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.

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.

Museums, Spock says, are really ``a parallel educational system to schools.'' They deal in a ``self-directed kind of learning,'' he says. In today's society, with ``kids growing up radically different than 50 years ago,'' museums are more crucial than ever, he observes. In the past, he notes, children often went to work at very early ages. By contrast, youngsters now frequently ``have an incomplete notion of what work and adult life are about.'' Exhibits that put boys and girls on a model ``productio n line'' (culminating in a newly manufactured top they can take home), sit them down at a computer, or let them change a tire help fill in some gaps of knowledge.

Today's children get so much of their information through ``abstract forms of communication'' like television, Spock notes. ``As special as that medium can be . . . it's never a direct experience with the real stuff.'' One of the reasons museums are as popular as they are, he says, is that they provide that directness, even if it's just peering at a glass-enclosed artifact from a bygone culture. ``People crave that anchoring to reality,'' he says.

Spock's strong feelings about such matters underlie his excitement about the move to Chicago. The Field Museum has the means of giving a huge clientele the kind of ``direct experience'' he emphasizes. He's already considering exhibit ideas. ``What does the public need to deal with plate tectonics, continental shift?'' he asks -- then quickly begins picturing a model, manipulated by visitors, that could simulate the folding of rock formations. Or an Arctic chamber where visitors could don an Eskimo par ka and begin to appreciate why that garment is designed with a tight top and a loose bottom.

The Field Museum is situated close to neighborhoods where much of Chicago's black population lives. Spock says he looks forward to reaching that community. One possibility: exhibits that could travel to neighborhoods, both to generate interest in the museum and to show that the institution is interested in its neighbors. That kind of thing has been a steady theme here at the Children's Museum, especially since 1979, when it moved to its present site next door to a number of ethnic neighborhoods.

Spock is also keenly aware that entrance fees can be a hurdle for many potential museumgoers. He fondly recalls his youth in New York, when some of the world's best museums were free. ``That's the way it should be,'' he says. But these times of pinched government spending make that unlikely. Currently the Boston Children's Museum has to charge $4 for adults, $3 for children, but has found ways to make some exceptions.

``You have to be very aggressive about getting around this,'' Spock says. For instance, the Children's Museum gives free entrance to public-school and community groups. And museum staffers can use their discretion in cutting fees or eliminating them, according to need.

The Field Museum has a lower entrance fee ($2 for adults, $1 for 6 to 17 years, and under 6 free) than does the Boston Children's Museum. ``I'll be pushing that a lot,'' Spock says. His objective will be to open the museum up to ``as many people as possible.'' He particularly wants participation from the city's black and Hispanic residents.

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