M is for Makumbusho (Museum).
In Swahili, the word for museum is makumbusho, meaning a physical place of memories, related to kumbuka (remember) and kumbukumbu (memories). I like these Swahili terms because they capture the role of museums in archiving public discourse and stimulating our cultural understanding of our relationship to human events, created things, and natural phenomena. The Guardian recently had a wonderful piece on how a temporary outdoor art museum in a marginalized Mumbai community is challenging mainstream ideas of what counts as art. The Mumbai museum features the avant-garde pottery and intricate tools of local craftspeople, many of whom have never set foot in a museum space. The key revelation? "When you have a museum, you count."
Particularly because I'm chasing my own growing interest in museums, I recently set out to explore a bit of Old Sacramento on a visit with family. What I discovered enchanted me further with museum exhibits as forms of public discourse, and has me thinking about ways more of us can enjoy these spaces. And even though the power went out in one museum, this didn't spell the end of my memorable encounter.
As digital spaces become more ubiquitous, I'm finding it increasingly important to temporarily unplug and make time for physical visits to material collections. So now, I want to share with you some of the insights I gathered on visits to a variety of public history and art museums across Sacramento and Los Angeles. During my spring break from teaching, I experienced firsthand how tactile engagement, play, and ambient inspiration amplified my intercultural learning. Essentially, I found myself noticing and discovering new information during moments of wonder [and wander ] with museum collections. These are curative and educational approaches I now aim to incorporate into my own practice...
Tactile Engagement: We Sat in Antique Desks.
A Museum We Could Play In.
This museum of earth and space flight was affiliated with the Smithsonian, and housed important artifacts pointing to pioneering innovations and applications of aerospace technology, as well as the people key to their development and deployment. I had no idea that Sputnik referred to companion or satellite in Russian, or that there had been a woman cosmonaut early on!
I realize now that a science museum can operate in some ways like a public history museum, by communicating histories of technology.
We were able to activate pistons, hop into flight simulators, and engage with visual timelines of the space race, and women and men who contributed to the development of commercial and military piloting. Differently from the Discovery Museum, few exhibits were at waist height, and prose labeling was more extensive. The space wasn't exclusively designed for a kid audience. So we were surprised when we happened upon an open play area in the Aerospace Museum with guided activities! Should we go for it and play?
After our delayed success, we gave shout-outs to contemporary bridge builders, and the medieval Peruvian architects of Machu Picchu. How did they do it with such precision? Around us, a few kids were experimenting with other guided activities on simple machines like the fulcrum and lever. Our play was inspiring us in ways the simulators and vertical displays and couldn't, by inviting us to collaborate and experiment with fundamental principles we often take for granted.
Ambient Inspiration in the Hills of Los Angeles.
After my weekend in Sacramento, I made the short flight down to Los Angeles to visit more family and friends. On the last day of my trip, I drove out to the Getty Center. I zoomed down the 405 after a necessary grilled cheese (with onions) at In-N-Out.
It had been a few years since I last peeked into the hilltop Getty, and so I was impressed to see the museum beginning its social media campaign on the tram ride up to the main buildings. We were invited to Find Your Inspiration and #GettyInspired.
The tram began winding its way up the steep hillside, and unseen voices issued a bold welcome. The Japanese, Spanish, and German of fellow riders seemed to echo the tram's multilingual announcement. A printed schedule of the day's events listed a curator's tour of Woven Gold: Tapestries of Louis XIV. I could make the tour if I didn't delay in exiting the tram.
The curator spoke into a microphone everyone in the group could hear through individual headsets, as the twenty of us followed her up the stairs and into one of the main galleries. Massive handwoven tapestries painted the inside walls with biblical scenes, royal crests, and seasonal landscapes. At first I couldn't make out the strands of gold in the artwork, but then the curator encouraged us to stand askew to catch the metallic glimmers of gold in the light. It could take up to 5 years for one of these masterful tapestries to be completed!
The tour completed, I emerged from the gallery to a panoramic view of LA's skyline and the museum's whimsical gardens. Succulents, bougainvilleas, and rock features simulated an intimate escape, even though visitors roamed the grounds en masse.
The effortless ambient inspiration of the Getty's curated contours and landscape reminded me of why art matters, why the aura of place matters. As a reflection of all the things we tether to ideas (beauty, peace, pleasure), art communicates and commands calm, wonder, and introspection.