Boston Children’s Museum celebrates its 100th year

Three-year-old museumgoers Annabelle Gomes (left), of Topsfield, and Grace Whitney, of Middleton, play in the Art Studio of the Boston Children’s Museum this month.
Boys in front of the Boston Children’s Museum’s first location, near Jamaica Pond, line up toy soldiers from the museum’s collection (undated photo). Photo: Boston Children’s Museum

“. . . 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)

Advertisement—Continue Reading Below

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.”

Robinson, vice president for education and family learning, helped create PlaySpace, a first-of-its-kind exhibit for very young children. Reflecting upon her 40 years with the museum, Robinson says, “This idea that not only children are our visitors but their parents are, too, was incredibly important.” The museum’s continued focus on early childhood education initiatives remains one of her proudest accomplishments.

The 1980s and ’90s brought further efforts to modernize and expand the museum’s mission, never losing sight of the fact that kids learn best when they’re having fun doing it.

As the staff grew and diversified, it added more community outreach programs, more innovative exhibits focused upon science and world culture, and more groundbreaking offerings such as “Endings: An Exhibit About Death and Loss” and “KidsBridge,” exhibits designed to spark family discussions about difficult subjects like mortality and racial prejudice.

The museum was also among the first to introduce kids to computers and to messages promoting healthy eating habits, physical fitness, and concern for the environment.

“It’s been both hugely influential and very collegial,” says Diane Kopasz of the American Association of Children’s Museums, a professional member service organization based in Arlington, Va. Many alumni of Boston’s museum have gone on to work with other children’s museums or as independent exhibit designers, she notes.

In 2007, the museum underwent a $47 million, top to bottom makeover, becoming Boston’s first gold certified LEED “green” building. In 2010, it broke new ground again, with Countdown to Kindergarten, an exhibit built around school-readiness activities for kids from all city neighborhoods. A program based on the exhibit will travel next year to schools and libraries across the Commonwealth.

Carole Charnow, the museum’s current president, says today’s thinking about how children learn lines up closely with the museum’s approach to critical thinking and imaginative problem-solving, formulated decades ago.

The entire centennial year observation is built around “this idea of being an innovator, a research partner, a resource for educators and parents — a change agent, essentially,” says Charnow.

Molly remains part of the museum, though tucked away in an offsite storage facility. Out of sight if not entirely out of mind this centennial year, she is a piece of the museum’s vast 50,000-item collection. No longer a star attraction, maybe, but still a part of Boston history worth celebrating.

Share