Curiosity is the Beginning of Wisdom
The early template for what would later evolve into the Museum of Science and History was founded on the simple principle of hands-on learning. But 75 years ago, the Jacksonville Children’s Museum was more than just a museum. It was a monument to the ingenuity, perseverance, and strength of a group of women dedicated to creating a living classroom for children of all ages to explore the natural world.
Highlights from the first annual report of the Jacksonville Children’s Museum in 1945, now a permanent part of the MOSH archives, are testament to that commitment. According to one of the first reports following the inception of the Jacksonville Children’s Museum, “When an idea is fostered by a sincere group, willing to plan, share, and work consistently, it can become a reality. The history of the Jacksonville Children’s Museum gives evidence of this belief.”
Today, the Museum of Science and History celebrates 75 years of education, exploration, and discovery with a renewed spirit and recognition of the legacy of strong leadership continuing through the museum ranks.
“The strongest leadership in the museum has been by women.”
“The strongest leadership in the museum has been by women,” says Executive Director Maria Hane. “I find that pretty interesting in the history of the museum.” Hane has served as Executive Director for the last seven years. Her predecessors include Doris Whitmore and Sally Taylor.
In 1910, teacher and museum founder Madge Wallace created a small nature exhibit for her students using objects she collected in her own backyard. Wallace understood the benefit of tactile discovery and experiments to stimulate the kids’ sense of wonder and exploration and to establish a connection with the world around them. She often employed imaginative classroom presentations, learning about plants through gardening and collecting and studying a variety of bugs and rocks.
It started as a simple class. With the help of fellow teachers Mary Frei and Caroline Stout, also the president of the Jacksonville Association for Childhood Education, the idea expanded beyond the classroom into the first Jacksonville Children’s Museum at 1061 Riverside Avenue.
The United States’ entry into World War II put the Museum on hold until 1945. During the time, many women found themselves thrust from the familiarity of tending to the home and raising children to supporting the factory front lines while their husbands were overseas. In Jacksonville, a group of dedicated volunteers continued working diligently toward bringing the concept of a children’s museum to fruition.
“The founding of the museum by three women educators and how they navigated the system; they had to learn how to position men so that they could get the work done.”
Forbes recommended that the museum reorganize its board and strengthen its sponsorships and donors. Under his guidance, the Jacksonville Children’s Museum added new programs and exhibits. Forbes was also able to interest the Junior League of Jacksonville in helping the museum.
“The founding of the museum by three women educators and how they navigated the system; they had to learn how to position men so that they could get the work done,” says Hane. “It’s really interesting. It was the 11th children’s museum in the United States to be funded, and it was through the Hornaday group. They reached out and applied, but the board had to be set up with a board of men, so they could shepherd it and meet the criteria to get the funding.”
With that support, the Jacksonville Children’s Museum relocated into the nearby Armory in 1944 under its first director, Madalene B. Sawyer. By 1948, the Jacksonville Children’s Museum moved into its first permanent location in a Victorian house in Riverside.
“The museum was chartered but didn’t actually have a home base until 1948, and so much of that was about the war. After the war was over, they took back up the work of trying to find a home for the museum. It’s interesting that it took that much time,” says Hane. “For us, we look back [and…] seven or eight years doesn’t look that significant on a timeline, but that’s the entire length of time that I’ve worked here.”
Children learned to appreciate wildlife through the study of live animals like snakes and skunks. The Hornaday Foundation aided in the acquisition of eight mounted animals and 43 birds, including the gift of the Tau or “feather money” from Vanicoro Island, which was the only exhibit of its kind outside the British Museum.
The Jacksonville Children’s Museum increased the number of activities, crafts, field trips and “Saturday motion picture programs” through the help of the Junior League of Jacksonville, who provided transportation to outdoor excursions.
“I am sure that I speak for members of the committee when I say that we have a feeling of accomplishment when we survey the growth made by the museum during the past year,” writes League Chair Elizabeth Keeley in the first annual report dated October, 1945 to December, 1946. “We feel like we have been of some practical assistance in performing a few [of] the many tasks necessary to maintain a museum whether they have included office work, cataloging or cleaning the live museum. The field trips we have conducted during the summer months for which the volunteers have furnished transportation were one of the most worthwhile activities initiated by the museum. Not only the children have benefitted from the museum; each member of the volunteer committee through her work at the museum has gained valuable knowledge and so, broadened her interests.”
A decade in their new home, the Jacksonville Children’s Museum operated as a full-time museum and boasted two floors of nature exhibits “in the round” and a planetarium holding 30 children at a time, depicting the stars of any country at any season on the ceiling. “Such is the demand on its services that we could use a planetarium three times as large.”
Open porches on the Victorian home were enclosed to house art classes. Over 18,000 children participated in the art instruction “ranging from the bright messy dabs of pre-schoolers to the more accomplished oils of our older ones,” recounted Keeley.
In the 1960s, the Museum teamed up with the Audubon Society to form the group Duval Discoverers. They combined research at the Museum with field observations around North Florida. The Museum aimed to spark children’s scientific interest and curiosity through programs using the Museum’s natural collections.
Through efforts of the Jacksonville Women’s Guild and the community funding, the museum reopened in a new 33,000-square-foot building in a more centralized downtown location along the Southbank near the Main Street Bridge, then called the Alsop Bridge.
It was late 1969, and the Jacksonville Children’s Museum finally made it to its permanent home. The organization changed its name to the Jacksonville Museum of Arts and Sciences in 1977, and, in 1983, earned its first accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums.
In 1988, the museum expanded again, adding 37,500 square feet of space, including the 60-foot, domed Alexander Brest Planetarium. The new addition was punctuated by one last name change, to the present Museum of Science and History, still located in the current Freedom Park.
The last 20-odd years have born witness to MOSH’s continued growth and significant accomplishments. The museum was awarded the National Award of Commendation from the American Association for State and Local History for the interpretation of regional history through the exhibit Currents of Time: A History of Jacksonville & Northeast Florida.
In 1993, it was designated as a Florida Major Cultural institution by the Department of State. The building was renovated the following year to expand the core exhibition galleries, add program and classroom space, increase collection storage spaces and upgrade all of the support systems.
MOSH’s core exhibit Atlantic Tails: Whales, Dolphins & Manatees of Northeast Florida opened in 1996, earning the Mimi and Lee Adams Environmental Award and Jacksonville Environmental Protection Agency Institution’s Award. Renovations increasing the museum’s square footage to 82,200 square feet were completed in 1997.
In 1999, MOSH received City of Jacksonville Historic Preservation Award for Currents of Time: A History of Jacksonville & Northeast Florida. In 2002, the museum opened its renovated JEA Science Theater and core exhibit Aqua Expo. Two years later, the core science exhibit Universe of Science opened to the public.
MOSH commemorated its 60th anniversary of continuous contract with Duval County Public Schools in 2009 and opened the core health science exhibit The Body Within, in partnership with Baptist Health. A new 2,400-square-foot classroom suite opened on the Museum’s first floor.
In 2010, MOSH celebrated the opening of the Space Science Gallery and the unveiling of the new Bryan-Gooding Planetarium in the fully renovated Alexander Brest Science Theater, finally fulfilling the needs for a planetarium three times its original size.
MOSH completed a rigorous accreditation process that examines all aspects of a museum’s operations to receive subsequent reaccreditation from the American Alliance of Museums. To earn accreditation, a museum must first conduct a year of self-study, and then undergo a site visit by a team of peer reviewers. Only 776 of the country’s 17,500 museums are AAM accredited. MOSH has been continually accredited since 1983.
Other significant achievements in the last five years include renovations to the Hixon Native Plant Courtyard renovation, a partnership with Naval Air Station Jacksonville with the opening of Interpreting Northeast Florida: A Historic Mural by Elmer Grey and the new core exhibit JEA PowerPlay: Understanding Our Energy Choices.
MOSH received the City of Jacksonville Historic Preservation Award for signature exhibit Jacksonville by Design: AIA Celebrates 100 Years of Architecture and in 2014 was awarded the Regional Council Special Achievement Award in Partnership with Mayor Alvin Brown for 450 Years of French History in Florida and The Nonprofit Center for Northeast Florida’s Change Agent Award and Collaboration and Innovation award for RACE: Are We So Different?
In 2016, MOSH welcomed over 240,000 visitors through its doors, and Hane says this year will begin with a “vision for growth that will carry us into the future” with the ongoing philosophy of the entire enterprise, that beginning with the three teachers became the motto of the museum: “Curiosity Is the Beginning of Wisdom”.