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Written by Elaine Heumann Gurian
I joined the staff of the Boston Children's Museum on January 1, 1971, as the Director of the Visitor Center. I had just left my position as Director of Education at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) also in Boston. There, with Lennie Gottlieb, I had founded an experimental instructional supply program of industrial waste called Recycle. I was encouraged to bring it, and him, with me, and I did. Recycle remains a popular element of The Children's Museum to this day. When I arrived, my starting salary was $8,000 for two-thirds time.
I was married at the time and had three children—one ten-year-old boy who was severely handicapped, a seven-year-old boy in the second grade and a six-month-old daughter. As a family we had been enthusiastic users of the museum and I had worked on joint programs with The Children's Museum while at the ICA. I knew Mike Spock socially and I succeeded Drew Hyde, my previous ICA boss, into the job. It felt natural and a little incestuous.
The museum was housed in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, on the Jamaicaway. Jamaica Plain was a section of Boston that was full of stately Victorian homes, most of which were converted to institutional use. The old estate the museum occupied included a public assembly building that had been redesigned into small, exhibit-sized platforms by the architecture firm Cambridge Seven Associates. This was the Visitor Center. It had the feel of a loft-like climbing structure. It looked modern, open, and airy. The space felt unfamiliar but friendly to the visitor. Wandering about in it felt adventurous to small people.
The Visitor Center had seven or eight exhibit spaces, each about 500 square feet. One platform was used for changing exhibitions. It was transformed each month into a new exhibition for a cost of about $200 to $500. We reused as much as we could and painted it a new color. The other six spaces had ongoing themes (Native Americans, technology, physical science, grandmother's attic, natural science, arts and crafts.) They changed, too, but more slowly. And there were spaces in between these bigger spaces that gave us an opportunity to explore new and unrelated topics. Throughout the platforms were nooks and crannies in which one could hide or climb or just sit quietly. The overall feel of the museum was "Scandinavian Hippy." Our designers—Signe Hanson, Deenie Udell, and Andy Merriell—produced uniformly aesthetic, unexpected, charming, and accessible exhibit packages that felt inviting and exciting. The place was so small, so visually open and had so many circular layers that children could safely wander round and round exploring while their caregivers took their more adult and sedate time looking at things. It was difficult to get lost.
Our annual visitation was about 150,000 in 5,000 square feet of public space. In 1979, eight years after I arrived, we moved the museum to an old warehouse on the waterfront of South Boston; there we tripled our visitation to 450,000.
The move changed the internal dynamic of the museum. As it became bigger it also became more formal. The bulk of this chapter deals with the time (1971-1979) when we all existed in Jamaica Plain. The move to the Wharf was needed for financial growth but it was disruptive to the culture we had nurtured. The staff eventually settled down at the Wharf into a climate that felt again familiar and allowed us to regain the feelings we had had before, but not without transitional trauma that took a few years to overcome.