Story 02: Education of a Dropout

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What's Going on Here?

Written by Mike Spock

I have only a blurred memory of how I got through the rest of my inaugural weeks, but gradually ideas developed and became plans and plans eventually became tangible things to do and use. We had to let Boston know we were still here and on the move. At first it went slowly, tentatively, but when we eventually looked up from work I realized that things were beginning to look very different at the old Children's Museum. Kids loved it. Grownups were a little shocked and baffled. What was going on here? It looked wonderfully playful but was real learning going on? Parents and teachers and staff didn't know exactly what to call it or how to describe it but a thoughtful observer could see that children were deeply engaged and that something significant was going on. At that time there were no obvious models to point to. It didn't look much like a "real" museum but nevertheless it offered iconic experiences with real objects. And if it certainly didn't look like a school you had to concede there was important and lasting learning going on. In some ways a new category of educational organization was being created before our eyes; not so much by grand design as by our watching kids and seeing what they were doing and enjoying, or by playing with ideas that we thought up ourselves, or by expropriating other's promising inventions we found lying about, or by exploiting vivid memories of our own childhoods that seemed to suggest exhibits and programs we could develop.

With only a little encouragement and sometimes with no obvious qualifications, a collection of inspired doers and thinkers showed up and got to work. Things took shape and either failed or made it from a combination of inspiration and trial and error. We kept their leashes long. They were encouraged to take chances and make things happen. Criticism was allowed. Proposals were written and grants were brought in. Nifty exhibits were created and educational materials tested and produced. Teachers and parents were trained and mentored. Collections were rationalized and documented. A little-used auditorium was eventually transformed into a open, multilevel visitor/exhibit facility. The old fashion glass-enclosed natural history and cultural exhibits were retired, and the mansion converted into a teacher resources center and offices for the burgeoning staff. During seven years, with the new Visitor Center in place, attendance more than doubled and the staff grew from seventeen to thirty-five. We got a lot of national attention and some significant government and foundation grants that were highly unusual in those times. Out-of-state visitors with gleams in their eyes began to show up at our doorstep with dreams of creating similar experiences in their own communities. From the outside, The Children's Museum looked like a success: the model of a progressive and thriving educational organization. But it was not.

Next: Sidebar: Hanging Out in New York Museums