Most people heading for the Downtown Branch of the Midland County Public Library from the public parking lot pay little or no attention to the metal frame building they pass on the way. The Library is their destination and they are already focused on the goal that brought them here--to check out the latest book by a favorite author, to find a movie to entertain all the children home for the weekend, to do a bit of research, to enjoy some quiet reading time, or to take advantage of the public internet access.
Once in a while, however, some of those library-goers, on their way to or from the parking lot, make the short detour to the museum door. A very few have actually been inside before (at least once upon a time) and have some idea of what they will find. For most, however, this is their first journey beyond the door. First timer or return timer, what they all discover is an adventure--the opportunity to wander through some most interesting Midland stuff.
According to Eugene Dillenburg, a professor of Museum Studies, a museum is primarily about exhibits.(1) The defining feature that sets museums apart from libraries or courthouse or any other public place is exhibits. Museums have displays of things, real things. What Dillenburg called "stuff." As he explains, "Not pictures of stuff or descriptions of stuff, but stuff."
And the central purpose of museums is to, in some manner, educate the public, by sharing that stuff. Museums arrange the various items into different configurations, or exhibits, and then invite the visitor to experience the realia, these real objects and materials from everyday life, displayed to educate. There are usually also signs with descriptions and explanations, but the most important thing remains the items themselves. And, even though the visitor usually cannot physically touch the items (it's too hazardous to these fragile time travelers), he or she can encounter these things in their full three-dimensional reality.
And what stuff is in that metal building beside the library? What exhibits will a visitor discover? What education awaits?
The Midland County Historical Museum is a time machine that has carried a fascinating collection of items from the past into the present to educate for the future. The binding force, the energy, that brought them here, is Midland. Everything in the museum has some connection with Midland County. Sometimes that kinship is obvious, strong and clear. At other times, it is highly obscure, with only the thinnest of threads linking the object--the stuff--to this place. Yet, everything that eventually arrived within that frame building journeyed there through a Midland time portal.
The museum exhibits are thus an eccentric group, a kind of quirky assembly of all sorts of things. That makes them somewhat frustrating to view. At the same time, it also makes them quite charming. Anyone who spends any time examining the collection eventually arrives at the question, "What in the world is that doing here?"
And the simple answer to that question is that these artifacts and exhibits provide information and insight into the history of this place--of Midland, of Midland County, of the Permian Basin. They offer tangible fragments of the past. They speak of who and what was once here and what they did and what happened. They even suggest comments upon the why of all that.
And, of what use is that? In a place of such frequent and significant change as Midland, the fast pace frequently becomes disturbing, creating stress and anxiety. The sense of loss is heightened. Nostalgia fuels depression. Fear of change grows and a wish for a past world becomes exaggerated.
This museum (in fact, any museum) helps people understand the world always changes. That there never was a single Midland that endured unchanged until progress suddenly leveled it. That those living here always dealt with new things, different things, things going up, things coming down, days of glory and days of dust. And, knowing that, perhaps those here today struggle a bit less desperately against the flow of change.
Because not all is lost, just as not all is preserved. The physical exhibits in the museum remind each viewer that parts of the past lives on in the present, contributing to its form and direction and meaning.
Novelist Catherynne Valente wrote about the dangers and challenges of change.(2) One of her characters explains, "For the wishes of one's old life wither and shrivel like old leaves if they are not replaced with new wishes when the world changes. And the world always changes. Wishes get slimy, and their colors fade, and soon they are just mud, like all the rest of the mud, and not wishes at all, but regrets."
The Midland County Historical Museum is a place to help prevent regrets.
Perhaps the next time you arrive nearby, you'll stop in and take a few moments to do a little time traveling.
You won't regret it!
1. Dillenburg, Eugene, (2011) "What, if Anything, Is a Museum?" Exhibitionist, Spring, 2011, (8-13).
2. Valente, Catherynne,(2011) The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making (New York: Square Fish), 61.