Friday, July 16, 2010

Boston Children's Museum - Then & Now

Recently we took our two Little Monsters to the Boston Children's Museum. The oldest had a great time, and the other was only about nine- or ten-months-old at the time so she was pretty much oblivious. But rather than delve into this recent trip itself I'd like to talk about a little mystery about the museum that had bothered me since our visit, but which has now been partially solved.

Before the trip to Boston, the wife and I discussed our experiences with the museum from when we had visited it ourselves as kids. She remembered a room where kids would try on all kinds of clothes. I didn't recall this from my visit (probably around 1980 or so), but I remembered a computer room which had a bunch of "modern" computer terminals that would let you play neat-o electronic games and activities on them. The thing that drew my attention was a bank of switches and blinking lights along one wall. This unit had clear plastic strips over the switches so you could see them but not touch them--but the small hand of a ten-year-old could easily slip past the plastic. I was having a grand ol' time playing spaceman until I noticed that the kids at the computer terminals seemed to be getting very frustrated. Just as a museum employee started heading toward me I realized that this unit wasn't part of the exhibit and wasn't supposed to be touched. Apparently I was randomly resetting and otherwise messing up all the computer terminals. It must have been some sort of 1980s-era server unit of some sort. I left the vicinity before I could get yelled at. Why would you have a big, inviting wall-o-switches and blinking lights in a museum where you were encouraged to touch everything and then not expect kids to touch it? I didn't see any signs saying "Do Not Touch" or anything like that. Oh well.

Anyway, my other main memory from that day (not counting having orange soda come out of my nose when I laughed while eating lunch in the McDonald's restaurant in the museum) was a big exhibit of old cars and other transportation objects that we visited. The funny thing was that you were supposed to look at, but not touch, these exhibits. This seemed a bit strange when everything else was so hands on. It was like something from a completely different museum. I kind of thought that maybe my memory of this part of the day was faulty--but it seemed so clear. Similar to my favorite part of the Children's Museum (the forbidden switch panel), this exhibit had a section of a big jet airliner's control console. It was a big, tall section (taller than the ten-year-old me) of a bunch more switches--many with those cool red safety covers over them--that I had another grand ol' time playing with (though I'm not sure if I was supposed to be playing with those switches either).

Panel similar to the one I played with

Needless to say, when we went back to the museum with the kids after all these decades it had changed drastically. The giant Hood Milk bottle was still out front, but nothing inside rang any bells with me or my wife. Obviously a lot of things have changed in the world of children's museums since the early 1980s, and in a place where touching and interaction are encouraged the objects themselves can't possibly last for very long before they have to be replaced. I certainly understand why the computer room was gone. In an age where kids grow up with the internet from birth and having access to computers in their homes, at school and pretty much everywhere else they go, a room like that would be pretty boring and obsolete. Actually, a room like that would fit in rather nicely in a display of historical technologies in some kind of computer museum I think, but I digress...

Where was the dress-up area my wife remembered? Where were all the antique cars and stuff I remembered? Nothing in this children's museum felt familiar in any way to either of us. We just chalked it up to being former kids now nearing middle-age who are a bit out of touch with what goes on in today's children's museums.

Then a couple weeks ago I found myself in the Worcester Public Library doing a little research on some old local TV programming when a neat little coincidence happened. While looking through microfilm for the Boston Globe from 1979 I stumbled across something that solved the two biggest mysteries that were bothering me about the Children's Museum. The Sunday July 1, 1979 Globe TV Week section had a photo of Mary Richardson and Captain Kangaroo on the cover. What were they doing together? Why, they were hosting a show about the opening of the brand-new Boston Children's Museum in it's new home on the waterfront of course! Seems like the museum had moved from its former location and was set to open on that very day. It was quite the event, occurring a couple days before the Fourth of July and warranting two TV specials and quite a few pieces in the newspapers.

The articles on that day and the next described much of what was new and exciting in the museum. It featured an exhibit called "Grandparents' House", which had a "Grandfather's Basement" filled with tools and stuff for kids (obviously mainly meant for boys in that more innocent and less PC age) to play with. The "Grandmother's Attic" featured...all kinds of clothes that kids (obviously geared more toward girls) could try on! Hey, Mystery Number One solved!

But what about my kooky memory about the antique cars and stuff? Well, it turns out that wasn't in the Children's Museum, but... The same renovated building that housed the Children's Museum also happened to be the new home of the Boston Transportation Museum! Mystery Number Two solved!

I wonder how many thousands of kids went to both museums like I did and were confused and frustrated by the fact that, after playing with hands on exhibits and stuff all day, you suddenly found yourself in a place (in the same building) full of cool stuff that you couldn't touch. The Boston Globe write up on the opening of the museums actually brought up this confusing conflict of rules. Check out this excerpt from page 16 of the Monday July 2, 1979 issue of the Globe written by Terry Ann Knopf:

"But with two museums housed in the same building, comparisons are bound to be made. And, whereas the Children's Museum emphasizes participation, the Transportation Museum tends to be preachy. Significantly, one irate father kept ordering his son to read the signs around the cars. For all its thoroughness and attention to detail, the Transportation Museum is more of a throwback to the standard collector's museums and lacks the cleverness and imagination of its sister on the floors below.
Nor are matters helped by the fact that all of the displays but one are strictly hands off. After experiencing the Children's Museum, youngsters are bound feel frustrated, if not cheated, upon learning they cannot board a car or go up and down on an elegant Victorian elevator. Essentially, all they may do is look."

The Children's Museum has changed a LOT over the past thirty-plus years. The Transportation Museum is long gone and the Children's Museum has greatly expanded over time. Not only has all the "stuff" I saw long since been replaced, the layout of the whole museum is completely different. The same 1979 Boston Globe article referred to the "fabulous outdoor glass elevator which provides a stunning view of Boston". This elevator is still there, but it is now inside the building due to all the expansion.

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time to pair the Transportation Museum with the Children's Museum in the same renovated building. The Transportation Museum probably figured they'd draw in many people who had just visited the Children's Museum--kind of piggy-backing on the drawing power of it. I certainly enjoyed seeing all the cool transportation-related exhibits there when we went way back then. But at some point it must have become obvious that a hands on museum and a static one weren't meant to share the same space. I wonder if the Transportation Museum decided to leave, or if it was forced out by the successful Children's Museum's expansions over the years. I guess that's another mystery for another time...

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