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A Chat with Cartoonist Bob Eckstein: Create Memories by Exploring Museums  

The author’s new book provides a family bucket list for museum enthusiasts while bringing home the importance of art, history, community and connection

By Lisa B. Samalonis

Visiting museums with family and friends is not only an educational experience but an opportunity for adventure and connection, according to Bob Eckstein, whose latest book, "Footnotes from the World's Most Fascinating Museums" takes readers on an illustrated and fanciful journey to discover 100 stories and memorable moments from 75 museums.  

Excerpt from Footnotes from the Most Fascinating Museums,” by Bob Eckstein. Next Avenue
“Footnotes from the Most Fascinating Museums,” by Bob Eckstein  |  Credit: Chronicle Books

"The book with 150 original pieces of artwork is my love letter to museums. I hope it conveys some of the same exhilaration I feel each time I am in these museums and convinces you to visit them yourself," says Eckstein, who is an award-winning illustrator, writer and cartoonist for The New Yorker, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, and others. He is also the author of "Footnotes from The World's Greatest Bookstores" and "The History of Snowman, The Illustrated History of the Snowman."

Embracing the Journey

This is an illustrated and written tour guide to many museums in the United States, Canada and Mexico. It includes quirky facts about art, other objects, and architecture as well as tidbits of information and often-funny stories related to the museum about famous people — like how President Barack and Michelle Obama went on their first date at The Art Institute of Chicago — to everyday museum visitors, curators and other people related to each institution.  

"Museums can take us to another world."

Families can use the book as a bucket list, Eckstein explains. Parents and grandparents can experience the museums with children using this as map to stimulate creativity and conversations. "This is the perfect book for where to vacation this summer. And like my "World's Greatest Bookstores" book, I encourage readers to systematically go through the book and track which you have been to or plan to go. The bookstore book has a little icon you can fill in with a Sharpie. For the museum book, you can use a highlighter on the Table of Contents," he says.  

The wide array of museums might just pique the interest and delight parents and children alike, whether they are interested in seeing great works of art (numerous sites) or a wall full of skulls plus the slides with Albert Einstein's brain (The Mutter Museum) or The Tuskegee airplane display (National Museum of African American History and Culture) or the ancient and spellbinding carving of the Hawaiian god, Kū (Peabody Essex Museum). For the book, museums are categorized into sections including academia and science; culture; encyclopedic; fine arts; historic homes; the human condition; natural history and the great outdoors; planes, trains, automobiles, and ships; and miscellany.   

Headshot of writer. Footnotes from the Most Fascinating Museums,” by Bob Eckstein. Next Avenue
Bob Eckstein  |  Credit: Courtesy of Bob Eckstein

As Eckstein points out in the introduction to the book, "Museums still teach us but can do so in interactive ways by incorporating the latest technology that broadens our horizons and excites our senses. Museums can take us to another world. They can celebrate the past, or even bring closure. They can inspire us and change lives, while simultaneously entertaining us. They can save a family road trip." 

He hopes the book raises awareness for museums and does get used as a travel bucket list. "Museums are not stuffy institutions but quite entertaining. What a museum is today has changed. Museums are a place for events and all avenues of culture and happenings," he says.  

And Eckstein should know because he visited up to three museums on some days and drew more than 200 illustrations, before the final ones made the cut for the book.  

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A Lockdown Idea

During the pandemic, Eckstein began reading about how museums were struggling. "I decided a book like this celebrating them would raise awareness. But for selfish reasons, it's a dream job to visit and illustrate all our great museums," he says, noting that through this project he learned how much he loves art even though it wasn't always that way.  "I kicked and screamed while being dragged through the Washington D.C. museums as a little kid but somewhere along the line since then I became cultured." 

His process for visiting and viewing the museums varied. "I tried contacting the museum by any means possible and each establishment was a different story, a different level of cooperation. Some closed the museum to give me a private red-carpet treatment. A couple involved lawyers, immediately being difficult refusing to be in the book without having total control of content," he explains, adding in most cases it was a team effort.  

Excerpt from Footnotes from the Most Fascinating Museums,” by Bob Eckstein. Next Avenue
Credit: Chronicle Books

Illustration-wise, he took photos himself or was sent photos to use as reference and then he would paint whatever he was most excited about on any given day. "Some days I did up to 4 pieces...some illustrations took a week to complete. I did about 200 illustrations. Many were cut for various reasons. The main being there was too many. There are so many wonderful museums and I felt bad I couldn't include them all," he says. "I tried to spread the wealth geographically. Importance to the community and the art world at large, was a factor, of course in choosing which made it in the book." 

The same was true of the stories. Less than half the stories he collected (through interviews, meetings, emails and research) made it into the final manuscript. Eckstein says it was possible to complete so many drawings because he was so inspired. "I saw more artwork in one year than most see in a lifetime. I'd come home very anxious to document what I saw," he says.  

Playing Favorites — Or Not

After learning about and drawing all the museums, he has no favorites or maybe many. "I'd give a different answer every day of the week. Depends on my mood," says Eckstein, who is a neighbor to the Met Cloisters, the old Medieval castle in New York City where he often went to work on his New Yorker cartoons.    

"Museums go out of their way to appeal to all ages at once."

"There is nothing like bringing a kid for their first time to the American Museum of Natural History. I am planning to revisit The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art as soon as my schedule allows. I was blown away by their collections. But it's impossible to pick one as they are all always changing. Museums are more organic than people realize. My favorite museums are those I walk away from with a feeling of rejuvenation," he says.  

Creating Memories

Museums provide a wealth of knowledge for visitors but the discovery and sharing of the information sets off a ripple effect. "All museums create memories while educating your family. And it's an activity that anyone can participate in. Museums go out of their way to appeal to all ages at once," the author says.  

Book cover of Footnotes from the Most Fascinating Museums,” by Bob Eckstein. Next Avenue

They also foster community and connection, which has lasting impact. The importance of art in society is vast, points out Eckstein, who likens museums to giant selfies: "People love selfies and that's what they are. Since prehistoric times man has had two primal instincts depicting ourselves through art and Show and Tell."  

Previously, he spent 7 years researching around the world while studying one of man's earliest forms of folk-art and one of the few activities people probably still share with our ancestors: snowman-making. "Snowmen and cave art are the first prehistoric selfies." Eckstein, who has taught at NYU, Pratt Institute and School of Visual Arts over the years, completed "The Illustrated History of the Snowman" with the cooperation of renowned art historians, cultural professors and archaeologists. The book addresses the question: what is the importance of art to Man from the beginning of time?  

The quest continues with his latest book. "Art is crucial to society and museums are the closet of life where everything we've done on this planet so far is there to access," he says.  

To learn more on what Eckstein is doing next — including a book on 90 famous writers who are inspired by their pet cat — visit his website

Lisa B. Samalonis
Lisa B. Samalonis is a writer and editor based in New Jersey. She writes about health, parenting, books and personal finance. Read More
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