There are three little words that can make or break an emerging museum professional: network, network, network! When I interviewed an alumna of the Cooperstown Graduate Program for a class assignment, she gave me the contact information of one of the exhibition developers here at the Field Museum – and the rest is history! My fellow classmates from CGP have also networked and are currently pursuing summer long internships. They’re getting to experience museums and cities all over the country for the first time. Imagine a summer spent gallivanting around NYC or attending a rodeo in North Dakota! In a way, I’m jealous! The Field Museum continues to be a great professional fit for my summer, but being a native of the Chicago-land area (and living at home for the summer) has its advantages and disadvantages. I have to keep reminding myself that enjoying the city and all it has to offer has to be one of my priorities.
Last week I had a special visitor in town so I thought I would use that as an opportunity to let myself loose and have a few tourist-y adventures! Right away, however, I found that it was impossible to take the “museum studies me” out of the museum while at the Field. My days of being a passive visitor are most definitely over. I did, however, get the chance to go through the special exhibitions, Extreme Mammals and Genghis Khan, without having to count visitors, analyze exhibit components, or observe interactives! And yet, my studies over the past year made it extremely difficult to go into any exhibit blind and I always ended up pressed up against the walls trying to figure out how something was mounted or commenting on the educational standards being met by a display. Whoops! Looks like I am never going back to my naive museum visitor self again.
Our original plan was to go to the Shedd Aquarium for an afternoon but it was an Illinois Residents Free Day and the place was packed! The lines were over two hours long and while we were walking to our next stop, I couldn’t help but brainstorm how institutions like the aquarium and other museums can invite in the community without making the experience unbearable. The Shedd has week long “discount days” six months out of the year and during the summer it gets so crowded that some people have to be turned away. A lot of the families that I talked to don’t even bother coming on these days because it is such a madhouse. I continued to ponder what museums and other cultural institutions can do to engage the community without overwhelming their facilities. Comment if you know of a place doing great things in this area!
Later that day, after a Chicago style hot-dog, we ventured to the Art Institute of Chicago and their special exhibition, a Roy Lichtenstein retrospective. I tried really hard to pay attention to the art but ended up following visitors around by habit. We stumbled upon a crotchety older gentleman experiencing museum fatigue. He was obviously sick of the amount of labels in the exhibit (and was telling everyone who would listen to him about his frustrations!) I also noticed a family with two younger children approached the topic of nudity in art with their girls very well – they let them laugh it out and then engaged them in a wonderful discussion of color and form. What did I think of the exhibit, you ask? I loved it. Not only was I able to be actively engaged in the art, but I was able to learn a little more about visitor experiences in the process!
Every place in the city that I had been to as a child or young adult seemed completely different to me and I saw things in a new light. The museums and other cultural attractions that I grew up visiting have morphed in front of my eyes and become fresh and exciting experiences for me to enjoy, to critique, and to analyze. Thank goodness my partner-in-crime was open-minded! He nodded his head in understanding as I ranted about the aging signage and fading interpretive panels at Starved Rock State Park and even pointed out a few interesting visitors at the various museums. In return, I gladly attended a free concert in Millennium park without one mention of community arts and what they do to help an urban area, but I was definitely thinking it! We ended our week as tourists with Chicago-style deep dish pizza and sore feet, but it was totally worth it! What a refreshing way to take a bit of a break, explore the city, and rediscover that it still has so much to offer!