By Don Wildman
For the last five television seasons I’ve hosted Mysteries at the Museum on Travel Channel, a show that takes its audience on a weekly odyssey deep into the archives of American museums. In each episode, we learn from curators and experts about the historical significance of an array of remarkable artifacts. For a museum lover like me, hosting this series is nothing less than a dream job.
I was raised just outside of Philadelphia, a city famous for its esteemed museum culture, with places like the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Barnes Foundation, Mutter Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The place is cram-packed with institutions. Not to mention, you can hardly turn a corner on the street without walking into a major moment of our nation’s heritage. Philly instilled in me a deep appreciation of the past as it affects our present—and museums, of course, were central to this experience. So imagine, decades later, when I was tapped to host a show about museums. Amazing!
It has been a lucky passage for me. For my entire life, I’ve been a happy outsider when visiting museums—paying my admission fee, bending the metal tag onto my collar, and strolling purposefully through galleries. I’m still an outsider but having met so many museum pros in my work, my appreciation of the business of exhibition has soared. It’s like anything, I suppose—restaurants, theater, certainly television. Whenever you get to peek behind the curtain and see the humanity at work, it’s a reality check. But in the case of museum management, I’ve been only astonished by the passion and intelligence involved in telling the stories of collections. From near or far, it’s a really smart business to examine.
We do our own kind of curatorship on the show. At least, I like to think of it this way. Mysteries at the Museum is about artifacts, five or six different ones in each episode. Our production team of around thirty-five researchers, editors, and producers (and one host!) finds the artifacts and develops the segments. But any museum curator knows an artifact is basically just an object if you don’t have the story behind it. So we have to vet each artifact considered on the series for the quality of its tale. Does it have a mystery? Do we care about the characters involved? Is there a takeaway for the audience? What’s the “huh?!” factor? That final criterion probably has more to do with the show’s success than any other element. If we’ve done our job right, we’ve made each artifact’s story relevant to a modern audience and provided a revelation, large or small.
Before Mysteries at the Museum, I was a down-in-the-muck action guy on Off Limits, another Travel Channel series that climbed me through the gnarliest spaces of our nation’s infrastructure, discussing history and engineering. How did Boston clean up its filthy harbor? Well, let’s rappel into a disgusting sewage interceptor and find out! It wasn’t enough to stand and point at a Colorado gold mine and say “whoa.” I had to dynamite a mountainside. You see, it’s modern TV; you can’t host it if you’re not willing to be punished for it. So much of life now involves this “do or die” immediacy. For better or worse, we are no longer a society that stands back and watches—and the same certainly holds true for museums. Those strolling minions are expecting more.
It was the remote that changed television. In museums, I suppose, it’s the competition. There are more than 17,500 museums in America containing over a billion artifacts. But the fact that people visit US museums some 850 million times every year represents a rather rich potential. On Mysteries at the Museum, we eagerly dive into it every week, trusting that what makes people watch our show is the same curiosity that takes them so many times to so many museums. At heart, people want to learn. And people want to look at stuff.
This year, Travel Channel spun off another series called Monumental Mysteries in which I get to tell the stories behind iconic American monuments. Many of our same team work on both shows. But Mysteries at the Museum is the original and a true gratification for all involved. In today’s television marketplace, a series with the word museum in the title is a pretty rare commodity—one that makes us very proud indeed.
For the past few years, Don Wildman has held one of the museum world’s dream jobs: host of Mysteries at the Museum, which airs on Thursdays at 9pm ET/PT on Travel Channel. To prepare for the fifth season, which premieres this Thursday, August 15, check out Don’s most shocking museum mysteries here.