Friday, April 1, 2011

Revisiting lessons learned from "Free to be You and Me"

Free to Be You and Me Foundation
has information on all things related
to the album, TV show, and movement.
Yesterday at my local library, while searching for kids' CDs that wouldn't drive me to road rage in the car, I came across an old favorite from my childhood, "Free to Be You and Me." It had been years since I'd heard any of the songs, but after briefly scanning the playlist, I immediately wanted to share it with my daughters. After all, these songs helped shape my identity and sense of self back in the '70s when I was their age.

I remember my parents playing that vinyl record for me over and over again, at my request, and together they taught me not be afraid of being myself, or following my dreams. As I listened to each of the tracks I recalled the childhood joy those songs and stories brought me, but as an adult I heard them through older, yet new, ears. As a woman, professional, wife, and mother, I thought about how the meaning had changed. Still, it is hard to believe that the album turns 40 next year when so many of its lessons continue to resonate today.

An informal poll of a few of my girlfriends confirmed my suspicion that many of us were influenced by Marlo Thomas and her upbeat songs casting off tired stereotypes. The 30- and 40-something moms and dads of today, who fill your museum galleries and classes with their children are likely products of this "free to be you and me" generation. Are there lessons in the album for museums who serve this audience? Here are a few I found.
My dad's birthday, April 3, 1977.
  1. "Parents are people... They used to be kids." Moms and dads had a life before kids, and while most of us are intimately aware of this fact, it's important to remember parents when planning programs and experiences aimed at children. Sure, parents want their kids to have a great time, but if there is a little bit of smart, funny, and interesting content for the adults who brought the kids, those grown-ups are probably going to want to come back to your museum again. Sesame Street, while not a museum, is a great example of children's programming that sneaks in a bit of humor for the adults in the audience, and what parent doesn't love Sesame Street?
  2. "Ladies first" was already passe in 1972. That is to say, if most of your programming for women is aimed at ladies who like starched cotton dresses, finger sandwiches, and luncheons in the middle of the day, you are missing an opportunity to connect with the next generation of power women. Try hosting a book club, or girls' night out event, like the ones hosted by the Cincinnati Museum Center focused around their latest exhibit. Perhaps, plan a "Toddler Thursday" like the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and add some content for the moms too. In any case, accept that today's "ladies" often put their families and careers first, and when they get free time, they want to connect with others, not be the youngest woman in the room by 20 or 30 years.
  3. "Don't dress your cat in apron... People should [do] what they like to, a person's a person that way." Museums often try to unnecessarily control visitor outcomes and experiences, but people are happiest when they can drive their own experience and make their own meaning. Everyone is different and no two people will experience the same exhibit or program in exactly the same way. Attempt to make your visitor interactions open-ended experiences that give people a chance to engage your content in a way that makes them comfortable and allows them to draw their own conclusions. 
  4. "Some kind of help is the kind of help we all can do without." You know what I'm talking about. The unreliable volunteer you can't count on, but who expects to have high-quality projects to occupy his or her valuable time. The trustees who think they know how to do you job better than you. The donor who would really like to give you money, but only if you sidestep your mission for a special interest pet project. I wish I had simple, one size fits all solutions for these and other common scenarios. I don't. Just a comforting reminder that we all run into help that really isn't, and from there we smile, nod, say thank you, and let our conscience and experience be our guide. 
If you remember this classic album from your childhood, check it out from the library and listen to the songs again. It is wonderful! See if it doesn't spark those childlike impulses to create something new, try something no one has tried before, dare to dream big, and not worry about what other people think you ought do with your time. 

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