Introduction by Mike Spock

Michael Spock
Within the experience of reading the stories online, we decided to present the stories in sections, as dictated by the content. In a book, you would see one section following another within the chapter, with a typography cue to indicate the title of each section. On the website, to make the screen-reading process more user friendly, we present the sections as discrete screens. The right menu lists the sections and additional sidebar content within each story. You can use that menu to read through the story, or you can simply follow the link at the bottom of each page.

Why Boston Stories?

For many years, there has been tremendous interest in The Children’s Museum (now known as Boston Children’s Museum), within the children’s museum community, more broadly across the museum field, and among everyone interested in getting a handle on self-directed learning and new forms of nonprofit organizations. There was something going on at the museum in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that made people take notice.

In anticipation of celebrating the Museum’s Centennial, a team of staff, board, and media specialists from that yeasty era have been working for the last decade on researching, developing, and publishing a website and book about the museum. Not so much a conventional history or an album of fond memories of The Children’s Museum, but instead a collection of useful case studies, a deep resource for understanding what was going on that made the museum such an interesting model of organizational change. To accomplish our goal, make it compelling, and be true to the museum’s values—which ended up governing how we actually did things—we believe Boston Stories is candid in revealing our doubts, confusions, and problems as well as our beliefs, realizations and solutions.

What was it about the way the museum was reconceived and managed that made it such a different and exciting place? Why did it take on so many challenging issues, come up with such creative responses, become a laboratory for informal learning, and influence the direction of professional practice in museums? Why was it such an active collaborator, such a memorable place to work, such an incubator of museum careers, and a precursor to the notion of non-hierarchical, interactive leadership? The answers are not obvious. What happened—especially behind the scenes—is significant but complicated. It is a fascinating story with lessons that might be useful to people at all levels in all types of organizations today.

What is Boston Stories About?

The old imperial, top-down model is no longer understood as the only way “businesslike” organizations are now led. A more collaborative, interactive leadership model turns out to be a much better fit for today’s growing pace of change, complexity of decision-making, uses of new technologies, and the equal participation of women and men of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and abilities in well-managed teams.

Both in content and design this project, website, and companion book, tell stories and reveal processes—the “hows” and “whys”—behind the values-driven decisions made by staff, board, and our collaborators during those exciting years. These values emerged gradually from an institution that challenged the idea of what a museum should be and then found or invented the tools and approaches it needed to run a nimble and effective organization.

The exhibits, educational programs, and materials created at The Children’s Museum drew on notions of experiential learning and open management, and further combined these practices with an unprecedented reach into settings where kids, parents, and teachers actually lived and worked. The museum’s staff, board, and numerous communities worked in new and often unorthodox ways to develop experiences and environments where museum users and collaborators—including the staff and board—could learn about themselves and the world in direct, informal, and challenging ways. Through trial and error, The Children’s Museum learned and demonstrated that the museum, despite its inherited collection, was not about something, rather it was for someone—children and families. This paradigm shift led to profound changes in the museum’s organization, and eventually to many other museums around the world.

How is Boston Stories Organized?

Because different people access information in different ways, and the Internet now allows visitors and designers to arrange, search, and link information in many formats, we have used more than one access point into each story. The multiple routes into the project also mirror how things really looked and read and worked in both the rough and more finished stages of what we developed and offered at the museum. Trying to address the complexity of the task, Boston Stories is published both as a website and as a book.

The titles and subtitles in the Table of Contents hint at the narrative thread tying all these voices and stories together: the contribution of our broadly invested leadership in building a values-based culture that led, during more than a few false starts, to the survival and flourishing of the museum as a healthy organization.

Introducing each story are my personal reflections, snapshots of particular situations, and notes on how I led or followed this collection of passionate, talented people in new directions. What often looked like wildly creative, organic processes were actually supported by very deliberate and tight management systems.

The site has four main features: a readable Story, browsable Media, a searchable Archive, and even a way you can order your own copy of the Book (book is out of print). Each Story anchors and is formatted to link directly to a Media page containing story-specific short videos, slideshows, project reports, publications, or other related sites; and also to a digital Archive that provides greater depth and allows quick access to original source material such as oral history transcripts, thumbnail collections of photos, out-of-print publications, and other documents such as proposals, drafts, budgets, meeting agendas and notes, doodles, jokes, etc.

Whether you are a casual user or more deeply involved in teaching, study, and research, this website allows anyone to access these interrelated materials for a seamless self-directed learning experience. You can even download PDFs from the web and freely copy single storiess and documents.

The fully illustrated book is primarily designed and priced for readers who prefer the traditional chapter organization and book format. Professionals in the field, including museum staff, board, and consultants, as well as museum organizations and libraries, may find value in owning a paper copy and using it as a reference among teams of community leaders working to establish or reimagine their own museums.

Who are the Audiences for Boston Stories?

Although these stories are primarily set in the last half of the 20th century, Boston Stories is a resource for today’s 21st century generation of academic and museum people, as well as leaders of other nonprofit organizations such as:

  • Practitioners of all types of museums,
  • Educators and learning researchers,
  • Community and cultural organization activists,
  • Boards and managers of nonprofit organizations,
  • Students of organization leadership and museum management, and
  • Funders and community decision makers.
Boston Stories was designed for individual learning and as research and teaching materials for faculties of business and management schools, museum studies programs, and staff brown-bag seminars. This collection of cases studies can be accessed selectively for the study and discussion of issues of leadership, values, decision-making, and management, particularly how the museum negotiated the tricky territory between its values and resources and the pressure to get solid, useful work done in a way that made a difference to the clients the museum served: kids, parents, teachers, and their caregivers.

The project and its inheritors invite you and others to join with us in making these stories a living publication by submitting suggestions for additional stories and features where others see the need, and as the digital world matures, creating new learning opportunities and social media formats. In the future we also hope Boston Stories can serve as an early model of a new form of deeply researched, open-source learning medium—perhaps the first entry of a digital library of case studies created by and for the museum profession.

Mike Spock
Project Director & Former Boston Children’s Museum Director

Next: Story 1: An Optimistic Time