Friday, September 11, 2009

Duluth: Museums, etc.

One of the reasons we wanted to spend a whole month in Duluth, MN this July rather than our usual week-and-a-half summer visit was so that we could take full advantage of all the city’s museums and museum-type places.For us, taking full advantage means multiple visits to a museum or at least one long languorous visit during which N. can indulge his long attention span. Here are some of the places we enjoyed:

The Lake Superior Railroad Museum at the Duluth Depot. A truly excellent train museum (and we've been to 5), happily unchanged since my own childhood, which means it is gimmick-free and has nary a Thomas the Train in sight. It has not been updated in any effort to make it "educational" (which often means dumbing things down); in fact I imagine it was designed to appeal to adult railroad buffs, and that's why we like it.

There are all kinds of little displays tucked between tracks: a historical range of track maintenance vehicles, collections of train bells, of track of different widths, of the logos of the many lines that served the upper midwest. You can climb up in many of the engines, cars, and cabooses; the holdings span the history of trains in Minnesota, from the two first steam engines in the state ("Old Betsy" and "The William Crooks") to logging, mining, passenger, and mail trains. N. loves this place. In fact, last year we happened to be captured in the local newspaper as we visited the train museum!

The Lake Superior Marine Museum, run by the U. S. Coast Guard (free admission!!) is another favorite place and we go there repeatedly. It is tucked right next the the Aerial Lift Bridge under which the big ships pass to reach Duluth's harbor, so in addition to the treasures inside the museum, you're in a great location for ship- and bridge-watching.

The museum houses models of all the different kinds of ships that have sailed on Lake Superior, from schooners to self-unloading "thousand-footers." A model ore dock shows how iron ore and taconite brought down from the mines on trains were loaded into the ships. There are several real engines from fishing boats and an old harbor tug boat. N. especially likes to play with the model lock-and-dam and he enjoys the reproduction of a ship's captain's house with its wheel, map tables, and radar devices.

The William A. Irvin was for 40 years the flagship of U.S. Steel and now a museum moored in a slip in the harbor. We went there twice. The guides are retired sailors and what they lack in professional tour-guide demeanor they amply make up for in arcane knowledge. This was one Duluth museum I had never been to as a kid, though it's been open since the 80s.

We also went once to the Duluth Zoo and the Great Lakes Aquarium. I generally find zoos fairly distressing, though we've been to quite a few in the past couple years. The Duluth Zoo is at least small enough to make for a manageable visit, and it has been updated to conform fairly well to today's standards of more humane habitats. In general, I've never observed N. to get much out of a zoo visit. In more humane habitats, the animals are often difficult to see, and even when he can see them up close, N. doesn't seem very moved by the novelty of being able to see an ape or a tiger, which is the main reason people go to zoos, I imagine. It never seems like he learns or retains much about the animals in that setting either. The main exception to this I can think of is the Duke Lemur Center, where we had an excellent guided tour by a Duke student who was majoring in biology. I want to like the Great Lakes Aquarium because building an aquarium on the lakefront that specializes in Lake Superior fish seems like a great idea. But it epitomizes the modern museum-type place, full of didactic little plaques bearing random snippets of information that, for me anyway, don't cohere into a big picture. Kids all totally ignore these, which make sense, but the aquarium design discourages observation and reflection and instead seems to foster racing around, not really seeing anything.

is a robber-baron's mansion built in 1908 on the lakeshore. Of course, N. loved it -- the carved doors, stained glass windows, interesting antique bathrooms, and old-fashioned kitchen appliances (i.e. a huge mangle), the carriage house! Here we are out on the terraced gardens (it was really cold that day and if you look closely you can see that the peonies were still blooming in late July!).

Probably the dorkiest thing we did in Duluth (what? more than everything already listed?) was visit the Granitoid Memorial Park, a monument at E. 7th Street commemorating three blocks of the second oldest concrete-paved street in the nation! We had to go here after learning about it from a friend who is a passionate advocate for its preservation; it combines transportation and old things -- perfect!

Last: we went to Minneapolis for a couple days and spent two days exploring the old mill area on the Mississippi. One day we rambled for a couple hours around the mill ruins and walked along the Stone Arch Bridge, and we were so intrigued by the place that we went back the next day to go to the Mill City Museum, where we learned an incredible amount about flour milling.

This was one of our favorite museum experiences of the month and I wouldn't be surprised if we go back next year.

The museum is built within the preserved ruins of an abandoned mill that burned in 1991, so it provided another appealing combination of N.'s interests: old building and industrial machines.

Here N. is playing with a turbine simulator. This museum made me realize I need some serious brushing up on physics; I only barely understand how these early water-powered mills worked.

[Updated 9/14 -- I forgot one!] We went to one conventional art museum, The Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota-Duluth campus. We've taken N. to a few art museums before and he's generally found them very overwhelming (which is certainly understandable). We've been able to make art museums a moderately enjoyable experience for him if we limit ourselves to just a few paintings or sculptures and if we leave as soon as he's ready to (often quite soon). But for some reason, our experience of the Tweed was totally different (maybe because Duluth is magical!?); we spent a good hour and a half there and N. was totally absorbed and enjoying looking at everything. He was drawn in by the many smallish sculptures on pedestals at his eye level, as well as an exhibit of paintings by "Big Al" Carter, many of which incorporated glued-on popsicle sticks, paint-stirring sticks, and tinkertoys. Somehow these sculptures and paintings seemed to unlock the whole museum for him, and he became interested in looking at everything.

Phew! It was a busy month! It was interesting to depart so radically from our usual mode of unschooling. Instead of spending most of the day at home reading, drawing, talking, playing with toys, taking walks, listening to music, we left the house almost daily in order to enjoy Duluth. The house we stayed in in Duluth was not the primary site of N.'s learning, nor was it adequately stocked to be. It made me appreciate all the resources we have at home which make our unschooling such a pleasure: encyclopedias, myriad books, toys, art supplies (surely one can effectively homeschool with less, but these luxuries make it easy to foster an environment of curiosity, an atmosphere of learning). In Duluth N.'s days were more actively directed by us as we suggested outings he might like, and then scheduled them. I recently discovered Melissa Wiley's blog and her term "tidal homeschooling" and I have been thinking about that term as I've been reflecting on our month away. Being in Duluth was a kind of high-tide time in our homeschooling, and now the tide has turned and N. is taking great pleasure in the treasures it has made visible again.


Mom and Kiddo said...

I haven't been commenting, but I have been following your Duluth posts with interest. I have not been to Duluth, but as a child I spent several summers in Minneapolis, as it is my mother's home city. I share Norris' love of old buildings and I remember noticing, as a kid, the difference between the architecture in Minneapolis and California.

Megan said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who dislikes the new, overly interpreted style of museum. The worst offender I've seen is the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. David's comment on it was "Where's all the *stuff*?" We spent about 15 minutes there last time before high-tailing it back to the National Gallery. (But the extended family members with whom we were visiting loved the Indian museum, so maybe we're just weird.)

Fanny Harville said...

Mom & Kiddo -- fun to hear you have a connection to MN. And of course you are in pretty good place for old buildings now!

Megan -- There's no question that we are weird; we're academics! And I totally agree with you about the Museum of the American Indian. I am definitely not the kind of learner that sort of museum is aimed at. It's a really cool building though!