Honestly, I was expecting more spit. But apparently my bucket list was out of date. The costumed interpreters at Mystic Seaport Museum were informative, chatty, and only in first-person mode when “on stage” re-enacting scenes from Moby Dick.

Three actors deliver a performance of Moby Dick at Mystic Seaport.

Almost first person: actors deliver a fiery performance of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick at Mystic Seaport Museum, 2019.

Back when I was a Museum Studies student at the University of Toronto in the early 1990s, Mystic Seaport was renowned for its no-holds-barred, first person interpretation. Grimy costumed staff leaning hard into the 1850s, as committed as any deep cover agent infiltrating a drug cartel. I had been told that they’d even spit at visitors who tried to break them. It’s where the term “interpreter baiting” originated. And with that, Mystic Seaport landed on my Museum Bucket List.

We probably all have them — places we absolutely must get to. As professional interpreters and educators, our bucket list venues may not be the most famous, the ones every tourist goes to. Search “Best Museums New York” on Tripadvisor and the outcome would probably be different than your own personal favourites.

Don’t get me wrong. Places like MoMA and the Met may have a lot of great stuff, but but neither is on my list. They’re not doing anything particularly noteworthy when it comes to visitor experience or community building. Take somewhere like the Louvre in Paris or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. They seem to be firmly lodged in the school of “here’s the art…make sense of it as you will. Or not. We don’t really care. We know you’ll come regardless.”

booklet with picture and text describing life of young girl

Every visitor to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is given the Identification Card of an actual person. This one is based on the life of Eva Rappoport. Credit: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

So what makes a place bucket list worthy if it’s not “the stuff”? Often, it’s because the venue is doing (or has done) something new and interesting with visitor experience or interpretive planning — like the seminal movie Citizen Kane, the end product may seem tame or “done” today, but only because everyone has copied them. Take the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. This bucket list museum was one of the first to give visitors an actual historical person to follow, implicating the visitor in the story, giving them someone to root for, and to grieve. I’ve seen it done elsewhere (a Titanic exhibition, for example) and also used it myself for an education program at the Museum of Vancouver, but the DC Holocaust museum led the way with this technique.

Like most lists, mine is personal and infinitely debatable. I haven’t ticked all entries off yet, and I’m delighted to add new ones (that’s what the comments are for!).

  • Tenement Museum: The scholarship is outstanding, a perfect integration of knowledge, place (you’re standing in the actual room where known events happened), and terrific interpretive staff. Group tours are necessarily small (those narrow staircases) and deliver an incredible emotional punch. Possibly the best thing you can do in New York City.
  • Churchill War Rooms: Again, you’re in the place where it happened, which does pack a wallop, that’s not the only reason to visit. The intimate portrait of Churchill is comprehensive and includes an early and effective use of touch-table technology in a way that makes sense and adds to visitor knowledge and enjoyment. It’s hard to compete with the war rooms from where the Battle of Britain was waged, but this excellent installation does just that.
  • National Portrait Gallery: No shortage of great art galleries to see in London, but this gem does it all — good stuff, yes, but also top-notch, thoughtful programming. Beautiful, bite-sized, just the right amount of interpretation. A great mix of old/new, art/history. It’s an art museum that recognizes its main focus is people.
  • Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump: Not only a moody, spectacular site (especially when I visited on a chilly November day), the integration of the building into the site was a remarkable thing to see. But not just that. While there, it felt like a funky community centre, with local Blackfoot people dropping in to visit friends and relations on staff, to drum and sing, or just engage in conversation. It seemed like a place that really knew itself.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium: Well-known for its ground breaking approach to interpretation, the Monterey Bay Aquarium does not disappoint. Labels are shockingly well-written. Signage is flexible and compelling. Interpretive staff are plentiful, knowledgable, and genuinely seem to want to connect with people (you’d be amazed — or possibly not — by the number of visits ruined by staff who did not seem to be into their jobs).

    flexible interpretive panel Monterey Bay Aquarium

    Flexible interpretive signage allows staff to constantly update information. The aquarium was one of the first to embrace white boards as a way to deliver interpretation “on the fly”.

Still on my list? After our CAGE symposium/writing workshop with Kris Wetterlund, I’m stoked to go to the Corning Museum of Glass; likewise, I’m dying to find out more about what CAGE alum Kelly McKinley is up at at the Oakland Museum of California‘s Lab; the U’Mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, B.C. leads the way in Indigenous self-management in the museum field —  there’s much for us to learn from its early and ongoing commitment to the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw (U’Mista translates to “the return of something important”); and the Luke Wing Museum of Asian American Experience in Seattle for their excellent community collaboration model.

diorama of Mystic Seaport circa 1840

Mystic Seaport’s interactive diorama combines expert model-making (itself a maritime activity) with good first-person audio programming.

In terms of bucket list experiences, Mystic Seaport had always been about the first person interpretation, perhaps a technique more in vogue in the 1980s; it’s extraordinarily hard to do well, especially with a more mobile and chronically under-funded workforce (read: summer students). They don’t spit anymore, I regret to say. However, it’s still a pretty wonderful place with a whole lot to recommend it, and I’m really glad I got there this summer.

What’s on your list?