walking through museums
it’s harder than it looks
If we haven’t gone to a museum together, I probably don’t like you very much. This isn’t to say anything against you—I’m sure I’m the problem in our potential relationship. It’s just that, at this point, I feel like I’ve gone to a museum with everyone I know—so many people, in fact, that I feel qualified to write an entire piece on it. So, if we haven’t gone together, I could tell you it’s nothing personal, but the truth is that it probably is.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a community where kids were regularly taken to museums by their family members. However, that generality didn’t include my family, and I learned of this apparent norm only as I fell behind my friends in conversations and experiences. The things my family did together, from watching sports games to watching crime television, didn’t feel appropriate any more as I learned of the times my friends’ families spent exploring downtown Boston’s museum scene.
As I grew older, I started to walk to the closest train station from my first boyfriend’s house, the two of us using our student passes to take the Green Line into downtown Boston. We learned which places we could get into for free because we were under 17. We also learned which places it was better to visit while pretending (unconvincingly) that we were college students.
Soon enough, the world of museums began to open up its heavy doors to me. Eventually, that boy and I went to every museum in Boston. With time, we broke up. I went to the same places with new people. I went to new places with even newer people. I got my license and drove for hours to go to that contemporary art museum everyone had always told me about visiting during their family vacations.
With more time, going to museums became a habit of mine, and was increasingly anticipated by my friends. The discomfort I felt when people shared their museum memories faded as I began to accumulate enough of my own to feel like I could keep pace. I began to pull people into the world of museums, to jokingly take friends of mine who said they hated modern art to my favorite exhibitions, to go back to the same places with the same friends time and time again.
When I arrived at Brown, taking trips to the RISD museum was the way I cemented some of my first and longest friendships here. When friends visit me, it’s a traditional stop, one of a grand total of roughly three Providence must-sees. But beyond that, art exhibition and creation have become essential tools for relaxation, connection, and nostalgia for me. A space that once felt far from me has become familiar and known.
The walks I’ve taken with friends, partners, and family members through these spaces have all been deeply informative and valuable, even if the art wasn’t at the center of the moment. Museums have become a rare way for me to glimpse the ways in which people I care about interact with a world that is bigger than them. Whether those interactions become “deep” or remain silly isn’t the point. What I have found matters more than anything else is simply showing up for those moments and letting them root themselves deeper into my foundations.
I’ll be the first to admit how difficult it can be to connect with the environment of museums as someone who, for so long, felt uneasy and unaccepted in their world. But I think it’s important that these places are not just for people of a particular appearance or personality. Museums are places for almost anyone—in fact, everyone—to connect with each other and experience things that could emerge in no other setting.
One of my most poignant museum memories comes from going to a museum with someone who was a self-declared hater of art. We went to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art on one of the first days of summer. He disliked most of it, and we talked about all of it, along with the rest of our lives, as we wandered through the galleries. Later that day, when he got into his dream school after being accepted off of the waitlist, I was the first person he called about it. Why? Well, I can’t say for sure. He didn’t tell me. What I do know is that our visit to the ICA had allowed us to open up to each other more than we had previously. Just as he laughed at the art, he also began to share more of his life with me. In those moments we shared together, I think we began to feel more real to each other as the museum triggered intimate responses from us. I was the last person he had opened up to about the experience of it, just earlier that day. Accordingly, I was the first person who came to mind as he thought through the list of people he had to tell.
Museums certainly can be about the history or the art they have on display. On many of my visits, they have been about that, and, at this point, art is something I know a decent amount about. But museums don’t have to be that way. They can just as well be places where people share their experiences and grapple with their emotions. Many of my greatest memories are from time I’ve spent in museums across the world, the groups of people I go with and learn from growing bigger with each visit.
Really, walking through a museum is about more than looking at what’s on the walls or reading the information on the plaques. It’s a more difficult activity with a lot more potential for growth and vulnerability than I think we often allow it. It’s about letting oneself open up to an experience that changes every time a ticket is acquired and used. This is what we truly learn from and store in our memories. It is what we share each moment when we exchange stories and recollections. These experiences become our own museums, nostalgia and experiences held in frames and returned to frequently.