A Museum's Influence


(This column was first published in the February 4, 2002 Buffalo News.)


Recently the Buffalo Museum of Science celebrated its 140th anniversary and its remarkable record over those years of service to this city and region. Despite the additional significance of the decade, such meetings are usually rather brief with a few dry reports -- business as usual.

But this celebration turned into something quite unique for the institution. Invited back were the "Museum Kids", children who attended museum activities between 1927 and 1976. And they quite simply took over the meeting.

I wish that someone had the foresight to record their comments. It was quite remarkable to hear these folks, some of them now elderly, tell of the influence of this institution on their lives. Perhaps Dr. Cora Musial said it best, "In addition to my family, the museum was the biggest influence on my life and the person I became personally and professionally." But she was not alone. To Ruth Anderson, for example, "The BMS was my second home."

It quickly became clear that most had been from the central city, "rich kids, poor kids, black kids, white kids, all having fun together and being friends." As another put it so well, "I credit the museum with offering me exposure to a richer, more diverse cross section of people than were found at the particular public schools I attended, with giving me a knowledge and appreciation of multicultural music and dance, and with fostering and promoting my passionate, lifelong love of nature."

Many walked to the museum, some several miles. Once there they participated in a wide range of activities: classes in folk dancing, sketching and painting, Indian lore, geology, astronomy, crafts, microscopy, mineralogy, the study of reptiles and trees.

There were story hours and cookouts. They attended Teepee Camporee Day Camp and jamborees. They went on field trips together. As one of them said, "You name it, we did it."

Staff members, among them Ellsworth Jaeger and Ruth Weierheiser, were saluted for their profound influence. Jaeger was especially remembered for his pet bobcat.

And the museum profoundly affected their lives. Several spoke passionately about the negative influences that surrounded them in the city, how their neighbors succumbed, but how the museum provided a rich alternative. It pulled them out of that quicksand.

The results are amazing. Guided by their museum mentors, many went on to college, usually the first to do so in their family. And a remarkable proportion achieved fine careers. They became physicians, teachers, social workers, inventors, authors and scientists. One is a television writer and producer, another an internationally recognized geologist, still another a famous computer scientist.

What came through from their stories was the wide range of interests each of them enjoyed -- and mastered. Here, for example, is deforest Walker: "After an early career as a professional musician, I felt called to the field of social services -- interestingly enough, this second career began with my work in educational programs for children before extending itself to services for very low-income and, ultimately, homeless people. Twenty-some years later, I am now working in the field of philanthropy for the arts. I mention all this because it's amazing to me to consider how many different ways my experiences at the museum helped to prepare me for the work I've done in my life."

Happily, the meeting provided an impetus for these wonderful people to regroup to serve a museum that has meant so much to their lives. They have reestablished contact with old friends and are already profoundly influencing this institution's future.

Among the results -- a new program for the next generation of museum kids is now underway.-- Gerry Rising