Small museums on the road

With three preschool-aged children in the van, the trip home from St. Louis with my daughter took much longer than it did when I traveled with just my husband. We had plenty of bathroom stops, breaks to eat, and time to just get out of the car and stretch those wiggly little legs after miles spent buckled securely in a child safety seat.
Simply getting near the Missouri border took so long that I wanted to skip the rest stop. But, with a long road ahead and few breaks between, my daughter turned the wheel toward the exit.
“We need to take a quick break,” she told me.
The rest area looked new. It had some strange pillars with round cylinders marked with black vertical lines of different lengths.
“How odd,” I commented, mentally categorizing them as modern art which cost the state a tidy sum.
Inside, it looked more like a park with benches and wall maps of the central USA. Grandkids and momma found a restroom while I walked over the floor designed as a map marked with a definite points of interest in Missouri and Arkansas.
An older couple studied the map, quietly chatting as they tried to figure out the significance. I stood beside them and silently read the lengthy explanation. “Oh, this is a map of the seismic readers being placed across the United States. I did a story about this for our local newspaper. And there is the one that is in our area,” I said, pointing to the dot in Union County.
“They put the seismograph machines in place for a couple of years then move them to another state. They are leap frogging seismographs across the country in a scientific study that will take a number of years. They began in California,” I said, and then pointed out the expected conclusion in states bordering the Atlantic coast.
The couple, visiting the area from Chicago, thanked me for the information. As I talked, I suddenly understood the markings on the floor, “and the floor map shows the line of the New Madrid Fault and the sites of the earthquake activities it experienced.”
The grandchildren came out and began walking the trail the Fault made into the next room where a computer screen explained earthquakes in mid-America.
Our quick break stretched into a half hour as my daughter and I studied the mini-museum/science center in detail with the children. Looking at the clock, we reluctantly left our unexpected moment of fun and science and exited past those round cylinders which now obviously were replicas of seismograph readings.
That was not our only serendipitous rest area break.
Traveling across Tennessee, we veered off to visit a welcome center and its bathrooms. We did not plan a long stop, but we stayed because we discovered a four-room museum with displays that intrigued the children. Our little “worker man” found the room filled with machines and equipment for planting and harvesting cotton intriguing. We read the signs to explain the equipment to the child.
Another room talked about music and musicians of the area. Mini-museums tucked in welcome centers along the highway provide just enough information and visuals for a child’s attention span and an adult’s need to walk around.
I have also found mini-museums in airports in recent years. Last summer, the life-sized bones of a T.Rex glared at me as I ascended the escalator in the Pittsburgh airport. Riding up the escalator I had a new view of his back bones and tail. At the top of the moving stairs, mannequins of football player Franco Harris and General George Washington invited me to the Sports Museum and History Center.
Replicas of Andy Warhol’s art covered the walls in another concourse. The travelers rushing to catch their next plane during a layover barely had time to register what they saw. But I had a couple hours to wait for my plane. I read the signs and wished I could visit the art center. Another display of a famous sweater, sneakers and hand puppet reminded me that Pittsburgh was Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
My layover at the Chicago O’Hare Airport took me through artwork done by very gifted high school students. They had painted the glass walls of the connecting corridor and its benches. A children’s museum offered entertainment and a playground area. The airport even explained the origin of the name of the airport on the railing around a plane similar to the one flown by Lt. Cmdr. Edward Henry O’Hare, a U.S. Navy pilot in WWII who received the Medal of Honor.
I also found a half-size replica of Abraham Lincoln’s statue with an explanation for its presence and the displays I encountered in my travels: “The goal of the Arts and Exhibition Program is to enhance travelers’ airport experience by presenting aesthetically pleasing engaging and enlightening art and exhibits throughout Chicago’s airports.”
A little bit of art in Pittsburgh, a succinct lesson in earth science in Missouri and a glimpse of life on a cotton farm in Tennessee. Here a little, there a little and before you know it, we all just might learn something while traveling and having a bit of fun.