Christopher Ingraham’s Washington Post article (June 13, 2014) says it all: “There are more museums in America than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined.” Quite precisely, we think of museums as important cultural and educational institutions; however, they are also silent superstars of the entertainment industry. According to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), with more than 800 million live visits a year, its attendance exceeds that of all theme parks and major sporting events combined. But the museums of the United States are much more than popular and numerous; they are cultural and educational jewels that play a vital role. They are community elders who tell the stories of our American neighborhoods. Mamie Bittner of the Institute for Museum and Library Studies (IMLS) stated in the Washington Post article:
“Many of these institutions, particularly in small towns and rural areas, are historical societies and history museums. We are in love with our history; at a very basic level, we care about the history of our towns, villages and counties.”
The story of how I came to visit and admire so many small museums begins almost eight years ago when I was faced with a terrifying scenario. When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, my doctor’s instructions were clear and forceful. “We caught this very early; we lost a bit of weight, but take care of this by the end of the year.” Attending this meant an operation or radiation. Trust that either procedure will suffice; however, he was terribly scared. When you hear that diagnosis, “you have cancer”, a thousand things go through your mind at once, but somehow everyone stops at the same time. What are the treatment options … I have to research each treatment … I have to research the surgeons … what if I don’t succeed … what happens to my wife … what happens to me family … I want this out of me … how you investigate this … I want this done before the end of the year … why me … why not me. My mind was running, running, running. Who do I tell? When do I tell them? Should I tell you? My mind was just running, running, running.
It was June 2010. He was 54 years old, a teacher, husband and father. Earlier that year, my wife had been hospitalized for 34 days. Should I tell my wife? Would this aggravate your condition? She was already worried about being unemployed. Do I tell him? Our three children were all in high school and doing reasonably well; the oldest would start college in the fall. Out of concern, would my oldest son give up his athletic scholarship to stay home with his sick parents? Even if you went to college, if you knew that I was battling cancer, how would this affect you academically? Who should I tell? Do I tell my boys? Do I tell everyone? Don’t I tell anyone?
I once heard somewhere that “we grow up and become our parents.” How true is that. Although it did not occur to me at the time, I had seen this situation develop before in 1969; I was 12 years old. One day my dad asked me to accompany him to his doctor. This was strange; He had never asked me to go to a doctor with him before. We went to St. Nicholas Park, Mount Morris Park, Central Park, baseball games, museums, and grocery stores. On Sundays we walked to the newsstands to buy the New York Times and the Daily News. Then we’d come home and eat big southern-style Sunday breakfasts: rotisserie chicken, grilled pork chops, grits, gravy, and crackers, never muffins, always crackers. We did a lot, but he had never asked me to accompany him to the doctor. I should have known something was up, but I didn’t.
The doctor’s appointment took place in the early afternoon. The office was located on the first floor of an apartment building and it was dark outside. I sat in the waiting room while my father met privately with the doctor. That day his doctor told him that he had six months to live. My father, a tall, calm and dignified WWII veteran, said nothing. We went home and he acted like nothing happened. He kept it all to himself. Yet twenty-one years later, and long after the death of his doctor, my father was still alive. He didn’t tell anyone this terrifying secret for all those years. Finally, in 1990 he talked to me about what had happened that day in 1969. When I asked him why he hadn’t said anything, he had a classic response: “Hell, I wasn’t going to die to make the doctor look good.” To this day, I still don’t know if he ever told anyone else.
In 2010, 41 years after my dad was told I was six months old and said nothing to the family, I became my dad, without the courage and dignity of the WWII vet. Initially I didn’t tell anyone. However, I listened to my doctor’s advice and began to walk aggressively to lose weight. He weighed 308 pounds. This was the beginning of a journey. Little did I know that it was going to transform my health, my body and to a great extent my soul.
I chose a robotic prostatectomy as the treatment. Recognizing that I would be hospitalized for several days, I was forced to say something to my wife. Every married man knows that disappearing for days without telling his wife is a guaranteed death sentence; cancer alone is potentially fatal. We sat on the living room couch on a Sunday around 7pm. It was the night before I was admitted to the hospital. This scenario gave him very little time to dwell on the matter; He had to be at the hospital early the next day. As I had feared, she collapsed and began to cry and I barely spoke the word cancer. We agreed not to tell our children; we both thought it might worry them.
Fortunately, the operation was a success. No chemotherapy or radiation was required. Several months later I resumed my fast march. Over time a routine developed. I prefer walking outdoors in parks (regardless of the temperature) to treadmills and tracks, mornings are better than afternoons, warm-ups last 5-7 minutes, weekday walks 45-50 minutes , weekend sessions last a minimum of 90 minutes and finally, almost all sessions end with 7-8 minutes of stretching. I walk 4 times a week during the cold months and 4-5 times a week during the warm months, I also found a very reliable companion, the music of the 70s, 80s and 90s. My partner also gets along wonderfully with an old Walkman from Sony. Who knows, maybe this partner is my subconscious whispering to remind me of long lost youth.
While I don’t claim to be a very religious person, being outdoors in parks (which are tiny forests after all) sweating, breathing, and amidst the general splendor of God’s nature is often a spiritual event. Cancer has been gone for almost eight years. During that time, 70 pounds have been melted away and my diabetes seems to be gone, or at least well controlled. Along the way, I started signing up for races; I walk hard, but I compete against runners. Half marathons (13.1 miles) and 10K (6.2 miles) are my favorites. Being somewhat vain, before entering my first race I checked the times of the riders to make sure I would not finish last. At first I signed up for local races. Later, a colleague, who is a runner, told me about the Philadelphia “Love Marathon” in which I competed. This led me to research races elsewhere. Now I travel to participate in the races. However, traveling to different cities just to participate in a single race did not seem to be an efficient use of time and travel. He needed another activity to complement the career. This is how I developed my interest in small museums.
He had some experience researching museums. Years ago I started exploring museums as field trips for high school students. At the time, he was overseeing a college program that offered various activities for at-risk high school students. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) provided a wealth of information for our program. Later, when I started looking for museums in the cities and towns I would run into, AAM and several other museum-related organizations such as the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and World Museums (MOW) have been become valuable. means. One fact that was immediately clear is that the United States is the undisputed museum capital of the world. According to MOW, there were an estimated 55,000 museums located in 202 countries in 2014. IMLS, (a US agency) states that there are 35,144 active museums in the United States alone. Assuming these data are accurate, more than 63% of the world’s museums are located in the United States. The IMLS 2012-16 Strategic Plan notes that “There are more than 4.5 billion objects in public custody by museums, libraries, archives, and other institutions in the US.”
My articles will attempt to capture some of the fascinating stories, color, history, myths, and life that are at the core of America’s small museums. I hope you join me. Coming soon wax, warships and a poet named Wadsworth.