What is Mindport?

Periodically, since Mindport’s beginning almost ten years ago, I revisit the question, “What is Mindport?”

The latest occasion for self-questioning was the receipt of a letter from a teacher who complained bitterly about the high adult-child supervisory ratio we require for younger visitors. She argued that since our mission was “to incite creativity and help foster hands-on learning,” we should not be making it difficult for teachers to bring groups of students to Mindport by requiring such extensive supervision.

At the time I thought, because the phrase sounded familiar, that she must be quoting something from our mission statement, which I hadn’t looked at for awhile. However, upon perusing our web page and looking over our literature, I’ve been unable to discover anything that resembles what she understood to be our mission. Under our supervisory guidelines I found: “Mindport welcomes small groups. One of our main goals is to facilitate conversations between adults and children. In order to help us meet that goal please follow the guidelines below when visiting with a group.”

Our current statement of Vision, Values, and Mission says:

We envision a community which accords equal respect to humanistic values, as embodied by art and aesthetics, and to rational values inherent to the fields of science and technology.

At Mindport we seek to facilitate knowledge of our earthly environment, our physical universe and humankind culminating in a sense of delight and reverence. We encourage social responsibility, healthy self-empowerment and creativity.

We support a willingness to make authentic contact with others.

It is Mindport’s mission to create stimulating interactive and fine arts exhibits and maintain a public showplace for them. Further, we foster programs and products which promote our values and vision.

Now, whether or not any of our literature says it, I have no argument with the idea of “inciting creativity and helping foster hands-on learning,” however I disagree that bringing a group of thirty sixth-graders to Mindport, with perhaps four people to supervise them, is the best way to do it. We do state that one of our main goals is to, “facilitate conversations between adults and children.” I don’t believe we’d be facilitating many conversations under the aforementioned circumstances.

One thing is for sure, Mindport was never intended to be a “children’s museum” per se. From the outset our intention was to cater to older people, and indeed, to incite or inspire creativity, if possible. Other people’s creative work has always been an inspiration to me, and the idea of putting my own and other people’s creative work on display in order to get visitors excited about new possibilities and perspectives has always seemed a desirable thing to do.

Several years ago, when Joe Edwards, one of our now-departed (to greener pastures, not deceased!) founders was still present, we agonized for weeks about the Mindport mission statement you see quoted above. I’ve never been completely happy with it, but when I look at it I think it more or less says what we’re about, as far as it goes. But there’s much more than that. The unarticulated part is probably the part that’s most important.

One reason it’s difficult to tell people what Mindport IS when they ask is because it’s as much a process as a thing. Mindport is a process of discovery. One of Mindport’s aims is to foster the creativity of its own staff members, and Mindport’s direction is, in part, determined by who works for the organization and what kind of creative work interests them. We all have our mundane tasks associated with keeping and organization running, such as maintaining the space and the exhibits, working with outside artists who show work at Mindport, and dealing with all the usual office functions like payroll, accounting, etc. Beyond that, staff members are encouraged to contribute creative work for display, either in the art gallery or the interactive area. When I say Mindport is a process of discovery, I’m talking about the synthesis that occurs when you put several creative people under one roof and don’t make too many pronouncements about what should happen. Rather you let it happen and see where it leads you.

We talk frequently about what we’re doing, and when we find ourselves getting bored or bureaucratic, we ask ourselves what we can do about it. Any institution, by necessity, tends to gather a baggage of rules, policies, and procedures. Over the years you discover that some things work and some don’t. For example, I started out with a story about a patron who complained because we couldn’t accommodate very many poorly supervised youngsters. Our policy regarding supervision is one that has grown up due to painful experience over the years. We’ve discovered that Mindport works best and is most satisfying to both us and visitors when it is not crammed with too many youngsters at once. Just as classrooms are most efficient when the student count stays low, so is Mindport.

So, some rules are necessary, but too many are stultifying. We always walk a tender edge between chaos and stagnation, which involves a commitment to keep communicating with each other and to stay open to the possibility that we may need to change direction from time to time. We assume that as long as we evade boredom in what we do at Mindport, we’ll stay interesting to our patrons. We also must contend with the reality that some changes of direction precipitate a great hue and cry from our public, as was the case with certain changes of policy when we moved from our old space on Grand Avenue to the new one on Holly Street. The resistance and inertia of the public can be greater and more difficult to confront than our own. Outsiders get used to the way we are, and sometimes they don’t like it when we change, particularly when the changes involve what they view as impositions on them.

Once again, I’ll return to the issue of unsupervised children, because that issue bears strongly on Mindport’s identity as an organization. As I said earlier, at least two of the founders of Mindport never intended that it be a children’s museum, per se. The third founder was much more interested in catering particularly to children, which partially accounts for the initial blurring of the public’s perception of us. The situation was exacerbated by at least two articles about us in local news sources which, despite the fact that we specifically informed them that we were not a children’s museum, and did not want to project that impression, insisted on publishing huge pictures of small children playing with our exhibits. The news media like impact, never mind the truth of the situation being reported. A cute picture of a kid attracts attention.

Like all truths about Mindport, the real truth is more complex than most newspaper reporters want to explore, and most newspaper readers want to absorb. We view Mindport as an interesting place for people. Some people are adults and some are children. These two types of people can explore one of our exhibits, and each will get something different from it, and we hope each will find his own perception enriched by the other’s. I liken the situation at Mindport to certain stories that we read our children. Take the example of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. This is a story about a youngster, but it’s far from being a child’s story, although, as a child, I read it something like 18 times between when I was nine and when I was 21. We want Mindport to be like that: equally absorbing and enriching to any human being, whether age 8, or 80.

One reason the official news media miss this fine point about Mindport is that far too many adults have lost touch what some like to refer to as their “inner child.” Personally I prefer to avoid that term because I don’t think that part is really a child, but is the essential creative core residing (I hope) in every human being. I also believe that most of us strive, consciously or unconsciously, to stay in touch with this vital inner part; that, in fact, it’s what keeps us alive and full of hope. When we lose it entirely, we die, either physically or psychically. One of the reasons Mindport gets the reputation as being a child’s place has to do with adults being out of touch, or fearful of contacting, that playful and curious core part of themselves. They bring their children to Mindport because children give them an excuse for that part of their personality to come out of the closet. “Oh, the kids love coming here,” they say. But as you watch them exploring Mindport, they’re having just as much fun as the kids. In fact, they often forget about the kids and go off to play by themselves, which is precisely the situation that ends up causing us a problem. Kids, thus neglected, don’t always behave themselves!

By now, I’ve possibly succeeded in giving you some insights into Mindport’s purpose and meaning. There’s always more, but this is a good start. Maybe it gives you a clue as to why Mindport might look like a “children’s museum,” but isn’t. It might help explain why we insist that children be well supervised. It’s less a matter of supervision than it is being with them and with the most vital part of yourself at the same time. If you don’t need children with you in order to fully appreciate Mindport, then so much the better. You don’t have to feel foolish because maybe you think Mindport is really a place for children. It isn’t. It’s for all people, including you.