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Story 06: The Big Move

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Visitor Center (1968–79): A Holding Action

Written by Mike Spock

In those prehistoric times, even a half million dollars was not a trivial amount to come by, especially for something that would have a useful life of only five to ten years. Having taken on the obvious and almost no-cost fixes, our old suburban mansion was beginning to limit our vision of creating truly interactive learning experiences. So even though we had no funds in hand—cautious members of the board thought we better have all of the cash before we took the plunge—a tentative decision was made to get started with an architect. We chose Cambridge Seven Associates (C7A) to begin figuring out how we could make the Visitor Center happen.

C7A’s Paul Dietrich and his colleague Andy Bartholomew, who became the project job captain, understood both the depth of our ambitions and the realities of our financial limitations. Accommodating both ends of this spectrum, they came up with a plan.

The Visitor Center was to be:

  • simple (they suggested we leave the sloping floor in the seating area as is, choose a bolted-together post and beam structure to support floating multi-level platforms, and open up the fussy ceiling to reveal the gutsy roof trusses spanning the old seating area);
  • cheap (they specified off-the-rack dimension lumber, painted plywood floors, hog wire fencing, and patched drywall);
  • understandable to kids (all the parts came together like an Erector Set where everyone could see how everything was held together); and
  • transparent to grownups (they could see where their kids were and watch them from across the central well of the old sloping seating area.)
Old features of the auditorium were to be used creatively.

  • The stage was converted into a small amphitheater, The Sitaround.
  • A dormered caretaker’s apartment and old projection booth became Grandmother’s Attic.
  • Two performers dressing rooms in the basement were combined to welcome a demonstration Japanese Tea House rescued from a karate studio when the city seemed to forget it had been a formal gift from Kyoto, Boston’s sister city,
  • Unexcavated space was to become a high-tech Climate Chamber.
  • And, we used most of the existing arcade, entrance, and restrooms pretty much as is.
Opening in the fall of 1968, the renovated auditorium ended up with about 7,000 square feet of public space. The Visitor Center, with all its new exhibits, was an immediate hit. Attendance soared. On rainy family days there was up to an hour’s wait just to get in the door.

However, when the capital fundraising didn’t bring in enough to cover the modest construction and exhibits costs, we had to borrow from our tiny endowment. We tried to comfort ourselves and our board by claiming the Visitor Center, with its vigorous growth in attendance, was an “investment” in our capacity to increase earned income and serve a broader public. The Climate Chamber and Exhibit Garden would have to wait for a future phase.

Over its eleven-year lifespan, the Visitor Center, an experimental laboratory, taught us many things about what a future downtown museum needed and could be. And in the meantime, we could point to the deeply engaged family and school and camp groups to illustrate an entirely new sort of museum learning experience.

Next: Part 2: Downtown - Trolling for Sites