Amanda Spencer is the grants manager at the Reading Public Museum in Reading, PA. You can reach Amanda and the museum on Facebook @readingpublicmuseum, Instagram @rdgmuseum & Twitter @rdgmuseum.
“Thank you Reading Public Museum and Planetarium for the free field trip….Thanks for the awesome touring and for being nice and answering our questions. Also for letting us touch stuff like the glowing rocks.”
The above quote was written by an elementary school student following a recent visit to The Reading Public Museum (RPM), a visit completely subsidized with funds from our Feed Their Imagination program. Feedback like this young friend’s inspires those of us in the world of museum administration to keep plugging away at what we do and to continue the search for, what often seems like, diminishing cultural funding opportunities.
Our Museum sits in a funny spot. The one end of RPM’s 25-acre Arboretum flows into the Wyomissing Park System, grounds located in the region’s wealthiest community. The opposite end is just blocks away from low-income housing and a few minutes drive from downtown Reading, a city once cited in a 2011 The New York Times article as having the largest share of residents living in poverty in the nation. Reading follows closely behind Flint, Michigan in high crime rates. These kids need this program.
I entered the world of arts and culture administration because I was passionate about the arts but lacked the real talent and drive necessary to pursue any sort of artistic career. My commitment to fund development grew when I returned to my hometown and realized that area students had this gem of an institution in their own backyard but were without the resources to come on a field trip or visit with their families on a weekend.
Most cultural institutions have similar programs set up. Teachers request support to bring their students and free tickets and tours are provided. Until just a few years ago, RPM did not have a procedure in place with which to help our underserved neighbors. As the major cultural institution in the area, The Museum recognized the fact that we needed to step up our game. Our Feed Their Imagination (FTI) program was originally conceived in 2011 in response to budgetary cuts within Pennsylvania area school districts. Field trips are more often than not the very first item to be left behind when any sort of funding issue arises and yet these invaluable opportunities are critical to providing real hands-on learning experiences for students.
The Museum wanted to go beyond your basic student tour. As standardized testing is an increasingly hot-button issue and classroom time is at a premium, RPM’s education team was determined to create a program that met the ever-important Pennsylvania State curricula standards while also inspiring and entertaining students. The Museum is the only comprehensive museum between Philadelphia and Harrisburg that provides teachers and students with access to cultural and artistic objects related to the Pennsylvania curriculum standards, providing enrichment to classroom studies in a variety of disciplines including, but not limited to, the sciences, art, history and languages. This trip often represents a student’s very first visit to a museum or cultural institution of any kind. The program allows students to partake in an out-of-the-classroom experience that is both educational and fun and holds the potential to transform the way children look at what they learn in the classroom as well as the world around them.
FTI has grown by leaps and bounds. During the program’s first year, RPM served 2,500 students. Over the course of the 2015-2016 school year, FTI funds brought in just over 5,500 students to The Museum with free or reduced tickets. Over half of those students also received free busing. It is the Museum’s intention to serve 6,000 students this year through Feed Their Imagination.
We want to serve every single classroom that asks for our support but funding is always at a premium. Every year we are thrilled to serve more students than the year prior but it also means the stakes are increased. We are continually challenged to up the ante and track down more funding. It is a challenge we take seriously and one that is approached by the entire team, not just viewed as the work of our development and education departments.
Last year, one teacher noted, “Wow, what a wonderful field trip we had today! All the students, parents and teachers had a terrific time. I can’t get over the difference since the last time I visited a museum on a field trip. The entire staff should all be commended for an exemplary job!”. Another student told a Museum Educator, “Thank you for all your cool work. You are the best people. The mummy was cool but the dinosaurs were the best. You guys are the coolest.”
So we keep at it. We keep sending out those annual fund letters with student testimonials and we keep plugging away at bringing in diminishing corporate support and chasing down new cultural funding because we don’t want to be the ones to let these kids down. Their shrieks of excitement and awe can be heard throughout the building and while some may think a museum should be a quiet, contemplative space, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
About the Author
Amanda Spencer is the grants manager at the Reading Public Museum in Reading, PA. She started her Development career as an apprentice at the Walnut Street Theatre and has worked for the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, the annual literary festival held in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. She served as the Development Director for the Wilma Theater and the Associate Managing Director for the Arden Theatre Company, both located in Philadelphia. You can reach Amanda and the museum at: Facebook: @readingpublicmuseum, Instagram: @rdgmuseum & Twitter: @rdgmuseum.
Brought to you by Sage Xaxua Morgan-Hubbard, the American Alliance of Museums’ Ford W. Bell Fellow for Museums and P-12 Education.