Michael Spock

Michael Spock began his career as the Director of the Boston Children's Museum in 1962. His unconventional educational background led him to approach revitalizing the museum with an experiential and informal platform. He began with a What's Inside? exhibit where children could see and explore the insides of ordinary objects, such as a toaster, baseball, or a drop of rainwater. At that time non-directive, open-ended exploratory exhibits were not common.1 That exhibit lasted five years and led the national transition to hands-on children's museums across America.

Michael, the son of Dr. Benjamin Spock, was dyslexic and became “the kind of learner who enjoys real stuff and three-dimensional ways of communicating information.”2 He eventually earned a college degree from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and completed one year at Harvard Graduate School of Education. To support his young family, Michael had co-founded Spock Art and was designing exhibits for the Dayton Museum of Natural History. He was deciding if he should continue at Harvard when he learned of the opening for Director of the Boston Children's Museum.3

At that point the Boston Children's Museum, which was nearing 50 years old, was at a crossroads. The younger board members were committed to educational reforms and were searching for a way to expand into an experimental approach in the museum.4 The Board took a chance on Michael's “avant-garde style” and he went to work translating his vision into plans and programs.

Believing that “children get enough instruction in school,”5 Michael's vision was that “meaningful interactions with real objects, direct engagement and enjoyment” was the best way to promote learning in a museum.6 The What's Inside? exhibit began with simple items and grew to include a cross-section of a Victorian house as well as a cross-section of a city street, which allowed children to crawl above and below the street through manholes and sewer pipes.

Over the 23 years Michael directed the Boston Children's Museum, he added exhibits such as Grandfather's Cellar, a look at the world of grandparents; the Algonquin Indian exhibit, which involved grinding maize and chipping arrowheads; and the simulated forest, which could be observed above or explored underneath through tunnels.7 Michael brought the exhibits out of the glass cases and into the hands of the children and in so doing encouraged “imagination, curiosity, investigation, innovation, and play.”8

Other innovations that Michael employed were creating exhibits for children under the age of five, scaling exhibits to children's heights and capacities, including all the senses for exploring, allowing open-ended play,9 and extending the learning through books, films, games, and toys for the classroom and the home.10

In 1986, Michael became the Vice President for Public Programs at the Field Natural History Museum in Chicago, Illinois. He was there for eight years, bringing his hands-on approach and philosophy to Chicago. The Field Museum honored him with the Distinguished Service Award in 1996.11

Beginning in 1995, Michael was a Research Fellow at the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago and a museum scholar in residence at the Chicago History Museum.12 For the Chapin Hall Center he was one of the researchers examining lifelong learners and how museums and other informal settings can promote such lasting learning. They were also gathering data on memorable and life-changing events that occur in museums.13

In 1998, Michael was a consultant for Baltimore's Port Discovery that was being built.14 He continues to be a consultant to museums and funding organizations concerning exhibits, programming, planning, and administration issues.

  • 1. “Sidebar: What's Inside?” Boston Children's Museum. < http://bcmstories.com/stories-menu/chapter01-menu/103-sidebar-whats-inside > 5 Aug. 2011.
  • 2. Keller, Jon. “The Original 'Spock Baby,' Dr. Benjamin's Son Michael, Runs the Country's Best Museum for Kids.” People. < http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20081250,00.html > 5 Aug. 2011.
  • 3. Coakley, Michael. “Field Museum Picks Hands-on Program Chief.” Chicago Tribune. Nov. 22, 1985. < http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1985-11-22/features/8503200871_1_natural-history-museum-michael-spock-field-museum > 5 Aug. 2011.
  • 4. Spock, Mike. “Jamaica Plain: The Children's Museum.” Boston Children's Museum. < http://bcmstories.com/stories-menu/chapter01-menu/89-jamaica-plain-the-childrens-museum > 5 Aug. 2011.
  • 5. “Youth: Spock's Museum.” Time Magazine. < http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,902510,00.html > 5 Aug. 2011.
  • 6. “About Us.” Boston Children's Museum. 5 Aug. 2011.
  • 7. Op.cit., “Youth: Spock's Museum.”
  • 8. Op.cit., “About Us.”
  • 9. McDougall, Kim. “Children's Museums: A History and Profile.” Transcript of lecture given in 1999 by Kim McDougall, Director, Chanadian Children's Museum, Quebec, Canada.
  • 10. Op. cit., Coakley.
  • 11. “Centennial Honor Roll.” American Associations of Museums. < http://www.aam-us.org/sp/centennial/honor-roll.cfm > 2 Oct. 2011.
  • 12. Falk, John Howard, Lynn Diane Dierking, and Susan Foutz. In principle, in practice: museums as learning institutions. Rowman Altamira, 2007. p. 314. < http://books.google.com/books?id=YrxzIpjECZAC&pg=PA314&lpg=PA314&dq=michael+spock+and+university+of+chicago&source=bl&ots=3C_RSwiB_C&sig=TvFWpPu4jY8d8DH63w6yofzpEjE&hl=en&ei=jSSJTrzZGefiiAKY-sm4DA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=10&ved=0CF0Q6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=michael%20spock%20and%20university%20of%20chicago&f=false > 2 Oct. 2011.
  • 13. Perry, Deborah L. and Michael Spock. “The Informal Learning Program at the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.” Visitor Behavior. Spring/Summer, 1997, Vol. XII, Number 1-2, pg 9. < http://informalscience.org/researches/VSA-a0a0u8-a_5730.pdf > 2 Oct 2011.
  • 14. Hall, Barbara. “Children's Museums Boom, With Parents Credited.” New York Times. July 22, 1998. < http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/22/us/children-s-museums-boom-with-parents-credited.html > 5 Aug. 2011.