Cooperstown, New York was where I first fell in love with museums.
Obsessed with baseball growing up, I convinced my sports-adverse dad to take us to the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is located in a small, quaint town in upstate New York. Seeing so much history and memorabilia that I had previously only read about was pretty much the greatest thing ever. Playing catch on the baseball field next door and drinking glass after glass of limeade on the porch of the house we were staying in helped, too.
Since then, I’ve developed a bit of a museum habit. My wife’s love of art has taken us to a growing collection of art museums. A family trip to Washington D.C. provided an abundance of amazing museums of nearly every kind, many of them free. The Newseum, dedicated to media and journalism, was easily the best modern museum I have visited.
In the U.S., most 20th Century presidents have a library and museum dedicated to their time in office, which sounds peculiarly American, now that I think of it. I previously wrote about The West Wing, so it will come as no surprise that I’ve found my way to five of them so far. They provide a unique lens on history.
More recently, we stopped at two very different museums in the span of a few days: Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame followed by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. They were both great experiences that clarified what draws me to museums in the first place.
I love to learn about people and their work. Which people and events shaped them? How did they master their craft? I’m fascinated by the contrast between early efforts and later masterpieces, hits and misses, victories and defeats.
The Hall of Fame was an incredible collection of music memorabilia, but I really wanted to learn more about what it’s like to be a musician—to write a song, spend a year in the studio, tour, and go in a new direction even when people just want more of the same.
The Museum of Fine Arts, on the other hand, featured an exhibit on the sculptor Auguste Rodin. It captured the methods, influences, and ideas behind his work better than any exhibit I’ve seen.
Ultimately, museums state unequivocally that people matter, history matters, and the work we do matters. Everyone builds on what came before. At museums, we celebrate and marvel, mourn and reflect, and question and learn. Then, inspired by possibility, we return to continue crafting our own part in this story.
The last dispatch asked, Which Halloween costumes will you never forget?
For as long as my boys went out for Halloween, I made their costumes. There isn't a particular costume that stands out because they weren't really that elaborate. (How much time and effort was I willing to put into something that would be worn for a couple hours?) But the memory that stands for my boys and me is the time we spent huddled around the kitchen table planning their costumes. They would have ideas of what they wanted to be, I would make sketches, they would grab the pencil and add their ideas. They learned how to collaborate, how to design, how to make their imaginations come to life.
Well, I can't pass this question up. With a Halloween birthday, I could go on and on about my own costumes, but instead I'll tell a different tale. (That was a pun. You'll understand in a minute.) For my birthday, my parents always put on a haunted house in their large backyard for me and my friends. Everyone came in costume and we followed the trail of jack-o-lanterns, reading notes at each stopping point and getting scared by my brother and his friends. Often, the party was too scary for the younger kids and almost every year someone had to be carried back into the house, crying. (They were fine.)
When I was in fifth or sixth grade, my little cousin Michael came to the party. He was probably only six at the time and he was dressed as Superman, but he was scared. My friend Rachel was there, and she was dressed as a black cat. As we started down the trail of pumpkins, Michael asked Rachel if he could hold onto her tail and she said yes. So on we went, a gaggle of witches and punk rockers and evil cheerleaders, and a little Superman hanging on to the end of a black cat's tail. At every creepy noise or spooky shadow, Michael's hands crept farther up Rachel's tail until he was right behind her, holding on tight. And then we got to the first BIG scare. My brother lunged at us from the roof of the potting shed, and we screamed and scattered. Michael jumped backwards, Rachel jumped forward, and her tail popped off! I'll never forget the sight of that little Superman flat on his back in the dirt, a shocked look on his face, holding that black cat tail! :)
I'll never forget one Halloween that I happened to be in the US. We had a mid-term break at school (high school), and I was in New York, Princeton and California in the space of a week. I think we were flying back to London from LAX (could've been SFO, I can't remember now), and the airline representative that checked us in for our flight was decked in large purple balloons, and she had a leafy, green beret on her head - she was a bunch of grapes. That, I'll never forget.
Hands down, the best Halloween costume I ever wore was my Pterodactyl costume. My mom made it for me in 1987, and I can still see in my mind’s eye the grainy photograph she took of me standing in the driveway with my black pterodactyl hood, black-and-orange wings, and shiny blue “armored” belly. (My mom was very crafty, and she went for flair rather than scientific accuracy.) I loved that costume so much I wore it again the very next year, and I kept it around in a closet for way longer than makes any kind of sense.
One time, I, my wife and two of our friends coordinated Halloween costumes in the theme of Battlestar Galactica, the newer TV series. I bought a workman's jumpsuit over a plain gray t-shirt and added work boots and a wrench to become Chief, the Deck Chief (mechanic) of the Galactica. My wife wore a tank top and cargo pants with military tags hanging from a chain around her neck, and she re-created via Sharpie the arm tattoo that the fighter pilot “Starbuck” features in the show.
Our two friends rounded out our crew with a long and seductive red dress to model Number Six, and finally a full-length chrome-painted foam Cylon suit to make an old-school “toaster”, replete with oscillating red lights at eye-level. We were a sight to behold and we had a good deal of fun with it, even if Halloween turned out to be quite a chilly night.
The Art of Stillness, a (wonderful) interview with Pico Iyer:
When I began traveling a lot 30 years ago, I would talk about going to Cuba or Tibet and people’s eyes would light up with excitement. And nowadays, I notice that people’s eyes light up the most in excitement when I talk about going nowhere, or going offline. I think a lot of us have this sense that we’re living at the speed of light, at a pace determined by machines, and we’ve lost the ability to live at the speed of life.
What’s the last museum you visited?