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In conversation with Gretchen Wilson-Prangley

We’re excited to be joined at MuseumNext London 2018 by Gretchen Wilson-Prangley, the founder and CEO of Play Africa the first “children’s museum” in South Africa. We caught up with her about how this ambitious project started and what we can expect next.

Play Africa sounds like an amazing place, how did it get started?
Play Africa was born as an idea in late 2012 when I was visiting my family outside Seattle, and walked into the Imagine Children’s Museum. I looked around and saw hundreds of children and families playing together, and I was blown away. I could see in every child’s face what it meant to be in a space built and designed especially for them, where they were taking the lead, where they could touch everything, try anything, and do this together with other children and their families. And I saw parents – perfect strangers – relaxed and chatting and laughing together.

It struck me that I wanted to be a part of creating something like this in Johannesburg, particularly given its significant inequalities, even two decades after the end of apartheid. South Africa has a powerful Constitution, and society has made many strides towards a more democratic, rights-based society. But children’s basic rights are still routinely violated, and there are still enormous gaps in early childhood development between children who live in poverty and those who live in affluence.

At the time, I was working as a correspondent for a popular U.S. radio programme called “Marketplace,” but I was looking for a change. So I got the card of the museum’s director, and the next day I quit my job as a journalist, and started building a network of people who believed in the idea and wanted to help move it forward.

So starting Play Africa was a huge career change for you.
It was, but I have loved the arts and museums all my life. Growing up in a rural town outside Seattle, I was a complete art nerd, but found myself more drawn to social justice issues. That’s led me to a few different careers.

In the 1990s, a small group of tech workers and I started investigating labour rights violations in the nascent “high-tech” industry in Seattle, and we ended up creating the first trade union in the world for software workers. Over time, that led me to journalism, with a focus on the changing nature of work in an increasingly globalised world, and what that can mean particularly for people in the global south.

I landed in South Africa in 2004 knowing no one, with one suitcase, a laptop and an audio recorder. I hustled, met people, asked a lot of questions…. And to be honest, that’s what I’m doing at Play Africa most of the time: hustling, meeting people, asking questions, and making things happen.

So what’s surprised you about running a museum?
We’re really small, but I probably face similar day-to-day realities as many other museum leaders: holding the vision, making strategic decisions, meeting people, raising money, working closely with a board and developing and leading a talented team.

I’m passionate about museums as shared cultural spaces and the incredible power they hold to bring people together. So I think the most surprising thing for me has been how hard it has been to get major funding to do even more of this work, which I feel is so urgent and critical.

Part of this has to do with how museums are perceived by many people in South Africa, and the disconnect for people between what we’re doing and what they think museums are about. In South Africa today, many museums are relics from the apartheid era, and as a result are deserted and dusty and completely dead.

We are trying to model a new kind of museum, one that feels alive and responsive; like a manifestation of the world we want to live in. When I lived in New York, I wouldn’t miss the free community dance party on the first Saturday of every month at the Brooklyn Museum. Being part of the vast diversity of Brooklyn, shaking it up in a museum ballroom, is literally my idea of what heaven might be like.

But the truth is, segregation and keeping people apart was what defined colonialism, and later apartheid. Apartheid literally means “apartness” or “separateness.” We’re trying to dismantle this by modeling a new way to come together. Through children playing freely, creating and discovering together in a safe, warm and welcoming place.

How have the communities you serve responded to Play Africa?
It’s been incredible, and I think the way we welcome all visitors is what makes us a model for a new kind of cultural institution in post-apartheid South Africa.

When we first started, we had this vision of creating a space where all children and their families would feel seen, heard, loved and valued. At the heart of our Learning Framework is what we call our “image of the child,” which is that all children are strong, curious, creative and capable. We trust that children can and do shape their own learning. At the same time, we champion children’s rights and human rights generally. So we led with this idea of making it explicit that every child and every visitor would be treated with equal value and dignity, regardless of race, ethnicity, language, nationality, religion, family income, family structure, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or physical or mental ability, all of which is in line with South Africa’s democratic Constitution.

We wanted to create an organisation with deep values and integrity, so we took a highly collaborative approach from the beginning. For the first two years alone we were reaching out to different communities, families and subject matter experts. We embraced human-centered design thinking, and started researching with residents in the inner city, asking them about their experience of play with their children, how they like to spend quality time with their children.

We spent a lot of time connecting with groups that are often not explicitly welcomed in shared public spaces. For example, African migrants to South Africa often face xenophobic violence and exploitation by police, hospital staff, even neighbours. We want people to feel at home when they come to Play Africa, so we literally went out and asked people what it takes for them to feel at home in a public space.

The result is that we’re now deeply rooted in many communities. In the past five years, we’ve worked directly with more than 115 schools and community-based organisations.

We’ve built strong relationships with refugee and migrant communities and have hosted special events together, like our “Ladies Day” for 500 Congolese mothers and their children, where mothers could dress up and be celebrated for their special role in their children’s lives.

We’ve also done a lot to model inclusion of children with disabilities. We’ve created what we understand is the first space in South Africa created by a cultural institution for children with autism and their families. We’ve built a special sensory play exhibit with input from Autism South Africa and hundreds of parents. We call our space a “judgment-free zone” and these parents have been really emotional about what this means for them. One mother told me Play Africa is the only public place she feels comfortable bringing her son.

What’s been the highlight of the journey so far?
For me, it’s been seeing this vision come to life in South Africa. I love seeing children have the time of their lives. The other day, a boy was building a giant tower with Magnatiles and a lightbox, and he was beaming and turned to me and said, “This is the best fun I’ve ever had.”

I love seeing parents happy too, and creating a space that is inspiring lifelong memories. A few months ago, a father came in with his daughter. He told me he worked 12-hour shifts as a security guard, but had taken a rare day off to spend the day with his daughter at Play Africa. They spent the day painting, making a movie with stop-motion animation, going into our portable planetarium, spending time in our children’s theatre, and building with our Imagination Playground. At the end of the day, he told me that he’d taken a lot of pictures on his phone, and was going to find a way to back them up onto a computer that night. When I asked him why, he said, “Because if anything happens to me, and I die tomorrow, she can look at these photos and remember this day. And she’ll know that her father cared about her, and spent time with her, and saw what kind of girl she is and what she can do.”

What’s next for Play Africa?
Right now I’m laser-focused on raising money to expand our reach. We’ve done so much to demonstrate proof of concept with scant resources. My goal now is to raise £8 million. That isn’t much for many museums around the world, but with that kind of funding we could get a new facility that would position us to serve 200,000 visitors a year. We’re hoping to find donors who want to partner with us to make a difference in the lives of children and families in South Africa.

In the meantime, we continue to expand our offering with the resources we have. This week, we’re busy hiring new play and learning facilitators and expanding our open hours to serve more children and families. We’ve got a few exciting new exhibits launching in the next three months, including a children’s courtroom exhibit that is part of our ongoing Children’s Voices programme.

We love international collaborations, too, because it gives children in Johannesburg a chance to connect with the world. Over the next six months we are designing a new maths exhibit with Kohl Children’s Museum of Greater Chicago, co-authoring a paper on social justice and children’s museums with Chicago Children’s Museum, and welcoming an arts intern from Madison Children’s Museum. We’ve just been approached by the Met to collaborate around their World Cultures Day in October.

Editors Note: You can watch Gretchen’s presentation from MuseumNext London 2018 here.

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