A Permanent Location: 1942–1964
When Grace Golden took over as director in June 1942, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis—like the rest of the country—was feeling the effects of America’s involvement in World War II. And like many other museums, The Children’s Museum responded with exhibits and activities directed at reminding visitors of the nation’s history and assisting with war relief efforts.
With many mothers joining the work force in the wake of massive enlistments by able-bodied men, children turned to the museum as a sanctuary after school, on weekends, and during vacations. In response, staff members developed museum-focused games, encouraged such pastimes as sketching in the galleries, and hosted hobby clubs. The museum initiated Family Sundays, which featured special lectures and programs; it also staged exhibits about other countries, including Russia (America’ strategic ally), as well as other cultures, including the Eskimos in Alaska where U.S. troops were stationed.
A New Home
With the war’s end in 1945 Golden and the board turned their attention to finding the museum a new home. The Carey house—now more than 70 years old—was quickly deteriorating, largely due to a lack of funds to maintain and repair it. In fact, rather than pour money into the mansion, the board had opted years before to establish a building fund with money from bequests and donations. The fund was intended to pay for the construction or renovation of another building in the future.
The moment arrived in late 1945 when the board discovered that the St. Clair Parry house, an elegant two-story, 13-room limestone structure at the corner of North Meridian and 30th streets, was available. Formerly the home of a local businessman and his wife, it was smaller than the Carey mansion, but it came with a large lot and a carriage house. What’s more, it was centrally located and on a bus route, simplifying transportation for staff and visitors alike.Though there were other interested parties, the museum was able to secure the property at a private auction held on June 17, 1946, with a bid of $63,500. Aside from its formation, acquisition of the Parry house was the most meaningful event in the history of The Children’s Museum (and in Golden’s, as she later remarked). For the first time, the museum actually owned its building—and, though no one realized it at the time, it had a permanent address on the 3000 block of North Meridian Street.
After months of preparation, the museum opened the doors to its new home on Dec. 6, 1946, with exhibits on Spain, Native Americans, China, Holland, and the Arctic. Many of the objects on display came from the museum’s rapidly expanding collection, which grew further in 1947 when the museum was offered the collection of the Open Door Museum in Goodland, Indiana. Founded in 1922 by attorney and insurance agent A.D. Babcock, the Open Door Museum was a rich repository of Native American and pioneer artifacts, Civil War materials, and objects from the Holy Land and ancient Rome, many of which Golden added to the collection of The Children’s Museum.
With 16 galleries spread among its 13 rooms, the museum was a constant flurry of activity as staff members rotated exhibits, guided school tours, and hosted special programs. So popular was The Children’s Museum’s new facility and so quickly was the collection growing that it soon became apparent that an expansion was needed.
In 1949 the museum opened a new wing dubbed the “prehistory gallery” because among its displays were an 18-foot-tall plaster cast skeleton of a ground sloth (known affectionately as “Dinah the Dinosaur”), a mastodon skull, the shell of an ancient armadillo, and some dinosaur bones. The image of the museum’s mascot Sidney the Sea Horse was carved into the new structure’s exterior limestone façade.
The addition connected the Parry house to its carriage house, which after being renovated became the natural history gallery. Stocked with turtles, fish, hamsters, snakes, and a pair of small crocodiles, it was nearly as popular as the prehistory gallery.
As it expanded its facilities, the museum also expanded its outreach efforts. In addition to lending traveling display cases to area schools, it provided them to hospitals and waiting rooms at juvenile court. It developed nature walks at parks around the city. And it hosted an array of special interest clubs including the Prehistoric Club, which attracted fans of the new gallery.
Another club that gained the museum national exposure was the Craft Club, which relied on volunteers from The Children’s Museum Guild who made pieces for crafts kits that were sent to youngsters who were members. The kits encouraged children to make objects with an international flair—a Japanese carp banner, a Mexican fiesta mask, an Italian Christmas tree.
The museum also brought in guest docents from Mexico, Peru, and Holland, as well as an experienced glass blower who gave demonstrations of his craft and helped develop a gallery devoted to the history of glass. With such internationally renowned glass works in Indiana as Kokomo Opalescent Glass, the gallery was especially relevant.
In 1954 the museum debuted its first television show, the once-a-week 15-minute “What and Where.” That was followed by “The Pennant Children’s Hour,” sponsored by the Union Starch and Refining Company of Columbus, Indiana, maker of Pennant syrups.
A Mummy Arrives
But Golden’s pièce de résistance was Wenuhotep, an Egyptian mummy believed to be a woman at least 2,500 years old. Stating that to a child “no museum is a museum without a mummy,” she arranged for Wenuhotep to come to Indianapolis on loan in 1959 from the Art Institute of Chicago. Once she went on display at the museum Wenuhotep quickly became a favorite of young visitors—and remained so for years to come.
Originally lent for one year, Wenuhotep’s stay stretched until 2006 when she was returned to the Art Institute (a replica was made for the museum’s collection). Though never officially part of the museum’s permanent collection, the mummy became an iconic object for generations of museum visitors.
The Hall of Man and the Log Cabin
In 1960 the museum bought the two-story Dreyer Building, which faced 30th Street behind the Parry property. In 1961 the new Hall of Man gallery opened in one part of the remodeled structure, and in an outdoor courtyard adjacent to the Hall of Mann gallery, a 130-year-old log cabin became a new museum attraction. Donated by Reily Adams, a longtime board member, the cabin had been carefully reassembled in the courtyard. There were also new offices, craft rooms, and a large meeting room. Following extensive work on the other portion of the Dreyer building, a transportation gallery opened in 1962. The museum’s facilities had tripled in size.
The Dreyer project was Golden’s last major achievement. Following a series of health problems, she retired on June 14, 1964. Her successor was former Children’s Museum Guild president Mildred Compton, who had been serving as Golden’s second in command and the museum’s go-to troubleshooter.