Organizing - 3 Things I Learned From a Trip to the MuseumMy family loves to visit museums.

We visit aviation museums, science museums, children’s museums, art museums, and more. After we went to the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland, my 2-year-old son sobbed in his car seat, “I just want to go to anovver museum. I don’t want to go to lunch. I want to go to anovver museum.”

Clearly, there’s something awesome about museums, if even a 2 year old feels it in his bones how cool they are.

I don’t think it’s the subject matter. Basically every museum I’ve ever been to is super interesting and makes for a really fun day. Even if the exhibits aren’t about things I’ve previously had an interest in.

It’s not the people… yes, museum docents tend to be incredible people who are passionate and knowledgeable about their exhibits. A good guide can make a museum trip 10 times more memorable. However, even in museums where we were mostly abandoned, we still had a fantastic time.

And it isn’t even the artifacts. I’ve been just as enthralled by an un-famous hand-painted piece of pottery as I was by getting to touch an actual piece of the moon. The actual moon, y’all. It’s hard to think anything else would be interesting after touching the moon, but it is. So much is!

The thing about museums is that they’re organized.

Of course they are. I mean, how would anyone be expected to enjoy them or learn from them otherwise?

But the thought that goes into the organizational systems in place in every good museum is essential to the way they function, and essential to the public’s enjoyment of them.

And since the #2 New Year’s Resolution of 2014 was “Getting Organized,” I’m thinking we can all learn something from the way museums do organizing-type things.

1. Every area has a purpose.

In the Calvert Marine Museum, there’s a children’s room designed for hands-on interaction. Kids can dig for fossils and search for information about them on a kid-height computer console. They practice tying sailor’s knots, climb into a sailboat and fasten their life preserver jackets, move the boat’s rudder, and raise the sail. They climb into a lighthouse and turn the light on and off. They can touch some animals like turtles and horseshoes. Everything is designed with children in mind, and hands-on learning at the forefront.

Every area in the museum is just as focused. My favorite is the Rays and Skates aquarium, where you can see (and sometimes touch) the animals, observe newly hatched skate babies, learn about the differences between the two types of animal, and even touch empty skate eggs (“mermaid’s purses”). Everything in the area supports the environment for the skates and rays or serves to educate visitors about the animals and the differences between them.

What to do at home:

Define a purpose for each area or room in your home. If you’re not sure what to do in your living room, it will become an unsatisfying mess. If, on the other hand, you decide that it’s the place for your family to hang out, dance, read books, and do crafts, you’ll design it around those purposes, and enjoy it more.

This even works within a room. Having a food storage drawer in the kitchen, which has all containers, foils, and wraps in one place is much more efficient than having them scattered through various cupboards. And storing your spices in your “food prep” area and your serving utensils in the “serving” section will make your kitchen workflow that much smoother.

2. Everything is labeled.

Of course animals and displays are labeled so that visitors can learn what they’re looking at, but labels are even more useful than they appear. We attended a “turtle talk” presentation, where one of the docents taught us about different types of turtles and terrapins and let us see them up close (out of their aquariums) and even touch them.

She had maybe 5 or 6 turtles out of their aquariums at the same time. Can you imagine what might happen if their habitats weren’t labeled when she went to return the animals? She might remember where most of them go, but mix a couple of them up. Until someone discovered the mistake, they’d be served the wrong kind of food, or be unhappy in their habitat. Oh no!

What to do at home:

Label things. Not just to tell yourself what things are (most of us don’t need that if we’re over the age of 5 or so), but to reserve a place for each item. We did this with our glasses/cups/mugs cabinet. After the first couple of times I organized things and discovered them jumbled again a few days later, I realized it was because when many of the items were in the dishwasher at once, there was a lot of empty space, and it wasn’t clear where each item belonged once it was time to put it away.

Using printable toy basket labels to organize the playroom will keep things organized in your playroom too. It’s the same sort of situation as with our glasses and cups; many things are out at once, and without labels, it can be hard to remember where each item’s home is.

3. Curate, curate, curate.

It’s not necessarily about having the best artifacts or items compared to other museums… but each museum needs to curate its collection and display its most interesting pieces. Less-interesting pieces can sometimes still be used — in Calvert Marine Museum, relatively anonymous shark teeth (small ones or any with imperfections) are mixed into the “fossil hunt” section in the kids’ Discovery Room, while larger and more perfect teeth are on display in the Paleontology Exhibit.

But if the Maritime History exhibit displayed every race entrant registration and each third-place and runners-up ribbon alongside the much more interesting first prize trophies for speedboat racing, the area would quickly become cluttered and boring, since it would be hard to figure out what was important versus what was just…there.

What to do at home:

Curate your belongings. That means pulling them together, surveying them, deciding which are your favorites, most useful, or the best, and putting those items in a place of honor. Declutter the rest.

If you have 5 pairs of “general” scissors but only need one in your office area and one for opening bags in the kitchen, declutter the least-good 3. If you have 3 pairs of rain boots but one is the cutest, and one is leaky, toss the leaky ones and donate the less-cute ones. If you have 15 boxes of photos you never look through, sort through them one weekend and pick out your top favorites to go into an album you’ll actually pick up and enjoy.

What do you love about museums?

If you’re part of a museum-loving family too, think about (or even better, visit) your favorite museum. What is it that makes exploring it so enjoyable? What is it that keeps you coming back? What makes you smile while you’re there?

And what of that experience can you bring back home? 

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  1. These are some great lessons. I have taken my boys to museums but I never analyzed it like this.

  2. I love the idea to curate your belongings. I need to schedule some time at our local museum. We always have a good time there.

  3. I’m a huge museum fan. We recently visited the Natural History Museum in DC and it gave me some great decorating ideas. I adore all of the color combos.

    Thanks for reminding me that labeling is on my to-do list this summer.

  4. I am always surprised at the arts & crafts of humans from 1000’s of years ago. They made some incredible things considering how primitive their tools were.

  5. I love hearing about the history of each item in a museum. Especially in an art museum where the stories are interesting.

  6. Great ideas on using museum ideas for your home. And yes —- I love when they leave us alone. The docents are usually nice (although we’ve had some real crazies on our homeschool field trips) but we like to go at our own pace.

    • i love when we get to be with a docent one-on-one, but in big groups, it’s a little less-nice… I don’t want to be on a whirlwind tour either. Going at our own pace, lingering over what we find most interesting, etc, is the best part.

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