Hands On International (HOI) is an association of children’s museums from across the globe. They held their bi-annual conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia October 11-15, and I had the good fortune to attend. (However, my camera did not. It was broken so I have no photos to share. It is fixed for future posts.)

The theme of the conference was ‘Identity, Cultural Diversity and Heritage: The Role Children’s Museums Play in Times of Rapid Change’. There were more than 85 attendees from over 26 countries. I was one of two Americans to attend.

I arrived a day late and a Euro short to the conference. I left Phoenix on Monday, October 10, got back to London October 11, and left for Ljubljana on October 12. We flew over the Alps and landed in a beautiful valley nestled amongst mountains, lakes and rivers. I tried to withdraw some Euro from the airport cash dispenser, but either my card or the machine didn’t work.  Thankfully I had 5 Euro in my pocket, which was the exact amount it took to get me to the city center on a coach (which is what they call busses here).  If I had 4 more Euros I could have been delivered directly to my hotel, but instead I wandered the streets searching it out.

Ljubljana is a quaint city with a beautiful river walk and many pedestrian streets. After a couple of miles and a few wrong turns, I found the Hotel Emonec and checked in. I was thankful to have arrived in time for the Mayor’s reception for the conference.  I was very hungry and had no Euro for dinner! The hotel had a colorful map with all the city attractions marked so I was able to find the reception more easily than I found the hotel. 

The City Hall is a grand old building with a beautiful plaza right on the river front. The formal part of the reception was held in an art gallery within the hall. I panicked for a brief moment when I saw no food, but the sounds of an accordion piqued my interest and calmed my nerves. This was not your polka-style accordion, but rather the evocative sounds of a versatile instrument and an extremely talented musician.  The formal part of the program included a welcome from the head of the Organizing Committee of HOI Andreja Rihter (Slovenia), a welcome and thank you from the president of HOI Annemies Broekgaarden (Netherlands), and a few words from the Mayor himself. English was the official language of the conference, so their remarks were presented in both Slovenian and English. The speeches were very formal – Honored Guests, Distinguished Colleagues, etc, and everyone was very attentive.  I soon realized we were all engaged because there was no food or beverage to distract us!  How brilliant!  In the US, we probably would have had the food and beverage up front, and everyone would have been eating and clinking glasses and forks during the presentations. Never again will I serve food when I want someone’s attention!

The Mayor’s speech was quite touching. He proclaimed that Ljubljana was the most beautiful city in the world, a city of young people and a vibrant arts and culture scene. He then made a surprise announcement that they were going to build a children’s museum in Ljubljana. His pride in the city was moving, and the announcement about the new museum was warmly received.  He then invited to another room to celebrate with food and wine. I was delighted that I would not have to forage for food Euro-less.

It is hard to attend receptions alone. Most people were in attendance with others or had met each other at previous conferences. With a plate of food and a glass of wine to fortify me, I forced myself onto a group of people from Israel. One was from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, one was a children’s book writer, and another worked for the government. Soon, an educator from Jugend Museum Schoeneberg, a children’s museum in Berlin, joined us. I learned that these folks had worked together on a project where children from each country could learn about each other and how they lived. The group from Israel was presenting information on the project the next day, so they left the reception early. The educator and I stuck it out, and talked about our various programs and activities until the end. At the Berlin museum, they receive more school groups than families. They spend about four hours with each school group in workshop settings rather than the 20-minute workshops we offer. The neighborhood where they are located is a transitory neighborhood rather than an old established neighborhood like Fairytale Town’s Land Park. As we were about to leave we were joined by her colleague, another educator from the children’s museum. We were staying at the same hotel and so we walked backed through the streets of Ljubljana together. I was no longer alone!

 The next morning I left early so I could check into the conference. I arrived to The City Museum a bit early so went the café next door for a coffee. After accidently tipping the barista more than the coffee cost – coins are worth so much more in Euros! – I took a look at the menu to kill time. Wine and beer were 10 cents less than coffee and 50 cents less than sodas. My kind of place! (Spoiler alert: we may raise the price of sodas at Fairytale Town soon.) The city of Ljubljana and the City Museum are a wonderful mix of old and new. Old buildings are home to hip cafes. The museum has kept the old archways into the halls, but has new walls and bathrooms.

Once I was well-caffeinated, I moseyed back to the museum to register. I received a lovely tote bag with the conference program, a list of attendees, and information on Ljubljana. It was a very useful tool and I used it throughout the weekend.

The first activity of the day was a presentation by Paul Shaffer, a professor from The University of Amsterdam. His topic was ‘The Open Society and Its Immigrants’.  It turned out to be a perfect introduction to the conference theme for me because he spoke how immigration impacts identity, cultural diversity and heritage. He was extremely knowledgeable and informative, and left us with more questions than answers. His theory is that migration enriches communities because it forces people to re-imagine their society and how it works. What does it mean to be a citizen? How will we live together? How do we find a common culture? The idea of a common culture is where museums – and especially children’s museums – play a role. Museums can tell stories and provide common experiences that transcend separate histories. Children’s museums encourage people to imagine, and imagination is the key in creating new societies and a common culture.

I was gratified to think that Fairytale Town’s mission to promote the imagination and our 2.5 acres of interactive exhibits helps create a common culture in Sacramento.  

The next presentation was ‘Long-lasting Intercultural Dialogue’ by Sally Goldsworthy from the Discover Children’s Story Center in London. She told us about their Connecting Stories Project, a three-year program they developed to capture the stories by ethnic communities in their area who voiced concern about losing their oral traditions and legends. They began by working with two immigrant cultures, added others each year, and ended by creating an exhibition as well as a CD of the stories. They found that their museum provided a safe place for people to start a dialogue. They also learned that food was a big element in each of the cultures and their stories; so much so, that they called their exhibit ‘Feast of Stories’. They were a little surprised to learn that everybody, no matter what culture, wants a bit of magic at the museum.

Again, I was delighted to know that Fairytale Town provides that spark of magic that people from all cultures are seeking.  

Next was ‘A World of Stories’ by Goran Bjornberg of Sweden. He spoke how stories create identity; how meaning is created through language and symbols as well as through action and participation. Because of this we need to shift from a teaching focus to a learning focus; from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered process in developing exhibitions. He told how his company, Swedish Travelling Exhibitions, involved children in staging exhibitions. The key components were to treat children as individuals, as competent, to offer a safe environment, give them access to the ‘arena’, rely on the creative process, and remember that time is essential.

After these presentations I was invigorated, inspired, overwhelmed… and hungry!  I was glad it was time for lunch. (Slovenian food is delicious, and they are very proud of their wines. It was served at every meal except breakfast.) I was able to chat with Paul about the immigration story in the US, and made arrangements to visit Sally’s museum in the future.

After lunch I learned more about the joint project between Israel and Germany from Naomi Shmuel and Manberu Shimon of Israel and Petra Zwaka of Germany. Naomi and Manberu spoke of the importance of cultural competence, and including parents (especially parents of immigrant children) in the discussion.  Petra told about the exhibition these two countries developed. The exhibit shows rooms from the homes of two neighbors, one Jewish and one German. Children can see, touch, and read things in each room. Children readily embrace the idea of home and can learn about the similarities and differences of these neighbors in a safe environment.     

Following this presentation we broke into ‘Circles’ with different topics. I chose the Circle titled ‘Inclusive Museum Education: How to Include Children and Young People’.  I heard presentations from representatives from Serbia, Macedonia, Germany, The Netherlands and Israel. I learned about art programs, teacher programs, radio programs, a Fairy Tale Tree, and working with nuances. At the end we shared what we brought and took away from the conference. We were all in agreement we left with more than we came with and were inspired and energized to continue our work.

We were invited to the National Museum for a dinner later that evening. The National Museum is the largest museum in Slovenia, and it is wonderful. They had some of their children’s program materials available, and it was fun to see how they introduced young people to their arts works. They have a treasure chest with physical items that are represented in the museum and children can go on a treasure hunt to find them. For example, there is a bone in the treasure chest and they can find the bone in a painting in one of the galleries. They also have a beautiful children’s guide book to the museum.

Again, the conversation was friendly and informative. On the walk back to the hotel, my new friends and I agreed it was wonderful to be with such open and intelligent people.

The next day we left for the town of Celje to see the museums there. But more on that next time. In recounting my conference experience I realize how much they packed into a day, and as usual it has made me hungry. With money in my pocket, I will find food for body, and then visit a museum to feast my soul!