Friday, April 18, 2014

Break the Rules: Hands-On Tours that Really Do

In our book, Creativity in Museum Practice, Rainey and I highlight an AAM session from several years ago that asked participants to make a list of all the museum rules and then to think about how they could creatively be broken.   What's the biggest museum rule?  The one we tell school children and probably every adult would mention if asked?  Don't touch.

Last week at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, I got a chance to break that big rule, not just with grudging permission, but with enthusiastic encouragement from staff.  The Rosenbach is best known for its incredible manuscript and rare book collection--everything from the manuscript of Joyce's Ulysses to a list of enslaved people written by Thomas Jefferson;  to the entire collection of Maurice Sendak's work to poet Marianne Moore's living room. So you imagine a hushed, white-glove kind of place, where archivists and curators jealously guard access to their precious materials.  Wrong!
The Rosenbach's hands-on tours are not tours with reproductions.  They are small group (less than five people) hands-on tours of the real thing--and the real thing is everything from some of the earliest printings of Shakespeare to Marianne Moore's letters.   The cost is $5 in addition to museum admission and you can sign up in advance or join the tour on the spur of the moment if there's room.
Last Friday, along with other tour participants, I carefully washed my hands, and then Farrar Fitzgerald, The Sunstein Family Assistant Director of Education, led us upstairs, into the Rosenbach brothers' library on the top floor.  It felt secret in a way, and as Farrar unlocked a library cabinet to take out a box, it felt even more special.   Our tour was about the sea, and so we embarked on a journey, both practical and metaphorical.
Over the course of the next hour, we looked--and yes, touched!--a handwritten manuscript by Joseph Conrad, a first edition of Moby Dick;  a fine art edition of Joyce's Ulysses with illustrations by Matisse;  and a lovingly hand-printed edition of the Wreck of the Hesperus.   We held the books and manuscripts in our hands, feeling the weight of the paper, the press of the hand-set type, even smelling that old-book smell.  We each read a bit aloud,  and I remember closing my eyes and listening to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, imagining the scene.  Farrar introduced each item, linking it to the sea, and drawing our attention to details.  She carefully handled each object, but didn't hesitate to say, "go ahead, you can pick it up!"

Upon reflection, I was struck not only by the power of objects and the power of words,  but the power of the experience itself, of bonding with a small group of strangers as we embarked upon our own voyage of discovery. 

The best thing for you, museum readers?  It's that every single history museum or historical society, no matter what your size, could do exactly this same program on the same budget--pretty much zero dollars.  I've used literally hundreds of history archives, large and small, well organized and not, and although Joseph Conrad's manuscripts don't exist in every one,  incredible stories do.  So, next Monday morning, go first thing to your archives and consider what stories you can tell, what voyages you can take your community on. 

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