Moments, Transforming Experiences
For children and adults,
museums can be life-changing
By R. Jay Gangewere
Self-discovery has been
going on for a century at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. Tens of thousands have had moments of
discovery, including artists such as Andy Warhol and Philip Pearlstein, and
authors Annie Dillard, John Edgar Wideman, and David McCullough. For some there is one flash of insight, a
defining moment, when an artifact, artwork, or exhibit springs open the
door to an unexpected world. For
others there is an experience or group of experiences which over time
Great museums are easy
companions for life-long learning, and an escape from the less creative
routines of daily life. Pittsburgh
painter Robert Bowden laughs today about the way he
and his older brother "played hooky from home" by taking the
trolley to Oakland,
where they could wander happily in the museum galleries. The museums became
part of his life. His painting Specific
Steam, based on a 1999 Carnegie International installation,
recently won the Carnegie Purchase Prize in the exhibition of the
Associated Artists' of Pittsburgh, and
is now in the permanent collection.
life-long involvement now includes teaching watercolor painting at the
museum. His son Paul, a sculptor, now does drawings of insect specimens in
the Invertebrate Zoology department of Carnegie Museum of Natural History
and another son, Christopher, a doctor, became fascinated with shells at
the museum at an early age and developed a life-long interest in building a
collection. This generational
involvement underscores the fact that parents often transfer to their children the
values of what museums offer.
Later in life,
volunteers often show up at the museums following a turning point in their
lives--a job change, retirement, a break-up or a death in the
family--knowing that museum experiences add richness to their lives. Tillie Goodman ,
born in Oakland, has
volunteered for more than 20 years after the death of her husband. She
says, "To me the museum is a world of enchantment, and it keeps you
young. It lets the child in you stay alive even when you are in your
to see art
Annie Dillard, the
famous Pittsburgh-born author, described in An American Childhood (1987) what looking at art meant to her when
she was a
teenager, feeling alienated, and wondering about her life, reality, and the
Giacometti's sculpture Man Walking
won the International. I was 16. Everything I knew outside the
museum was alien to me, then, and for the next few years until I left home.
"I saw the
sculpture: a wiry, thin person, long legs in full stride, thrust his small
mute head forward into the empty air….
He was barely there. He was
in spirit and form a dissected nerve. He looked freshly made by God, visibly
pinched by sure fingertips… Man
Walking was so skinny his inner life was his outer life; it had nowhere
else to go."
For her this bronze
the questions she was facing as a teenager. And, like thousands of others, Dillard learned
to draw at the museum:
"Late in the afternoon, after the other kids
were all gone, I liked to draw hours-long pencil studies of the chilly
marble sculptures in the great hall of classical sculpture. I sat on one man's plinth and drew the
next man over--until, during the course of one winter, I had worked my way
around the great hall. From these
sculptures I learned a great deal about the human leg and not much about
the neck, which I could hardly see.
I ate a basement-cafeteria lunch and wandered the fabulous
Andy Warhol certainly
had transforming experiences when he made the Honor Role for young art
students taking museum art classes.
He was deliberately evasive in later years when he had to talk about
his family and childhood, but his art teacher, Joseph Fitzpatrick, who
taught at the museum, remembered Andy well from the 1940s:
"Every week I had
what they called an honor roll, and the people who were on the honor roll
stood at easels on the stage and would make a large drawing of the smaller
one they had done. Then they would
walk to the microphone, announce themselves…and explain their drawings.
Andy was up on that stage in the honor roll many times."
Coming from a very poor
family, and very shy, Warhol must have felt for the first time, as he stood
in front of hundreds of other young people, the importance that his art could
have. The museum gave him the first
public recognition he ever received as an artist.
For young children the
Hall of Dinosaurs can be overwhelming.
A young mother once took her hyperactive four-year old into the
museum to see the dinosaurs. This
writer was with them, and outside the building the little boy constantly
talked, ran about, and wanted to go inside to see the dinosaurs. When we entered the hall he rushed ahead,
then stopped dead in his tracks. After a long silence, he said in a small
voice, "Will he eat me?" For him, the minute of personal
confrontation had come.
Ray Rolewski tells a similar story.
He once calmed a little boy frightened by the dinosaurs by showing him how to growl at
them. Scared by the fact that the Tyrannosaurus rex in the Entrance
Hall is 20 feet high, while his own toy dinosaurs at home are only a few
inches high, the boy didn't want to enter the museum. Ray is a good "growler"
himself, and he showed the boy how to approach the dinosaur safely by
growling at it. On a second visit, says Ray, "The boy told 'Mr.
Raymond' that he was ready to go past the dinosaur by growling again. By the third visit, he had real
courage." The boy's mother said that her son started to growl when
other things frightened him. The moment of confronting the dinosaur had
helped him find a way to cope with fear. This little incident was memorable
for Ray, who was awarded the museum's "Customer Service STAR,"
given to frontline staff for exceptional public service.
John Edgar Wideman,
raised in Pittsburgh and the author of Beyond Homewood (1993),
was another boy who had a moment of great insight when the museum opened to
him a world beyond his normal experience.
"Under the roof of
the natural history museum my sense of the past, of time, was elaborated,
extended; the past gained an immediacy and relevance that was frighteningly
alien, daunting, but also included me.
My imagination was stirred and I was on my way to becoming a citizen
in a world larger than Homewood. I was lucky. …
returning to the museum with my kids…wanting to run with them from one end
of the hall of bones to the other, howling.
I remember being proud. This is the city where I was raised and it
has preserved this communal space."
Carnegie Museum of
Natural History guards will tell you that the dinosaurs are not the only
display that grips the public imagination.
People often ask about The
Arab Courier Attacked by Lions--an amazing piece of taxidermy that
survives from the Paris Exposition of the 1860s. One long-time Pittsburgher, Alma Roth,
remembers: "my earliest memory …as a small child,
was seeing the camel driver attacked by the lion. I never tired of looking
at this exhibit…." Such experiences become lifelong influences,
for she went on to take her children and then her grandchildren to see the
same exhibit, to share what she first felt.
history scientists and museum staff impress a visitor in unforgettable
ways. Cliff Payne remembers playing in Schenley Field as a boy, and finding
a what appeared to an enormous, flat tooth. He
took it to the museum, asked the guard to help him find someone who could
identify what it was, and finally was led to the scientific collection
area, where two experts told him he had found a tooth from a mammoth.
"Nobody knew me
from a can of paint. I was just a little kid who walked in, and everybody
took time out of their day to be nice to me. I have no idea whatever happened to that
tooth, but because everybody was nice to me, I've come to Carnegie Museums
for my entire life. My daughter and
I would take the bus and come down to the museum, especially when they had
new dinosaur exhibits. I would
always walk back and show her a mammoth and tell her, 'I had a mammoth tooth
Defining art at The Warhol
At The Andy Warhol Museum, architect Rocky Kernick and his wife like
to visit with their children to discuss art. "I love taking my
children there,' he says. "They can look at a
painted box of Brillo pads and say, 'Dad, that's not art!' And I can talk
to them about why I think it's art and what causes
it to be art." For the kids,
the act of debating what is or is not art with their parents, while at the
museum, has got to shape their point of view.
Kernick studied in Chicago and in London, and he and
his wife first felt they had left a larger world of culture behind when
they returned to Pittsburgh. He was skeptical about the idea of
dedicating a museum to one person, " But I've
since realized that was foolishness on my part, because it's about more
than that. The Warhol is a
community. It's an experience. Andy Warhol was very tuned into American culture
and western culture in general, and he explored a lot of themes that I have
started exploring myself in mid-life." Kernick now seeks out
avant-garde art at the Warhol to satisfy his own personal sense of artistic
insight--this is "something I'm looking for, now that I'm older, in
order to remain young."
A year or two ago on his way to work at Carnegie Science Center, Ron Baillie, director of education at the Science
Center, met a man when he stopped for bagels and coffee at Einstein's
bagels. Baillie had on his Science Center identification badge, and the man said that for awhile he had
wanted to talk to someone from the Science Center and wanted to tell him a story.
Ballie said, "Sure."
The man said that he and his wife had recently
moved to Pittsburgh, and
that they were concerned about all the TV the kids (ages six and eight) were
watching. They talked as a family
about other things they could all do together, rather than watch TV. The older child said, "Well, we
could go to the Science Center,"
since he had been to the Science Center with
his school. One Saturday the family went
and had a great time--a definitive family experience.
They enjoyed themselves so much they wanted to
come more often, and explored becoming Family Members. But the Family Membership fee was more
than they could afford. They talked
about what to do, and the same older child suggested that maybe they could
sell their TV and use the money to buy a Family Membership. And that's what they did.
Now the family comes several times a month, and
they especially like the science center staff. Baillie shook the man's hand, thanked him
for sharing that story, and left the restaurant. "I never got his
name, but I wish I had," says Baillie. "He made my day!"