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By Dr. Michael Yogman
I may be a pediatrician, but it doesn’t take a doctor to know the last two years have been profoundly challenging for our nation’s children. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all areas of children’s lives, including canceled playdates and school closings—all exacerbated by prolonged delays in vaccine eligibility for my youngest patients. Many children have lost caretakers and other family members and faced severe illness themselves.
Today, I write to the Association of Children’s Museums as part of the We Can Do This campaign—a collaboration among the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and many other organizations committed to the health and wellness of our nation and its children—that seeks to increase public confidence in and uptake of COVID-19 vaccines while reinforcing basic prevention measures such as mask wearing and social distancing.
The Association of Children’s Museums and its members are key partners in this effort. As the past board chair of the Boston Children’s Museum, I believe strongly in the vital role of museums in the effort to educate families about COVID-19. Museums promote hands-on, playful learning and discovery; cooperation; collaboration; and concern for all our fellow citizens. The work the association does is more important than ever, and I am grateful for our ongoing partnership.
The impact of COVID-19 on kids has been devastating. As of April 2022, one in six children under age 18 have been infected with COVID-19. Contrary to what some believe, children are not immune to the devastating effects of this virus. Over 100,000 have been hospitalized, and over 1,500 have died. It’s hard to fathom that scale of loss—the equivalent of 30 school buses full of kids. We are also concerned about the symptoms of long covid in children.
However, those numbers alone do not adequately illustrate the impact the pandemic has had on children’s health. One of the most alarming outcomes has been the mental health crisis that continues to unfold. In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, writing:
As health professionals dedicated to the care of children and adolescents, we have witnessed soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating the situation that existed prior to the pandemic.
Fortunately, thanks to the tireless work of medical researchers, children ages five and older are now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine that is safe, effective, and freely available for all families. The pediatric COVID-19 vaccine has been rigorously reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversaw the participation of thousands of children in clinical trials and continue to monitor the safety and efficacy of the vaccine as we surpass 27 million vaccinated kids. Hopefully, the vaccine for younger children will be available soon.
To move past the pandemic, it is crucial that as many children are immunized against COVID-19 as possible. That requires us to concentrate our efforts on vulnerable populations by working together to reach them and supporting the immunization of all our citizens. This will not only prevent severe illness and death, but it will also help to keep classrooms open, allow kids to socialize with significantly lower risk of contracting serious illness, and help to protect children’s caretakers who may be in a higher risk category for severe illness and death from the virus.
Vaccinating children—along with deploying other basic prevention measures as needed—will protect their health and allow them to fully engage in all the activities that are so important to their health and development. As pediatricians, we are working directly with families to educate them on the importance of protecting kids from COVID-19.
Each of us has a role to play in protecting children against COVID-19. Museums are particularly important partners in this effort. Museums support education, promote empathy, and support caregiver–child relationships—all critical to buffering stress and promoting resilience. Despite being one of the hardest-hit institutions during the pandemic, museums and the work you do are more important than ever.
When museums were forced to close at the beginning of the pandemic, you did not abandon your mission to educate the public. Museums across the country, including the Children’s Museum Houston, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, and my very own Boston Children’s Museum, began building out digital resources to provide accessible, free educational resources for kids. By inspiring curiosity in our children, museums are shaping a generation of young minds who can make informed choices, solve tough issues, and critically evaluate sound scientific advances. This is key to not only helping us move past the COVID-19 pandemic, but also preparing a generation to intervene in future public health crises.
Museums are also crucial in promoting empathy and concern for all our fellow citizens. When we wish to learn about other cultures, museums are often one of the first places we go, because they provide insight into the past, present, and future of ourselves and each other. Developing empathy and respect for one another is vital, especially when dealing with a public health crisis. For children, it helps them understand the sacrifices we make to protect others and reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness when times are tough.
Finally, museums provide a necessary space for introspection. Amid a mental health crisis, museums provide children and adolescents with a place to think, reflect, and develop informed opinions. Whether it’s reflecting on history or appreciating the beauty of the natural world, museums provide perspective and peace in a nonstop world.
The gifts that museums provide are timeless, but they are particularly invaluable as we work to respond to COVID-19 and to protect our kids. As a pediatrician, I urge museums across the country to continue prioritizing education, empathy, and introspection. You can help us in our work by continuing to innovate on delivering virtual learning opportunities for families and providing COVID-safe physical spaces for children to learn. It takes all of us together to prioritize children’s health and well-being during such an uncertain time.
Museums are key allies in the work we do, and we are grateful for their partnership as we work together to create the next generation of educated, informed citizens. Check out WeCanDoThis.HHS.gov for resources museums can use to help with your COVID vaccine education and outreach.
Click here to hear more from Dr. Yogman about the relationship between museums and the fight against COVID-19.
Dr. Michael Yogman is a leading Boston area pediatrician, Immediate Past Board Chair of Boston Children’s Museum, and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Pictured clockwise from top left: Brooklyn Children’s Museum (1899), Boston Children’s Museum (1913), The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (1925), and Detroit Children’s Museum (1917)
The following post appears in the “History and Culture Summit” issue of Hand to Hand, ACM’s quarterly journal.
By Jessie Swigger, PhD
In the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century, four museums for children opened in the United States: Brooklyn Children’s Museum (1899), Boston Children’s Museum (1913), the Detroit Children’s Museum (1917), and The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (1925). These four museums—opened by different individuals and groups in different places and at different times—were linked by more than their shared focus on young audiences.
First, they were all shaped by the progressive education movement, which was then at the height of its power and influence. Second, at each museum, women played significant leadership roles (which was unusual in the museum profession, or anywhere). Many of these women knew one another and created a new professional network for their particular brand of museum work. Reflecting on the origin stories of these pioneer children’s museums sheds light on current trends and directions in the children’s museum movement.
Brooklyn Children’s Museum (BCM) opened in 1899, less than one year after Brooklyn became a borough of New York City. The museum originally operated under the umbrella of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (BIAS), then in the process of moving into a new and much larger building under construction on Eastern Parkway. The children’s museum opened just a few blocks away in what was known as the Adams House in Bedford Park (now Brower Park) in Crown Heights.
BCM was open to the public, free of charge, and sought to provide young people with an introduction to the natural sciences that supported the “various classwork of the public schools,” particularly along the “lines of nature study.” The BIAS Annual Report of 1901-1902 included a special invitation to teachers encouraging them to draw on the museum’s resources when developing “class work in nature-study.” This focus on nature study is perhaps unsurprising—New York’s recently appointed superintendent of public schools, William Henry Maxwell, was an advocate for nature study in the curriculum.
The nature study movement, part of the increasingly popular progressive education movement, encouraged young people to learn by observing and interacting with the natural world. Historian Sally Gregory Kohlstedt explains that “at the core of nature study was a pragmatic insistence on using local objects for study emphasizing the connection between those objects and human experience.” It was particularly popular in urban areas, where progressives feared the lack of contact with nature in America’s growing cities would be detrimental to the Americanization of newly-arrived immigrants.
In 1902, Anna Billings Gallup, a teacher, nature study advocate, and recent graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, joined BAIS as an “assistant” at the children’s museum. Two years later she was named curator-in-chief. At a time when few women held significant positions in museums, Gallup was a pioneer.
Brooklyn Children’s Museum’s collections certainly reflected a commitment to nature study, but they also addressed the wide range of childhood interests and the breadth of the public school curriculum. Inside BCM, children found collections illustrating zoology, botany, U.S. history, mineralogy, geography, and art. Gallup explained in an article for Popular Science that the exhibits were “attractive in appearance, simple in arrangement, and labeled with descriptions adapted to the needs of children, printed in clear readable type.”
Gallup’s work was well recognized by her peers. In 1907, she was one of five women who attended the Second Annual Meeting of the American Association of Museums (AAM) in Pittsburg, PA, where she presented a paper titled “The Work of a Children’s Museum.” For the next thirty-four years, Gallup and her staff worked to expand the museum’s collection and physical presence.
Delia I. Griffin was one of the other women attending the 1907 AAM meeting, where she presented her paper, “The Educational Work of a Small Museum.” At the time, she was director of the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, VT. Like Gallup, Griffin was trained in nature study techniques and had even produced a pamphlet titled Outline of Nature Study for Primary and Grammar Grades. At St. Johnsbury, she created lesson plans in nature study at the museum for local public schools. Griffin and Gallup became friendly, and when a second museum for children opened in Boston, Gallup recommended Griffin for the job of curator.
In 1909, members of Boston’s Science Teachers’ Bureau began building a collection of natural history objects that could be used in public school classrooms. By 1913, the bureau had founded the second children’s museum in the United States, the Boston Children’s Museum. Like Brooklyn Children’s Museum, it was housed in a former mansion. Located at Pine Bank in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood, the museum offered children access to ethnographic, natural history, and historical collections. Griffin would later write that the goal of the children’s museum was to train the “plastic minds of children to observe accurately and think logically.”
In 1917, the Detroit Museum of Art, undergoing its own growth, opened a children’s museum, with yet another woman at the helm. Gertrude A. Gillmore, a supervising teacher of the Martindale Normal School, was appointed curator. She explained that the museum’s purpose would be “two-fold: to loan illustrative material to the schools and to attract the children to the Museum through monthly exhibits appealing directly to their interests.”
In 1919, Gillmore reflected on the Detroit Children’s Museum’s (DCM) progress in a report. Like Brooklyn and Boston, the museum’s work developed in tandem with that of public schools. While the collection was drawn from the Detroit Museum of Art’s holdings, the children’s museum reported, “in general our policy has been not to organize material as a collection until a wish for it has been expressed.” This approach meant that collections were created in response to requests from public school teachers in an even more direct way than at Brooklyn and Boston. By 1919, the children’s museum had hosted exhibits on the “History of Detroit,” “Common Birds and Mammals of Michigan,” and several exhibits on “phases of art of interest to children.” In 1927, the Detroit Museum of Art changed its name to the Detroit Institute of Arts and moved to a new and larger building on Woodward Avenue. Two years earlier, the DCM had been placed directly under the Detroit Board of Education. The Detroit Children’s Museum found a new home in a building type that was now a familiar one to children’s museums—a former mansion—the Farr Residence at 96 Putnam in Detroit.
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis opened in 1925. Discussions about children and museums had begun two years before, when the Indianapolis Progressive Educational Association (PEA) held its first meeting at the Orchard Country Day School. Founded in 1922, the Orchard School was a fitting location for the meeting. The curriculum followed Marietta Pierce Johnson’s “Organic School Model.” Johnson drew from progressive educator and philosopher John Dewey’s ideas about learning by doing. Two of the school’s nine founders were Martha Carey and Mary Carey Appel, daughters of wealthy socialite Mary Stewart Carey. In fact, Mary Stewart Carey had donated her home and apple orchard for the cause.
There were several items on the PEA agenda, but most pressing was a desire to make the museum collections housed in the Statehouse available to the city’s public school children. Faye Henley, newly appointed director of the Orchard School, argued, “The material should be put into traveling cases and sent around to the schools.”
Mary Stewart Carey may not have been at this meeting, but it’s quite likely that she knew about the Indianapolis PEA and their conversation given her association with the Orchard School.
The next year, Mary Stewart Carey visited Brooklyn Children’s Museum while on vacation in nearby Asbury Park, NJ. Soon, she was on her way to the Adams House. When she returned to Indianapolis, she was determined to create a similar institution in her hometown.
Carey was well positioned for this kind of endeavor. Her philanthropic activities expanded beyond the recently founded Orchard School. For example, she played a key role in selecting the Indiana state flag in 1917, and was a member of the Indianapolis Woman’s Club and the Art Association of Indiana. Carey’s connections would prove useful in garnering support and resources for the museum.
Soon, an organizational committee was formed with Carey at the helm. They quickly formalized their commitment to creating a museum centered on their intended audience rather than a collection, writing that “the viewpoint of the child should be considered in providing for the equipment and installation of all materials.” Over the next few months, the museum wrote a constitution, elected a board of trustees, and began developing partnerships with the local public schools and with clubs for children.
The museum board had members and interest, but they lacked the funding to purchase a collection. So, the board called on the local community to donate objects they believed would educate children. Museum lore claims that the first donated objects were a few arrowheads that Carey’s grandchildren had found and given to her. They received an overwhelming response from community members. One woman tried to donate a live alligator, perhaps knowing the Brooklyn Children’s Museum included a live animal collection, but the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis turned it down. While its sister institutions had solicited collections from established sources, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, the children’s museum was the first to directly invite the community to participate in the creation of the collection.
In July 1925, the museum found its first home when the board rented a carriage house behind the Propylaeum, the city’s women’s literary society. By November, the board hired E.Y. Guernsey as curator. Guernsey was formerly an archaeologist for the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles and at the Spring Mill State Park in Mitchell, Indiana. When Guernsey oversaw the museum’s first opening to public school classes the following month, there were no cases. Instead, the objects were placed on tables, out in the open.
Two years later, primarily due to high rent, the museum moved out of its first carriage house home and into Carey’s former home on North Meridian, where children visited a larger collection distributed among themed rooms that included the Geology Gallery, the Natural Science Gallery, and the Pioneer Gallery.
The four museums discussed here were created more than 100 years ago, but their origin stories raise questions for the contemporary movement. Each museum had strong links to the progressive education movement and to public schools. In many ways, the first four children’s museums saw themselves as partners with public schools. How do current children’s museums work with schools, and how do they view their relationship with them? Second, women played a central role in founding each museum. As an extension of the public schools, where a majority of the teachers were women, it was acceptable for women to take on the role of curator or director of a children’s museum. These women formed an unofficial but important network as they shared ideas about how best to do children’s museum work. Do women continue to play a larger role in the children’s museum profession than in other fields, or has this changed over time? How has the presence of women from the very beginning impacted the approach of various children’s museums?
There are many other similarities that these first four museums shared. In studying the connections among Brooklyn, Boston, Detroit, and Indianapolis, we can learn more not only about the foundational history of children’s museums, but also about the current state of the field.
Jessie Swigger is the director of Western Carolina University’s Public History Program. She earned her MA and PhD in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to presenting at numerous regional and national conferences, her work has appeared in The Encyclopedia of Culture Wars and The 1980s: A Critical and Transitional Decade. In 2013, she received the North Carolina Museums Council Award of Special Recognition. Her award-winning book, History Is Bunk: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2014.
To read other articles in the “History & Culture Summit” issue of Hand to Hand, subscribe today. ACM members receive both digital and printed complimentary copies of Hand to Hand. ACM members can access their copies through the Online Member Resource Library–contact Membership@ChildrensMuseums.org to gain access.
In December, ACM’s executive director Laura Huerta Migus traveled to Poland for “Why Do We Need Children’s Museums?” a two-day conference jumpstarting the conversation around starting a children’s museum in Warsaw. The meeting was organized by the arts organization Artanimacje Association and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.
Six ACM member institutions sent staff to give presentations about their museums: Boston Children’s Museum, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, London Children’s Museum, MUZEIKO – America for Bulgaria, and Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling.
We asked them about their experiences traveling to Warsaw and sharing expertise with an international audience. Read their responses below!
Leslie Swartz, Senior Vice President for Research and Program Planning, Boston Children’s Museum, presented, “Boston Children’s Museum: It All Started with Collections.”
What most impressed me about the “Why Do We Need Children’s Museums” conference in Warsaw was the sophisticated, independent and progressive thinking among the organizers and participants. I was inspired by their high-level of organization and dedication to achieving the goal of starting children’s museums in Poland, a place where opportunities for creative playful learning are sorely needed. They are a group of smart, well-informed and determined people who want to effect change. They are also realistic about the obstacles they may face, and are gathering significant support to overcome barriers. By tapping into existing expertise in the field, they’re starting out more fully-equipped to reach their goals.
My talk was about collections at Boston Children’s Museum, reaching back to the museum’s founding in 1913 by progressive educators seeking to improve learning among all children and to nurture the development of good citizens. That was revolutionary at the time in the US. (Maybe it still is revolutionary.) The history and evolution of children’s museums in the US seems particularly pertinent to Poland. The prairie fire of children’s museum development around the world is heartening and makes me hopeful.
Erin Hylton, former Education Programs Manager, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, presented, “Programming for Over a Century: Addressing the Needs of Children and their Families since 1899”
The meeting highlight was connecting with colleagues in Warsaw and hearing about the incredible projects they have created for children and young people in Poland. It was inspirational and illuminating to be a part of the beginning stages of the development of a children’s museum in Poland.
It was an incredible opportunity to connect with colleagues from around the world in Poland, as well as hear about the work happening in children’s museums across North America and Europe. The children’s museum field is as diverse as the families and communities we serve through a variety of programs, projects and exhibitions. It was encouraging to hear how we are all working through similar questions and solutions, including teaching empathy to our family and community audiences.
Susan Foutz, Director of Research and Evaluation, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, presented, “Value of Research and Evaluation for Children’s Museums”
I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Warsaw and meeting new colleagues in the children’s museum field. As a tourist, the highlight of any trip is always visiting museums, and I had an incredible visit to POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. This museum tells of the rich, and heartbreakingly tragic, 1000-year history of Jews in Poland. As a children’s museum professional, the highlight of the two-day meeting was the passion of everyone involved—from the presenters to the attendees and most especially the organizers.
I really appreciated the opportunity to hear from those representing museums in Europe and Canada. I am always amazed at the diversity of ways we meet our missions—we might use many different approaches (like art-making, facilitated play, object-based learning), but ultimately all children’s museums are powered by passionate people who are driven to enrich the lives of children. Seeing how this plays out in communities around the world is truly inspiring.
Milena Savova, Learning Team Leader, MUZEIKO – America for Bulgaria Children’s Museum, presented, “Design of Educational Programs for Children’s Museums”
The highlight of the trip for me was the possibility to meet my colleagues from other children’s museums. Since Muzeiko is the only children’s museum in Bulgaria, it is very motivating for us to know that we are not alone in our noble work. Seeing so many professionals dedicated to their work with kids gives us the sensation that we are a part of a big family.
After participating in the meeting, I understood that we can widen our focus of interest and further enrich our programs.
Jennifer Ifil-Ryan, Deputy Director & Director of Creative Engagement, Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling, presented, “The Power of Storytelling and the Arts for Young Children”
The highlight of the trip was learning about the genesis and continued work of my colleagues in the field. There are so many approaches to working with children and families, all of them valid and important. Some were focusing on cognition, while others focused on investigation and program assessment. The opportunity to learn from each other was rich and I have taken many valuable lessons home with me.
The size range of children’s museum represented gave me a broader perspective on what our work looks like in different areas across the globe, as well as the consistencies in our values of honoring the spirit and potential of the child. That reinforcement was priceless.
Amanda Conlon, Executive Director, London Children’s Museum, presented, “Family Learning as a Tool in Children’s Museums and the Role Permanent Exhibitions Play in This.”
These presentations generated fruitful discussions that brought together the past, present, and future of the children’s museum field. Each speaker shared their museum’s story in a way that broadened the audience’s understanding of what children’s museums can do. We can’t wait to see how children’s museums continue to develop in Poland and beyond!
Photo courtesy of Susan Foutz.