Back in February, we talked about why we love Philly and why we love museums. In those posts, we kept our reasons brief and focused in on just a few main ideas. Now, after reading a little post about why the author dislikes museums, I figured the time was ripe to examine in a bit more detail why I love museums.
1. There’s something for everyone
In the aforementioned negative article, the author complains that one only visits a museum because they have been told to. For some people, that’s true. For the rest of us, we recognize that there is a museum for nearly every interest and experience. Sure, there are numerous art galleries, history museums, and science centers that can often run together, but there is also a multitude of institutions that can change how you view museums. The Ontario Science Center transforms a picturesque Canadian hillside into a fully-immersive educational experience. The Mutter Museum shines a spotlight on the mysterious and macabre. In San Francisco one can find a museum focused specifically on cartoon art. There’s even a museum dedicated to sex in New York. Museums truly have something to offer for anyone’s interests.
2. A museum visit is a great compliment to any trip
The author goes on to suggest that one would rather be doing something else with the time that they’ve dedicated to their museum visit. When I travel, I try to immerse myself in the local culture as much as possible. I eat local foods, drink local beer, ride public transit, find off the beaten path places to check out, and I compliment all of that local flare with a visit to a local museum. A couple of years ago, I had a long layover in Knoxville, TN. I enjoyed wandering around town and checking things out, but that trip would have been about as half as memorable and worthwhile as it was had I not stopped by the East Tennessee History Museum (mentioned here and here). A short visit to a small, unassuming museum ended up being the highlight of my Knoxville experience.
3. Artifacts are awesome
I’m not an art historian by any stretch of the imagination, but I have come to appreciate the variety of artifacts offered by museums, particularly here in Philadelphia. First and foremost, there’s the Please Touch Museum. PTM’s collection consists almost entirely of toys. In addition to the toys is the Philadelphia Childhood Treasures, which, among other wondrous items, include a century old carousel and the set from Captain Noah and His Magical Ark. For those with more adult tastes, the Academy of Natural Sciences brought out some (literally) gnarly duck penises for the Valentine’s edition of Mega Bad Movie Night and the Franklin Institute showed off a very industrial-looking vibrator used many decades ago to “cure hysteria in women.”
4. Spirit of collaboration
At several points, the grumpy cat who penned the negative article just posts photographs with captions consisting mostly of the word “this,” perhaps in an effort to create a Buzzfeed vibe. Instead of that, I’d like to add a few more reasons to compliment my rebuttals. In this case, it’s the way in which museums are able to work together. At their most basic levels, the majority of museums are intended to serve a community. Because of this, where most industries find competition, museums find collaboration. Just the other day I was musing how I often forget that I have never been employed by the Academy of Natural Sciences or the National Constitution Center, but I have worked very closely with staff from both institutions to work toward a common goal. Even now, in a corporate museum, my coworkers and I still work together with museums from around the country.
5. Museum professionals have the best work stories
A frequent occurrence of any gathering of two or more museum professionals will inevitably delve into crazy stories from their experience. Whether it be a wacky guest experience, an animal on the loose, bizarre requests from constituents, or even a wayward Tesla coil, a museum professional will be able to regale you with stories to make you cry tears of laughter or just cry for humanity. Museum stories have websites dedicated to them (like this gem and this one) and for the third year in a row, the Visitor Experience Conference has a session all about wild guest interactions.
6. The atmosphere is vibrant
The vibe from the article suggests that the author’s main issue is with art galleries, going so far as to suggest that the atmosphere is “funereal.” I would imagine that upon a visit to the Exploratorium, the author would eat those words as he became caught up in the electric atmosphere of a passion for science and education that is prevalent throughout the institution. Or perhaps a visit to a living history museum like the vibrant Lower East Side Tenement Museum would get his blood flowing. The days of the quiet, hallowed halls are waning, and while many more somber institutions are still around, even more are embracing a more interactive and exciting approach to their presentation.
7. Education becomes fun
There are people like me and many of my friends who, throughout our lives, have always enjoyed learning. But that’s not everybody. One of the most rewarding facets of museum work is seeing or participating in a guest’s lightbulb moment. Those moments when a simple question spirals into a deeper discussion or when a floor presentation helps a guest see a topic in a different light. Museums provide an excellent opportunity for informal educators to build on a guest’s prior knowledge without the restrictions of textbooks or test-based curriculum. Museums are able to take a lesson and reinterpret it in a way that is fun and engaging.
8. Interactive and immersive environments
Museums are increasingly becoming highly interactive environments in which a guest can immerse themselves in their area of interest. For the budding environmentalist, the Franklin Institute’s Changing Earth exhibit goes beyond the “pollution is damaging” lecture and demonstrates the exact impact of one’s carbon footprint. A similar exhibit at the Fleet Science Center in San Diego highlights the importance of energy conservation by clearly illustrating how different energy sources could impact the region. The National Constitution Center offers the multitude of children who visit a chance to practice taking the Oath of Office for the President of the United States, giving students a chance to visualize themselves reaching that high level of achievement. Children’s museums around the world often house pint-sized neighborhoods in which toddlers’ pretending serves as practice for growing up. Historic houses offer guests a feel for what life was like in another time. The only better way to fully immerse oneself in an educational experience would be a real-life Magic School Bus.
9. An experience for all ages
As mentioned above, museums have a little something for everyone, and there are museums that cater to almost any audience. A savvy guest will quickly learn the best times and events to visit the institution of their choice. For example, I love the Academy of Natural Sciences. I may not visit on a weekday between 10AM and 2PM while the museum is packed with rambunctious school groups, but I rarely miss a Mega Bad Movie Night. As a young adult without children, I rarely visit the Please Touch Museum, but am happy to swing by on the days that Centennial Phil offers his tour of the historic Memorial Hall. Both of these institutions, along with most museums, have recognized their diverse audiences and set aside times to make museums more comfortable for different groups, whether it be a couple low-key hours for guests on the autism spectrum or an evening where adults get to enjoy the museum free of children, much like when the lifeguard clears the pool for the grown-ups. The Children’s Museums in Indianapolis and Madison have fully embraced this concept, titling their adult programs “Adult Swim.”
10. A day out for the whole family
Museums are great resources for weary parents who want the best for their kids. Many museums have followed the Disney model of catering to parents as well as children to ensure that everyone enjoys the family trip to the museum. For example, guests who visit the Museum of Elfreth’s Alley can opt for the “Magic Tour” that parallels the history of the famed alley with it’s fictional counterpart from the world of Harry Potter, Diagon Alley. The brand new “Your Brain” exhibit at the Franklin Institute provides a great balance between brief, interactive activities ideal for youngsters with short attention spans and activities and information that require a bit more thought.
11. Adult programs
I know I have already mentioned adult programs several times through this list. But in a response to “there’s nothing fun for adults” I feel the need to once again highlight things like Mega Bad Movie Night, Science After Hours, and Adult Swim in Madison and Indianapolis.
12. Benefits of membership
A membership to your favorite museum(s) goes a long way. First and foremost, most memberships pay for themselves in two or three visits. From there, one gets discounts, invitations to members only events, and my favorite, reciprocal admission. For example, a member of the Please Touch Museum gets half-priced admission to any other museum in the Association of Children’s Museums. Even better, a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences or Franklin Institute get into any museum in the Association of Science and Technology Centers completely free. This includes institutions in other countries! Membership definitely has its benefits.
13. Museums are becoming more accessible
Many will complain of the high cost of museum admission, yet many museums have dedicated times, often monthly, during which they offer free or reduced admission. Locally, Target sponsors monthly events of that nature at several museums. With a couple minutes of internet research, one should be able to find several institutions offering a chance to visit for those who are a bit strapped for cash.
14. Museums are constantly adapting
I started working at the Franklin Institute in January of 2002. Now, when I visit as a guest, the museum is almost unrecognizable from my first day on the job. Every permanent exhibit has been remodeled, and new exhibits are constantly swinging through the traveling exhibit space. They even added on a new wing this summer! Perhaps most impressive is how museums are able to react instantly to goings on in the world. When the Mid-Atlantic region was hit with an earthquake a few years ago, an educator was on hand with an iPad in front of the plate tectonics section of the Changing Earth exhibit to illustrate the causes of the quake and how the distance from the epicenter affected how guests experienced the tremors that morning. Museums like the National Center for Civil and Human Rights will play a large role in helping their communities make sense of the injustices happening in places like Ferguson. Which brings me to my next point…
15. A community pillar
Museums are increasingly accepting their roles as important civic partners in their respective communities. Science centers advocate for the environment, history and civic institutions provide a context for major world events, art galleries give perspective into different eras, and more and more museums are reaching out to bring their resources to communities where it is most needed. Many museums offer outreach programs in which they push into classrooms or present at school assemblies. The Detroit Institute of Art’s Inside Out program actually brings art from the gallery into the community. This new model of community outreach is spreading, and provides a great service to the areas surrounding these great museums.
16. Social museums
Most museums have fully jumped on the social media bandwagon by now. Many museums have blogs on their websites, and most have at least one social media account. While many institutions could more effectively use these tools, I’d wager that museums are doing better in this department than many of their private sector counterparts. And for the record, I think Museum Selfie Day was awesome.
17. There’s nothing like seeing it in person
Yes, many museums have put portions of their collection on the internet. This is great for someone who may not live close to a museum, or as a tool to help you to decide which museum to visit. Yet there is a special feeling you get when experiencing an artifact. I could do a google image search for Galileo’s telescope and look at it right now, but it won’t come anywhere close to how it felt to see the telescope in person and be just a few inches away from Galileo’s handwritten notes on the eyepiece. Some experiences you can only get when you show up.
18. The gift shop
I have loved museum gift shops since I was a wee lad, and that has not changed with age. Recently, I took a few teens to a science museum and in the time leading up to our visit, the prospect of scoring some astronaut ice cream from the gift shop was frequently brought up. The shop at the Museum of Elfreth’s Alley is well-known for having local artisanal goods alongside their impressive collection of history books and some of the best soda you will ever sip. Museum shops are fantastic places to get a little something unique to remember a visit or share as a gift.
19. Providing perspective
A common complaint, echoed by the author of the aforementioned list of negatives, is that items are “fake.” Having had worked at several museums I have overheard this complaint many times, and more often than not, the complainer was wrong. Occasionally, “fake” items in museums can be a bit hokey. But most actually serve a purpose. Imagine, if you will, that no replicas were used in museums. Gone would be the towering dinosaur skeletons that illustrate just how large the prehistoric creatures were. No more would the general public have access to this frame of reference. A stream table isn’t really a body of water causing erosion in nature, but it is still a valuable resource when it comes to demonstrating how the process works.
20. A balance of old and new
In recent times museums have done well at keeping a healthy balance between the old and the new. Whether you’re watching the State of the Union address just steps from a centuries old copy of the Constitution or having a slinky race down the steps where President Grant opened the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, so many museums have found a great balance between what is from the past and what is modern.
21. You miss them when they’re gone
As someone who lives in a major metropolitan area, it may be hard to imagine a place devoid of museums. But they exist. After six years of working in museums, I had grown a bit tired of them. In fact, when I visited Germany in 2008, I didn’t visit a single museum. But in 2009, I moved to a town that had one aquarium and zero museums. Within a few months I was desperate for the culture, education, and experiences that only a museum can provide. I count myself lucky to be in an area practically bursting with museums, and even luckier to be so immersed in the museum world.