The beauty of the open-world video game Minecraft, which remains wildly popular more than eight years after its release, is the sweeping creative freedom it affords to its players. Given the same basic array of natural resources, different individuals will come up with totally different ideas as to what to build, what materials to build with, and how to expand on their initial concept as days and weeks pass by. Player designs run the gamut from massive medieval fortresses to gleaming metal skyscrapers; the only real limit developer Mojang imposes on players is the imagination.
Minecraft’s exploratory ideal is well realized in Museum Day Live!, the annual nationwide event founded by Smithsonian magazine. This year’s Museum Day Live! festivities—in which upwards of 1,000 distinct museums across the country will be participating on Saturday, September 23—will be complemented by rich Minecraft: Education Edition resources online. Children and adults alike will be able to draw on the museums they visit to create their own worlds, via a series of highly interactive Minecraft lesson plans put together by Smithsonian and Microsoft.
The game perfectly embodies the imaginative optimism of the Museum Day spirit. Museums, like the realm of Minecraft, are full of treasures just waiting to be discovered, and what one makes of those treasures is entirely up to him or her. Just as digging into bedrock in search of valuable metals provides a thrill, so too does entering a museum knowing you’ll emerge with a more complete understanding of the world around you.
Minecraft players place a high value on knowing what things are made of; so too does tinkerer and photographer Todd McLellan, whose traveling “Things Come Apart” exhibition is on view at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia. To produce the images in the exhibition, McLellan deconstructed everyday mechanical devices (computers, hair driers, stereos, wristwatches, you name it), laid out their myriad components in a methodical and aesthetically pleasing way, then photographed the whole ensemble. His work shows visitors the wonder lying beneath the seemingly mundane.
Fans of Minecraft know that the pickaxe is an invaluable tool for unearthing the secrets of the natural world—paleontologists do too. At the Burke Museum in Seattle, a team of paleontologists will spend Museum Day publicly examining a recently unearthed 65 million-year-old T. rex skeleton, focusing on its extremely well-preserved 1.5-ton skull. Dinosaur lovers should take heed—this is only the 15th such skull ever excavated worldwide.
The progression of technology is a central theme in Minecraft—players gradually craft stronger and stronger equipment for themselves, building on their past innovations to carry them into the future. In many ways, this is also the story of America, and the larger world beyond. At the Aviation Museum in College Park, Maryland, Museum Day guests can delve deep into the history of the helicopter, and will get a chance to interact with a revolutionary human-powered copter recently engineered by the University of Maryland’s Aerospace Engineering department. In nearby Baltimore, at the B&O Railroad Museum, a refurbished B&O #25 Civil War-era locomotive will take viewers back to an age of industrial marvels. And at Florida’s St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, a demonstration on the handicraft of ship modeling will illustrate how naval technologies have evolved across time.
Understanding the history of a place is important to Minecraft players, who ask themselves critical questions upon reaching a new location: Who has occupied this space before me? What human and animal life has shaped this land? How can I build on what has already been done here in a responsible way? It is with these sorts of thoughts in mind that we should confront our own histories, both as Americans and as citizens of the world. Museum Day will offer ample opportunities to do so.
At the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, for instance, visitors will be invited to peruse painting, sculpture and photography tying together more than 150 years of Southern U.S. history. Meanwhile, Honolulu, Hawaii’s Pacific Aviation Museum will be enlightening both young and old as to the enduring significance of Pearl Harbor in the national consciousness, and telling the visceral story of the Pacific campaign of World War II through the medium of period photography. And at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, distant memories of the Revolutionary War will be vivified through displays of weapons, uniforms and handwritten letters.
In Minecraft online play, community is everything. The experience of shaping the world around you is most fulfilling when you are among friends, and the opportunity for communities across the Minecraft fandom to engage with one another has contributed immensely to the game’s enduring appeal.
Community will be the focus of Museum Day Live! activities at the Ohio History Center in Columbus—specifically, the LGBTQ community, and its rich history both in the region and all across the U.S. A number of transgender veterans will be reflecting on their experiences overseas with the military, and the stars of the locally made documentary film Kings, Queens and In-Betweens will be discussing their own experiences as a panel following a screening.
Perhaps the most fundamental joy one derives from Minecraft is the creation of something beautiful and original where once there was only empty space. In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts will highlight just this sort of achievement on Museum Day, as it welcomes visitors to take in artworks and artifacts spanning more than 300 years of architecture and design history. The bare beauty of the items from each time period will provide a unique look at how taste and style have morphed both in and outside America.
All in all, anyone possessing the exploratory itch celebrated by the game Minecraft will have no shortage of stimulating options to pick from as Museum Day Live! 2017 rolls around. You need only survey the landscape, choose an appealing location, and start digging.