are granted 501c3 status by the government). Many who find their way into jobs in the Museum field want to be socially responsible. They are already facing the direction of serving their communities and doing what they can to make the world a better place. Museums are often viewed by the public as objective and honest sources of information. Museums provide family-safe places where adults and children together expect educational and enriching exhibit s and programs. Many museums use volunteers, reflecting the demographics of the community and allowing visitors to see themselves in the museum [a public institution]. Led by the core of their missions, most museums preserve and share the memories of society.

 Museums are using their resources to meet community needs.  Museums host events and forums around difficult and current topics and are joining with each other to support this work and foster dialogue. There are developing opportunities for members of communities to convene, converse and connect with stories. There are partnerships with communities to provide opportunities to improve educational resources. Courses are being offered within Museum Studies programs on socially responsible topics to build knowledge, skills and comfort with building community relationships.

 It has not been difficult to find examples of socially responsible institutions, programs, or exhibitions. But there is a desire to do more, and to be more. Many in the field desire to have a bigger impact through their site, collections, and programs. There is a lot of good work we do that we wish could reach people and their lives more deeply. Often, it is as simple as a shift in focus and language to recognize the impact the museum can have through aligning their work with the values of their public. But it can also include recognizing and purposefully responding to crises, vulnerable peoples, and future issues, so that we can address them now.

We (as a field) are beginning to recognize that we don’t have all the answers, but that we can learn from visitors and community.  We want to empower our audiences to become collaborators or co-creators of programming that is relevant to them. We want to become better at asking questions, going to the community in the center of their lives, then shaping our action based on what we learn. Museums can be social agents – the museum of the future should be socially relevant and responsible, bridging the gaps between people; Museums should be the center of their communities.

 There is a desire within the field to become better at sharing with each other experience and language. We as a field are not so good at writing things down. Or reading about ourselves. But we recognize the value of sharing and want to share more.

There are many engaged in efforts to act as positive influences. These efforts need to be brought to the foreground and brought into focus, so that they can be seen and felt by the field – so that the work can be declared as part of who we are. Many who are making efforts to work in a socially responsible manner feel isolated and alone. While they may be a lone reed within their own institution, or in their neighborhood, they are not alone in the field. There are many, using a variety of approaches and techniques, working to strengthen museums’ abilities to be relevant, to act responsibly.

 One thing that has emerged is a desire to create a community of practice – a network of other professionals who will learn from each other and help each other solve problems. This community can help to connect those who feel alone with others who are working toward the same goals.

Other ideas that have emerged include:

  • Create a LinkedIn discussion group for continued conversation, with messages that come directly to email. (See LinkedIn Group “Museums, Community and Social Responsibility”)
  • Develop a website collection of examples and case studies that can help people solve problems ( See: This could serve as a repository, a library with comments, if you will.
  • Establish a speakers bureau/circuit to present to staff and/or museum associations.
  • Visit each other’s institutions
  • Webinar, symposium around helpful topics (what topics might be helpful?)
  • Talk to each other. Learn from each other.
  • Spend some money on pilots to develop and model socially responsible practices.

How would the world be different if there was a social responsibility community of practice? There seems to be plenty of excuses for why we don’t behave in more socially responsible ways, but the truth is that if we want to make a difference we can find the way.

Are you on board?

In the book Looking Reality in the Eye: Museums and Social Responsibility, edited by Robert R. Janes and Gerald T. Conaty, there is an essay written by Emlyn H. Koster and Stephen H. Baumann. In it, they write, “It is no longer acceptable for zoos to have a single representative of an animal species in a barred cage or, more recently, for an aquarium to train killer whales to perform circus-like acts in a pool. Less dramatically in the museum context, amassing a collection simply for the sake of amassing a collection is an indicator of institutional self-absorption. A human history museum can use its collection simply to display and identify the material output of a chapter in history, or it can endeavor to interpret that chapter in its prevailing social context. A natural history museum can display the fossil record of ancient life with or without mention of rapid, human-caused rates of declining biodiversity and increasing extinction. A science center may not be presenting to its visitors any of the major science and technology issues that are pertinent to its region. A museum can simply open its doors to its traditional audience, or it can actively try to engage a broader audience with its resources. Museums of all kinds have choices, choices that characterize them as being negative, neutral, or positive influences with respect to the needs of humanity and this planet. “

Every time I read this, I feel the gut reaction, “Ouch!” As a museum professional, it leads me to think a bit deeper about the way I approach the basic work of running a museum. I question the assumptions I have held for so long about what the mission of the museum is, and why the museum is. But at the same time, I find these same words to be deeply motivating. I can do better. We, as a field can do better.

Society has placed a vast amount of value on museums. Consider the money, volunteer time, energy and effort that communities devote to the act of collecting and preserving the relics of the past, celebrating our accomplishments and sharing our stories. Museums have been gifted great trust. It is about time that the institutions, and the real people who work in them and run them, stand up and choose to apply those resources to strengthening our communities, our society and our planet.

I am a fan of design to meet program needs.

Here’s how it works: We decide what we want to do, what our activities will be, and the kinds of interactions we hope to encourage. We have goals for who the users will be and when they are going to be invited into our spaces. We decide what our messages are and the story we want to convey. Then, after we’ve got those plans, that’s when we turn to the architects and designers to start making decisions about the physical spaces and units and panels and benches and “interactives” that we want to use to tell our story. This is when we can start having an intelligent conversation about what the rooms might be like and the stuff they will be filled with to get us to our goals.  

Now the really great thing is that having started with the program, then working through the exhibition, the possibilities are greater for further program development in exciting new ways — There are opportunites for creative uses of the spaces that just would not have been there if the starting point was limited to an “exhibition”.

If you want to see a few case studies, take a look at my presentation:

Have you ever been called loopy?

Loopiness is the tendency to circle back over and over again in and effort to find a better solution.

An exhibit project might be compared to the creation of a custom couch – someone needs to work their way through an entire series of design questions, such as what kind of foam will hold up best, what size of cushions will meet the needs of the sitter, and what fabric will best repel red punch and potato chips? While this comparison may convey the need to make many different decisions, it misses one really important thing: We already know that we want a couch. Maybe a couch is not the best solution? Do we need a stool? Or perhaps a rocking chair? There’s no point in spending all our time debating wood properties when the solution we need involves using solid steel construction.

With exhibit projects, we need to begin with a willingness to explore possibilities to find the best solution to tell the story. The exhibit development process supports creatively exploring different possibilities while applying structures and systems to keep the work moving forward. When we approach the process as overlapping spaces rather than sequential stages we are better able to allow room to work. This permission to be loopy, throughout the process, allows for messiness, creativity, exploration, solutions.

  • It is critical that a project have a well-defined plan. Identify the work to be done, when and by whom so everyone knows what to expect and has their contribution completed in time for the next work to move ahead. Underlying structure and process allows us to make progress and keeps us from duplicating work and spinning wheels.
  • Throughout the process, we are creating choices, then making choices so that each subsequent iteration of the plan becomes less broad and more detailed than the previous ones. Small decisions and choices do add up until you may no longer be supporting the intended message. Loopiness is not just moving in circles or wandering aimlessly. Instead, it is giving the team permission to keep checking their work, learn from their progress and ensure that all the pieces still work together to accomplish intended goals.
  • Keep asking questions and listen to the answers, or keep digging until you find the answers. Prototype and try things out in different ways as a part of thinking and discussing and drawing and writing. Some really exciting exhibit projects never completely move out of the prototyping stage. Sometimes that is exactly the right thing to do, but that won’t work for every project. If you are looking for an exhibition that is “done”, then loop back and make the hard decisions.

Even a creative process is interested in having the project done right the first time. Loopiness helps us make sure that the couch that we eventually build will look beautiful, encourage visitors to sit and talk with each other and still repel red punch.

I recently was honored to attend a Naturalization Ceremony, where 201 new citizens of the United States took the oath of citizenship.

201 new citizens take the Oath of Citizenship

Many of them had the opportunity to speak about their experience of becoming a citizen and why it was important. Themes of family, freedom, opportunity, religion and a desire to have their voice matter were spoken of with emotion. These were the things that truely mattered the most.

It comes down to people, their health, happiness and well-being. That means looking out for each other, supporting each other, treating people with kindness and decency. We are all in this together. We live in a nation that is uniquely suited to build better people, if we will work together and cooperate.

My dear freind and her family have come to this country to escape the killing and terror that has swept through their villages in East Africa. I am so grateful for the lessons they have given to me about loving my children, savoring the peace and tranquility of my garden, and working hard to make my neighborhood a better place.

Often, it is easy to get buried in the work of the day and lose sight of the things that matter. In all of our efforts to wordsmith a mission statement or identify messages that matter, are we really finding the messages that matter? There are things that are nice and interesting, other things that are important and other things that are essential. All of those things are significant in their own ways.

I guess what I am hoping is that next time I become passionate enough to fight for something, be it a process, content topic or issue, I hope I can avoid steamroller techniqes and be thoughful enough to recognize what really matters.

Please join me in remembering what matters most.