Small Town Dreams Big
The following post appears in the latest issue of Hand to Hand, ACM’s quarterly journal.
By Sharon Vegh Williams, PhD
The North Country Children’s Museum is located in Potsdam, New York, a remote, rural, low-income community in the northern corner of the state. The North Country Region is near the Canadian border, north of the Adirondack Mountains. The county is the largest by square mile in the state and the most sparsely populated. We’re seven hours from New York City and five hours from Buffalo. All of Upstate New York is downstate for us. There is a palpable remoteness to the region, with miles of flat farmland, rivers, and woodlands. One of our fastest-growing communities is the Amish, as farmland is inexpensive and not amenable to large-scale farming. Adding to the geographic isolation, the North Country has long cold winters and very little access to cultural or educational enrichment for families. Although institutions such as Clarkson University and SUNY Potsdam in Potsdam and St. Lawrence University and SUNY Canton in our neighboring town, Canton, are a defining feature of the region, university resources are not always easily accessible to the greater community. To address the cultural and educational gap for families, a group of local educators, university faculty, and parents began discussing the idea of a children’s museum in early 2012. That summer, leveraging university resources, we launched our first Museum Without Walls traveling exhibit. For the next six years, the museum trailer with pop-up interactive exhibits and programs traveled weekly to small-town festivals, bookstores, bakeries, schools, camps, and community centers.
As co-founder of the North Country Children’s Museum, the seed for the museum germinated eight years before that first traveling exhibit, when my eldest son was two years old and we were living on the Navajo Nation in Shiprock, New Mexico. The closest city was Durango, Colorado, where my family had joined a small children’s museum. At the time, the Durango Children’s Museum was on the second floor of a downtown storefront. The creative spirit behind this small institution was inspiring. The exhibits were community-made and low-key, but truly engaging and innovative. Visits were worth the hour-and-a-half drive, especially with the limited family destination options in our rural New Mexico town.
While we were new members of this small museum, I had years of experience as a museum educator and classroom teacher. I had worked at the Boston Children’s Museum for five years before going back to school for a master’s degree program in education and creative arts at Lesley University. I went on to teach elementary school for over a decade, in low-income, diverse public schools in urban and suburban Boston and later on the Navajo Nation. My time as a classroom teacher taught me how to engage learners. And teaching in diverse communities that had historically been disenfranchised from schooling challenged me to develop a curriculum and a learning environment that was intrinsically interesting and motivating for kids. At times, that required working around restrictive public school standards. As an educator and parent, I have always been interested in how informal and interactive education can provide rich and powerful learning experiences for children.
As my family had plans to relocate to northern New York, I realized I could contribute by helping to bring a small-town children’s museum to my new community. From the inception of the idea in 2004 to the opening of museum doors fourteen years later, I traveled widely with my family, visiting every interactive museum along the way, collecting ideas. When my family arrived in Potsdam in 2008, I was ready to get started on the museum. However, I soon realized it was too big an undertaking to do on my own. My friend and neighbor, April Vasher-Dean, director of The Art Museum at SUNY Potsdam, was ready to embark on this journey with me. April had twenty-five years of experience in art museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art in Indiana. Because we both had museum backgrounds, we came to the project with a shared vision. This team effort was critical, as our community had no idea where we were headed. Many people envisioned a basement playroom, while April and I saw the Smithsonian. We had a lot of work to do educating the public about children’s museums, what they are, and why they matter.
We also had a lot of naysayers. Many did not believe we could find the funding or the audience in our remote, rural region to start or sustain such an institution. My guiding words of wisdom came U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ quote, “Most of the things worth doing in the world were declared impossible before they were done.” And my silent sentiment was, “Get out of my way, I have a museum to build!” To say I was on fire with our mission would have been putting it mildly.
While April and I had worked in museums for years, we had never started one. We connected with the Association of Children’s Museums and worked our way through their publication Collective Vision: Starting and Sustaining a Children’s Museum. Following the guidance in the book, we created a traveling “museum without walls” to build an audience. April and I also traveled together to Boston and New York City to meet with children’s museum professionals in both large and small institutions. Back home, we gathered a group of educators, scientists, engineers, artists, musicians, accountants, lawyers, business owners, general contractors, and parents to contribute their expertise and form a nonprofit board. We are fortunate to live in an area with a wealth of skilled professionals, including university faculty eager to volunteer their time, energy, and resources. Clarkson University Business School faculty and students conducted a feasibility study, which gave us the confidence to move forward with fundraising and program development. While our museum without walls traveled the region, bringing sophisticated, state-of-the-art exhibits and programs to rural communities, we got to work on a capital campaign.
The end game was always a permanent location for the museum, though we had no idea of either scope or scale when we started. Neither April nor I had any idea how to raise money. And as it turned out, no one else on the board did either. Fortunately, through a shop owner in town, I heard about someone living temporarily in the area who had just completed a multimillion-dollar capital campaign for the Young At Art Museum in Davie, Florida. This was an amazing stroke of luck since most people in the North Country had no idea what a children’s museum was, let alone had worked for one. We brought Melissa Wagner on board to steer us in the right direction. For me, she was a mentor and teacher for the two years she lived here. I learned about government funding, foundations, in-kind donations, and how to write grants. I learned how to reach out to businesses, universities, and individuals for support. We put together marketing materials and packets to reach potential donors. We formed a founder’s circle and created a series of high-end cocktail parties that showcased our programming, bringing some black-tie to a distinctly flannel-and-Carhartt community. We raised the bar and exceeded expectations both in the events and in our institutional vision. Navigating our rural, high-poverty region without deep pockets, we left no stone unturned. Six years later, we had raised over one million dollars, purchased and renovated a long-vacant historic downtown building, and hired professional exhibit designer Wayne LeBar to collaborate with teams of local content specialists.
The Exhibits and Programs
When our permanent location opened in 2018, the exhibit concepts, developed by the board and local content experts in a variety of fields, had been in the works for years. Many exhibit prototypes had been tested and modified through our museum without walls. Since most of our visitors are local, membership is our bread and butter. Our exhibits needed to engage families who were going to come weekly; each exhibit component needed to be endlessly compelling. Not everything brought to the table passed that test. For example, the designers suggested a sugar shack as part of our maple tree exhibit, but there wasn’t enough activity involved to keep visitors engaged. There was also a proposal for local maker video interactive, which I didn’t feel would be varied enough to keep repeat visitors interested. My twenty-five years as an educator gave me a fine-tuned sense of what to keep and what to weed out.
Ultimately, our exhibits built on the strengths and supported the needs of our rural, low-income community. We highlighted local farmers in our Natural Foods Grocery store exhibit, celebrated our maple traditions in a digital tree interactive, and explored the science of hydroelectric power through the Adirondack Waterplay exhibit. We collaborated with university faculty to create our STEAM Power exhibit, and designed our sensory Playspace for our youngest visitors. We filled 3,500 square feet of exhibit space with bright, open, beautifully crafted exhibits that tell the story of our community. We also collaborated with a local farming museum and skilled trades high school to restore a historic tractor for outdoor play that complements our building, a renovated barn, and livery circa 1840. In an economically depressed county where one-third of families with children live below the poverty line, we brought a sense of pride and celebration of our community assets.
We also added a program room, drawing from the university community to hire an amazing staff of skilled science and arts educators. The North Country Children’s Museum now offers STEAM workshops throughout the week, free for visitors and members. We are working to bring more cultural knowledge into the mix, meeting with community members and farmers to explore ways in which we can bring agriculture more explicitly into our programming.
We believe that giving children opportunities to explore mathematics, engineering, language, and the arts in playful ways nurtures the creative problem solvers our world so desperately needs. Our mission is to provide children, regardless of socioeconomic background, with the space to try on the role of scientist, engineer, and artist. In the media, we often hear outside experts weigh in on the economic and social challenges facing rural America. However, those without a deep understanding and compassion for these struggles will never fully address them. To solve the issues that confront humanity and the planet, from income inequality to racism to climate change, we need to provide all children—urban, suburban, small town, and rural—with resources and intellectual tools. Our museum’s role is to create an environment, in rural northern New York, where children can grow to become active and engaged problem-solvers in much the same way as children from relatively resource-rich urban areas can. The world needs their voices, insights, and creativity.
As the only children’s museum within a two-hour radius, we have become a much-needed resource. Our community has responded with 600 member families, 15,000 visitors, and 75 school groups in our first ten months of operations. To ensure we are serving all members of our community, we offer $25 annual memberships to families with children eligible for free or reduced school lunches. These costs are offset by donations from the local hospital, banks, and individual families who can donate a “giving membership” to a local family in need. With limited funding allocated to rural public schools, the museum has become a supportive learning resource for the region.
Big Role, Small Community
Started six years ago on a shoestring budget, the North Country Children’s Museum raised over $1,000,000, purchased and renovated a historic building, and created a state-of-the-art interactive museum, despite the challenges of raising capital in a low-income area. In other words, the community believed in our mission and viability. In our first ten months, we have fully maximized and practically outgrown our space. Fortunately, we have a second floor with an additional 3,500 square feet in which to expand. Plans are in the works to double the museum’s exhibit and program capacity by renovating the unused part of the building within the next few years. We hope to create a dairy farm and an Amish home exhibit in collaboration with those communities.
As passionate as we are about promoting our educational mission, we are ultimately a community museum. And the community takes ownership of the space. The other day, I noticed a group of parents from very different socioeconomic, cultural, racial, religious, and linguistic backgrounds gathering and chatting before our drop-in early childhood STEAM program. These families had formed real connections and friendships through our weekly programming—connections that lived beyond the walls of the institution. In such politically and culturally divisive times, before the museum opened, many of these parents in this small, remote community would not have had another space to reach across perceived barriers. As this part of the country evolves along with the rest of the world, the true mission of the museum will unfold in its own way, and North Country Children’s Museum will be here to usher that future in.
Sharon Vegh Williams, Ph.D., is the co-founder and executive director of the North Country Children’s Museum in Potsdam, New York. She teaches courses in museum studies and multicultural education at St. Lawrence University. Her book, Native Cultural Competency in Mainstream Schooling, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018.
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