Museums are made for musing. I never know how many of their offerings I’ll want to ponder, so I don’t visit museums if a parking meter is ticking, others are waiting for me, or I’m wearing uncomfortable shoes.
I’ve strolled the endless corridors of famous museums and enjoyed them, but I prefer those in small towns: they house fewer items, so I don’t feel the need to set a brisk pace to avoid dying of old age as I contemplate a diorama. Also, unlike wealthier museums, where every display is must-see and note-worthy with a capital N, local museums reflect the lives of folks like me who first populated the area, managed to survive, and eventually created and developed a town. I can imagine living their day-to-day lives.
Several fine, small-town museums dot the Wyoming-Colorado border area where I live. I like their names — the Tread of Pioneers Museum, the Little Snake River Museum — and their exhibits intrigue me: the cowboy and gunfighter collection at the Museum of Northwest Colorado, the elk that resides at Wyman’s Living History Museum, and the pioneer town that surrounds the Encampment Museum.
While exploring local museums, I think about the exhausting work families did to survive and the innovations from tin cans to miners lamps to apple peelers to tractors that eased their burdens. I admire the items they created to add beauty, comfort, and enjoyment to their lives: homemade quilts, rag rugs, cross-stitched wall hangings, stick horses, sock dolls, hand carved tops, and checker boards.
As I walk away from small, local museums — usually free of charge and manned by friendly, informative folks — I wonder what people of the future will think when they visit displays from my era. What will they make of early TV’s with tiny screens mounted in large cabinets, hand-pushed lawnmowers, striped bellbottoms, Mr. Potato Head, bomb shelters, rotary phones, and typewriters?
Actually, I already see bits of my life on display in small museums. I recently visited the Little Snake River Museum in Savery, Wyoming, where I enjoyed exploring refinished schools and simple homes that allowed me to me glimpse the everyday lives mountain men and early town fathers lived along the river.
In one small home, the kitchen wallpaper featured bright red cherries hanging from joined stems, a pattern I knew well from a childhood filled with visits to the snug kitchens of older relatives. Inside a school I saw a bulletin board covered with valentines of the day, the same sort my friends and I used to exchange: “If you carrot all for me, peas be mine.”
Thanks to small, local museums, I am aware of my place in a long line of human hopes, struggles, triumphs, hard-won advances, and difficult setbacks that paved the way for me to live well and age well.
Small town museums capture our stories and deserve our attention.