As part of my overly-ambitious plan for my trip home this winter break, I had planned to go to New York as an appetizer for family-related celebrating in Boston. The proverb goes, "man plans, God laughs," and in my case that is usually true; this time, I got sick two days before we were set to leave. With paranoia about H1N1 still rampant, and not wanting to risk being kicked off the plane for sneezing, or to infect everyone in NY while sitting miserably on the couch but in a foreign city, we cancelled that leg of the trip. I spent my recovery jealously thinking of the places I planned to go: the Strand bookstore, the Met gift shop, the Frick (old favourites, all); the Kandinsky show at the Guggenheim, the Tim Burton show at MOMA... I consoled myself with thoughts of visiting the Toulouse-Lautrec show at the MFA in Boston instead, and drowning my sorrows in their wonderful bookstore. Alas, that was not to be, either. Whatever time I had apart from family obligations was eaten up by ... well, more family obligations.
So what happened during those days? How did my not visiting museums alter my experience of my vacation?
Well, I realised two things:
1. Museums (of a national/international profile) bear little relation to their geographical setting. That is, they contribute little to a sense of place other than an aura of cultural sophistication, even if they contribute landmark architecture.
2. Relatedly, by taking the museum out of the equation, one experiences place much more intimately - as a set of bounded relationships, travels, sights, and sounds which connect in a more meaningful way than a set of guidebook checkmarks meant for the tourist.
By this I mean to say that in a paradoxical way, I felt I belonged to the place (Boston) more than I do when I take the T downtown and spend the day in the MFA or the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. My visit was about family and my own personal heritage, not about world culture within dimly-lit walls. Sure, I still feel pangs of regret at not seeing those exhibits or buying those wonderful books I might have - but the nature of my trip was fundamentally different than it would have been had I tried to combine the tourist element with my other aim, that of being with family.
The moral of the story, kids, is: you are under no obligation to visit museums, and sometimes it's important to engage with the living, not just the ghosts of the dead.
The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.