1907 American Association of Museums Meeting Identifications

Women in the Early Years of AAM

Elizabeth J. Letson, Sc.D.

In an era defined by male-dominated scholarship, women’s contributions within the museum field were largely overlooked. However, women played an active role in the forming of the American Association of Museums. In the first five years, women’s attendance steadily rose from only two in the first year to ten by 1910. In addition, female members increased from seven to twenty-four. Women presented papers and actively partook in meeting discussions. They held positions at various museums across the nation including library custodian, librarian, art annual editor, lecturer, assistant curator, curator, and assistant to the director, among others. At this time, there were also two female museum directors; Miss Delia I. Griffin, Director of the Fairbanks Museum of Science, and Miss Elizabeth J. Letson, Sc. D., Director of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences.

At the 1907 AAM meeting held at Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, five women were in attendance: Miss Anna M. Deens from a Pittsburgh high school (it is interesting to note her attendance as she was not associated with any museum); Miss Anna B. Gallup of the Children’s Museum, Brooklyn Institute; Miss Delia I. Griffin, Director of the Fairbanks Museum of Science; Miss Elizabeth J. Letson, Director of the Buffalo Society of Natural History; and Miss Alicia M. Zierden from the Pennsylvania State Museum. During the 1907 meeting Miss Anna B. Gallup presented a paper entitled The Work of a Children’s Museum and Miss Delia I. Griffin spoke on The Educational Work of a Small Museum.

Miss Delia I. Griffin, Director, Fairbanks Museum of Science

Delia I. Griffin
(see note below)

The below information on Delia I. Griffin was obtained from the Proceedings of the American Association of Museums, Records of the Meeting held at the Museum of the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, June 4-6, 1907, from a 1989 article in Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium Newsletter about Delia I. Griffin by Howard Reed, and from Vermont newspaper clippings (1903–1913) from the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium scrapbook courtesy of Peggy Pearl, History Curator and Education Coordinator.

A very strong, active female member from the early years who deserves considerable attention is Miss Delia I. Griffin, Director of the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. She attended the first five AAM meetings and presented one of the most memorable papers at the meeting held at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh in 1907. Her paper on “The Educational Work of a Small Museum” received noteworthy praise. A.B. Meyer, the leading German authority in museum affairs at this time, sent Miss Griffin a congratulatory letter about her presentation that stated, “The paper is quite touching. I admire your work thoroughly. We have nothing the like in Germany, even not a beginning of it, and I congratulate you in what you are performing. It is quite an ideal thing.”
newspaper clipping from Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium scrapbook, November 17, 1908

Miss Delia I. Griffin was appointed director of the Fairbanks Museum in 1903. She immediately demonstrated initiative by changing the design of the museum from one of passive collection observation to one of active participant learning for both children and adults. Her main focus was educating the public about natural science. In the same year, she attended the State Teachers Convention in which she offered her “Vital Ideas in Education” that encouraged children’s interest in science. The next year, 1904, she proposed a plan to instruct teachers in the education of natural science through courses taught at the museum and subsequently wrote a booklet, “Outline Course in Nature Study for the Schools of Vermont,” which she distributed to state teachers.

She augmented the education programs by adding school visits to the museum. Twice a year, museum staff, including Miss Griffin, would visit and provide class lessons to area schools. Teachers attended after school meetings at the museum to ensure that the class lessons taught by the museum were implemented in the classrooms throughout the year. She also permitted museum books and collections to be loaned to the area schools.

In all possible ways, she encouraged the investigative nature of children. Each spring she organized early morning nature bird walks for the youth, which eventually lead to the formation of the Junior Audubon Society at the Museum. Every fall, she aided children in the collection of caterpillar boxes so that they could watch the metamorphosis of the insects from caterpillar to butterfly. In 1905, she created the Horton Bird Contest in which children memorized the identities of as many local birds as possible and competed for the top prize of a five dollar gold coin.

Miss Griffin was an active member in many professional organizations. In 1905, along with Rev. E. T. Fairbanks she took over the command of the Audubon Society of Vermont and officially ran it from the Museum. She was also a member of the Vermont Bird Club, the Vermont Botanical Club, and the American Association of Nature Centers.

After resigning from the Fairbanks Museum in 1913, she moved to Boston where she directed the Boston Children’s Museum for 15 years, followed by 18 years in Connecticut where she directed the Hartford Children’s Museum. Truly, Miss Griffin cared deeply for her work and introduced innovative and revolutionary ideas concerning the role of museums as active educators within the greater community.

Note to identification

Delia I. Griffin is provisionally identified in the above photograph. The appearance of this woman is closest to Griffin’s image in the group photograph made at the 1909 AAM Meeting, in which her identity is specified. Our efforts to obtain other images of Griffin to corroborate her identity have been unsuccessful.

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