Inside Please Touch Museum: Q&A with President and CEO Patricia Wellenbach

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Please Touch Museum, America to Zanzibar, exhibit courtyard and fountain filled with visitors’ shared wishes for the world. Photo courtesy of the Please Touch Museum.

Please Touch Museum, America to Zanzibar, exhibit courtyard and fountain filled with visitors’ shared wishes for the world. Photo courtesy of the Please Touch Museum.

How are cultural leaders and practitioners addressing artistic and organizational challenges today? And how do they make room for creative and institutional growth while facing shifting audience expectations and consumer behaviors? In this series of interviews with Center grantees, we offer a look inside the practices of many of Philadelphia’s leading cultural institutions and artists, their distinct characters, aspirations, and more.

Here, we speak with Patricia Wellenbach, president and CEO of the Please Touch Museum. With support from a Center Project grant, the Please Touch Museum is presenting America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far, where children and adults can experience immersive 3D environments of Middle Eastern architecture and mosques, view historic artifacts and newly commissioned artwork created by Philadelphia-based Muslim artists, and hear personal stories from local Muslim families. Wellenbach discusses the collaborative process of creating the exhibition (on view through September 2019), what she has learned from the early response from both the Muslim community and the general public, and the Museum’s approach to fostering a healthy learning environment for young children.

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For America to Zanzibar, you created an advisory council, involving both Muslim and non-Muslim community members in the project, and you commissioned new artworks from Muslim artists. Has this process influenced the way you think about collaboration? How do you create the conditions for successful collaborations and partnerships?

Our work with the advisory council for America to Zanzibar is directly tied to the success we are having with the exhibition. We knew from the very beginning that for the exhibition to be authentic and to have the impact we imagined, we needed people to actively partner with us every step of the way. Salima Suswell’s role as our project manager was an affirmation that we would honor our commitment to embrace community and learn from others. We invited highly respected individuals with backgrounds in education, religion, arts, culture, and civic engagement to be part of the advisory council. We were not afraid to listen and learn, and we gave the advisory council the opportunity to inform decisions on programming, audience engagement, and research.

When we opened the exhibit and welcomed over 300 people representing an array of cultures and faiths, I believe our advisory council was equally as proud of our accomplishment as the Museum staff and board were. Successful partnerships and collaboration are grounded in shared values, respect for others, and an unwavering commitment that we are working towards a collective outcome that is bigger than one individual or organization. That was central to our work with the advisory council, and the results clearly speak for themselves.

The opportunity for us to commission art, which was informed by children from the community, was just one of many ways in which we stretched and reached for excellence in our planning for A to Z. As the work began, we had no idea of how much we would achieve and how important this project would be, not just for the Museum but for the Muslim community. I learned that an elder imam said that A to Z has done more for the Muslim community and Muslim relations in our city than anything in the past 30 years. Who would have thought that was possible? Who would have thought that a children’s museum could embrace a culture and, through a bold investment in an exhibition, bring enlightenment to children and families from all cultures and faiths?

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Please Touch Museum, American to Zanzibar, fishing lines modeled after traditional Zanzibari longline fishing gear. Photo courtesy of Please Touch Museum.

Please Touch Museum, American to Zanzibar, fishing lines modeled after traditional Zanzibari longline fishing gear. Photo courtesy of Please Touch Museum.

What is a particularly meaningful object or space in the Museum for you personally?

This question is like asking a parent which child is their favorite. I really don’t have a particularly meaningful object or space. It is likely to vary every day. I love to observe children and families as they experience the joy of accomplishment or discovery as they interact in an exhibit or engage in a program. What does bring great meaning to my life personally is walking through the Museum early in the morning or late in the day when there are no staff or visitors around. I reflect on the dual stewardship that I am responsible for: the 42-year legacy of the Please Touch Museum, which has brought the joy of learning to generations of children, and a landmark building whose historical significance for our city and our country should not be underestimated. It is humbling to consider and energizes me to think about the future and all that we can still do.

How do you envision the Please Touch Museum in five years? In ten? How do you imagine it will be different than it is today?

Who knows what impact technology and innovation will have on learning in five or ten years? And so I expect much will be different in the Museum’s exhibits and programs. I often describe Please Touch Museum as a learning institution, and I remind myself that, every minute of every day, a child is brought into this world who, regardless of circumstances, deserves the opportunity to realize their full potential. So our role as a children’s museum should continue to be vitally important. Children are curious by nature, and in that curiosity is a freedom to explore and discover new things. Regardless of how the Museum may change, investing in children in their earliest years is going to be even more important. As a leading 21st-century children’s museum, we must innovate in how we empower children to be active and avid learners, to give them the confidence to try new things, and to embrace challenges. What I know for sure is that the importance of early childhood learning will continue to be instrumental in the future success of each child, their families and community, our city, and quite possibly the world.

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