Public History: My Experience With Numen

So in my public history a few weeks back, we were discussing how we as students have interacted with public history. The professor encouraged us to share our own experiences with museums – something fun, something different, something that made history come alive.

I have a lot of memories that I could share about museums – I mean, I’ve been on plenty of family vacations and adventures of my own where I’ve been surprised or excited or learned something new at a museum. But there is one moment in particular that I remembered as different than the others – and though I didn’t share it in class, I’d like to share it here. 

When I was fifteen, I joined a local school’s trip to London, which at the time was my absolute dream vacation. I had always loved Harry Potter and so I saw England and the United Kingdom as this fantastically posh place where all excitement seemed to happen. I read the itinerary nightly in the months leading up to the trip, finding all of the exciting places I would go. 

At the time, i wasn’t totally sure that I wanted to go into history – I just knew it was something I liked, something I was interested in. And so, a place like the British Museum seemed really cool on paper – and I was excited to go. But walking into the museum was something else – for lack of better words, it took my breath away. Someone pointed out to me that I didn’t smile the entire time I was in the museum – something I too noticed. I was so overwhelmed by sheer size of the collections, the information, and the building itself – there was so much to take in. I saw all the notable items – the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, the Assyrian Bulls – but I felt out of place. I had been to many museums before, but this was different – this was a world in which I had little context and little background that I was unsure what to make of it. 

Flash forward two years later, when my family spent our Christmas vacation in London. I was a different person than the girl who had made her way to London as a sophomore – it was my senior year of high school, I’d just been accepted to UMass Amherst (literally just the day before), and I had expanded my knowledge of history to the point where I had actually decided to be a history major. I had been looking forward to returning to the place that had once mystified me. 

I don’t think I ever stopped smiling once I entered the museum. It was truly amazing how different the building looked to me – no longer intimidating and filled with a hodgepodge of items, but fascinating and filled with knowledge I could actually comprehend. Time didn’t seem to pass  felt like an aha! moment – realizing how comfortable and at ease the museum made me. 

This is a common desire of people visiting museums, historic houses and sites – numen. It’s a bit difficult to explain exactly what numen is, but it’s not far from what I described.  A “deep engagement or transcendence” a form of empathy, or an “awe of reverence” allows visitors to experience something very personal when experiencing history. And I’m searching to find that feeling in every museum I visit – greeting this realm of public history like an old friend.

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