Where have you been?

I’ve been to several museums. I’ve worked in museums. I’ve dragged various family members through more turnstiles and admissions lines than they probably signed up for. I’ve read books about them, written papers, participated in impassioned discussions. I have a Masters Degree in Museum Studies. Safe to say, I have a vested interest.

For fun (and yes, this is my idea of fun), I made a museum list. In order for an institution to make the list, I had to have at least one distinct memory of the visit, and be able to recall at least one exhibit, installation, exchange, or object with relative clarity.

For most people, I guess the list would seem pretty long. But for me…sigh. So paltry. So short. So unimpressive. Make no mistake, I am blessed and fortunate to have had opportunities to travel to these cities and experience these sites. But compared to so many of my colleagues, I feel like I got nuthin’. It must be how birders feel when they compare Life Lists: What, you’ve never seen a bronzy jacamar? Psh. Amatuer.

Does it matter? Am I any less qualified to talk about or teach about or think about the museum experience, just because I maybe haven’t had as many of them as other people? I think most people would agree that no, it doesn’t matter. It’s a quality (not quantity) kind of thing. If a museum is “good”, I know it when I see it. If it’s lacking in the visitor experience, I certainly know that, too.

So what makes a memorable experience? I know this is equivalent to asking something like, “What is art?” or “To be or not to be?” There is no one right answer. And while asking an art person “What is art?” tends to really piss them off and make you feel totally ignorant, asking a museum person about what makes an exceptional museum experience can be a real trip.

Enjoying a museum can be about what you feel in your heart or learn in your mind or do with your hands or say to your companions. It can bring you great joy in the moment and fond sentiment years later. It can firmly cement a network of assembled thoughts or shock you with an epiphany. It can convince you of one mindset or open your eyes to a new perspective. Museums can invigorate you to act or exhaust you with emotion. They can comfort you with the familiar and the reassuring or make you squirm with something novel and disturbing.

Regardless of what kind of an experience a museum can (and does) do to you, I would venture to say that it’s impossible for anyone (at least anyone who is not made of stone or dead inside) to go to a museum and not have some kind of reaction. React, for example, to this:

Can you even stand the cuteness? A baby pygmy hippo at the Taronga Zoo.

Selected works by Damien Hirst, one of the most controversial contemporary artists working. He's the guy who puts dead stuff into tanks of formaldehyde and calls it art. Discuss.

Herding sheep at Conner Prairie.

Concentration camp uniforms from the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

Did any particular image appeal to you or repulse you? Would you specifically seek out any of these experiences? Why? Why do you go to the museums you visit? What draws you in, or conversely, what keeps you out?

I ask you to geek out along with me and create your own museum list. Where have you been? Do you notice any patterns or any type of experience you seem to be drawn to? Why? What do you remember about these places?

And for those of you birding novices who have not, in fact, seen a bronzy jacamar, I give you this:

3 thoughts on “Where have you been?

  1. The image of Kim Phuc with Ronald and Mickey isn’t sitting well with me. The “inappropriate humor” side of my brain (I think you’re previously acquainted?) piped up with “well, *I’d* rather have *my* village napalmed than have to eat at Mc D’s!” but…no. No, I wouldn’t, really. I get that in a sense, any publicity is good publicity, and she herself is a touring speaker these days I believe. But the picture is just…wrong. Not advocating censorship or anything, just saying it’s in poor taste IMHO. (To be clear, I am only talking about the Hirst photo, *not* the original source image by Nick Ut.)

  2. I will have to admit, that at the age of 18, I wasn’t very excited about going to visit the concentration camp museum in Dachau, Germany. Being aware of the the atrocities that were commited there, it wasn’t really on a list of places I would call a vacation destinations, but I am so glad that I did go. There are just some things that we as a people need to learn from our past, and what I witnessed there, well… there just are no words. It was incredibly humbling, enraging, and uplifting all the the same time.

  3. Emily,

    Please contact me, I’d like to use the Conner Prairie image on a website promoting international business.

    Thank you!

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