Story 10: Cultural Learning - Two Models

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Part 1: The Plum Pudding Model - The Japanese House

Written by Leslie Bedford

The Children's Museum was in an ambivalent place: committed to working with ethnic communities (Native American, African American, Asian American) while deeply imbedded in mainstream American culture. But for all the tricky biases that came from the our position within the dominant culture, the museum continued to think it could make a special contribution by developing exciting learning experiences for families, schools, and communities using real stuff from other cultures.

- Mike Spock

Part 1

The Plum Pudding Model: The Japanese House


The years I spent with The Children's Museum's Japan Program—one as its developer in l976 and then, beginning in l981, thirteen more as its director–changed my life. It transformed me from classroom teacher to museum professional and shaped all of my subsequent work–as senior manager, free-lance exhibition developer and now director of a master's program for mid-career educators. The depth of the museum's influence became especially evident while writing my doctoral dissertation several years ago; I understood how my entire professional journey began in Boston.

Just as the story of the founding and growth of The Children's Museum (TCM) belongs to a particular era and set of ideas, the narrative of the development of the museum's comprehensive Japan Program reflects its own dynamic convergence of socio-economic, cultural, historical, and personal contexts.

My thirteen years merge into the longer institutional history of Japanese programming that began with the donation of Japanese objects, especially the Friendship Doll Miss Kyoto in l927. A subsequent gift of a ten-mat tea house from Boston's new sister city, Kyoto, Japan, spurred the continuing growth of Japan-related programming. When the museum moved from Jamaica Plain to the Wharf, it replaced the charming one-room tea house, misnamed the "Japanese House," with a magnificent two-story, Kyoto-style townhouse. Shipped in crates from Japan and then painstakingly rebuilt by a team of Japanese carpenters in the raw warehouse space of the new building, this extraordinary artifact and environment made the Japanese Program a centerpiece of the museum's expanding presence regionally, nationally and internationally. Nurtured by Japan's phenomenal growth as an economic power, the newly named Japanese Comprehensive Program Area took off in the l980s becoming what one trustee later called "a museum within a museum." It reached its apogee with the opening of a major exhibition called Teen Tokyo in 1992. Shortly thereafter, I left the museum but even then I knew I had been in the right place at the right time.

The two main parts of this story with the greatest relevance to current work in museums are: 1) the ways in which the program sought to marry progressive education to museological theory and practice; and 2) the extent to which our relationship to Japan and its ascendance in the global economy shaped the program's mission and institutional practice. A third major story component, addressed by Leslie Swartz in Part 2 of this chapter, is the work done with teachers through the expanding Harvard East Asian Program (HEAP), initially viewed in the museum as a subset of the Japan Program but later emerging as a strong and distinct comprehensive program area reaching into many areas of the Boston community. The results of the HEAP collaboration combined with evolving thinking in the United States—and around the world—about multiculturalism helped reframe the museum's teaching about East Asia.

Next: Cultural Immersion and Plum Pudding