My little grandchildren called the place where I volunteer “Grandma’s Museum,” and they were right. They’re all grown up now, but I’m still here since the early 2000s because the Grand Rapids Public Museum is my “happy place.”
As a volunteer, my intention is to share that happiness and knowledge. Yes, I know stuff. All of us volunteers are part of the Museum’s Education Department, and we can’t wait to tell stories and answer questions for guests who want to know more. Therefore, when visitors encounter volunteers, they’ve hit the jackpot. Bring on the questions.
I staff the Voigt Herpolsheimer’s Department Store in the Streets of Old Grand Rapids exhibit. As visitors cross the threshold, they enter the first Herpolsheimer’s store as it was in the 1880s and 90s, recreated down to the door hinges. Everything’s authentic. I wear an 1880s costume designed and made by a professional costumier and commissioned by my son and daughter. No, the undergarments are not authentic because I draw the line at wearing a corset.
To help me prepare for my job in the store, the Museum has compiled information about the Victorian lifestyle, Bissell sweepers, a stereoscope, fashions, glassware, tussy mussies, grenadines, the language of the fan, and chatelaines, all handcrafted to be beautiful and last forever. What a treasure trove.
Here are a few of my favorite questions that visitors ask: What is that doohickey? What’s its history? What is your favorite object in this exhibit? Where do all these things come from? Why do you volunteer here? How can I volunteer here?
To answer those questions, I might tell the story of the first Ferris wheel and its connection to the Grand Rapids Bissell company. My favorite object in the store might be a certain vase I like, or the Stereoscope that always awes folks 221 years after it was invented. Obviously, the items in the store are not precious only because they are beautiful, but because they belonged to people who cherished them enough to donate them to the Museum. Visitors often comment about going to their mother’s or grandmother’s house where they saw such items. “My grandma has one of those.”
I enjoy asking kids if they would like to see a “potty.” They don’t, but I take them anyway to see the two chamber pots on a shelf with other chamber (bedroom) items. Mostly because of my costume, I think, some visitors assume I’m a mannequin when they enter. One time when I moved or said something, a young man suddenly saw me and fell smack onto the floor. His friends will probably tease him forever. Another time, I was standing near a visitor who screamed right into my ear in holy terror when I moved. For these reasons and others, Herpolsheimer’s rings with laughter, just the way I like my store in “Grandma’s Museum.”
In case it isn’t obvious from what I have already written, I volunteer here because it is my Museum, just as it is yours. Picture yourself, making wizard wands and toy tops on the 1896 Porter Lathe, assisting educators in our Museum schools, trundling hands-on discovery carts, taking visitors back in time in The Streets of Old Grand Rapids,