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Story 04: Where Did the Ideas Come From?

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A Hothouse of Ideas

Written by Janet Kamien

One thing that bears repeating is that good ideas are cheap. Good ideas that get done well are harder to come by, and always take more time than we think.

—Signe Hanson

...whether one believes that children are only aware of the events or situations that parents and teachers tell them about, or whether one believes that children perceive a lot more about what's going on around them than adults have specifically informed them about. If you believe the latter, as I do, you probably also know that in the absence of a way to get at real and complete information about things that are potentially scary or uncomfortable, kids will make things up. The things they make up are often more unsettling and confusing than the truth-.

—Janet Kamien


Before moving to its current Congress Street location in downtown Boston, The Children's Museum was housed in a series of buildings in the more residential Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Space and often money were in short supply and for museum staff, necessity really was the mother of invention. The father was practice. We did small, cheap exhibits at an astounding rate, reusing old materials and discovering through trial and error what seemed to work for kids and their families and what didn't. We had many mishaps and some plain boring outcomes, but these, too, were useful. Staff grew brave upon realizing that the occasional misstep did not result in personal punishment or in the demise of the institution. The speed and relative cheapness of many endeavors allowed for experimentation and the ethos of the institution supported it.

Ideas for more costly exhibits came from all over the institution, but little of it was driven by purely monetary needs. Each year, administrative staff members made trips to New York and Washington, DC, armed with "walking papers" describing the projects we were interested in funding. In other words, we looked for money to do the projects we were interested in, rather than accepting money for projects others were interested in. This does not mean we were not sometimes opportunistic or that we were rigid. It is only to say that some projects might be carried around, unfunded, for years because we were committed to them.

Such commitments often arose from the passion of a single individual. Jeri Robinson's single-minded attention to the needs of preschoolers and their caregivers eventually spawned exhibits and programs for this audience not only in our own institution, but in children's museums nationwide. Suzanne LeBlanc's nurturing of neighborhood teens (she was a secretary at the museum when she began these efforts) eventually became valued programs for at-risk kids both in Jamaica Plain and downtown on Congress Street with their own national influence.

My passion, shared by my boss, Elaine Heumann Gurian, was special education. We ran a weekly program for special education students in which we matched interpretive staff and volunteers one-to-one with students. Each week during the school year, two groups of twenty kids, whose issues could range from the mildest of learning disabilities to quite limiting physical or developmental disabilities, enjoyed the museum with their hosts for an hour. The staff learned about various special education issues, met a lot of children, and faced some of their own fears and misconceptions about disabilities. Later, the program would train Boston Public School teachers and be taken as a for-credit class at Lesley University.

Next: The Education of an Exhibit Designer