This weekend I did something you can do in America but very few other places in the world, I visited a museum.
“What are you kidding? You’ve never heard of the Louvre or the British Museum? You American rube!”
Yes thank you, I have. I’ve even been to the British Museum, and the Great Library of Prague. I’d love to see the Louvre and maybe someday I will.
But what I saw was the Wheels Across the Prairie Museum in Tracey, Minnesota. It’s a cool little place with lots of exhibits inside and outside there are a lot of old buildings moved there from around the area and a coal fired steam locomotive.
What’s more, within a hundred miles I could show you many more such museums including one near Granite Falls that has a lot of World War II airplanes, ground transport, and even a well preserved glider of the kind used in the Normandy invasion.
I could take you to Hanley Falls where once a year people from all over the northern Midwest bring an assortment of small gasoline engines farmers used for myriad tasks before rural electrification. And at harvest time local people reap a small field and thresh the grain the way they did in your grandparents’ day.
Anyone remember soda shops? I vaguely do, but I could take you to the Lyon County Museum and show you what one looked like.
Ever wonder what great-grandfather wore when he went off to fight in the War to End All Wars? I could show you that too.
And how did he live and work before he went away? I could show you a collection of farm tools very few people even know the names of anymore.
What I’m talking about is that uniquely American institution the local museum. And surprising as it sounds though other countries have great and famous museums this seems to be pretty much an American thing. From what I’ve seen and heard, they don’t exist anywhere else, at least not in such profusion.
I’ve seen them across the United States in small towns and rural counties. Staffed largely by volunteers, funded by donations and what the city or county can afford, and stuffed with the contents of people’s attics and barns.
For years I’ve wished I could find the funding to sponsor a bus tour of America for some of my museum colleagues from Europe. We’d just criss-cross the country back and forth and drop by museums along the way.
I wonder how they’d react. I wonder how I could explain to them what this kind of thing means to us.
This is not the history of the greats. Heck by European standards it’s not even very old history.
It’s the history of the people who came to this part of the country and built what we live in today. Not people a thousand years ago, but people our grandparents might have known.
It’s the record of a way of life different in ways the youngest among us find incomprehensible. A time when most work was intensely physical, travel was slow, and entertainment was something people mostly made for themselves.
You know the other day my daughter asked me what life was like before social media, and told me she thought it might be kind of cool to live without it, at least for a while.
Well she can’t, but maybe she can get a little idea of what it was like way back when.