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PAPERWORK: Hey, let me show you how to museum today

The dictionary is trying to tell me the word “museum” is a noun.

Ha. I’m sorry. Today it’s a verb. That’s my rule, if you’re going to walk with me today.

Definition: “A building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited.”

Again, I have to challenge.

A building? Sorry. Do you honestly want to tell me a cemetery is not a museum?

And about those “objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest.” That covers a lot of ground but why not just say anything that might be of interest? Which is everything.

OK, I’m stomping on rules. But if you’re still with me, I want to show you something.

Let me introduce our guide. Mr. Rob Walker of New Orleans. He’s a columnist and journalist. You can find his work online ( and in many publications including The New York Times and The Atlantic.

He’s also an author and at my side right now is his book: “The Art of Noticing … 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday.”

And the portal we enter today is this chapter: “What to Look for When You’re in a Museum.”

He shows us a different way to view the “building” museum but also takes us outside.

Museums are designed to guide you but Walker offers ways to help you see and therefore experience what is on display. Or not on display.

For example, there is a company called Museum Hack that offers tours to enhance time spent in a museum. The key is getting people to interact with art. One way to do this is with a game: “Buy, Burn or Steal.”

“Participants are challenged to examine all the works in a particular gallery and decide which one they’d be willing to buy, which one they so despise that they’d like to burn it, and which one they love so much that they want to steal it,” says Walker.

He also suggests studying what is not on display. Such as: the guards, the names of the donors (research them), the other museumgoers (are they touching when told not to?), the sound patterns and voices. Find a space that gives you peace and comfort and stay there and maybe discover yourself.

Walker shares a funny story.

He and his wife walked into a small gallery in a contemporary art museum. Two large, wooden crates sat there.

There were no clues. Was the artwork inside, to be unpacked? Or … could the crates be the artwork?

They decided the crates were art.

“This was a silly attempt to make each other laugh,” he wrote. “But it made us think of Marcel Duchamp and the urinal he signed and submitted to the Society of Independent Artists.”

“Art is everywhere, if you say so,” Walker concludes. He suggests the next time you’re out and about be a museum curator and pick out what you think deserves public display.

One man who has done this is Alex Kalman who created “Mmuseumm.” His display is 6-by-6-feet in what used to be a freight elevator shaft in lower Manhattan.

What you see are slices of life. For example, a two-inch square sign from a motel that tells guests items in the room are so popular they are for sale.

The note explains: “Should you decide to take these articles from your room instead of obtaining them from the Executive Housekeeper, we will assume you approve a corresponding charge to your account.”

“These objects weren’t created to be appreciated as pieces of art,” Kalman said, telling Walker they reveal “our psychology, our needs and our desires. Some elements of who we are.”

Even in elaborate settings designed to display and leash our attention, we might be missing life as it happened, is happening and perhaps will happen.

Walker notes how tourists crowd around famous works of art but they are so busy taking selfies they do not study the art itself.

Actually, we are surrounded by museums. Everyone’s home is a museum, full of displays. First-time visitors in a home get the “grand tour.”

I do not view the books I am collecting as a library. I am creating a museum.

Lately I’ve been searching for books in antique stores. They often are scattered about, which makes finding “buried treasure” more fun.

I also realized I am exploring the perfect museum because the displays are disorderly and scattered. You create your own tour and experience.

You must move slowly to carefully scan every inch and under every pile. In all directions there is something to see. Something to remember or wonder about.

People’s lives are on display. Nameless but attached to specific times and places. So many stories untold. So many flashbacks that might fit into your own story.

Standing amidst so much history, listening to all those voices, I am participating in history.

I am embracing, relishing and racing through time.

So, just for fun, let me say the word “museum” is also a verb. If you do it right.

LONNY CAIN, of Ottawa, is the former managing editor of The Times, now retired. Please email thoughts, comments or ideas to or mail care of The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.

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