Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Blog is Back

I'd like to welcome back my loyal readers and also welcome all of my new ones.
I apologize as my blog has been floating around out in cyberspace for a few weeks while I've been trying to relocate. Moving is so stressful! Thankfully I am now settled in here at which is now the permanent address of my museum blog. I've also given this blog a makeover as it was looking kind of worn out from the move so I hope you enjoy the new look!
Please be sure to also visit which is the new home of my website.
Thanks for visiting and be sure to subscribe or come back soon!

Museums on a Shoestring

I recently read that Thanksgiving travel has gone down 62% in the past 9 years. People are traveling less and taking fewer vacations but that doesn't mean we have to put ourselves on house arrest and sentence ourselves to hours of boredom. 
I wrote a post a few months ago called, "Be a tourist in your own neighborhood." I created my own "Queens Fun Day" and visited a science center, a museum and a zoo all just 15 minutes from my door. There's a lot of great activities that you can find in your own hometown and you don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on plane tickets and checked baggage.
It's true that going on fun outings can get very expensive especially if you have a family but that doesn't mean we have to give up cultural and educational stimulation in exchange for sitting home in front of the television. 
Many museums have a free day or a "pay what you wish" day. Some of my favorites here in New York are the Museum of Modern Art (free for children ages 16 and under and free for everyone on Friday nights from 4-8 pm), the Whitney Museum (pay what you wish on Fridays from 6-9 pm), the American Folk Art Museum (free for children 12 and under and free for everyone on Fridays after 5:30 pm), and the Rubin Museum (free for children under 12, free on the 1st Monday of every month for Seniors ages 65 and up, and free for everyone on Friday nights from 7-10 pm). 
All of these museums also have bars or lounges where you can get food and drinks and listen to live music. I think this is a great value and definitely better than sitting home or paying $100 dollars to take your family to the movies on a Friday night. 
These are just a few examples of the many museums that offer great bargains so there's no need to stay home and wait for the recession to come to an end. Go online or call your local museums to see what sort of discounts or free days they might have! 

Monday, October 5, 2009

Defining Museums Continued....

In previous posts, I discussed some museums I've visited that are redefining the traditional interpretation of the word "museum." Museums are now breaking outside the walls of buildings and sometimes the museum is the walls of the building. In my post about Dinosaur Ridge, I wrote about the outdoor self-guided tour I took where the fossils were not displayed in glass cases but rather embedded in the side of a mountain. In my last post, I discussed The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, an old tenement that doesn't have historical artifacts in a building but instead the building itself is the artifact.
Another "alternative museum" I'd like to discuss is the Hiwan Homestead Museum which I visited on my trip to Colorado. Similar to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum the Hiwan Homestead Museum is about the building itself. Its a series of log homes that were once inhabited by different families and now have been opened to the public as a museum. It was also built in the late 1800s like the Tenement Museum but the similarities end there.
In 1893, Hiwan began as a simple, one-room structure which was converted into a summer home for a Civil War widow Mary Neosho Williams and her daughter Josepha, who earned the name Dr. Jo when she became one of the first women to earn a medical degree in Colorado. They hired Jock Spence to build the first cabin on the property which they dubbed "Camp Neosho." By 1918 Jock built many additions and finished construction on what is now a 17 room log home.
When Dr. Jo died in 1938, the property was sold to Darst Buchanan, a wealthy oilman from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He and his family renamed it the Hiwan Ranch, an Anglo-Saxon term meaning "members of a family household."
Jefferson County Open Space and the Jefferson County Historical Society purchased the structures in 1974 and they were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum opened in 1975.
A tour guide will take you through the rooms which have been restored to their appearance from the period of 1915-1930 to reveal the stories of each family and Hiwan's rich history.
You can walk around on your own outside the main building and visit the rest of the ranch, walk the nature trail, and go inside the tents or other cabins. The guided tour is free and despite the fact I got there when they were closed the very nice tour guide happily stayed late to give one more tour.
The Hiwan Homestead is another great space that is changing peoples perception of what a museum is. I say good riddance to the stuffy buildings with their exhibits in glass cases and signs that say "Don't touch!" Museums are breaking outside their boundaries and I welcome the new interpretation of what a museum is. A museum can be a log cabin or an old tenement or it might not be in a building at all. It can be outdoors with fossils that are encased in the side of a mountain. The most important change in the role of museums is that they are no longer formal spaces where visitors are passively looking at art or objects. I think the best museums are the informal and non-conventional ones which are inviting their visitors to become a part of the exhibit thereby creating a much more rich and valuable experience.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Defining museums

Can a building itself be considered a museum or should it be called a historical landmark? In my previous post, "What makes a museum a museum?" I questioned the formula for creating museums. According to my dictionary, a museum is "a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic or cultural interest are stored and exhibited." If the building itself is the historical object can it be considered a museum?
One of the places that came to my mind when thinking about this was the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Located on 97 Orchard Street in New York City's Lower East Side, the museum is a tenement that was built in 1863 and tells the stories of the nearly 7000 working-class immigrants who lived there.
There's no cutting edge technology or expensive exhibits. You might expect that the building would have been renovated to show what it looked like in 1863 but they have endeavored to keep it preserved in the state that it was purchased in 1988. Only small sections of the tenement have been restored in an effort to intimately illustrate the lives of the families who inhabited the apartment at various points in the building's history. Each apartment tells a different story and each visit is a different and unique experience. The museum is only viewed by guided one hour tours and there are several different tours to choose from in which you will learn about an Italian, Irish, German or Jewish immigrant family. On each tour, you will be walked through the tenement by a tour guide who will reconstruct the lives and struggles of the families who started new lives in America.

Walking through the cramped and stuffy apartments was a very moving experience. By being immersed in the space you are really able to get a feel for the hardships endured by the immigrants.

Museums are no longer just buildings designed by famous architects with priceless art on the walls. Traditional museums have evolved and perhaps the definition of the word "museum" needs to be modified. I think the Tenement Museum has redefined the role of museums. It is not just a building with old stuff in it but an educational, historical and cultural experience that was deeply touching. I loved the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and would definitely go back to take another tour.

Monday, September 7, 2009

What makes a museum a museum?

On my trip to Colorado, I went to visit historic Georgetown. It's a quiet lazy little town located 45 miles west of Denver. You can park for free in any of the public parking lots and take a self-guided walking tour of the downtown area. If you stop by the Gateway Visitor Center when you enter into Georgetown you can pick up a map and get directions, drink some free coffee or hot chocolate, and speak to the very friendly staff who can answer all of your questions.

I really enjoyed wandering around the town and checking out all of the unique stores. Buffalo burgers are a specialty in the many restaurants you can choose from as well as homemade ice cream and candy. I never thought an Oreo couldn't get any better but then I found one covered in chocolate!

I could have been very content sampling the homemade candies all day but instead, I made the mistake of buying a ticket for the Georgetown Loop Railroad. For an overpriced $22.50 you can purchase a ticket for an hour-long train ride described as:

"a fun adventure that will thrill the entire family. The beauty of the rugged Rocky Mountains surrounds you as an old-time steam locomotive or one of our powerful diesel locomotives winds up the Clear Creek Canyon, hauling your train past the remains of several gold and silver mines".

This might have been true had the heavens not opened up and poured buckets of rain onto our open car. All of the passengers had to either seek shelter in one of the fully-enclosed cars or stay where they were and get drenched. Inside the fully enclosed car, the view was obstructed which didn't really matter because it was raining so hard that you couldn't see anything anyway. Of course the term "fully enclosed" is not entirely accurate because there was no glass in the windows. The sides were open to let all the rain in.

We stopped in Silver Plume just 20 minutes later to pick up more passengers. This is the part of the "hour-long train ride" I wasn't informed about. I found out that the train ride is in reality only 20 minutes up to Silver Plume, a 20 minute stop, and then 20 minutes back on the same route we came.

There was nothing to do in Silver Plume but spend money in their gift shop or go to the museum. I chose the museum which was yet another misleading disappointment.

I walked inside a building that was old and dirty and pretty much empty with the exception of two old trains. There really wasn't much to look at anyway since everything was roped off preventing visitors from being able to go inside the trains. I tried very hard to get a peek inside but there was nothing in there anyway. There were no labels or signs to even tell you what it was that you were (or weren't) looking at. There wasn't even any staff to answer questions.

This really was a shame because one of the trains appeared to be a postal train and there was a lot of potential there to create an interesting exhibit. I could think of a ton of fun exhibit ideas for this but in my opinion, if you plunk a dirty old train down in the middle of a room that doesn't make it a museum. I think they could use the revenue from the hundreds of tickets they sell every day to at least install some labels and clean the cobwebs off the trains.
Of course this got me thinking about what it is that really makes a museum a museum. Is it the artifacts, the building, the information, the docents, or some combination of these things that turn a room full of stuff into a museum? I'll be exploring this topic some more in future posts but I'd be interested in hearing what other people think defines a museum. Please feel free to post your comments.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back on the road in Colorado (part 2)

Dinosaur Ridge

Dinosaur Ridge is one of the world's greatest dinosaur fossil sites and a National Natural Landmark. Located in Morrison, Colorado Dinosaur Ridge is an outdoor museum that was once home to the prehistoric Iguanadon. Its tracks can be found going up the side of the hill pictured here (mother and baby side by side).

Visitors can walk or bike Dinosaur Ridge for free or take the $3 shuttle bus. When you follow the road which cuts through the mountain you'll discover dinosaur footprints, bones, and fossils of prehistoric insects or plants which were embedded into the rock walls. There are signs along the way which indicate points of geological interest or give information about the plant life and fossils.
Starting in 1877, many of the first and best skeletons of Stegosaurus, ApatosaurusDiplodocus, Allosaurus, and other dinosaurs were excavated in 150-million-year-old rocks of the Morrison Formation on the west side of the ridge.

In 1989 geologists and paleontologists endeavored to have the site designated as a natural landmark, which they hoped would help preserve the fossils. The bones pictured above were left preserved in the rock. Visitors can get up close and actually touch the bones.
If you choose to walk, you can take a detour like I did and hike to the top of the mountain where you'll get a great view of the Red Rocks Amphitheater. Pick up a free map in the visitors center or speak to the very friendly and helpful staff before you head out on your own.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Back on the road in Colorado (part 1)

Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave

It's great to be back on the road again with the wind in my hair and the rocks in my shoes! There's so much to do in Colorado and so little time. With the beautiful scenery and all the outdoor activities to choose from it's hard to decide what to do first. But what should you do if the weather is bad? How about a trip to Lookout Mountain to visit the grave of Buffalo Bill?! Its located in Golden, Colorado and just a short 30-minute drive from downtown Denver.

At Buffalo Bill's request, he was buried at the top of scenic Lookout Mountain in 1917, overlooking the Great Plains and the Rockies. The short trails to view the overlook and grave are free and you can also stop in the gift shop (which is like a museum in itself) and taste some great homemade fudge.

Right next door is the Buffalo Bill Museum. Adult admission is only $4 and worth every penny. From the look of the museum from the outside, I wasn't expecting much but to my surprise, the museum was much larger than it appeared and loaded with artifacts, photographs and information about the legendary icon of the Old West, William F. Cody a.k.a "Buffalo Bill." 

I think I also expected the museum to be something like the gift shop which just filled with wall to wall stuff but the exhibit was very well organized and had nice three-dimensional dioramas and displays.

The museum includes exhibits about Buffalo Bill's life and the Wild West shows, Indian artifacts (including Sitting Bull's bow and arrows), Western Art and firearms. There's also a fun kids area where you can play little interactive games, lasso a calf or dress up like a cowboy.

The information was presented in the form of a timeline chronicling his life. I found this to be an organized and great way to present the details of his life which were truly fascinating but the timeline was way too long. I suppose it's hard to edit the details of a life so rich with experiences ranging from buffalo hunting, working on a wagon train, mining for gold, riding for the Pony Express and unknowingly enlisting in the Army after a night of too much drinking! Unfortunately, there was just too much to read and I noticed none of the other visitors got more than halfway through reading all the pages of the timeline.
Overall, I was really impressed with this little mountain top museum and the fudge was delicious. Also, don't forget to stop in the restroom on your way out where you'll find even more photographs and facts about Buffalo Bill and his Wild West shows!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Be a tourist in your own neighborhood

I've done a good amount of traveling lately and have written much about my "On the Road" adventures. Visiting all of these new cities has given me an even greater appreciation for where I live. No matter how many times I go away, it's always good to come home. 

I took a couple more trips to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida after my visit to Montreal and after so many months of traveling, I realized that lately, I've been doing more sightseeing and have seen more museums in other cities that I have in my own city. I suppose there's an urgency to see as much as possible when you're visiting a new place for a short time. We just assume there will be plenty of time to take advantage of all the fun things to do in our own neighborhoods. 

These days, many people can't afford to take trips to other cities but there's lots of fun things you can do and great places to visit in your own area. You can look up your local Visitor's Bureau online and find out about sightseeing, shopping, dining, shows, museums, activities and sports in your area. 

One of my favorite things to do in my neighborhood is what I like to call "Queens Fun Day." I'll take a short subway ride to Flushing Meadows Corona Park which was the site of the 1939 and 1964 Worlds Fair. In addition to its many lakes, playground, and athletic fields, the park houses the Queens Zoo the Queens Museum of Art and the New York Hall of Science.

After enjoying a concert at the theater or a stroll through one of the many gardens, you can head over to the Queens Zoo and see animals from North and South America, feed animals in the petting zoo and take the "Migration Challenge" in the new playground. I helped develop some of the new interactive elements throughout the zoo which address the topics of Endangered Species, Invasive Species, and Extinction.

If the weather isn't conducive to outdoor activities, a visit to the Queens Museum of Art is a mandatory stop. Many people who live here don't even know it exists but it's one of my favorite places to visit because of the Panorama. No matter how many times I visit, it never ceases to impress me. The panorama is the world's largest scale model of New York City. It includes every single building constructed before 1992 in all five boroughs and it takes up an entire room. After a short period of time, the room will go dark and all of the little windows in the buildings will light up!

The museum also houses the Worlds Fair Exhibition. I took my mom to see this when she came to visit a couple years ago. She had actually been to the World's Fair when she was about 10 or 11 years old and was able to tell me stories about all of the pictures and objects on display. Even though I'd seen this exhibit a few times already, it was even better to see it with someone who'd actually been there. 

The last stop on the "Queens Fun Day" tour is the New York Hall of Science which is just a short walk from the Queens Zoo and Queens Museum. The NY Hall of Science is a hands-on science and technology center. With over 400 interactive exhibits, there's something fun for everyone whether you're a toddler, kid, or an adult. They also have a space for traveling exhibits so there's always something new to see. (This a picture of "Genomes", a traveling exhibit I worked on at the Hall of Science a couple years ago)

I hope this has inspired you to create you're own "Fun Day" wherever you live. I'd love to hear comments or suggestions about your favorite places in the neighborhood you live in. Here's some links to tourist bureaus in other cities to give you some ideas.