In Defense of Dusty, Rundown Museums

Imagine for a moment that all those dusty, poky old museums you’ve been avoiding on your travels actually don’t want you there in the first place.

You know the type of museum I’m talking about — the ones devoid of any signs or order. Typically marked by a hodgepodge of historical documents, fading photos and other odds and ends and urns piled into room after unremarkable room. Yeah, those ones.

What if all that is by design, and not by circumstance? Is it too far-fetched to speculate that those museum curators have colluded to keep you away? I can just hear the suits at the annual meeting:

“You know what folks, we’ve got a ‘people problem.’ Too many of ’em poking their noses into our valuables. Clogging our stairwells. Running amok with our curios. Sticking chewing gum underneath our cabinets. Let’s do our best to keep them at bay shall we? Instead of dolling the place up with this year’s budget, let’s dress it down. Like way down. We’ll need a host of dust makers, some illegible signage, and a team of writers to sully our TripAdvisor score. And for God’s sake don’t forget the peeling paint and water stains. Nothing says sham like upkeep.”

Sadly of course, this is never the case. If there’s one thing I hear far too often among fellow travellers, it is this: “I hate museums.”

In a world of shiny, next-big-things and “entertain me” minds, many travellers give little thought to the lowly rundown local museum. I’m not talking the Louvre or MOMA or the other exhibition thoroughbreds, but those scrappy little ramshackles that dot this wonderful planet — usually found in developing countries or out-of-the-way hamlets.Not all museums are afforded the luxury of laser shows and interactive displays and rotating exhibits. Some museums just are. Their primary goal is to inform. Sometimes they act as record-keeper, or repository, or a symbol of a community’s pride in its history. Sometimes they are all of the above.

The Lao National Museum in Vientiane is such a case. It doesn’t appear that much has changed since it first opened in 1995. It’s underfunding is showing, and that’s a shame, but shouldn’t that be all the more reason to visit it?n some countries that shabby, underfunded maze is the only record of a country’s past. And it’s not going to get any better if travellers like you and me don’t support it.

Curation as Art

At the core of every museum lies its curator. Many are overworked and under-appreciated. For some, it is a thankless job. For some, it is just a job. But for many, it is a passion. Those bookish custodians of culture are sometimes the museum’s only cheerleaders, and unless they’re lucky enough to oversee a handful of like-minded volunteers, they are preaching into a silo.

We have no trouble supporting the local arts, but isn’t museum curation a type of art in itself? And like any art, it’s not going to develop very quickly without its patrons.

In developing countries like Laos (which may I remind you is still a Communist country), language levels and access to funding cut into what a museum can actually pull off.

You probably haven’t been to the Lao National Museum. It’s okay, many people haven’t. But I’d wager you’ve been to one just like it. Cobwebs long forgotten by spiders. Plexiglass cases clouded from age and neglect. It’s the type of museum we visit not because it’s good, but the type we visit because we should. And if you have that mindset already, well that’s a good start. But there’s more you can do too.

So how can you help those dusty rundown museums? Well, I’m glad you asked.

#1. Visit!

Add a visit to the local museum to your travel itinerary. Make it a point in each city you visit. A museum can’t grow and improve without funding, and admission ticket revenue is an integral piece of the bottom line.

As an aside, I know many travellers adhere to the concept of “living like a local” — well guess what — most local schools add a trip to the museum to the curriculum. I know my school did when I was a kid. So if you really want to live like a local, head to the local museum wherever your road takes you.

#2. Buy Something from the Museum Gift Shop

Again you’ll be helping to support the museum since typically most of the funds go back into supporting its upkeep. You’ll also see some added benefits: you save yourself the haggling you’ll likely encounter at local markets, you usually get decent quality, and you’ll sometimes also walk away with something you won’t be able to get anywhere else, like this gopher calendar I snagged from Alberta’s Gopher Hole Museum.

#3. Sign the Museum Guest Book

Go beyond just leaving your name and country — write what you liked about the museum, and what areas could be improved, but be constructive. Plus it’ll probably put a smile on someone’s face that you actually took the time to pen your thoughts.

Philanthropy is not reserved only for the Buffet’s and Gates’ of this world, you can get in on it too — and one of the easier ways is just by supporting a museum on your next trip.