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Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic: Museum Professionals 360°

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on May 6, 2013 in Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic |

by columnist Madeline Karp,

If you’re friends with me on Facebook, then you may know that I spent Sunday morning at the Stainton Society’s Annual Brunch, which featured CNN journalist Anderson Cooper as a guest speaker.

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The Stainton Society is an Atlantic City-based medical philanthropy group and the annual brunch is their big fundraiser for a local medical center. The who, what, and why of how I got into is event is really neither here nor there, but if you’re friends with me in general, then you may know that I am a huge Anderson Cooper fangirl. That had something to do with it.

I say this with only a little bit of bias: Anderson was awesome.

“There’s a value to bearing witness to what people are going through,” he said. “I think it’s important to see people in remarkable situations and acknowledge it.” No, bearing witness does not change the course of events, he continued. But it does open our eyes to other places and situations, and prevent someone who has passed away from simply dissolving into history, as if he never existed at all.

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He went on to play to his audience, talking about how doctors and nurses bear witness to emotional, physical and medical extremes in hospitals – they see deaths and births, cure deadly diseases and deliver heartbreaking diagnoses. He then spoke about seeing war zones, of dealing with loss, of the people he’s met who remain optimistic, even in the direst of situations. On the surface, this all has nothing to do with me, or my profession.

But when it was all over, I had a strange thought: Anderson Cooper is a museum. (Specifically, I think he’s a history museum, but you can tell me if you disagree.)

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Anderson Cooper has dedicated his life to bringing others’ stories to the public. They are stories from people you will never meet, stories that you may never hear otherwise. Some of them are terribly sad. Some of them are amazing. Some of them are funny in their own way. He wants to inform people and to tell them the facts – it’s up to us to interpret those facts, form an opinion and make that story mean something.

What is your museum’s mission? Technically, it may be to interpret history or make artistic masterpieces accessible for a nominal fee. But isn’t it really to bear witness to an historical moment? To recognize the human capacity to create amazing works of beauty?

Museums collect things, but the true story is that of the person who owned or used them. Objects tell a story – like Anderson Cooper, it’s the museum’s job to root that story out and share it with the public. With any collected object or exhibit, we have to find the story, ask the tough questions, edit the content, package it for mass consumption and give people something to think about. Please remember this exhibit, museums ask visitors. Please make this story meaningful.

I suppose what I’m getting at here is that in their own way, museums bear witness to the human condition and we as museum professionals are the reporters.

So what do you think? Is Anderson Cooper a history museum? Can history museums be Anderson Cooper?

Share you thoughts with me in the comments!

PS- I highly recommend reading Anderson’s book Dispatches from the Edge. In addition to giving insight into the lifestyle of a foreign correspondent, it may have helped inspire this column’s name. (Just a little.)

 

1 Comment

  • This is an interesting take on the reporter as museum. Reporters spend a lifetime amassing not objects, but experiences, other people’s experiences. They are veritable museums of vicariousness (or as the French say, “le musee de vicariance baguette beret amour we surrender”).

    Upon a visit to the Anderson Lebron Cooper Museum of People Doing Stuff and Things Happening, one is immediately struck by the structure’s exterior. Architecturally stunning in both form and function, the ALCMPDSTH features a steely-gray domed coif atop a caucasian facade which conjures images of the chalky cliffs of Dover: both formidable in the face of adversity, yet comforting to those most familiar with its stoney gaze.

    The ALCMPDSTH is more than just a manicured countenance. Inside the museum, the collection proves broad and remarkable. One could literally do an A.C. 360 and find compelling stories in every corner. A personal favorite was the display of the ALCMPDSTH’s feet which still bare the marks of Legionaire’s Disease contracted wading through the brackish floodwaters of the 9th Ward. You can touch the sores! It’s fun for the kids.

    The guided tour was a plus. Throughout the ALCMPDSTH, dulcet tones narrate your journey from exhibit to exhibit urging you with concerned authority to access both your empathy and your vigilance. Very effective (or as the French say, “Mui delicioso! Ay yi yi yi! Tacos!”)

    FUN FACT #1: The ALCMPDSTH is gay.

    (P.S. At the ALCMPDSTH’s food court, my soup came with only one packet of saltines. W-T-to-tha-fuckin’-F?!)

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