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Story 09: Beyond Museum Walls

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Looking Ahead

Written by Patricia A. Steuert

In 1970 the museum opened its new visitor center in Jamaica Plain. The new interactive exhibitions were so popular it became too much of a good thing. Weekends were overcrowded; there were long lines to get in. In two days all the field trips for the year were booked leaving many teachers and their students disappointed. In this small, 1,500-square-foot facility we had more than 300,000 annual visitors not including the thousands of children and teachers reached annually through the Resource Center programs.

Mike created a program committee consisting of board and staff to determine criteria for a new location and to review site plans created for several locations. Criteria included collaborating with another cultural institution to reduce costs, enough space to double attendance, a central location on "neutral turf" as Boston is a city of strong ethnic neighborhoods, adequate parking, safety, etc.

At the same time a staff committee discussed and debated themes for the major exhibitions and programs at a new location. Long range planning for the move to the Wharf provided opportunities for the three divisions—Exhibit Center, Resource Center and Support Services—to focus their program efforts into several major themes and leave behind those areas that were spreading us across too many fields. These focus areas were: Early Childhood, Native American Culture, Japanese Culture, Americana, Physical Science, Living Things, Meeting Ground (Multicultural) and What's New became the focus of all divisions.

In the Exhibit Center, What's New? became the place for experimental, risk-taking exhibitions such as What If You Couldn't? and Death and Loss. Exhibitions changed to represent the growing variety of cultures in Greater Boston: the kids' store became El Mercado and the interior of the Victorian House reflected a changing roster of inhabitants, in turn Irish, Jewish, African- American and Cambodian families.

In the Resource Center, the programming expanded in response to the multicultural demographics of our new neighbors. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities funded the purchase of library materials focused on the cultures of each of several ethnic neighborhoods in Boston. This was prior to the Internet when teachers were in need of new materials that related to the students in their classrooms. Black History Month, Chinese New Year, Three Kings Day and Native American Pow Wow celebrations provided ways to attract audiences not yet coming to the museum in large numbers.

This multicultural program area would grow over the next decade (1985-1995) under the leadership of Ken Brecher, the director who followed Mike Spock. Under the leadership of Joanne Jones Rizzi and Aylette Jenness, with guidance from an advisory board and funding from many foundations, the exhibition The Kid's Bridge was developed to create an environment in which to talk about race in Boston. The exhibition also gave kids a chance to experience, through videos, neighborhoods of their city they never visited. This exhibition traveled to the Smithsonian Institution and then to many children's museums around the country.

Throughout my thirty-plus years working at the museum, the board and staff were committed to making the museum an institution for all children and all kinds of learners. The mission was "to help children understand and enjoy the world in which they live," but it was the combination of learning and fun that sparked the imaginations of staff and visitors. Learning happened at the museum and in schools and community centers, and along the way staff recognized that some activities were even more appropriate in non-museum settings.

I remember tough years when we were spread too thin and going in too many directions. Periodic staff cuts were always traumatic. But looking back I am amazed at the rich working environment for staff that produced lasting memories for families. I am always delighted and proud when I walk into a museum in another city and see an exhibition techniques or a resource area I recognize. Like an extended network of distant cousins all emanating from the same family of origin, the majority of exhibits, programs and community collaborations operating in children's museums today can trace their roots back to The Children's Museum.

Next: Part II: Community Services Department