Stories

Story 01: An Optimistic Time

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Story 01 Introduction

Written by Mike Spock

George and I, in parallel maneuvers, arrived in Boston just in time for the 1960s. Although at the time we might have been innocent of the forces that were about to shape what we tried and did, and then what followed, looking back we have admitted that our ideas and impulses didn't come out of thin air but were grounded in the times in deeply influential ways.

So I asked George Hein in the chapter that follows, to narrate his personal story as a way to set the contextual stage for both that decade and for Boston Stories. George's essay offers a convincing, if not definitive, explanation for what happened to all of us during those "yeasty years." George's memories also hint at the leadership challenges, endemic in the '60s, that will be the organizing theme of Boston Stories.

It's hard to conceive how button-down the years after World War II were and to appreciate what an extraordinary opening the '60s turned out to be. You had to be there. It wasn't just that The Beatles, James Brown, and Joan Baez displaced Patti Page, Frankie Laine, and Billy Eckstine in the popular culture in which we were immersed, but it is not an exaggeration to say that those changes were profound and iconic, and that everything else—politics, education, relationships, you name it—was up for grabs too.

We didn't have to settle for the world as it was, we could make things better. If you had a good—even a wild—idea, why not give it a shot? It didn't occur to us not to invent new ways of getting things done. We thought we owed it to ourselves and others to ask, why not? And coming from an education (Fieldston School, Antioch College) that encouraged learning by doing, I thought experimentation was more than okay. Try it out and see how it worked. I was taught to expect, even demand, a high level of tolerance for my own and other's mistakes. How else could we find out what was possible—for us and the world?

George's essay gives us a sense of the intellectual currents that informed thoughtful people who were trying to understand how people learned and were taught in the '60s. But with my off-center background and the search committee's charge to make something different and relevant out of the old museum, we adopted a largely atheoretical approach to our work. It wasn't that we didn't have ideas about why what we observed made sense—we were not anti-intellectuals—but our ideas weren't always grounded in current educational and development theory and research. We came up with all sorts of interesting things that moved us in new and unconventional directions, but we were performing without a net.

In small organizations like ours (staff of seventeen when I arrived) everyone did a lot of everything. In our big house across from Jamaica Pond, each of us led afterschool clubs, took turns inventing paper-and-pencil floor games, and was in the rotation for covering Sunday afternoons. (One day, taking my sons into the Boys Room, we encountered my predecessor, dressed in jacket and tie, working on a john that a neighborhood kid had plugged with paper towels.) Without a directorial model to follow, but with exhibit experience learned from my mentor, Bill Marshall, at two Ohio museums, I moved comfortably into the developer/designer job for our first new exhibit, What's Inside? And when the MATCh Box Project was funded, I still held on to my secondary job as codeveloper for its Grouping Birds unit. Eventually, my fuzzily defined Renaissance directorship got me into a lot of trouble in the '60s when staff grew, jobs became more specialized, and I failed to adapt to the increasing complexity of an expanding museum.

Boston, a generation late in getting its renewal underway, was a worn out and depressed city when George and I arrived. But when it finally got around to shaking off its depression in the '60s, Boston adopted the strategy of selectively recycling the handsomely rugged nineteenth century commercial buildings and warehouses, and of preserving the winding eighteenth century downtown and waterfront street layout that were also mostly still intact. And it did its redevelopment in such creative and sensitive ways that it didn't get in the way of the development of modern office, retail, housing or infrastructure that would support a city determined to finally enter the twentieth century. George and I shared the physical and economic renewal that was also part of our Boston experiences.

Finally, George's story suggests that a dominant feature of the '60s was an abundance of smart, thoughtful, and generous people, many clustered in the Boston community—artists, craftsmen, scientists, educators, and donors; educational and community organizations; laboratories and high-tech businesses; curriculum development projects. Extraordinary collaborations were spawned. Feeling their oats in ways that added to the sense of unlimited possibilities, many different people were part of the intellectual and creative mix of the Boston area.

So, begin with George's wonderful story. As one contemporary absorbing the insights of another, I think George got it just right. From my point of view the '50s were perfectly awful; on the other hand, while not without its challenges, the '60s were a breath of fresh air. This radical shift made all the difference in what each of us would try and what all of were able to accomplish.

Next: Plunging In With Enthusiasm