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Museums by Another Name…Community

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We all look for community, with shared values and concern for one another, to provide meaning and joy in our lives. Community comes in many shapes and forms: churches, neighborhoods, service clubs, schools… and museums.

This summer, my wife and I traveled a bit, and for no particular reason, found ourselves in a number of museums – some of them offbeat and different. But all of them also exhibited a powerful sense of community.

We are not particularly country music fans, but the relatively new Birthplace of Country Music museum in Bristol, Virginia was a real treat. The museum recounts the story of the first days of recorded country music – what some call the “Big Bang of Country Music.” In the summer of 1927, musicians throughout the region were recorded – for the first time. I couldn’t help but notice that in those recordings, there was only one black artist (and his picture cannot be found). Yet even so, the passion and excitement of museum goers was compelling.

I’m not sure what to say about the Star Trek Original Series Set Tour. It’s also about tradition, and also about dreams and community – a labor of love. It’s not nearly as slick as the country music venue, but that’s part of its charm. A friend and I stumbled on to it – in an old A&P Grocery store in Ticonderoga, New York – and a Star-Trek outfitted volunteer walked us through. Her constant questions – “Do you remember the episode where…?” didn’t ring any bells with me, though it was cool to see the sets. But more than anything, the eyes of everybody there were electric and excited. (Our guide had moved to Ticonderoga to be part of the museum.) Those folks found a community, built a community, and eagerly shared their community with all comers. The passion was infectious, even from an outsider’s view.

Finally, I also found myself on a fabulous tour of the Marshall Steam Museum at Auburn Heights – now part of Delaware’s state parks. With Tom Marshall (I’ve provided a picture of the two of us) in his ninth decade, the museum hums with activity and passion – and indeed, community. The cars were exquisite and well-maintained, and Tom’s story – as one of the country’s foremost collectors and drivers of these cars — is just flat-out inspiring. But even more exciting is the cadre of volunteers – close to 100 – that has been built up around the museum. The museum is within quick driving distance. I highly recommend it. Long-time Delawareans have probably  been there before, but for a newcomer like me, it was magical.

This isn’t to diminish the art museums I found myself in this summer – the Delaware Art Museum, of course, but also the Downing Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, dedicated exclusively to the art of the late Joe Downing. And just to complete the picture, the Kentucky Museum at Western Kentucky University also has much to recommend it – an upcoming exhibit on the growing Kosovan community in Bowling Green looks quite promising.

Community comes in many shapes and sizes. The Trekkie tour guide may look a little different than the steam car mechanic, but both exhibit passion and love for their shared community. They come together by sharing a common understanding of at least one aspect of the world. And that modest sharing helps build a much larger sense of community, one that reaches well beyond the museum’s walls.

So here’s to community, wherever it is, and whatever it looks like. Please share your stories – what unusual and different places have you seen community this summer – in the comments section below.