“. . . after some years of mulling over what a children’s museum might be, it finally came to me that the answer was in our name: In contrast to art and history and science museums, which were about something, children’s museums were for somebody. In that sense we were a client-centered organization. We were for children and their parents, teachers, and other caregivers.”
MICHAEL SPOCK, Boston Children’s Museum director (1962-85)
The Boston Children’s Museum is observing its centennial anniversary this year with a variety of special events and exhibits, organized under the slogan “The Power of Play” and culminating in a weekend-long October birthday gala. Like Fenway Park, another local landmark that recently unwrapped 100 years of history, it has much to look back upon and celebrate.
In 1913, there were no radio programs, movies, television shows, or educational toys aimed at young children. No “Sesame Street,” Lego kits, Dr. Seuss books, or touch-screen digital devices. There was no inkling, either, of how different the learning habits and attention spans of American children would look a century later.
That August, in a house overlooking Jamaica Pond, members of the Science Teachers’ Bureau opened what was only the second children’s museum in the United States. (The Brooklyn Children’s Museum was the first.)
The Children’s Museum of Boston, as it was then called, enshrined many of the era’s progressive views of education and culture, influenced by thinkers such as John Dewey. Multicultural and science-oriented, it had the support of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and welcomed Boston schoolchildren from all quarters. As part of its educational mission it sponsored hobby clubs for city-dwelling boys and girls, bringing them into closer contact with the natural world.
As stated in its 1920 annual report, the museum aspired to “make better citizens” by training young minds to “observe accurately and think logically.”
It was also, by today’s standards, analog and antiquated.
Exhibits sat in glass cases, to be viewed from a distance. Education by observation was the operative philosophy. There was little to engage or attract children younger than 10, most of whom walked to the museum from nearby neighborhoods.
Collections centered around objects such as dolls and dollhouses, scientific specimens (birds, minerals, shells), and ethnographic materials from foreign countries. In 1926, the museum acquired its star attraction: a stuffed baby elephant named Molly, who had died at the Franklin Zoo.
Unlike Molly, the museum seldom stood still for long, however, adding new features and exhibits as resources and visitorship rose. In 1936, the museum relocated to a 28-room house bordering the Jamaicaway, where it remained until its move to the Boston waterfront in 1979.
In 1962, Michael Spock, son of child-rearing guru Dr. Benjamin Spock, was named museum director, a transformational hiring. The Sixties changed a lot of thinking about institutions and how they served their constituencies; the Children’s Museum was no exception.
Spock and his staff’s visitor-centric, willing-to-try-anything philosophy revolutionized the museum-going experience, in Boston and around the world. A 1982 People magazine profile described Spock’s museum as “the world’s most innovative,” singling out exhibits such as “What If You Couldn’t?” which taught kids about living with disabilities.
“We didn’t have to settle for the world as it was, we could make it better,” writes Spock, now scholar-in-residence at the Chicago History Museum, on Boston Stories, a website (www.bcmstories.com) devoted to museum history. “I thought experimentation was more than OK.”
Boston Stories is being adapted into a book, edited by Spock and to be published this spring. On May 13, he will return to the Boston museum for a book signing.
Museum vice presidents Jeri Robinson and Leslie Swartz both joined the staff in the 1970s.
Swartz, now senior vice president of research and program planning, was a history teacher with a strong interest in China. She would forge an equally strong connection with Boston’s Chinese-American communities. As the city’s socioeconomic fabric began changing dramatically, Swartz recalls, so did the museum’s sense of whom it was serving, and how.
“We went from being a nice neighborhood museum to a citywide museum, located in a spot with access to public transportation,” she says. Following widespread turmoil over school busing, “We wanted people to see the museum as neutral territory, accessible to all.”Continued...