A few years ago, my family went on a school-sponsored trip to New York. It was a canned
trip, with a local guide taking us to see things tourists like to say they’ve seen. The timing was off, though. When the ferry landed on Liberty Island, the guide told us to be back there in 20 minutes. Just long enough to say you’ve seen the statue, but not long enough to reach the statue, explore the island, or talk with the staff who wandered around in period outfits looking for interested tourists to expound to about the Statue’s history.
There were several days of this sort of thing. Our group glossed over historical sights, while giving considerable blocks of time for shopping experiences. I remember my wife almost sobbing as we passed the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on our way to spend hours at Time Square.
On the final day came the highlight for me: the American Museum of Natural History. The labyrinthine buildings and grounds take up four city blocks, with the oldest structure opening in the late 1870s. Once we were let in and given tickets, we took in a show under the planetarium dome before winding downstairs to admire the Williamite Meteor. After that, we went through a couple of the nearer rooms before realizing that time was ticking away. Narrowing our sights, we headed to the Pacific Northwest Indian room; my wife had read some of the works of those who had added to that collection. Then we searched around and eventually found the one thing I really, really wanted to see – the Hall of Human Origins. There I could gaze on many of the displays that one sees in paleoanthropology texts, and I took copious photos of the bones, tools, and works of art.
I have to say, the museum was oddly laid out. Figuring out how to get from points A to B was daunting, as several places were only accessible through a particular room, and we wasted a good deal of time getting to certain exhibits.
While we were sitting down and trying to get our bearing with the map, a family from the school group came by. They said they saw the dinosaurs, then went out to get some ice cream and hang out at the dog park; they were just wandering back in. I didn’t know what to say. I have come to the realization that these folks not only don’t come to a museum to learn, they probably don’t know how to learn. They’ve heard of dinosaurs, so they go see them and say, “Wow, they’re big… so, what do you want to do now?” My wife and I knew enough history and natural history to not only want to see what we’ve read about, but rather be ready to expand what we know. My son wasn’t as well-read, but he’s the sort who will study an exhibit, read the interpretive text, and glean what there is to glean.
After a quick lunch, we gave a few minutes to the eastern woodland and plains Indians – which should have gotten an hour – and wove our way through prehistoric mammals and then one of the halls on dinosaurs. If I was ten, I would have spent the whole trip in those halls. As it was, I was practically photographing at a walk. And then our time was up, so we met back at the bus and headed to the airport.
Unfortunately, we are trained to skim. Our eyes focus on movement and flash. We experience exhibits at a walk. Our eyes register the views, categorize them as “interesting,” “not interesting,” or “something I’ve seen before — must be important,” and then move on. When the museum opened in the 19th century, I expect exhibits weren’t good for much beyond that. In the 21st century, museum exhibits provide context, explanations, and interpretation. They invite the patrons to do more than gawk–they invite them to learn. Yet so few do.
When you go someplace new or interesting, be there. Give it your attention. Research beforehand, if you can. If not, stop by the visitors’ center, or at the very least, read the signage! Don’t sleepwalk through an experience,. Be aware. Don’t rush. Always be learning.