Creative Niche Scientists

Creative Niche Scientists: Women Educators in North American Museums, 1880-1930

Sally Gregory Kohlstedt

Educational opportunities for women in the second half of the nineteenth century expanded their aspirations even as changing professional developments conspired to maintain men in authority. In the United States, women’s employment was most often in teaching and nursing, areas linked to caring, or domestic responsibilities. It was in the interstices between the professions defined as male and employment defined as female that some enterprising women carved out niches where they and their colleagues could both have satisfying careers and shape influence the larger arenas in which they worked. One such location was museum education, where in the early decades of the twentieth century numerous women found employment, defined activities and policies, and participated in a significant reorientation of large and small public museums toward education and dissemination.

Sally Gregory Kohlstedt's project analyzed the work of several women whose programs and writing were critical in this process. Delia I. Griffin at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, created multiple programs for adults and pupils that took advantage of the surrounding natural history, while Anna Billings Gallup created a layered and sophisticated program at the Children’s Museum, part of the Brooklyn Institute of Art and Sciences, that involved multiple sciences and a training program for teachers. Laura Bragg of the Charleston Museum in South Carolina, acquainted with her northern counterparts through the American Association of Museums, instituted similar programs and also trained future museum educators. Such women constituted a small minority of museum professionals, but their strong presence and successful educational and outreach programs quite consciously opened significant opportunities for the next generation of women.

The niche activity of women at the turn of the century demonstrates both the powerful effects of gendered discrimination and segregation and the creative ways that women reinscribed gendered roles to instantiate themselves at sites where they could, in fact, reorient the very institutions that had been designed to limit their participation. Individually they all participated in science, but, equally important, they were engaged in making knowledge about nature an integral part of their communities and culture.