Monday, October 10, 2011

In honor of my 100th post on this blog - for love of learning

Recently I did a talk on the Maya at the local museum as part of a series on 2012. It was the most well- attended of all the presentations - nearly 70 people came, crowding in to a small stuffy room to hear the about ancient Maya inscriptions etc.

Apparently an ex-President of the Museum had a fit about it. I was asked by the current President, to write a letter to the local newspaper about my perspective on the role of a museum.

One of the attributes of a vital museum in a community is that it responds to the needs and interests of that community. Look at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco - the de Young and the Legion of Honor. In an effort to serve their community, they have instituted free evenings on major exhibits so that they serve not
only their members who can afford to attend and support events, but also the working class and poor who cannot.

Even exhibits which normally cost up to 25.00 are free on Friday nights. Why? Are they losing money doing this? Well, if the health of the museum depends on the community, people will not support something they don't value. Not being able to go to museums because they are too expensive or cater to a select few, people will not care for them, allocate funds for them or set priorities in their favor. If they don't matter, they will cease to exist.

My mother started taking me to museums when I was quite young. For me, the old de Young was like church. What I learned there led to nearly all the things I have do and have done in my life. I developed an interest in other cultures, which led to degrees in Anthropology and Linguistics, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer
in Zaire, teaching English as a Second Language to Vietnamese refugees.

I loved the old exhibits they had on women's fashion through the ages, which led to my hobbies: knitting, embroidery, crocheting and sewing. As a teenager, I made all my own clothes. These days, I donate my creations to charity.

I loved the room exhibits at the old de Young where they reconstructed whole rooms taken from historic buildings. I was fascinated by furniture, textiles, carpets, ceramics...all of it.

While working at the Office of Preservation at the Library of Congress and pursuing a degree in Rare Book Librarianship at Catholic University, I studied Museum Conservation at the Smithsonian. This led to an interest in Museum Curatorship.

Later, while working at the California Department of Parks and Recreation, I worked on the exhibits at the Petaluma Adobe, the Benicia Capitol and Fischer-Hanlon House, the Vallejo Home and Jack London State Historic Park. My eclectic interests and skills were stimulated and fostered by museum exhibits and programs. They often led me to pursue more training.

While living in Washington, D.C. I was a Smithsonian Associate. I took classes in book-binding, paper making, calligraphy. I developed skills I have used throughout my professional and personal life.  I was able to design and write my own wedding invitations using Copperplate script. Later as a graduate student at Tulane University I worked on the illustrations for a book by one of my professors on Mayan Hieroglyphs because I had developed skills gained through these museum programs.

While a doctoral student at Tulane, I worked as Director of Educational Programs at the Maritime Museum in New Orleans.

To summarize: Museums have an important role to play in the education process. For seniors they provide entertainment, recreation, socialization. For adults, they serve as a source of continuing education. For children they are in the unique position to shape young minds in immeasurable ways. You can never know
how a child's mind will be stimulated leading to careers, hobbies, volunteer activities, and recreation.

If the Petaluma Museum hopes to be seen as a vital, progressive source of experience and educational opportunities, it must be willing to provide diverse opportunities.

Tradition has its value, and believe me, no one values history more than I do - I worked at several State Historic Parks, developing exhibits and programs and training docents, but the Petaluma Museum has a wider role. Otherwise, it would still house the old library. It's founder, Andrew Carnegie, saw the need for
continuing community education, when he established the system of libraries throughout the State of California. The library outgrew the facility which was then given a new role. Ultimately, the Petaluma Museum could/should outgrow the building. But, in order to expand, its vision has to expand.

The unique history of Petaluma is fascinating. I worked at Olompali SHP which was part of the chicken farming history of the area. This should not be overlooked or forgotten. It has its place in local history. Permanent exhibits on that topic are appropriate. But in order to expand membership, bring in more
visitors, generate income and fulfill its role as an educational institution, the Museum has to be willing to respond to a diversity of needs and interests. This can be accomplished through programs such as the Speakers Program, visiting exhibits etc. on a diversity of topics.

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