It got too hot, which was an odd thing to say for November, especially only two days removed from the white-out snowy conditions of high desert New Mexico. This was a different desert, though. This was drought-be-damned-I’m-growing-a-golf-course Palm Springs. Almost six months into a still-incomplete road trip, pausing in the California oasis town to celebrate Thanksgiving, I suggested a walk down to the Botanical Gardens to check things out. I didn’t make it. It got too hot, and the gardens became just one more place I didn’t visit.
Over the course of my travels, I attended a pre-wedding cocktail party on the roof of the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Wisconsin, but didn’t see any of the collection contained within; and it was too near closing time at Hearst Castle when the coast road of Big Sur beckoned. No one shared my enthusiasm—including a three-year-old big rig devotee—for a trip to the Iowa 80 Truck Stop Trucking Museum, and, in an effort to catch the last half of the Women’s World Cup final, I ran past the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art to snag a bar stool at a student bar nearby. And, when my car nearly broke down in Bend, Oregon, I began to wonder if it was because it was against a trip to the High Desert Museum.
Excuses, reasons, and explanations aside, sometimes a trip is better off for all the places you were supposed to visit, but didn’t. For instance, I harbor no regrets for missing the Vacuum Cleaner Museum in St. James, Missouri, because further down the road one of the more awesome thunderstorms of my life rolled up as the landscape gave way to the open plains of Oklahoma. The Shell Museum in Sanibel, Florida, surely forgave me for passing up an annual visit in favor of tossing Cat Paws into the Gulf of Mexico with my niece instead. A bowl of artichoke soup at Duarte’s in Pescadero, California, was worth missing out on any of San Francisco’s myriad cultural institutions.
It hasn’t always been this way. I have long assumed the role of tour guide in my family, and my early itineraries were jam-packed with must see sites of cultural and historical import. One day in Rome? You have to see the Vatican Museum. Right? Well, no, it turns out. I’ve learned that being lured away from a planned museum visit for something unexpected is not nearly as disappointing as once believed. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed the few museum visits I’ve managed to make over the past year and a half—a walk through the spaghetti-like strands of Penetrabile at LACMA is oddly soothing—but I no longer have that fear of missing out that used to follow a missed museum connection.
Perhaps one day I’ll make it back to Nashville and visit the Johnny Cash Museum, and on a repeat visit to Buffalo I will most likely choose the Albright-Knox instead of Niagara Falls. It’s possible I may stop into the Valley Forge Visitor’s Center instead of walking a six-mile loop around the park for exercise, and it seems unlikely, but I may even make it to the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings somewhere down the line. But, for now, they’ll just remain some of the many places I didn’t go.
1. “The life of a folded napkin is extremely short.” Over at NPR, they delve into the rediscovered art of napkin folding.
2. Speaking of rediscoveries, while the archaeological world was in a tizzy about the possible location of Queen Nefertiti’s tomb, National Geographic felt it wise to remind us that this ancient beauty has been “found” before. One quote following an earlier alleged discovery claimed: “…the identification of the mummy in question as Nefertiti is balderdash (good manners prevent me from using a stronger term.)”
3. Earlier this month, the British Library appealed to the public to help them solve a mystery: what is the indecipherable inscription on this 800-year-old sword? While the message board for speculation has been officially closed, the mystery has not.
4. If you were looking for a good time to get reacquainted with the works of great Irish authors, there is no time like the present. Ireland is in the middle of Yeats2015, a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of W.B. Yeats’ birth. Exhibitions, dance performances, plays, concerts, and more reflect the writer’s multidisciplinary approach to the arts.
My name is Meredith Whitfield, and I’m a Museum Person.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a D.C. transplant, originally from Tennessee. My “real job” is in internet marketing, but I spend a lot of time volunteering at the Folger Shakespeare Library here in D.C. (and cheerleading for it on Twitter). I fell in love with museums while at the Folger, and I’m in the midst of applying to museology graduate programs.
Why do museums matter to you?
Museums serve so many purposes, especially when they’re accessible, community-friendly spaces. They create supplemental and nontraditional learning experiences, they’re an alternative to consumption-based activities, they start conversations, and they connect us to others through objects and stories. I especially love museums that offer many different types of engagement opportunities. When you choose among art, films, artifacts, activities, social events, an online presence, and whatever other assets the institution has created, the more likely you are to find something that resonates with you.
What is your dream museum job?
For a while, I was convinced that I wanted to be Emily Graslie when I grew up, but I think instead I would love to one day invent the position of Chief Access Officer at a historical collection. Wouldn’t it be cool to pile an exhibition into a food truck/bus/trailer/caravan and tour around the area with stops at community events, like The Uni Project does for libraries? The Folger’s First Folio tour program is so inspiring in this way; our folios are visiting all 50 states, dramatically increasing the ability for Shakespeare lovers to visit a folio AND encouraging more people to discover Shakespeare.
When you think of the perfect exhibition, what is in it?
I don’t care what’s in it, as long as there’s a great story informing it. The Voynich Manuscript visited the Folger recently, and getting to tell a mystery story about an indecipherable code really got people into the object. I also love exhibitions that incorporate an interactive element. It provides a concrete outlet for interpretation and can start interesting conversations among visitors.
What is the most bizarre museum you’ve ever visited?
The National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, MD. It is so worth the trip from D.C. to learn about military history, see how disease affects the human body, and see a row of fetal skeletons. It’s about a mile walk from the metro.
What frustrates you about the way museums operate today? On the flip side, what gives you hope for the future about the way museums operate today?
I’m so thrilled that museums seem to be moving past their more rigid, institutional pasts and are challenging industry standards in creative and interesting ways. It’s been so exciting, as a docent, to help contribute to the way the Folger is thinking about its visitor experience.
I hope one day that all museums will embrace the potential of technology like Cooper-Hewitt has done. Wouldn’t it be great if, for example, your Wikipedia or Google search let you know what artifacts related to your search live at institutions near you? If you could get, for free, the plans to 3D print your own mini Giacometti sculpture at the library? If your public library hosted a book club culminating in a tour of an exhibition curated as a companion to the book?
It’s so rewarding to live in a place where museum are mostly free, and I hope the future sees museums prioritized enough in other cities for this to become a trend. I want to see increased accessibility, exhibitions curated with underserved communities in mind, exhibitions that reflect and inform community trends and sentiments, greater responsiveness, and more FUN.
Thanks to Meredith for sharing her museum experiences with us. If you, or someone you know, is interested in participating in the “I’m a Museum Person” series, send us an email at email@example.com.
1. Unarguably one of the world’s stranger museums, Iceland’s Phallological Museum is dedicated to dicks. Over at McSweeney’s, Eliese Colette Goldbach has penned an open letter to this niche institution, which includes such lines as “One minute some guy gives you a whale penis, the next you’re the proud owner of a dick museum,” and “The way I see it, you’re only achieving half of your genital potential.”
2. When Alex Marshall sought out the Museum of Mud while in Asuncion, Paraguay, he found that the Museo del Barro was actually a celebration of mud’s prettier, dryer cousin—clay—and a variety of other cultural artworks.
3. Having been on the road myself for the last three months, I was eager to read Andrew Dansby’s “Road Trip Essay: Stumbling Upon Snake Institutions” in the Houston Chronicle. But, it’s behind a pay wall, so it remains unread by me.
4. Not content with Internet Cat Video Film Festivals? Feline film fans can now visit the first ever mainstream museum exhibition dedicated to the phenomenon when “How Cats Took Over the Internet” opens at the Museum of the Moving Image this weekend. Reading about this exhibition, I was made aware of the existence of Meowchat, “where people swapped role-playing messages posing as their cats, talking in a sort of baby talk,” which was illuminating to say the least.
5. This week’s reading roundup ends—rather appropriately, I think—with death. Specifically with Lee Matalone’s trip to the Museum of Death in New Orleans. It’s a poignant visit, because, as the author notes, “the character you are celebrating is Death itself.”
In honor of the 125th anniversary of Vincent van Gogh’s death (July 29, 1890), artist Daan Roosegaarde has created a Starry Night inspired bike path in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Learn more about the project here.
My name is Amy Cotterill, and I’m a Museum Person.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m the Museum Development Officer for the UK county of Essex. My job is to support all the museums in the county—most of which are volunteer run—with collections care, business sustainability, and audience engagement. I started off studying Ancient History and Archaeology, followed by Cultural Heritage Management, and worked in a variety of learning and engagement roles in different museums before starting my current role last January.
In my spare time, I help run a local branch of the Young Archaeologists Club, volunteer for the Museums Association, the Group for Education in Museums, and the Digital Learning Network. So, you could say I’m a complete museum geek! I do have non-museumy hobbies too: I’m a member of the Women’s Institute, and I love reading, photography, and going to the movies.
You deal with hundreds of museums in your job, whereas most museum professionals deal with just one. Can you share a few insights into how difficult or rewarding that can be?
I cover a pretty big patch, with an astounding variety of museums. The biggest is a Norman castle, which has a team of professional staff and local authority funding. The smallest takes up half a railway carriage. Most of them are local history museums, but I also work with WW1 and WW2 airfields, art collections, a Natural History Museum and even a Pirate Radio Museum! They all have very different needs, including issues with governance and trustee structures, securing funding or even just getting people through the door. I have to know about all different aspects of running a museum (or know who else to ask for advice!) but it’s really rewarding because the role really makes a difference. I’m helping keep museums open and their collections in good condition and available to the public.
Why do museums matter to you?
My previous museum roles have been in community outreach and engagement, so I’ve seen first-hand the difference they can make. I’ve worked with young offenders, teenage asylum seekers, adults with learning disabilities, and children in care—all of whom have lit up when visiting a museum. The collections they hold inspire creativity as well as teaching us about our past and the world around us. Families come together to explore the contents of our glass cases. Museums aren’t just a place for learning; they are a place for fun!
What is your favorite museum memory?
My favourite childhood museum memory is of the Museum of London’s Great Fire exhibit. You stood in a room with a model of London in front of you, listening to Samuel Pepys’ diary describe what happened. A spark started in the model and slowly the flames spread across the model and onto the walls around you. I was completely enthralled!
My favourite memory as a museum professional is from a project I co-created with a group of young people, developing workshops for younger children. About a year later, one of the participants came to a public workshop I was running and told me he’d applied to study childcare at college because he’d enjoyed working on the project so much.
What museum would you love to visit that you haven’t been to yet?
Can I only pick one? There are so many! The Rijksmuseum, the Louvre, the Smithsonian…but the one that tops the list is The Crime Museum (also known as The Black Museum). It’s the collection of Scotland Yard and is made up of items connected to some of the most chilling crimes in British history. It’s not that I’m ghoulish, it’s just that it’s only open to police officers and even then only by appointment. Not being allowed to see it makes me want to even more.
What is your favorite museum that you have visited so far?
Ruling out all the museums I work with in Essex (you can’t ask me to choose between them!) my favourite is probably the Natural History Museum in Tring. I used to visit on rainy afternoons while I was growing up so it holds a lot of fond memories. It houses some amazing examples of Victorian taxidermy, including Mexican fleas dressed in full sets of clothes—someone actually sewed clothes for fleas!
When you think of the perfect exhibition, what is in it?
It’s not the subject, but how you present it. My favourite exhibitions have all had clear themes with text panels which presented the information in an understandable way without being patronising—usually with different levels of information so you can either take away the gist or read deeper if you wish. For example, I hate gardening, but really enjoyed my visit to the Garden Museum because they present things so well. However, I’ve seen archaeology exhibitions that I’ve expected to love and found disappointing because there was nothing to connect with non-academic audiences.
What is the most random item you’ve bought in a museum gift shop?
When I was a child, it seemed like all of my friends had wooden rulers that listed the kings and queens of England in chronological order on the back. I really wanted one, but could never convince my parents. Two years ago, I was working for English Heritage as Education Manager for their London properties and spotted these rulers in the gift shop of Wellington’s House and couldn’t resist.
What museum would you move into for a month if you could?
Eltham Palace in Greenwich. It was given to Edward II in 1305 and was a royal residence through to the 16th Century. Henry VIII spent much of his childhood there and the Tudor courts often used it for their Christmas celebrations. However, it fell into disuse and ruin. In the 1930s a new house was built incorporating much of the original building including the Great Hall. It has the most beautiful Art Deco interiors. It’s just fabulous!
What’s the most bizarre museum you’ve ever visited?
Lumina Domestica (The Lamp Museum) in Bruges. My husband and I visited last year while we were on holiday because we could get a joint ticket with the Chocolate Museum and the Frites Museum. It was actually really interesting, telling the story of man-made lighting through the centuries. I would definitely recommend a visit if you get the chance!
There seem to be a million books and movies set in museums. Do you have a favorite?
I could try and come up with a really intellectual answer for this, but if I’m honest it’s Ghostbusters 2. We’ve all seen portraits that look like they’ve got an evil being trapped inside waiting to escape. Plus, it has the Statue of Liberty dancing through the streets of New York—what’s not to love?
What angers/upsets/frustrates you about the way museums operate today? On the flip side, what pleases/amuses/gives you hope for the future about the way museums operate today?
People have donated objects to public museums in the belief that they’ll be looked after by professionals and enjoyed by future generations, so it upsets me when funding is cut to the point where museums aren’t able to properly care for their collections or stay open. When councils sell off museum objects to plug gaps in other parts of their budget, they’re betraying not only the original donor but everyone who’s invested in that museum through their taxes or donations.
However, there is much to give us hope for UK museums. Every week, I meet museum staff and volunteers who love what they do and have so much passion for their collections. The Museums Association’s publication Museums Change Lives illustrates the hard work museums of all sizes are doing to make a difference in their local communities.
Any lover of music should appreciate Kandinsky, the abstract artist who once said: “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” Consider a print of his work or maybe a notecard set.
If you have a jazz aficionado on your list, consider a comprehensive box set from the Smithsonian—Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology—which explores the genre over six CDs and a 200-page companion book.
The touring exhibition David Bowie Is was a smash when it launched at the V&A, and it is currently enjoying great success at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Why not share the wonderful world of this music icon with your friends and family by gifting the official exhibition catalog (V&A hardcover or MCA softcover)?
Perhaps you’re in the market for a less bulky David Bowie offering? Consider these rather awesome lightning bolt earrings.
Having worked in a museum gift shop, t-shirts are a common request (along with the absurd and impossible request for a small, lightweight catalog of the museum’s entire collection, but I digress…) Try this comfortable-looking offering from the Grammy Museum.
If your gift recipient is a little more classical in their musical leanings, the catalog from the Ashmolean’s relatively recent Stradivarius exhibition might catch their fancy.
Let’s say someone’s response to the question “What do you want for Christmas this year?” was “Sing me a song of the saddle,” then I have the perfect gift idea for you. Cowboy Songs, a 62-song collection sold at the Gene Autry Museum, will be a perfect addition to any cowboy crooner lover’s playlist.
Another gem from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum: winner of the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Just Kids is a memoir of singer-songwriter Patti Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe in 1960s New York.
The Neue Gallerie in New York is wonderful for coffee lovers because of its Viennese-inspired cafes, and art lovers get to enjoy glittering Klimt’s in the galleries, but music lovers can find their spot in the gift shop where books delve into operatic maestro Richard Wagner or a visual look at Mahler.
Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind, a publication exclusively made for Seattle’s Experience Music Project, is an essential guide to the punk rock scene.
Wisconsin’s Mustard Museum is a regular member of the “Can you believe there is a museum about this?” club. But, if you’re a mustard lover like me, you think it makes total sense. Plus, their store has plenty on offer. Try giving a Gourmet Mustard Gift Set or some mustard making supplies.
Food: Our Global Kitchen, the tasty exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in D.C., will whet your appetite. So, it’s a good thing that they have a Test Kitchen serving up tasty treats through late February.
The Barnes Foundation has six teas whose flavor profiles reflect a particular artwork or artist in the foundation’s collection. Think Renoir Rooibos, Gauguin Mango, and Cezanne Citrus.
Do you know someone who complains about how there aren’t enough food museums out there? Well, help them get New York’s first food museum with exhibits you can eat up and running by donating to the Museum of Food and Drink.
The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis celebrates all things Swedish, including its yummy Scandinavian cuisine. So, it’s no surprise to see that they have renowned Swedish-Ethiopian chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Yes, Chef for sale in their gift shop. You can buy it online, but if you buy it at the museum you can give yourself a present by eating lunch at their delicious Fika restaurant.
What do you buy someone with a large collection of cookbooks? How about another cookbook, but this one is a beautifully illustrated take on 14th and 15th century dishes and dining.
Instead of traditional pine-scented candles, gift the tummy-rumbling scents of fig, basil, or rosemary instead. Good Candle makes hand-poured soy wax candles in Brooklyn and you can buy online or at the following museums: Museum of Arts and Design, Brooklyn Museum, and Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.
Because Christmas isn’t Christmas without a Mondrian cake. Modern Art Desserts.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s gift shop is full of amazing books, and more than a few cover food related topics. For instance, The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread sounds like an interesting read.
Museum gift stores can actually be great places to pick up amazing kitchen gadgets and home goods, like this Stainless Steel French Press at SFMOMA.
Yes, I know that the post promised you 10 gifts, but here’s a bonus gift, and guess what? It’s free. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a world leader in promoting sustainable seafood consumption, and their free Seafood Watch App will help you buy and eat your fruits from the sea responsibly.
Museums devoted to medical history, techniques and tools are not for the faint of heart, and Philadelphia’s famous Mutter Museum is no exception. But, if you have a budding doctor or someone into morbid medical oddities on your gift list this year, Dr. Mutter’s Marvels might be a book worth looking into.
London’s Natural History Museum is so much more than just an architectural gem, and its varied assets come alive in Dry Store Room No. 1, an enjoyable behind-the-scenes look at the institution and its collections.
Basic enough for kids, beautiful enough for adults, Bird Bingo satisfies all ages of nature lovers.
For a slightly wacky gift, look no further than the slightly wacky Museum of Jurassic Technology. Perhaps an old-school View-Master box set complete with six reels of items in the museum’s collection–I particularly like the one about the Dogs of the Soviet Space Program–is just what you need.
Know a rock hound in need of a gift? Classroom style mineral kits, ranging from a few to a hundred samples, are a beautiful, tactile, and educational present choice.
Keep topographic time with a Terra Watch in sandblasted stainless steel.
A notebook or journal is always a good stocking stuffer. Try one with an eye-catching selection from AMNH’s Rare Book Selections.
If you’re interested in more of a non-material gift, pick up some tickets for a National Geographic Live event near you. This international program of lectures, films, and concerts brings the natural world to you. Explore aboriginal Australia in Kansas City, chase rivers in Calgary, or journey to Untamed Antarctica in sunny L.A.
Museums occasionally come out with cute and interesting ways for supporters to donate, and the Field Museum has found a winner with its Adopt a Dino offer. Donate in your dinosaur-crazed nephew’s name this holiday season and present him with his very own adopted T-Rex or Brachiosaurus.
1. After a while, I learned to choose the names of my fellow characters more carefully. Having looked up the symptoms for dysentery, it wasn’t something I would wish on most people. This was just one of many life-changing facts I learned while playing Oregon Trail as a child. Writer Emily Grosvenor decided to take her Oregon Trail education one step further: participating in a life-action, role-playing version of the beloved computer game. “I found myself pushing a 200 pound man on an ancient kiddie wagon with two missing wheels up a hill with about a 40 percent incline while he shouted out facts about how to preserve meat…”
2. While on the topic of childhood memories, I was initially saddened to discover that the Rosenbach Museum—a personal favorite—was losing its Maurice Sendak collection. The sadness was eventually replaced by excitement for two reasons: 1) There’s going to be an entire Sendak museum in the future; and 2) This means that instead of always featuring a Sendak exhibit, the Rosenbach now has more room to create exciting displays features other items in their extensive collection.
3. Lonesome George. That’s one hell of a moniker. But, if you happen to be the last of your kind, your nickname is bound to be a little depressing. This look at the afterlife of a famous extinct tortoise has some great bits, like the line “What posture should a tortoise have?” or the imagery evoked by the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing for Mammals and Their Extinct Relatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
4. Turns out Lonesome George has plenty of friend’s at New York’s Museum of Natural History if Hiroshi Sugimoto’s new book Dioramas is anything to go by. This short essay from the New York Review of Books not only marvels at the beauty of Sugimoto’s photography, but also captures the love of an old-fashioned museum experience when describing the darkened diorama halls: “That hushed public place is the private secret of every child in New York.”
5. If the opposite of an old-fashioned museum diorama is a completely immersive and interactive display, where the heck does Shia LaBoeuf’s latest performance piece fall on the spectrum? On September 25, the actor ran his own MetaMarathon around Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, adding to his growing portfolio of performance art.
6. Speaking of Dutch museums, turns out famous footballer Arjen Robben has plans to open one of his own one day. The future museum’s focus? Why Arjen Robben of course! I hope it has exhibits where you can attempt to duplicate his incredible crosses, or one where you can try the most dramatic flop you can come up with before sitting down at a fake press conference and saying “sorry-not-sorry” for flopping. I really want to go to this museum one day.