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The World Around Us
Written by Elaine Heumann Gurian
The 1960s gave rise to the commune, flower children, recreational drug use, civil rights, anti-nuclear activism, and sexual freedom. At The Children's Museum, we were almost universally against the Vietnam War and for nuclear disarmament. We were interested in the open school philosophy practiced in such places as Summerhill and the Parkway Project but most of us sent our children to somewhat more traditional schools. Amazingly, while we were living during the new drug age—and most of us smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol in public—whatever personal drug use was going on was not part of our shared internal culture.
While the institution we served had its own form of bureaucracy, we would have told anyone that we were philosophically anti-hierarchical and anti-establishment. Outsiders considered The Children's Museum to be on the counter-culture fringe of Boston's cultural establishments.
Of all the many philosophical ideologies that were current at the time, we chose to embed the ethos of the equitable commune within our institutional culture. We operated according to the norms common to a large family or an operating community of self-selected companions. The staff believed that each had responsibility for the whole group and for the well-being of every individual in it, whether we liked the person or not. Catastrophic illness or accident affecting one staff member was the concern of the whole. Some pitched in to help at work and some helped out at home. Others filled in behind them. One was granted time off without penalty for helping someone else in an emergency. Interestingly, I can't remember anyone ever abusing this.
The welfare of the family unit was embedded in the workday. Supervisors allowed staff to take leave to attend their children's "third-grade violin concerts" without affecting official vacation time providing that they got coverage and made plans in advance. Parents could bring children to work if they were sick or on school vacation. Babies could have a crib in the office if they were not overly disruptive. During vacation weeks when we all had to work, we would pay to have babysitters supervise our collective children in the museum and we prepared our meeting rooms for them to play in. Mothers occasionally nursed their babies at meetings without raising any comment.
There was an intentional blurring of work and personal life and both were the concern of the whole without being "too nosey." We found it natural to have friendships and, infrequently, romances with our work-mates. It was totally acceptable to socialize with each other outside of the work place. We had a pro-nepotism policy of hiring married and unmarried partners, siblings, and children who were learning the trades of their parents.
This ethos did not reduce the quality of the work. We believed that it enhanced it. Everyone expected work to be of a high quality and to be delivered on time and on budget. It most often was. Methods of supervision, appraisal, and evaluation were created that seemed thorough and fair. While we had a personnel policy that made it impossible for a related family member to supervise another, we thought we were like circus families where it was natural to grow up within the organization.