Elementary and middle-school years are tough – filled with identity confusion, hormones, and self-doubt. What are our skills? Interests? Priorities? These questions may take a lifetime to answer, but I found myself addressing them, at a young age, at museums.
Anyone who works with or knows me is well aware of how many times I refer to my experiences at various museums, whether as an intern, volunteer, or visitor. These memories are still fresh, and I rely on them to inform my life and work today. I learned so much about myself, my hometown, and the world through frequent explorations of great museums big, small, and everywhere in-between. Quaint Shaker villages, encyclopedic art museums, and tiny nature centers all left strong impressions.
As a child, going to a museum was always a special treat under the guidance and encouragement of my parents. Downtown Chicago still held some enchantment for me – fancy shops, theaters, and lunches in front of big windows affording views of busy city streets. While Mom guided me through the Art Institute imparting wisdom on a range of subjects – historic textiles, decorative arts, and painters – my Father would join me at the Science and Industry and Field Museum, where he would explain how the gears on a machine would run or how a piece of furniture was made. His uncanny ability to pull from his mind’s bookshelf a timely quote or poetic allusion baffles me – a skill he most prominently displayed at museums. Botanical gardens and historic house museums were family affairs, offering avenues for everyone’s interests to collide and compete.
In addition to learning about my parents, museums were the sites for learning about myself, too. Early museum visits allowed me to sample a variety of different lifestyles, careers, and fantasies. In one gallery I may be an adventurous Egyptologist, in the next a biologist, in another a painter or poet. At the time, of course, I was dreaming of exotic careers and didn’t realize that I was, in fact, falling in love with museums and all of the chameleon-like opportunities they offered. Discovering what intrigues a young person is the first step on a long journey of trial and error. In my case, the way to ensure exposure to our world’s endless horizons was visiting museums.
Numerous visitor studies tell us that people are most likely to visit museums during two stages in their lives: as young people – students on field trips or with family – or as parents or grandparents repeating that cycle for the next generation. That leaves a lot of time in between visits. Getting started young is important, which is a well–supported fact. Much remains to be encountered and explored, though, at all stages of our lives. Speaking as a twenty-something in the midst of a foggy, quarter-life crisis, I know I can count on museum visits to realign me and offer some respite from aimless inner monologues. I think more people should allow themselves indulgent afternoons wandering through museums just because. Scholarship and background knowledge are not required, nor are lengthy visits. A visit is a visit and is a chance to reconnect with yourself or loved ones in a space that fosters those experiences.
Here’s hoping many will do just that at the Woodson Art Museum throughout the holiday season and beyond.
I am a fortunate person for many, many reasons – a healthy twenty-five year old from a loving family, a gainfully employed millennial working in a dynamic field – but one of the things I feel most lucky to have in my life is the gift of curiosity instilled in me by my parents.
Today is my Mother’s birthday and I get to reflect on all that she has done for me. Happy birthday, Mom, and thank you and Dad for all of the love, support, and opportunities for learning and growth you’ve made available to me.
I’m heading home in two short days and now I’m sure this sappy blog post will land me an extra present under the tree this year, right? Yes, typical only child.