Jean Middleton: At the Forefront of Family Programming

Story and Photos by Steve Finkelman

Jean Middleton’s interest towards museum work began when she attended an archaeology field school in Ireland after completing her Bachelor of History degree at the University of Alberta.

“We sat in a mud hole and the whole time I thought, ‘this isn’t for me.’”  So Middleton – who is now the Alberta Aviation Museum’s Lead Interpreter – changed her career path slightly and completed a Masters degree in Museum Studies in Scotland.

A job-offer from the Alberta Aviation Museum brought her home, but to unfamiliar surroundings.

“The only time I came to the museum, before I started working here, was for the Grade Six Theory of Flight program in 2006 or 2007,” she says. “I really don’t remember a whole lot about it. There were just planes with ropes around them. The stories weren’t there as much.”

And Middleton admits she knew little of Edmonton aviation history.

“When someone said Mayfield is named after Wop May’s airfield, I had no clue whatsoever. I had never even heard of Wop May before.”

Middleton’s job is to draw people into the museum and expose them to that history, but she finds her own lack of aviation background is a plus, not a minus.

“I think a lot of people my age have no idea who Wop May was, so finding ways that attract people who aren’t interested in aviation is a major goal of mine.”

Middleton says museums everywhere are facing a similar problem, how to relate to younger generations. That is a major focus at the Alberta Aviation Museum as well.

“Kids and young families have become one of the primary audiences for museums. That is how we are going to keep passing stories on.”

Meeting with volunteer instructors prior to this year’s Grade Six Theory of Flight classes

The Grade Six Theory of Flight program, Middleton’s first exposure to the museum, has long been a cornerstone program. Last year it brought in 1,500 students. It has come a long way in the two decades from when Middleton was an elementary student. The program is taught entirely by a team of volunteers, most of whom are pilots. Constant improvements to the presentation and classroom have made the program far more interactive and relevant. More changes have been established for the new school year.

“We are trying to spend more time outside of the classroom. So, we will be discussing theory in relation to the actual planes. Every class will also be using our flight simulators. And we’ll be doing more activities so the kids are out of their seats as much as possible.”

The new RedBird flight simulators, which will be part of this year’s Grade Six Program.

Middleton expects the new RedBird simulators, used by some flight schools for actual flight training, will be a big hit with the students.

“It gives them the opportunity to use what they learned right away. So, if something is going wrong on the simulators, we can say, ‘See, we just talked about this.’ “

Middleton also launched a new series of drop-in programs for families with young children aged 6 to 12. They began this spring and were offered monthly until August. This fall’s drop-ins run every second Saturday from 12pm to 4pm. Middleton says it’s exactly the audience the museum needs to attract on a regular basis.

“If they know there’s going to be things going on and there’s going to be people here, they are more likely to come back, especially for the audience that is not interested in aviation per se.”

Greeting a child at the Halloween edition of Servus Free Access Night

Another growing success is the Servus Free Access Night, held on the last Thursday of every month. It is sponsored by Servus Credit Union and gives people a chance to check out the museum for free. Now in it’s second year, more than 1000 people have taken advantage of it since July.

“It’s almost entirely young families, and a lot of people who are recent immigrants to Edmonton. They had no idea that either the museum was here or that Edmonton had this amazing aviation history.”

Middleton is quick to point out that these programs would not be possible without a lot of support. Volunteer instructors teach the Grade Six program and students from the University of Alberta provide much of the kids’ programming as part of their work experience.

“We probably wouldn’t be able to have a drop-in program at all if we didn’t have those students.”

Helping children test the parachutes made as part of a family drop-in event.

As for the future, Middleton has other projects coming up.  A PD Day Camp is aimed at students who have a day off due to their teachers professional development days. The first one is set for November 29. 

“They will be history-based camps with all sorts of games and scavenger hunts. Kids will get to work with objects and get to dress up. So, it will be a full day of fun.” The museum is planning four more PD Day Camps throughout the year.

Another idea, still in the formative stage, is new programming aimed at another new audience.

“I would love to open up the museum for something, like a murder mystery or escape room, targeting adults. I think that would be really fun,” Middleton says.

Her long-term goal is to turn the museum into a place where young families, like those moving into the neighbouring Blatchford development, will think of as their own.

Middleton discusses the museum’s family programming with Mayor Don Iveson during a recent visit.

“We need to think about what we can do to make sure there are things going on all the time, so moms and tots can come and feel like it’s a meeting place for them.” As a result, a whole new generation, like Middleton herself, can be exposed to, and learn about, Edmonton’s vast aviation heritage.