Have you ever been to a small town and come across a museum, and failed to go in because it’s not “big”? You’re missing out on a treasury of resources and adventures if you do this, especially if you don’t ever meet the museum’s docent.
By definition a docent is an enthusiastic member of the museum. He or she is there because of a willingness to share knowledge, or even memories. Docent positions are voluntary, so the only thing keeping a person in that museum is enthusiasm and a wish to share knowledge. Talking to a docent, maybe even asking him or her to walk around with you, adds a whole new dimension to the act of entering a museum.
Local history is often quirky, and never less than fascinating. One museum had a display of early cameras, including several used in forensic work around the turn of the twentieth century. There were crime scene pictures and several huge albums of notes and photographs that had been purged (and rescued) from the police department’s archives.
Few of the high-tech tools of our modern-day forensics department were available to these pioneers of the trade; the investigators had only bulky cameras and fingerprints to go on. There were no computers, no DNA tests, no digital cameras – just good old-fashioned detective work.
In a local museum, you might find the reason why a town gained its name. You might note artifacts that you last saw on your grandmother’s tallboy – a milk jug shaped like a cow, perhaps. Other finds have included a huge display of salt and pepper shakers and a massive ball of string that a woman wound while grieving for lost sons.
Larger museums are often arranged in “themes” with interpretive panels and maybe interactive displays. Local museums seldom have such funding, and often rely only on donations and their own fund-raisers. Instead, what you will frequently find is that such museums become the storage place for emptied garages and houses. It is somehow soothing to find old treasures still preserved in these places.
In local museums, you’ll find starched lace and wedding dresses, old dentists’ chairs and dummies wearing stiff, formal suits. It’s hard to imagine the mass-produced paraphernalia of the 21st century ever being kept in a museum, so when you enter it’s like taking a step back from the rush of modernity.
So what can you learn from a smaller museum? Nothing, if you don’t ever step through the door. While the interior might not be fancy, you’ll learn about a place through its things, and through talking to its people. You might have picked up a fact in school and suddenly find yourself face to face with a historical figure. Tehama County museum has an exhibit about Ishi, the famous last Yahi Indian, whose original home had been Tehama County.
So next time you see a local museum, go in and see what you can find. We can guarantee there will be surprises. Please talk to the docent, and be sure to leave a donation in the jar.