Skip to main content
In depth

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis: Creating Extraordinary Family Learning Experiences


Related: The Girl with the Jelly Bean Earring? / The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis to Create Dora & Diego Exhibit with Nickelodeon Exhibit to Debut February 2011 with Partial Funding by WellPoint Foundation / Themed design and edutainment: Enthusing the next generation of scientists / Museums: What do Kids Want? / Museums Going Mobile in 2011

The Children’s  Museum of Indianapolis certainly has the knack of creating exhibits that catch the eye, fire the imagination and educate the whole family, with a rather ambitious mission to create exhibits that “have jeffrey h patchen president childrens museum of indianapolisthe power to transform the lives” of its visitors.   After more than a decade at the helm,   President & CEO  Jeffrey H. Patchen (see image left) took time to talk to Blooloop about how to achieve an “extraordinary family learning experience”.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is the largest and one of the most highly regarded children’s museums in the world.  Founded in 1925, the museum prides itself on creating diverse exhibits and programmes – recent exhibits have included crowd pleasers like Barbie and Dora; the thought provoking Power of Children exhibit which examines children’s roles in shaping history; the amazing  Dinosphere featuring dinosaurs crashing through the Museum’s walls and some delicious Jelly Bean art. 

Opening June 1st is the new permanent exhibit National Geographic Treasures of the Earth, where visitors are invited to become part of the exploration team, immersing themselves in recreations of the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Seti I, the burial site of China’s Terra Cotta Warriors, and the Caribbean shipwreck of the Cara Merchant, commandeered by famous seafarer and convicted pirate Captain Kidd.

Please can you tell me about your background?

Before beginning my current role as President and CEO of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in 1999 I served as Senior Program Officer for National Programs for The Getty Education Institute for the Arts, an operating program of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles from 1996-1999. Previously, I held the nation’s first endowed chair in arts education as the Lyndhurst Endowed Chair of Excellence in Arts Education at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga from 1990-1996. I served as the state arts consultant for the Indiana Department of Education from 1dinosaur bone display at childrens museum of indianapolis984-1990 where I led a state-wide effort for improving arts education. I started my career as a music teacher in upstate New York, which is my home. I’m an alum of Indiana University (doctorate in music education), and Ithaca College (bachelors and masters degrees). I am currently a member of The National Museum and Library Services Board, and in recent years have served on the boards of the Association of Children’s Museums and the Institute for Learning Innovation.

Your exhibits seem to place great emphasis on the immersive experience – from encouraging touching artefacts to taking part in a re-enactment of an Egyptian ceremony to welcome a new baby. What do you think the important elements are of an exhibit that is trying to engage children?

Actually, our audience is much broader than just children – we necessarily focus on family learning that includes children (grandchildren), parents and grandparents. Our approach to learning and teaching is based on this approach. Authenticity is also a key. Our environments, interactives, and programs are all inspired by the real objects, people, animals (or dinosaurs in the case of Dinosphere, places, and the stories they tell and represent. Making the experiences authentic provides relevant context for objects and their interpretation, which scaffolds learning for children and their families.

You seem to be very innovative in putting together exhibits which will catch the attention (eg Jelly Bean art) or provide a different viewpoint (eg The Power of Children). How does the museum come up with the ideas for the exhibits and do you have a set of criteria that an exhibit must meet?

We have an incredibly talented Exhibit Development team. We have a set of criteria that define “an extraordinary family learning experience” and we use these criteria to flesh out dozens of exhibit concepts across the arts, sciences and humanities on a regular basis. The inspiration from our exhibits can come from many different perspectives– from artifacts we acquire or borrow to popular cugirl with pearl earring from jelly beans at childrens museum of indianapolislture toys, events, music, and more. Our Exhibit Development team also researches and identifies what kids are reading, watching, learning in school, and what peaks their curiosity. In particular we look for subject matter that has strong intergenerational appeal, inspires learning and engagement between family members of different ages, and could easily translate to interactives
and three-dimensional exhibit spaces.

Is there a tension between creating an exhibit that is going to be popular with making sure it has educational value?

I’m not sure the tension is popularity versus learning, but certainly we are first and foremost a family learning institution – and we strive to ensure that the learning is relevant, engaging, fun and immersive. We stand behind the exhibit subject matter we feature, because we always put family learning experiences first. With Barbie as an example, we felt that this iconic toy has an incredibly strong intergenerational appeal. Our interest was in illustrating how the doll has become an icon for design and fashion. Parents, kids, grandparents, and even Mattel, Inc. are thrilled with the results.

Please can you tell me a little about the National Geographic Treasures of the Earth exhibit. It seems to be a very smart collaboration between a number of parties to produce an exciting exhibit but it must have taken quite some work to put together the deal. Is this kind of co-ordinated approach the shape of things to come?

That’s a great observation! To ensure authenticity, relevance and high quality content, we necessarily look to create strategic alliances with world-class content providers and deliverers like National Geographic, the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, and the Terra Cotta Warrior Institute in Xi’an, China, in the exhibit you mention. Opening this June, National Geographic Treasures of the Earth will feature famous excavations anational geographic treasures of the earthnd real artifacts to teach children and families the real science of archaeology. The exhibit will feature the re-created archaeological sites of Egyptian pharaoh Seti I’s tomb, the wreck of the only pirate ship ever found in the Caribbean, Captain Kidd’s Cara Merchant, and the excavation of China’s Terra Cotta Warriors. To accurately re-create these real-life excavation sites, we worked with the National Geographic Society, and leading archaeologists including Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s Minister of State for Antiquities, representatives of the Xi’an Municipal Museum and Chinese archaeologists, and Charles Beeker of Indiana University’s Office of Underwater Science who discovered Captain Kidd’s ship in the Dominican Republic.

Working with a variety of content partners and advisors is something we do for all our exhibits and is an approach that has worked well for us in the past. For example, with The Power of Children: Making a Difference exhibit we worked with the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Ruby Bridges, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Jeanne White-Ginder (mother of Ryan White) to tell the stories of each of the children featured in the exhibit. It is through these strategic content partnerships that we are able to bring accurate representations of these stories to our visitors.

What successes have you had with creating travelling exhibits and what role do these have in your future strategy.  Do you have a revenue target?

Our international travelling exhibits program has been an incredibly successful venture in terms of attendance (some exhibits will reach 4-5 million visitors over a 5-year period), visitor feedback, overall popularity and spreading the reputation of The Children’s Museum worldwide. Since we do a great deal of market research before selecting and producing our exhibits to ensure their success on the road, we have often been able to book an entire 5-year tour within the first 6 months following funding of the projects. We have a long list of repeat hosts of our exhibits.

You mentioned earned income. While our international travelling exhibit program is self-sustaining, the model we use to operate the program successfully involves securing all design and fabrication resources up-front primarily from corporate and foundation contributors. This program is not a revenue generator for the general museum operating budget in order to ensure that wexhibtion at childrens museum of indianapolise are not dependent on its existence. However, we benefit greatly from these exhibits when they are at The Children’s Museum. For example, it is one less rental fee we have to pay in a year when we have our own exhibit on the calendar. It also provides a wonderful sponsorship opportunity for corporate partners that appreciate that the exhibit will travel to up to 15 major metro areas over a
typical five-year tour cycle.

Can you tell me about how have you extended the museum’s work beyond the walls of the museum or normal opening times?

Innovative public programs for all ages are offered throughout the year. Our Family Programs Department offers a variety of educational events that include exceptional classes for even our youngest visitors and programs which incorporate learning opportunities for the entire family. Going beyond the walls of the museum is the mission of our Outreach programs that are implemented across the state. Our website is filled with learning activities and other educational material and reaches a large national audience and a surprisingly large international audience from all continents. For example, we launched a new preschool this fall which was very successful. We provide special evening programs and we even take families and teachers on an annual dinosaur dig on fossil-rich land we lease in South Dakota.

What have been the effects of the recession for you both in terms of income and expenditure?

Like many non-profit organizations we felt the hardest effects of the recession with a drop in our endowment – nearly 30% in 2008 due to market decline – which supports about half of the operating budget of the museum and portions of specific exhibits. The amount of our yearly endowment draw is based on a rolling quarter average which has led us to take a smaller draw the past several years, however, we have noticed all other income areas have not been impacted negatively. Actually, the “staycation” phenomenon since the recession has resulted in a growth in attendance and accompanying robust earned admission revenue (membership and non-member paid admission). The exception to this is our School Tour revenue which has fallen off due to cut-backs being made in the annual school system budgets.

With over 50% of income coming from the Endowment, what measures can you take to weather instability in the financial markets?

The Museum’s endowment portfolio is professionally managed and is overseen by a wonderful investment committee of our board of trustees. The endowment is thoroughly diversified and this helps reduce instability. Most importantly however, is that the Museum lives by two important financial policies: First, we “fund before building” which means that we will not actually begin spending dollars for construction on capital projects until all of the funds are identified for a project. Second, we “endow before building” for large projects – this really helps ensure that we can afford to take on the additional/new maintenance, possible staffing, etc., for major new offerings at the Museum. Both of these policies have helped greatly reduce any instability resulting from the markets.dinosaurs break of out facade of building of childrens museum of indianapolis indiana

When the recession began in 2008, the Museum developed a Recession Task Force comprised of museum staff, board members and trustees, and myself. The focus of this group was to minimize the impact of the economic challenges on our visitor experience and insure that we were optimally positioned to come through the hard times, to attract new audiences, and to leverage our greatest strengths. The Recession Task Force has continued to meet to determine if we are hitting forecasted projections and address any necessary changes due to fluctuations in the endowment. Fortunately, we are exc eeding our projections and earned revenues remain up over plan.

What’s the key to success in managing volunteer programmes and fund raising for donations?

Like many museums and non-profit institutions, much of our success can be attributed to the impact of our volunteers and donors. These individuals and organizations are some of our greatest assets and we work diligently to maintain these current relationships while creating new connections.

Our Development team (which is the Museum’s fundraising arm) is able to build on the success the museum has enjoyed in its 85-year history of providing children and families with fun educational opportunities. Effective stewardship of relationships that have been developed over the years is a key element for any non-profit in order to ensure continued longevity. We have built a multi- and inter-generational appeal in the local market and, utilizing effective marketing and communications strategies, our team conveys the Museum’s mission and accomplishments to visitors, donors, and the larger public. The Development team with our board works to maintain consistent outreach to current and prospective donors to keep them engaged with the Museum’s plans and successes as well as offer a steady stream of exciting new plans for exhibits and programs that appeal to the interests and aspirations of prospective donors.

You have some high profile partnerships: Nickelodeon, Lego and the National Geographic. How do you ensure that you balance the promotional requirements of your partners with providing an educational experience?

We have been very fortunate in identifying, cultivating and securing promotional partners who not only understand our mission to offer extraordinary learning experiences for families, but approach the partnership with that same goal. When entering into a partnership agreement all parties agree on the goals of the exhibit, keeping the Museum’s mission a primary point of the agreement. Our exhibit concepts are built around “big ideas” which guide content and keep the entire team heading down the same path. We are also selective about the groups we work with, ensuring that it is a match for our mission. We want our sponsorship partners to be just as excited about our activation of their sponsorship as we are about the exhibit or program they may be sponsoring.

How do you measure your success: visitor numbers, repeat visits, income…. ?

The short answer is we track a host of key indicators that together define “success” for the Museum. At the heart of this is success as a family learning institution and we employ full- and part-time assessment staff who constantly monitor our family learning effectiveness. From an operations perspective, we benchmark just like for-profit businesses – our attendance, our attendance “mix, ” our earned and contributed revenue, and of course our visitor satisfaction.  As well, our board has metrics and benchmarks for participation, engagement and fund development.

I see you do research to evaluate the impact of your family learning experiences. What are the results and what changes have you been making on the basis of the findings?

We have established an institutional plan for the regular and systematic study of family learning experiences. We have been conducting a series of iterative studies for our existing exhibits that were developed according to the concepts and derivative practices implied under the umbrella of what we identified as family learning. At The Children’s Museum, we have defined family learning as the interactions that occur between the child and the grown-up accompanying him or her. We look for ways they are participating together, how they are problem-solving, and then how they are enriching the experiences through dialog, reinforcement, memory sharing and so on. 

The results of our research have informed how we select, develop, and design exhibits. For example, we now know which types of exhibit environments induce more learning interactions. We have identified which formats for exhibit components will bring about multi-generational exchanges. We have also made progress in determining which type of labels and the pairing of labels with objects will be most successful in capturing family interest. 

Some of the changes include the use of a Learning Framework that is developed for each exhibit so that we are clear on rationale and eventual  implementation. Teams proceed with concise but specific plmother and child play at childrens museum of indianapolisanning documents (one-sheets) that establish goals, objectives, and anticipated outcomes that will, in turn, form the skeleton for assessment and evaluation. Based on our findings, we have incorporated more immersive environments in our exhibits. Overall, our staff uses the research and evaluation data to build on what was learned from one exhibit to the next.

Our studies are living documents from one project to the next.

How is the museum governed, and what is special about the way the museum is run that makes it so successful? 

The museum is governed by a board of trustees, which oversees and guides the museum’s mission and has oversight on the museum’s financial, legal and governance structures. As president and CEO, I work closely with the board on the direction of the Museum. A host of standing committees and working groups filled by trustees and additional community members serve the Museum and trustees as well. The success of the Museum is both a reflection of the leadership of the board as well as the dedicated staff who make all that we do possible. The museum just celebrated 85 years of bringing the best family learning experiences to children and families and we never would have been able to achieve that milestone without a strategic direction and plan. Throughout our history careful planning and implementation have been key factors in the success that we are able to achieve each year. 

Do you have specific objectives about community outreach? 

The Children’s Museum has a long history not only in the Indianapolis community, but in our neighborhood as well. The Museum’s Community Initiatives department provides outreach to the Museum neighborhood through our Children’s Museum Neighborhood Club and the larger community around us through programs such as Access Pass and Foster Family Memberships which provide access to the Museum for underserved populations.

Currently, the Museum is also a strategic partner in helping to lead a Quality of Life plan in our surrounding neighborhoods. This comprehensive plan will serve as a tool for the stakeholders living and working within the neighborhoods surrounding the Museum to outline their vision, goals, and objectives for resolving quality of life issues such as housing, education, youth engagement, and business development, among others. The Museum’s interest in the planning process is to foster the creation of an education corridor within the neighborhoods, utilizing our strength as a center for arts, culture, and informal education. Ivy Tech Community College is a partner in this endeavor.  

How do you encourage interaction with schools?

Engaging students and their teachers is crucial to our long-term viability. Many families who visit on weekends are inspired to do so because their children visited the Museum on a field trip. We encourage interactions with schools and teachers in a variety of ways including professional development programs; special programs, events, and shows for schools visiting while on a field trip; and through the creation of online learning activities which educators may use in the classroom to extend their learning once they leave the museum. All of our programs and resources support not only Indiana Academic Standards, but National Standards as well so educators can bridge a visit to the museum with in-classroom learning.  

One of our most used resources for educators are our Units of Study. Developed by museum staff members, our Units of Study create meaningful connections that connect classroom curriculum with museum exhibits. They also serve as a resource for educators to directly connect a museum visit to academic standards.

Additionally, we work in partnership with schools to create projects and programs that meet their needs as well. Our Curious Science Investigators (CSI) program is a great example of one of these programs. When students visit the museum to take part in the CSI program they interact with museum staff, interactive play at the chidrens museum of indianapolis indianaexhibits, and each other to solve a scientific investigation in the museum. This program came about through our partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools and Wayne Township Schools to offer an in-depth scientific program at the museum.

What have been your most successful initiatives to encourage access from within your community? 

We work to encourage access to the Museum for all children and families, regardless of income. Our Community Initiatives department offers programs such as free museum memberships for residents living in the Museum’s surrounding neighborhoods, our StarPoint summer program for residents in the Museum’s surrounding areas, and free museum memberships for licensed Indiana foster parents and their families. One of our most successful programs is our Access Pass program which offers $1 admission per person for families receiving state assistance. Started in 2006 by The Children’s Museum, this program was expanded in 2008 and again in 2010 as a collaborative effort with other local cultural institutions including Conner Prairie, the NCAA Hall of Champions, the
Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, and the Indiana Historical Society. We had more than 49, 000 ACCESS Pass visits to the Museum in 2010! 

In addition to the programs we offer, some of our most successful community outreach efforts include our free admission times such as our Target Free Family Nights the first Thursday evening of each month and our four free admission days each year – Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, Presidents’ Day in February, El Día de los Niños (the day of the children) in April, and Christmas Eve in December. These events are often some of our highest visitation times throughout the year.

How have you employed new mobile technologies and social networking in the Museum?

Since 2008, we have been working to integrate new mobile technologies and social networking within the Museum. Our staff constantly looks for new ways to incorporate the latest mobile technologies into the Museum experience. For example, we were among the first museums to work with the mobile technology firm SCVNGR to integrate their scavenger hunt-style learning opportunities within the Museum’s galleries. Families can expand their museum learning experience by utilizing their smart or text-enabled mobile phone to play along while inside the Museum. 

We have also created other mobile technology experiences to supplement our already successful educational programs for school and family groups. We’ve also added QR codes to our exhibit labels to enable visitors to use their mobile phones to view our blog or Wikipedia to learn more about our collection. 

Additionally, within the past few years with the creation of the Museum’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr accounts we have been able to reach out to new audiences online. In just a short amount of time our online presence has expanded to reach more than 25, 000 Facebook fans and several thousand Twitter followers who are actively engaging with The Children’s Museum online either through comments or questions or by interacting in one of our social media-based games. We also have an active following for our bi-weekly web videos called This Week’s WOW!, and other social media sites.


Images: Kind courtesy of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Search for something

More from this author

Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Find out how to update