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Museum to Memory: An Outreach Program for Older Citizens of Western Michigan

Objects elicit stories. The kindergartner holding a turtle shell can hardly hold still as she tells you about the turtle she and her brother found while on a camping trip. “It was sitting on a log and then we poked it with a stick and it put its head in and then we picked it up and then we carried it to the picnic table and then we waited and then . . . and then … .” The elderly gentleman, who is gazing at a Model T Ford, talks about the first time his father brought home a car. “My brothers and 1 were just hanging off the car and grandma kept saving ‘Mercy, I’ve never seen the like. I’m not going near that machinery! Why, the Lord never intended for me to be seen in such a contraption. My horse and buggy will do just fine, thank you.'”

Since museums are filled with objects, it is inevitable that stories are a part of any museum visit. Each object is capable of evoking memories for visitors. Therefore, the stories they relate can be numerous and varied. The richness of experiences that a museum offers, and the opportunity for storytelling, were two of the motivating factors that contributed to “Museums to Memory,” a program developed and offered by the Public Museum of Grand Rapids.

Our community has many senior and retirement facilities. While working on program development for our new museum facility, we realized that there was a large population of folks who might be unable to make a visit to the museum. So, we decided to take the museum to them.

The Public Museum of Grand Rapids, Van Andel Museum Center, opened a new facility on the Grand River in 1994. The museum has four large permanent exhibits housed on three floors. They include temporary exhibits, and a smaller exhibit, from “A to Z,” which bring more of its holdings into public view. How could we begin to convey the depth of these exhibits to people who could not physically visit them? How could we give an overview of the wealth of information available in this large and attractive new space? Do you remember the good old slide projector? They aren’t used as much in this era of Power Point presentations and digital cameras. However, we decided such a system suited our purposes. We assembled slides giving a quick tour of our facility. Quick is the operative word. Watching slides, no matter how beautifully or cleverly described, can be deadly. Our determination was the slide show would be a maximum of 15 minutes.

A primary goal was to give the viewers an exciting overview of the facility. Pictures allowed us to present this facility, define the mission of the museum, and briefly describe the architecture of the building, which was intentionally designed to reflect the cultural heritage of our city. The museum’s treasures were our next emphasis. Many older residents of the community remember the Blue Whale, the Spillman Carousel, and the Wurlizer organ. It was important to include these treasures so we could share the memories they brought forth.

Next, we highlighted new exhibits being installed. Pictures of the exhibits in our “A to Z” program allowed us to explain that many of the items in the museum’s holdings were finally being put on display. Finally, we gave viewers a brief tour of each of the four permanent exhibits: “Habitats,” which explores the way that humans participate in the natural world historically; “Anishinabek,” which presents the story of the tribes of Western Michigan from pre-contact times to the present and which is told by the Anishinabek themselves; “Furniture City,” which tells the story of the development of the furniture industry that flourished in Grand Rapids and shows how this industry adapted and changed over time.

The final exhibit highlighted in the slides is “Streets of Old Grand Rapids.” This exhibit portrays Grand Rapids in the 1890’s. Facades of the buildings are based on actual buildings; shops are based on actual businesses from the 1890’s. Though we knew that none of our viewers would have been alive in that decade, we knew that many of them would remember particular stores, and we hoped that the pictures would call forth memories.

As the slide show ends, the lights come up and the real fun begins. Having introduced the museum facility, exhibits, and artifacts, we now hope to entice the group into the object-storytelling part of the experience. With assistance of curators and education staff members, we filled a suitcase (on wheels!) with objects from the 1890’s — objects we thought might bring memories to mind. The items included: old postcards depicting Grand Rapids during that era; laminated drawings of clothing items; small washboard; shaving cup; boot jack; tooth extractor; collar box; flypaper strip; soap saver; hair receiver; iron; flutter; potato masher; and items of clothing, including a hat or two.

The items in our suitcase have changed during the course of these presentations. Some items are more successful in eliciting stories than others were. Participants mention items in the course of their stories that we have been able to add to our collection. Only the size of the suitcase has limited the number and types of items we use. (Volunteers, many of whom are seniors themselves, give these programs. Carrying a slide projector and pulling a suitcase is about the limit for our volunteers!)

Since stories differ with each individual, the “Museum to Memory” program differs with each presentation. When training volunteers to present the program, we tell them the program takes an hour (not including travel and set-up). However, sometimes the program lasts much longer. Some folks have many stories to tell. Time spent is usually determined by the response of the group and the docent’s schedule.

Target groups for “Museum to Memory” are retirement homes and senior groups. Happily, some of the retirement homes we visit arrange trips to the museum for those who are physically able to go and view our facility. However, many who participate in this program are unable to come to the Van Andel Museum Center, so we are most pleased to know that we have been able to share a bit of our wonderful institution with them.

Doris Larson is a docent serving at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Larson, Doris. “Museum to Memory: An Outreach Program for Older Citizens of Western Michigan,” The Docent Educator 12.3 (Spring 2003): 14-15.


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