A cool way to feed the muse is to wander through museums. Now, maybe you don’t care for them or you aren’t interested in history or there aren’t any in your immediate vicinity or you’re leery of buying tickets to see some weird exhibit.
How many other excuses can you think up?
Museums exist in just about every community. They may be public or private. They may be art museums with big budgets and society patrons, or they may be bizarre little collections that Joe Strange has put together for his own amusement. Sometimes, they’re as modest as an old house the local historical society has restored and filled with artifacts germane to the community.
I adore museums, but then I’m a writer–easily intrigued by collections, always eager to learn something new about the past, receptive to where serendipity might lead me.
For example, in Deming, New Mexico–a sleepy town maybe 30 miles north of the US-Mexican border–the museum is housed in the old armory and is much bigger than you might expect, given the size of the community. But what it lacks in population, Deming makes up for in its history. The museum’s collections include Native American artifacts, cowboy and ranching gear, WWI items from when General Pershing’s troops drilled outside the city, grainy old photos showing the devastation following Pancho Villa’s notorious raid on Columbus, NM, a few short miles away, Victorian furniture donated by pioneer families, and numerous other items pertaining to local heritage. There’s also the goofy section containing everything anyone has ever wanted to donate to the museum, including old hats and a whiskey-bottle collection.
Across the street is the fascinating old Customs House, its thick adobe walls cool against the desert heat. This is where goods hauled by wagon came out of Mexico up the trail to Santa Fe, and stopped in Deming for the customs inspector to levy his tariff. And there’s a trap door leading down into the tunnels built beneath the streets, where Chinese workers used to hide on Saturday night from the rowdy cowboys that came in to shoot up the town.
Okay, so perhaps western history isn’t your cup of tea. How about the Action Figure Museum in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma?
Too . . . plastic? Okay, try the British Museum in London. Once you get past security and prove to the guards that you are NOT carrying anything remotely resembling a bomb, you ascend a staircase leading to the enormous stone head of an Egyptian pharoah, smiling at you with the serenity of thousands of years. This is the epitome of museums, with its vast collections of incredible art, rows of Egpytian mummies and sarcophagi, and oh yes, that hangar-like space with a few scattered statues lying at one end. Can anyone say, Lord Elgin’s marbles?
Or what about the carriage museum in Bath, England? Do you love reading Georgette Heyer’s sparkling Regency romances? Well, here you can see exactly what a perch-phaeton looked like, or a racing curricle, or a brougham with a top that could be lowered if the weather were fine enough.
Maybe you’d rather commune with the Charioteer in Delphi, Greece. There he stands, looking calm, while hordes of tourists press as close as the barricades and sandbags allow. (Why sandbags, you ask? To catch him if an earthquake knocks him over, of course!) And you can see that there’s something odd about the old boy. He’s extremely long-legged, out of proportion to his torso. What’s wrong with the ancient Greeks? Didn’t they understand anatomy?
Sure they did. And more importantly, they understood perspective. So the Charioteer was sculpted to be viewed from inside a chariot, at a distance. His legs were made extra long to allow for perspective and viewing angle.
But there are other things to see and study at museums besides old dinosaur skeletons and locomative prototypes and a cannon recyled from Napoleon’s army to the Texas Republic. Museums, especially the big famous ones, attract people. And we writers love to watch people, don’t we?
Consider a busy museum in Athens. A crowd gathers around some famous statue of Heracles, jammed so tightly that there’s no opportunity for meek Americans to take pictures.
Enter a Frenchman with an expensive camera slung around his neck. His stride is sure. His voice is loud as he commands the crowd to step aside, s’il vous plait! People obey, parting like the sea, allowing him to take his picture. Clever American tourists learn to follow Monsieur through the museum, standing behind him to take pictures of all the important statues while he exercises superb crowd control.
Or consider the frail elderly lady being slowly conducted around a musty old house museum to see how her donated items have been labeled and put on display. Listen to her quavery voice reminiscing about her grandfather coming home from the state senate to put in a cotton crop.
Look at the rapt face of a three-year-old, staring at a costumed docent working an 18th century spinning wheel, while mama whispers to her, “And see the spindle where Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger?”
I haven’t been to Venice, but I’ve seen the fantastic bronze horses of San Marcos because they traveled to the States on loan to the New York Metropolitan Museum.
I’ve walked through Mark Twain’s boyhood house in Missouri, seen Andrew Jackson’s hatbox in his Tennessee bedroom, and marveled at Thomas Jefferson’s inventions, contraptions, and gardens at Monticello.
I’ve been gypped in tacky little Arizona trading posts offering glimpses of a South American mummy–poor thing–and yawned my way through poorly conducted tours of dingy little rooms containing dingy old photos of some dingy little blip of American history. I’ve gazed at the skeleton of a T. Rex, watched videos of how to nap flint with a deer antler, stood atop a mound made by the ancient peoples of the Mississippi valley, climbed a marble pathway to the glorious Parthenon, had my photo taken on the ramparts of a Frankish crusader’s castle, and marveled at the crown jewels of England. I’ve gawked at the site where Anne Bolelyn was beheaded, inhaled the amazing fragrance of a field of orange trees in bloom while creeping about the ruins of a place called Tiryns–perhaps Odysseus’s palace–and gazed at the plains of Sparta. I’ve strolled the gardens in Colonial Williamsburg, laughed through Restoration plays, and–perhaps most awe-inspiring of all–sat in Thomas Jefferson’s seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses.
I’ve surveyed Edgar Allen Poe’s college dorm room, peered at a letter written by Queen Elizabeth I–what penmanship!–in the private collection of the Duke of Devonshire, and been nearly blinded by the garish gold and red decor in the Duke of Wellington’s house. There’s also a nine-foot-tall nude marble statue of Napoleon in the foyer. It’s a stunner, and not in a positive sense. (I’m told that it was donated to Wellington, and he hated it. He used to hang his hat on Napoleon’s head every evening as he went up the stairs.)
Thanks to the behind-the-scenes tour at Biltmore House, I know how the Vanderbilts air-conditioned their summer cottage in North Carolina.
I think by now it’s evident that history of all kinds inspires me. What inspires you?
I’ll bet there’s a museum somewhere devoted to it.