Today is International Museum Day. Today (and every day) I’m grateful for museums and the people who work in them. Natural history museums (especially The Field Museum in Chicago) were key inspirations that got me on my path to a career in evolutionary biology. It’s no stretch to say that museums helped make me who I am today – they opened my eyes to the amazing planet we live on and got me excited to learn about it. More than any teacher, museums encouraged me to explore the world and to add to our understanding of it.
Perhaps because of this, I think about museums as an equalizing force. A leg up for kids who weren’t born into money. A path to change. Just 150 years ago, most museums were private, essentially curio cabinets for wealthy people to display their collections. The idea of museums as a public good –that the beauty and wonder of the world should be accessible and inspiring to all– is one of the great cultural advances we have seen in that time.
Museums preserve our natural and cultural heritage, remind us of humanity’s greatest achievements and its lowest moments. They expose us to beauty and darkness, and challenge our assumptions about ourselves and others. Like all educational institutions, museums are a democratizing force. Their very existence proves that the world is bigger than our particular circumstances, that there are better things out there than what we observe from day to day, and that there are other ways of doing things than those we were taught.
Museums are powerful; they give us hope, question the status quo, and inspire us to be better versions of ourselves. This really is a revolutionary concept; if these ideas weren’t threatening, the existence of museums would never be at risk. Invading forces wouldn’t destroy them when they took over new area. Politicians would not be so keen to defund them.
So, today (and every day), I encourage you to support and protect your local, state, and national museums. Visit, volunteer, and become a member. Donate to funds that get kids in the door. Combat their defunding. Don’t elect politicians or school boards who think museums aren’t valuable. Support school districts, principals, and programs who advocate student access to museums. Museums preserve our past, but they also have the power to change the future.