High Fidelity is one of my classic comfort movies, but I’ve never been good at listing my top favorites of anything – I freeze like a scared rabbit during ice breakers or “desert island” prompts. But lately I’ve been thinking about how much time I spend talking about welcoming, inclusive and fun museum experiences and while I often talk about good experiences that I have here from a museum professional perspective, when have I had a great experience from a visitor perspective? What made the museum so special? Was it exhibits and interpretation? The company I was in? The novelty? As much as I believe there is a science to creating a welcoming museum experience, I also know that there are lots of factors outside of our control as interpreters and designers that create a special experience. Some of my top 5 are experiences that didn’t even happen in a building! The important thing I realized compiling these thoughts and writing this post is that this is deeply personal. It’s not about the “best” museum – it’s about the museum that creates the most meaning for you.
There’s a top 5 art encounters post in my brain, too. That one is easier for me to write. But as a MUSEUMS blog, I figured this one takes precedence. And aren’t we proud of my for not combining them, and at least attempting to shorten the number of words in the blog? So here goes – top 5 museum experiences, as of my life experience at 33 years old in 2022. I tried to rank them, a la Rob’s heartbreaks, but it didn’t make sense since each of these gives something so different. Also, these aren’t necessarily my “favorite” museums – just the museums in which I have the best visitor experience. So here they are, in no particular order.
Honorable mention: No Man’s Land Museum. Visited with former partner, Dec 2013
Following my own interpreter advice, and putting the thing I want to make sure you don’t miss at the top. That’s why this honorable mention is leading us off. The name of this museum says it all. It’s the museum of No Man’s Land and the collection and organization of the space really tracks. “No Man’s Land” refers to the panhandle of Oklahoma, and this museum is dedicated to this wonderfully weird part of the United States.
The No Man’s Land Museum is operated in partnership with Oklahoma Historical Society and Oklahoma Panhandle State University. It’s the most unexpected museum on this list, that’s for sure! Having visited this museum gives me context across the field. We talk a lot about the origins of museums and the things that museums usually have in common, like how collections are formed and the significance of often imposing architecture, but it’s important to remember, too, that in some areas, museums are just a big room with a collection of neat stuff.
The website of the No Man’s Land Museum says it has eight rooms of objects on display! I don’t remember that many rooms, but I remember being dazzled by the range of items on display, an eclectic mix of taxidermy, ethnographic items, local history in the form of photos and articles, and period-room-esque large-scale objects, like the carriage shown here.
Like so much of the state of Oklahoma, the POV is distinctly settler-colonial, but to try to experience this museum through a critical lens is like to expect that one professor that’s taught at your university for 45 years to retire to make way for new scholarship. This is what I mean when I say visiting this museum gives me more context for how some visitors experience every other museum I work at or step foot in – for some folks, a museum is just about what’s there.
I learned some neat things about the Dust Bowl from this museum, but mostly I just enjoyed the bizarreness of it all. I’ve always found it to be a point of pride that while I may not have visited the Louvre yet, I have visited the No Man’s Land Museum and spent a good amount of time in the Oklahoma Panhandle. There’s a lot of world out there and there isn’t only one right way to experience it.
The Rockford Peaches Baseball Field & Site of the Future International Women’s Baseball Center. Visited with Husband, Sept 2022
There’s no order to this list, but I will say that it was this experience that gave me the idea for this whole post. This summer I drove from New York to Wisconsin shortly after the conclusion of the release of the reboot of A League of Their Own, so fortunately, for me, the Rockford Peaches were top of mind. The original League from 1992 is another one of my comfort movies, and in fact has been featured for its museum moment on this blog already. It’s part of the Bill Pullman trifecta of my youth. If you know you know.
Anywho – I had no idea what, if anything, Rockford did to recognize the Peaches. We did a little research, pulled off the right exit, and had a tricky time finding parking near the baseball field, which looked to be attached to a school and was across the street from a normal looking residential area. But then! I caught a glimpse of the original ticket booth and sign, and I felt overjoyed. I was elated during the entire experience because I was experiencing a historical site that was incredibly relevant to me. And that’s the thing we can’t script, as museum interpreters, isn’t it? Thinking of those badass women who did what they had to do to play sports and break out of their gender norms made me verklempt.
As we walked along a sidewalk lined with interpretive panels, a gentleman appeared and greeted us, who turned out to be on the board of the International Women’s Baseball Center. He told us all about the organization’s plans to turn the area around the baseball field into a visitor’s center and sports facility. He talked to us about how the pristinely maintained field hosted a game every summer and that folks from the 1992 movie and original Peaches participated. AND, the part that really got me, was that the board and volunteers also worked with local organizations like Boy Scouts to rebuild the bleachers, dugouts and benches. Women’s history? Check. A national story connecting to the local? Check. Investing in the local community? Creating partnerships to get young people more involved in their community? Check, check. A welcoming presence to walk you through the space?? This place had it all and it didn’t even have a building or a “collection,” per se. The gentleman also wouldn’t let us leave without throwing a baseball back and forth. Also, I was on a road trip with my husband about three weeks after our wedding, and it was a gorgeous late summer day. It all came together. This was legitimately one of the happiest days of my life.
Museum at Bethel Woods. Visited with BFF, November 2022
The key elements here are bean bags and friendship.
A friend and I (lol, “a friend.” you all know it’s Watered Grass) took a very silly little weekend getaway to the middle of nowhere in New York state and one of the things nearby happened to be the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, aka the site of Woodstock. Attached to the grounds is a lovely building with a concert hall and the Museum at Bethel Woods. Again, I’ll tell you all the boxes this checked for me, but what couldn’t be scripted was visiting with Diana. We have most things in common, but this was a real mashup of our favorite things – for her, classic rock, for me, museums, and for us, both being music lovers, concert-goers, and being together in real life! It was the perfect date for our inner teenage selves, who loved the music featured at Woodstock and wanted to front a cool band. The alchemy of our joy of being together plus our shared interest in the subject matter provided a baseline euphoria that obviously influenced how I experienced the museum. But again, just like with Beyers Stadium, the existence of a museum or site dedicated to something that a person feels is relevant specifically to them isn’t a given when it comes to museum experience! So, in no way do I think that the emotional aspect of this museum visit negates its validity on this list.
So what about the actual museum experience was great? The bean bags were important, but I will get to that. The interpretation was great – despite there being many many more words than I would ever permit if I were on that interpretive team. The storytelling was on point. I’m not a huge history museum girlie, so I might be easy to impress, but Woodstock looms so large in the public conscious that I was absolutely hooked by learning about real-life details. How did everyone eat? How did they sleep? What happened when it started to rain? The narrative helped you picture yourself there – and the interactives brought you there. And here’s where the bean bags come in.
Y’all, these folks clearly have some funds. There is a lot of tech here and it all works. But what I love most about this museum is that the tech feels seamless because the space is loud, bright, and fun. Interpreting the 60’s doesn’t shy away from “difficult conversations” (I put that in quotes simply because it’s basically become a euphemism), but that doesn’t preclude the museum for communicating that museums, and history, can be fun. It’s ok for things to be fun and serious.
Finally, in addition to the life-size interactives, (check), the working tech (check), the bright colors and comfortable atmosphere that completely override the “white cube” museum vibe (check), there were a lot of critical accessibility features. There was lots of seating. There were buttons to turn closed captioning on or off. There were transcripts of audio. There was a lot of “choose your own adventure” design to allow people to self-guide their experience. The Museum at Bethel Woods walks the walk. If you decide to venture out into the middle of nowhere NY to visit, hit me up for some silly lil ways to spend your weekend.
The Denver Art Museum. Visited alone, Jan 2015 and July 2022
I waffled on including the Denver Art Museum because it’s like, ok, it’s a big encyclopedic museum. What’s special? AND, including it in the top five made me bump another museum that I WOULD say I like more, but I have to be truthful to the people. It also feels unfair because the two separate occasions I’ve spent time at DAM have been for work reasons. But in spite of that, I nevertheless felt, both times, like I was able to truly experience the museum as a visitor, too.
The Denver Art Museum makes me feel like a kid in a candy store in a way that other giant art museums do not. It might be the two buildings and many, many floors, that necessarily split up the collection in an exciting, digestible way. It might simply be that their collection is better, than say, the Met (she LOVES to hate on the Met), because of their ahead-of-their-time focus on telling a story of American art and the long-standing commitment to making Indigenous artists part of that story. (Girl, ask me about a story I have from a conference where someone from another art museum dared to ask the Denver Art Museum about their relationship with Indigenous communities.) Their collection strengths include Indigenous art across the spectrum of media and time periods as well as textiles. Many of their special exhibitions tend to have mass-appeal in mind and I can dig that. But at the end of the day, it’s the interpretation for me. I could definitely research and write an entire post about the history of the Denver Art Museum’s education department and how it’s been a leader in the field of museum and interpretation. Instead I’ll just add some pictures here bc it’s the end of the year and reading is hard!
It might be because consideration of visitor experience is visible in ways that a lot of larger museums simply don’t think about. I visited the DAM in early 2015, and again this year, after a massive renovation and reinstallation, and I found the same values, and “welcoming museum” boxes checked, before and after the investment in updating the galleries. My little museum professional plug here for why the visitor experience is so great is that at the conference I attended at DAM this summer, someone asked how they manage maintenance of all of their various drawing/making stations throughout the galleries. The education/interpretation person answering the question said a couple things in response, and ended with, “sharpened colored pencils is visitor experience.” SLAY QUEEN. Liiiike. This definitely sounds insane to people who don’t work in my field but, it mattered a lot to me to hear someone firmly take that stance!
The Denver Art Museum checks all of the “welcoming museum” boxes, and combined with their open-ended, progressive interpretation, and unique collection strengths, this is a museum that I can truly happily spend a whole day exploring.
Gettysburg Battlefield/Visitors Center. Visited with family, summer, late 90s
Look, I’m not 100% sure why this is here, but I couldn’t shake the idea of it, and I asked my two brothers about our formative experiences with museums on family vacations, and they both brought up Gettysburg at the top of the list.
We aren’t a family of battlefield museum nerds, ALTHOUGH we also fondly recall a Civil War reenactment that we went to as children. Maybe we just loved the Civil War? We did watch Gone with the Wind a lot growing up. We also grew up so deeply blue and New England-y that watching Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler never managed to get us to romanticize the Confederacy. Probably a lot to unpack here…
My oldest brother says that he feels like as a young teen, he was the right age for the visit, but that would make the other two of us about 11 and 9 at the time and we loved it as well. Some of the things I remember about this experience were that it was broken into multiple parts and we spent pretty much the whole day there. That kept us interested and moving. Spending a whole day with a historical experience obviously ingrains it deeper, but we definitely enjoyed being able to take the day mostly at our own pace, self-guided, with just a sprinkling of living history as opposed to Historic Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village. We definitely liked being outside and being able to combine activity and fresh air with our learning. As kids, we didn’t feel cooped up, so our parents were able to get what they wanted out of the experience without worry about us. I also remember that we got some cool stuff from the gift shop and if you’re having a museum experience with kids, what else matters? I’d love to go back to this site as an adult and see if the experience holds up to 2020’s standards of interpretation.
The New Britain Museum of American Art. Visited with everyone, a million times
You know, at first I only had a couple of very specific experiences that I was going to say were the reason this made the list, but I realize I was just being a hater. This was my hometown museum for most of my life. It plays multiple roles in my origin story – one of them is even in my bio on this very website. I participated in a “junior docent” afterschool program here in the late 90s that is still the most fun I’ve ever had in a museum (well, until I started working with my best friend at my current job). I dragged my friends to this museum on a “dress up date” in high school to feel fancy. I spent my 20th birthday there because what else does one do when they turn 20? Last summer, my husband and I took our niece, at 4 years old, back for the first time since she was a baby before the pandemic and it was honestly magical.
You could say my relationship with any art museum is skewed because it’s my livelihood and passion, but I would counter that I know many other children and families that grew up spending a similar amount of time and feeling equally comfortable in this same museum. There’s a big difference between a visitor and a museum professional approach to how welcoming a museum is, right? Being from the area, I know that the museum suffers from all of the same issues as the rest of ’em: overworked staff, director shenanigans, etc. etc. But as a kid, and a teen, an adult, and an adult visiting with a small child, I’ve found something there and something to keep me coming back. All (or at least most) museums want to be on the map. No one wants to be referred to as a “hidden” gem. But cultivating that special experience for the folks in your backyard, who visit again and again and again over their lifetime? Seems quite a bit more aspirational to me.
The museum also has, and always had (at least for the 25 years I’ve been a frequent visitor!) a comparatively robust collection of women artists and a high proportion of women artists on view in the galleries! And I’m not talkin about women from 1970-today, although we have them too, I’m talking women who were working around the time the museum was founded in the early twentieth century. Their collecting practices have been intentionally diverse, a.k.a. you’re going to see BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists in the galleries when you visit. This isn’t a museum insider perspective – I don’t enjoy visiting art museums and looking at exclusively art by white men. So, sorry but that’s why none of the European museums I’ve been to made the list.
Honorable mention: National Museum for Women in the Arts. Visited with husband, Feb 2019
All of the artwork in this museum is by women artists. I don’t need to explain anything else.
The more I wrote today, the more museums came to mind as places I wish I could include! I can’t wait to hear from y’all what your top 5 museum experiences have been and why. What alchemy of people you were with, mood you were in, time of your life and the museum itself worked for you? What museum experience do you wish you could recreate?