Transcript – Episode 61

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Announcer: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council.  We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities and sciences, to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.

Anita Walker: Museums need to have content that is relevant to today’s audiences.  Dr. Seuss is a subject that appeals to everybody, no matter what your cultural background or your educational attainments.

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Anita Walker: Hi.  My name is Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.”  Our guest today is Kay Simpson, President of Springfield Museums.  Welcome to our program.

Kay Simpson: Well, thank you.  I’m really happy to be here.

Anita Walker: You have had such an exciting time with the opening of the new Dr. Seuss Museum.  I think Dr. Seuss has got to be one of the most beloved children’s authors on the planet, virtually, and so there has been a lot of anticipation in advance of the opening of this fantastic new attraction in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Talk to us a little bit about how this came to be, how you were able to bring this to life.

Kay Simpson: That’s a great question, and it really has been years in the making.  It goes back to 2002, when we opened the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden.  So for those people who are not familiar with the Springfield Museums, we’re a very unique, interdisciplinary complex located in the heart of downtown Springfield, and we have two art museums, a history museum and a science museum.  We now have a fifth museum, which is the Dr. Seuss Museum.  The Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture garden is an outdoor attraction and so it’s seasonal.  We found when we opened it, it was extremely popular.  It really changed the nature of our visitation.  People loved coming to Springfield.  They loved looking at the sculptures.  We found that they were coming from all over the country.  It was instantaneously a huge success in terms of raising our visibility.

Anita Walker: And some people may be wondering, “Why Springfield and Dr. Seuss?”  What’s the connection?

Kay Simpson: And that’s another great question.  We always sort of assume that people know that Ted Geisel, Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, was born in Springfield and spent his boyhood here, but actually, a lot of people don’t know that.  For Springfield residents, it’s certainly something to celebrate.  I think they’re incredibly proud of Ted Geisel as the boy that made good, the local boy that made good, the hometown hero, the international celebrity.

Anita Walker: He’s a story in and of himself.

Kay Simpson: He is a story in and of himself, and so that’s why in our exhibit, we really try to trace his roots in Springfield and showcase some of the things that he experienced when he was in Springfield, some of the sights he saw, the experiences that he had.  So people who live in this area can know more about that, can really explore that part of his life, and then of course we want to be able to showcase all of his beloved characters, and so many people have described the experience of going into the museum as really entering his books and finding all the characters that they love.

Anita Walker: And I can endorse that, having walked into the museum myself.  I do feel I walked right into a chapter, one of my favorites or all of my favorites.  So it wasn’t easy, however, to navigate and negotiate the ability to present this material.

Kay Simpson: That’s definitely true, and I kind of go back to that moment in 2002 when we opened the sculpture garden and we realized that people were coming to Springfield.  They love these sculptures, but, you know, almost from the very beginning people started to say, “When are you going to open a Dr. Seuss museum?”  So that was 15 years ago and that shows you how long it takes sometimes.

Anita Walker: The first hurdle had to be getting the rights to the illustrations, the collections and so forth.

Kay Simpson: Well, yes.  That was certainly one of the things that we, one of the challenges that we encountered and had to work to overcome.  We had a good relationship with Dr. Seuss Enterprises because of the sculpture garden and the relationship that had developed out of that, and the relationship with the family, Audrey and her stepdaughters.  But I think for us, really, the biggest challenge was space.  You know, we had four museums, and very extensive, encyclopedic collections, in all the different disciplines that we represent, art, history and science.  So we really needed a building and the opportunity came in 2009 when we opened the Wood Museum of Springfield History, which was a lot of funding came from the <laughs> Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Anita Walker: One of our favorite stories is that museum.

Kay Simpson: It was so important because it really got the ball rolling and it kind of gave us credibility in terms of the fund-raising campaign we had undertaken to complete that project.  But once we opened that museum and we transferred all of the collections that were in what is now the Dr. Seuss Museum to the new history museum, we then had space that was available and we could develop it into a Dr. Seuss experience.

Anita Walker: And this is an existing building on the property that you transformed.

Kay Simpson: It is.  It was where the history collections were on display.  It’s a historic building, built in 1927.  Did not have handicapped accessibility, the plumbing was antique, no contemporary HVAC system, no sprinkler system.  So you, being at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, understand that that’s really something that we needed to address to make this a facility that really is, meets, current standards.

Anita Walker: And is accessible to all.

Kay Simpson: Is accessible to all.  That being said, it’s a beautiful building.  Really beautiful building with architecture that is remarkable both inside and out.  There is a preservation restriction on the building, so we couldn’t change the façade or really change any of the spectacular interior features of the building.  So that became something that initially was a challenge but I think it ultimately became, you know, such an asset for the final result, because we incorporated all of that into the design of the project.

Anita Walker: I had a chance to walk through it with you while the artists were still creating the images from the Dr. Seuss books, and it almost felt like it was a perfect place.  I mean, everything from the staircase and the woodwork.  I mean, they could’ve come out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Kay Simpson: I think it really makes it more Seussian.  It just has all of these sort of idiosyncratic elements that, you know, you transform it with paint in this imagery and it really is wonderful.  People have said, who have seen it since we opened, at the beginning of June, that it’s like they’ve never seen another place like it, and they’ve thanked us.  It’s like we’ve given people a gift.

Anita Walker: So this was much anticipated, obviously long time in the planning.  It comes to fruition, the doors open.  Any surprises?  What was it like finally being able to open the doors on the Seuss Museum?

Kay Simpson: Well, we thought it was going to be really popular.  We didn’t really anticipate how popular it would be.  Our opening weekend, again, it was the first weekend in June, which was significant for us because that was, you know, 15 years to the date that we opened the Dr. Seuss Memorial Sculpture Garden, so there was a lot of fanfare around that and we had a big parade down Mulberry Street, the street that Ted Geisel made famous in his first children’s book, and then we had a family festival, a two-day family festival, on our grounds.  There was just– there were 5,000 people over the three days, and then since that time, our attendance has gone up 300 percent.

Anita Walker: Have you done anything in particular around planning for the crowds?  I mean, these are families with kids, antsy kids who don’t want to wait in a long line to get inside.  How did you manage that?

Kay Simpson: That’s a wonderful question and something that we thought about before we opened.  We thought it was going to be popular, so we implemented a time ticketing system, and it’s worked beautifully.  You don’t want to have too many people in a museum all at once.  It just, I think it takes away from the experience, especially when you want that museum to be interactive and participatory, and Dr. Seuss really begs that.  You know, you want people to be able to spend time and really enjoy interacting with the characters and doing hands-on activities and really engaging and learning.

Anita Walker: Fortunately, you have many other things for people to do on the quadrangle while they’re waiting for their turn to go in the Dr. Seuss Museum.  Have you seen this as an opportunity and have you used some strategies to attract these audiences that are coming for Dr. Seuss to go into the art museum or some of your other facilities?

Kay Simpson: Well, the time ticketing has really helped with that and strategically we had scheduled exhibits in our other museums to appeal to a family audience.  So at the science museum, we have an exhibition called “Once Upon a Time,” that is, it features, cultural fables from around the world and there are a lot of participatory elements to that exhibit, and then we have “Shugal [ph?] for Children” opening at the Museum of Fine Arts, the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, in just a couple of weeks.  So these are going to be summer attractions that will appeal to the same audience essentially that would want to see the Dr. Seuss museum, but we really do feel that Dr. Seuss as an overall approach is a strategy to– it’s a gateway.  It will bring people to the Springfield Museums, but while they’re in Springfield, then they have the opportunity to visit the other museums and experience the other collections.  We want to encourage that.

Anita Walker: You also have another, I think, serious agenda associated with besides the fun of Dr. Seuss, and that has to do with literacy in children.

Kay Simpson: It does.  There’s a real challenge in Springfield for children in our schools that really lack reading proficiency, so one of our first and early partners was the Davis Foundation, and they have been leading a communitywide initiative called Reading Success by 4th Grade.  So they funded the project but they have also been endorsing it and working with us on the design of all the interactive learning stations.

Anita Walker: I have to say when we started this conversation and you just so nonchalantly mentioned that you run five museums.


Anita Walker: It’s a little heart stopping to think about that.  It’s not like one museum in five buildings.  It’s five museums.

Kay Simpson: It is five museums, and the outdoor sculpture park.  We have seven acres, and yeah.  So that’s the beauty of the Springfield Museums is we have these incredible buildings built at different periods of time, representing a variety of architectural styles, and just coming to the quadrangle to look at them is something that I think that people enjoy.

Anita Walker: An enormous opportunity to come to one place and sort of have a smorgasbord of <laughs> museum options sitting in front of you.  So we do have a lot of people listening to our podcast who are in this field, museum directors.  Takeaways, surprises, from opening the Dr. Seuss museum?  What did you learn?

Kay Simpson: We learned that it’s very important to plan.  So some of the questions that you asked about time ticketing and strategies for making sure that people are engaged when they’re waiting to see something that they’ve come to Springfield specifically to actually experience, that’s very, very important, and I also feel that museums need to have content that is relevant to today’s audiences, and Dr. Seuss is a subject that appeals to everybody, no matter what your cultural background or your educational attainments.  It is a universal brand.  So I think museums that have something, an asset like that, that’s something to leverage.

Anita Walker: And you’ve done it very, very well.

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Anita Walker: Kay Simpson, President of Springfield Museums, another one of our “Creative Minds Out Loud.”

Kay Simpson: Well, thank you so much for having me.

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