by Ammie Bryant, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director
I still remember my first visit to a museum. It was a school field trip—that’s how many kids visit a museum for the first time, right? It was a small, local history museum much like the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History. The Museum’s curator led us on a tour and I remember thinking, “Wow, what an awesome job this guy has.” The reason it was so awesome? Because he got to touch all that cool old stuff.
A few years later, as part of a fifth-grade school trip, I traveled to Washington, D.C., where I visited the National Archives, the White House, the Capitol, Arlington National Cemetery, all the major memorials and monuments, as well as the Smithsonian Institution. We visited George Washington’s historic home at Mount Vernon and then spent a day at Colonial Williamsburg steeped in living history. It was on that trip that I fell irrevocably in love with our nation’s history. All of these places evoked my awe and captured my imagination. I can’t wait to take my children there when they are old enough to appreciate its significance.
I stood in the National Archives with only inches of glass between myself and the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution and it took my breath away. At Arlington National Cemetery I walked amongst the gravestones of people who had died hundreds of years before me—people who played a significant part in the founding and prosperity of this country. I remember being struck by the gravestones that read simply “Infant”. I watched in silence the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I may have only been 10 years old but it didn’t matter. I got it.
It was at the Smithsonian, where I stood in a dark gallery waiting for the brief moments that the Star Spangled Banner would be revealed to the soft light, that I became truly fascinated with the work that takes place in a museum. I already loved the history, but it was in that hall that I was set on a path that eventually led me to work in the museum field more than a decade later. It was there that I learned how the Smithsonian worked to preserve and protect the flag that flew at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in 1814 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write a song that eventually became the United States’ national anthem. It was there that I began dreaming of what it must be like to work in the backrooms of those museums: researching, caring for artifacts, and creating exhibits.
Where would I be if I had never visited those museums as a child? What would my career have been? I’m not sure I would be where I am now if I had not visited those places when I did.
Many families are planning a vacation for this summer, and I would suggest that whether you are planning a stay-cation or a long distance road trip, schedule a stop at a museum or two. Small, local museums are often inexpensive (or even free like the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History!) and can provide a glimpse into a community that one wouldn’t otherwise have.
And children love museums! Eyes wide and full of questions, they visit the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History. Their attention span might not last long enough to absorb every exhibit and read every label, but it’s enough to generate a few questions and provide the impetus to learn lessons that might not otherwise be learned. Also, understanding what came before provides an appreciation for what one has now. I’ve yet to meet a kid who didn’t leave a Museum appreciating their air-conditioning, running water, indoor bathrooms, televisions, video games, and cell phones all the more for having learned about previous generations’ lives.
Finally, remember that you never know what path a visit to a museum might set a child’s interests upon. A visit to the zoo, might prompt an interest in animal science. An art museum may inspire a budding artist. For every interest and vocation, there is a museum, from aquariums to science museums, from planetariums to botanical gardens. You never know what lifelong passion a visit to a museum might ignite in the heart and mind of a child.