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Story 06: The Big Move

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Part I: Middle of Nowhere - Downtown Is Where the People Are

Written by Mike Spock

The museum was nearing its fiftieth birthday. My memory was that we first met in the spring (1963) to discuss a move downtown. The need seemed compelling–at least to me.

Boston is a radial city. Between Route 128 and the Central Artery, cross-connections were not straightforward. We needed to be at the hub, not partway out on one of the spokes of the city in Jamaica Plain.

In earlier years, the Boston region was a collection of villages. A spidery web of trails, rivers, roads, and eventually highways, ship and rail lines that kept goods and people on the move and left its mark on the region. Radiating in and out among farms, towns, cities, the harbor, and the world beyond, downtown is where the spokes of the wheel still come together–the hub of a regional transportation system.

In metropolitan areas that actually work, America tends to look to its downtowns as places where important common experiences happen and are shared with each other. Reminiscing fifty years later about the decision to pull up stakes and move to the waterfront, John Bok, who was chairman of the Museum Wharf Project Committee, bluntly observed in his Boston Stories interview (2006), "Downtown is where the people are. Jamaica Plain is where the people aren't."

But in Boston, a city of inward-turning neighborhoods, a welcoming museum also had to be on neutral turf where everyone could see that they had as much right to be there as anyone else.

So during the late '60s and early '70s, while the museum grew physically and programmatically, we were still marking time on the suburban edge of the city waiting for our chance, agreeing we had to move to the hub where everyone could see and feel that the museum was their museum. If we wanted to serve everyone, we needed to recognize both social and geographic realities.

But other realities were even more compelling. When I arrived at the museum in the fall of 1962, some people in the community didn't know who we were, nor did they understand much about our dreams for the future. In fact, in those early days we were only glass-cased exhibits, paper and pencil floor games, handling materials shared with visiting classes, rented school classroom exhibits, afterschool clubs, and a summer day camp. We were able to program the museum during school-year afternoons and on summer days with neighborhood kids, teachers and parents coming for ideas and resources. But the interactive exhibits that we eventually became famous for were still just ideas, not experiences. The Museum of Science was where the excitement was.

On the advice of our canny fundraising consultant, Robert J. Corcoran, we decided not to try to move the museum downtown, at least not yet. Instead, he suggested, maybe it would make sense to see what we could do with the help of a few adventurous foundations and federal agencies looking for ways to invest in some unconventional forms of learning, at least until we had achieved more examples to point to, sometime in the future.

Next: Facilities Committee Report (1965-66)