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Written by Dottie Merrill and Pat Steuert
Dottie Merrill & Pat Steuert Look Back
The question always comes up: Why did the Japanese culture become such a focal point of cultural learning at The Children's Museum? The answer: opportunity sparked development, and development led to complexity and controversy.
The 1927 gift of the Miss Kyoto Friendship Doll evolved into a museum exhibition in the late 1960s with extensive programming for a range of audiences, from school children to diplomats. For most of the 1970s, every third grade class in Boston visited the museum and learned about the Japanese House. But, in the process of building extraordinary programmatic depth, staff began to face deeper questions about cultural programming in general from both internal and external sources.
In the museum's earliest days, occasional exhibits or programs about the typically popular-among-children cultures—Eskimo, Egyptian, and Zuni Indian—were on the roster. In the mid 1960s, increased programming about Japan was initially favored because the museum wanted to help children learn about a foreign culture, but one that was up-to-date and technologically advanced. Other cultural exhibits at that time were the Grandmother's Attic, a look back to Victorian times, and Native American Culture, also a primarily historic look at Indian tribes of days gone by. These choices were made based on the plethora of artifacts, resources, and contacts the museum already had in these areas, as well as an intention to counteract stereotypes often portrayed about Native Americans and Asians.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Jamaica Plain, where the museum was located, was changing demographically as were the Boston Public Schools. Like many institutions at the time, The Children's Museum was looking at its audience to see if it fully reflected the city in which it lived. The Boston Public School audience that visited on school field trips was diverse, but otherwise, museum visitors were primarily white from the surrounding towns of Brookline, Newton, and Cambridge. Very few families visited from the Black and Latino neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, the South End, and East Boston.
The museum's Community Services Department sent staff into many neighborhoods to familiarize local residents with the museum and its programs—and to familiarize museum staff with the people in the neighborhoods. In 1974, in preparation for the move to the Wharf, a team of staff and advisors, led by Resource Center Director Jim Zien, developed an Ethnic Discovery curriculum to enable staff from community centers and public schools to get to know more about the nature of ethnicity so that they could better understand the kids in their rapidly diversifying classrooms. The project team included people from Jewish, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Wampanoag, Southern Black, Italian, Jamaican, Yankee, and Texan backgrounds. Other museum staff gave the curriculum a tryout in after-work sessions. People from all of the museum's divisions learned more about themselves and each other in preparation for work in an increasingly diverse urban environment.
Multicultural developer Nancy Sato presented the six-session Ethnic Discovery curriculum to teachers. (See the Chapter 8 Archive for Ethnic Discovery activities.) In another multicultural project, Judy Battat, Dottie Merrill, and Sing Hanson, in collaboration with four Greater Boston libraries, gathered resources for teachers and visitors to learn more about Irish, Puerto Rican, Chinese, and Native American cultures. The exhibit cases, drawers, and shelving of these library "studies" became the structures and part of the content for the Wharf's new Resource Center. Throughout the late '70s, professional seminars helped equip teachers to work effectively with the children in their classrooms from many different cultures. Some of the materials developed in these projects are still being used by teachers and museum staff many decades later.
Meanwhile, one of the criteria for selection of the new museum site was that it be "neutral turf," accessible and inviting to all families in Boston, a city of well defined and often insular neighborhoods. The Wharf building is technically in South Boston but close enough to downtown that it can be easily reached via public transportation from neighborhoods all around the city. In preparation for the move, the exhibition Meeting Ground, developed by Judy Battat and Sylvia Sawin, was designed to welcome and present Boston's many different ethnic communities through the crafts and stories of the people who lived there. Meeting Ground first opened in Jamaica Plain in 1977, and then joined the primary cultural exhibition areas Northeast Native American and the Japanese House when the Wharf museum opened in 1979. Eventually, the Meeting Ground exhibition grew into a more formal Multicultural Program Area.
Not all staff agreed with the idea of a Multicultural Program Area. Some thought that teaching about Japanese and Native American culture was enough. On the other hand, some families thought that their representation in the museum was not strong enough. "Where can I show my children their culture?," parents would ask.
While some staff longed to do more extensive exhibits about African American, Latino, and Chinese cultures, this was not easy because it required considerable funding to provide expertise—particularly, someone to work with a community to define its message—resource materials, and depth in the collection. And, there was always the problem of space and balance among other program areas that now included science, early learning, and a host of other competing content areas.
Toward end of the 1980s, interested staff were still struggling to get funding and visibility for multicultural programs and exhibits and for ethnic representations other than Japanese and Native American, which remained strong and compelling museum components.