Museum Moments (a new series)

Today marks the first installment of a new series inspired by this year’s VAM (Virginia Association of Museums) conference. Elizabeth Merritt, Founding Director of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, gave an excellent talk on day two. She began by recounting her first “museum experience” and explained how those formative museum visits determined the course of her life from an early age.  (Forgive me, I cannot possibly remember the specifics of her “moment” [we drank many beers that night], but I do remember someone in the room shouting “the taxidermied bison at the Natural History museum changed my life!” and I was reminded again how museum people are… special). Ms. Merritt urged us all to think back on our first “museum moments” — those times in our childhoods when a museum made an indelible impact on our tender psyches — and reflect on how that experience led us inexorably toward museum work.

The topic at dinner that night amongst Hermitage staff was our own museum moments. I loved hearing everyone’s stories and I figured you all would enjoy reading them. Lo, an idea was born.

My own museum moment will have to wait until another day because this post is dedicated to our fearless leader, Melanie Mathewes. I don’t talk a lot about Melanie on the blog because whenever she says or does something funny she shouts “this can’t go on the blog!” But trust me: she is the glue holding this operation together. She is always here — in her trademark high heeled shoes — offering advice and making sure I don’t do anything dimwitted. Thank you, Melanie.  I asked her to write a bit about her first museum experiences for the blog, and not only did she graciously comply, she provided a photo. Enjoy:

Melanie Leigh, 1972

Lauren challenged those of us who attended the VAM conference to record our first experiences with art and share via the blog.  Since I am older than most of the staff, I had to think harder than the rest.

Kindergarten was a big year for me.  That year I had my most memorable art experience and made my career decision all under the guidance of Miss Moorefield.

The art part was particularly traumatic.  I had no idea it was against the rules to color upside-down – apparently in 1972 it was a tragic blunder for anyone to turn the paper in any direction that wasn’t straight up. Early on I thought it best to steer away from a career in art.

That same year the class took fieldtrips.  We went to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Jamestown, and the Smithsonian – remember this was the 70’s, we didn’t have SOLs, public schools took lots of field trips, and the schools actually paid for the fieldtrips.  Museums were big, really big when I was 5.  They were cool (and I mean temperature wise as my house didn’t have air conditioning), they had lots of pretty stuff, and they had to be popular because whenever I was in one there were hoards of other people all dashing about.  The guides, who I thought ran the museums since I never met anyone else on a fieldtrip, always dressed sharp and sounded smart. I was impressed by museums in general. So in my five year old mind, I thought a museum would be a great place to work.

Career decided.

Then career day came and twenty-five snaggletooth five and six year olds were seated cross legged in a circle all staring at our teacher and waiting for instruction.  Miss Moorefield asked, “What would you like to be when you grow up?” The boys were quick with dynamic and exciting choices – astronauts, doctors, firefighters, and cowboys. The girls had decidedly different directions – mommy, teacher, secretary, and nurse.  My response messed everything up, so much so that the teacher had to ask me twice,  “Melanie, what did you say you want to do?” At the time I thought she was just hard of hearing, so I said again “I want to work in a museum and be an archeologist.” From the expression on her face, it was apparent that I had turned the paper upside-down all over again.


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