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Interview with a Museum Director at Age 5

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

This week’s guest blogger is Silvia Liu, speaking as a representative of future museum founders/directors. Silvia has visited numerous museums in four countries. When she was four years old she collected a dead baby turtle while on a walk with her grandmother. That afternoon she declared that she wanted to have a natural history museum in her home. A year later, with help from her parents, Silvia installed her ever-growing collection of bones, shells, and flora in a corner of her family’s basement. Silvia gives guided tours of her museum, which she calls “Silvia’s Nature Museum”, to any visitor willing to sign the guest book. Recently, Silvia decided to add a small gift shop to her museum that she keeps stocked with merchandise that she has made herself.

Silvia was interviewed by her parents at their home in Lawrence, Kansas.

Interviewer: What is it about museums that you enjoy the most?

Silvia: Fossils and dinosaur bones and lots of fun things to do and gift shops!

Interviewer: What is your favorite kind of museum?

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Silvia: Now let me think, natural history!

Interviewer: What is your favorite part about visiting natural history museums?

Silvia: [Getting] to see bones and fossils

Interviewer: What makes you want to spend time in a museum?

Silvia: Looking at things…if they are not too scary.

Interviewer: What do you think museums will be like in the future, when you are grown up and living in your own house?

Silvia: Bigger. And maybe they’ll find some dragonfly fossils.

Interviewer: What else do you think there will be in museums in the future? I know it is kind of hard to imagine what it will be like when you are all grown up.

Silvia: I think they’ll still have computers, but they won’t be old fashioned – like power cords that look like rope (cloth-covered).

Interviewer: Do you think there will be iPods?

Silvia: Of course there will be. Giant iPods.

Interviewer: If there were giant iPods at the museum, would that make you want to go there?

Silvia: Yes, if they were at an art museum. It would be an iPod that they could put pictures of art on so that people could touch it and look at pictures of the art that they have in the museum on it. So it helps the people find the art, you know, like a map.
Interviewer: Did you know that they’re called iPads? They have a special name. What do you think the museum will be doing with iPads?

Silvia: Using them for frames, like showing the art on them. I would like to see it if there was like a painting on the screen, using the iPad as a frame. If it is not too interesting, I wouldn’t want to see it again. If I like the museum a lot, I would want to go there again.

Interviewer: What will other museums be like in the future?

Silvia: Like the museum in Canada?

Interviewer: The ROM (Royal Ontario Museum)?

Silvia: Yeah. They’ll have more fossils, if they find them.

Interviewer: Who are they?

Silvia: The paleontologists.

Interviewer: What type of fossils?

Silvia: Dinosaur bone fossils.

Interviewer: What else will they add to that museum?

Silvia: Cool rocks, like volcano rocks. Volcano rocks covered in dirt.

Interviewer: What do you think will be the most popular type of museum in the future?

Silvia: Natural history museums, because I like them the most. I love natural history museums.

Interviewer: Why do you like museums natural history museums the most?

Silvia: Because I like being scared a little bit, but I don’t like being scared too much. Fossils are awesome.

Interviewer: Will museums that have fossils have art in them too?

Silvia: Maybe.

Interviewer: In the future, do you think there will be more museums that have both fossils and art?

Silvia: No. But, what if there was a silly museum with dinosaur bones, pterodactyls, hanging from the ceiling holding picture frames! That would be awesome! And the gift shop could have little models of it.

Gentle readers—did you have your own museum when you were a kid? (I did! With accession numbers and everything…) Are your children or grandchildren curating their own collections now? This is our next generation of colleagues, and I would love to hear about their museums. How old is/was the founder? What is/was in the museum? Share your stories here, in comments to the blog; and upload photos to the CFM Flickr group (where you can also find more photos of Silvia’s Nature Museum).

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  1. Very nice interview! I started my museum career early as well when my sister and I created the Paper Airplane Museum. Paper airplanes in all sorts of colors and sizes…I think we even charged my parents a dime to get in!

  2. Love it! Where to start.

    First, I think it is interesting that Silvia talks about natural history museums in very sublime language. She likes natural history museums, "Because I like being scared a little bit, but I don’t like being scared too much."

    In our last field-wide study, the one that we collected over 28,000 early memories of museum visits, we often found that memories of natural history museums were sublime. That little frisson of fear but a transcendent and exciting experience as well. I think it is what, in part, makes natural history museums so memorable, as our research found (we'll be sharing more of the memory research on our blog this fall).

    Additionally, we ran a small survey for a group of public libraries here in Massachusetts, and we asked about early library memories. Here is a (short) memory about playing library:

    "I loved the cards and the date stamp on the pencils..went home and filled my books with little pockets and cards and played library."

    Interestingly, no one really mentioned playing museum in their museum memories, but it came up a few times in the library memories. I wonder why that is. Maybe it is easier to play "library" than "museum?"

    Finally, yes, I did have a mini-museum in my bedroom as a kid. I recycled a triptych-like cardboard display from a science fair project and displayed stuff on it. I don't remember what, except for the picture of John Taylor (totally the hottest member of Duran Duran back in the 80s!).

  3. Susie–I, too, was was struck by the comment "Because I like being scared a little bit, but I don’t like being scared too much." That is my memory exactly! My "transformative experience" in a museum, at a very young age, was being spooked and awed by a Dunkleosteus ("terrible fish") fossil at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

    As to "playing museum" vs. "playing library." Silvia (and you, and me) played curator because we knew, or intuited, how to put together a collection or exhibit. But who do kids really get to see working at a museum? The ticket taker? Maybe a museum educator if they are lucky. Librarians are visible and you get to talk to them. And (though I bet they don't do it anymore) stamping library cards is fun…

  4. Silvia is starting in this field right on time. I had my first collections in shoeboxes at the same age, mainly rocks, fossils and….well, and more rocks and fossils. I didn't set up the gift shop, though, which is why Silvia will be a director and I will always be a collections manager.I also used wooden cigar boxes and nifty glass tubes for storage, courtesy of my grandfather.

  5. This was a very good interview. I'll admit that I was not interested in being a curator when I was that age, but an archeologist (egyptologist to be specific) and collecting artifacts (random rocks and bits) and learning the history behind them or making things up about them was as far as I got, before the drawing phase took over.

    I think that Bodhibager has an interesting point about staffers that kids get to see and talk to in museums vs. libraries. Docents are great but it would have been nice to find out more about who puts the museum together and maybe encouraging "How to be a curator/collections/etc" projects in schools.

  6. NICE.

    She's going to eclipse me in pay scale before Christmas, isn't she.

    As has been the trend, I was dragged as a small child to many museums, but happily went on my own starting in high school. It was cool.

    Being an intense sentimentalist with equal passion for connectivity probably helped.

    I like to think of each museum as a universe of ideas.

  7. I enjoyed very much reading Silvia's interview about her museum collections! I remember her interest and efforts collecting fossils and other natural objects on our Small World playground! I saved some in my pockets for her to take home after playground time!
    Judy Niebaum

  8. I was struck by Bodhibadger's observation about playing curator vs. playing librarian and the fact that most kids don't get to see curators at work. I, too, had a museum when I was a child, but I got started rather later (at age 12). On a family visit to the Denver Museum of Natural History, I purchased a small book called "Cigar Box Dioramas, a 'How to do it' Handbook" by Arminta Neal (copyright 1958). I don't recall what year I got my copy (which I still have) but it as a 1961 printing. Just as I was exhausting the fabulous tips that Ms. Neal provided, I found Vinson Brown's "How to Make a Home Nature Museum" which I checked out of the library repeatedly. These books opened up the secret world of curators and exhibit designers–it is too bad that there are not updated versions of such books available in museum gift shops now.

  9. Aww… I agree, fabulous interview!

    As a little kid, I didn't have a museum, but I made a formal library in the basement. I put sign-out cards in the back of all of the books, dated their due dates when the were 'checked out'(by me) and organized them by the number I labeled on their spine. I've always been a collection manager at heart!

  10. Glad I wasn't the only one with a home library! I really enjoyed this interview, Silvia's observations were so great.

  11. When I was 10, I was so taken by the dioramas at the Natural History Museum in Denver, that I wrote a letter (in red ink!), asking to volunteer because I wanted to be a taxidermist! I received a polite letter in return, explaining that I was too young to volunteer. What a shame. . . .

  12. So refreshing to hear from a different generation of museum-goer.

    I wanted to be an archaeologist in the worst way when I was in 4th grade all the way through college. I could never visit enough museums, and often led my own tours with my family and friends(which explains why I am now in Education). I too tried to keep a rudimentary accession numbering system of my old magazines and books that I bought from garage sales.

    My niece and nephew, when they were aged 7 and 4 respectively, knew that their Aunt worked in a museum and we used to play museum in the basement. That consisted of gathering all the dolls and people figurines from their various toys and using blocks to build a museum space and all the "people" came for the grand opening. (My nephew and niece alternated between being director and tour guide – I got to be the master of ceremonies for the opening).

  13. When my son was about 4 1/2, he curated an exhibition of his art especially for me as a mother's day gift. He made the art, made labels and signs including don't touch, decided on the order, hung it and gave me a tour. I'm a photography curator, and his dad is an exhibit designer, so the apple may not fall far from the tree. My son was in school at the Smithsonian's Early Enrichment Center ( where object based-learning is the core of the cirriculum for children ages 3months to Kindergarten and museum experiences are a daily event.

  14. This is a wonderful entry and interview, and not just because Silvia is my nephew's friend! 🙂

    I can remember collections, but not creating an actual museum. And, perhaps connecting to Susie W's comment, they were always natural history collections, usu. rocks.

    In kindergarten my son did have me sit down with him a help him write exhibition labels for an imaginary museum of prehistoric sea creatures.

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