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Wonder

[Post edited to add missing content]

Pete: What is that?
Mrs. Frederic: An invitation to endless wonder.

Warehouse 13, season 1, episode 1, “Pilot”

When Mrs. Frederic invited Pete Lattimer to join her team of Warehouse agents in the first episode of the television series Warehouse 13, I don’t believe that she was describing the job, the stress, or the hours. I don’t believe that she was talking about the artifacts (objects) that could influence minds and effect bodies just because of their previous owners. I don’t believe she was describing the team that would develop through Pete’s influence. I don’t think she was even talking about the somewhat magical, somewhat creepy Warehouse 13 interior.

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I believe she was talking about the essence of Pete’s proposed job — finding those magical artifacts. The act of finding things, learning something new, fills us with wonder.

This is what I believes draws us to museums.

Saturday, 1/12/13, 10:00am

He was about seven or eight years old and was wearing a hat pulled down over his ears and a dark coat. His skin was a chocolate brown, and his voice was soft and sweet. His first question was “Will we be able to see the man fly and listen to the inventors on the phone this time?” His mother told him and his sister that they had to pay attention to the film because it was important for the context of the exhibit. I immediately liked this family, especially the boy who asked the questions. He wanted to know all about what was going to happen. He was preparing for endless wonder, and he hadn’t even started the exhibit.

I ran into the family again when I moved into my new position within the exhibits (I rotate every hour). Although I was not required to, I had decided that it was the perfect time to start one of our family programs, or drop-ins. I let all of the families in the exhibit know what I was going to do and started.

My young friend and his sister were the only ones paying attention. It soon became the three of us talking about the important parts of maps, although my new friend had decided that he really wanted to know about astrolabes. Soon, it was just the two of us. My friend gave me another fact about astrolabes, and I decided to tell him a secret: I had one in the back closet, and I was going to go get it to show it to him.

“Rule Number Four: Never lose your sense of wonder,” Laurie R. King’s voice of Sherlock Holmes states in her short story (and companion to her fabulous Mary Russell series), “Beekeeping for Beginners”. Wonder is the only word that can describe the little boy’s first sight of the astrolabe. I let him hold it, and we talked a little while about it, but most importantly, I listened. When he (reluctantly) left, I gave him a homemade quadrant we used in our programs. We had more, and I had made that one myself. Others could be made and found. I walked away from the experience also full of wonder. All I could hear in my head was Why don’t we do one-on-one work more?

I don’t work in a school. I don’t work in a library, or a camp or a church. I work in a museum.

My museum is unique. We don’t have a permanent collection and we don’t have educational staff. I work in visitor services, and most of my job consists of giving directions (in particular to the bathroom) and selling admission. My goal is to work with children like my young friend, who I realized early on was probably on the autism spectrum, given his lack of personal space, eye contact, and absorption in a single topic, who might not learn well in classrooms but might learn well in museums. I want to bring children and adults who can’t access education normally to our museums. I want our museums to be open to their needs.

The little boy that I worked with didn’t need an educational program like the one I was supposed to be doing (lesson and craft). He was smart and his mother was amazing at guiding her children through the museum. What this child needed was a friend to listen to him and ask him about his favorite topic. No judgement, no pressure for a right or wrong answer. What if friends like this were found at every museum? I’ve seen and interacted with a number of boys and girls like this. One boy told me about a train wreck that he knew about. I later guided his parent towards museums that did have trains that he would enjoy. It wasn’t part of my job, but I did it anyway. I also spoke to a young man that was very curious about my thoughts on the Titanic movie. It was a regular conversation to me, but when he walked away, I understood the look of joy on his mother’s face as she watched us from a nearby corner. Her son was physically disabled. I never saw anyone else interact with him that day outside of his family. I broke the trend, just by doing my job.

The original museums were called cabinets of wonder. They held objects collected from all over the world. What if we used our museum collections in the same way, as collections of wonder? What if we shared our wonder with others, as the three visitors shared their wonder with me and I shared mine with them?

I am a typical “new” museum employee: a female, 20-something WASP that wants to change the world.

And then I meet children like the little boy who preferred astrolabes to GPSes, and I am reminded of what brought me to museums in the first place: wonder.

When I sell tickets to our visitors, they do not know what they will see. I don’t know what they will get out of our exhibits, our objects, or my coworkers. Instead, my only hope is that when they enter our exhibits, they will see what my little friend saw: endless wonder.

Let me invite you, as Mrs. Frederic did, to join me on a journey of endless wonder.

Good luck, and welcome to the museum.

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