Monday, January 26, 2009

Resolutions for my Imaginary Museum

I imagine that when I retire I will volunteer in a museum and try to make things interesting.  I’m motivated in that direction by a little section of the patchwork-quilt-song-lyric, “Mississippi,” by Bob Dylan. 

Stick with me, baby,
Stick with me anyhow,
Things are gonna start to get interesting
Right about now. 

We’ve got to stick with our local museums, anyhow.  My imaginary museum wishes there were more volunteers.  It wishes that visitors were more in evidence.  It wishes things were in better order, that the place looked less cluttered, better lit, cleaner, more interactive, and…there are so many ways to say this…more like the product of a lively mind.  There are any number of museums that are already delightful, but it will be just my luck to retire in a place where the museum faces a world of challenge. 

So I’m putting myself into the situation of the people I visit, cheer on, and admire and I’m assigning myself an imaginary retirement in their shoes, with only two months to go before the doors open again.  Here is a list of resolutions about what to attempt in those two months.  There is no chance I can accomplish all of these, but I’ll see what I can do to make a difference.

  • I will create an interesting activity at the museum entrance, which I will clear of all distracting clutter so that the visitor’s first impression is that of being welcomed into an “introductory” space that feels “hospitable.”

    The activity will involve the visitor and also launch the visit.  The Blackworld History Museum in St. Louis “launches” each visit with a handout.  It’s a list of things to find in the displays.  The visit becomes some kind of scavenger hunt.  People love having that list to focus their attention.

    The activity will be germane to the museum’s mission.  If the museum is in Missouri’s prairie region, and if there are farm implements on display, maybe I’ll create some kind of hands-on experience involving sod, soil, and plows of several designs.  Much of Missouri was once tallgrass prairie.  I have not yet seen a museum in Missouri that conjures up the appearance of tallgrass prairie or the special technology (a plow of specific design) that made agriculture possible.  I can’t remember seeing a county museum that oriented the visitor to the interesting features of The Earth at this county’s location.  Was the county a buffalo range, an ancient sea bed?

  • I will look at the old photographs in the collection and gather a set of them together in a little display about “how to read a photograph.”  I won’t need more than a handful of pictures.  I’ll find one that is superb as a grayscale print and use it to teach about the range of tones in a fine print.  (I saw one such picture in the museum in Unionville, and it was arranged with other objects so that they all made more sense of each other.) Then I’ll state a few facts about what one sees in the image and pose a question or two.

    I’ll find another one that serves a purely documentary purpose.

    I’ll find a third one that’s a standard business portrait in color from the 1960s or 70s and compare the portrait style from that era with the earlier era.

  • I will make a little display called “Hand Made, Tailor Made, and Catalogue” for ways of obtaining clothes.  (Hmm.  I could add “hand-me-down” and Army to that list.) There’s a doll in the Clay County Museum with a label from the doll’s donor saying, “Whenever I made a dress for myself I also made one for my doll.”  There are several “feed sack shirts” in the museum in Unionville.  There’s a 1920s fashion catalogue in the Morgan County Museum in Versailles.  It belonged to one of many traveling salesmen who came through town on the railroad and stayed in the hotel that is now the museum.  There’s a tailor-made suit in a small historic house in Chamois; it was made in that town for the wedding of the donor’s husband.  I’ll find a few examples and pose questions about remembering home-made clothing, tailors, seamstresses, or catalogue shopping.

  • I’ll organize one small display area to look like it’s lived in.  I saw such an idea at the Bates County Museum last summer.

  • I’ll have an interactive military display where people can polish brass and spit-shine a black shoe, hopefully with experienced instruction.  If possible, I’ll have some complete military outfits available for kids to put on and “fall out for inspection,” again with someone experienced.

  • I’ll see what I can do with color in the museum.  The Harlin Museum in West Plains has a small workbench of a local sign painter.  My eye always goes to it, when I’m not wishing I could play that Porter Wagoner guitar.  I’d try to do something about the skill of sign-painting or lettering people’s names on glass office doors.  I’ve always wanted to know how painters of those doors really steadied their hand with the stick they use.  I’ve wished for a museum that would let me try that out.  Now that I’m making resolutions, maybe I can figure out how to schedule such an experience one Saturday morning a month, for the kids primarily, but also for the parents as a “benefit” for people who drop a donation in the cigar box.

  • I will subtract objects from the displays one at a time for as long as I can get away with it or until the entire museum looks appealing, whichever comes first.  (Never underestimate the value you can add by subtracting something that competes for attention.)

  • I will pull various things that are currently displayed with other things just like them into new relationships.  I will try to create expectations that displays in my museum stimulate thought.

  • I will think of the other volunteers whose friendship is essential to the success of our museum and I will bake cupcakes for them, or go visit them, or take them out to tea, or invite them to go visit and evaluate another interesting museum with me.  I will remind myself every day of the off-season that people volunteer for positive social interaction and fulfillment of some kind.  I will create positive social interaction with the other volunteers this winter.  I will mend fences and build bridges and make friends.


Anonymous said...

Hi Michael. I came to your blog via a Google Alert on tallgrass prairie. I, too, long to see oceans of tallgrass waving in the wind, the way it used to be. I'll look forward to your exhibit when your volunteer work gets underway! Ann from Boulder

Anonymous said...

Take a look at Prairie State Park, near Nevada Missouri. To plunge deep into tall grass is disconcertingly like walking a maze -- no east-west dimension but only what's up and what's down. Wonderful!

The park's website,

Anonymous said...

Hello Michael.
Spurred on by the Cutting Edge Strategies session last fall, we have been looking at our museum. This piece not only validates what we've been doing so far, but also suggests a few creative interactive twists that we've been seeking. Thanks, your imaginary museum will be very fortunate to have you. Lisa Irle, Johnson Co. Historical Society, Warrensburg

Anonymous said...

hello michael. I took a copy of your resolutions to the mineral creek historical society annual meeting on saturday. I really appreciate what I learned from you working on the humanities. your workshop and t his blog post really changed our practices for the better : )
Lisa Irle, wbg. JCHS

Seeker said...

Thanks so much, Leslie! There is no lack of imagination in the ranks of museum volunteers. The problem is that the memo that says, "your job is to make things interesting" didn't get into wide circulation.