Hearthstones and Weekly Museum Visits


This post is dedicated to my friend and paralegal school classmate Mel, who has a couple blogs of her own. One of her blogs centers on 27 heart-shaped hearthstones with words printed on them; each day, she randomly chooses a stone and enters a written meditation and a photograph on the theme.

When I first read her blog, I wondered: how could her blog relate to my blog? How do these 27 themes relate to the 92 sites I visited in Weekly Museum Visits?

After giving these themes some thought during breaks between studying and case briefing, I came up with the following:

Museums and their ilk often elicit awe from their visitors. My visits left me in awe of the universe (at the Goddard Visitor Center), in awe of nature (at Joshua Tree National Park), and in awe of one artist’s creativity and determination (at the Watts Towers Arts Center).

For balance, I choose the three sites that have labyrinths in some form. Brookside Gardens has a labyrinth that I walked, while the Baltimore Museum of Art had a small, woven labyrinth on display. Christ Church holds labyrinth walks, though I have not yet attended one.

The arboretums exemplify beauty: Cylburn Arboretum, Los Angeles County Arboretum, and United States National Arboretum. With their trees and flowers and gazebos and winding footpaths, they are beautiful places.

Museums and historic sites share facts with audiences, but they also tell stories about what people believe in various times and places. Some sites, like the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle, and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, deal with religious beliefs. The Mission additionally catered to those who believe in Santa Claus, with the “Santa’s House” installation on the plaza. Finally, the Mission also displayed archaeological artifacts from the area, though I do not remember whether the exhibits explained the belief systems of the peoples who had lived in the area.

Museum exhibits document change over time. Gadsby’s Tavern Museum reflects a time of upheaval and change in the early days of the United States as an independent nation. The original building and an addition next-door were built just seven years apart, but a tour of the historic tavern museum reveals changes in American identity and in the business of the tavern during those seven years. At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, I saw an exhibit about evolutionary change in mammals. Kingman and Heritage Islands Park has gone through various changes, and it is currently in a state of positive change and revitalization. It has been cleaned up; it features nature trails, outdoor classrooms, a vegetable garden, and live music; and it is the site of a future environmental education center. At the Meridian International Center, I saw an artist’s four works of art depicting the four changing seasons.

At their best, museums elicit empathy and compassion.  The tearjerkers – President Lincoln’s Cottage and the Laogai Museum – both address forms of forced labor and human rights violations that occur in today’s world. At the General Federation of Women’s Clubs headquarters, visitors learn about the volunteer work of the women’s civic organization, reflecting compassion and a desire to help.

Museums encourage the budding interests of visitors, whether those interests relate to art and creativity (like the Textile Museum and the Arts Club of Washington) or science and technology (like the College Park Aviation Museum and National Electronics Museum), among other subjects. The educational programs and activities provided at these museums allow people to explore what might become a career path or beloved hobby.

Several of the sites I visited were faith-based. The Small Jewish Museum, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and America’s Islamic Heritage Museum represent three major faiths. At the House of the Temple, holy books from different religions are on display; the Freemasons require members to have faith in a deity.

Forgiveness was one of the more difficult concepts to apply to the museums I visited. The example that immediately came to mind was the then-called Pope John Paul II Cultural Center. John Paul II famously forgave the man who tried to assassinate him. At the Lyceum, an actor portrayed Woodrow Wilson to a modern audience. He provided historical context for some of the controversies from Wilson’s day – but also flat-out admitted that Wilson’s racial attitudes had been wrong. The United States Institute of Peace works toward a world free from war and violence. The topic of forgiveness will likely arise as the world moves beyond past atrocities.

Historic house museums do not just show old architecture and decorative arts (though those elements can be quite interesting too!). Some reflect pivotal moments in fights for freedom, whether freedom of the American colonies from Britain (Carlyle House), freedom from slavery (Frederick Douglass House), or freedom to vote (Sewall-Belmont House).

For gentleness, I thought of the museums that show the love, friendship, and loyalty between dogs and their people. The human-dog bond shows up at history museums (Maryland Historical Society), historic house museums (Tudor Place), and art museums (Phillips Collection).

Grace is not a concept I understand well, so I will focus on gracefulness. I am thinking of the butterflies and dragonflies gracefully flitting among loti and water lilies at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, the gracefulness suggested in works of art based on nature at the American University Museum, and the gracefulness of dragonfly wings and tree branches as architectural elements in the exhibit at the District Architecture Center.

Museums can be places of healing or places that educate about healing, or both. Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum interprets remedies from days of old, with many substances still on display. I saw two exhibits at the Koshland Science Museum, one about healing people from diseases and one about healing the planet from global warming. The museum at Dumbarton Oaks, and the grounds in particular, served as a healing place (or at least, an ameliorating place) on a day when I was hurting.

When we think of honesty, we might think of historical figures who have been held up to us as shining examples, such as George Washington (Mount Vernon) and Abraham Lincoln (Ford’s Theatre). Or we might think of living a simple, honest life. Though many historic house museums show opulence and magnificence, Old Stone House and Thomas Isaac Log Cabin – both named in part after building materials – reflect a simpler way of existence.

Honor plays a large role in museums and memorials.  I visited two historic cemeteries (Arlington National Cemetery and Congressional Cemetery) which honor heroes of the past. The African American Civil War Memorial (and its adjacent museum) as well as the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial (and its accompanying visitor center/gift shop and future museum) also memorialize the fallen.

Museums often deal with serious subject matter, but one can still find humor. At Howard University Museum and Bladensburg Waterfront Park, old political cartoons on display showed dry humor applied to serious issues. In an exhibit at the Library of Congress (Madison Building), visitors could watch the humorous antics of Danny Kaye, such as singing a lot of Russian composers’ last names really, really fast.

Historic museums and sites can showcase integrity in a variety of ways. At the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, visitors learn about the integrity of a true bill as opposed to a counterfeit one, and the features that prove it is real.  Freemasons try to live their lives with integrity, as discussed in exhibits at the Washington Masonic Memorial.  The Washington Masonic Memorial, Mary McLeod Bethune House, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial also highlight individuals who improved the world and serve as role models. Of course, museums also have the task of presenting a nuanced and accurate understanding of people, as no one is a perfectly flawless example of integrity.

All three rounds of Weekly Museum Visits encompassed the holiday season, and I made sure to visit places that were commemorating the holidays in some way. Christmas magic could be seen, to varying degrees of extravagance, at Homewood Museum, Woodrow Wilson House, Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum – Ellicott City Station, and Heurich House Museum.

The only two-word hearthstone reads, miracles happen. Miracles are a religious concept that showed up at faith-based sites. The Franciscan Monastery tour included the bones of incorruptibles, a miracle according to Catholicism, while the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington displayed menorahs, used in celebrating Judaism’s miracle of Hanukkah. At the Meditation Museum, an exhibit explored the symbolism of light in a variety of religions.

Passion can be seen in several museums.  The National Museum of Women in the Arts and Fondo del Sol reflect a passion for the arts. At Artisphere, I heard Lia Halloran speak about her art, showing her own passion for photography, as well as the passion for skateboarding that her photographic subjects have. The German American Heritage Museum had an exhibit about music, another common passion.

A museum can be a place to play. In one Museum Education class, we students all had to think of a time when we saw a museum make a difference in someone’s life. A classmate who worked at the International Spy Museum talked about how the spirit of play came alive there. I saw this playful spirit when I visited near Halloween, at an evening event for which the museum encouraged visitors to arrive in costume. O Street Museum was like a playground for adults. The former Historic Alexandria History Center and Museum Store was not just a gift shop, but also a space where children could dress up, play matching games about historical objects, and crawl in a tent. At the Los Angeles Zoo, one can see animal playfulness.

As mentioned above, many historic house museums show prosperity. Three examples are Lee-Fendall House, the Octagon, and Riversdale. The Voice of America headquarters addressed prosperity in a different way, through murals showing how the Social Security Act helped promote prosperity for the population as a whole.

John Falk’s museum motivation category known as rechargers would delight in the sites that offer serenity. The grounds and gardens at Art Museum of the Americas, Folger Shakespeare Library, and Irvine Nature Center are all serene places.

If museums want visitors, they must be welcoming. Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens epitomizes the idea of welcome through its intentional embrace of the LGBTQ community. At Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, I was welcomed (though I am not Jewish), and the documentary shown at the synagogue dealt with the more difficult welcome-related issues that arise in discussions of immigration. Peirce Mill was, in one era, a teahouse, but unfortunately, the teahouse proprietor was not welcome due to her race. Today, the restored mill and museum welcome everyone.

DNA model at the National Museum of Health and Medicine

DNA model at the National Museum of Health and Medicine

Similar to the idea of healing above, several museums address wellness. The National Museum of Health and Medicine, as its name suggests, delves into the history of wellness and illness. A tour of Beall-Dawson House includes a visit to the Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine, a one-time doctor’s office. The exhibit I saw at the National Inventors Hall of Fame and Museum was all about wellness-related innovations, such as massage chairs, athletic gear, and substances that attempted to improve health (some more successfully than others).

Museums often honor those who do things that most people are not willing to do. Willingness can be seen, for example, in the museums relating to the Navy (United States Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center, and National Museum of the United States Navy) and firefighters (Friendship Firehouse Museum and Ellicott City Fire Station).

Last but not least is wisdom, for which I choose three informal learning sites that relate to formal learning as well. Sumner School is a former school in DC, and it tells the history of education in the city. Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park is composed of the ruins and grounds of what was a school for women in the Civil War era. The National Museum of Language, on the campus of the University of Maryland in College Park, acquires and shares wisdom related to the languages of the world.

What museums remind you of the 27 themes listed above?

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Articles and Books, Historic Alexandria, Lists of Museums, Museums and Holidays and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Hearthstones and Weekly Museum Visits

  1. Lauren says:

    Wow! Your incorporation of Mel’s hearts and your knowledge of museums is beautifully done.

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