Story 09: Beyond Museum Walls

Story | Print | eMail | Related Media | Archives

How did the museum get into the teacher training business?

Written by Patricia A. Steuert

The Workshop of Things

In 1969 the museum audience had outgrown the space, so an adjacent building was renovated into a new Visitor Center full of interactive exhibitions. Cynthia Cole, who had worked on developing and field-testing materials for the MATCh Kits Project, noticed that teachers seemed unsure about how to use these new activities or even how to teach with materials other than books and paper. Cole, who had just completed a master's degree at the Harvard School of Education, secured a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to fund the Workshop of Things in the former museum space. The Carnegie Corporation, established by Andrew Carnegie in 1911 "to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding," was one of the oldest, largest, and most influential of American foundations. It focused heavily on funding educational programs of all types, including elementary and early childhood.

Launching the Workshop of Things happened during a period in the late 1960s when teachers were seeking new approaches to teaching science, in response to the challenge of Sputnik. In addition, more early childhood materials were coming on the scene due to the beginning of Head Start. This $100,000 grant for the museum—this time from a private and very well-respected corporation—enabled us to gather the many commercial materials being produced by the museum and other educational organizations in one central place so teachers could see them and use them before their systems spent large sums of money to purchase the materials.

The Workshop of Things, located in the old museum building, opened with the Kit Rental Department, RECYCLE, and a Teacher Shop. Displays of many kinds of published materials used for learning included kits from American Association for the Advancement of Science, Montessori, Elementary Science Study (ESS), African Primary Science Program, Cuisenaire blocks, pattern blocks, math manipulatives, as well as the museum's MATCh Kits, Discovery Kits, and Loan Kits, and were available for sale to teachers shopping for new materials.

Workshop staff, including Becky Corwin, Susan Shepard, Bruce McDonald and others, led thirty to forty workshops a year, both at the museum and at public schools, that were paid for by school systems, grants, and sometimes by the teachers themselves. Staff also taught courses to education students at Lesley College and Wheelock College on using three-dimensional materials to teach the traditional classroom subjects of mathematics, science, language arts, and social studies. Allowing children to work in small groups on projects required training and support for many teachers. Most of the workshop requests came from more affluent suburbs but the museum always looked for ways to work with the Boston Public Schools.

RECYCLE was started in the early '70s as another way to get interesting materials into the hands of children, teachers, and artists. Elaine Heumann Gurian and Lennie Gottlieb conceived the idea while they were working at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art. Once hired by The Children's Museum, they brought the idea along with them. Lennie set up relationships with businesses who would donate their surpluses and castoffs, which he picked up in his truck and stored at the museum. Lennie, a sculptor, had an artist's eye and filled barrels with the most imaginative stuff—rubber washers, styrofoam plugs, camera lenses, and mirrors—as well as paper, ribbon, buttons, stickers, and game pieces (Monopoly shoes, dogs and hats, thousands of tiny plastic ETs, and Superman's red boots). RECYCLE grew over the years and became an income-producing service when we moved to the Wharf, but it never lost its funky look and feel. Many places nationwide tried to replicate it. Every department of the museum used materials from RECYCLE as did many teachers and artists and families in the Boston area.

In a quote from Robin Simon's book RECYCLOPEDIA, developed at The Children's Museum, Simon introduces her spiral-bound, illustrated activities volume by describing the appeal of the museum's RECYCLE program:

To inveterate pack rats, incorrigible scroungers and habitués of the Recycle Center of The Children's Museum, this book will come as no surprise. You've spotted the potential in discarded shoe boxes, old clock parts, and other 'useless' objects and know that they are merely awaiting reincarnation by a pair of creative hands. To those of you who unblinkingly drop your orange juice cans in the garbage pail, don't miss the days of shirt cardboard from the cleaners, and think that factories couldn't possibly throw away anything moderately useful much less exciting and suggestive, this book will be an eye-opener. It will show you how to see those old materials in new ways and how to put them together to make new ways work.

Support for this work came from many sources. In the beginning, the School Services department was funded by loan fees and the museum's general operating budget. Kit development and teacher training were supported by grants and fees from school systems, universities, and publishers. And for ten years some staff worked cross-divisionally on programs funded by state desegregation funds.

Next: How did the 1970s ... plan affect the schools and the museum?