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Where Kids and Cows Are Welcome

Posted on Friday, May 4th, 2012.

Facilitator Katherine Brook and I traveled to Wisconsin to learn about the Madison Children’s Museum through its exhibits and the people who make them possible: staff, visitors, donors, and volunteers. The Madison Children’s Museum is one of ten winners of the 2011 Institute of Museum and Library Services National Medal, an award given to institutions for their outstanding public programming. One prize received by winners is three days of StoryCorps interviews by way of our Door-to-Door service.

Interview participants painted a picture of a museum that celebrates and learns from its community in myriad ways, from going on cultural tours to dangling cows from the ceiling. The diverse types of learning embraced at the museum are made possible not only by its exhibits but also by the museum’s loyalty to its museum family, be they fiberglass cows, local experts, volunteers, or fourth graders.

We heard from museum volunteers about creating and maintaining museum exhibits. I spoke to a pair of volunteer coordinators from the annual American Girl Benefit Sale, who recalled befriending the animals that inhabit the warehouse where inventory is stored and massive feats of organization on the weekend of the sale. I learned about an exhibit called “Hmong at Heart,” a traveling exhibit on the history and culture of the Hmong people of Laos, for which fourth- and fifth-grade students served as exhibit consultants. To prepare, the students went on a cultural tour of Hmong communities in Wisconsin, which involved statewide bus trips to fashion shows, butcher shops, and a funeral.

I also heard the story of Gertrude and Melba Sue, two giant fiberglass cows that were originally part of an exhibit about dairy-making at the museum’s previous location. When the museum moved to a larger building, they brought the cows with them.

The Madison Children’s Museum encourages visitors to explore both its exhibits and their own abilities. Here, the museum works with children as collaborators, incorporating their artwork, insights, and voices in exhibits. The museum is committed to repurposing exhibit materials and embracing local traditions and expertise, allowing the museum to be enjoyed by the entire Madison community.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awards The National Medal to five libraries and five museums for extraordinary civic, educational, economic, environmental, and social contributions to their communities. This award is the nation’s highest honor for museums and libraries, and StoryCorps is proud to record the stories of these distinguished institutions. Click here for a full list of this year’s winners.

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