Thinking outside the box

Kids: Help youngsters find their inner creativity, children's museum administrators are urged.

May 12, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Yesterday, Todd Siler, a hyperkinetic Renaissance guy, author of "Think Like a Genius: the Ultimate User's Manual for Your Brain," visual artist and consultant set the tone for the annual meeting here of the Association of Youth Museums.

Take that ball and chain off your brain, he urged.

Pointing to a spherical chart linking all realms of learning, Siler bemoaned society's tendency to think like French philosopher Descartes in specialized, mutually exclusive disciplines. This way of organizing knowledge has led to standardized tests, an obsession with performance and a stress on uniformity that is murder on creativity, said Siler, yesterday's keynote speaker.

Siler, who teaches school systems and corporations to tear down mental barriers, had come to the conference to show museum administrators how all things are related. If we can penetrate that level of understanding, we'll understand one another better, too, he said.

This year's youth museum conference -- attended by more than 600 international members and continuing through tomorrow at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel -- is organized around the theme "Creativity in Civil Society." That rallying cry reflects the common interests of the museum group as well as Baltimore's own Port Discovery children's museum and the Institute for Civil Society, a Boston-based non-profit group devoted to regenerating community life.

Wondering how kids' museums and civil society overlap? An introductory essay in the conference program points the way: "As stewards and celebrants of creativity, children's museums are invaluable community resources where the spirit of innovation can flourish. But creativity is more than a personal or institutional value. In order to tap its true potential, we must celebrate creativity as a cultural value with the power to invent the future, to solve common dilemmas, to mediate conflicts, to identify new opportunities, and to build a stronger, more civil society."

With 300 children's museums world wide, many of which play a central role in downtown revitalization projects, these institutions provide a breeding ground for creative solutions to thorny community concerns. The conference offers an opportunity to discuss "ways in which children's museums can be bridge-builders in communities and foster solutions to community-wide problems through the engagement of children and their families," according to the group's president, Janet Rice Elman.

Other keynote speakers, including Harvard psychologist Robert Coles and William Ivey of the National Endowment for the Arts, illustrate the spectrum of current thought about the importance of integrating creativity into the lives of children and their communities.

A bit of fun

In the name of creativity, museum administrators were perfectly willing to play the fool at one of Wednesday's pre-conference workshops. They donned funny hats, meditated arm in arm with strangers, rhapsodized about Mom, sang out of key in public and shook buttons in a laundry soap scoop to make jittery music.

Randomly paired with Maryland artists serving as creative coaches, participants had 45 minutes to turn found objects such as an old galosh, a Barbie and a Beanie Baby into musical instruments, poetry, sculpture or performance art.

Encouraged to "feel uncomfortable," tap into "inner child creativity" and build on one another's ideas, the museum experts turned out creations both hilarious and moving. Together, their on-the-spot inventions constituted an enduring lesson in one of the most mysterious and wonderful laws of creativity: When disparate ideas, objects, arts and cultures collide, something new is born.

The conference began officially yesterday with several "salons" that examined how children's museums could be more attuned to the benefits of creativity.

Play, seriously

During a discussion titled "Creativity, Social Inventiveness and Civil Society," panelists and audience members ranged across the many challenges facing those who believe the arts, play and creativity are at least as crucial to the learning process as rote learning of facts and preparation for a high-tech universe.

"Far too many people think of creativity as something that produces objects," began Patricia Ward Biederman, co-author of "Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration." "Creativity is also something that can be applied to every aspect of our lives."

Lamenting the "Disneyfication" of tourist destinations, Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, encouraged her audience to ground exhibits and museums in the communities where they were conceived. She noted that arts institutions are currently "besieged" with visitors. Citing "Kickin' it With the Old Masters," the current Joyce Scott exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, she also urged listeners to establish artistic partnerships that reach "beyond the canon."

Unstructured time

The lively group conversation also tackled the multiple ironies of attempting to infuse creativity into our lives. While schools are eliminating arts programs and becoming more academically regimented, high-tech firms are urging their employees to play. Just like their dot-com elders, kids need unstructured time to think creatively, participants said.

To those fed up with narrow-minded educators, some museum administrators advised seeking out creative instructors and inviting them to use their facilities as a lab for acquiring more imaginative teaching skills.

Those with grant-writing and fund-raising experience implored colleagues at other museums to keep good records of how a solid foundation in the arts can enhance performance in other fields, such as math and science.

As the children's museum administrators spoke, they came across as revolutionaries at heart, who want to challenge every conventional truism about the way kids learn and what they find interesting.

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