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Please Touch Museum

In 2013, I left the Elfreth's Alley Association to run the Visitor Services department at Please Touch Museum (Philly's children's museum). I came in to a department in flux - I was replacing the director who moved to development and the manager who left the organization against the wishes of the department VP. Amid the chaos, shortly after I arrived, three of the four gallery supervisors left the museum or moved to other departments. Essentially I was unknowingly walking into a chaotic and unwelcome environment.

I quickly realized that my first obstacle was going to be winning over the staff. I left my office door open, but few were willing to cross that threshold. I decided that I needed to draw them in with more than an invitation, so I designed a March Madness tournament bracket, printed it out, and wallpapered the door with it. The tournament pitted 64 Disney Movies against each other, and each week staff were able to vote for their favorites to advance. Within the first week, my open door was a gathering place for not only my team of 70 Experience Hosts, but folks from other departments as well. I would engage them in conversation about Disney movies, but the conversation would inevitably lead to a discussion about their work in learning through play. 

From there, I introduced play into morning meetings and developed a training program that reimagined the way work was done in the museum. I also learned what everyone's least favorite part of the job was, and made a point of doing that part of the job with them. I also brought in former coworkers of mine from the Franklin Institute to bolster the supervisor team and within my first two months had the department running efficiently.​​​

Through all of this work, I was able to build strong relationships with my team, other departments, and the museum leadership. With the department running smoothly and morale improving, I shifted focus to developing internal and external programs.. The internal programs were designed to build on my staff engagement initiatives and begin work on bridging the divide between front line and office workers (that process is detailed here and here).

For external-facing programs, I focused on bringing adult programming to the museum. The age range that Please Touch Museum targeted at the time was 1 - 7, and this presented several problems:

  1. We self-limited our audience based on decades-old research

  2. Adult visitors without children were discouraged from visiting

  3. Our marketing was reaching parents of mostly toddlers, thus chopping two years off of our already limited window

I created a slate of three adult programs for each year to address these challenges. The first program was the Child at Heart Celebration in which guests would enjoy the museum's regular programming adjusted for an adult audience while dressed according to a new theme each year. Story time would feature books like K is for Knifeball and Go the Fuck to Sleep,  the cafe would serve cocktails made with juice boxes, and themes would include superheroes, pajama party, dress like a kid, and more. This program was designed to bring young adults into this space that would not normally welcome them, and introduce them to the programs we provide for children.


Towards the end of Spring, we would partner with Geekadelphia to host the Geek Prom - an event that would feature high school-themed story slams, photo booths, dancing, snacks, and drinks. This program was to capture an audience on the cusp of needing a wedding venue and showing off our space. It was also intended to serve as a launchpad for a young friends program that would include Curator-led Toy Talks, 1876 Centennial History tours, and events in partnerships with local music and arts organizations.

The third program, toward the beginning of Autumn, was to be Field Day. Inspired by the athletic events of elementary school, teams would compete in a variety of events on the museum grounds before culminating with a trivia night in the museum. This was intended to fundraise for and celebrate the launch of a summer camp program for kids in our age range and their older siblings that would focus on teaching children how to behave in different cultural institutions.

All of these programs were designed to build our next audience before they were born by engaging young adults on the cusp of starting families. It was also intended to broaden our donor base with a young friends program, and begin lifelong relationships with families as they formed.

Unfortunately, as part of the museum's bankruptcy, I was laid off along with several other folks in the museum who were working with me on these programs. 

Patrick is a capable manager whose insight into his staff's strengths (and areas for development) made him an immediate asset to the Please Touch Museum. One of Patrick's greatest strengths is his ability to raise and keep up a high staff morale, and to make his staff feel valued-- and most importantly, motivated to both personally succeed, and to work diligently at promoting and furthering the institution's mission. Patrick is also singularly creative and finds innovative ways to breathe new life into museum programming.

Allison Cote-Donovan, Please Touch Museum

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Verb. 1) Pertaining to the behavior of being a Wittwer. 2) Doing odd things that only Wittwers would do. 3) Catchall phrase for the thoughts and actions of Patrick Wittwer.

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