Leslie Swarts – Boston Children’s Museum


“We’re no longer just for children.”

Leslie Swarts starts her talk by saying that Gail Lord set a wonderful framework and that her museum forms a case study that fits right in.

A community focused museum

Children between 0 and 10 years old and their care givers are the main visitors of the Boston Children’s museum. Half of the visitors are adults. The museum team wants to make sure that all families have access. The museum very much focuses on being a surplus to the community.

The origins of the museum

Besides focusing on improving (science) learning (challenge kids to observe, notice and wonder in nature) the museum set social goals: to make better citizens, to cater for diverse children, to let their visitors learn how to learn by providing free choice learning and providing a home for immigrants.

Focusing on the visitor

Since former director, Mike Spock, was in charge, the institute acquired more hands on museum techniques and put a laser like focus on visitors: seeing things from the view of the children instead of their parents. Instead of the museum ‘being about something’ it shifted to ‘being there for someone’. It started focusing on questions like how one can develop empathy, how one can create disability awareness and understand what others’s strengths are. The exhibition What if I couldn’t is a direct result of that approach.

Forming a centre of integration

Boston has a past of a lot of immigration problems. Schools were segregated and the museum took it upon itself to play an active role in integration. During that time the museum was looking for a new home. The museum team chose an area that was separate from what was going on in the schools. It was not claimed by any racial group, centrally located – downtown. It became an urban city museum; welcoming to all, accessible to all, where children could learn to play together. It was part of the urban agenda and formed the centre of integration. It adressed prejudice and discrimination.

Reflecting Bostonian neighbourhoods

The museum finds it important to be a community environment. Even though the downtown area where the museum is situated became quite a wealthy area and is now a commercial area; the museum wants to make sure it has a close relationship with the neighbourhoods. They want their staff and exhibitions to reflect the various neighbourhoods.

Kindergarten readiness: both for young children and parents

Nowadays, one of their points of attention is the achievement gap: Asian and white kids vs. Latino and black kids. They therefore organize school readiness programme for people from low-income areas.  In these programmes children develop their socio-emotional skills, but also practice practical skills for school such as buttoning their jacket, holding a pen/scissors etc: kindergarten readiness. In the earlier days of the programme, the museum team noticed that the parents didn’t understand what was going on. They needed training in paying attention to what their kids are learning. Therefore they changed their mission: we’re there for kids and adults.  They developed activities in which it is important to work together. Moreover, they partner with other community organisations, such as health centres (dentists etc.), medical centres and mental health centre (community organisations) to truly serve as a place for parents and children.



Q: Why doesn’t your city government invest in your museum money wise?

A: There is a lot of misunderstanding. Generally, people think that institutes like ours do not attribute as much to the community. It turns out that cultural organisations attribute more than sports organisations or other types of organisations. People assume the museum is owned by the city of Boston, but we raise a lot of money. We have a new mayor that is much more willing to promote culture in a broad sense. Hopefully, things will change.


Q: What do you do to train the adults? Does the training take place when they visit with children?

A: Training is not the best word: The staff will model interaction as a role model to their parents. They invite them to get off your phone and play with their child. The sculpture turned out to be the best training. There are specific types of exhibits that help. Simple things like seating work (big seats, small seats). We encourage adults to get involved. We have signs that are focused on the parents. It provides questions that they can ask their children: what happens when you fill the bucket? Where does the water go. The signage is a cue for the parents to ask questions to their children. We also have an app for parents, which is in a way a bit counter intuitive, because we don’t want them to focus on their phone instead of on their kids.


Q: Are your volunteers specially educated?

A: They are trained in interaction with adults; they themselves do not need to have a specific education. What we ask friendly personality; someone who wants to learn and is very much visitor service oriented.


Q: How do you get big family groups to visit your museum?

A: Earlier we gave out free passes if people came back with their families, but that didn’t work. Community agencies do work. We have extra activities during cultural festivals. When at these festivals kids get a chance to perform, their families will come and watch.