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Case Number 24924: Small Claims Court

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Great Museums

PBS // 2002 // 1350 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // December 9th, 2012

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All Rise...

When everything's in the cloud, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart's DVDs of Great Museums could end up in a museum.

The Charge

"America is a land of great museums, and every museum has a spellbinding story to tell."

Opening Statement

Somewhere among the people trying desperately to get a hold of a box of Twinkies, there must have been a museum curator or two. With the United States claiming roughly 15,000 museums, somebody must be preserving those disappearing snack cakes. Great Museums didn't get to the National Snack Cake Monument, if there is one. However, the PBS series got to more than thirty sites around the country to preview their displays for television viewers.

Facts of the Case

Great Museums features thirty-six episodes on seven discs:

Disc One
• New Orleans: A Living Museum of Music
• National Music Museum: America's Shrine for Music (Vermillion, SD)
• Institute of Texan Culture: Behind the Lone Star (San Antonio, TX)
• The Charleston Museum: America's First Museum
• The Delta Blues Museum: The Blues Live On! (Clarksdale, MI)
• DuSable Museum of African-American History: American Soul (Chicago)

Disc Two
• The National Baseball Hall of Fame: Home Base (Cooperstown, NY)
• Ellis Island Immigration Museum: Face of America (New York, NY)
• Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian: Native Voice (Washington, DC)
• National D-Day Museum: Triumph of the Spirit (New Orleans, LA)
• The Library of Congress: Volumes to Speak (Washington, DC)
• Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum: Water Ways (St. Michaels, MD)

Disc Three
• The Molly Brown House Museum: The Unsinkable (Denver)
• Colorado History Museum: Crossroads of Culture (Denver)
• California Surf Museum: Proudly We Wave (Oceanside)
• Autry Museum of Western Heritage: Spirit of the West (Los Angeles)
• The National Museum of Racing: Horse Power (Saratoga Springs, NY)

Disc Four
• The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A World of Art (New York)
• The Museum of Modern Art: In Our Time (New York)
• George Eastman House: Picture Perfect (Rochester, NY)
• Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum: Collective Vision (Boston)

Disc Five
• China: West Meets East at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)
• The Great Museums of Havana: Curious About Cuba
• Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: Art Gets a Start in America (Philadelphia)
• National Museum of Women in the Arts: A Woman's Touch (Washington)

Disc Six
• An Acquiring Mind: Philippe de Montebello and the Metropolitan Museum of Art
• Riches, Rivals & Radicals: 100 Years of Museums in America
• The Walker Art Center: Creative Catalyst (Minneapolis)
• Morris Museum of Art: The Art of the South (Augusta, GA)

Disc Seven
• The Smithsonian National Zoo: Wild Thing! (Washington, DC)
• The Franklin Institute: Wonderland of Science (Philadelphia)
• The Boston Children's Museum: Mind over Matter
• The Whale Museum: Science at Sea (Friday Harbor, WA)
• New York City Fire Museum: Trial by Fire
• The Henry Ford: Made in America (Dearborn, MI)
• California State Railroad Museum: Binding Ties (Sacramento)

The Evidence

I think it's just accidental, but the best episodes of Great Museums are all on the first disc. The three episodes about music history shrines are simply fascinating, and they provide more opportunity for performance clips than other locations. A wake and African musical performances in Congo Square illustrate jazz history in New Orleans; a selection from "Marriage of Figaro" introduces the National Music Museum's earliest clarinet.

Great Museums works hard to make every museum's story worth watching, though. It digs up every bit of footage it can find—a 1939 tourism film of Charleston as it tours the Charleston Museum, a recreation of an 1860s baseball game during the National Baseball Hall of Fame tour—to augment the tour video. Celebrities—including Bob Costas, Morgan Freeman, and Rudolph Giuliani—are brought in to comment where applicable. The tours themselves show unique, interesting examples from the collections. True, there are the expected talking head shots, but they're a small part of the package.

While the two episodes that take the farthest detours from the show's concept—"An Acquiring Mind" and "Riches, Rivals & Radicals"—aren't quite as interesting as the rest of the series, "An Acquiring Mind" has a great scene of museum curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art making the cases for works, something you ought to see if your interest extends to the behind-the-scenes workings of museums.

The National D-Day Museum tour has the best opening, since it chooses to use a story about the Tabasco heir; given stories about military chow, it did occur to me that he may have been the most important figure in World War II.

As you'd expect, the vintage footage is of variable quality. The modern footage is sharp.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Wikipedia tells me that the National D-Day Museum is now the National World War II Museum. There may be other things in the DVD collection that are out-of-date; check before you go on any road trips.

There must have been some good footage that didn't make it into Great Museums. Sadly, whatever additional material the producers had didn't make it onto this DVD. There are no extras.

Great Museums doesn't lend itself to watching in one or a few sittings. I've had marathon sessions this past week and, while the show is interesting, I'd have preferred to spread out my virtual museum touring over a longer stretch.

Closing Statement

I'd expect libraries would be the main purchasers of Great Museums. That said, it's still worth a look—and you can find it on Hulu. I'd suggest checking out the three music museum episodes and then any others on the list that catch your fancy. You might decide to pick up the DVDs so that you can tour a random museum virtually on a rainy day.

Either way, if you check it out, you'll almost certainly have a couple of ideas in the back of your mind for future road trips.

With any luck, they'll do another season and track down that National Snack Cake Monument—or at least the Spam Museum.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
Running Time: 1350 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• None

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