Skip to content

Trendswatch: Museum Schools as Community Infrastructure

Category: On-Demand Programs: Education and Interpretation

Blackbaud hosted the annual TrendsWatch webinar, this year focusing on Museum Schools as Community Infrastructure. Hear about how museums have stepped up to fill in the gaps for PreK-12 education through various initiatives, including museum schools.


  • Elizabeth Merritt, Founding Director of the Center for the Future of Museums
  • Dr. Katherine Kelbaugh, Executive Director of the National Association of Museum Schools
  • Amber Shive, Vice President of Education at the Fort Worth Museum of Science & History
  • Leah Wilson, Executive Director of the Kidzeum


Leigh Moring:

All right. Well, good afternoon/morning, depending on where you are. Maybe saying happy Thursday is a better greeting. My name is Leigh Moring with Blackbaud and I am so thrilled to be joined here by my panel of experts, who I will introduce here in just a moment. But today we have TrendsWatch and for those of you who this is not your first TrendsWatch, this is in partnership with the American Alliance of Museums and Blackbaud. We do this every year. It’s one of my favorite webinars and I’m so excited that the theme of this year’s TrendsWatch is museums as community infrastructure. So we’ve got some experts here with us that I can’t wait to hear what they have to say and I’m sure you all are excited to hear that as well. But before we officially kick off our presentation today, I did want to go through a few housekeeping items.

For those of you who are new to ON24, which is the platform that we use for these webinars, here are just a few tips and tricks. We love when you guys ask questions. You can use the Q&A widget on your screen to ask those. We will be getting to them at the end of our presentation today. If your sound ever goes out or the screen freezes, you can just refresh the browser and it should come right back up for you. All of these different items you’re looking at on your screen, whether it’s our faces, the slide deck, the resource list, you can actually move all those windows around and make them bigger or smaller, depending on what your preferences are, so you can see our faces big and the presentation and the slides big. Then lastly, we have a ton of great resources for you today, both from Blackbaud and from AAM, and from some of our speakers today, so make sure you click that resource list and you can download any of those as you wish.

Here’s my face. If you have been on any of our Share Your Culture webinars before, you’ve seen me, my name, like I said, is Leigh Moring. I am the vertical marketing manager for our arts and cultural solutions here at Blackbaud. I’m a former museum professional myself so this face is near and dear to my heart. If you’d like to follow me on LinkedIn, feel free and hit me up. But before we start, I did want to let y’all know about the next webinar in our Share Your Culture series. We are going to be talking about newsletters and how to embed purpose-driven communications. So this one will be great for any of my marketing, communications, development people at museums, aquariums, zoos, gardens. Definitely check this out beginning of September. This will be really great and talk a little bit about how All True can help you kind of shape those patron personas and develop long-lasting relationships with your constituents using your software.

Like I already said, we love questions. Please submit any questions you have. I will moderate those at the end and pose them to our panelists.

The last thing we always love to ask before kicking off these webinars is we love to see who’s joining us today. So please go ahead and fill out this poll. Let us know what type of organization that you are coming from, whether you are a different type of museum, aquarium, a garden, zoo and I know we probably have a lot of school professionals joining us today. So please let us know so we can figure out how to frame our discussion based on who’s in our audience. I’ll leave this up for a couple more seconds as we can see who’s with us today.

I think last time I did this art museums won out for the last month when we had our webinar in June. So I’m curious to see who wins today. Looks like we’ve got about 60% of y’all filled this out and it’s still climbing. I’ll keep it up for about 10 more seconds. It looks like I did have a question about what platform we’re using right now. It’s called ON24, is our webinar platform, just to answer that one.

All right. So results are in. Let’s see who we have. It looks like the history museum folks have won the poll today and not to be outdone, art museum second. So love seeing a good variety of people tuning in today. So fun to have you all.

All right. Well, with that, I am going to turn it over to our esteemed moderator, Elizabeth Merritt. She is the vice president and the strategic foresight and founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums with the American Alliance of Museums. So Elizabeth, I will let you take it away. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Elizabeth Merritt:

Thank you so much, Leigh, and I’m so happy to be here today for a deep dive into one of the topics of our annual trends report from the alliance. This year’s TrendsWatch explores museums as community infrastructure and looks at how the museum sector plays essential roles in creating livable communities for our elders, fostering mental health, contributing to emergency response in the face of disasters, and helping society redefine success in healthy, sustainable ways. But today we’re going to delve into what we framed as the first pillar of community support, which is supporting education for our children. That support goes far beyond the conventional field trip. Wonderful as field trips are, as educational thought leader Sir Ken Robinson wrote, “Given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed. It needs to be transformed.”

One of those transformations we’re beginning to see is the emergence of a movement to integrate museums more deeply into the formal education system, exemplified by growing number of museum schools, which is a category that encompasses a number of types of organizations, including schools using museums as classrooms, as extensions of the school itself. One leading example is the Museum School of Avondale Estates in Decatur, Georgia, where the curriculum is built around interactive learning expeditions to partner sites that include many Atlanta area museums. We’re going to be joined today by Katherine Kelbaugh, who’s the founder and executive director of the museum school, as well as being executive director of the National Association of Museum Schools.

The category include schools hosted on museum campuses, such as the Dr. Charles E. Drew Science Magnet Museum site, pictured here, which houses grades three through eight in a building that is directly adjacent to the Buffalo Museum of Science. There are lots of other examples of museums hosting schools on their sites, including Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, which hosts the Manchester Academic Charter Middle School, and many, many examples of preschools. The Lincoln Nursery School at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum and the Wonder School of the Columbus Museum of Art to just name two. Some museums act as classrooms for schools that aren’t housed on their campuses. Today we’re going to hear from Leo Wilson about how the Kidzeum in Springfield, Illinois worked with the local school district to create a program that brings every public school second grader to the museum for a two-week residency.

Some schools are so inspired by the power of learning in museums that they create and operate their own museums. One of the most notable is the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. It was founded in the 1960s by a teacher at the independent Webb Schools in Claremont, California, a fellow who was a paleontologist himself, and it’s notable in part because the school’s museum has been accredited by the American Alliance of Museums since 1998. The includes fully research and fossil preparation laboratories, and the students play an integral role in collecting and preparing, and interpreting the nearly 200,000 specimen collection. And finally, there are museums that are inspired to create and operate their own schools, sometimes in collaboration with other educational partners. Two established examples are the Grand Rapids Public Museum High School, and the Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn, Michigan. But today we’re going to hear firsthand about the process of launching a new school in a museum from Amber Shive, who’s the VP of education at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

My job as a futurist is to help museums explore how we can create better futures. What’s the best and highest outcome possible from our work? I’m particularly enthusiastic about museum schools because I envision a potential in which has the opportunity school in a museum in some way, whether that means using local museums as extension of their classroom, or actually going school in the museum itself. Is that a realistic vision? A couple of years ago, I collaborated with several folks in the education realm to run the numbers and just doing some projections based on current trends, we came up with a very credible mainstream scenario in which by the year 2040, not that far away, more than half a million students attended museum schools. My hope is for today’s webinar is that it may help accelerate this trend by inspiring more museums to consider starting schools and inspiring more schools and museums to create close collaborations.

Before we dive into our topic, I’d like to get a feel from the audience of where you are in this process. So please weigh in on the poll and let us know. Maybe you’re here because you’re just curious to find out about the topic. Maybe you’re already hosting educational classes and outreach beyond traditional school programming. You could be interested in starting a museum school and are wondering what that might be like and what you should expect. You could be currently operating a museum school and be particularly interested to see who is operating a museum school and whether or not they belong to the National Museum of Museum Schools yet, or could be other. And you can add details in the Q and A box, which will be able to see when we download our information afterwards. Or you can say, don’t know. You’re a little confused about the whole topic and you’re just figuring it out.

So let me give you a moment to fill that out. I have to say, this is a very important piece of information we’re getting back from you because one of the difficult things in trying to get a handle on this trend is there aren’t great numbers. We’re really happy to be partnering with the National Museum of Museum Schools to try and find and count and classify all the museum schools in the country, but we know a lot of people out there aren’t on our radars yet.

Let’s take a look at answers so far. We’re up to 75%, so I’m the poll now and the answer is are… Okay. We’ve got over a third just curious. That’s great. Appreciate your curiosity. A third already hosting educational classes and outreach that go beyond traditional school programming, 12% interested in starting a museum school, nearly 8% currently operating a museum school. Yay, guys. We’ll to hear more about that. We’ll look for details from the others in the Q and A later.

All right. Well, let’s get into the meat of the matter. Our panel today consists of Amber Shive, who is vice president of education at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, Leah Wilson, executive director of the Kidzeum of Health and Science, and Katherine Kelbaugh who’s, the executive director of National Association of Museum Schools. And I’m to ask Katherine to kick us off with an overview of this sector of practice. Take it away, Katherine.

Katherine Kelbaugh:

Excellent. Thank you so much, Elizabeth, and good afternoon/good morning to all of you. It’s great to be here with you today. And as Elizabeth said, I am the founding principal of the Museum School of Avondale Estates and current executive director, and then executive director of the National Association of Museum Schools. I definitely encourage you to get involved with the association, and you’ll see a couple of ways to keep in touch on this slide, both with the website itself, and then that little QR code that will take you right to our member section so that you can stay up to date on all of the topics that we are starting to explore within the association.

So just to give you a little bit of information about museum schools. As Elizabeth said, this is new work, not the individual work of schools, but trying to bring all of these museum schools together and their museum partners. This is fairly new. So we’re building a database that we hope is as comprehensive as possible, but based on our current database in museum schools, I do want to give you a little bit of an idea so you’ll have a feel for who these schools are serving, where they are. And so again, you’ll have a better feel for these very innovative schools.

So first of all, museum schools serve a variety of grade bands. There are some that, as Elizabeth mentioned, only serve preschool. There are some museum schools that serve kindergarten through fifth grade. Some are kindergarten through eighth, some are kindergarten through 12. There are some museum schools that are high school, only some are middle school only. So as you can tell, these schools really are working with a variety of students and age levels.

In addition to that, we know that the students that are being served within museum schools also vary. So these students really, the museum schools are found in communities across the country, very different communities. In some cases, museum schools are serving students whose free and reduced lunch is less than 10% all the way to over 90%. So what this tells us is that museum schools are not found in one particular type of community. Museum schools are found in a very diverse set of communities across the country.

Similar to this. We know that museum schools, while a lot of times they’re definitely in an urban setting around local museums. There are museum schools that are in rural and suburban settings as well. And when it comes to the structure of museum schools, this varies as well. So some museum schools are just traditional schools in terms of it may be charter schools, or they may be theme or magnet schools. Some are just your regular public school. So it’s a public school that may have converted to a museum school. And then there are some museum schools that are actually private schools.

And to tell you overall, what is a museum school? The most important thing that binds these museum schools is their partnerships, their formal partnerships with museums, cultural institutions, really other sites, zoos, aquariums that really help students get out into the field and truly engaged in their learning. And though all these museum schools look a little bit different, they serve a variety of communities, they really are all built on that one idea, and that is getting kids immersed and they’re learning and getting them out into the field.

Now, in terms of the location of museum schools, this map really helps you see where again, based on our database, where museum schools are found across the country. You see literally they are coast to coast. And some of these states there are actually multiple museum schools. So California, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, New York have multiple museum schools while there other states that may only have one. But again, this visual gives you a quick glimpse as to where these schools are located.

Now, in terms of the role of the association, really again, you see the mission and vision here on this slide, but the association really is designed to bring these museum schools together and honestly hope to expand and create more museum schools. As Elizabeth said, and as you saw in a few slides before, the great thing about this model is that we know it works in a variety of settings. So it works in a variety of facilities, a variety of building structures, a variety of communities, with a variety of teachers, and with a variety of state standards. So we know that these schools are working in very diverse areas.

And so the overall goal of the association is that. Is to accelerate museum programming, advance our current museum schools, and then really advocate for the addition of more museum schools. In closing, there are four areas that the association really is diving into this inaugural year. One is just building a diverse and active network of museum schools, their museum partners, and other supporters of museum schools overall. In addition to that, NAMS, the national association museum schools is diving into research and has prioritized producing, collecting, and disseminating research to support our museum partners, support our schools, and again, to support the advancement of more museum schools. And finally, purposeful programming to make sure that NAMS members know what are the best practices, how to put those in place. And then finally, of course, NAMS has prioritized operational sustainability and making sure that we’re able to provide these resources and the support for many years to come. So I am going to pass it over to Amber, so we can learn a little bit more about Fort Worth. Amber?

Leigh Moring:

I think you’re on mute.

Amber Shive:

Thank you so much. I just needed to get that out of my system, apparently. Katherine, thank you so much for the introduction. I appreciate it. I get a chance to talk about the museum schools here that we have at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Our tradition of museum schools actually started back in the 1940s with the introduction of our first preschool class, the Frisky and Blossom Club. Frisky was actually named after an opossum, and Blossom was a skunk, and they both visited our classes very often for the kids to see. Museum school is a discovery approach, enhanced of child awareness of the world. The curriculum combines natural and fiscal science, anthropology, and history. And all of those things come from the museum’s rich sign and history collections. And those are paired with art and music and literature and hands-on learning.

The classes are loved by our early childhood master teachers and our preschool-aged students are encouraged to discover and dream of one day entering stem careers or becoming paleontologists or anthropologists, and they get to learn so much more through their encounters of real stories and real artifacts. While these class topics have evolved a little bit over the last 70 years, the vision and the mission of museum schools remained the same, to transform lives with extraordinary learning environments here at our museum school. About 10 years ago, we had the opportunity to expand our museum school offerings in two very large ways, outside of our museum school itself. We were able to take our museum school curriculum into the local school district. Because of our support through local philanthropies we were able to expand this program into, as I said, local school district classrooms, and those school district students were also able to come to the museum and do their learning onsite in our museum studios.

With that expansion, we’ve been able to serve over 3000 students in grades pre-K through second grade, every single year. And the students get to take expeditions to the museum rather than just a field trip because they’re coming to learn the very specific purpose whenever they come here. And so that same curriculum that we’ve used in our museum schools since the 1940s, we’ve been able to expand into our community and serve a much larger audience. And through that, we’ve learned some very valuable lessons, and Katherine touched on this as well. Museum schools can really happen anywhere. They could happen within a museum school itself. They could happen on a school district campus. They could happen in museum studios. They could happen in museum exhibits. And we really had a chance to really learn that lesson during the pandemic.

Like many institutions, our hands-on science and history museum had to close its doors during the pandemic. So we were left with a very large museum with large exhibit spaces and a planetarium that were left empty. So what we did is we decided to transform those galleries into classrooms, to support students that were learning virtually at home. Just like every other community in the nation, not all of our school districts were prepared to support those virtual learners. And so what we did is we developed a program called the Little Scholars program that invited students from around the area to come into the museum and utilize our exhibit spaces as their classrooms. We were able to provide Chromebooks for students, Wi-Fi, bilingual teachers when needed. Our cafe transforming to a cafeteria for students and providing breakfast, lunch, and a snack for them every day. We provided transportation for students. And through this exercise, our goal was to serve our local school district, and by the end of the day, we served grades first through eighth grade and nine neighboring school districts.

And through this activity, we were able to see that museum schools can be so much more. And so we decided to come up with a curriculum. We developed a curriculum with our amazing team here at the museum to start looking at museum school as a whole, rather than just focusing on science and history. And through that program, we’ve developed this much larger curriculum that we can serve for after-school programs, intercession learning camps, future partnerships with school districts through charter schools, public or private.

It also allowed us to start a summer camp this summer with our local school district through connections from the Little Scholars program that allowed us to serve over 4,000 students just this summer. The goal of this program along with all of our museum school programs are the same as that very first Frisky and Blossom Club that we started many years ago is to transform lives in extraordinary learning environments, because all children, no matter where they are deserve exceptional and equitable opportunities to achieve their full potential. We’re excited to continue to explore ways that we can bridge and continue to build our museum school program here in Fort Worth.

And with that, I’d like to introduce our next contributor, Leah Wilson, the executive director of the Kidzeum.

Leah Wilson:

Thank you so much. It’s great to be here today. I’ve seen some comments from former Iowa colleagues, so I have to give a shout-out to the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. I was the vice president there before I came to Kidzeum and I’ve seen some other Iowa names pop up as well. I was fortunate enough to start down the road of using education, very intensively in our exhibits when I was at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. And now I’m very pleased to be able to do that at Kidzeum of Health and Science in Springfield, Illinois. There was a museum that started in the late eighties. It was very small and had a wonderfully dedicated, volunteer-based and visitors who came every year, but it was small and ended up closing in the nineties. And so about 14 years later and due to great work from one of the former volunteers who did almost all of the fundraising and then became the chair of the board, we now have Kidzeum of Health and Science in downtown Springfield.

And I want to give you a very brief tour of the museum, which opened in 2018. This is Active Alex. It’s our signature exhibit, a three-story, gender-neutral, totally interactive climbable child that teaches about the body systems. And we use this extensively in our STEAM residency program, which I’ll be telling you more about today. We also have the healthy Earth exhibit, which does a lot with farm-to-table content. We also have a really nice water table, and aside from kids splashing and having a great time, they also learn about the hydrologic cycle, and soil erosion, and agricultural non-point source pollution. That term actually is in the exhibit by the way and lots of other things in that exhibit.

And on our second floor, we have our healthy community exhibit, which first and foremost teaches kids about the important jobs in their communities that they may not be familiar with, but may also think about as they pursue career paths. So we do a lot of educating around those different careers and then also throw in some content about sustainability, nutrition, and exercise. And that second floor continues with our healthy body exhibit as well, where kids are climbing through intestines and taking blood pressure and so forth.

On the third floor, we have our changing exhibit gallery. And what you can see here is one of my more stressful installation moments as a director, and that is to install this beehive that has 5,000 live bees in it, and then to drill a hole in the wall to the outside so that the bees could come and go and the kids could watch them make honey right in our exhibit. And it was a huge success, always fully staffed by the way, but gave us an opportunity to include something very new and something that also was engaging, not only for kids but any adult that they brought with them because who wouldn’t be fascinated by bees?

I’ll mention just briefly, and maybe when you see this image, all of what I’m going to say when you work for a nonprofit, you’re always trying to balance a lot of things to keep everything functioning. And we certainly felt like that before COVID. We were a startup organization without a huge cushion, and we had some challenges in our downtown location. Wonderful to be downtown, but without dedicated parking and some other challenges, just having downtown, be a location that draws people from around the city and then also from outside Springfield, we have been challenged to get our attendance numbers where we really wanted them. And so we were already starting to dig into some of those issues before COVID and we were doing survey work to determine what kinds of things we could do differently to be more sustainable.

And then COVID, which provided us with probably our biggest challenge and then also our biggest opportunity. So like other institutions, we were closed for an extended period of time, and when we did reopen numbers were kind of dismal. They’re coming back now, but it’s been a challenge to get those numbers back up because of course, children could not be vaccinated for a very long time and parents were hesitant to come back. While we were closed, we did try to stay relevant. You can see our superheroes for health campaign here. We were concerned that kids would be scared by people wearing masks, thinking of all the trips to the doctor’s office. And so we turned them into superhero outfits with capes and eye masks and included some content that built on the human body exhibit that we had at Kidzeum to try to get kids to wear their masks in a fun way.

But then we were left thinking, well, what do we do? Are we going to have to close? We laid off our staff, how are we going to make enough revenue to survive? And so after seriously contemplating bankruptcy, we started thinking about the option of becoming more essential in education. And it’s something that we had looked at before COVID since we have about 5,000 square feet that hasn’t been renovated yet and could be used for educational purposes, but during COVID it really rose to the top as an idea. And I have to give a shout-out here to AAM for a blog post that they did on a project in the UK called My Primary School is at the Museum. If you don’t know about that project, I encourage you to check out that AAM blog, but that UK program expanded during COVID to bring students into cultural centers to use them as classrooms during COVID and it was very successful.

And so it was at that point that we reached out to our school district to see about the possibility of bringing kids to Kidzeum for an immersive program. Not a field trip, something that we could really call an immersive experience. And so that’s how our STEAM residency was born. We have the great luck of having a visionary superintendent of schools who thinks outside the box, is bold in the moves that she makes to improve education, and saw an opportunity to work with us to do something very exciting and very different. And so we did it.

What you see here is a picture of kids, second graders who come from all over the school district and have school at Kidzeum Monday through Friday. We actually closed to the public to do that. And they have access to all of our exhibits. And I don’t know if you can see in the background, the butterfly and looks like a beehive. Those are exhibits that they’re working on. So at the end of the two weeks, they have researched their special topics and have written text panels, and then they present their exhibits to their classmates at the end of the two weeks.

It’s been a wonderful program and we’ve seen lots of growth with the students in all kinds of areas, not just STEAM, but also social-emotional learning, which I know many of you, if you’re interacting with kids at all post-COVID may have some concerns about how children interact with each other, especially how they work in groups. And so it’s been a wonderful opportunity and something, I think that’s unique to museums that we’re able to bring these children in and for one, give them a fun space to play in where you don’t always have to sit still. You can be active and still be learning, and you can work with your friends, and learn content, and synthesize it together, and present as a group, and have a tangible result to share, even with the broader community. We do leave those exhibits up for our visitors to come and see on weekends.

So it’s been a wonderful program that we do plan to build on in the fall. The school district again, amazing. They’ve been dedicating their staff to this program as well, and have appointed a liaison to make this program even stronger. And we are looking at expanding into two of our storefronts that are currently vacant. We received a grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to do that, so we will have some dedicated space now instead of having to flip rooms a lot, which was one of our challenges.

And we are just moving forward with this idea that has become a wonderful way for us to not only embed education in a dynamic space, but also in the heart of our downtown, where we partner with the old Capital Plaza. And we take kids into the shops that are around so that they can meet business owners and just get a feel for the city in which they live and to build a sense of place. So we’re very excited about what we do and happy that we can share some of the results of our work with you today. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Elizabeth for our discussion.

Elizabeth Merritt:

Thank you so much, Leah. And thank you for all those stories. They’re all wonderful. I wish I could go back in time and go to school in a museum as a child. Failing that I’ll try and help make sure other children have that opportunity. I know there’s so much we have to learn from all of you. I was going to kick off some discussion with a question for each of you, and then we’ll open it up to the audience’s question. And my first question, I know everybody wants to know about barriers, challenges, how you tackle this. And I was going to throw this question to Amber and ask, so in your experience at Fort Worth Museum of History and Science, what’s been your experience with trying to do this? You’ve gone through multiple iterations of museum schools. I know you’re currently in efforts right now to expand your model. Talk to us a little bit about what you’ve learned that you could share with others.

Amber Shive:

Absolutely. There’s two large takeaways of some things that we’ve encountered as we’ve expanded the models that we offer here at the museum. And one of the large barriers is setting or space. As everyone knows, whether you’re in a museum or a classroom, space is a very large commodity that people hold onto very tightly. And so through our learning, we’ve learned that museum schools can take place anywhere, whether it’s in a traditional classroom space, whether it’s an exhibit space. Through our extension through the Little Scholars program, we actually went down a road of researching what it would be like to open a charter school, whether it be a public charter school or a partnership with the district. Here in the state of Texas, there’s something called an 1882 partnership where you open an in-district charter as a partner with your school district. Rather than a competitor, you’re partnering with them.

And through these conversations, we were looking at the option of offering a satellite museum on a district campus. Now everyone knows with Covid and everything there’s been many leadership changes, and there’s been some leadership changes in our local school district that have paused those plans of opening the local charter. But one of the big barriers that we saw was space. Another barrier can be financial pieces to starting a school. And while we were going down this route of opening a public charter, we were actually able to identify over 14 million worth of grants, both from our state and both from the federal government in these types of school programs. I’ve heard many of our other speakers talk about grant funding and things like that, and there’s a lot of funding out there available for these types of programs.

Elizabeth Merritt:

Thank you. That’s a great segue to my next question, which I’m going to lob to Leah, which is a lot of people when I talk to them about this same what’s the financial or business case for a museum school? Is it just one more thing a museum has to figure out how to raise money for? And I know that you had a very particularly compelling case of the Kidzeum. Leah, tell us a little bit about that.

Leah Wilson:

Well, I guess the short answer to your question is we didn’t have much to lose, and maybe not everybody is in that position. But certainly, as I mentioned, we had some challenges with attendance before COVID and I would say that a slow time of year for us was when kids were back in school. So Monday through Friday, we did have some visitors, but not very many. And after COVID we knew that that was going to slow very significantly and take a while to rebound. And so it really made sense for us to close our doors Monday through Friday and focus on being a museum school. And we still opened on the weekends and had most of that revenue coming in.

I’ll also say with the program, the school district has just done an amazing amount of work. Number one, to allocate different resources, whether it’s having their staff involved to help oversee the program, and of course, teachers are teaching their own content and coming with their students to do that. So some of the pressure is taken off of us in terms of staffing, but then also they are covering transportation costs, which could be considerable and they’re providing lunches to the students. So right out of the gate, the partnership with the school district has been very strong. And if we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t have such a strong business case.

So those would be the primary things I would cite, but it also did get our donors excited because it’s a way for us to be even more essential to our community. So it’s provided something exciting for us to talk about and donors are indeed stepping up with some funding for it. And we also then received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to support it. So we’ve had a good mix of earned revenue from the school who pays a fee for students, then in kind from the school and then also, or cost-sharing, you might say, and then funders stepping up.

Elizabeth Merritt:

I’m really glad you framed it that way. Because one of the cases in the larger TrendsWatch report talking about museums as community infrastructure is that when we talk about our work this way, it opens up new forms of support because these are essential things. Children need to get educated. Everybody wants it to be a good education. When people understand museums can make it better, it opens up revenue streams to support our core work that maybe weren’t there before, when they only thought something nice but not necessary to the system. So, Katherine, I am going to lob the last question at you. You’re in such a good position to have an overview of this emerging sector. What kind of advice do you have advice do you have for the audience out there who may be considering starting some kind of museum school?

Katherine Kelbaugh:

Absolutely. I think the first piece of advice I would have is really starting with a strong what, why, and how. So essentially building that strong mission and vision for the school itself. And then really from there, all of the other pieces should be built on that and should reflect that mission and vision. So the budget, the personnel, the programming should all go back to the core of that mission and vision of your school. And then of course you have some very early decisions that you would need to make that really would guide some of those next steps. So one of course is the structure of the school that is it a public school or a private school? Obviously, through a public school, you would have access to funding both at the state level and the local level. However, in exchange, there’s a lot of accountability and a lot of responsibility for teaching. Standards, state standards, participating in state testing.

So there’s a piece that comes with that, or there’s the private option, which gives you a little bit more flexibility in terms of standards and programming, but then of course your funding is coming directly through tuition and other development and fundraising. The second, actually the second and third piece have already been talked about by Amber and essentially that’s thinking about the facility and thinking about the funding, especially from a charter school perspective. Those are two areas that really could help to elevate a school and ensure that it’s off to great success or could really be the detriment of a school if there’s not good funding and facility options in place. So again, I would really start at the why and think about who are the students that you are wanting to serve. What are you wanting to do, and then really let your other decisions really be guided by those core mission and vision of your founding board or founding group?

Elizabeth Merritt:

Thank you. Well, I want to make sure we have plenty of time to address questions from the audience, but while Leigh starts queuing those up from what you’ve been lobbing at us and start entering more as they’ve occurred to you, let me just throw one last question to Leah. Relative to our host today, Blackbaud. Leah, one thing that came in conversation earlier, you just use Altru, which is Blackbaud’s membership management to facilitate this work and interface schools.

Leah Wilson:

Well, I’m probably aging myself here. I don’t know how many of you grew up in the eighties and maybe early nineties to remember the Trapper Keeper, which was this fabulous binder with Velcro cover, and you could put everything in it and nothing came out. That’s how we use Altru. We try to keep everything as organized as we can, and Altru gives us all of the essential folders and infrastructure to do that, and it keeps it all safe so that we can get amazing reports later when we need them.

Elizabeth Merritt:

Awesome. And I just want to make sure everybody’s having a chance to address this, Amber. I think I saw you wanting to speak to an earlier question before we go to the audience questions.

Amber Shive:

Oh, I’d love to talk about the financial piece of museum school real fast, if that’s okay. Could I pop in?

Elizabeth Merritt:

Please do.

Amber Shive:

OK, excellent. So one of the great things about our museum schools here on site, and I’ve heard from other museum schools as well, is it’s a great sustainable stream of income for the museum because it’s based on registrations it’s things that you can account for in your budgets and your long term planning. But even when the museum was closed during COVID, we were able to keep those programs going because we were serving the school district students as well as our museum school students. And at times, yes, we were zooming and we were creating STEM kits that we were passing out at meal pickup sites and parents were dropping off, but also we were able to come back in person and offer smaller classes. And so even when we were closed to the public, we were still able to have these continued streams of revenue through our education programs and supporting our community. And so that’s a really great aspect of it as well.

Elizabeth Merritt:

That’s awesome. A double whammy for mission and mommy. So, Leigh. Please start lobbing them out to our panelists. What does the audience want to know?

Leigh Moring:

Yeah, we have a ton of great questions in here. The first one I’ll ask is to Amber, because it’s related to what you were just talking about. Somebody is wanting to know exactly how you are able to get that Little Scholars program funded.

Amber Shive:

That’s a great question. And so we had funding from the Little Scholars program from a variety of different places. One, we have an endowment that’s particular to our education programs that we were able to tap into. But also I had mentioned this earlier, we there’s quite a few local philanthropies who were looking for ways to support students during the pandemic. And so we were able to reach out in that as well in order to help support these students. Now with the Little Scholars program, we also charged tuition for those that were able to afford tuition, and we had a sliding scale based on the accessibility and what people could put into it.

Leigh Moring:

Perfect. Another question I have, and this might be for Leah, maybe Amber too. They’re wanting to know the breakdown of public versus private schools taking advantage of museum schools. How that works between the two.

Leah Wilson:

I can answer from our perspective right now, our partnership is only with our public school district 186. That being said, we have started working on ways to break up some of the content that we have into smaller pieces and make it a one day program for schools that might be farther-flung and travel from 30 miles away. So I think there are options once you develop your core program to adapt it to some of those schools that won’t be able to come every single day but may stay for a whole day. And we could also then use some of that content for weekend programs and summer camps and after-school programs as well.

Amber Shive:

Excellent. And like Leah, our museum school preschool is a private school where everyone pays tuition to go, and then we have scholarships available. Our program that goes out to the school district is grant funded, but then we also have all of those different offshoots, our camps, and things like that. Some are grant funded, some are free to the public, and then some are cost based as well. So it’s sort of where everyone has a chance to be able to come.

Leigh Moring:

Great. And I love this question because it’s takes it all to the start. This person’s wanting to know. What would you guys recommend is the very first step if a museum decides they are interested in starting some sort of museum school? Which one of y’all wants to take that one first?

Amber Shive:

Oh, well

Elizabeth Merritt:

I’m going to jump in here. I’m going to jump in here. I mean, Katherine might be too shy to say this, but I’d say the first step is to reach out to the National Association of Museum Schools and look at the resources they’ve provided and the existing colleagues they could connect with for advice. So that’s one really good starting point. I’ll turn it over to the rest of the panel for other answers.

Leah Wilson:

I think I could also add in our case, it was so important for us to take a look at what is happening in our community and do some survey work to better understand the educational needs in our community. And of course, reaching out to key constituencies helps you get started there, but we actually got a small grant from one of our local foundations to do that work. And so that was extremely helpful for us in shaping the early stages of the program.

Amber Shive:

I think Leah’s right on the money as far as looking into your community scene. That very first program that we ever started, the Frisky and Blossom Club was based on a group of science teachers that wanted more science available for students in the area. And so they came up with their own iteration of what that actually looked like. And so I really think it’s canvassing your area to see what is needed. And then as Katherine said, locating where you can put that. Is it going to go at a local library or is it going to go in a park? There’s some really great museum schools that happen in parks and on beaches. What do you want to do, who do you want to serve, and then where can that go?

Katherine Kelbaugh:

And Elizabeth, yes. Thank you for talking about the National Association Museum Schools. Obviously this association, one of the primary purposes is to bring museum school staff members and supporters together. So definitely consider that a resource. I will going back, Leigh, to your previous question. I’m not sure if the question was around most museum schools, but most museum schools across the country are public schools. I would actually say the vast majority of K12 museum schools are public schools. Now, most preschools are private schools, but again, K12, most of them are public.

Leigh Moring:

Awesome. I love this next question because as a former museum educator, myself, I ran into this literally all the time. The question is how do you get curators collection managers or other members of your staff that might have some more traditional views of museums on board with the idea of a museum school? I ran into this literally every day in my old job with letting kids come into historic houses. And there’s another question related to doing something like this in a historic house. So do any of y’all have any experience in this or can offer some insight on how to get people on board? This might be a good Elizabeth question.

Elizabeth Merritt:

While everybody else’s thinking, I will just note it is amazing the number of museum people, including curators and collections managers and other people who might be considered sort of more traditional behind-the-scenes staff, when you ask them when they decided they wanted to work in museums or the origin of their career, they’ll say they fell in love with museums when they were a kid. And using that as a starting point for a discussion about how great it would be if all kids had the opportunity to fall in love with museums and what that would mean to the future of our field when I’m giving talks around the country, that’s a good starting point for a productive discussion. I don’t know if that would work institutionally in starting a program like this, but from the point of view of somebody coming in to introduce the concepts, it’s a very successful entre.

Amber Shive:

Well, I’ll jump in. So one of the things that we definitely had in our favor is that our museum actually started from our museum school classes. The museum school classes started first and then the museum was built around having a museum school. So that was very helpful. But with that in mind, we do have two separate collections. We have our teaching collection, which those are the things that go out into the classrooms. Those are the things that go out onto the museum floor for people to interact with. And then we have our other collection that stays behind glass, where people can see from a distance. And so there are those two separate entities.

Another piece that’s very much helped us if we’ve expanded our program is making sure that we are true to the mission of the museum. And as long as we’ve been mission-focused and mission guided, we have a lot of people that come on board because they’re getting that chance to do what they do, but for a larger audience. And so that’s been really helpful to make sure that we’re staying mission-focused.

Leigh Moring:

Awesome. We have a couple questions around the actual staff that are working. They’re wondering if these museum educators have teaching degrees or how they are trained to be able to carry out the lessons in the schools.

Leah Wilson:

I can answer that. Oh, sorry.

Leigh Moring:

Go ahead.

Leah Wilson:

From Kidzeum’s perspective, our program worked so closely with teachers that we created the curriculum with teachers, and teachers are delivering a lot of the content that they would typically deliver in the classroom at Kidzeum. And then our educators step in to do augmented programming with the students each day. So that’s the way we hit a balance there. I’ll say though that the educators that we’re using, they do have teaching experience and our lead teacher is a licensed educator who understands all of the state standards so that we’re clear that we’re meeting those, but we also really needed to find educators who didn’t try to replicate a classroom model in the museum. And that is sometimes a challenge. Similarly, when we’re working with teachers, we have to really help them understand that all of these resources, all of the exhibits are at their disposal. And sometimes it takes a little nudging to get them to fully utilize all those resources.

Katherine Kelbaugh:

So I was just going to add that for your public schools, the majority of the time it is required that the teachers have certification. So they’d be certified by the state-level agency. When it comes to training museum, school-specific teachers a lot of times that happens internally through your veteran and master museum school teachers, just because there are so few museum schools out there right now, at least. So there are some cases, Museum School of Avondale Estates has partnered with Normal Park Museum Magnet School in Chattanooga, and we’ve done some joint professional learning together. When we first opened the school, we relied a lot on them.

So there is some collaboration among museum schools. At this point, the National Association of Museum Schools is offering some webinars and some other resources on the website to offer museum school educators, some additional resources, but again, in the case of public schools, really all of those teachers will be certified, but they’re just general certification, not a museum school certification.

Leigh Moring:

Awesome. Well, we pretty much just have time for one more question. And before I ask that last question, I did just want to draw your attention to some of these resources we have from our presenters today. So definitely feel free to download these, check these out before we end here in a couple minutes.

I had several different questions about learning loss in regards to COVID here’s one, in particular, they said they’re starting to reduce or eliminate arts education for students because of that. But research is showing that arts education is so important for students of all ages, for so many reasons. What sort of arguments would y’all have to kind of combat this train of thought that arts educations aren’t as important and they really need to be focusing on other things like math and science and all that to kind of combat that so that y’all can prove how important these museum schools really are.

Leah Wilson:

I would maybe say that art is accessible and we have a STEAM program because we feel that art brings in students and gets them excited about the STEM content that they might gloss over otherwise when you can put it in the context of an art project. I think that’s one of the amazing things that museums can do in teaching that is sometimes hard in the classroom. You can create these capstone projects, like creating an exhibit where you are doing research, you’re learning about a science topic, you are presenting in front of your peers, you’re synthesizing information, and you’re learning about graphic design and how to present information visually to an audience. You bring all of that together on in one project. And that has a lot of power.

Leigh Moring:

Great. I love hearing STEAM being pushed. Like I said, in my former job as a museum educator, it was all about STEAM coming up with really creative ways to get students involved in science and math, by using arts. And I think that really is the key moving forward. So that’s about all the time we have for today. I did have a couple questions about today’s presentation. Yes, the whole thing has been recorded and it will be available. It will be emailed out to everybody who attended today, and all of our webinars live in our library of previous Share Your Culture webinars. So I believe we have that linked on the resources, so definitely check that out. This one, along with some other great ones that we’ve done in the past, all live there, so you will be able to have access to that.

I’m so sorry we didn’t get to all of our questions today. We had so many. If you’d like to follow up with any of our speakers directly, please feel free to do that. I think we had their LinkedIns up here earlier. If you did have any more questions, you’re searching for more thought leadership that Blackbaud sponsors, any resources and tools, please visit us on the resource center. We have a whole area of the website just for arts and cultural professionals. And I know we have some K12 people who have joined us today, so we’ve got a whole K12 section as well so check out And I just want to give a huge thank you to all of our presenters today. Leah, Katherine, Amber, and Elizabeth. Thank you so much. This was such a great session. I know I’ve learned a lot and I just really appreciate y’all’s partnership with AAM as well. So thank you all so much. And we will see…

Elizabeth Merritt:

Thank you so much for Blackbaud’s hosting of these wonderful events.

Leigh Moring:

Thank you. All right. We will see you next time for our next webinar in September. Thank you all.

Leah Wilson:

Thank you.

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.