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Written by Elaine Heumann Gurian
As the '70s melded into the '80s, we became more and more well known. First Ladies of foreign countries often arrived. Some staff members began to spend quite a bit of time helping train staff in other institutions that wanted to emulate our work. There were more than a 100 new children's museums started during this decade both in the United States and abroad. These were mostly combined copies of the Exploratorium and us.
After being an object of study within the museum community for many years, we began to strategically use our notoriety to our own advantage. Mike and I intentionally became more prominent in museum associations because we felt it enhanced the museum's reputation; others joined us as elected officials. We made the case that The Children's Museum had become a national and international standard-bearer and change agent. Our proposals stated that we deserved to be funded not only because of the work we did but because it would change the way others did their work as well. Being nationally and internationally known made fundraising easier from federal and foundation sources. Our own hometown of Boston began to take us more seriously. Our press clipping allowed us entrée to folks we hadn't been able to approach before.
Yet the "fame" didn't change our way of thinking. We didn't become more cautious nor did we become calculatedly experimental. We had been together for such a long time (there was very little staff turnover) that we continued to work with our internal systems. We understood that what we had done in the past had created our reputation and we should continue on our way.
Despite this understanding of fame in the outside world, I believe that it was our general lack of self-consciousness internally that remained an essential ingredient in our work. On the other hand, when the museum moved to the Wharf in 1979, we did become self-conscious and it took many years to feel comfortable with ourselves again.
When I left The Children's Museum in 1987 to work in other more "prestigious" museums, I found it was their conscious concern for their reputation that often got in their way. At other museums, the phrase "It doesn't feel like us" meant the activity in question might jeopardize their standing in society, whereas at The Children's Museum that phrase meant it was in violation of our internalized values.