December 14, 2009

Back to the elephant

Peter and Sarah fly to Washington this week to present findings to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. All of us are excited about the evaluation and what we've learned from visitors. But for me the project feels larger-than-life because now, at the age of 45, I find myself working with the museum I loved more than any other as a kid.

My family wasn't big on museums; my parents were dedicated suburbanites who shied away from cities, which ruled out many of the usual options.  But we did take a family vacation to Washington,  DC when I was about nine, and the Smithsonian was at the top of the agenda.

My most vivid memory of Natural History, oddly enough, is of my father being worried that we wouldn't get a table at the museum's vast cafeteria (the very place where we'll be conducting interviews with visitors in a few weeks).  He took the uncharacteristic risk of leaving me in charge of my two younger brothers while he disappeared into the sea of tables to wait in the distant lunch line.  As we waited, I felt a welling sense of responsibility and adultness, and that sense stayed with me as we explored the exhibits after lunch.

My memories of the exhibits are less concrete, with the exception of that huge elephant standing proudly in the lobby.  I recall thinking (or rather, feeling) that this was a place where new things can happen, where people can change. If there was a little risk involved, there was also an urgency and excitement. The cumulative effect of all the gems and minerals, the fossils and skeletons, and the dioramas wasn't just awe at nature's breadth and beauty.  It was also a sense that this museum was about who we can become, about surprising ourselves.

Hats off to a great museum for inspiring this kid for life.

1 Comment »
Caroline Goldthorpe — January 07, 2010

Great to hear that you will be conducting surveys in the cafeteria. In the Museum Studies class I teach at Northwestern we often talk about the surveys I used to see in the 90s when I worked at the Met. where people would be trapped standing up as they attempted to leave an exhibit. In my opinion you should motivate them with a free dessert !

Caroline Goldthorpe

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