Global Conversations with: Lynn McMaster, Executive Vice President of Please Touch Museum

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Kathleen Quigley, for GPA -- Hailing from Ottawa, Canada, Lynn McMaster joined the Please Touch Museum administration in July 2012 and serves as the storied institution's Executive Vice President. She spoke with Global Philadelphia Association about her move to a new country and the manner of welcome she has experienced in Philadelphia. This transplant to the United States is certainly making the most out of the "adventure" that moving to Philadelphia has been, and eloquently shares her favorite discoveries so far.

I'd love to start by learning more about you and how you came to be in Philadelphia.

It was a very interesting journey, actually. I had been a long-time staff member of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and had managed the National Childrens' Museum in Ottawa, Canada. And that is one of the sub-museums of the larger corporation of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. I had a wonderful time at the organization. I had been with it for over 20 years, and I felt that I had done all that I could do there. There had been so many young people coming up into the field, and I had been one of those twenty-some years ago, and had been given the opportunity to really realize the Childrens' Museum and be part of the success it had been, both for young children in Ottawa and as an organization that was nationally focused.

I felt it was time to pass the baton to young people who were going to make a new mark and take the Childrens' Museum to other places. I was excited about the opportunity to see what I could do to continue to invest in the children museum world. The Canadian landscape for childrens' museums is not that big. Opportunities for the field I had been in were really far and few between. I got a call in December of 2011 from the CEO here at Please Touch Museum, Laura Foster, asking me if I'd be interested in joining her to lead PTM in its future. My husband and I just felt that it was the perfect timing for us to take an adventure.

One of the things I've been really, really interested in throughout my career is the notion of how non-traditional learning environments can be part of the investment in community. I started my career as an educator and had done work in Aboriginal communities in northern Canada. I always liked the immediacy of what museums offered to children and communities. And this particular institution has an extraordinary reputation for its investment in the neighborhood that it is part of. That was one compelling call to me that was quite enchanting.

Had you heard of Please Touch Museum in Canada?

Yes, I had. It has a strong reputation as one of the few childrens' museums that also has a collection, and I've always worked in institutions with collections integral to telling stories to children in a museum environment. So that was another very compelling reason to come. The other very interesting pull was the opportunity to be part of the future. This is an organization that, until recently, had been in a small place on 21st Street, and made a move to a very large, historic building that also had very deep roots in this area. That excited me a lot about where the future could go with this organization. Another thing that was very compelling about it was that Philadelphia is a very interesting city. There is a huge tapestry here of stories and narratives, and I found that the history of Philadelphia is something I've learned to explore. It's really the history of the United States, and I felt privileged to be a guest in that narrative.

For quite a number of years, I was familiar with Laura Foster, PTM's President and CEO, and the work she had done, and we shared a similar interest and compassion about what these organizations really mean to children and the fabric of their lives. 

Had you ever lived outside of Canada before?

No, I had not. My husband commuted from Washington DC in the very late 90s/early 2000s, so we certainly knew what it meant to live down in the United States. He's been a great support to me, letting me in on what I could expect. When one has an opportunity to make that kind of change, I really feel one must do it. I think it makes you richer and keeps you young. It was exhilarating and difficult and somewhat challenging at the same time. I can't say it has been all easy. It is pretty challenging to learn the narrative of a community, but I'm richer for it. There is a great exercise I do every day in getting to know a group of people, and I couldn't have come at a more interesting time.

When did you start at the Museum?

I started full-time at the end of July. The staff have been really great to get to know- much like the city. The city is very warm and very neighborly, and the staff here have transmitted that sense of community and warmth, as well. It's been very, very welcoming.

What are some of your hopes or what is your vision for Please Touch Museum, in terms of outreach to children?

The staff here have really set the ground-work and vision, reminding us what we are as an organization and where we do our best work. I think I'm here to make a contribution to that legacy, and move it forward and deepen it. I see myself doing that alongside the staff, and I really feel I'm collaborating with Laura in a way that will push our contribution to the neighborhood in a direction that continues to resonate. That's how I see my place here, and I'm very excited about it.

Before you moved to Philadelphia, what were some of your impressions of the city?

I had been to Philadelphia many times, and knew of the rich cultural tapestry that was here, and the incredible legacy of cultural institutions that had been started here, many of them the first in the United States. So there was a certain amount of awe about stepping into a community with such notable institutions. Certainly Please Touch Museum, but also the Barnes Foundation, the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Franklin Institute, and many more wonderful organizations that have incredible ties to this local region and also to the United States in general.

The international reputation of Philadelphia is an interesting one. In the art world, many of our friends who had spoken to us once they heard we were coming here had wonderful stories to share, either about a fabulous experience they'd had visiting, had family or friends here, or had relocated here to experience a better quality of life in a smaller urban environment where they could practice art, and be part of the change and renaissance that this city seems to be moving in. It was with extraordinary excitement that I heard about the opportunities here, and the real sense that Philadelphia was going somewhere. I think the really compelling piece is the story of innovation Philadelphia has that goes so deeply to its roots. Being here, it has become much more prevalent to me. I think Philadelphians sell themselves slightly short.

Have you been able to connect with other prominent Canadians in Philadelphia?

Because the cultural community in Canada is very small, there had been announcements about others migrating to this great city for all sorts of reasons. Interestingly enough, they've also shared their impressions in different ways, in different media, telling about what they're doing and where they are. That's really how I came to know about them. What really struck me was the fact that there had been this wonderful flow of Canadian talent here, and it was all happening roughly around the same time. I thought that was really extraordinary, and I do think it speaks to an interest to be in places where there are wonderful creative opportunities.

What are some of your favorite places in Philadelphia?

That's a pretty tough question to answer, but I have seen some extraordinary places that my husband and I will be going back to enjoy. I think the gardens in the local surrounding area are really terrific. The Morris Arboretum has struck us as an absolutely wonderful place to be. Walking along the Schyulkill River has been a gem for us, knowing there is a great place to do outdoor activity. I have to say I've seen some quirky, interesting museums and wonderful things like that that I've enjoyed. We've really honed in, and I want to learn as much as I can about American history. It's amazing to have the opportunity to learn the narratives here. I love the fact that it's a place full of neighborhoods, and walking along and stumbling upon interesting places has been great.

And certainly this museum is an architectural marvel of a building, and the city has many of those, as well.

I find that I'll be waiting for a bus or in line to buy a cup of coffee, and someone will strike up a conversation and share some history about a building, or an architectural element that I'm looking at. I'm amazed at the architecture here. Memorial Hall, where Please Touch Museum is housed, has an extraordinary, exciting story. I'm very moved every morning when I'm walking up the steps, and I'm aware that I'm part of something was part of a significant time here. I'm glad it is still standing, and I'm glad we're here to make sure that it moves into the future.

I think it's quite poignant that we're in a space for children that was about the future. I think the people that built the building would be delighted. At the centennial of the United States in 1876, a very large number of people converged on this building in a short period of time, and I know among them would have been children. It strikes me that those children would have been inspired by what they saw, and they would have been delighted that this space ended up being a place for them.

Any favorite restaurants?

We recently went to Jose Garces's restaurant Distrito, and it was wonderful! We've also enjoyed the farmers market in Reading Square. And we've had lots of lovely meals in the homes of people who have welcomed us. There is also a small bakery in Old City called Tartes, and that has become a pull for us, as well. Their coconut cream tarts are pretty wonderful. This city is chock-a-block with foodie moments, and we have by no means exhausted those opportunities, so I'm looking forward to a long list of places to go.

This interview with Lynn McMaster has been edited and condensed from its original version. Edited by Kathy Quigley for GPA.