I’m eight years old. It’s my first time in New York City (aside from that one time I was so young I don’t remember) and my brother and I are taking in the sights and sounds of this amazing, bustling place. It has so much energy, there are so many people, and my family is happy. The fall weather is a change from the constant sun of my Southern California home, and the change thrills me. I’m young enough not to understand the horrors of 9/11, which happened a short month prior, but I do recognize that there is a significance to being able to fly here now. We find ourselves at the American Museum of Natural History, and in the next few hours of my young life, I will have fallen in love with science. Twelve years later, I’m almost done with my Bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Neuroscience, with one semester left and a career in science ahead of me, all because of a childhood enchantment.
I’ve been back to New York City multiple times since 2001, like this past weekend (and this time, and this time); I’ve been to museums of all kinds on across America and in Europe. No experience has taken away from the inspiration that I first found in the American Museum of Natural History that first day, and while I didn’t return to this museum until last year, I built my career around it. It was and is a major factor of my life. The power of exhibits is strange and beautiful, and museums themselves somehow facilitate inspiration and understanding among its patrons. Any exhibit brings to the viewer/participant a specific view on a subject, a subject which can range from scientific to artistic to historical. Basic knowledge of these subjects is not usually necessary to enjoy the exhibit; it just means that the viewer can learn something about a topic that they may not normally be exposed to. I’ve personally learned so much from museums that I wouldn’t have gained from formal education and may not have thought to learn from random internet searches, just because museums group topics in an accessible space. And for people without formal schooling or internet access, museums are a window into multiple perspectives on the world. Scientific knowledge could inspire someone to really look into the sciences (as it did for me), historical knowledge could allow someone to appreciate the current government systems we have in place now and how everything is connected to our past (like economics, wars, terrorism, technology). Best yet, many museums are free or donation-based, so you don’t have to be able to afford a $20 day to glean this message. It’s so important that museums remain accessible to the general public because it is, in fact, a privilege to have an education and subsequent broader perspective that experiences can offer. They play an important part in diminishing the gaps in education and opportunity along the spectrum of haves and have-nots. Museums are so good for kids, for individuals, and for society, but they’re also just amazing places and a lot of fun, too.
When I was in Milan this past spring (part of my study abroad travels) some friends and I visited the Gallerie d’Italia Piazza Scala for an afternoon and were absolutely blown away by the exhibit. The placement of every piece and the order of every display was particular and important. As visitors who had no idea what this museum was or what anyone was saying in Italian, we sort of stumbled through the first room, only to be told that we hadn’t gone in order and needed to start again. That was weird, but so worth it. The collections started with post-WWII Italian political art–organized in themes of mood–then transitioned into abstract modern art, organized by technique. Every room had an explanation (in both Italian and English, thankfully) of what the art in that room’s common theme was, and every piece had a detailed description of its relevance to the movement and the theme. One room focused on color, while another focused on texture and another on light. The pieces within these were both stunning and cohesive, and the viewer could discern easily why they had been chosen, how to appreciate them, and the context behind the art and collection. Not all galleries in all museums have as detailed or as cohesive a selection, but they do put their subjects into a particular environment that usually benefits the viewer’s experience. Seeing something in a museum changes the way you look at it, and a well-designed exhibit can make the viewer feel and understand the art (or science or history) in a way that wouldn’t have been possible (or perhaps probable, I’ll give you all some credit) in a different environment. Some modern art, for example, are combinations of everyday objects or shapes that could exist unnoticed in the everyday world. Place it in a museum, and it makes you think. I’ll probably talk about modern art another time, and I’m not saying that it all can be just “found” outside museums, but that is an opinion that I’ve heard before and I can’t say enough how museums and modern art collections contribute to the overall understanding of the piece and the commentary it can provide.
Exhibits are just one way of relaying the world that we all inhabit in a new way. Science and history museums explain the workings of the world in a way that not everyone has been educated in and really contributes to the understanding of our past to the masses. It can get kids and adults excited about how far we’ve come in our pursuit of knowledge and just how much is out there. Art museums make us think, show us the works of masters and the potential for creation. There is so much art, so many kinds of art, and it is all so beautiful and often has so much to say with so few words. Memorials, too, evoke a sense of the human condition, and these nag at our heartstrings and make us feel for those that fought for and lived for a better world. We see ourselves, our families, our friends every day, but we don’t always see the heroes, the accomplishments, the potential of humanity. Some of us live in a world of art or science or war or peace but rarely do we have all the pieces lined up in front of us for a perspective that takes us out of our own microcosms. Museums offer this perspective. Exhibits show us another corner of the world.
Like so many others, I lived through 9/11 as a child with family in the city, and I remember my parents in California calling relatives who could have or would have been near the World Trade Centers in a panic. I remember seeing the blasts on television, watching them before I went to school that morning and then the repetition of the scene over and over again after the fact. I remember the airline closures, the increased security, the backlash against a scapegoat, the increased patriotism, and yet visiting the 9/11 memorial in NYC was one of the most moving experiences of my life. It was to relive the scene, revisit the feelings, understand it as an adult. It gave me a new perspective on a memory I already had, and provided a way for me to pay my respects to those who lost their lives and gain closure over the terror that governed us all for at least a little while. Exhibits can remind us of our past and our accomplishments, but also the history that we shouldn’t forget. What we get from these lessons will vary by individual, and these variabilities are necessary for us to work together and come up with common solutions to the world’s problems, but we need them. We need to know our past so that we don’t make the same mistakes, or at least so that we can try.
Museums are my safe place. They are a break from my own world and a glimpse into another’s. They change my thoughts if my thoughts run wild, they change my perspective when I know I’m wrong, they give me inspiration and a sense of connection to those who have come before me. Not everyone feels this. Not everyone does this. But you could.
This weekend in NYC was just about as crazy as my other whirlwind trips–too short, too busy, but so much fun. Some of my favorite parts, of course, were the museums (which are all pictured in this post). We hit up the MoMA (free Uniqlo Fridays!), the Met, and American Museum of Natural History; I remembered again how much I love Modern Art, how beautiful and inspiring Van Gough’s Starry Night is, and why I fell in love with science. My childhood self was giddy with excitement as we walked through the dinosaurs and my adult, post-mammalian-evolution-class self loved every second of it. There is really no end to education or discovery. The world is our oyster, and on the backs of those who came before us, we can appreciate it all. I only hope that you choose to.