The First Four: Origin Stories of the First Children’s Museums in the United States

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.

Connecting Past and Present

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.

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