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Boston Children's Museum Celebrates Its 100th Birthday

The museum, pictured here in 2007, after the renovation and expansion.  (Courtesy Boston Children’s Museum/ Les Veilleux)

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BOSTON — The Boston Children’s Museum is getting ready to party this weekend to celebrate its 100th birthday. When it was founded in 1913 there were only two U.S. museums dedicated to kids. Today there are more than 300. But the Boston Children’s Museum continues to lead the pack in stimulating and delighting little ones — along with their parents.

Michelle Thomas and her daughter Abigail at Boston Children's Museum Friday morning. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Michelle Thomas and her daughter Abigail at Boston Children’s Museum. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

If you grew up in Massachusetts, have kids of your own, or hang out with little ones, there’s a good chance you’ve spent time in the Boston museum. More than 550,000 big and small people visit each year.

That includes mom Michelle Thomas. She lives in Tucson, Ariz., but grew up in Abington. Thomas says she came here a lot as a kid.

“I don’t remember it being as big as it is now,” she said at the museum Friday, back in Boston for the weekend visiting family. “I think they’ve done a lot since I was little.” Then she observed: “This wasn’t here…”

Thomas was watching as her three kids — ages 7, 5 and 3 — safely ascended and descended a huge climbing structure that would be a parent’s nightmare if it wasn’t enclosed in safety netting made of rope.

Thomas said it’s one of the things that makes the Boston Children’s Museum the best she’s ever been to.

“There’s one in Tucson and it’s very small. This one is great,” she said. “I love all the different areas. There’s science and there’s math and there’s the arts.” And the mom said her kids usually don’t want to leave, “so we try to come early and stay as long as they’ll stand.”

Slideshow of the museum through the years:

The Boston Children’s Museum is a tourist attraction and city landmark, with its giant Hood milk bottle outside and permanent exhibitions — like “Arthur and Friends,” the “Construction Space” and the “Japanese House” — inside. The building has a contemporary look after undergoing a $47 million renovation in 2007, but it’s a far cry from the museum’s original building, which was located in Jamaica Plain.

“It was small,” Leslie Swartz remembered. Now, she’s the museum’s vice president of research and program planning, but she worked in the museum’s Pinebank Mansion location, along Jamaica Pond.

“There were people in the neighborhood who were really sad when we moved downtown, but it just had a limited capacity,” she said. “We couldn’t grow in that building.”

That’s why the Children’s Museum relocated into an old wool warehouse that was much bigger and accessible via public transportation.

Swartz also recalled how 1979 was a tough year for the city.

“[It was] right after busing — and being on what was considered at that time ‘neutral turf,’ where all people in Boston could come and feel comfortable — that was very important to us,” she said.

At the same time the Fort Point area wasn’t bustling in the ’70s and ’80s the way it is today. Swartz remembers big, empty sandlots where you could park your car for free, “but maybe the car would be there at the end of the day, maybe not,” she said, laughing.

The Science Teachers’ Bureau of Boston founded the Children’s Museum in 1913 with support from the Women’s Education Association, but Swartz says it didn’t really become interactive and innovative until Michael Spock (son of child-rearing expert Dr. Spock) came on as museum director in 1964.

Laura Foster, interim executive director of the American Association of Children’s Museums, says his legacy lives on.

“Boston is also a wonderful example of a museum that over its lifetime has grown,” she said. “So I think particularly for children’s museums that are starting up it’s a great model, it’s something to aspire to.”

It’s gratifying to be seen as a leader, Swartz said. But she believes it raises the bar for the museum’s next 100 years.

“Because there’s so much attention right now on early childhood education, and because people are really understanding now that what happens in the first five years could not be more important,” she said. “It puts the Children’s Museum in a new position.”

And Swartz says it’s a great and humbling position to be in.

But a constant reminder of the institution’s true success is what happens to its main audience when the museum closes its doors in the afternoon.

“There’s a lot of crying. You have to get used to that,” Swartz said with a smile.

The museum kicks off its raucous 100th birthday weekend Friday, Oct. 4, at 4:30 p.m. For a full schedule of events, see here.

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