Boston Black: A City Connects, a beloved exhibit at the Boston Children’s Museum, is closing down. Since 2004, the exhibit has highlighted the city's Black population to inspire dialog surrounding race and identity. The museum is launching construction of a new exhibit called You, Me, We, which is set to open later this year. Melissa Higgins and Malene Welch from the museum joined Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel on GBH’s Morning Edition to talk about what Boston Black has mean to kids over the years. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Jeremy Siegel: Melissa, Boston Black has been a fixture at the museum for essentially the entire 21st century. A lot has changed in that time. What was this exhibit? What did it mean for children and how has that meaning shifted?
Melissa Higgins: Boston Black was important for many reasons, but one thing that we like to highlight is that it was really designed by the community, and it's interesting — there are images of people in Boston Black who work here now at the Children's Museum.
But I think the fact that people who lived in Boston had a voice in that exhibit and could literally see themselves in the space and then others who were visiting could also see their friends, neighbors, people who looked like them and get a sense for the larger Boston Black community, and that it's not a monolith and everybody has an identity. We're trying to focus on those identities in the exhibit spaces we create here. I think that really carried over through the lifespan of that exhibit and hopefully many kids and families saw themselves in that space.
Paris Alston: So Malene, what made you decide it was time to bring this exhibit to an end?
Malene Welch: The conversation around race and ethnicity has evolved. And as Melissa said, people saw themselves in this exhibit and really were able to contribute, and we want to continue with that. And so we're really building off of what made Boston Black special, like how our community members were able to contribute. So we're taking the parts that were really celebrated and we're just expanding on those. We’re going to see it expand into many more neighborhoods — especially the 23 neighborhoods of Boston that we're really interested in exploring and celebrating with You, Me, We.
Siegel: It's supposed to be finished and released in the summer, right? What can people expect in the new exhibit?
Welch: This is going to be a lot of community content. We have people who will be literally recorded telling their family stories. We're going to be celebrating identity, both individual identity and collective identity. We're talking about your family structure, your neighborhood. What does it mean to be in community? And we are doing this through celebrating art, culture, music, food and civic engagement.
Alston: Talking about identity and background can be really complicated at times, right? I mean, you're talking about race, but then there's also gender, there's sexuality, there's family structure, religion, a list of things. How do you make those topics both accessible but also entertaining for kids?
Higgins: The kids themselves do a lot of the work for us here at the museum. They are incredibly observant and incredibly curious. So often I think our role is to present an activity or an image that will get the kids thinking, perhaps in a new way. But of course, kids are forming their own identities. We're thinking about kids ages 4 to 10 in this exhibit space. But they are curious about identity. I think part of our role is to provide a space that is a safe space for them to ask some questions, maybe questions about religion, questions about someone who looks different than I do, someone who lives in a different area than I do and what is their life like?
A lot of our role, I think, is to provide those opportunities for them to ask questions out of curiosity and not judgment, which often is where kids are coming from. So if we can help support those conversations for the adults in their lives, then that's a big part of what we can do to make these conversations easier — help the adults navigate some things that they might not be sure how to answer.
"We're going to be celebrating identity, both individual identity and collective identity. We're talking about your family structure, your neighborhood. What does it mean to be in community?"-Melissa Higgins, Boston Children's Museum
Alston: Are there any kind of local events or local tensions that are reflected in this exhibit? For instance, the city's reckoning with race and the summer of 2020, the ongoing reckoning, all the protests that happened?
Welch: So this is a real time exhibit with content coming from our community members. So even before it opens, we're having stories from people about their families, about their histories, about their immigration stories. But as the exhibit moves on, there are opportunities for people to leave stories, to share stories, to swap recipes and really to record themselves talking about what's going on. So anything that comes up, any stories that happen, we can respond to those in real time.
Siegel: You, Me, We is set to open later this year. Right now, it's about to be a school vacation week. What can families and kids look forward to at the museum in the days ahead?
Higgins: The school vacation week is one of our favorite times here at the museum. We're actually running it from Monday, April 18th through Sunday, the 24th and our theme is Play Week. We use play and exploration everywhere in the museum to help facilitate learning. And during Play Week this year, we're going to have some really exciting building activities in our common, which is one of the main open spaces in the museum that we fill with extra fun things during special times. We'll also have some students from Northeastern, one of their engineering labs. It's a great time for kids and families to just come here and play and have a lovely experience together, which perhaps they haven't done in a couple of years here at the museum. So we invite everybody back to do that.