Popular Science Monthly/Volume 72/April 1908/The Children's Museum as an Educator

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search




THE Children's Museum is the only museum of its kind in the world. Although it has not reached its tenth birthday, it has won a permanent place in its own community and has awakened in this and foreign countries an interest in new lines of educational advancement suggestive of greater possibilities.

The origin and early history of this pioneer museum illustrate the power of small beginnings. Its life commenced in the residence of an attractive suburban estate which the city had taken for a public park, the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences having leased the house as temporary store room for its scientific collections. Upon the opening of the Central Museum of Arts and Sciences and the consequent removal of the most valuable institute property, the utility of the old residence would have been at an end had not its picturesqueness of situation suggested a branch museum for the benefit of children.

In December of that year, 1899, therefore, the Brooklyin Institute trustees opened to the juvenile public two small rooms of the Bedford Park building. Although the original exhibits consisted of little more than a few insects, shells and stuffed birds, the eagerness with which children sought them proved the necessity for enlarging the scope of work.

Some of the aims in establishing this children's branch were: to form an attractive resort for children tending to refine their tastes and elevate their interests; to create an active educational center of daily help in connection with school studies; and to suggest new subjects of thought for pursuit in leisure hours.

The method of procedure involved first, the necessity of collections attractive and stimulating to children and also helpful to the teachers of those children; second, a system of instruction that would lead to profitable results through voluntary endeavor on the part of the child.

The formation of suitable collections and the work of putting instruction on a practicable basis have involved the expenditure of time, as well as labor and money. But that progress has been made is shown in the contrast between the original collections and the twelve exhibition rooms of to-day furnished with specimens, models and pictures related to nearly every phase of children's intellectual interests.
The Children's Museum Building in Bedford Park, Brooklyn, New York, a branch Museum of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.

These collections illustrate zoology, botany, United States history, mineralogy, geography and art. They are attractive in appearance, simple in arrangement and labeled with descriptions adapted to the needs of children, printed in clear readable type.

Our zoological collections are installed in five rooms, whose contents are prepared for children of varying ages. The youngest children seek the room of "animal homes," where common mammals and birds of Long Island are to be found with their nests and young. High school pupils make use of synoptic exhibits and particularly of the insect room with its local insects, life histories of common forms, and living bees, ants and silkworms. Bird exhibits attract and delight visitors of all ages from the two-year-old baby, who can only say "Chicken, chicken" as he points his chubby fingers indiscriminately to the condor, albatross and flamingo, to the white-haired grandparent whose "hunting days" are recalled by the mallard duck and grebe.

That their conceptions of geography may not end with maps, globes and charts, we employ model groups to acquaint children with remote peoples of the earth, especially type races from the various zone belts. One of these scenes depicts the life of the Eskimo, his costume, shelter, implements and industries. The story of his life struggles and the influence of his environment on appearance and conduct are easily understood. From the comparative study of an increasing number of such models, children readily perceive the importance of climate and physical features of localities in determining human settlement, industries and commerce.

It is as practicable to annihilate time as space by the use of model groups, therefore when our children study colonial history the miniature scenes at the museum carry them back into the period when the nations of Europe were establishing permanent colonies in this country. The men and women, dress, homes, social life and customs of those early days become a reality to the child who lives in imagination among these little "doll people" with whom he delights to be. The relics, manuscripts, pictures and arms, in other parts of the historic collection have a new interest for him after he has learned to relate them to their respective historic periods.

A children's museum library occupies two rooms in the museum building, and is a part of the museum work. Its 5,000 volumes comprise the best works on natural history, in its broadest sense, and closely related subjects. The library supplements the work of the museum in providing books useful to its staff in preparing collections, in furnishing additional information to visitors and in offering books on the lines of school work for the benefit of teachers and pupils. Two trained librarians in constant attendance enable visitors to consult books without formality; and through an acquaintance with the contents of school curricula, the exhibition materials of the museum, and most important of all, the children themselves, the librarians not only furnish desired information, but guide and direct the tastes of young readers. Further than this, the library shows to parents and teachers the most interesting and helpful nature books, and aids them in selecting those best suited to the needs of their children.

Children's Museum Library occupying less than 600 square feet of floor space, yet accommodating at times between 300 and 400 readers in one day.

In the absence of official relations with public or private schools the museum makes no demands on its visitors. It offers its privileges free to children of all ages and leaves each one to choose his own method of enjoyment. Whether he copies a label, reads an appropriate quotation, talks about the group of muskrats with his playfellows, spends an hour in the library or listens to the explanation of the museum "teacher," who gladly answers his questions and tells him stories, matters but little so long as the effect of his visit is to enhance his love for the best things in life.

Through the Museum News, a joint monthly publication of the Brooklyn Institute Museums, principals and teachers in Brooklyn are informed of the half hour natural science, geography, and history talks, given in the children's museum lecture room. Teachers are invited to bring classes to these lectures (which are illustrated with lantern slides, models and experiments) or to study museum exhibits correlated with school work. Some member of the museum staff is always present to render every assistance to visiting classes. Objects and models are taken from the cases and used in demonstration, living specimens from vivaria and aquaria are shown to the nature study classes, questions are answered, in fact everything that can economize the time of the visitors and increase their enjoyment is done. Another privilege extended to schools is the use of stuffed birds, boxes of insects and other "loan material," distributed for class-room study.

The demand for the privileges of a Children's Museum may be seen from the readiness with which schools and individuals accept them. More than 125 schools, many of them remotely situated, send pupils and teachers to our museum; 561 visits from teachers alone in search of definite information were recorded in the school months of 1906, and for the same period the Children's Museum lectures attracted an attendance of 17,253. The average annual attendance for the past five years has exceeded 94,000 visitors.

It would seem from the statistics that a Children's Museum if not a life necessity, is indeed an unquestioned blessing to a great city like our own, whose population is boxed in apartments or brown stone blocks of such vast extent as to place the country beyond the experience of many children. The advantage of a cheerful, sunny, attractive museum rich in natural objects, artistically displayed, where children are sure to find a sympathetic welcome, where they are safe and happily and profitably occupied, is scarcely appreciated until we pause to consider the influence for good or evil of habits acquired in leisure hours, and of the demoralizing influence of crowded city streets and back alleys.

Many of our boys and girls who are now young men and women paid their first visits to the museum in company with their parents or the family nurse. Year by year they have returned to the museum attracted by new features of the work adapted to their growing intellectual needs.

Two years ago, in response to an expressed demand from the boys, the museum began a course of lectures in elementary physics, and in connection therewith invited those interested to come to the museum on certain afternoons to experiment individually with favorite pieces of apparatus. The boys found the utmost pleasure in the liberty thus granted—they experimented under the guidance of a member of the museum staff, they read library books in connection with their experiments and within a few months had set up a wireless telegraph station. The original work of those boys would be a credit to any institution, for they applied themselves regularly and diligently until they had

High School Boys attaching wires to Pole placed on the cupola of the Children's Museum Building for Wireless Telegraphy.

learned to send and receive wireless messages; meanwhile, the experience of placing the station and keeping it in working order had fitted them to take charge of other stations. Early this summer, when the schools closed, three of these "boys" received offers of remunerative positions with one of the commercial companies to take charge of wireless stations on board of ocean-going steamships—to South America, Panama, West Indies, Bermudas, Key West and other places of interest along the Atlantic seaboard. One of the boys, who had learned to collect and mount insects when he came to the museum as a primary lad, made a very creditable collection of tropical insects which he brought to the museum, carefully preserved and labeled with interesting data. In contrast to the achievements of these boys by a wise use of spare moments, we can but wonder what these hours would have counted for if there had been no museum, no books and no sympathetic personality to offer an occasional useful suggestion.

Some have maintained that physics and electricity are subjects not germane to museum work, and that a museum should remain loyal to its old purpose of collecting, preserving, classifying and exhibiting objects of scientific value. While the original object of a museum should be kept in mind, we must not lose sight of the fact

Mother Crow and Fledglings on the Nest. In the Bird Room.
that a children's museum calls for such modifications and adaptations of methods as will enable children to use it, and here we must remember that the keynote of childhood and youth is action. Any museum ignoring this principle of activity in children must fail to attract them. The Children's Museum does not attempt to make electricians of its boys, nor is its purpose to do the work of any school. Its object is rather to understand the tastes and interests of is little people and to
A Family Group of Skunks. In the Room of Animal Homes.

offer such helps and opportunities as the schools and homes can not give. With that, its mission ends, and the success or failure of its work will be proportional to its skill in meeting individual needs.

About a year ago a small boy was discovered in our building leading his eleven-year-old blind brother by the hand and telling him as much as he could about the objects of especial interest. The eagerness with which this sightless lad drunk in every descriptive sentence led the museum escort to ask him if he had ever "seen" a squirrel—"No," he said, "I never touched one, but I have heard stories about squirrels—they have long, bushy tails and eat nuts." The escort then placing a stuffed squirrel in his hand, gave him one of the happiest experiences of his life. To his book knowledge he could now add a real discovery. Nor did his experience at the museum end with the squirrel; his sense of touch taught him many other stuffed animals and birds, besides living frogs, lizards and turtles. There were other museums in Greater New York, and surely far more costly exhibits, but no museum had hitherto found time to give this blind visitor the especial attention his infirmity

Model of a Parlor in a New England Home about 1750. The scene shows an afternoon call from the minister and the family assembled to receive him and serve afternoon tea and cake. The details of furniture, decorations, and costumes are historically accurate. In the History Room.

Pennsylvania Meadow Vole Group—showing adults, nest, and young. In the Room of "Animal Homes" arranged for young children.

made necessary. Repeated and prolonged visits demonstrated the sincerety of his statement that he felt as though he had come into a new world with "all these animals."

Every September children returning from country outings hasten to tell us of their holiday pleasures, not the least of which is the deeper appreciation of this world of nature of which the museum has given them broader knowledge. Examples of the quickening and stimulating influence of the museum in individual cases could be multiplied indefinitely, and to these could be added the appreciative testimony of parents and teachers, were it necessary to prove by argument its real value to the community. But, happily, the day is passed when its excuse for existence is questioned, or when the Children's Museum is regarded as an extravagant investment yielding small returns. On the contrary, the returns would warrant an increased expenditure, and this seems to be a necessity of the near future.

The present Children's Museum has long since outgrown its quarters. Its exhibition halls, its lecture room and its library are often so over-crowded with eager children as to defeat the objects of their visits. The New York legislature, however, has recently

Permanent Dwelling of the Northwestern Eskimo. In the Geography Room.

passed a bill authorizing the city to erect a new Children's Museum Building at a cost not to exceed $175,000. With the improved equipment thus provided the Children's Museum would not only serve a larger number of children, but would also serve them more efficiently in proportion to expenditure.

Through publications from the German press we learn that certain educators in Berlin are advocating a children's museum for that city. Meanwhile in our own country museums are beginning to feel the importance of giving more attention to the education of children. In large cities the field for smaller museums is always increasing, and one can but hope that the time may soon come when a system of these institutions, each studying and adapting itself to the needs of its particular

Feeding the "Tree Toads." A daily afternoon attraction.

locality, will be working as branches of a large central museum, with its skilled artists, modelers, taxidermists and preparateurs.

As a small museum in a large city serves a moving population, its service to the individual is necessarily limited by a constant change of clientele. Smaller towns, on the other hand, offer conditions for an almost ideal development. The Fairbanks Museum, in the little town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, is an excellent example of museum leadership in a small center.

Since the Children's Museum has demonstrated its worth to one community there is reason to expect that it will make its way into others and the variety of problems to be solved in adapting its work to new conditions offers one of the most attractive fields of modern education.