Dave, my partner, and I specifically budget to travel each year, forgoing other items and experiences. We do this because we find travel an enriching experience. Our worldview changes each time we go somewhere new. We also develop into better people because while experiencing new cultures, we gain a greater empathy for others, and learn more about ourselves. A large part of our travel includes visiting museums. Unfortunately, museums seem to possess a bad reputation as only for a select group of people who like history, art, or reading. This cannot be further from the truth. History and art museums are a great way to spend time on a trip, especially if the travelers are willing to do more than take a picture of a view or exert themselves physically while on an activity. This case needs to be made because too often I hear negative comments when I suggest museums as a tourism option. Visiting museums are often the most memorable, if not the best, part of my trip.
While living in the United States, we traveled mostly to the major cities in Europe and cities in North America. Since moving to Okinawa, we found that the rural island’s proximity to major airport hubs across Asia, a major perk. With Japanese discount carriers, sporting extremely low airfare prices, travel from Okinawa can be extremely affordable. Utilizing these low airfares, we visited Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, Kyoto, Yokohama, Sydney, Melbourne, Honolulu, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. We also have plans to visit Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Bangkok, the major cities in Vietnam, and Sapporo, Japan within the next six months.
The more we travel, the more we discovered what elements we enjoy. We love spending time in cities, instead of beaches. We enjoy taking walking tours that Dave researches, going to restaurants and bars, visiting sites such as parks, gardens, observatories, religious places, sporting events, and museums. We really do not enjoy skyline views. My idea of a good view is a bar in a high-rise or roof-top bar or restaurant. Our day-trip visiting the galleries and eating garlic shrimp from a food truck in the North Shore and experiencing natural history while hiking up Diamond Head in Oahu sums up the amount of beach travel and outdoor adventures, we enjoy in one sitting.
In each city, we aim to visit at least one museum but sometimes we might visit as many as three or four. They are a great way to spend an afternoon, avoiding the weather by cooling off or staying warm. Surprisingly, museums require a lot of walking so they are not something that “lazy” people do. Despite the perception of being intimidating, museums are designed for general audiences. This means that they are meant for people of all ages and reading levels. They present plenty of visually-stimulating images as well. From my perspective as a former middle-school teacher and a former kid, most museums we visit seem kid-friendly. I often see kids of all ages, visiting museums in school groups and with their parents. Kids, in museums, always look like they are having a great time while interacting with the kid-friendly activities such as play and screen exhibits. Museums usually offer programs specifically designed for kids, as well. That said, museums are also fun for adults, regardless of your parent-status.
When we enter a museum together, Dave and I usually skip the audio tour and just read the boards because it is faster and more stimulating for us. Audio tours, however, are a great way to enjoy the experience, especially if feeling a bit intimidated with the content. I have found that the best strategy for us is to view each room at our own pace and let the other wander off. This way, we can skip or pay more attention to what we individually find interesting. We always find each other in the next room. Museums are a great way for two introverts to get a breather and some alone time while on vacation, as well. While, as a personal preference, we do not take a lot of pictures, which are usually allowed in museums, we do keep the brochures. These brochures make up the keepsakes that completes our photobooks.
Notably, museums serve different purposes in different countries. For example, Seoul’s War Memorial of Korea states that its mission focuses on “stimula[ing] patriotism and militarist spirit,” especially in the context of an on-going cold (and sometimes hot) war with North Korea.This objective could be felt in the use of propaganda imagery, smells, lighting, special effects and the tone of the language on the boards. While visiting, there was one extremely scary experience with a tank in which the turret suddenly started moving and pointed the cannon directly at the audience as if it was taking aim. That experience still lives on in my nightmares. The Seoul Museum of History, on the other hand, focuses more on the establishment of Seoul, the Joseon Dynasty and the urban development of Seoul as a modern city. Each were fascinating and told a different story about South Korea.
In Japan, the Shinyokohama Ramen Museum in Yokohama looked a lot like a hotel in Las Vegas. The museum’s design looked like a mock-city, set in the 1950s in which you walked through alleys and sat in restaurants. This museum allows viewers to sample ramen from small shops located all over Japan. Thus, we experience first hand how a national dish can be made differently based on local experiences, traditions, and ingredients. At the same time, the Edo museum in Tokyo, helped explain the cultural value of Tokyo within the larger history of Japan, its development during the Edo period, and how the city relates to Kyoto. I particularly find history museums are helpful in placing often unfamiliar Asian dynasties in the context of western timelines.
Southeast Asia possessed extremely culturally rich museums. In Kuala Lumpur, the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia included beautiful Islamic manuscripts, textiles and pottery. Positioned across the street from the national mosque, the call to afternoon prayer that drifted through the museum provided ethereal experience in the building which in itself was a piece of art with the domes and interiors covered in mosaics. As a borderlands historian, I specifically study what occurs culturally when two or more groups collide in a confined geographic or organic space.Malaysia represents the epitome of a borderland which the merging of major cultures. I particularly noticed in the museum how different ethnicities such as the Chinese blended their own culture with Islam to create new and distinct religious practices and artwork. The clothing and ceramics specifically possessed cultural indicators represented in both Chinese culture and the Islamic religion, making the items truly unique. Dave, on the other hand, really enjoyed the models of different mosques from around the world. The models, built-to-scale, indicated how the designers used local traditions and influences for the building designs and materials. For example, the mosque in New Mexico, USA used the pueblo style architecture, while mosques in Spain possessed more European castle influences. No matter the museum and despite our different interests, Dave and I both usually find something interesting in each museum, we visit.
In Singapore, the Asian Civilization Museum featured remains of the Tang shipwreck that occurred in the 9th century. From this shipwreck, 60,000 ceramics, many perfectly intact, were salvaged from the ocean, which provided archeologist and historians a chance to learn more about elusive trade routes from Malaysia to Basra, Iraq. In addition, this museum held beautiful statues and art from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Meanwhile, the national Museum of Singapore, did a great job explaining the complicated history of Singapore’s founding as an independent city-state, detailing their diverse experiences as British colony, the short-term merging with Malaysia and then their move for independence. They also described how Singapore used a lack of resources as a resource. In other words, they learned to use “the globe [as] their hinterland.”
Additionally, the Immigration museum in Melbourne, Australia, changed the way I view who makes up the Australian population, as a whole. Particularly fascinating for me, was a section on Aboriginal peoples who inter-married with Italian and Greek immigrants. Meanwhile, Dave really enjoyed a replica ship that communicated information about the conditions in which immigrants traveled on passenger-ships in the late 19th and early 20th-centuries. The ship moved as we moved through it, as if it was swaying on the ocean. I actually became a bit motion-sick on the ship and had to move through quickly, while Dave stayed in the exhibit for quite a while. Meanwhile, in the Natural History Museum at the University of Sydney, we viewed specimens and equipment from the late 19th century as well as Aboriginal wraps, which are coming-of-age gifts for aboriginal children, from anthropological studies. This museum represented how scientists captured and studied Australian flora and fauna during a time when Darwin’s theories of natural selection were popular.
The various museums representing Chinese culture also represented different facets of Chinese life. In the Hong Kong Museum, I seem to remember the large facades representing well-known Hong Kong institutions the most. These facades, such as the Bank Building, held small exhibits on topics relating to Hong Kong’s economy, industries, politics, homes and culture before, during and after its colonization by the British. Meanwhile, at the University Museum and Art Gallery at the University of Hong Kong’s collection featured metal, art, ceramics and furniture from the Shang Dynasty (1600 BCE) to the Qing Dynasty (1800 CE). The only museum that I did not enjoy was the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Unfortunately, this museum possessed a layout which failed to control the pushy crowds who came to the museum only to see the famous Jade Cabbage. Because the cabbage seemed over-hyped, we decided to skip the exhibit and instead enjoyed the other spectacular jade work and pottery beyond the long lines.
Most importantly, museums provide the connective narrative often missed when visiting temples, sites, national monuments, parks, and palaces by providing the additional details. In other words, it helps bring all the sights, sounds, tastes, and views often experienced on vacation together. By visiting a museum, travelers can find what historical events or versions of a story a nation values the most or provide different viewpoints of popular events, which in itself is very indicative of culture. For example, the Japanese presentation of World War II is very different from that of South Korea, Singapore, and the United States. Lastly, because many of the places in Asia are post-colonial societies, visiting museums provides a way to see and hear the stories of indigenous cultures and understand how colonialism still shapes current day politics and foreign affairs. For me, museums represent an invaluable way to experience other cultures and gain new knowledge visually. Even beach towns often offer museums. As such, I always advocate for more people take the time to enjoy museums, whether traveling abroad, within their own country or during a stay-cation. Everyone can enjoy the experience.