Story 09: Beyond Museum Walls

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Beyond Museum Walls, A Tale of Two Departments: Teacher Services and Community Services

Written by Dorothy Merrill and Patricia A. Steuert

My relationship with the museum goes back a few decades. As a young teacher in the '70s, I spent many Saturday afternoons doing research in the Resource Center and getting fantastic ideas for teaching science (bubbles, plants, optics) to my four- and five-year-olds. Some of the most innovative and creative curricula came from the Resource Center, which was the only place I knew of at the time to find multicultural children's literature and resource materials....over the years, as the curriculum focus changed in the classroom, the museum adapted to meet the needs of teachers, students, and instructional mandates. It has always led the way in innovative exhibits and programs. No other cultural institution in Boston has provided such rich educational opportunities for young children, their parents and teachers. It continues to grow better all the time...

—Amy Rugel, retired Boston Public Schools kindergarten teacher, in a letter to The Children's Museum

One of the most often-asked questions by other museum professionals of The Children's Museum staff was "why don't you have an education department?" The simple answer was that the whole institution was focused on education; it was part of every department. But, that doesn't exactly clarify how the museum was organized to carry out its educational functions and how this process later evolved with the move to the Wharf.

Most museums had a curatorial department, an education department and an administrative department. In the '70s The Children's Museum was organized into several departments: Visitor Center, Teacher Services, Community Services and Support Services. Later, once the museum moved to the Wharf, this structure changed to include three divisions: Exhibit Center (EC), Resource Center (RC), and Support Services (SS). Both the EC and the RC were seen as educational divisions but with different responsibilities. The EC was responsible for visitor services, exhibitions, design and production, school and community field trips. The RC division included the library, kit rental, community outreach, training and seminars, publishing, extended programs for children with schools or community centers and university contracts. Support Services included administration, finance, business operations and collections. The three division directors met weekly with Executive Director Mike Spock to plan and monitor the budget, make funding decisions and do long- and short-term planning.

This chapter tells—from two distinct voices—how and why The Children's Museum became involved with schools and community centers in many neighborhoods. Some of these partnerships continue to this day. Many people know the story of the changes from traditional, static museum displays to interactive exhibitions that became the hallmark of The Children's Museum. Yet, few people know about the museum's commitment to reaching children outside the museum walls.

Among the museum's initiatives in the 1960s were two standouts: the active pursuit of new audiences outside the museum and the development of new curriculum kits that integrated an interactive style of learning using museum-based materials. Forces driving these initiatives included the museum director's view of the museum as audience-centered. As Mike described it, the museum was for children rather than about collections and exhibits. He was determined to reach many more of Boston's children than ever before. Mike was committed to an interactive approach to learning that centered around extended investigations with real objects. This was a time-consuming methodology better suited to school and afterschool settings than to museum visits where children only had a short time in each exhibit.

The Children's Museum's social and pedagogical goals coincided with nationwide concerns for educational equity-—a general alarm over the gaps in opportunity and achievement among different races, genders and economic classes—and the need for materials to enable experiential learning. Government and private funding became available for programs that addressed these issues, and museum staff proposed plenty of ways to deliver services.

Next: Part I: Teacher Services Department