adventures in museum-going

Tag Archive: the big idea

  1. Day 3: When something just doesn’t fit

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    We spent some time at the National Building Museum today. It’s a gorgeous old structure with an interesting history, and we were privileged to some great views from the fourth floor, which is normally closed to visitors.

    We went through the House & Home exhibit, which made me feel quite nostalgic. It was interesting to hear Cathy Frankel, Vice President for Exhibitions and Collections, talk about the process of pulling together the exhibit, how it deviated from the original plan, and what it’s like to buy exhibit objects from eBay. I also especially enjoyed seeing all the models that are part of the exhibit.

    That said, I think the museum caused a little bit of stress for my group. We have a primary object and a big idea for our exhibit, and we’re all in the process now of finding our secondary objects. We all have some idea of which museum, of the many we’ll visit, we’ll find our individual objects in — and none of us are expecting it to be the National Building Museum.

    Even so, we had some discussion around whether or not we should try to find a secondary object in the NBM, and I felt like we were really struggling with the inclusion of a museum that wasn’t speaking to any of us insofar as our big idea is concerned. I found this a little surprising, honestly — I’m not sure why we felt the pressure to consider a museum collection that just doesn’t seem to fit.

    In the end, we came to the conclusion that we all have ideas about our secondary objects in other museums, and that the National Building Museum, as beautiful as it is, is just not a good fit for our big idea.

  2. Day 2: The rocks, they resonate

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    The last thing I expected from a lecture in this course was a story about cows, but that’s what we got today — a story about Jersey cows at Winterthur. Stephanie was relating a story in which she, somewhat frustrated with what amounted to a field trip to the area, was made to care about it because of the Jersey cows that once resided there. Turns out, her family used to raise cows.

    She told us this story in order to make the point that in order to get visitors to care about your museum or exhibit, you need to give them something that resonates personally. For her, it was Winterthur’s cows. For me, it’s minerals.

    We went to the NMNH‘s new Q?rius space, which opened in December 2013 — not all that long ago, and it shows. It’s bright and shiny and new, and best of all, filled with lovely objects from the museum’s collections. There’s a whole area where you can open drawer after drawer of specimens, and actually touch them. Mind, blown.


    Set loose in the collection, I came across a chalky grey mineral that looked strikingly familiar. My father is a geologist, and his father was before him — and a well-known one (pdf), at that. My grandfather spent a good portion of his life collecting minerals, which my father inherited. It’s now proudly displayed in his living room, backlit on specially-built shelves.

    So for Christmas, I gave Dad a stibnite specimen I’d found at the AGU meeting in San Francisco. That chalky grey specimen in Q?rius? An amazing piece of stibnite, with big crystal formations and a lovely iridescence.

    I can spend time in art museums and appreciate the work, but they’re not my favorites. However, put me in a natural history or science museum and I’m 100% in especially if I can handle the objects.

    So, basically, the rock resonated — and imagine my delight when I found out that my team was considering using a mineral as the primary object for our exhibit!

    We chose this piece of tourmaline:

    Not only does tourmaline hit home for me because it’s a mineral, but also because this particular stone has significance for me — a few years before he died, my grandfather gifted his four granddaughters and his wife each with a lovely, deep-green tourmaline ring. You may notice that our specimen is deep green!


    We put it under the microscope to get a better look at the crystals and the matrix and found that our object has a bunch of tiny little crystals around the larger ones, and also a luminescence when viewed in the proper light — it turns amber-colored.

    Because I knew that tourmaline is used as a gemstone in jewelry, and also that it comes in a ton of different colors (my jeweler side definitely kicked in today as well), I suggested that we visit the gem exhibit in the museum, where we discovered case after case after case of gorgeous mineral specimens, both in their raw and cut forms.


    Would I have had a similarly strong response to Q?rius and this museum without Stephanie’s lecture, and emphasis on resonance? Yes, absolutely — this is the stuff I love. But I don’t think I would have been thinking about it with the same frame of mind. I was keenly aware of how I was reacting to the objects at hand, and I think if we remember that idea of resonance as we work these two weeks that our final project will be much stronger.