Museum Transformation: A Voice of Experience

I recently discovered a great resource for all the current discussions about Museums for the 21st Century. It’s a site about a 90-year-old museum that grew to prominence more than 50 years ago, but was so far ahead of its time that its collective wisdom remains applicable today. The site is called Boston Stories, and it’s produced by alumni of the Boston Children’s Museum.  As the website states:
Boston Stories is not an exercise in nostalgia. It is a resource for today’s generation of educators and museum practitioners, as well as leaders of other mission-driven, nonprofit organizations. Faculties of business and management schools, museum studies programs and organizers of volunteer training, staff brown-bag seminars, Webinars, and dialogs can selectively use this case study material as grist for the discussion of issues of leadership, values, decision-making, and management.

Begun in 2004 and led by former Boston Children’s Museum director Michael Spock, Boston Stories has been produced by a team of more than 100 contributors—former and current staff, board members, community leaders, stakeholders, funders, writers, technicians, and advisors.

Continuing Relevance
I’m doing research for an article I’m writing on play, so of course the first person I contacted was Jeri Robinson, creator and sustainer of the groundbreaking Playspace exhibition at BCM. Jeri sent me to Boston Stories, and I found not only a wonderful account of the evolution of Playspace, but a variety of extremely interesting articles and interviews by and with other former BCM staff such as Michael Spock, Elaine Heumann Gurian, Janet Kamien, Bernie Zubrowski, and Leslie Bedford.  There are also videos and images.  I haven’t looked at everything on the site – it would take many hours to do so – but here are some items of interest I’ve found so far.

  • Documentation of an exhibition development process: Spaces for children and families on the exhibition floor are now commonplace in museums, especially children’s museums.  Jeri Robinson’s account illustrates the perseverance, explanations, meetings, and setbacks it takes to bring a vision from an idea that no one had seen before into a reality.  Along the way there are also examples of administrators who initially did not understand the vision but were open enough to be persuaded, and who became supporters. Documentation of such ephemeral processes, by the way, is still an important obligation for all of us, if not on our own museum sites then on sites like ExhibitFiles.
  • Two models of cultural learning.  A fascinating series of reflections by Leslie Bedford and Leslie Swartz provides another example of the time and thought it takes to develop a truly iconic exhibition like the Japanese House, and then to rethink it in terms of growing cultural awareness and concerns about cultural artifacts and conservation.
 Ahead of Its Time
The above topics, of course, remain relevant today, but there are some specific reminders that 50 years ago BCM was already fostering and promoting a number of priorities that museums of the 21st century continue to value and work to achieve:
  • Community commitment: Founded in 1913 by a group of teachers who felt that museums were an important part of education, BCM has consistently valued community advisors and has had a longtime commitment to local ethnic communities —  Native American, African American, and Asian American.
  • Recognition of the family as the visiting unit:  Today there is a great deal of research, e.g. by Falk and Dierking or Borun et al, confirming that museum going (for all museums, not just children’s) is mostly a social activity involving multigenerational groups.  Recognition of this fact has not necessarily led to the development of exhibitions that seriously attempt to engage family groups.  BCM has done this for many years, and Playspace in particular is a model for addressing the needs of the very youngest visitors along with their adult companions.
  • Participatory exhibitions:  Almost from its beginning in the late 1970s Playspace has involved visitors in what is on display and in its offerings to  other visitors, from the Ask the Experts  activity to the Parents’ Talkback Board.  Inviting visitor feedback and contribution at BCM is a longtime practice.
  • Exhibitions on difficult and socially relevant topics:  From Endings: An Exhibit About Death and Loss; to The Kid’s Bridge, on prejudice, tolerance, and multicultural issues; to Boston Black, on the varieties of the Black experience in Boston, in particular newer Latino communities–BCM has continually addressed issues that might be considered taboo for any museum, especially one for children and families.  Other exhibition topics have included homeless families, living with disabilities, and nontraditional families including homosexual parents. And the museum is still here.
  • A nonproprietary perspective: Over the years I’ve attended some of the many  BCM workshops and seminars that have shared and disseminated their innovative approaches.  The Psychology Exhibition  on which I worked in the 1990s  was enormously indebted to BCM for the child development section, based on Playspace. Now Boston Stories is freely sharing BCM’s approaches, policies, challenges, and achievements: a web-like sensibility that dates from long before there was a web.

Boston Stories provides insights into how the museum achieved many of these 21st century ideals by providing both personal and professional accounts, some in the form of diaries that recount both discouragement and success.  The site is a work in progress. There are sections still to be written and media and other resources to be added. But even in its present form Boston Stories provides a rich and rounded picture of a museum grappling with transformative practice.

If this post is being sent to you by email and you would like to subscribe or add a comment please click on   Thanks!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.