Mildred Compton (1917–1993) set out to be a scientist and only by happenstance became a museum director. The daughter of a Bicknell, Indiana banker and his wife, Mildred graduated from the University of Michigan in 1938 with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry degree.
While working on her master’s degree at Sophie Newcomb College, the coordinate women’s college of Tulane University in New Orleans, she visited the headquarters of Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis. Offered a job as an organic chemist in the company’s research department, she accelerated her work on her master’s thesis and went to work for Lilly in 1940. She stayed nearly seven years, leaving only after meeting and marrying another Lilly employee, John Compton.
Introduction to The Children’s Museum
Settling into family life with their two children, Sara and John Jr., the Comptons bought a house just a few blocks from Broad Ripple Park, where Mildred Compton first encountered the Carousel that would later become an iconic attraction at The Children’s Museum. Determined to expose her two children to as many experiences as possible, one day she took them for their first visit to The Children’s Museum. It was her first visit too, and she was delighted when her youngsters enjoyed themselves despite being a bit too young for the exhibits.
Work with The Children’s Museum Guild
In the spring of 1952, Compton was invited to join the Children’s Museum Guild. After three years of making decorations for special events and helping out around the museum, she was elected president of the Guild. In that position she worked closely with museum director Grace Golden; at the end of her yearlong stint as president, Compton agreed to help Golden get more financial support for the museum from township schools. She also began training as a docent.
Museum Staff Appointment
When her husband developed heart problems, Compton took classes at Butler University, training to work as a high school chemistry teacher. But following John Compton’s death in 1961, she received an offer from Golden to work for the museum as executive secretary. She accepted and was immediately put in charge the museum’s school membership campaign, a tedious record-keeping task. She also helped catalog an array of collections objects the museum had recently received.
Appointment as Director
When Golden gave notice in April 1964 that she would resign on her 65th birthday two months later, the board promptly appointed Compton as the new director. Over the ensuing 18 years she transformed the museum into one of the best-known and most-admired institutions of its type in the country, presiding over the creation of the museum’s first (and much praised) science gallery, and agreeing to let the Guild stage a Haunted House in October 1964 that became the biggest fund-raising event in its history (and an annual event every year since).
Compton also advocated the professionalization of the museum, and in 1971 The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis became one of the first 24 museums in the United States—and the first in Indianapolis—to be accredited by the American Association of Museums (AAM).
Compton and the board also established the museum’s first long-range plan, which led to the expansion of the museum’s property lines through the purchases of several adjacent buildings and parcels of land. Those acquisitions allowed Compton and the trustees to mount an ambitious fundraising campaign to pay for an equally ambitious facilities expansion. The 1976 building is the core of the museum today—five levels connected by wide ramps, with the Carousel on the top floor.
Compton retired in 1982, amid accolades from around the country. The chemist turned out to be a bit of an alchemist, making an already respected museum into a model of its type. In 1988 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the AAM. She died in 1993 at the age of 76.