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Thoughts About Museums

I went on a miserable trip to New England with my family in 1992. It started in Washington, D.C. and continued into New England and up in the maritime provinces of Canada. The main thing I remember about the trip is the pain in my legs. At the time, no one knew I had a birth defect in my back that caused me extreme pain. My parents told me I was “out of shape” and Dad got annoyed with me.

I've seen many museums in my life and many are interesting.

What was the main cause of my pain on this trip? Museums. I lost count of how many museums we visited on this trip. There was the whaling museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts, there were the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., and I don’t know what else. It doesn’t really matter, as they all faded into the same jumbled mess, like a ball of wax leftover from those round cheeses that go in kids’ lunchboxes.

Do I remember anything of these museums? I remember the lights buzzed painfully at the whaling museum. I remember my feet hurting at the Museum of Natural History. I remember seeing the oldest American flag for a few minutes and that I was relieved to sit down for it. I remember touching a moon rock at the Air and Space Museum while I tried to ignore my foot pain. That’s about it.

After this trip, I was completely convinced that I hated museums. They were long, tedious sessions of pain. And what was the cause of the whole problem? Yeah, that was Dad.

He had no idea how to go to a museum. At each museum we stopped at, we had to slowly walk through, stopping to read every… single… little sign. We had to stare at the items in the museum for the next five minutes before very… slowly… moving onto the next item. There was no discussion of the exhibits, Dad just told us he wanted to see everything.

It was baffling to me, because I had been to the Smithsonian before. When I was seven, my mother took the family to see the museums without Dad. I was never bored and I didn’t remember being in pain. The memories I have of the museums is also more positive.

I remember getting astronaut ice cream at the Air and Space Museum and liking to see this one red plane that hung from the ceiling. I remembered looking at gemstones in another museum. There was a funny video in the Natural History Museum, where we also saw a preserved giant squid. That evening, Mom read me two books that I picked out and enjoyed. We also went up in the Washington Monument and saw the giant statue of Abraham Lincoln at his memorial. It was a fun trip.

So what was the big difference? Dad wasn’t there. We enjoyed moving through the museum at our own pace, looking at exhibits that looked interesting and getting involved with hands-on activities. There was no tedious sign reading or boring five minute staring sessions. We talked about what we were seeing and Mom answered the myriad questions that popped out of my seven-year-old brain. Yes, my legs hurt after the journey, but it didn’t really matter because I was having fun.

There is no book or class that can teach you to go to museums, but I am here to tell you one thing that is important. Whatever you do, don’t go to a museum like my father! You don’t need to read every sign and stare at every exhibit to get the gist of what the museum has to offer.

Just look at those electronic museum tours that are sometimes offered. I remember taking a tour of an Asian art exhibit at a Portland, Oregon, art museum. They didn’t take me to see every single exhibit in the museum. Instead, they offered highlights, history, and interesting tidbits at a collection of exhibits. Do I feel deprived for not getting a rundown of every single item on display in front of me? No.

Dad treated a museum as a sacred place where you had to see and read everything, or die trying. I seriously doubt he enjoyed it, nor did he remember any of it. Even his video tapes of the museums (where it was allowed) were boring. He didn’t talk in any of them, he just slowly panned around and showed everything he could find.

There was a lot wrong with my father, and I think his method of visiting a museum showed it. You see, what made the visits worse is the fact that he would force the family to come along with him. We couldn’t move on, we couldn’t linger at places that we found interesting. No, we had to follow him while he read and stared. Sometimes he would stop and talk about the exhibits, but he was always spouting know-it-all bullshit and boring the crap out of us.

I realized why I started avoiding museums after that trip, and it had only a little to do with my physical pain. No, the real reason I didn’t want to go to museums is that I associated them with Dad.

I had to be homeschooled by the idiot. He always thought he was a good teacher, but he was probably one of the worst teachers I ever had, and that includes the one who said she hated me. At least I learned something in her class. Dad was a shitstorm of bullshit and boring lectures.

There were his math lessons. One time he got hung up on the fact that the sixth grade textbook used barrel shaped boxes to show how to reduce a fraction and he talked about the damn barrels for half an hour. Another time he lectured me for an hour about counting camels in Arabia. Then there was the time he had to tell me about how his teacher taught the game of Weirdo instead of algebra. Nowhere in that time did I learn math.

None of the other subjects fared much better. Reading involved a long-winded talk about how classic authors wrote in flowery language that I supposedly wouldn’t understand. There was also the social studies session where he went on and on about how the National Geographic used stamps to mark something on a map. I certainly didn’t learn literature or geography those days.

That was Dad’s big problem. He would fixate. The same thing happened to him at museums. He got so into the pattern of read-and-look that he didn’t really experience the museum as one should, so he didn’t remember anything about them. Even looking back at pictures and videos, he couldn’t recall a thing about the museums he visited. I kind of feel sorry for him because he never got anything out them.

So what is my point in this blog post? Did I just come here to slam my father? No, I have a point to make. Museums are not meant to be looked at, they are meant to be experienced. You don’t have to look at every single minute exhibit and sign to catch the message the museum is trying to send. Find something that interests you, take a look at it and learn what it is, and talk about it with your friends or family. Even if it’s one of the only things you stop at, you will take something away with you.

I always say that a good day is a day that I learn something new. Even if it’s only one tiny tidbit of information, the day is considered a success. Museums are one of those places that we can always learn something new. They should be treated as an opportunity, not a ritual.

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