What is a museum, 1855? “…a well-known place of resort… where beauty and valor, where learning and wit, where labor and skill meet”…On Public Humanities: Steven Lubar’s Blog
Some days, when we lived in Ada, Ohio, we would just want to be surrounded by the remarkable, the quirky, and the odd, (and not the everyday remarkable, quirky, and odd that we knew and loved) and on those days, we would take a short ride and browse through the Allen County Museum. There, among the many other rich and fascinating exhibits, we could explore a bizarre collection of items a doctor from days past had removed from people’s bellies (an intact pair of eyeglasses! A vicious looking, open, safety pin, that, in this context, didn’t look safe at all!). We could marvel at the world’s largest display of stuffed albino animals. We could stand in a cell from which John Dillinger had escaped, thanks to his murderous henchman.
And we could soak up all the history behind those seemingly random artifacts, soak it up and start the process of piecing together meaning and revelation.
That was a fun place to visit, and it launched us on our quest to find and enjoy the museums, the weird, the whimsical, and the truly revelatory, that Ohio has to offer. So we have been to motorcycle, presidential, and military museums, a museum that tells the history of a town on the Ohio River, and college museums with wonderful rotating displays. We have seen astounding Lego constructions at a museum in Cleveland and the land speeder that Luke drove at a museum in Columbus. We have meandered through magical art museums in many places, and we have come to cherish the history museum and the art museum in our hometown.
We’ve been exploring museums for years now, but it was during a book club the Zanesville Museum of Art hosted just the other night that I really started to think about museums, about what they are, and what they do, and why they do those things.
And I also started thinking that maybe we, in our everyday lives, our celebration lives, and our “let’s never forget this” lives, have the instinct to do some of those same museum things.
Laine, director of the Zanesville Museum of Art, led six of us or so in a rich discussion of Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present by Steven Lubar. Lubar is a professor at Brown University and a former museum curator and director. He divides his book into sections that deal with collecting, preserving, displaying, and using.
I don’t always think of all those aspects when museums come to mind.
I don’t always think that what museums do with all of that is tell a story. And the people who work there, who are intimately involved, have the duty and the joy of deciding which stories they should tell.
An object that sits in a storage room, unexamined, unloved, is of no value—until it is. The curator must balance usefulness now, and in the future. (Lubar, page 28)
The displays in a museum, Laine pointed out, are only the iceberg’s craggy peak. Beneath, below, behind, there are the bulk of the museum’s collections. Maybe six per cent of the collection is on view; maybe 25 per cent; maybe somewhere in between. But under the surface, downstairs in the archives, packed away in climate-controlled rooms, the rest of the collection simmers.
I hadn’t really thought of this at all until I taught a composition class on the COTC campus in Roscoe Village. The beautifully repurposed inn that housed classrooms was next door to the Johnson Humrickhouse Museum. It dawned on me partway through the semester that this was a rich writing prompt lying neglected. I connected with an enthusiastic young assistant director, Reba, and I wrote up an assignment based on the Museum’s exhibits, and then Reba toured the students through the museum’s halls.
We ended up downstairs, belowdecks, in a room that probably not a lot of museum patrons get to visit. There, Reba dispersed the students into small groups working at tables with different artifacts—things that were, maybe, two hundred years old, and that they could touch and sniff and handle—and then she took small groups back into the museum’s archives and collections.
The students would come out grinning, and chattering, and brightened. What you see at a museum, they realized, isn’t ALL the museum has to offer. Down below, waiting, there are other things, important and meaningful things. Lots of them.
I realized the truth of that during that visit, too.
And directors like Laine ask themselves what stories the items in those collections tell. What exhibits would enrich, amaze, and educate the people who see them? If items from the collection were put together in different ways, would they alter, subtly or starkly, the narrative?
My friend Terry texted a couple of us a photo the other day. We could see one of her recently finished quilts, neatly spread out on a bed. The squares combined patchwork patterns and the colors—browns and tans and patterned blacks—tied everything together. Nestled at the head of the bed were plump pillows encased in Easter patterns…Terry made those pillowcases, too. Above the bed, a clock and framed photos rest on a wooden shelf. And two fuzzy plush rattlesnakes are curled on the quilt. Terry and Paul bought the snakes in honor of their son John at the Toledo Zoo a couple of years ago.
It struck me, looking at that beautiful photo, that the bed and the shelf—they tell a story. There’s love and loss and craftsmanship there; there’s history and hope. The things that Terry’s chosen to include testify to a family’s journey, and to their faithfulness and values.
In a way, in the spaces we as private individuals inhabit, we ask ourselves the same questions a museum curator does. What items from our collection tell our story? Will displaying that funny little thing add value to this room?
Sometimes we do ask those questions consciously. We decided a while back, for instance, that since books are a big part of our lives, we may as well use them to decorate the mantel.
So we pick books by color and we pick books by content and we try to display them pleasingly and seasonally above the fireplace (the fire in which is, of course, my favorite reading companion, anyway.) At Christmas we have Dickens and beautiful gift books and children’s stories and books with rich red and green covers.
There are a whole series of ‘winter’ themed books we pull out in January. Their cover colors are a little more bleak.
In February, we work with a ‘heart in the title’ theme.
And right now, we have Irish books and green books stacked up to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th. When it was time, last week, to put those books on the mantle, I went prowling for Irish-y things to add.
I found the ceramic Dooley tankard, with its shamrock belly, in the china cabinet. That’s a little chunk o’ history; back in the ‘80’s, when Mark and I were newly married, my parents decided to gift all the “boys” with Schultz and Dooley tankards. They made the trip to Utica, New York, toured the brewery, brought back their precious bounty, and looked forward to presenting the mugs at Christmas time.
They had few Christmases left to us then; it was one of Mark’s first Christmases as an officially accepted “one of the boys.”
Dooley has an Irish flair and a family history, and he’s part of the narrative.
Next to him nestles a vintage green glass ornament, bobbing from a wrought iron decorative hanger. That was a gift from Kay, an artist with an eye for just the right thing. We bring that ornament out at Christmas. I bring it back for St. Patrick’s Day. I leave it out to celebrate the green growth of spring.
I leave it out because it makes me smile.
There are green candles, wax softened by flame. There is a green plaid metal canister that closes with a clasp. These things, too, have history with us.
And during the mantle dressing, I remembered the St. Patrick’s Day wreath and sign and banner James and I bought last year, and I went downstairs into our own archive, more dusty than climate controlled, and pulled those out and brought them upstairs and hung or propped them on doors and walls and china cabinet.
There’s a story there; all those things tell a tale. The tale might be a little jumble-y…and that in itself might tell an observer something about the people that display them.
We present unconscious displays, too. We have stories narrated by the heavy bags of salt and a sad old brown malingering broom on the cement back stoop. What story, I think, suddenly registering and chagrined, would a visitor read in the pair of dirty socks balled together by the Barca lounger, the empty single-serving sized baked Lay’s potato chips bag sitting on a side table, and the nearby glass with a chocolate milk ring that someone forgot to bring to the dishwasher? A cobweb ignored in a hard to reach nook; a pile of dark dust in a corner behind a door that’s seldom closed…those unintentional displays tell a story too.
I grab a dustmop and a basket, and those words, those plots, I work to erase.
What will be useful for display, or documenting an era, an artist, or a species? What makes something worth saving? (Lubar, page 4)
At the book discussion, Laine posed us this question: how should museums decide what to collect?
She talked about keeping the best of types, and the objects that tell the stories the museum leadership wants to share. She talked about determining the gaps in collections, and then working, actively, to fill those, too.
That kind of mindful determination would benefit my jam-packed storage spaces.
Do you have to keep something just because it was a gift? Laine asked us.
I open a cupboard door and look at neglected things, things that, really, we never use. I ask myself the same question.
There are times when we need to curate our own collections, to keep the meaningful and discard the unusable, the duplicate, or those items that bring chagrin rather than joy.
Museums must consider visitor experience. Does the layout make sense? Does the signage direct? Is the light really illuminating?
Are visitors drawn in, lovingly and thoroughly, drawn to explore and examine, to listen, to learn?
I have spent hours drawn in that way at Zanesville’s art museum and at many others, where a picture becomes a world, where I step off the chronological path for a time, and where I truly put my packages down and just rest in a moment that stretches.
The hidey-hole in the Stone Academy does that for me, too, plunging me into a different era, into the necessity of imagining what resting without sound in that cramped space, enduring for hours while the people you don’t want to discover you are strutting or lounging nearby, might have been like. I try to imagine the dread and the hope that must have mingled. I step out of my safe reality and inhabit another space for a protected moment in time.
Museums, I think, bid us put down the everyday and think about the extraordinary, or even just the different. In doing that, they give us growth and stimulation, but they also allow us to truly, deeply rest.
Pandemic sadness: there is, in our homes, no visitor experience to consider…or if there is, it’s at a remove, or in a protected outdoor area.
Right now, the at-home visitors we can consider are ourselves…the individual, or the partners, or the family, that inhabit space with us.
We come back to the essential people, and we ask ourselves: does the way we live here work? How is OUR visitor experience?
In my house, our pandemic realization of misused space has led to changes, and that has been a lot of work, but a very good thing…and an opening salvo in all that needs to be done to truly enhance our “visitor experience.”
I like the quote Lubar shares on his blog, the one that starts this post. If I understand the use of ‘resort’ correctly, it’s a place to both celebrate and rest, to relax and to enjoy. Beauty and valor, learning and wit, labor and skill…all these things, said someone, some thoughtful person, in 1855, meet and mesh there, within the museum’s walls.
I think that’s true today, too…that we love our museums because they rest us and challenge us; they bring beauty into our lives. They teach and they provoke smiles. They are places where we can admire the work of others, marvel at skills those others displayed, and also do our own work, sharpen our own talents, or come away inspired to do so.
Museums collect and preserve, too, of course; they tell the story of a place or a time or a group or an event. They remind us. I hope they give us hope.
And I hope my home does those things, too, on a much smaller, much less polished, much more intimate basis. The books that we keep; the pictures we hang; the objects polished by the touch of many fingers—some tiny, some knotted…those things that we sometimes unthinkingly cherish.
I need new eyes to look around me, new perception to answer the question: what is the story that my spaces tell?