By Kate A. Hallock, Jacksonville Historical Society
One of Jacksonville’s oldest museums, the Museum of Science and History, began in the mid-1930s as an educational program for schoolchildren. In 2021, the Southbank-based museum celebrated the 80th anniversary of its charter, but one of the most interesting “Did You Knows?” about this Jacksonville institution is the who’s who behind the formation of the museum.
During the Great Depression, a group of teachers in the Jacksonville branch of the Association for Childhood Education dreamed of opening a museum for children. Little did they know then, in 1935, that help would come 10 years later from a New York foundation, the first board president would be a woman originally from Maine, and the first executive director would be a Yankee from Massachusetts. The correspondence between these two elicits more than a chuckle or two.
Those teachers formed a museum committee and created exhibits, which were kept in a Girl Scout hut and in the Barnett National Bank building, while an advisory committee helped encourage the effort to establish a Children’s Museum in Jacksonville. They obtained a charter in December 1941, but World War II diverted efforts and halted the museum’s progress until 1944, when a board of directors was appointed, and plans resumed.
The first museum board consisted entirely of women and among them was Mrs. Lola M. Culver, longtime principal of Panama Park Grammar School, who served as board president. The other board members were Nettie E. Brogdon, Mrs. Homer Cagle, Mrs. Hester Fisackerly, Florida Harding, Mrs. Myrtle Hogg, Mrs. Linwood Jeffreys, Dr. Julia L. Kline, Margaret McClellan, Mrs. William Parker, Rosalie Powell, Mrs. J.C. Reynolds, Marie Richards, Mrs. Thomas Tennent, Madge Wallace, and Margaret Weed.
Space was made for the museum in the Teen Town building in the Duval County Armory, and the museum was initially open to the public one day a week, staffed by volunteers. Education programs were held on Saturdays and school groups visited during the week.
In 1945, the museum board appealed to the William T. Hornaday Memorial Foundation in Plattsburgh, New York for sponsorship. John Ripley Forbes, serving with an Army Air Forces medical unit in Alabama and Tennessee and director of the Hornaday Foundation, agreed to travel to Jacksonville to learn more about the museum’s needs.
On August 10, 1945, Sergeant Forbes wrote to Lola Culver confirming his plan to visit Jacksonville in September to help with the finance drive. “My letter is still tentative subject to army plans. I hope for a discharge in a week or two and if this does not work out shall arrange to take my furlough during September and make plan to be with you at this time.”
Principal Culver’s grateful response included this remark: “As far as I know Jacksonville has as yet planned no memorial to those who have given their lives in this war. If this is so I can think of no better memorial that [sic] a Children’s Museum.”
On that trip, the principal and the sergeant succeeded in interesting the Junior League of Jacksonville to support the museum; the club authorized a grant of $3,300 to pay the salary of a curator. A year later, the League would again provide a $3,600 grant for the curator. The Civitan Club was also an early financial supporter of the Children’s Museum.
While in Jacksonville, Forbes met with Atlantic National Bank president Joseph W. Shands to ask him to consider taking a lead role in fundraising for the museum. Shands declined, claiming to be busy with responsibilities for the Community Chest and a War Bond drive. In later correspondence, Forbes explained to Shands why he became personally involved: “I am very concerned over the critical problems which face our children and devote all my free time toward helping meet them. When I learned that Jacksonville was interested in organizing a children’s museum to aid their youth, I decided to devote my two weeks furlough to aid them in any way I could.”
After Forbes returned to Plattsburgh, New York, he received a long letter in October from Culver, who openly shared concerns that she had been perceived to have railroaded the museum board into reorganization, particularly in regard to inviting men to join and lead the board. “I felt I had antagonized some of the group,” she wrote.
She candidly noted that she had ruffled the feathers of several of the women but said, “I think all the others were happy over the change except Mrs. (Dr.) Kline. I understood she said she would have preferred to have gone on as they were doing a year ago rather than to have turned it over to men but she has done very little toward forwarding the movement anyway, so I am not worrying about her.”