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Sidebar: Bringing the Dead Circus Back to Life

Written by Mike Spock

What about the future? Staff and trustees are presently examining goals, surveying community needs and discussing plans for implementation. A Master Plan will be prepared for publication in the fall of 1970. But in the meantime it seems clear from the tangible accomplishments of recent years that The Children's Museum has demonstrated a capacity for innovation and change. The question for the next ten years is: Can these new ideas be applied effectively to meet those community and educational needs that cry out for attention? Specifically, what role can the Children's Museum play in solving the current problems of urban disintegration, racial tension and misused resources?

A perceptive child once recalled his visit to an Ohio museum as a "trip to that dead circus." The analogy is very much to the point in that it accurately reflects the experience of many museum vistors. Marble halls, row on row of glass cases, do-not-touch signs, wordy labels and watchful guards all too often "kill" the fascinating and informative objects in a museum's collections. But these barriers are not inherent to the museum experience. An appropriate way can be found so that each object will communicate its message directly to the visitor.

A simple pair of Eskimo snow goggles can tell us volumes about the harsh demands of the Arctic, at the relief from squinting at ice floes in the glare of a low spring sun, the craftsmanship of the Eskimo and even the shape of his face. But the goggles will not tell their story while locked away inside a case even when "explained" by a neatly typed label. Snow goggles are not to look at—they are to look through.

The Children's Museum is determined to make the most of the museum experience. In designing its programs, the Museum takes great care to find that unique set of circumstances that will being children and objects together in the most provocative and effective interaction. In everything the museum does—exhibits, informal activities, group programs, kits, even in teacher workshops—an attempt is made to bring back the sounds of the band and the crack of the lion tamer's whip, the smell of the menagerie and the taste of cotton candy; the color, motion and gaiety of real life to the "dead circus" museum world....

A Bootstrap Plan is Adopted

Soon after Michael Spock was appointed director in the fall of 1962, a group of staff and trustees met through the winter and spring of 1963 to conduct a thoroughgoing analysis of the Museum's problems. Their report suggested that the museum might have a place in the community if 1) attention was focused on bringing elementary-school-aged children and real objects together through the development of innovative materials and programs; 2) services were expanded to teachers, group leaders and parents for the greatest multiplication of effort with a limited staff; and 3) a start could be made at solving the financial problems with a combination of increased user fees and project grants.

During the next six years:

  • A proposal was written to extend the museum's successful Loan Exhibit program by developing integrated multi-media kits. Materials and Activities for Teachers and Children. The MATCh Kits Project was funded for four years (and $460,000) by the U.S. Office of Education and now will be extended through commercial manufacturing and sales by the Education Division of American Science and Engineering.
  • A second $51,000 research proposal was funded by the Office of Education to develop child-tested exhibits under the two-year Validated Museum Exhibit Project.
  • The permanent staff was increased from 17 to a full-time equivalent of 35. (Seven now have masters or doctorates while only two had graduate degrees in 1962).
  • Students from the College Work Study and Neighborhood Youth Corps programs were aggressively recruited so that 38 were employed full-time at the museum in the summer of 1969.
  • Salaries were raised and a retirement program begun under TIAA. The professional range is now $7,000 to $15,000.
  • Admission charges were initiated (supplemented by sponsorships for those unable to pay), circulating kit rates were quadrupled and income from all fees rose more than thirty-five times to $69,000.
  • Total non-capital expenditures were increased from $85,000 to $377,000.

Excerpted from "Bringing the Dead Circus Back to Life," a planning and fundraising document, May 1970

Next: Sidebar: Looking Back on 23 Years