My parents used to take us to museums. Some of them, as children, we loathed. The ones with lots and lots of vitrines, the ones where it was very clear that play was not happening–only lots and lots of reading tiny signs. There were others; for us, it was the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, that we begged to visit.
Staring up at the giant elephant in the atrium of the Natural History Museum and racing to find a phone to listen in to was something we could spend half our visit doing. But the dinosaur skeletons, the Hope Diamond, the hall of animals–was a wonderland of curious things, and we wouldn’t leave until we’d seen them all. My brother is wheelchair assisted, and in those days, this meant that, to access elevators, we would get to see behind the scenes. One day we walked past a collections management office and were invited inside. I will never forget how excited the curator was to show us the collection, to let us feel polar bear fur and learn about why it’s so warm. I vividly remember the reverence for knowledge he had as he presented specimens to us. I didn’t know it then, but this interaction spring boarded me into a love of biology, one that would lead me to work as a marine biologist, and eventually, to a museum that would change my life.
I work at Amazement Square, a hands-on museum in Lynchburg, Virginia. On the museum continuum, we are small, with a staff of 30ish and in the process of outgrowing the converted brick warehouse that houses us. But what we do every day gives my life’s work meaning. Our mission, put most simply, is to inspire a love of learning and ensure that children and families of all backgrounds are included in this work. And it is serious work–to help children to open up to learning without testing; to entice parents to put down the phone, drive downtown, and pay admission because quality time is that important; to work with community members of all stripes to find vulnerabilities in our community and then find a way (programmatically and financially) to address those needs–it is a lot of work.
We also fabricate our exhibitions in-house. I point this out because it makes the museum an intensely personal place. I can walk through the building and remember the person who painted the barn gallery mural or find the ever-present constructions of our fabricator, who has been with the museum for over 15 years. The museum is literally a product of our community, and this small distinction in many ways sets the tone for who we are as an institution.
I cannot take credit for any of this. Our founder and President/CEO is a man of enormous vision, and our board members have, through their quiet magnanimity and unwavering commitment to our community, taught me the true meaning of generosity.
I will admit, when I first began working for the museum, I thought it was because, having always worked in the nonprofit sector, I was afraid to try life in a corporate setting–after all, working with children is generally received with a slightly vacant smile and, if thought bubbles existed, something along the lines of “wonder when she’s going to get a real job.” But then I found a freedom in being able to present any topic under the sun to an audience just as excited as I was to investigate. I found a voice in exhibition design, in taking a topic and making it a tangible experience. I also met my community, in many ways, for the first time.
The museum has strong ties with the local education system. In working with a preschool for at-risk and underserved youth, we found that we had an awesome opportunity to fill an experience gap for children, some of whom had never been to the other side of town. We began following up school learning units with a day of hands-on activities at the school, my favorite of which being a family evening when we brought a full petting zoo to the school grounds. The kids had been learning that the horse says “neigh,” but for most of them, a horse is whatever they’d seen in their classrooms. On this night, they were taking pony rides, and I’ve never seen a pony receive more kisses. On seeing the donkey, children referenced the Shrek donkey because it was the only experience of a donkey they had to draw from. And, perhaps more magical than the animal interactions, families of all ethnicities and experiences were mingling and laughing, showing us all that this is not too much to hope for the world.
We have since expanded to at-risk early learning centers throughout our region. We focus on developing social-emotional competencies through stories, activities, and dialogue. We also focus on supporting the teachers in these classrooms–to make them feel like professionals and to equip them with teaching strategies, paramount of which is joy.
In the museum, we brought a traveling exhibition from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh about love & forgiveness, and we invited social workers, synagogues, churches, school administrations, and everyone in our community, to focus on these critical themes. We are building from here to develop our own contemplative studies approach that will again reach into the community because of the call for more help to address the foundational need for children and adults to develop empathy and self-awareness.
There is so much more to be done, and there is so much more that can be done to empower museums to reach people where they are and to inspire our visitors toward a better understanding of humanity and the world. Museums are not a luxury. The roots of museums have reached deeper, and we are evolving a grassroots persona that seeks to inspire everyone to seek knowledge. I am proud to be a part of that, and I am grateful to #museumhack for having the moxie to bring that sense of joy and relevance to museums around the world.