Listening in museums

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation, Fort Collins Museum

I’ll let you in on a secret – sometimes I spy on you in the museum.

Not in a “Mission Impossible,” hanging from the ceiling sort of way (because I know I’d get tangled in the wires and end up dangling upside down by one foot in front of Frank Miller’s Mud Wagon), but do I like to watch and listen to you when you’re here. I care about what exhibits you visit, and what things you say when you’re visiting. It’s all part of what helps us create better experiences for all our visitors.

Normally, most of you do the same things in our exhibits. You stand in front of objects, you look at them, you open drawers, and you push buttons. You do exactly what we hoped you would in that exhibit. Everyone once in a while, though, one of you surprises me. I had one of my most interesting surprises last week.

Last Thursday I went down to our gallery and watched a little girl and boy and their grandmother. The grandmother stood in front of objects, looked at them, and opened drawers (expected), the brother ran around pretending he was a cowboy with a laser gun (also expected), but the little girl did something I had never seen before. She walked up to objects, leaned in closely, closed her eyes, and listened. She listened to baskets, coyotes, bison bones, and Folsom points. When her grandmother asked what she was listening to, the little girl replied, “Stories.”

The idea that objects are vehicles for stories is not a new one for museums. We know that the story of an object is often just as interesting as the object itself, and that those stories help situate “things” within the larger scope of human experience. However, as a museum, one of our jobs is to tell you those stories, because the objects aren’t supposed to speak for themselves. Or can they?

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work in preparation for the June 6th opening of Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, which includes the Lindenmeier Site, an archaeological site that reaches back 12,000 years. Several of the Native American tribal elders we’ve worked with to better understand the history of the area have talked about the spirits that objects have, and the stories you’ll hear if you know how to listen.

I don’t know what that little girl heard as she leaned close to our pine needle basket. Did she hear Helen Dickerson, the woman who wove it, and the adventures she and her sister Alice had living in a cabin in Buckhorn Canyon? Did she hear the pine tree whose needles were given to make that basket? Or does the basket have its own story, one that I don’t even know?

This morning our gallery is quiet, and as I walk through it I can easily believe that if I lean in close enough to that pine needle basket, it will tell me its secrets. Not too long from now our museum will become a lot noisier. When the Discovery Science Center moves its exhibits into the Fort Collins Museum, the gallery will be filled with the fantastic, excited noise of DSC’s devoted fan base of kids and their families. But if you listen closely, I wonder what else you might hear.

Could you hear the coyote's story?

Could you hear the coyote's story?

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April 2009
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