Story 07: Managing the Organization

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Social Service

Written by Elaine Heumann Gurian

Our activities combined regular museum programs with those generally found in social service organizations. Since we concentrated on providing useful service to our client base—children and their caregivers, with special emphasis on underserved audiences—when we observed a need we could fill, we did not stop to contemplate its applicability to museum standards. For example, before I came, staff had noticed that there were very few opportunities for young adolescents who were acting out to do socially valued work. Local kids would sometimes sneak into the museum. We found that if we caught them and put them to work, they would return day after day. So we created a junior staffing program that included "kids at risk" who worked in our institution. We hired a psychiatrist who came once a week to help our own staff manage the adolescents who worked for us.

We created a special visitation program for individuals with handicaps. We focused on the most compromised sector, which included citizens who rarely visited anywhere. We closed the Visitor Center one morning a week to all but thirty of these citizens and staffed it with one-on-one helpers who included local college kids majoring in special education. After each of these sessions, we held a one-hour supervisory meeting for all the helpers. Additionally we taught all floor staff the rudimentary fundamentals of American Sign Language. And we created an advisory committee of advocates in the community of people with disabilities to help us make our new building accessible.

At the same time, having noticed that the Visitor Center was becoming an indoor playground for toddlers, Jeri Robinson created the remarkable preschool Playspace, which resulted in additional programs, i.e., working with single parents, teen parents and creating similar play spaces in detention centers. Copies began to spring up all over—in airports, train stations and other museums. They filled an important and growing need.

We chose exhibit topics that intentionally helped create dialogue between generations on subjects considered taboo for the young child. We presented exhibitions on death, handicapping conditions, homeless abandoned children, and atypical families (which included homosexual parents).

The Children's Museum's senior staff almost never debated whether these programs were appropriate. It was only when outside museum professionals spoke about appropriate or inappropriate boundaries that we understood that many museum professionals deemed some of our work to be the responsibility of other, unrelated systems. We discovered we had more in common with the community museum movement then we did with object-centered museums. Since we were not too interested in thinking about ourselves exclusively as a museum, none of these boundary conversations ever mattered very much to us.

Though The Children's Museums was an old institution that started in 1913 and preserved and sometimes displayed collections of value, most of the staff hired under Mike Spock's directorship had never worked in a museum before and were basically uninterested in having traditional museum practice guide our work. We remained generally unconcerned about our professional reputation within the museum community. We had all we could do with day-to-day operations and planning new work.

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