Story 09: Beyond Museum WallsStory | Related Media | Archives | Print | eMail | Search
Written by Mike Spock
After I arrived at the museum, but well before we had any reputation at all, I struggled with defining what the heck a children's museum was. In talks to community organizations, in presentations to foundations, in dinner conversations, I made jokes that our glass cases didn't display stuffed children, and we weren't a museum of childhood specializing in collections of games, toys, and dolls. Confusion mounted when What's Inside? opened: this didn't look anything like a museum either!
After a while, to address suspicions that the emperor was wearing no clothes, I began to say we were "organizers of provocative experiences with real objects from the real world." At least that's how we explained ourselves to each other although I suspected that this phrase didn't have much meaning for people who hadn't had any direct experience with a hands-on museum—and who had?
A parallel dilemma appeared when we were going through yet another unsuccessful iteration of an organizational chart. Nothing stuck. The departments and projects and people didn't seem to have enough glue to hold them together in a rational and functional framework. To be sure, we were founded as a science teacher center with boxed collections and exhibits loaned to schools. The later and more highly developed multimedia MATCh Kits were thought of as an elaboration of the old classroom kits still in circulation.
In the early years the museum experimented with a neighborhood outpost that brought activities to low-income kids. Several decades later, touring staff used a converted laundry truck, and '60s nomenclature ("the Earthmobile," "community outreach") to take the museum to underserved neighborhoods. Under Jim Zien's creative direction, Community Services blossomed and attracted an extraordinary team of artists, scientists and teachers who became the core of the museum's developer team and project leaders for the next forty years. You can see their spoor all through Boston Stories. Although Community Services made all kinds of sense within the museum's family, this additional focus made many of our colleagues outside of Boston but within the profession very uncomfortable. If some museum folks (like the Smithsonian Secretary Dillon Ripley) thought What's Inside? was a playground and not a museum, wasn't Community Services, and other programs like Kids At Risk, making the museum into a social service agency rather than a true museum? Where were the boundaries? What about the primacy of the collection? Would the museum be able to say "no" to other socially relevant pressures? With the publication of the American Association of Museums' 1992 landmark report Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums, the field finally had to acknowledge that they had a social obligation to their communities.
The final definitional breakthrough came when, after some years of mulling over what a children's museum might be, it finally came to me that the answer was in our name: in contrast to art and history and science museums, which were about something, children's museums were for somebody. In that sense we were a client-centered organization. We were for children and their parents, teachers, and other caregivers. If we were for low-income kids on short leashes bound to their tough surroundings (research was showing that younger kids were pretty much limited to a five-block radius) then we had to get into their neighborhoods and bring staff and stuff to the places where they actually lived their lives. If kids spent a huge amount of their childhood in school, and if we were for those kids and their teachers, we had to figure out ways to bring ideas, activities, and stuff into their classrooms. If preschoolers were in the care of parents, grandparents, babysitters and if we were for those preschoolers and their caregivers, we had figure out ways to support them in their homes, in daycare, and on playgrounds. If older kids were sent "home" when school let out in the afternoons and during the long summers, and if we were for those kids and recreation workers (another term of the times) at community centers, libraries, or Boys & Girls Clubs, then we had to think of ways to absorb those hours with activities beyond basketball and checkers or just hanging out.
The breakthrough was more than definitional—it focused all of our work. The organizational structure now worked because each client of the museum had its home base, function or mission: the Visitor Center, Community Services, the Resource Center, Support Services. Each had its clients, its subculture, its flavor. Each had its own mission. Each had its sources of at least some income. And with tweaking it lasted for a long time because it really worked. The organization chart, up until then always in flux, seemed finally to become anchored. It fit. All of us could explain what we were up to in simple, direct ways.