Elizabeth Slocum Brando started her new job as executive director of the Utica Children’s Museum on Aug. 1, replacing Marlene Brown. In the short few months leading up to today, the museum seems to have been given a confidence boost that only a new, energized leadership could produce.
The museum has added 17 new volunteers, has grown its membership, and is beginning a process to transition the space into the modern era of interactivity.
Brando moved to the area seven years ago from Manhattan to get married and start a family. With a background in nonprofit museums, and specifically children’s museums, Brando described her new position as a “dream come true.” She will tell you she’s a doer. During a conversation, she can break off mid-sentence to complete a task and then come right back to finish the thought without missing a beat.
When she sat down to talk in the museum’s lunchroom area, it was another busy day. A group of home-school students were arriving for a visit and plans were being finalized for the museum’s involvement in the upcoming Christmas on Main Street event on Saturday, Nov. 21. The distractions, as you’ll read, were no match for her.
Were you living in New York City most of your life?
No, I’m actually from the West Coast. I lived in San Francisco and then I lived in Manhattan. It’s been interesting living rurally, but it’s lovely. It’s a nice way to raise a family. Utica is nice. You’ve got big city things and then you go 10 miles and you’re in the middle of dairy country.
How did you find yourself in the executive director role at the Utica Children’s Museum?
I had watched this museum for seven years. I just had “Utica Children’s Museum” in my Google Alerts—seriously. So, when they announced that the former director was retiring, I sent the board chair an email. I said, “Hi. You don’t know me, but I’m very interested in becoming the director if you’re interested.”
Were you following it because you were in the area or did you have an interest in this specific museum?
Both. I could see the potential in this museum. It’s a fantastic space, it’s a fantastic location, it’s got history. Little things, too—we’ve got signs on the Thruway already. All the infrastructure is there.
With your background being what it is… not to say that it was lucky, but it seems kind of perfect how it worked out.
Relatively speaking, city-to-city, is a children’s museum in a city this size a unique thing?
Yes, especially one this big and one this diverse. Children’s museums are the fastest-growing segment of museums—the whole interactivity and hands-on learning, the transitions through the ages. There are so many things a museum can do for the community.
What does an executive director of a children’s museum do?
You’re in charge of everything. You need to balance your budget, you need to raise money to sustain yourself, you need to build a cushion… In the back of your head, it seems like the number one thing is finding money. But on top of that you have to make sure that, operationally, things are working properly and are safe. I have cleaned toilets before events. You know, there are two staff members here with a ton of volunteers.
Is it stressful?
Yes, it is. It’s stressful, but it’s a fun stressful. I like going to work. It’s kids. You’re helping families have fun.
Fun is good when it comes to kids.
Yeah, but there’s much more than just, “Come play,” which there’s nothing wrong with—kids learn through play. Public schools are in a bit of a bind because they have to teach to the test. Things that are just “Let’s just play” have been cut out, so a museum can fulfill that.
Do you coordinate with area teachers and schools to develop your own programming?
In a perfect world, yes. The New York State standards are posted and anytime we want to put together some type of exhibit or program, we would create an advisory board. You bring in a team of experts that will help you. So, it’s not just me thinking up things. But I’m naturally interested in children and I read up on what’s going on with children. We’re an educational institution.
How do you balance play and learning?
Let’s take history, for example. Fourth graders have to learn the history of New York State. The Erie Canal—how do you make the Erie Canal interesting? Is it looking at static objects? Is it actually pretending that you’re in a boat and you’re on the canal with sound and things that they can touch and throw? That’s fun. That’s the fun part of the job.
So, getting into the mind of a child is a big part of the job.
Sure. And we even ask the kids. We ask them, “What was your favorite part about the museum?” Asking them goes a long way.
Where do you see the need for improvement at the museum moving forward?
The two key components are hands-on and interactive. This museum started as a history museum back in the ‘60s, so things were different then. Children’s museums did not exist the way that we know them. When you go to world-class children’s museums—Madison, Wisconsin; Pittsburgh; the Strong in Rochester—you can touch things, you can interact with things, and you do it with your parents or your caregivers. You’re fostering what they call intergenerational interactivity. This museum, there’s a lot of things that have none of that.
Do you remember your first experience with a museum as a viewer?
(Laughs) That’s a good question.
Did you go to a lot of museums growing up?
My mom is a fine arts major, so we grew up going to art museums and art openings. This is funny, I remember the Phoenix, Arizona, fire museum. It was old fire equipment—that’s going way back. It’s just cool because you could climb on it, you could sit on it. Your memory when you were little, it has to do with your senses—you remember touching things, or feeling things, or seeing things. That’s what museums do.
You’ve done a lot in your time so far. How have you been learning about the needs of the Mohawk Valley community?
I’ve been on a lot of coffee talks.
What questions are you working out now? How are you growing your membership?
If we can reach out to people who have never been to a museum or didn’t know this stuff exists— Oneida County’s population is 36 percent poverty. Do they even know that this exists? They probably didn’t grow up going to museums, so how do you invite them in and welcome them? There’s a lot that a children’s museum can do just to help everyone.
Where do you see the museum’s greater role as a fixture in the community?
There’s a lot going on with downtown Utica. There’s a lot going on with the region. A thriving children’s museum can help be one of those anchors. A children’s museum draws people in.