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Story 04: Where Did the Ideas Come From?

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Sidebar: Funding Difficult Exhibit Topics

Written by Anne Butterfield

Kaki Aldrich, the museum's natural history developer, and I were walking along the edge of the canal in Georgetown on a warm Sunday morning in the late 1970s when she told me she wanted to do an exhibition on death and dying. We had been on one of our trips to Washington, DC to talk with program officers at various agencies, and had stayed over a Saturday night in order to save money on the air tickets.

I was shocked. I knew Kaki had battled cancer, and it appeared to be in remission. I admired Kaki as a person and as deeply knowledgeable and devoted naturalist. I had even come to accept the idea that in pursuit of this knowledge, she gathered road kill and boiled them down to the bones in her small summer house in Harvard, Massachusetts (where, ironically, I now live). She did this to let children explore skeletal structures. But the idea of presenting death to children was at best amazing.

Kaki and I talked about it from time to time. We had dinner together on occasion. I become sorta-kinda-somewhat comfortable with her idea.

After Kaki died of a recurrence of cancer in the early 1980s, many of us at the museum became more and more committed to making her exhibit idea a reality. Janet Kamien took the lead with full support all around. Meetings were held, focus groups conducted, ideas flowed.

Finally, there was a framework and it was up to me to find funding. And that's where the first indication came that this was a bombshell—good or bad.

A preliminary proposal was sent to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), an agency that had funded the museum before, sometimes on slightly daring projects. We had a good track record and long-standing personal relationships with several program officers and other staff.

The response was shocking. Our cordial program officer called to tell me just how inappropriate this exhibit was for a children's museum. She wanted to talk about how we could fix the proposal by shifting it to funeral traditions such as the use of Victorian hair wreaths. In other words, make it one—or maybe two—steps removed from the reality of death.

As the conversation continued, she began to talk about a particularly painful death in her family, and soon began to cry—and she was no sissy. She was a wonderful and skilled program officer. She had identified so many of the issues the exhibition was going to address for children and families—and she categorically stated that, as is, the proposal would fail. It was my first insight of what was to come.

The proposal was shared with other people in the children's museum world. The responses had an enormous impact on me. Friends and colleagues called. I listened to sad stories: automobile accidents, orphans, loss of parental support, and so on. Those who called were of one of two minds—do it or don't do it. There was no middle ground. The stories were heartbreaking and each one brought up my own recent losses, especially the painful loss of my own steadfast father.

We decided that this topic was touchy enough that we should send it to the board of trustees. It was summer and they were scattered throughout the globe. At the time, the board and the administration enjoyed a wonderful and productive working relationship. It was rare that the board tried to intervene in any program, exhibition or activities. They were extraordinarily smart and supportive.

I emailed or mailed copies of the proposal to the board members at their various summer or traveling business locations. The response was astounding! I got calls at home at midnight, at five in the morning, at all hours of the day and night. A beautifully scripted and written letter arrived express from Hong Kong.

Like those of the NEH program officer and the colleagues with whom I'd shared the proposal draft, every single communication had an emphatic opinion based in personal experience. Every phone call, letter, and personal visit was about their most important experience with death. I was awed, respectful and cried a lot.

The "for" and "against" troops formed, but given the nature of The Children's Museum at the time, it was nothing like a Congressional deadlock. As a tribute to the board and an indicator of the relationship between the board and the senior staff, the go-ahead was given.

We realized through all this that the exhibit was hugely important. The very fact that we were getting such vehement feedback from all quarters told me that dealing with death with our children (and maybe ourselves) was far closer to the surface than most of us want to acknowledge. Our fears often defeat our questions and through this exhibit conversations about things we are afraid of might at least be acknowledged. Death and dying might become a topic of open conversation.

Fundraising went forward. Well, it tried to go forward. NEH still wasn't buying it, and neither were individuals or other institutional givers. We spent inordinate amounts of time trying to fund it. Finally, the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities made a small (large for them) grant of $25,000 toward the exhibition.

They were the only risk-takers.

Endings opened on June 28, 1985, the eighth anniversary of my father's death and it was the most brilliant exhibition I've ever seen. It faced the fears and met the needs of visitors, me included. I kept thinking of how much my father would have loved it.

I cried, but with happiness. Joan Diver, a smart and devoted trustee, left the exhibition with me, reassuring me that the exhibition and my reaction to it were blessings.

Endings opened to more fanfare than was expected—both good and bad, as had been its trajectory all along. Janet Kamien's chapter story reveals the breadth of acceptance and threat. I left shortly after the opening for a professional development program in California, and despite experience trying to raise money for the exhibit, I, naively, had no idea what would happen in the media. The firestorm of press astounded us, yet despite all their efforts to find fault with the "experts," they couldn't. The museum had, once again, found a core issue and addressed it honestly and thoughtfully for parents and children alike.

But the exhibit continued to trigger challenging incidents. The most heartbreaking was a call from a young mother who had a six-year-old and a four-year-old who was dying of cancer. Was this exhibition something she should bring her children to see? Since her husband worked during the day, and she had no day care, we figured out a way that a neighbor would come with her so that the caller could preview the exhibition and make a decision. "Practicing without a license" kept running though my head, but how could we turn away from facilitating this mother's effort to face—and help her children face—such tragedy?

Then, a trustee called to see if her daughter's nursing class could tour the exhibit. The impact of the exhibit was multiplying.

Endings was one of the most important exhibits the museum ever did. It is sad that the fundraising garnered so little support and that the exhibition didn't travel due to circumstances beyond the museum's control. We had learned that families everywhere were actually hungry for a way to approach this difficult topic. But it opened a door and taught me and others the importance of continuing to explore the issues that are an inescapable part of families' lives.

Next: Sidebar: Endings Visitors Reveal Thoughts about the Exhibit and about Death