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Story 04: Where Did the Ideas Come From?

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How Did We Get Away with It?

Written by Janet Kamien

As I look back on all this, the first thing that comes to mind is the unlikelihood that either of these two exhibits on sensitive topics could ever have happened at all. What kind organization takes these kinds of chances, on individuals and their passions, on topics, on the pronouncements of funders and of members of their own boards? What was it about this time and place that seemed to make it possible to take these kinds of risk?

Certainly the notion that the child visitor was at the center of our endeavors was a part of it. When we believed there was material that children wanted to know about, rather than just ought to know about, we got stubborn. When we believed that there was a group of children who needed something from us—little kids, troubled teens, kids who had a disability—we got committed. We worked to overcome our own internal issues (preschoolers need diapers and places to have snacks, teens at-risk sometimes lift a few dollars from your wallet, wheelchair users need ramps and accessible spaces) and we worked to convince others.

Certainly the notion that we were all learning together played a role. Learners make mistakes and those mistakes deserve forgiveness, not a rap on the knuckles with a ruler. Mistakes could be useful tools that sometimes revealed things that the "right way" would have overlooked. We were also instinctively aware that people (including us) learned in different ways, long before Howard Gardener's eloquent definitions of "learning styles" was published. We were generally optimistic, generous and forgiving, believing that all the learning boats would rise with the tide—ours, our visitors', even the community's—if we stuck together and did our level best.

Certainly the times supported us. We were still at a period in the nation's cyclical educational history in which the kind of experimentation we were doing was acceptable and even encouraged in pedagogic circles. Open education theories suggested that the learner, rather than the teacher, could be the leader in the exchange. That children and adults might "make their own meaning," as the contemporary phrase now has it, was something we observed everyday and tried to make the most of.

And surely the fact that we were willing to try almost anything we thought kids would like was a part of it. For much of this period we were people who didn't know what couldn't be done, or wasn't "supposed" to be done, so we went ahead with all kinds of things that more sophisticated professionals would probably have been aghast at. In the Visitor Center we even re-designed aspects of our job descriptions every year: "Anybody want to do special events? I'll trade you for vacation week programs."

But, I continue to come back to the notion of the recognition and support of personal passion. I think this came directly from Mike and Elaine and set the stage for individuals like myself to commit to ideas and take chances. It was as though, when you put us all together, we made not a family, but another living entity entirely. And that this entity had a whole life cycle of growing up and screwing up, getting educated, learning from its experiences and finally expressing itself in all kinds of ways.

Next: Making Exhibits at the Children’s Museum