and I love it and wouldn’t change it for the world.
What I learned right away is that when you are the only guest in a small museum that doesn’t get many out-of-town visitors, the volunteer on duty is apt to follow you around. Sometimes it’s due to a mistrust of outsiders. More often it’s simply because it’s nice to have a curious visitor—or any visitor—come through the front door. Partly to be polite, and partly because I’m just a nosy person, I’d often ask my museum “minder” to tell me about his or her favorite things on exhibit. That way I would usually learn about a local treasure I might have otherwise overlooked…
This really isn’t limited to small museums. I’ve come across this in a number of NYC museums both small and large. I’ve found some really cool treasures like the Staten Island Museum’s “Diver Man”, the Tiffany Lamps at the NY Historical Society and the Queens Museum’s World’s Fair collection (including its smaller, pre-renovation one). But I love it whenever and wherever it happens.
The main reason most museums rarely or never display some very significant and intriguing objects is actually sort of boring: From the smallest community museum to the largest branch of the Smithsonian Institution, at most museums there’s just barely enough room to display more than 5 or 10 percent of their holdings at any one time. And space isn’t the only issue: A lot of great things stay tucked away because they are just too old, too fragile, or too likely to be ruined by exposure to humidity and to light. And museums are in the business of keeping things safe and intact for a long time.
While the space issue is beginning to be addressed with renovations and expansions to museums around the world, the preservation one to me is most interesting. With all the advances in science and technology, it’s crazy to think there haven’t been more advances in preservation techniques in order to be better able to display some of these true treasures. And to be honest, I never thought about the safety piece. Museum curators sure face a number of unexpected challenges in planning their exhibits. To that end, Ken Arnold at the Wellcome Center in London had some interesting thoughts:
“One of the great myths of the museum world is that we should perpetually strive to put as much of our collections on show for as long as we can,” says Arnold. “My sense instead is that one of the most important roles of the museum is precisely the opposite: namely to keep safe material that is off display and at rest, so that it can then be rediscovered and reinterpreted afresh when it has had a chance, if you like, to recharge its batteries.”
While I do agree with him, I also think there’s a happy middle ground between never showing the item(s) and risking their survival and I truly hope that can be found.
A nice surprise in reading this book was learning about more museums/topics. I know the NYC museum landscape fairly well, and to some extent I know the major east coast museums. But there are so many museums about which I had no clue and can’t wait to see eventually.
Overall, a really good read/guidebook to some of the US & London’s best museums. I am so far off course for this year’s reading goal. Ooph