Story 09: Beyond Museum Walls

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How did the museum support its community work?

Written by Dorothy Merrill

The museum directed considerable resources towards CS. Supporting this program with its staff solely from the museum's operating budget would have been impossible, so fundraising was constant. Jim was brilliant at devising projects that would use the staff's talents, further the museum's educational agenda, and involve the community. We reinvented ourselves often, because funders were usually looking for something new. We couldn't depend on even a great current funding relationship and successful project to support itself. Here are three examples:

  1. While Bernie remained committed to teaching science courses with children, funds to underwrite his teacher training and exhibit development work came from NSF and for his publication development from AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science).
  2. We needed new kits and found three different sources (NEA, Mass. Cultural Council, and a private corporation) to support a series of seventeen kit titles created by eight of the museum's developers and four of its designers.
  3. A project funded by NEH allowed the museum to work with four regional libraries and a group of cultural consultants on ethnic family life and pastime activities.

The most interesting—and lucrative—source of funds from 1972 to 1979 was the annual Haunted House. The Children's Museum's original Jamaica Plain home, a thirteen-room Victorian mansion, was re-outfitted with themed rooms such as Star Wars, The Troll Bridge, The Upside Down Room, The Haunted Subway. This exhilarating and exhausting undertaking involved a summer of design and development by museum staff and hundreds of volunteer hours coordinated by TCM's support group, the Museum Aide. The Aide amassed donations of everything from advertising to merchandise and organized volunteers to make costumes, staff the house with characters and man the refreshment and souvenir table. In the two late October weeks it was open, the museum accommodated 1,000 visitors an hour for about 100 hours of operation. The income at $1/ person, plus t-shirt, pencils, and cider and donut sales, was about $40,000. It provided the match for the NEA grant and supported the department for the year. After the move downtown to the Wharf, the Museum Aide, which eventually evolved into the Museum Corporation, held auctions and dinner dances before establishing its highly successful association with The Big Apple Circus, fundraising partners for the next twenty-plus years.

As director of the Community Services department, Jim Zien was generous with trust and moral support. CS staff worked in a climate of intellectual and social freedom with ostensibly flexible schedules: hours of unpaid overtime made acceptable by the feeling that one could take off anytime—as soon as the work was finished. But since we defined our own work, we were rarely satisfied that it was finished. The work was exciting, however, and the energy level and enthusiasm often drew in our families.

The other directors in the museum—Mike, Phyllis O'Connell, Pat Steuert and Elaine Heumann Gurian—also supported developers and managers by delegating a wide range of decision-making to them. CS staff built their own contacts in the community. It was important for museum staff to be able to confidently and directly negotiate with "outsiders." Staff made plans directly with school principals and community center directors. Staff met with other museum professionals to propose and build cooperative projects; some worked out, some didn't. We also felt comfortable asking colleagues from any museum department for help. Every month staff received printouts of the CS project budgets and monitored their own spending. This level of expectation and trust inspired a commensurate degree of responsibility.

Next: Why did the museum ... and community resources for the move downtown?