Museums for All should not be a secret

When I moved to Cleveland in 2000, I was three months pregnant and my first two sons were just 6 and 3. Living in the city with children was phenomenal. Edgewater Beach was within walking distance from our home, the downtown library was our branch and my boys regularly roared around the Great Lakes Science Center, especially in winter months. 

We also spent many summer afternoons at the Cleveland Botanical Garden’s Hershey Children’s Garden. Created in 1999, the children’s garden was the first of its kind in Ohio and an impressive addition to the more traditional botanical garden, which was free to the public, mostly outdoors and closed in the winter.

 Magical is a clichéd modifier, but when young children are allowed to engage with the elements — digging in sand, filling containers from an old-fashioned pump so as to water plants or each other, sitting on a floating section of a bridge on a pond filled with frogs — most are actively delighted. 

On a blanket spread on a grassy hillock, I’d unpack sandwiches, fruit and water. While my baby sometimes napped, his brothers climbed the treehouse or tried to catch frogs alongside children from a wide variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds. 

 Then, in 2003, the Cleveland Botanical Garden began a major expansion. An underground garage was added along with two massive interior biomes, one featuring desert plants, the other rain forest flora. 

 As a result, the gardens are now open all year, but they are no longer free. Admission is $16 for anyone 13 or older and $12 for children ages 3 to 12. An annual membership for a family of four is $100. And because it now has a cafe indoors, picnicking is no longer allowed in the children’s garden. 

For all that was gained, the loss of access to the botanical gardens for many people, especially children, was crushing. 

Ample research highlights the benefits of educational institutions such as museums, libraries and historical sites for children. Achievement in reading, math and science are higher in children who visit them by the time they are in kindergarten. These children also have, according to a 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, “a greater appreciation of art, higher tolerance, and stronger critical thinking skills.” 

 But research also shows that children in more affluent families are far more likely to visit these institutions. And the greater income inequality is in any given state directly correlates with a greater disparity in attendance. 

In many columns on holiday gift giving, I have encouraged the gift of museum memberships to young families because I know firsthand how spending time at such institutions imbued the lives of my now-adult sons. They regularly tell me so and, yes, also rue the changes at the Hershey Children’s Garden

But not all families have relatives who can afford to purchase a gift membership. In a perfect world, we as a society would support these institutions and make them free to all. Everyone benefits when children have experiences that engage their imaginations and intellects. 

 This is why I was pleased to discover a discount program when I recently took my youngest two children to the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in Dayton. At the entrance counter, an employee listed the various ticket discounts since we are not members. 

The list was mostly predictable — military members, AAA members and the like. She then asked if we received any food assistance, telling me that with a valid SNAP card (food stamps) up to four members of a household can gain admission for just $2 a person. 

Boonshoft is a member of Museums for All, an initiative of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. According to their webpage, museums4all.org, “Museums for All invites low-income visitors to feel welcome at cultural institutions.” 

Created in 2014-2015, Museums for All includes over 900 institutions in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands, all offering reduced admissions ranging from free to $3 for up to four household members. 

The program is only effective, however, if those who need it know it exists. I encourage school districts to make families aware of Museums for All and identify which area institutions are participating members. 

Over 60 Ohio institutions are participating members. Here in Akron these include the Akron ZooStan Hywet Hall & GardensHower House, Hale Farm & VillageAkron Art Museum and Akron Children’s Museum

And just up the road, the Cleveland Botanical Garden is also a member of Museums for All and, therefore, once again an inclusive institution where cost does not prevent any child from delighting in play at the Hershey Children’s Garden.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, September 18, 2022.


Transitions of eldest friends

Lying on the back seat of my mother’s car as she drove to Rike’s department store in downtown Dayton, I mused over my impending birthday. I was about to turn a double-digit age for the first time. I also considered the marathon few complete between 10 and a triple-digit age. 

This past May, I wrote about two friends in their late 90s: Barbara Campbell and Bascom Biggers. Barbara began sending me handwritten letters in 2017, a few months after I began writing this column. For three years, our relationship was strictly epistolary. Then, when she moved to New Hampshire in 2020 to be near family, we began talking regularly on the phone. 

Barbara turned 97 this past March. In June, I sent her a card with a clipping from this paper, a satirical op-ed in which the writer wondered what version of the Bible that Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene reads, because her copy is clearly different than his. 

Over the years, Barbara has sent me many clippings from newspapers and magazines, most of them humorous. Sadly, she never received my last letter. After a brief illness, Barbara died on June 25. I’d never seen a photo of her until I received her obituary. She looks as infectiously delightful as she always was in her letters and our phone conversations.  

Barbara chose happiness over sadness, gratitude over bitterness. She lost her first husband and one of their sons within a matter of months. The year before she moved, she was struck by a car while walking from her own car in the parking lot of her apartment building, which left her with lingering pain.  

Rather than complain, Barbara spoke graciously about the people in her life and all she enjoyed. Her avocation was to make people laugh; even in her final days she was telling jokes during dinners at her assisted living community. When we discussed challenges, such as COVID and other unpleasant news, she always ended by saying, “It’s in God’s hands.” 

If there is a heaven, Barbara is there giggling with those whom she’s reunited. I miss her voice, her abundant encouragement and joyful commentary. Every conversation with Barbara was like receiving a bright bouquet of homegrown flowers. 

Bascom Biggers III takes a portrait with Holly Christensen on his 100th birthday.
Bascom Biggers III with Holly on his 100th birthday

I have met centenarians, but never have I had a dear friend turn 100. That is, until last weekend. I’ve written several columns about Bascom, with whom I became friends when he was but a spry 86. 

Except when I’m in Michigan during the summer or, in recent years, when COVID rates spike in the region, I see Bascom every other week. I arrive at his home mid-afternoon and often stay until 10. 

We talk nonstop about everything from politics to pets. And, like many a senior, Bascom reminisces about what Proust called les temps perdus. His mother, Rose, born in 1901, was intelligent and capable. She led a stifled life as a stay-at-home wife and mother.  

Bascom adored Rose and by the time he was an adolescent, he was perhaps her best confidant. Knowing him, it’s easy to imagine Bascom tried to make his mother happy when her circumstances, proscribed by the times and her station, left her bored and unsatisfied. 

His father, Buck, was tenderhearted, which Bascom didn’t realize until he was a young man. Buck had steely gray eyes that could stop a child in his tracks. But when Bascom was fighting in the European theater in World War II, his father’s letters referred to Bascom as “my darling boy” and, clearly concerned he may never see his son again, expressed just how much he loved him. 

Perhaps it’s simply the function of age, but I wonder if his relationships with his parents are what made Bascom such a ruminator. He reads widely, maintains a core circle of friends and is more engaged with life than many who are decades younger. However, his ruminating often extends into overthinking, which in turn impedes his happiness. 

Last Saturday, on his 100th birthday, Bascom and I sat on his living room couch where the largest wall of the room is almost entirely glass, minimizing the separation of the indoors from the surrounding forest where his home is situated.  

After an hour, we left to have dinner with his friend Laura and her husband, Michael. (Laura does all the things, which are many, that allow Bascom to stay in his home.) Or so Bascom thought. In reality, several friends were waiting at the restaurant and we pulled off a surprise party that I was not confident the guest of honor would enjoy. 

He loved it. At times the noise made it hard for Bascom to hear, but he told the group it didn’t matter, their love was as clear as could be. Then, when we returned home, he promptly began worrying if it was OK if people loved him more than he loved them. 

In my birthday card to Bascom I wrote, “I wish I could help you fret less and laugh more.” I also included Mary Oliver’s poem “A Summer Day,” which ends, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?/Tell me, what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?”  

It is a question worth asking every year, even for those lucky enough to reach triple-digit ages. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, August 21, 2022.