Museums perform essential functions in communities

When I was a tenth grader in my first Humanities class, we were assigned a group project in which we had to identify the people, each with differing backgrounds, skills, and experience, that we would choose to send to a survival bunker in a catastrophic scenario. Certainly, we made room in the bunker for those persons with survival skills, technological abilities, and medical knowledge, but my group also reserved space for a historian, someone who could help the survivors remember the past and help interpret that shared past for those who come after. Author Emily St. John Mandel emphasizes the essential function museums have in community building in the library’s NEA Big Read novel, “Station Eleven.”

In the novel, the “Museum of Civilization” has developed in the Severn City airport (now you know why our Watch Party finale with the author is at the airport!). In it, survivors have placed memorabilia of a past life – an iPhone that now has no service, a pair of red stiletto heels with no event to which they can be worn and a simple snow globe. It is around this museum that a community has gathered and civilization has started to rebuild.

Mandel says that parts of this novel were written as a love letter to the awe-inspiring complexity of our current world. How many people were needed to produce that one simple snow globe? The person who conceived of the idea of shaking up a container of water with flecks of material that look like snow. The person who made each component and the materials that make up the component. The person who packaged up the globe. The one who sold it. The child who shook it. All of these people took part in a very complex process to make just one simple item. Just as thousands of our own community members come together to work on a million different little aspects that make up a day in our lives in Stillwater.

Museums document that complexity and the people who made it all work. As part of our series, we encourage you to visit the keepers of this important history. When you sign up for a book discussion and receive a free copy of “Station Eleven,” you’ll also get a sheet of Oklahoma museum discounts, including institutions in OKC, Claremore, Norman and Shawnee. We hope you will start your tour right here in Stillwater by visiting our own museums, the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar, OSU Museum of Art (OSUMOA), and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum (NWHOF). Sheerar and OSUMOA provide free admittance. From now through Nov. 11, the NWHOF admission fee, typically $7 for adults, will be reduced to $1 when you present your Stillwater Public Library card.

Each of our community museums holds a key to Stillwater’s culture and memory. They help us understand where we have been and who we are now. They help cement our community. Hopefully, these past two years are the closest I’ll ever get to a “Station Eleven” or bunker-type situation. When I chose the survivors as a 16-year-old, I was naïve, inexperienced and very idealistic, but over thirty years have passed, and I would still make the same selection. If ever I am in a situation where I need to choose who is coming with me to survive, I’m headed straight to Sheerar to pick up Amelia, Victoria from OSUMOA and Jack from NWHOF. I would probably even give them my own space in the bunker. They are the ones who will help the survivors remember and begin to rebuild the community again.