Musings on History, Travel, and Books

January 20, 2020

“To fully understand the role of historical exhibition in the United States, we need to explore the medium in its diverse forms, particularly the ways in which visitors take meaning from them. This work is especially important for community, entrepreneurial, and vernacular exhibits, which have been neglected by scholars but not by visitors."  Professor Tammy Gordon, Private History in Public


I’ve always loved museums, but I especially love museums that are quirky, off-the-beaten-path, unusual, and/or just plain weird.

In 2003, my husband and I journeyed to Peru to hike the Inca trail at Machu Picchu. We completed an extraordinary sunrise summit and were granted a breathtaking reward at the end as we stood amongst the incredible ruins of a once-great Inca city high atop a mountain.

Yet there was another special treat that trip. Hanging out in Lima before flying home, we decided to walk around the city and stumbled into the Museo Padro de Osma, the museum of Padro de Osma. [Pictured above. It's on a fairly average street and you can just walk past it without realizing it's a museum filled with 500 to 300 year old treasures.]

This occurrence was extraordinary for many reasons:

  1. We were the only visitors there (literally) on a beautiful May day in tourist season, and it looked like we were entering Padro’s own home – his mansion. Turns out, we were. We tiptoed around the silent, vacant rooms gawking at the treasures before us, dumbfounded by our luck.
  2. The collections hold an unbelievable array of treasure from 15th to 18th century Peru under Spanish domination.
  3. No one we spoke to had ever heard of this museum.

Who was Padro de Osma Gildemeister? Born in 1901, Padro became a lawyer and politician with a penchant for collecting Peruvian artwork from prior centuries. When he died in 1967, his own home, the mansion built by his father, became a museum for his art collection. The museum’s website itself says, “He exhibited these works in the various rooms of his home, with no pretension of claiming the space as a museum.”

What could be more beguiling than an accidental museum? Now called the “most important private collection of Viceregal art in Latin America,” the museum had only been open fulltime for seven years when we tripped over it by accident.

Our discovery of the Museum Padro de Osma would fit right in with the scholarship of North Carolina State University Professor Tammy S. Gordon, who wrote Private History in Public: Exhibitions and Settings of Everyday Life (AltaMira Press, 2010). 

In Private History in Public, Professor Gordon explores offbeat, smaller exhibitions and museums that are protecting and preserving the past just as passionately and rigorously as the more well-known, larger museums and “academic” research-based historic associations, although in very different ways.

Private History asks the reader to explore the diversity available in these lesser known museums, exhibitions, and collections. Gordon gives several examples, including the Penderlea Homestead Museum in Willard, North Carolina; the Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Museum in Fort Hall, Idaho; and Da Yoopers Tourist Trap and Museum in Ishpeming, Michigan. “Local heritage became a panacea for the globalizing and faceless companies that brought culture to mass audiences,” Gordon explains. Thus, small museums provide an opportunity for “meaningful co-presence” and intimate interactions.

Gordon explores this throughout her book, taking a closer look at exhibits that are community-based, entrepreneurial, and/or vernacular, and assessing how the public interacts with each experience. (Location 317 Kindle edition) “From the visitor’s perspective, face-to-face conversation is the most significant difference between a visit to a large history museum and a small, local history museum.”

Gordon ends her book with this: “The best private history exhibits collectively represent a broad attempt to replace the grand historical narrative,” Gordon writes, “not with bits and fragments of a fractured national history but with a fundamental belief in the necessity of intergroup dialogue to the survival of democracy.” (Location 2053 Kindle edition)

The Pedro de Osma Museum website:



Family trip to the Vatican Museum, Rome, April 2017