Story 02: Education of a Dropout

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Dayton: Getting a Grip

Written by Mike Spock

The third turning point of these uneven years was my initiation into the professional museum world. The Dayton Museum of Natural History was a sidebar department of the public library. It had grown into museumhood through the almost haphazard accretion of attic-donated odds and ends. By the mid '50s the museum, housed across from the main library in an old pump factory, had begun to look and feel like the real thing. Among the organized clutter there was a light bulb filled with murky water (a remnant of the Dayton flood of 1913, a rocker reputed to belong to Abraham Lincoln "authenticated" by a tintype of the president sitting in what looked very much like the chair, a tired Egyptian mummy that was a compelling landmark for spooked-out kids, and a small indoor zoo of "rescued" animals. But the Dayton museum also had a significant and growing collections of natural specimens and ethnographic artifacts, and two floors of exhibits put together by WPA artists during the Depression.

Of course I didn't know at the time that she would become my wife and professional colleague, but I had followed Judy Wood as a junior-level all-purpose museum assistant on an Antioch job period. My first museum job! She, and then I, had covered the front desk, directed school groups and other odd jobs, but there was so much left for the tiny staff to do that we were able to insinuate ourselves into a variety of projects. Our storm-browed director, E.J. Koestner, in spite of his intimidating looks, had the happy gift of giving everyone who showed up at the door—weekend volunteers, high school students, Antioch Co-ops—a chance to contribute and learn. For all of us there were animals to feed (and clean up after,) collections to catalog, mailings to get out, afterschool clubs to run, a museum store to staff, walls to paint. Each of us responded to Koestner's trust and grew to meet his expectations. Most intriguing to Judy and me was the possibility of new exhibits to build.

Koestner had ambitious plans for an independent and newly housed museum. As before, he enlisted all of us in creating his new museum. I found myself working with the famous architect, Richard Neutra, on plans for the building, and with Bill Marshall, head of exhibits at the Ohio State Museum. We cooked up a complementary approach to the content and layout for the visitor experience. Bill and I designing, scripting and crafting the exhibits. Working into the night, we heard the recorded phone line locating where the brand new Sputnik could be found among the stars and answered persistent calls to settle arguments about the gestation period of elephants. Our crew included Judy helping with illustrations and murals and a gifted alcoholic finish carpenter who showed up when he was dry to build exhibit walls and cases. By that time I was working as an independent contractor under Bill's supervision. Unlike my earlier and somewhat formal relationship with my swimming coach, Bill Marshall and I became close friends as he served as our leader and my next teacher. And of course there was E.J. Koestner whose permissive approach encouraged our independence and growth, and for me a new idea of the possible. In several years we worked our way through about two-thirds of the master plan and my museum career was launched—irrevocably.

Judy and I were married and moved into a spacious loft above a row of storefronts that was a dead-on replica of Edward Hopper's Sunday Morning, save for the traffic signal that bathed our living room—changing every few seconds—with red, green and yellow light. When I finally managed to assemble the bits and pieces adding up to a degree, Judy lifted up our three-month-old Danny at the back of the crowd to "see Daddy graduate."

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