Museum maker

If you were a kid living on the East Coast in the '60s, your Saturday mornings probably started with "Romper Room" on TV.

"Hello, boys and girls! Miss Elaine is here!"

In would come Miss Elaine, the Culture Lady who'd bring puppets or art from the Boston Children's Museum.

That was Elaine Huemann Gurian, and she's still in the business of demystifying museums for children and their families. Only now, it's as acting director of the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills.

Cranbrook, world renowned as a private, blue-blooded prep school, has housed top-notch science and art museums for decades. Despite serving hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, these museums have still maintained a cloak of exclusivity.

But Cranbrook is now determined to lure the public to its pastoral campus to picnic on the grounds, hike the trails and enjoy the art museum, gardens and new, expanded Institute of Science. The project, called Destination Cranbrook, was begun by Daniel Appleman, the science institute's former director.

When Appleman died of brain cancer last spring before his vision could be completed, the search for a successor was short. The museum tapped the person Appleman had already brought in to help: Elaine Gurian.

The art of remaking a museum

Despite her 30 years in the business, this marks the first time Gurian has functioned as the head of a museum. That's because she fashions herself as the consummate deputy director with a very specific skill.

"I'm an auto mechanic," says Gurian, her voice low and emphatic, like that of a gifted storyteller. "I know how to fix things. In my case, that's museums."

Museums, it seems, are capturing the attention of Americans the same way mega-bookstores have snatched readers away from libraries. According to Town and Country magazine, the nation is experiencing a museum boom.

"The museum is not only the most striking and energetic building in town these days; it has transcended its function as a repository of artworks," wrote Thomas Hoving in Town & Country a year ago. "Today some museums can legitimately boast of their gourmet restaurants and luxury shops. Besides wall-to-wall blockbuster exhibitions, serious lectures and advanced educational programs, many put on movies, theatrical performances and even classical music programs."

The proliferation of museums -- especially niche museums such as the Newseum in Arlington, Va. -- has everything to do with the American yearning to connect with history, says Gurian.

"People want educational value for their children," says the 60-year-old mother of five. "As they travel, they want to have meaningful experiences. Museums have become the way to immortalize history. We used to build monuments in town squares, now we build museums. Especially for people who feel disenfranchised, museums are a way for people to tell their own stories."

Gurian sees it as her job to help old museums connect with the needs of the public, and to help new ones plan for the future. She finds her most difficult obstacle is not competition, design challenges or economic downturns: it's often the internal culture of the museums themselves.

"Often I get called into a situation where people say they want change, but when you get right down to it, they're not willing to make it happen. In very polite institutions -- many museums are VERY polite -- what you see is an ability to sabotage by inaction ... I work very hard to get the underground above ground."

Her tactic, she says, is to accept "approximate steps."

"I'll take anything that's in the forward direction. The next step should be better than the last step. I don't want to hold up progress while we think it through. I just want to see action. That's what starts to excite people."

Committed to multiculturalism

Inclusiveness, she adds, is necessary for the survival of the museum industry. For example, African American visits to museums jumped 19.5 percent between 1982 and 1992, according to Robert Bergman, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Gurian says that museums must embrace audiences of all ages, ethnicities and learning styles in order to survive.

She should know: her resume reads like a course in "How to create a multicultural museum in 10 easy lessons."

In the '70s and early '80s, she served as associate director at the Children's Museum of Boston. Following that, she was the lead staff person for the African-American Museum Project and the Experimental Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, where she worked from 1987 to 1990. (While working at the Smithsonian, Gurian hired Kimberly Camp to run the Experimental Gallery. Camp eventually became the director of Detroit's Charles W. Wright Museum of African American History, and hired Gurian to assist with the new development.)

Gurian served as a deputy director both at New York's National Museum of the American Indian from 1990 to 1991, and the Washington, D.C. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for the following three years.

Before Appleman recruited her to Cranbrook, Gurian was working with the National Museum of New Zealand. Commonly referred to as "Te Papa" (Our Place), the museum was trying to fuse the histories of New Zealand's divergent cultures -- including native Maori, Pacific Islanders, Greeks and the descendants of European colonists -- to give it credibility across those populations. For a year, Gurian commuted between Cranbrook and Te Papa, until the latter opened last February.

"I think we first met in 1975 when Elaine was one of the driving forces behind the Boston Children's Museum," says Te Papa's Ken Gorbey on the phone from New Zealand. "When we traveled to Boston, I had the impression of a staff that was very committed, and an institution that was driven by its audience group: children and their families. That was a complete inversion from the traditional museum."

By 1994, Gurian had distinguished herself as someone who could teach institutions to how adopt a consumer focus. "I immediately thought of Elaine," says Gorbey.

Gurian traveled back to New Zealand five times between 1994 and the opening of Te Papa's new exhibition this year. During her visits, she conducted workshops and guided the museum's transformation.

"Problems don't get ignored by Elaine; she wants it on the table, solved now," says Gorbey. "We called her our 'Jewish Mother.' But she'd mother in the hardest possible way."

Never be a wannabe

Grappling with the hard questions about race and ethnicity and emerging with a sense of understanding and trust is what Gurian says she's all about.

"I don't know content (in terms of museums)," she says, smiling unconvincingly, "but I know community organizing. I know that you only go into communities because somebody will vouch for you and bring you in as a guest. I know that you go to the leaders -- the community advisers -- and if you're completely straight about who you are and what you want, they will spend their social capital vouching for you. They'll say, 'We've seen her. She may be stupid, but she's honest. Her humanity is OK.'"

Of all the museums she's worked for, only one related directly to her own people: the Holocaust Museum. Gurian's German-Jewish parents immigrated to New York in the 1920s, and as American citizens were able to bring over most of her immediate family before the rise of Hitler a decade later.

"I'm one of the lucky few of my generation who knows their grandparents," says Gurian.

Her father became a successful developer on Long Island, and Gurian -- one of five children -- grew up in a family of means. She was expected to get a good education and work only until she married a doctor, then spend her life raising a family and volunteering for charities.

By 1968, she had fulfilled most of her parents' dreams. She had married a doctor, obtained a certificate to teach elementary art, and had two children.

"I was working in Boston the summer after the riots," says Gurian. "In 1969, the mayor thought that one of the ways the city could avoid repeating the riots was to put mobile units in the cities that gave kids something to do. I volunteered."

That was the beginning of her education as a community organizer.

"I was in a room in the South End with my back to the door," says Gurian, remembering her naiveté. "It was crowded. Everyone in the room except me was black. Those were tense times. Some young fellow near the door stood up and asked me, 'Were you rich when you were young?'

"I saw my life flash before my eyes. I thought, 'What's the answer that will get me through this door safely?' I said, 'I'm exactly what I look like. I am a white, rich, Jewish, New York girl.' Everybody laughed, settled down and went on."

What she learned, says Gurian, is that no one trusts a wannabe.

"You have to know who you are before you can work with other cultures. Everybody wants to know that you value yourself, and that you're not there because you're searching for a new identity."

The next big thing

Gurian's work at Cranbrook will be done by January. Then she plans to go home to Washington, D.C. where she lives with her husband Dean Anders, the acting director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. There she will spend more time with her four grandchildren and begin writing a book.

"I'm going to write about my experiences with museums," she says, as if reading an item from the top of her checklist. "It's a little break, not retirement."

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