Formation, Philosophy, and Framework: 1925–1942
When The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis opened in December 1925, it was the fourth museum in the United States devoted exclusively to the interests of young people. It was modeled after the first children’s museum in the U.S., Brooklyn Children’s Museum, which was founded in 1899. Two others—the Boston Children’s Museum, founded in 1913, and the Detroit Children’s Museum, founded in 1917—preceded the one in Indianapolis.
Indianapolis resident Mary Stewart Carey first promoted the idea of a museum for local children. Her enthusiasm was fueled by a visit to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in October 1924. Carey was inspired by Brooklyn’s cases of artifacts, its rooms dedicated to reptiles, birds, insects, and botany, and its 9,000-volume reference library. The museum operated on the philosophy that it existed for the benefit of each child who entered its doors.
Carey was no stranger to initiating child-centered projects. In 1922 she had donated use of a house and an apple orchard she owned as the first home of The Orchard School, which two of her grown daughters helped found. In April 1925, Carey convened a meeting that led to the formation of The Children’s Museum Association of Indianapolis, which in turn led to the creation of a constitution, set of bylaws, and board of trustees. She was selected as the board’s first president.
Unlike the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, which had purchased a large group of natural history objects as the foundation of its collection, the Indianapolis organization had neither the money nor the access to collectors. Instead, Carey and other board members appealed to the community for donations. From schoolchildren to serious collectors, the public responded with an array of objects ranging from arrowheads and Japanese clothing to early American furniture and dolls. As opening day approached the museum had more than 600 objects to display.
Arising from the progressive education movement of the early 20th century, the museum’s operating premise was straightforward—to develop exhibits that were educationally sound, intellectually enlightening, and creatively engaging for children. It was to be a children’s museum in more than name alone.
Organizing a Museum
Not only did the new museum need a collection to exhibit, it needed a place to exhibit it. Fortunately The Propylaeum, a literary and cultural club for women, had one—a carriage house behind the group’s main building at 1410 N. Delaware Street. It was easily big enough for the fledgling museum, at least in the short term.
In addition to a building, the museum’s growing collection required a curator to organize and exhibit its contents. The first person to accept that responsibility was a 42-year-old businessman and amateur archaeologist from Bedford, Indiana, named E.Y. Guernsey, who agreed to help the museum prepare for an informal preview the week of Dec. 6, 1925. Though the preview—which was directed at children curious to see what was going on in the carriage house—went off as planned, Guernsey became ill and returned home.
At the same time, the board was struggling to pay the rent and heating bill for the carriage house, a problem that was solved on Christmas Eve 1925 when Indianapolis Mayor Samuel Lewis (“Lew”) Shank offered the fledgling museum free space in the shelter house at Garfield Park. That’s where the museum formally opened to the public on Jan. 22, 1926, under the care of a 19-year-old Butler University student named Stewart Springer.
Operating the museum proved to be more than Springer was prepared to handle, and he resigned in May 1926, paving the way for the museum’s first director, Arthur Carr.
The Carr Era Begins
Carr was a 55-year-old pharmacist, but more importantly he was, like his second cousin Guernsey, an experienced archeologist, naturalist, and collector. Working at first for free, he stepped in and turned the museum’s hodge-podge of objects into an organized collection. He also promoted the idea of finding new quarters, telling the museum’s board that neighborhood vandals were stealing or damaging items on display.
Once again Carey offered to help. Having moved out of her home at 1150 N. Meridian Street, she agreed to let the museum move in, which it did on April 16, 1927. The sprawling three-story house proved to be ideal, with plenty of room to organize thematic displays on such topics as marine life, Japanese culture, natural history, pioneer life, and archaeology.
Carr was passionate about creating an educational environment and the museum became a popular destination for school groups. With the help of local architect and board member Kurt Vonnegut Sr., the museum created a junior board to help with the development of exhibits and programs. Vonnegut also designed the museum’s first logo—Sidney the Sea Horse.
The Great Depression Years
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when school transportation funds were lacking, Carr’s assistant Grace Golden created portable exhibits and packets of materials that teachers could borrow. Those exhibits and materials became the basis for the museum’s school extension service, which was introduced in the fall of 1932. It coincided with what other museums around the country were doing as they developed exhibits and programs that supplemented classroom learning.
Money was tight and the museum’s need for help was great. It was that plight that led to the formation of The Children’s Museum Guild in 1933. Through the Guild the museum was able to utilize volunteers to help with administrative tasks, lead tours, and do research.
Carr also made good use of one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s key programs in his battle against high unemployment in the 1930s—the Work Projects Administration (WPA). Designed to put people to work at least part-time, with the federal government paying part or all of a worker’s wages, the WPA program in Indianapolis provided manpower to a variety of community organizations including The Children’s Museum.
At the museum WPA workers did everything from building display cases and stitching doll costumes to making repairs to the Carey house and designing dioramas. The latter task was done by an artist named John Quincy Adams, and it was his work that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt especially admired when she made a visit to the museum in August 1937.
Roosevelt’s visit came just a few months after the museum lost an opportunity to relocate to a new facility designed by Vonnegut. The building, which was going to be constructed on a lot given to the museum by board member William Rockwood, required a zoning variance. But when property owners in the surrounding residential neighborhood objected, the city plan commission denied the variance, which put an end to the Vonnegut building.
During the Depression the museum also became the official sponsor for an annual summer trip out West known as the Prairie Trek. Organized and led by Hillis Howie, a craft and nature study teacher at The Orchard School, the Trek offered Indianapolis boys the chance to explore the natural history of the Great Plains and the Southwest over an eight-week period. Howie’s assistant on the treks was none other than former museum employee Stewart Springer.
As he approached his 70th birthday, Arthur Carr, who was a tireless worker, was weary. After 16 years he was ready to turn the day-to-day responsibilities of running a museum over to someone younger. On June 1, 1942, Carr submitted his letter of resignation to the board. He recommended—and the board agreed—that the new director should be his longtime assistant Grace Golden.