THE CHILDREN'S MUSEUM IN BROOKLYN
The interesting and unusual work of the library of the Children's Museum of the Brooklyn Institute is described by its librarian, Miriam S. Draper, in an article published in the Library Journal for April, 1910. Miss Draper says: "Contrary to the general impression [the library] is not composed entirely of children's books, but of a careful selection of the best recent books upon natural history in the broadest use of the term."
Miriam S. Draper was born in Roxbury, Mass., and taught for a brief period in the public schools there. She studied in Mr. Fletcher's school at Amherst in the summer of 1893, and was graduated from the Pratt Institute Library School in 1895. In the next five years she filled the following temporary positions: Cataloguer, Public Library, Ilion, N. Y.; Organizer, first branch of the Queens Borough Library at Long Island City; Librarian of a branch of the Pratt Institute Free Library until its discontinuance; Cataloguer, Antioch College Library, Yellow Springs, Ohio; one of the Classifiers in the University of Pennsylvania Library during its reorganization. When the Children's Museum was opened in 1900, she became its librarian, the position she now holds.
The Children's Museum may be considered unique, because so far as we know, there is no other museum in this country or elsewhere that is devoted primarily to children and young people; in which a whole building is set apart for the purpose of interesting them in the beautiful in Nature, in the history of their country, in the customs and costumes of other nations, and the elementary principles of astronomy and physics, by means of carefully mounted specimens, attractive models, naturally colored charts, excellent apparatus, and finely illustrated books. Many of the children come to the museum so often that they feel that it is their very own, and take great pride as well as pleasure in introducing their parents and relatives, so that they may enjoy the museum and library with them. It may be called a new departure in work with children, for although it was started ten years ago, it was for some time in the nature of an experiment, but has now fully exemplified its reasons for existence.
The Children's Museum is pleasantly located in a beautiful little park, which adds greatly to its attractiveness and educational value. While situated in a residential portion of the city, amid the homes of well-to-do people, it is quite accessible by car lines to other parts of the city. In fact, classes of children accompanied by their teachers frequently come from remote sections of Brooklyn, and from the East Side of New York. We are within walking distance of thickly populated sections, such as Brownsville, and large numbers of Jewish and Italian children avail themselves of the privileges offered. It is hoped that in time each section of the city may have its own little Children's Museum, as a center of interest and incentive to broader knowledge.
We are well aware that excellent work has been done for children during the past ten years in many other museums, and perhaps the first beginning in this direction was made by the Children's Room in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City provides an instructor to explain some of its beautiful and interesting exhibits to children, and a similar work has been done in the Milwaukee Museum. Children have been made especially welcome in other museums, such as those at Charleston, S. C., St. Johnsbury, Vt., and the Stepney Borough Museum in London. All librarians are so familiar with the excellent work done in the Children's Departments of public libraries, which have developed so rapidly in almost every town and city throughout the country during the past decade, that it is not necessary to refer at length to them. Suffice it to say, that the work of the Children's Museum and its library are quite different in plan and scope from any of the museums and libraries to which reference has been made.
Before describing in detail the work of this unique little museum, it may be of interest to know something of the early history of an institution which had its origin in connection with the first free library in Brooklyn.
As long ago as August, 1823, a company of gentlemen met together to discuss the question of establishing a library for apprentices in the "Village of Brooklyn." Shortly after, the "Apprentices' Library Association" was organized "for the exclusive benefit of the apprentices of the village forever." The library was first opened in a small building on Fulton street, on Nov. 15, 1823, On the Fourth of July, 1825, the corner-stone of a new library building was laid, on which occasion General Lafayette took part in the formal exercises.
It is interesting to note that a year or two later, courses of lectures in "natural philosophy" and chemistry were given for the benefit of members; and the early records tell us that in illustrating a lecture on electricity the instructor, "Mr. Steele, showed a metallic conductor used by Dr. Franklin in making experiments." Later, lectures on astronomy were given for the benefit of readers, and drawing classes established for a similar purpose.
A few years later the Library Association sold its building and removed to Washington street, where it remained for a long period of years. In 1843, the Association was reorganized under the name of the Brooklyn Institute, and privileges were extended to "minors of both sexes," the library being called at that time the "Youth's Free Library." At the same time the custom was established of awarding premiums to readers on Washington's Birthday. Silver medals and prizes of books were given for the best essays upon geography, natural history, hydraulics, architecture, and history, as well as the best pieces of workmanship and most accurate mechanical drawings presented by readers.
It seems a notable fact that courses of lectures, which have had a prominent part in the work of the Children's Museum, were also an important factor in the earlier educational work connected with the library; and also that a "Library fund," established sixty or more years ago, still provides all books and periodicals for the Children's Museum Library, with the addition of a small annual gift from the state of New York, the cost of maintenance being assumed by the city of New York.
The establishment of the Children's Museum came about in this wise. After a serious fire in the Washington street building, and the subsequent sale of its site, the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences secured an indefinite lease of a fine old mansion located in Bedford Park, which had been recently acquired by the city. The collections of birds, minerals, and other natural history objects were placed on exhibition for a few years in this old mansion, and the library, which now numbered several thousand volumes, was stored in the same building. On the completion of the first section of the new Museum of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, in 1897, the major part of the natural history collections were installed in the new museum.
At length the idea occurred to one of the curators that the old building could be utilized to advantage by establishing a museum which should be especially devoted to the education and enjoyment of young people. The first beginnings were made by the purchase of natural history charts, botanical and zoological models, and several series of vivid German lithographs, representing historical events ranging from the Battle of Marathon to the Franco-German War. Some collections of shells, minerals, birds and insects were added, and the small inception. of the Children's Museum was opened to the public Dec. 16, 1899, in a few rooms which had been fitted up for the purpose. A large part of the Brooklyn Institute Library, which had been stored in the building, and which was no longer useful here, was sent to other libraries in the South, leaving such books as were suitable to form the nucleus of the Children's Museum Library as well as the Library of the Central Museum.
With such modest beginnings the Children's Museum has developed within ten years, until the present building has become entirely inadequate for present needs. The collections now fill eleven exhibition rooms and adjacent halls; the lecture room is frequently overcrowded, the lecture being sometimes repeated again and again; and the space set apart for the library has long been taxed to its utmost. There are no reserve shelves for books, and when new books are added the least-used books are necessarily taken out and placed in temporary storage in a dark office on another floor. In busy times after school hours and on holidays, the reading room is frequently filled to overflowing, many of the children being obliged to stand, or perhaps turn away for lack of even standing room.
The number of visitors is steadily increasing, and numbered 14,637 in the month of February, 1910; just about one-third of this number, or 4,925, made use of the library during the month. A new building is therefore urgently needed, and it is ardently hoped that a new fireproof building which is adequate for the purpose may soon be provided, to relieve the great stress now so apparent in many parts of the building, as well as to preserve its interesting collections and valuable library.
It seems evident that an institution which stands primarily for earnest endeavor to awaken an interest in Nature, is really necessary, especially in cities where many children live so closely crowded together that they hardly know what wild flowers are, and whose familiarity with birds is confined principally to the English sparrow.
Moreover, the nature study of the public school course, though good as far as it goes, is too often perfunctory, either from lack of interest or enthusiasm on the part of teachers, it being an added subject to an already crowded curriculum. Another seeming drawback is that the nature work is attempted during the first few years only, and then is dropped entirely for the remainder of the elementary course. A comparatively small number of children continue their studies in high schools; and even so, the study of botany and zoology is made so largely systematic and structural that any desire of becoming acquainted with the birds and flowers and trees is frequently eliminated.
Although entirely independent of the Board of Education it is along just such lines that the Children's Museum is able to make a place for itself in supplementing the work of the school. Its aims have been defined by the curator to be as follows:
1. To employ objects attractive and interesting to children,
and at the same time helpful to teachers, in every
branch of nature study.
In addition to the common species of birds, insects, and animals, there are many groups that have special attraction for children. For instance, among the "Birds we read about" are the flamingo, cassowary, condor, and quetzal; the eagle owl is contrasted with the pygmy owl, and the peacock, lyre bird, albatross, swan, and pelican are displayed.
In the Insect room the child's attention is naturally drawn to the brilliantly-colored butterflies and moths, the curious beetles from tropical countries, and the "Strange insects, centipedes and scorpions." There is an extremely interesting silk-worm exhibit, and the children who visited the museum two or three summers ago had the pleasure of watching some of the identical silkworms while spinning their cocoons. Young collectors are shown exactly "How to collect and preserve insects" by examining the object lesson which was especially designed for their help.
Among the realistic "Animal homes" which appeal especially to the child's mind are the hen and chickens, the downy eider ducks, the family of red foxes, and the home of the muskrat. "Color in nature" is effectively illustrated by grouping together certain tropical fishes, minerals, shells, insects, and birds in such a manner as to bring out vivid red, yellow, blue, and green colors. Here and elsewhere in the museum are placed appropriate quotations from poets and prose writers.
In almost every room there are attractive little aquaria or vivaria containing living animals and plants. There is always a pleasure in watching the gold fish, or the salamanders, chameleons, mud-puppies, alligators, horned toads, tree toads, and snails. For three or four years an observation hive of bees has been fixed in a window overlooking the park, and children have watched the work of the "busy bees" with great delight.
The uses of minerals and rocks are shown by means of pictures of quarries, and of buildings and monuments, and lead pencils are seen in the various stages of manufacture. A small collection of "Gems" was recently donated, and the legends connected with the various birthstones are given in rhyme.
A black background has been used with pleasing effect to exhibit the various forms of shells. The process of making pearl buttons and numerous articles made of mother-of-pearl add largely to the charms of the Shell room.
Perhaps the most attractive room to the younger children is the History room, in which the beginnings of American history are typified not only by charts and historic implements, but by very real "doll houses." A member of the staff devised and cleverly executed the idea of representing the early settlers by six colonial types, viz., the Spanish, French, Cavalier, Dutch, New England and Quaker types. Some of the special scenes illustrated are labelled "Priest and soldier plan a new mission," "Indians selling furs to Dutch trader at Fort Orange" and "The minister calls on the family."
The study of geography is aided by means of small models of miniature homes of primitive peoples; as for instance, an Eskimo village with its snow igloos, the tents of the Labrador Eskimos, the permanent home of the Northwestern Eskimos, and the houses and "totem poles" of the Haida Indians. Some of the more civilized nations are typified by a "Lumber camp in a temperate zone," and by a series of "Dolls dressed in national costumes."
The library of the Children's Museum now numbers about six thousand volumes, and, contrary to the general impression, is not composed entirely of children's books, but of a careful selection of the best recent books upon natural history in the broadest use of the terms. The range is from the simplest readers to technical manuals.
The library is thus unique in its way, supplementing the work of the museum in various ways, such as the following:
1. Providing books of information for the museum staff in describing the collections, and preparing lectures for children.
2. Furnishing information to visitors about specimens models or pictures in the museum, and giving opportunity to study the collections with the direct aid of books.
3. Offering carefully chosen books on almost all the subjects of school work, thus forming a valuable "School reference library," at the same time showing parents and teachers the most helpful and attractive nature books to aid them in selecting such as best suit the needs and tastes of children or students.
Although it is not a circulating library (for many of the books need to be on call for immediate use), there are, of course, many interesting stories of heroes, scientists, explorers, statesmen, and other great leaders among men, of great events in history, of child life in different countries, of birds and animals, and the great "world of outdoors." A constant effort is made to foster a reading habit in the children, even though the time for reading is very limited. Last summer some simple bookmarks were printed, by the use of which many children have been encouraged to read books continuously. The reverse side of some of the bookmarks show that individual children have read eight or ten books through recently.
In place of the "Story hour" which is so popular in children's libraries, the Children's Museum provides daily half-hour talks, illustrated by lantern slides, which are given in the lecture room. The subjects are selected with relation to the school program, and include a variety of nature topics, the geography of different countries, history and astronomy. Twice a week a lecture is given on elementary science, and is illustrated by experiments.
On some of the holidays such as Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays the lecture is naturally devoted to the national hero, whose birthday is thus commemorated. This year there were so many children who wanted to learn about Washington that the lecture was given nine times during the day. On Lincoln's birthday there were several repetitions of the lecture, and the library was thronged with readers all day, at least one hundred children reading stories about him. The children looked with interest at the picture bulletins, comparing the pictures with those they had seen in the lecture. Hundreds of patriotic poems were copied during the month, the number being limited only by lack of space and writing materials.
During the March vacation there were so many visitors that special lectures were given each day upon some subject pertaining to nature. It is proposed this season to give additional special lectures appropriate for "Arbor day" and "Bird day," and probably one with relation to the "Protection of animals."
Lectures are occasionally given for the benefit of Mothers' Clubs, and members of the clubs accompanied by their children are shown the objects of interest in the museum. The library is also visited, and picture bulletins and books are enjoyed by mothers and children together. Last winter several Nature books were loaned for a special exhibit of Christmas books, which was arranged for a regular meeting of the Mothers' Club at a neighboring school.
A part of the museum equipment of especial benefit to boys in high schools is the wireless telegraph station, which was set up and is kept in working order by boys. It furnishes a good field for experimenting in sending and receiving wireless messages, and a good many boys have become so proficient that they have been able to accept positions as wireless operators on steamers during summer vacations.
The museum has considerable loan material, consisting of stuffed birds, boxes containing the life histories of common butterflies and moths, also minerals, charts, etc., which are loaned to public and private schools whenever desired.
The question is frequently asked "What influence does the museum exert on the minds of growing children?" "Does it really increase their powers of observation and broaden their horizon?" The relation between the members of the staff and many children becomes quite intimate, and although all attendance is entirely voluntary, it is often continued with brief interruptions for several years.
The experience of one young man may be cited to demonstrate how the advantages offered by the museum are put to definite use, while friendly relations continue for a period of years. When quite a small boy, a frequent visitor became interested in collecting butterflies and moths, learning how to mount them carefully, and using our books to help identify his finds. As he grew older, he commenced experimenting in a small way in wireless telegraphy, inviting the members of the staff, separately, to go to the basement and listen to the clicking of his little instrument, which was the beginning of successful work in that direction. Throughout his high school course he continued to experiment along wireless lines, doing very creditable work. Upon his graduation, he received an appointment as wireless operator on a steamer. In this capacity he has visited several of the Southern states, Porto Rico, Venezuela, and portions of Europe. He has improved his opportunities for collecting while on his various trips, as a creditable little exhibit, called the "Austen M. Curtis Collection of Butterflies and Moths" in the Children's Museum, will testify.
Some definite advantages gained in another field are worthy of mention. Last summer one of the high school boys commenced during the vacation to read all he could about astronomy; as the summer advanced, another boy became interested in the subject also, especially in the study of the constellations. Diagrams and star maps were carefully made and the names of all the important stars noted. In the fall a little club of eight or ten boys was formed. The members meet almost every pleasant evening at the home of the founder of the club and make use of two telescopes which have been secured to the roof. (Incidentally, may we add, that one of the boys with considerable pride recently showed the books on astronomy in the library to his aunt who was visiting from another city.) No astronomy is at present included in the public school course, with the exception of a little elementary study in the grammar school, so that an opportunity is here provided to supplement school work.
Children frequently make long visits, sometimes spending the greater part of a day, and bringing their luncheon with them to eat in the park. Sometimes whole families come together, father or mother, or both, accompanying the children. Frequently the little "mother" of the family who is having temporary care of four or five little ones, is not much larger than her little charges, and yet is anxious to read some of the books. Under such conditions, when the little folks become too restless to remain longer in the library or museum, the privilege of reading in the park is occasionally permitted, the book being returned to the library before leaving for their homes.
The publication of a monthly paper was started in 1902 as a means of communication with the general public and especially with schools. In April, 1905, the Children's Museum united with the larger Museum of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, in publishing the Museum News. This journal is sent not only to every public and private school in Brooklyn, but to every museum in this country and abroad; to every library in Brooklyn, and to libraries generally throughout the country.
An excellent "Guide to the trees in Bedford Park" has been printed in a separate leaflet, being at first a contribution to the Museum News. It may be noted here that a series of lectures upon Trees will be given at the Children's museum commencing April 11th by Mr. J. J. Levison, arboriculturist, the author of the "Guide"; and that a fine collection of the best tree books may always be consulted in the library.
In connection with the "Hudson-Fulton Celebration" in the fall of 1909, a handsome "Catalogue of the historical collection and objects of related interest at the Children's Museum" was prepared by Miss Agnes E. Bowen. It furnishes a concise outline of American history, is printed in attractive form, and illustrated by photographs of the historical groups already mentioned. Special picture bulletins were also exhibited in both museum and library, and objects having relation to Hudson and Fulton and their times were indicated by a neat little flag. It is perhaps needless to add that many teachers and children found great assistance by consulting the "Hudson-Fulton Bookshelf," and that the museum exhibit was very attractive to the general public.
The library has prepared various short lists from time to time whenever needed, but has thus far printed only one. This was prepared at the request of the Supervisor of Nature Study in the Vacation Schools of Greater New York, and is a short annotated list entitled "Some books upon nature study in the Children's Museum Library." The list will be sent free to any librarian or teacher upon application.
The Children's Museum is open daily throughout the year, the hours on weekdays being from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and from 2 to 5:30 p.m. on Sundays. The library is open on the same hours as the museum with few exceptions, such as Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and the Fourth of July, and Sunday afternoons during the summer, from June 15th to September 15th.
To sum up, the Children's Museum constantly suggests the added pleasure given to each child's life by cultivating his powers of observation, and stimulating his love of the beautiful in nature by means of attractive exhibits, half-hour talks, and familiar chats with groups of children. The library calls attention of individual children and classes to the flowers, birds and trees through its picture bulletins and numerous books; and children are urged to visit the Aquarium, the Zoological Gardens at Bronx Park, and see the natural beauties of Forest Park, whenever opportunity offers.