Features & Editorial

Putting the Muse in Museum

Written by Sally Charette

Perhaps the last time you went to a museum, you arrived on a big yellow bus. Most of what you remember is the boys going mental over the bare-breasted women in the Neanderthal diorama while the teacher attempted to focus your attention on the hide tanning methods being used. You recall the smell of dust and soap and who you shared a seat with on the ride back to school more than the anthropology, history or artwork you were there to learn about.

This experience may not have fired in you a desire to expose yourself to any more culture in a box. But museums have a lot to offer the curious adult, and you’ll be in good company if you go.

According to a 2008 NPR piece entitled “A History of Museums,” more than 850 million people visit museums in America every year, compared with 140 million who attend all major league baseball, football, basketball and hockey games combined.

The word “museum” comes from the Greek mouseion, which was used to describe a special temple that housed artifacts and statuary celebrating muses, or goddesses of the arts and sciences. The Charleston Museum, founded in 1773 when South Carolina was still a British colony, was the first museum to open its doors in the United States. Seen by many as a way for a culture to preserve and study itself, museums are entertaining if not educational, so plan a day out for rediscovery.

Where to start?
The Internet is your best friend when it comes to finding the right museum. First, think about your goals for a visit. If you want a little quiet time to reflect on your own, you might choose an art museum or one that focuses on a bit of history that you are particularly interested in. If you’re entertaining out-of-town guests, a museum that explores local culture and history might be in order. If you can find one like The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA, which combines amazing views with interesting exhibits, you have a double win. Science and natural history museums like the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, GA, typically offer plenty of hands-on experiments for kids and adults alike to explore.

Once you decide on a museum, its website will be an invaluable guide for planning your visit. Many institutions close one day a week or are open longer hours on some days of the week than others. Check for special events and temporary exhibits. There’s little more frustrating then to arrive only to find that you narrowly missed something you would have liked to experience. You’ll also want to know about admission prices—some offer free days or evenings if you’re on a budget—parking, tour times and whether there’s a cafe on the grounds.

Does size matter? 
A large museum can be overwhelming, especially if you set out to explore the whole thing in an afternoon. It will be more satisfying if you check out the exhibits online ahead of time and choose one or two to focus on. Allow yourself some down time for a meal or cup of coffee or just to sit and contemplate something that takes you by surprise.

Docent-led tours are a great way to get comfortable in a major art museum. These walking talks will help you access the meaning behind modern art or illuminate the historical context of artistic movements that are more easily accessible. The Impressionists, for instance, tend to be crowd favorites, but understanding what they were trying to free themselves from and seeing how they sometimes played off of each other may give you an even deeper appreciation for their intentions and techniques.

Smaller museums often focus on the history of an area, a local artist or author, a particular type of art or even a specific event. For example, the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe explores the artists’ life and work. The Johnstown Flood Museum in Pennsylvania illustrates events leading up to and resulting from the United States’ most deadly man-made disaster, when 2, 209 people perished in a dam collapse. An Internet search of your hometown might reveal a local museum you have overlooked, like the Whitley County Historical Museum in Columbia City, IN, or the quirky Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, CA.

No pressure
Whatever you choose, remember that this is your time and your experience. You’re not required to write a paper about your visit or even to like everything you see. Do try to let your guard down at the door and connect with your sense of wonder. Allow yourself extra time to discover.

After several visits to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA, I finally ventured into the Asian Art exhibit. I didn’t think I would find much there to relate to, but figured it was time I at least gave it a look. I found myself entranced by the blissful smiles on the stone faces which reminded me of my own lifted spirits after an engaging yoga class.

It was just one of the wonderful surprises I’ve encountered in the halls of a museum. Hopefully, you’ll experience some of your own.

About the author

Sally Charette

Sally Charette often scribbles away the predawn hours in coffee houses and all-night diners, which simultaneously satisfies her love of hot beverages, writing and eavesdropping.

Originally from Indiana, Sally is now fully integrated into California life. She works as a script researcher, helping CSI:Miami, Army Wives, Switched at Birth and the occasional feature film stay out of trouble. She regularly travels Southern California and beyond in her pursuit of photography subjects, good food, music and art.

Her blog, Any Given Sundry, reflects her many interests and maybe reveals a little too much about her constant search for novelty. She was a PEN Center/West Emerging Voices fellow and has been in writing workshops, groups or critiquing relationships most of her adult life. The best she's ever felt about being runner-up was the year her first published short story was named "One of 100 Other Distinguished Short Stories" in Best American Short Stories.

Sally lives in the high desert mountains outside of Los Angeles with her husband and a small, deeply devoted flock of birds.