While making dinner couple of nights ago I was listening to NPR when to my very pleasant surprise, they announced the first in a series of pieces on museums in the U.S in the 21st Century. Part I, titled “A History of Museums, ‘The Memory of Mankind,’” talked about the nexus of museums in the US in the 19th century. Circuses, cabinets of curiosities, and (occasional) scholarship form the bedrock of what is our current American museum-going tradition. And as it turns out, more people go to museums annually in the States than go to sporting events – 850 million versus 140 million – a number that truly shocked me. Then again, I feel like I visit at least one museum on every trip I take; clearly, I’m not alone.
Certainly, the El Greco to Velazquez exhibition at the Nasher is a good example of how museums draw big crowds – I’ve heard that close to 75,000 people attended this latest show. That’s pretty remarkable, when you realize that the Nasher is a (comparatively) small museum, whose annual attendance for all exhibitions is usually somewhere between 85,000 and 100,000 people. And the Nasher student events have been a revelation, with hundreds and hundreds (at times over 1000) students deeming the space cool enough to sepnd a night wandering through the gallery spaces, without the promise of much more than art and education.
Clearly, museums have a strong place in the American imagination – we have so many kinds of museums, and I often think that Americans can create a museum for anything. We have art museums, natural history museums, kids museums, war museums, food museums, trade museums, museums of the past and museums of the future… The list goes on and on. Even Dolly Parton’s “Dollywood,” which is really an amusement park (and one that I have a secret – well, not anymore – wish to visit) is basically a shrine to her own personal past.
One of my most favorite memories is of visiting Greenfield Village in Michigan, where I’m from, in 3rd grade. As the website states:
Entering Greenfield Village is like stepping into an 80-acre time machine. It takes you back to the sights, sounds and sensations of America’s past. There are 83 authentic, historic structures, from Noah Webster’s home, where he wrote the first American dictionary, to Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, to the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law. The buildings and the things to see are only the beginning.
Imagine a bunch of 9 year-olds getting to play dress up in old fashioned clothes and have a day in a traditional schoolhouse, complete with a dunce cap, writing slates, and a schoolmarm, and you’ll get the idea of the joy that we experienced in going back in time for a day. My favorite part was lunch – fresh baked bread with homemade strawberry jam and pressed lemonade. Stepping into this living museum was like stepping back to an experience that I could only imagine, but thanks to this manufactured reality, it became real for me. Perhaps that experience drew me to work in the art world – for me, art museums hold the same magic. So easily, they transport you to a new place – through the inventiveness of others, one can unlock the key to their own imagination. Drawn from the Greek word for “muse,” museums do truly inspire.
And Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!