Planning Board Wrestles with Collings Museum Application… July 29, 2015

By Ann Needle

The Planning Board continued to debate the Collings Foundation’s case last week to override town bylaws and build a museum on the property.

The Collings Foundation’s site plan for a 60,000-square-foot museum would house a new collection of military artifacts on its Barton Road land. Though the Collings land is zoned as residential, Robert Collings is petitioning that the structure qualifies to be built as an educational museum under the Massachusetts Dover Amendment, which outlines what qualifies as “educational activity.”

In considering the case, the Planning Board was studying the Dover Amendment in front of a full audience at its July 22 meeting. To help determine how educational the new museum could be, the Board was measuring the details of Collings’ application against the five criteria it drew from the Dover Amendment in judging whether a potential building offers an educational experience.

These criteria included the presence of a purposeful and planned development of educational information, similar but not limited to the concept of a curriculum; the presence of a systematic and uniform method of delivering the information to defined audiences; qualifications relevant to the development of the educational subject matter and the effectiveness of the delivery of the subject matter; and development and delivery of educational programs or materials [that] are directed to further the mental, moral, or physical powers and faculties of those participating.

Also, the criterion calling for evaluation of subjects participating in the educational process is not being as heavily weighted as the other four, according to the Board’s Lori Clark.

A wide range of opinions were voiced as the Board began combing through each criterion, along with a number of questions.

“I do not believe any of these programs they plan to offer meet the Dover definition of education,” declared the Board’s Ernie Dodd. “How does it fit into the curriculum of visiting schools’ programs? The exception that Dover gives to educational institutions is just not there.” The Board’s Margaret Costello agreed, noting, “There’s no concrete tie-in with a curriculum.”

However, member Leonard Golder maintained, “People travel here to see this stuff, to learn about it. Everything is laid out chronologically, showing battle histories and changing technology. That’s the equivalent of a curriculum.”

Looking at the second criterion, both Costello and Board Associate Mark Jones remarked he didn’t see how delivery of information by the museum would be uniform. Both also commented on a lack of any testing method to see what visitors learned.

Considering the qualifications of those people and resources behind the museum’s development, the consensus seemed to be that the awards Collings listed as receiving for the current Foundation don’t have enough information, such as what criteria was used in judging the Collings Foundation. Ernie Dodd questioned just who the docents would be, and how they would be trained. However, the Board also agreed the four individuals listed as leading the new museum (Robert Collings Sr., Robert Collings Jr., Caroline Collings, and Hunter Chaney) seemed capable of running the venture.

The Board’s Steve Quinn asked whether the Acton Discovery Museums were qualified as educational under the Dover Amendment, given they also are in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Speaking of the Board’s interpretation of Dover, Quinn commented, “It seems like we’re trying to fit something in a box, when the box wasn’t defined. We will spend weeks going through it.”

Lori Clark added, “In summary I think this museum has the potential to be educational, but there are some holes in the information to show that.”

Question of Public Support

The Board also considered a number of letters, plus a petition, in support of approving the museum. Assistant Planner Jesse-Nathan Steadman reported 281 letters backing approval of the application. Of these, the majority of writers (123) were in support of the Collings Foundation in general, but did not mention having attended any events at the current Foundation exhibit space. The petition contained 1,136 signatures in support of the museum, Steadman added.

Ernie Dodd contended, “Many of those were solicited to support the museum. I’m not sure it has any bearing on the issue whatsoever. It would have more meaning for me if they came primarily from Stow residents, which they did not.”

The hearing was continued to Wednesday, July 29 at 7pm in the Town Building.