Friday, May 25, 2007

The Museum as a Lifeline

Where I grew up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, there was no museum. That's not surprising, since there was no Movie Theater, bookstore nor medical clinic. The only "real" supermarket was a half hour away in good weather, and we bought our clothes from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue.

Lincoln was a depressed paper mill town, where the people pinned their hopes on the success of the new ski hill. For me, that ski hill, the bookmobile and museums were lifelines to imaginary worlds I hoped to inhabit someday.

Each year of my grade school career was punctuated by a class trip to a museum. In third grade we went to the Warren Museum, which only exists today in the faded memories of middle-aged men and women. It was filled with stuffed animals that came from places I had never hear of. On the way home, we picnicked at the Warren Rocket, a NASA space ship brought to New Hampshire by one of its native sons, the astronaut Alan B. Shepherd.

At the end of fifth grade, we rode the school bus to Sturbridge Village. Along the way, some of my classmates went through their first tollbooth. One girl (I assume dyslexic) looking back at the booth announced that they sold "pots".

As sixth graders we went to see the Fairbanks Museum -- another room filled with exotic creatures and objects -- and stopped at a sugarhouse to buy little maple sugar people. We celebrated the end of eighth grade by besieging Fort Ticonderoga. All 38 of us (thanks to my father, the school’s principal and a history buff) camped out at a nearby campground and reenacted various battle maneuvers.

These museum experiences were important to me, as were my visits to the museums of New York and Long Island with "Gram". She loved museums and took me to all of them over and over again. They were places for us to share imaginary adventures in far away places. One of our best voyages was inspired by the King Tut exhibit in 1979. When I graduated from college in 1986, I set off on a two-year bike trek to "revisit" many of these places I had shared with "Gram", including the pyramids of the Nile.

The museums I experienced, as a youth were as formative to me as ski races and Nancy Drew Mysteries. I feel grateful to them for the part they played in my becoming a happy and fulfilled person. I would like to help museums -- wherever they may be in the world -- to do the best they can do for kids like me.

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