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Musings on Museums

I love museums. I’m one of those dweebs who wants to read every caption on every exhibit, squeezing out every last bit of information offered to the public. Now I do have my limits. There are institutions which I categorize as “home-made museums”, usually sponsored by a local historical society or an avid collector, which I can breeze through in a matter of minutes. But even these can harbor unexpected treasures.

On the other hand, even professionally organized and catalogued collections can be a real yawn. I recently visited one of the largest collections of firearms in the world and I swear, every one of them was on display. How many guns of the exact same model, year, and style can a person look at in one session? Sometimes less is more.

Obviously, there are museums and then there are museums. But if you look hard enough, you can almost always find something of interest. I have nearly zero interest in agriculture, but I do like history. I have seen exhibits of historic farm machinery that were absolutely fascinating. Likewise, art museums are pretty far down my list of places I’d like to spend an afternoon, but when it is western art – or better still – artifacts, well that’s different!

It is therefore with some alarm that I have observed the recent tendency to badmouth museums. Museums left and right are scrambling to eliminate the musty word “museum” from their titles, and sometimes ending up with something nearly incomprehensible. Like a bad joke, if you have to explain it….

When did the word “museum” become passe? I plan and produce tours in the Great American West, and because of my own interest in history – and the abundance of really great museums which lend insight to these tours – we include quite a few on our itineraries. But because of the bad connotation of the word “museum” these days, I have even found myself searching for ways to avoid using it!

“Discovery” or “Discovery Center” are quite popular euphemisms. All right. I’ll buy that. After all, that’s what we are there for: to discover new things or ideas. There’s also “Exploratorium” – a little pompous, but it makes the point.

The best museums are of course interactive and combine living history with human stories. I love the exhibit at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles, Oregon, which encourages youngsters and oldsters alike to load cargo on a miniature facsimile of Lewis & Clark’s keelboat without tipping the entire boat and it’s contents into the drink. It’s nearly impossible, and provides an object lesson in how hard the Corps of Discovery had to work to keep that thing afloat – especially as often as they had to load and reload all their gear after frequent thorough soakings.

I have a friend who says it’s not a “real” museum unless it has a two-headed calf! I think he was being facetious, but I have personally visited two museums which had two-headed calves, so maybe there’s something to it.

Anyway, here’s my personal list of favorites. I could have expanded it to include “best small museum”, “best world-class museum” etc, but that was too much work. I won’t vouch for whether they have two-headed calves. You’ll have to find out for yourself.

Shebby Lee’s favorite museums:

  1. Albuquerque Museum of Art & History, Albuquerque, NM

  2. Arabia Steamboat Museum, Kansas City, MO

  3. Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, WY

  4. Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, The Dalles, OR

  5. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre, Lethbridge, AB (I just love the name, but it’s also an impressive exhibit; plus they spell “centre” cool)

  6. Kansas Museum of History, Topeka, KS (actually the best state museum I’ve ever been in. Their website is also awesome!)

  7. Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, Great Falls, MT

  8. Missouri Historical Museum, St. Louis, MO

  9. Museum of the Fur Trade, Chadron, NE

  10. Museum of Westward Expansion, St. Louis, MO

  11. National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (now there’s a mouthful!), Baker City, OR

  12. The Oregon Historical Society, Portland, MO

Shebby Lee  is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West.  Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO.  She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.

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