How to Visit a Museum….

One of the things I like best about my job at the Historical Museum is our annual visits by school kids. The tours are short, as are their attention spans, but invariably they come up with great questions.

Yesterday we had three classes of 2nd graders from one of the local elementary  schools. These classes come every year, and their teachers do a great job preparing them for their visit, so I expect the usual arsenal of questions: Do you live here? (no, I work here) Where is the dog? (Sorry, no dog, only a faux cat) Is the food real? (no, that would be gross) etc. So I am always surprised when one of them comes up with something really original.

look at all those eager, gap-toothed smiles!

Yesterday, an especially inquisitive boy put up his hand and asked me, “Is this a museum?”  To which I answered, yes, it is. He looked confused, “Where all all the historical facts?”

I was really taken aback, but not unprepared. I had never been asked that before, but what a great question! You see, our museum is a house, not a collection of placards, computer touch-screens and over-sized reproductions of old photos. This is the real stuff.

Every quarter in my newsletter I write an article entitled “What artifacts tell us.” I truly believe that an object, in its environment, isn’t just a static piece of matter – it is an historic arti-fact! So I explained this to the kids, in a much better way than I just did for you, how the historical facts were all around us, in the furniture, the lamps, the paintings. I wanted them to see that history is not just a collection of dates and events, but a true history of a community and a culture is in its artifacts. Personal histories and stories are tied to the physical things in the museum, they tell the story of how people lived, what they valued, how they worked, how they thought, what they desired. Even a fly swatter has a story to tell (yes, that one surprised even me!)

They all enjoyed hearing the player piano, played by our wonderful college student volunteer!

I won’t rant about my opinion of the future of museums, or how pointless I believe the current trends will be. I will say this…we are dealing with a generation raised with the internet. Photoshop and CGI have destroyed the credibility of film and photographs. So while the lights and bells of an interactive, touch-screen museum environment may seem like the next great movement in museum experiences, I believe its the real stuff that matters. Anyone can play with a computer, and manipulate pictures, and this can be a learning experience. And while it is also true that an artifact can be open to interpretation, at the end of the day, it is the tangible, concrete, and unique three-dimensional objects that make history come alive. Just ask these kids!


About claymire cottage

I'm a museum curator who lives with a wonderful husband, Rowley the golden Retriever, and 2 cats; Mr. Cookie, and Mabel the Magnificent.

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