As a travel writer, I know the world’s best quirky museums with special appeal to writers.
At the moment, I’m a stay-at-home writer—which probably best describes (or darn well should) anyone in the writing profession.
Like other working professionals, our daily lives have changed as a result of COVID-19-prompted travel restrictions and wisely-implemented social isolation guidelines.
In the last month, I’ve noticed a growing curiosity about my writerly life. Twice this week I’ve been asked during Facebook live chats to showcase “my workspace.” And two nights ago, the sister of a friend messaged me on Twitter asking for tips on the preferred cooking method for filet mignon. “I just assumed you sophisticated writer types would know,” she wrote. A day later she asked if I could recommend a good Merlot to accompany said entrée.
While it’s true that many of our writing tribe are indeed exposed to the finer things in life—especially those of us who sometimes write luxury travel articles—rest assured it’s not all bon bons and martinis at sunset.
So, I’ve decided to share some insight into my writerly life by showcasing ten museums from around the world that mirror specific aspects of my day-to-day life as a writer. (Apologies in advance to members of my craft who don’t find their lives reflected in this round-up.)
SPAM Museum, Austin, Minnesota
In the words of the late, great writer Anthony Burgess: “It’s always good to remember where you come from and celebrate it.” Rare is the subject who passes up the chance to talk about their “hungry years” on A&E Biography. While my writing career has enabled me to bed down in fine-country-houses-turned-boutique hotels and dine in four-star bistros overlooking the Mediterranean, the early days of my writing life—my hungry years—can best be described as penury. There was a time canned meat was a staple in my diet. A trip to the SPAM Museum in Minnesota (where visitors can learn the history of SPAM and, according to the web site, “its place in world culture”) reminds me of whence I came—and shall hopefully never dine again! Visit www.spam.com
MoMath: National Museum of Mathematics, New York City
Every few years I force myself to visit a snake terrarium—not for a love of these slithery reptiles, but because I’m terrified of them. My thinking (prompted by legions of motivational speakers on YouTube who exhort viewers to “confront their fears”): by visiting a snake den, I’ll overcome this lifelong phobia. That’s also my rationale for visiting a museum devoted to mathematics. There’s a reason I make my living with words: I’m fearful of numbers. I. Just. Don’t. Get. Math. And I’m not alone. Show me a writer faced with a numerical dilemma, and I’ll show you a grown adult on the floor in a fetal position sucking his or her thumb. But, I’m not without hope. A visit to the National Museum of Mathematics in New York, with its plethora of interactive exhibits, puzzles and numerical displays, should help. If that fails, there’s always that PetSmart at 11th and Broadway in Manhattan that sells you-know-what. Visit MoMath.
Kaffee Museum / Coffee Museum, Vienna
The Discovery Channel claims that 60% of the human body is water. Clearly, writers weren’t included in that study’s control group. I know for sure that coffee constitutes no less than 50 percent of this writer’s body. I, like many writers, cannot function until I’ve downed my first cup of coffee. As J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye) once said: “That’s something that annoys the hell out of me—I mean if somebody says the coffee’s all ready and it isn’t.” You’re welcome to celebrate the evolution of this vital bean and the history of java-brewing apparatuses in Vienna, a veritable mecca for coffee-lovers. Visit Kaffeemuseum Wien or read my article on “Coffee House Culture in Vienna” on Getting On Travel.
CupNoodles Museum, Ikeda, Japan
It was a real knee-slapper when a friend recently suggested to me that we writers “must surely dine” on haute cuisine thrice-daily when working from home. Let me be the first to dispatch that notion. While I do enjoy cooking, the daily realities of deadlines, workload, and a persistent lazy streak mean my lunch often consists of budget-friendly ramen noodles and variations of soup in a cup. If you want to learn more about the history of ramen and the origins of noodles-in-a-cup, you’ll get all that—along with a very quick lunch— at the CupNoodles Museum in Japan.
The Palmer Family and Chiropractic History Museum, Davenport, Iowa.
Ask me—or any other writer in the 21st history—“What ails you?” and you’re apt to get this reply: “Oh my suffering back.” Such is the occasional bane of my existence—particularly during extended writing marathons, when I ignore my stretching exercises and glue my bottom to my desk chair. Needless to say, I have my chiropractor on speed dial. The Palmer College of Chiropractic is home to a spine-tingling museum dedicated to bones and back problems. Book your appointment at the Palmer Family and Chiropractic History Museum.
Oliver Goldsmith Eye Glass Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England
Writers have long been obsessed with eyewear. For centuries, spectacles have prolonged our writing careers. Were it not for my glasses, my writing career would have ended long ago. Now in the 2020s, eyeglasses —more than ever before—have become a vital fashion statement. In this era of increasing video conferencing and Skype interviews—when I’m often only visible from the neck up—my spectacles have become my only fashion accessory to impress my interviewee. Reality check: No one is going to be bedazzled with your Gucci shoes on a Zoom call. To stay on trend, I keep an eye (pun intended) on the eye-glass collection at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s largest museum of applied and decorative arts and design. See for yourself.
Museum of Bad Art, Somerville, Massachusetts
I was a budding writer at the very start of my publishing career, a period I now view as “My Time of Innocence” or, alternately, “When I Was Young and Thick as a Plank.” I had just submitted a science manuscript to a magazine and brazenly offered to supply the necessary sketches for the article—despite having no visual arts training or talent. I’ll never forget the art director’s reply: “Caveman hieroglyphics. Cool. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” Writer lesson Number One: A flair for words doesn’t necessarily translate into a flair for illustration. Whenever I rekindle notions of sketching or illustrating, I think of the works displayed at Massachusetts’ Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) and that sends me scurrying back to my keyboard.
Pizza Hut Museum, Wichita, Kansas
Despite my grumblings (see above) about the sometimes penury aspects of my writing life, there are banner days when I receive not one but two checks in the mail. Such days are cause for celebration. In my earlier, aforementioned hungry years, I chose Pizza Hut for this indulgence. Some habits are hard to break. That’s where you can still find me on days when I’m feeling not just flush but also nostalgic. To truly appreciate the lure of the popular food chain, head to campus of the Wichita State University in Kansas to visit the Pizza Hut Museum. There you’ll be able to view original pizza sauce recipe scribbled on a napkin, an early rolling pin used for dough, and one of the restaurant’s first tin serving pans.
The Museum of Writing Instruments, Winneconne, Wisconsin
Writers. We’re a curious lot. Let’s talk about my excessive—and largely unnecessary—collection of pens, pencils and markers. For professionals who spend 99.99 percent of our time on laptops, tablets, iPhones and sundry other keyboards, what’s with our obsession for collecting pens, pencils and Sharpies? Apart from filling out customs and immigration forms at the airport, I don’t recall the last time I actually used a pen during the writing process—despite the half-dozen recycled pickle jars crammed with pens that sit (unused) on my desk. Rather than acquire more Bics, felt tips and ball points, perhaps I can content myself with a visit one day to Wisconsin’s Museum of Writing Instruments, which houses one of the world’s largest collections (70,000 in total) of fountain pens, slate pencils and other writing paraphernalia.
Cocktail Shakers and Martini Glasses Collection, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio
Rumor has it that our writerly tribe exhibits a penchant for alcoholic spirits and spending time in public houses. I chalk it up to writers like Ernest Hemingway, who was a journalist before he turned his pen to fiction. Hemingway once said: “Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares. If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.” And who among us doesn’t fancy an evening of “research” in a cocktail bar, neighbourhood pub or roof-top gin joint? For the time being, I shall be content to tipple safely at home—while I look forward to that post-COVID day when I can convene in a favorite bar with my writer friends, and toast our good health. For that time when we can all travel again, consider the spirited exhibit, Cocktail Shakers and Martini Glasses: The History of Barware at the Toledo Museum of Art.