My favorite museum activities as an illustrator and why I can easily spend an entire day exploring even the smallest natural history museum.
Recently, my husband and I went on a museum tour. We hopped on a bus with other members of the Cedar Valley Rocks and Minerals Society and went to the University of Wisconsin Madison Geology Museum and the Burpee Museum of Natural History. It was an exquisite day with many things to look at, a few new things to see, and a long bus ride, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. So, what does an illustrator do at the museum?
I have always enjoyed museums, particularly science and natural history museums.
When I was growing up, there was a natural history museum at the local university, and I could spend my whole day there. My favorite activity was sitting in front of the exhibit, taking everything in. I could stand at the same display for an hour, looking at every little thing, from the background painting to the littlest grain of sand or blade of grass. Everything was strategically placed to create a natural-looking environment. When I got older, I started bringing a sketchbook with me and would draw the exhibits. I would also copy the exhibit plaques. This practice was a great lesson in design and user experience early on. I have continued this activity into my adulthood, and I was fortunate enough to marry an individual who also enjoys going to museums and, most importantly, tolerates waiting for me while I would sit at the same exhibit for over an hour, sketching various things. That’s what I call love!
At the geology museum, I enjoyed the skeletal structures the most. Many of the skeletons were models with a few actual fossils—like legs, maybe a jaw. My absolute favorite thing to look at is the art!
Line drawing, plaques, paintings, and annotated anatomy illustrations. Some images give greater detail on the anatomy of the fossilized structure, and others provide an understanding of habitat and habits that have been long lost to time.
My museum system
I like to take a lap first!
This allows me and my husband to enjoy the museum together. We take photos, ask each other questions, and enjoy the museum experience together. After the first lap, that’s when we tend to split up. I will have found something I want to sketch while my husband wanders around the museum.
At universities, students will occasionally work on things in back rooms and allow visitors to stop by and take a look!
I enjoy museum sketching because it reminds me of being in a studio. I always enjoyed the beginning of a project because we would have a sketching day or thumbnail day, allowing us time to move around and look at our subjects from different perspectives. The goal is to find an interesting view that gives a lot of information and allows us to create a communicative piece of artwork. This freedom to push the boundaries of perspective feels like stretching my brain by giving me a little exercise in composition, ingenuity, and creativity.
At the Burpee Museum of Natural History, we follow the same protocol of going around all the exhibits on all three floors!
We take pictures as we go, discuss, and enjoy. On this trip, we traveled with a group, so we got to engage with more people who all have their own special interests. That, in itself, was a wonderful experience. On the top floor of the Burpee Museum, there is an experience room primarily for children, with reptiles and amphibians!
This area is where I chose to sit for my sketch at the end of our excursion, sketching a gecko named Chip.
One of the most fun parts of drawing living, breathing things is observing them interacting with their environment and, if you’re lucky, with you! My favorite part of sketching Chip was that he seemed to know that I was there just observing him, so after he had checked me out, making sure that I wasn’t a predator trying to harm him, he took up a pose toward the back of his terrarium. I could see his entire body nicely splayed out, displaying all his beautiful colors, limbs, and toes. He would periodically tilt his head around to look at me as if saying, “Does this pose work for you? Is it good? Do you like this? I can move if you’d like.“
I know many people go to museums for different reasons, but for me, going to museums and bringing a sketchbook and a collection of pens allows me to play and have fun! The freedom to create as I want brings back the nostalgia of drawing to draw. Plus, I get to practice my technical skills.