Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Power of a Great Museum

Several months before the museum opened, a number of staff members were asked to speak at a staff meeting about our belief in a great museum's power to transform individuals and communities.

Because of the American Association of Museums recent advocacy efforts in DC, I felt compelled to go back and clean up the notes, which I had hastily written on short notice, and share my thoughts with more of my museum colleagues and friends. I hope that for some of you this will inspire you to include your voice and get involved. It's important that we all continue to work to save funding for museums.

We believe in a great museum's power to transform individuals and communities.

I feel like this statement is the story of my life.

When I was growing up, my family was by no means what you might call "well off," so my parents were very careful about how they planned family vacations. We did not go to amusement parks and such, because they were just too expensive for a family of four on a tight budget. Instead, most of our vacations were spent going to free museums, art centers, state parks, and other cultural institutions. By the time I graduated high school, my parents had given me the wonderful gift of having driven to 20 different states and having visited museums and cultural institutions in every single one.

These trips introduced me to the wonder of the world outside the little community in rural Arkansas where I grew up, and I experienced the world in a way that could never be truly captured by reading a textbook in a classroom.

I met Ramses the Great in Dallas and first started learning about Egyptian art; I was probably five or six at the time. I saw dinosaurs come back to life in Utah. The first play I ever remember seeing was Dracula at the Arkansas Arts Center. I was in the fifth grade, and it scared the bejeezus out of me, but I loved it. My sister and I rode with Billy the Kid's gang in the desert town of Lincoln, New Mexico, even though we were girls. I charged the hill at Vicksburg, Mississippi, with my entire eight-grade class, just like the Union soldiers assaulting the town. I've walked through the Valley of Fire, the Painted Desert, and Carlsbad Caverns. I've floated the Buffalo River more times than I can count.

All of this was before I ever graduated high school, but my cultural explorations didn't stop there. I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone in Ireland, and explored the Irish National Museum. I've seen The Phantom of the Opera in Her Majesty's Theater in London, and I've raced through the British Museum at closing time, desperately trying to see just a few more wonders. I've seen the breathtaking grandeur of Crater Lake. I've ridden a paddleboat from the port of New Orleans. I've met King Tut in Chicago and Vulcan in Birmingham. I've paced the floors of Independence Hall. I've been to nearly every Smithsonian Museum. I even became a spy while I was at the International Spy Museum.

That is the power of great museums: They transport us to places we might not be able to go. They take us to times we've never lived in. They show us what was and, in some cases, what may yet be. They spark imagination, curiosity, realization, and hope. They make us better people.

And, in my case, they introduced a world of possibilities to a wide-eyed little girl, and it was a world she never wanted to leave. That is why I became a museum professional.

At every museum that I've ever worked, I've enjoyed the wonder on people's faces as they explore the exhibits and galleries. At my current job I get to see kids meet George Washington, Rosie the Riveter, Dolly Parton, Bill Clinton, and so much more. As spring emerges I can't wait to see them explore the natural world through our trail system. Perhaps they'll learn which plants the Native Americans used for medicinal purposes, or they'll see an owl, fox, or deer for the first time.

But for me, I'll be imagining the greater impact, the deeper impact. Which of them will decide to be the next world-renowned scientist, the next entertainment sensation, or the next President? Which one of them will become the next icon of patriotism?

And I wonder which one will become the next humble museum professional...

...all because great museums have the power to transform lives and show us a world of possibilities.