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Story 10: Cultural Learning - Two Models

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Collections of Objects or Hands-on Space?

Written by Leslie Bedford

In retrospect, the arrival of the house also signaled a new self-definition for the museum. Unlike most in our field, The Children's Museum, like its siblings in Brooklyn and Indianapolis, has a major permanent collection dating back to its founding. In the Spock era, and in contrast to most adult museums of the time, these objects served to illustrate ideas: The Children's Museum was about the people, not "the stuff." While not accessioned into the collection (although many of its unique furnishings were) Kyo no machiya is as much artifact as exhibition space and thus very different from, for instance, Playspace or even Grandparent's House or the wigwam. It is completely the "real thing," an authentic example of an increasingly rare and to us unfamiliar type of architecture. As such, its presence raised serious questions. How did we reconcile the goals and hands-on methods of experiential learning with this rare, beautiful and fragile new artifact? And secondly, were we in the business of teaching about contemporary Japan or providing a glimpse into a lifestyle that was, like the Kyo no machiya, fast disappearing? Both questions spoke to the core mission and educational philosophy of the museum, and during my time there neither was ever satisfactorily answered, as perhaps they cannot and should not be.

Among the Japan Program staff, answers evolved with experience over time. Records from 1979 and 1980 show staff essentially trying to protect the house from the visitor: the first set of rules evoked the traditional museum's mandate of "no touching." Internal memos detailed the correct way to remove shoes or how to avoid harming the shoji. Interpreters were trained to give classic docent-style tours. I witnessed one when I came to interview in 1981 and followed two well-meaning but stunningly under-informed young guides as they led visitors by the nose from room to room. I had after all worked at Jamaica Plain in l976, ladling out bowls of rice in the original Japanese House and wondered, "What was this nonsense?" One of my first acts as program director was to ban the tours.

But this decision created more problems. Providing culturally correct maintenance was a challenge. Tatami became worn with use and had to be recovered or at one point replaced entirely with materials shipped from Japan. Shoji tore all the time and if left unfixed simply invited more damage. Periodically—and especially before the new year—all of them were completely repapered. The garden needed tending: plants died, gravel was tossed around, and water leaked into the floor below. Children would climb onto the toilet and break it. Zabuton cushions and futon covers needed to be replaced. All this was time-consuming and very expensive. The museum created a new, part-time staff position, Keeper of the Japanese House, and wearily approved periodic maintenance budgets.

Next: Interpretation: by Whom and for Whom?