Story 02: Education of a Dropout

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Sidebar: Looking Back on 23 Years

Written by Mike Spock

I recall the first day I arrived at work...I didn't have the foggiest idea of what I was going to do next—probably because I had never run anything before in my life.

Even questions as fundamental as "What is a children's museum?" were a major mystery to me at that point. There were all kinds of jokes about stuffed children: after all you have art, science, and history museums so a children's museum has to be about kids (and in fact there are a few children's museums about the history of childhood). So I was really just mucking around for a long time, trying to find my way.

The Children's Museum originally started as a teacher's center in 1908 and became a museum five years later. It was created by teachers who felt that the "serious" museums in town weren't paying attention to the educational potential of museums in terms of what they could do for school teachers or parents. Their sense was quite in opposition to what was going on. They were trying to make a clear and different statement. I think that intention has been a motivating force for many children's museums, even ones that are beginning now.

By the early 1960s museums had realized that there was an educational role for them to play. At that time nobody was paying attention to The Children's Museum and nobody cared much about what we did; we had a few joyous years before everybody caught on, when we could do almost anything. Even the mistakes were welcome because something was happening and it looked like change.

Looking back on a moment in institutional history, one easily forgets all the hardships that occurred in arriving to this point today. Now it looks very neat and linear.

The business of the name—should it be called The Children's Museum or not—took us seven or eight years to figure out. When I first arrived, the museum didn't look any different than any other museum. So I spent a lot of time exploring what made it a children's museum and not just a smaller adult museum. What seems absolutely self-evident now was a real struggle back then. The breakthrough (relating to the "children's" part of the name) came when we finally understood that it is for somebody rather than about something.

Excerpted from Michael Spock: "Looking Back on 23 Years," Hand to Hand, Spring, 1988.

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