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Story 02: Education of a Dropout

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Sidebar: Opening the Visitor Center

Written by Mike Spock

Cambridge Seven Associates was hired to plan a sensible, cheap renovation. They succeeded wonderfully while we went about designing and building the exhibits.

Elma Lewis and S. Dillon Ripley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, were invited to officiate at the dedication. Ripley arrived in a foul mood. He had wanted to cancel, but I had insisted that everyone was counting on him. He had had to hire a small plane to get him from his Connecticut farm to Boston and it had been a very rough flight. I toured him through the center just before the opening and he looked flabbergasted.

The Visitor Center did take some getting used to. At the opening kids exploded through the doors and soon took possession of every square foot of every exhibit. It was joyous. It was noisy. It was frenetic.

It was shocking. Parents were baffled. Staff looked stunned. What had we created?

After the opening the explosive entry was repeated at the beginning of each day, at the arrival of each school group. Kids were certainly having fun, but were they learning anything? It took a few weeks to get the answer. It appeared in two ways. If you listened to the throb of the mob, after about 15 to 20 minutes the place settled into a steady hum. After a while the crescendo built and once again subsided. What was going on?

We began to track individual kids. The child's entry stimulates an intense period of exploration. With the space under the child's belt we saw kids mentally marking exhibits for a return, deeper visit. You saw kids settle in for serious, deep work: several minutes to much longer intervals until each child was ready to move on to the next experience.

The noisy running around occupied the foreground of our perceptions. The quieter, more focused behavior was less obvious and but more reassuring. An individual child's experience was made up of alternating spells of active exploration between episodes of intensive thought and experimentation. The sine waves of alternating roar and calm were the artifact of the open pulse when everyone was in exploratory mode and no one was about to settle down for real work. As the day went on more visitors arrived, each individual wave began to cancel each other out and the average hum made up of both exploratory and deep work going on simultaneously created the normal hum, although new staff, parents and teachers had to be trained to look beyond the demanding foreground to see the more impressive learning going on in the quiet intervals each child's visit. But in the open architecture of the Visitor Center, none of this was obvious. We had to learn what was going on by more careful and systematic observation.

I learned several years later at an AAM reception at the Met, when Dillon Ripley had more than a few drinks and was feeling no pain, that he thought The Children's Museum was "Crap, just crap!" The genius who brought so many fresh innovations to the old Smithonian just didn't get it.

Next: Sidebar: Parallels