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A Trip to the Museum

Posted Jan 12 2010 11:00am

Yesterday I served as parent chaperone on a fourth grade field trip - a sentence that strikes me as having a quaint, even archaic ring. Perhaps this is partly because the trip itself was to an old-fashioned museum of natural history. And by old-fashioned I guess I mean old. The exhibit space is cramped, creaky and piquant, not touched in any obvious way by the twenty-first century. So that in addition to preserving artifacts of natural history, the place seems also to work as a preserver of museum history. The staircase harks back to an older time, with its open ironwork sidings; a wooden phone booth still occupies part of the second floor landing, although a sign advises regretfully that the phone no longer works; the roomful of glass flowers feels musty and hushed; many of the taxidermied animals are literally coming apart at the seams (the most fragile leak wood chips and bear wide bandages of tape); and ancient, honey-colored insect skeletons hunch and float fantastically in jars of formaldehyde.

I had volunteered for the position one week earlier at the behest of my own fourth-grader, who, however, informed me the day before the trip that he didn't think he was going to be in my group. He said this so gently I became suspicious. "Did you ask to be put in another group?" With precocious, not to say alarming, social grace, he eased past this question, mentioning simply, and not without a kindly smile, that if there were to be another field trip later in the year, he wouldn't mind if I neglected to volunteer.

So it came to be that yesterday morning, standing in the reception area of the museum amid a boiling sea of some hundred and forty elementary school students, along with a handful of teachers and other parent chaperons, I was handed a photocopied scavenger hunt, a map, a brief itinerary, and a quartet of names, none that of my own child, but rather those of his classmates, all of them previously unknown to me, as was I to them. The children and I eyed each other more or less gamely and set off for the first room: gems and minerals. Here reside case upon case of improbable specimens: rocks that look like plastic bubbles and rocks that look like soap; rocks like eggs cracked open to reveal candy centers and rocks like fur sweaters, frozen fire, speckled tongues.

"So what's on the list?" the kids demanded. "What do we have to find?" I, holder of said list, recited the case number and Latinate name of the first specimen they were meant to locate. They dashed off. They were all about the scavenger hunt, all about finding the right case, and did not pause to look or see or wonder at any strange treasure not on the list.

That's not true. There was one boy who kept turning to me and declaring, "This is amazing! This is incredible!" He was plainly bowled over, and blissfully free of any need to disguise that fact.

The last item they were meant to find in this part of the museum was graphite. When they charged over to me, announcing they'd found it and that we could press on, I gave them pause by asking them what it had looked like. "Can you describe it?"

"Well..." said the tallest girl, frowning a moment, at a loss. Then brightly she realized, "I can show you!" and displayed before my eyes a pink digital camera on which she'd captured the image. It dawned on me then, gazing around the room, that they'd nearly all brought cameras, and were indeed all speeding around with them held up to their faces like gas masks, busily accumulating sights never apprehended with the naked eye. Even the wondering boy was busy with his camera. He struck me as fairly tethered to it, deep in its thrall, and he snapped shots exhaustively until, two hours later in the Hall of Mammals, he pronounced, "Battery's dead," and let it hang idle at last from the cord around his neck. "I got two hundred and nineteen, though," he added, and checked with me: "That's pretty good, right?"

How I wanted to scoop him up, scoop all of them up, this brown-eyed boy and the pink-camera girl, and the others in our group who kept forgetting the rules and running, my own son who'd begged me to come and then plainly wished he hadn't, and all of the children milling about the display cases, still half-wild but not for long; I wanted to cup them loosely in my hands like fireflies, just for a moment watch their lights blink on and off up close and free.
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