Many of the staff who work here at the National Museum of American History are “museum advocates” (AKA fans). Not only do we love visiting museums, but we believe in their power; for many of us, museum work becomes a life-long career. But there are plenty of museum advocates in the world who work outside of museums, can’t afford museum memberships, or don’t get to walk into a museum 5 days a week. They just love museums and try to get them into their lives and into the lives of the people around them.
Researchers have recently discovered that most people who grow up to be museum advocates had an important museum experience around the age of 7. Some of my colleagues heard this news with smiling nods, remembering their own experience that forever changed them into museum advocates. Unlike them, I drew a blank.
As a kid, we went to tons of museums and zoos. But what was The Experience that changed me? Maybe it was the gopher tunnels at the Bronx Zoo that I could actually climb around in. Perhaps it was the historic barracks at Trenton that I visited in fifth grade. Or maybe, just maybe, it was a family trip to the First Ladies exhibition at the museum for which I now work. To this day, I continue to love the way historical clothing (like the fancy gowns in the First Ladies collection) brings history down to human-scale and immediately makes the stories of the past seem more relatable to my own times and life.
I hope what we do at the museum inspires some of our little visitors to become museum advocates. Maybe it will be seeing how a cotton gin works before they’re old enough to know there’s another definition for “gin.” Maybe it will be tinkering in Invention at Play. Or, maybe their parents will download one of my OurStory activities and spark a love of museums somewhere entirely outside of our museum in Washington, D.C.
In closing, I ask you: Are you a museum advocate? (If you’re reading this blog, I bet the chances are good.) Do you remember The Experience that made you into one? Tell us how YOU are encouraging kids to be museum advocates.
Jenny Wei is an education specialist at the National Museum of American History and is willing to put awful photos of herself on the Internet to spark conversation.