Sometimes an acquisition becomes the impetus for an entire exhibit: that was the case with The Power of Children: Making a Difference®, a permanent exhibit that opened on Nov. 10, 2007. The culmination of five years of planning and development, it began with an inquiry from Jeanne White-Ginder, the mother of Ryan White, the Indiana teenager who became internationally known in the early 1980s when he contracted HIV/AIDS.
A hemophiliac, Ryan became infected as the result of a blood-based treatment. An early victim of the disease about which little was then known, he was shunned by his middle-school classmates and asked to leave his school in the small community of Russiaville, Indiana. His fight to attend school thrust him into the international spotlight and he became one of the first HIV/AIDS spokespersons. Superstar performers Elton John and Michael Jackson befriended Ryan.
When he died of complications from the disease in 1990, he was just 18 years old. Thousands of people came to his funeral in Indianapolis, including John who sang a song in tribute to the teenager whom he later credited with inspiring him to give up drugs and heavy drinking.
Jeanne White-Ginder had contacted another museum about acquiring Ryan’s things, but that institution was only interested in a small segment of his belongings—primarily those things that were gifts from Ryan’s celebrity friends. But Ginder-White wanted a museum that would dedicate space to fully telling Ryan’s story. In 2000 she contacted The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis to see if there was any interest. When curators visited White-Ginder’s home they discovered that she had kept Ryan’s room intact—it was exactly as it had been before his death 10 years earlier. Although no one knew at the time how Ryan’s belongings would be displayed or interpreted, executive director and CEO Jeffrey Patchen and the curators concurred: “We want the entire room,” they said.
Concept of Exhibit
That initiated a conversation about what to do next. While an exhibit about Ryan and his struggles was the obvious thing to do, conversations led to a larger concept: a gallery devoted to telling the story of courageous children. It was also an opportunity to create a permanent exhibit devoted to the story of Anne Frank, the Jewish teen whose diary chronicled her experience in hiding during the Holocaust, which was something that museum donor Gerald Paul had long advocated. To the stories of Ryan and Anne, Patchen added that of Ruby Bridges, who was the first African American child admitted to an all-white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960, when she was six years old.
The thread connecting the three was the fact that they all had transcended their time, becoming symbols of courage in the face of the ignorance, bigotry, and hatred they faced. Divided into three distinct areas, each devoted to one of the three subjects, the exhibit uses photographs, artifacts, video, and live presentations to tell their stories and expose visitors to the societal attitudes and personal assumptions underlying how each one was treated.
Developed with the help of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the Anne Frank Center in New York, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White’s family and friends, The Power of Children: Making a Difference is a powerful reminder of how a single individual really can make a difference. Anne Frank’s diary entries, news footage of a small Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by U.S. Marshals, and video interviews with an ill but determined Ryan White exposed to the world the fact that these were just kids being forced to deal with terrible situations and finding a way to do so with dignity and grace. In the face of such courage, how could people not question their own prejudices and behavior?
The museum also developed a website dedicated to the exhibit, which provides information about each of its three subjects, along with classroom materials, a reading list for teachers, and suggestions for actions that individuals and families can take to make a difference in their communities.
After learning about the lives of three children who made a difference in the world, visitors are encouraged to learn how they can make a difference as well. In the “Take Action” portion of the exhibit, three organizations—The Indiana Department of Child Services, The Villages of Indiana, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana—are featured as examples of how fostering, adopting, and mentoring children in need can make a big difference in their lives.
Created with a grant from LDI 100th Anniversary Celebration Partnership Gift Program, the “Take Action” area also includes a “Start It Rolling” activity. By dropping a coin in a specially designed device, a visitor can watch as it rolls along a pathway, unlocking actions, big or small, anyone can take that will make have a positive impact on individuals, communities, and the world. The money collected from this activity helps support The Power of Children Awards.
The Power of Children Awards
The museum also presents the annual Power of Children Awards, which recognize the efforts of students in Grades 6 to 11 who’ve had an impact on the lives of others and shown they have a commitment to making society better through community service. Each recipient is given a $2,000 grant to continue his or her work and recognition in The Power of Children exhibit. They also may elect to receive a four-year post-secondary scholarship to a participating Indiana institution of higher learning. Recipients are honored at an awards ceremony at The Children’s Museum that is held in early November.
Since the inception of The Power of Children awards in 2005, the museum has honored 38 youths for their extraordinary work. The awards are supported by a major gift from the Deborah Joy Simon Charitable Trust.
Since its opening, The Power of Children—which is recommended for ages 8 and older—has attracted millions of visitors and undoubtedly provoked many questions and discussions. That’s its purpose. By exposing visitors to the lives and experiences of three extraordinary children, the museum is encouraging them to examine their own lives and experiences and question their attitudes about, and actions toward, others. That is the power of children—they can make a difference.
The Power of Children: Making a Difference exhibit was made possible by many generous donors. Learn more about the museum’s transformational donors.