Let's explore the City as a Museum! Our motto is Stay Curious!— the Museum Lady
In the early 2000s while living in Portland, Oregon, my alter-ego The Museum Lady emerged when I started leading museum-themed bike rides and later the City Treasures walking tour through Know Your City. The Museum Lady always has a pussy bow scarf on and is eager for you to see all the art, architecture, parks, people, happen-upons and of course, museums, in an urban setting.
Hidden Portland for the CuriousThe Hidden Portland project began in 2007 when I debuted a website highlighting Portland's small museums. After three years of curating Museums by Bike rides, I came to know the local small museum scene fairly well and proposed we crowd-fund a brochure so we could market Portland's smaller museums to a wider audience including having presence at the Pioneer Courthouse Square tourist office downtown. The Compendium of Small Museums & Obscure Collections became a favorite for the docents and volunteers at the tourist board, because Portland's unofficial motto was Keep Portland Weird. I truly lived the life of the Museum Lady; not only did I champion the odd collections and off-the-beaten path museums and lead museum tours, I also ran my own little museum, The Bathtub Art Museum.
In 2003, after nearly a decade of collecting postcards depicting scenes with a bath or bathtub (which started earnestly when I was collecting material to feature in a high school art zine called The Bizzare), I decided the 200 postcards I'd gathered thus far (without the internet!) was impressive enough; it was time to go bigger. I would start a museum, The Bathtub Art Museum!
In 2009, I wanted to share even more of my local museum knowledge and pair it with my drawings. I self-published an illustrated guide with opinionated commentary called Hidden Portland: Small Museums and Collections featuring 58 local curiosities, over double of what was featured in the original museum brochure. I did expand the listings to include all museums, even the big institutional ones everyone knows about, but my reasoning was and still is that well-known museums house hidden gems that the Museum Lady could help point out. In 2010, after my original first printing of my book sold out quickly and even earned me a big front page feature in the Oregonian Living (in a bathtub of course!), a local publisher and fellow letterpress printer, Michael D'alessandro approached me and said he'd like to publish my book as part of a new series of travel and explore books under the name nomads, which was an imprint of his regular publishing projects at bedouin books. The new edition of the book has been included in the Oregon State Library in Salem and the City of Portland's Department of Transportation selected the book to offer as a reward choice in their Smart Trips program for new residents.
With life moving and shaking for the Museum Lady, I thought it was time to bring it up a notch by joining social media. In 2010, a public group, Hidden Portland for the Curious, went live on Facebook. Originally the plan was to create a page, where I was the only contributor, but in a lucky twist of fate, I instead created a multi-participant group, and the name Hidden Portland was extended with the add-on For the Curious. Hidden Portland was already taken and no amount of pleading would make the original owner give it up (even though it was only a month old), so I took a cue from a favorite Oregon author Ralph Friedman who made the wonderful Oregon For the Curious books. The For the Curious part became very important so I couldn't be happier that one closed door opened another.
The HPFTC group grew and grew, but once the group started to grow into bigger numbers, so did the riff-raff. The un-curious came, and Portland as the general focus was too wide and promoters were using it to dump pretty average events and shows. By now I had some help, a circle of admins and a little behind-the-scenes community where we debated and tried to figure out how to make the online group be both a kind and all-ages friendly spot but also encourage exploration and curiosity. We figured it out through some trial and error and decided the group needed specific guidelines and a clear singular focus. Public art, architecture, historical monuments, and curious places were okay but art shows, music, and restaurants were not. No post would go up unless it had a good written description and a location (specific unless private property). With text and location, the search button becomes a very useful tool for the researcher (author or tour guide) but it also shows the passing of time for a place such as the Troll Bridge—a popular weird art location that is shared on the facebook group again and again—but because all posts must be labeled, an online user can easily pull up all the posts and see how a specific site has layers and transforms through time. The group also inspired the Hidden Portland Library and the Hidden Portland Book Club. [As of late 2020, the group has grown to 50,000 members under the leadership of Gretchin Lair and other dedicated admins.]
Throughout the years I kept offering Museum by Bike rides, never repeating a ride twice. Between 2005 and 2013, I led 31 rides. In 2007, I led one every month! We explored the City At Work visiting the Portland Police Museum, the Historic Belmont Firehouse and Wells Fargo History Museum. On another ride we learned about different kinds of transportation at the Lincoln Street Kayak and Canoe Museum, The basement "Bike Museum" at Velocult and the Oregon Rail Heritage Center.
The bike tours started to taper off when I joined Know Your City as a tour guide with the Hidden Portland: City Treasures Walking Tour. As the Museum Lady I shared my extensive knowledge of secret spots on a two and half hour guided exploration of downtown Portland. The highlight and biggest surprise on my tour was when I suddenly pulled out a portable gold trident and robe from my bag, and one participant could Be Portlandia. Long before the TV show, Portlandia referred specifically to a giant hammered copper metal statue of a beautiful mythological woman in a toga crouching on the façade of the Portland Building.
About the same time to help give myself deadlines to create more guidebooks through the eyes of the Museum Lady, I debuted the Hidden Portland publications club. For an affordable pre-pay price, I would mail my supporters five new zines, guides or artist books during the year's subscription. Between 2013 and early 2016, I created 15 publications including Portland at Large, Circle Portland, and the Museum Lady's Guide to Downtown Portland. A new trend had begun, while I still made an updated museum guide each year, I also was exploring what I called The City as a Museum.
The City as a MuseumAfter collecting all the museums in Portland, I needed to expand my definition of what constituted a museum, so the idea of the City as a Museum was born. Urban centers have public art in their court yards, buildings with intriguing architecture, parks with flora and fauna, and a community creating "happen-upons" within it all. Between the human-built and the natural environments intermingling and the workers and people within, there was a lot to be curious about! My walking tour, bike tours, guide books, online sharing community, library and book club were bringing us all together to Stay Curious in our City as a Museum.
San Antonio for the CuriousAfter moving away from Oregon to Texas in 2016 I had to leave my Hidden Portland projects behind but the Museum Lady left with me. In the second half of 2016 I started a field trip club, San Antonio For The Curious. I took a year off social media and wanted to facilitate group fun and curiosity. For two years I led mostly monthly field trips to weird little museums, or an old library building that is now a home or to spend time with an expert accordion player or bird watcher, and we even found a lost cemetery. Participants earned a special stamp for each field trip they attended.
Museum Lady FutureAfter five years in sunny San Antonio, TX including experiencing SA300, the Tri-centennial in 2018 (such exciting times!), the next muse is calling: Pittsburgh, PA. Look for future Museum Lady, City as a Museum and For the Curious adventures in and around the Pittsburgh area. We'll see yinz in The Burgh!