Dusting the mustiness from museum programs
AT the Boston Children's Museum youngsters clamber up a huge ``climbing sculpture,'' use devices called ``zeotropes'' to learn how movies move, and wander through an attic like the one their great-grandmother might have had. That's only the beginning. The brick-and-timber building on one of Boston's rehabilitated old wharfs is packed with exhibits that invite participation -- definitely a ``hands on'' place. But it wasn't always so. At one time this museum, like most others, was a ``look but don't touch'' place.Skip to next paragraph
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That began to change in 1962, when Michael Spock became director. He steered the half-century-old institution toward innovation, guided by a philosophy that museums should give as many people as possible firsthand, active contact with the ``real stuff,'' as Mr. Spock terms it, of culture and history.
The Children Museum's annual budget today is nearly $3 million, up from $80,000 when Spock, son of famed pediatrician Benjamin Spock, took over. Some 460,000 visitors, 45 percent of them adults, roam through its exhibits each year. Clearly, this once-obscure little museum has changed radically under Spock's leadership.
Now the director himself is ready for a change. Soon he'll leave Boston to assume a new post as vice-president of public programs at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. It's a a slightly daunting prospect. Spock mentions ``the wonderful exhibits out there, and a vast amount of space'' -- 300,000 square feet, compared with 20,000 in the Children's Museum.
In those much-expanded quarters he plans to build on the concepts that have proven so effective here. ``My turf,'' he says, ``will be the public.'' That's familiar ground for this foe of curatorial mustiness. The essence of running a children's museum, he says, is constant emphasis on the needs of your ``clients'' -- children, parents, teachers.
The public, then, rather than the specialists, set the agenda for such a museum. Exhibits are designed to reach visitors at their own level, in both senses of the word. What you get, says Spock, is ``an overall experience that hangs together and makes sense.'' Any museum -- whether a children's museum or a huge natural-history institution like the Field Museum -- can learn from this approach, he says.
``We're always asking, `Is it working?' '' says Spock, referring to ongoing efforts at the Children's Museum to evaluate and improve exhibits. For example, take the ``zeotropes'' gadget, which simulates how motion pictures work: The exhibit is 20 years old now, but it took a number of years of trial and error before the strips of paper -- the ``film'' on which children draw simple designs -- and black, spinning cylinders reached their present, smoothly functioning state.
``Twenty years ago,'' Spock reminisces, `` `hands on' in a museum would have meant pushing a button'' to activate an exhibit. The Boston Children's Museum helped pioneer the idea that ``you can get away with having people handling stuff,'' he explains, and now that idea is being ``widely adopted elsewhere.'' It makes for a lot more creativity on the visitors' part, he points out.