Lunch with Ray Vandiver
Executive Director, Tulsa Children’s Museum | Date: July 9 • Time: 11:45 a.m. • PLACE: Tulsa Press Club
Ray Vandiver loves to build things. So, he’s arrived at a propitious time in the growth of the nascent Tulsa Children’s Museum. He already has built one such museum from scratch, and it was the challenge of taking TCM to its next level that pulled him away from trendy Portland, Ore., to trendy Tulsa.
At the historic Tulsa Press Club, I introduce him to the Atlas Grill’s black bean veggie burger and he tells me his story.
A St. Louis native, Vandiver planned to become a physicist, but an experience helping his wife, Donna, turned them in another direction. While he was working on his doctorate at what is now the Missouri University of Science and Technology, she volunteered with and then directed a traveling science museum. He became the exhibit builder.
“We both really fell in love with it,” he says. “It became kind of a big deal.”
The two would take a trailer full of exhibits to schools, libraries or cafeterias, leave it for a week and go to the next one.
As he neared the end of his studies, Vandiver explains, “I had the notion to go and build a museum. I told my wife, and she said OK.”
The result was the Boot Heel Youth Museum in southeast Missouri, which they operated for seven years. Then, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland needed a science director. Over the next 14 years, Vandiver worked his way up to vice president of the Center for Learning Experiences, which involved both exhibits and education programs.
TCM “harkened me back to my first experiences,” Vandiver says. “It aligns me more closely with why I got into the business. I believe in this form of out-of-school learning. It’s where my passion is.”
If you don’t have small children, you may not be aware that to date TCM has operated “without walls.” Instead it has taken its show on the road, providing programming at events such as Mayfest, or partnering with, for example, the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum or Tulsa Art Deco Museum. If all goes well, by the time you read this, it should have secured a permanent location through the Tulsa Park and Recreation Department, where it will operate a Discovery Lab.
With it, TCM will focus on three areas of 21st century skills — collaboration and communication, critical thinking and problem solving, and innovation and creativity. They’re part of a long list of skills developed by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Some are new; some are old, often things that are no longer emphasized.
“We’ve lost the days of self-sufficiency, when it was commonplace to repair something rather than discard something,” Vandiver says. TCM hopes to help children regain the “ability to self-identify as a problem solver who can get the appropriate information and implement it. That alone is a skill that has been lost.”
Parents and children walking into the Discovery Lab will find themselves challenged to create an object or structure from disparate and unusual materials. Oh, like the do-it-yourselfer’s best friends — duct tape, plywood and chicken wire. I joke. But I’m not far from the truth.
Lab attendees may be asked to create a hammock or a climbing structure from, say, packing tape, he explains, tasks that involve creative thinking and families working together.
Vandiver himself grew up with a DIY dad, a carpenter who could do nearly everything.
“He never had anyone come for repairs,” Vandiver says. “He made tools available to me, and I have a son, (Aaron, a senior at Oregon State University) for whom I very intentionally tried to provide the same experiences.”
Vandiver also would like to “afford the opportunity to the children of Tulsa to practice those skills.”
But equally important, “School readiness and also career readiness are aspects we would hope to support,” he says. The museum’s programming will help develop technical skills, he adds, but through that, soft skills such as “just showing up, being on time. It can’t be overestimated. Not everybody gets it.”
A study contracted by TCM estimates the museum’s current reach of 10,000 children a year could grow — and this is conservative — to 60,000 a year. Perhaps even 200,000. While “it’s difficult in this informal setting to really understand impacts, nonetheless we’re going to try,” Vandiver says, noting, “The museum board is hell-bent on making a difference.”