Story 09: Beyond Museum Walls

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What did community organizations want from the museum?

Written by Dorothy Merrill

In addition to the neighborhood houses and community centers served by the Earthmobile, the museum established new alliances with family services agencies, libraries, daycare centers, Boys & Girls Clubs, and YMCA and YWCA. CS staff found community centers whose goals were compatible with the museum's educational goals, and the museum worked with many of them for decades. We also bonded with industrious, imaginative individuals who led us to new organizations whenever they changed jobs.

For our long term alliances, such as the twenty-five-plus-year relationship with the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood House or the Hawthorne Community Youth Center, the museum staff's commitment to the community centers' staff was very important. The mutual benefits gained from working together were enormous. Grants that supported the museum's community work allowed us to bring materials and programs to the centers and sometimes even to support their staff salaries. At the same time, the centers steered us in the right direction in the creation of those grants and brought on-the-ground reality to our ideas as we developed and carried them out.

While working with center directors and program leaders as colleagues we made the most of our different strengths and expertise; we could identify what the museum could provide that was most meaningful to the collaborations. We learned that even though we wanted kids to be able to pursue topics in-depth, big construction projects that lasted over several sessions resulting in the creation of something large, like a giant dowel house, were difficult to do in centers that shared their space or had little storage. Sustained investigations in science were difficult where children came and went at all hours of the afternoon. And workshops that taught about cultures had to be repeated every year as new staff came to centers. We came to understand how well community leaders knew their children's needs for recreation, socializing, comfort and just chilling. And, however enthusiastically delivered and received, our educational and skill-building activities were just one part of their overall childcare program.

In the 1970s, learning through reading dominated most classrooms. There was little opportunity for art or music, let alone crafts, carpentry, cooking, gardening, sewing and just plain messing about. Some kids were taught these skills at home, but especially for many kids with working parents, daycare programs and various boys' and girls' clubs picked up the task. In addition to children's academic viability, we were concerned with building their self-esteem and their confidence, and developing both common skills and cultural pride.

We evolved a schedule of activities that proved effective for starting and sustaining collaborations.

  • An evening drop-in workshop medley of science, culture and crafts activities for program leaders;
  • Science courses for elementary aged kids that met weekly in several neighborhood houses and covered topics such as bubbles, wheels, batteries and light bulbs;
  • A weekly course for the mothers of babies that taught how to make simple toys and games that encouraged the development of language skills;
  • Weekly music activities in a preschool;
  • A course in child development for Boston's high school kids;
  • A weekly crafts course for kids and staff training in an afterschool.

Next: And what could the museum offer?