The Museum of You?
Jane began to think about the sleigh. Really, a sleigh like this should be in a museum.
It was then that the idea of the Moffats having a museum popped into her head. A museum in the barn! A special museum! A collection of things that had been important to one, some, or all of the Moffats. THE MOFFAT MUSEUM!
In this town named Cranbury, where three thousand people lived…it said so on a sign at the Cumberland Avenue Bridge: “Entering Cranbury, population 3,000″ … there was not one museum! There were schools, stores, houses, the library, the Town Hall, a green with two churches on it; and there were little brooks, large fields, some cows, and plenty of places to go to, take walks to or take a trolley car to: Savin Rock, Lighthouse Point, and more. But no museum of any sort… art, science, or anything! “There are museums,” Joey had told her, “for every known thing somewhere in the world.”….
“Ah!” murmured Jane, standing up now and going close to the barn. She addressed it. “Barn! You may soon become the first and only museum in Cranbury. No museum here? We’ll change that! ‘First’ things or any treasured things of any Moffat!”
This exuberant brainstorm comes from Jane Moffat in The Moffat Museum by children’s author Eleanor Estes. It has me wondering what things my children would choose to put in a family museum. If we still observed elaborate mourning rituals, the youngest would probably create something related to the loss of his beloved plush squirrel, acquired when he was only two years old on an expedition to Central Park so I could do research for my first grad school paper. Would the eldest submit his dragon collection, or maybe the bike gloves he wore on a life-changing trip peddling with his grandfather from D.C. to Pittsburgh?
Why do we impart such meaning to objects? How do museums get visitors to make the same connections — or create their own emotional response? Objects become touchstones to our past, but as we lose touch with the story we disconnect from the artifacts. They lose meaning.
Howard Mansfield studies this intriguing alchemy of object/meaning/memory/emotion in his book In the Memory House. In the first part, he describes his investigation of town histories and little one-room town museums. These places are the respositories of singular and community memory. A hall of hodge-podge revealing — what?
Brownington, Vermont, is home to the Old Stone House Museum and a grand total of 708 people at the time Mansfield was making his rounds.
The Orleans County Historical Society runs the Old Stone House Museum. This is a populist museum in a way that would set any curator’s teeth on edge. For sixty years people have been donating what they thought should be there. Sometimes these treasured objects were on their way to the dump when their owner hesitated, thought, “Oh what the heck, I’ve got a few minutes before the ball game,” and left it to the ages instead. Sometimes a rare eighteenth-century baby cradle is donated and sometimes a bottle filled with barley grain. That bottle is easily overshadowed by the other 4,999 objects in the collection, but it well explains the whole museum.
“This barley was grown in 1883 and given by Mrs. Selden Gray.” Why this? Why leave a bottle of grain in the perpetual care of neighbors and their descendants? Who would want to see it? It’s not even a rock collection, not a stuffed owl or a wedding dress or a three-shelf history of the light bulb.
Here’s my guess: To Mrs. Selden Gray it was the story of 1883 in a bottle: sowing the seed, the rainy spring, the dry summer (or the dry spring and the rainy summer), the blight that threatened, the sickness and health that came along that summer, the day they put aside their work to see the traveling carnival, the harvest, the harvest supper, the meals made from the barley, the animals fed, the barley bartered or sold to neighbors. A harvest corked for one hundred years, a low-tech time capsule. This was life, she was saying.
At least, that is what I presume. Maybe it was just some barley she had around the house. You can read too much into these things. The historical record is distorted by the nasty fact that surviving artifacts are unrepresentative. The Wedding Dress Problem, preservationists sometimes call it. Historical societies and house museums have many wedding dresses, but who saved the workday clothes? Few survive. The same with the houses saved; there are many mansions but few workingman’s cottages. — Howard Mansfield, In the Memory House
With all that we own in these days, in this consumer age, what objects will we impart with significance and reverence? Mansfield notes the significance “of what is saved and what discarded, who is remembered and why” — what memories will we “shepherd toward the next generation”?
What would you select to put in the museum?