I’ve never been interested in video games, and up until recently I didn’t even know how to turn on our household gaming console. Not long after the Illinois Stay-At-Home order, my husband suggested I try Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It was a perfect suggestion: building a delightful animated community has been an enjoyable escape. The game involves building a village from a handful of tents on an island, and I was surprised to see that one of the earliest public buildings that can be unlocked and built—even before shops and restaurants—was a museum.
The museum is hosted by a lone employee, a professorial owl who serves as curator (and apparently registrar, educator, administrator, guest services representative, collections manager, exhibit designer, et cetera). The Animal Crossing museum begins as a natural history museum, stocked with fossils, bugs, and fish that players collect. Later, the museum can be expanded to include an art wing. I’ve been considering what it means for a game (especially one that has been mocked for its overly capitalistic trappings) to include a museum as one of the first buildings in a community.
At first, I found it frustrating—I felt obligated to stock the museum with fossils and fish, but I also knew I could sell them to pay off my unavoidable in-game debts. Choosing between a love of museums and financial solvency is something I have had to do too many times in my real life to feel it was fun in a game.
I’ve grown fonder of the museum and have contributed more to it as time has gone on (and my debts have been paid). As my island community as has grown, the museum remains the only true public building besides the home base “visitor services” center and built-in airport. I’ve yet to see an opportunity to build a school, library, post office, or any other public building.
The Animal Crossing museum is a flat version of a museum: it’s about collecting and displaying. This was my predominate thought until my nephews sent their avatars to my island. We talked on the phone together while our cartoon projections of ourselves ran around the screen. As this global pandemic has worn on, the few times I’ve played Animal Crossing with my nephews has been a perfect example of the social experiences we’ve all been having—separate but together, interacting virtually. My nephews are avid museum goers—curious about the world and their place in it– and right away they wanted to visit my digital museum.
Walking around the dimly-lit halls with them, looking at animated fossils, I was reminded of the roles museums play beyond collecting and displaying. I began thinking about museums as space. Although I don’t know when my nephews or I will be able to visit a museum again, we were able to pretend for a little bit. As the realm of acceptable spaces for me to be has drastically shrunk, I’ve been reminded of why spaces are important.
Historians have long discussed the role or need for the real, the tangible, when we have the digital. Are digital exhibits just as informative as in person exhibits? Probably more so, because one can peruse them without the distractions and bodily discomfort of being in a museum space. Various email lists I am subscribed to have recently sent me articles hyping “10 Museum Exhibits You Can Visit Virtually” or other similar promises, and I’ve been interested in how many of these digital tours emphasize a feeling of walking though the museum space more than serving as a virtual exhibit. Without being there, one can imagine they are.
Museum spaces matter for housing and displaying objects, but they also matter because the spaces themselves facilitate our experiences. Museums can be social spaces, and many of us are currently craving places for in-person socialization. As a university educator, I was forcefully reminded this semester that learning can happen anywhere, so while museum spaces facilitate learning they are by no means the only way for this to happen. For social and educational needs, we are forced to confront the fact that museums aren’t “essential.”
The value of museums as physical spaces, then, is neither solely educational nor solely social, though tied to both. The true value is in contemplation. How many public spaces do we have for contemplation? Museums are spaces where we can think. We can sit and process what we’ve learned, we can share it with others, and we can process our wonder, our awe, our confusion, and even our skepticism. In museums (and to a degree, parks and libraries), it’s okay to openly show our delight and our understanding or lack thereof. It’s okay to obviously wowed, bewildered, amazed, or even lost. In museum spaces we can exist fully and without an expectation of spending money to support a for-profit agenda—how many other places can say the same?
Museums across the country have upped their online presence during the pandemic and consistently proven just how important, relevant, and useful their collections and information are. The range of digital resources that have become available or have been highlighted is impressive and vital. Not being in museums has highlighted how much they have and how useful it is in ways that a traditional visit might not have been able to. The biggest takeaway from not being in museums, though, is how magic they are as spaces, and how much we miss them. Even with this vast array of content available, I’ve found it challenging to find wonder in my own apartment. When we’re at home, expressing our feelings is not as significant as the opportunity museums provide to do so in public.
In the Animal Crossing museum, my nephews and I ran up and down the stairs, read exhibit labels, and used our “delight” reaction. But we also sat on a bench together. It was only for a moment, but sitting on a bench made of pixels in an imaginary museum provided a tiny opportunity for reflection—almost like the real thing.