Thursday, 8 July 2010

So you basically just walk through and look at things?

I know there exist people who don’t like museums but I don’t meet them very often. Most of my friends have similar tastes to me and people where I volunteer also have similar backgrounds. And people who come to the museum choose to come to visit here. So I sometimes forget that there is a portion of the public who do not understand what museums do and have no idea how to use museums to get the most out of them.

This was brought home to me forcibly this past Monday. I was just returning after a 4-day weekend and was not yet completely in a work frame of mind when my phone rang. It was a youngish voice and she asked if we did tours. I asked her for what age (child, youth, adults, etc.) and what kind of tours (as we have several types). She didn’t seem to understand what I was asking so I asked her what she was wanting to do. She then asked if it was possible to come through on your own. And I said, yes, of course it was. But it was her next question that completely floored me. She asked when our rock climbing wall was available. At this point I was starting to wonder if the call was a practical joke but I said, we don’t have a rock climbing wall, we’re a history museum, but there is a wall at the university. (I did get her the phone number for the university.)

She thanked me for the number but expressed surprise that we didn’t have a rock climbing wall. She said that she had only ever visited one museum before in her life and they had a rock climbing wall. I explained that there are many types of museums but that our focus was the history of southern Alberta and rock climbing did not fit into that. She then asked what people did when they visited. I said it depended if they came for a program (and highlighted a few of our different programs and tours for her) but said that you could also come when there was no program. At which point you could go through the galleries, talk with staff and volunteers and experience the exhibits. There was then a sharp and prolonged pause at which point she blurted out – “so you basically just walk through and look at things?”

How to respond to that? Part of me got defensive – what’s wrong with walking through and looking at things? What do you think window shopping is? I could also hear my mother’s voice in the back of my head – “only boring people ever get bored” and thought to myself that looking at things can be incredibly interesting if you know how to do it well. I also wanted to go to the defense of our objects – we have some one-of-a-kind, fascinating objects that you will never see anywhere else but here at the Galt.

Part of me was a little angry (sorry to admit it). How dare she not appreciate museums?

And part of me was very sad. Sad that no one had taken the time to take her to more museums and show her how to visit them. Sad that she was missing out on the wonder of objects that museums bring. Sad that she was not able to appreciate the need for, and the beauty of, slowing down and just studying objects and material. And sad that I wasn’t able during our conversation to make her see that a museum did not need to have a rock climbing wall.

I'm still wishing I could have done more to make her a museum person. But I'm choosing to focus on the positive instead. I just got back from a fun museum and downtown tour with a group of teenagers (1/2 from Lethbridge and 1/2 from our twin city of St. Laurent, Quebec). At least I know when they become adults they know there is more (and better) stuff at museums than rock climbing walls.

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