Mueller Spotlights Museums
By Richard Kaufman
Museums make us think, examine and exlore, and stir our curiosity on topics from the arts and history to science and sports. They serve as portals into our past and magnifying glasses into the cultures of others.
One Greenwich resident is bringing people around the world closer to museums than ever before.
Leslie Mueller, who has lived in town for 30 years, is the creator, producer and co-host of Museum Access.
The show, currently in Season 2, airs on PBS stations around the country (CPTV in Connecticut, check local listings), and takes viewers behind the scenes at some of the country’s top museums. Each 30-minute episode (10 episodes per season) features fascinating stories and in-depth conversations with museum experts, and offers footage in areas of museums that guests don’t normally see.
Education and entertainment are the core aspects of the show, Mueller said. “But we also know that there are people underserved, culturally speaking,” she added. “We’re finding that we’re also able to take that intimidation factor out of museums, and show people that these are fun places to go. You can learn something and feel better about yourself, and you end up being a little more open-minded, sometimes. Museums help us kind of appreciate each other.”
The show has been so well-received that Season 1, which aired in 2018, is currently available on Amazon Prime. Season 2 will be available on Amazon Prime soon.
In Season 1, Mueller was able to step inside a World War II German submarine, and take in a training session for Beluga whales. She brought audiences inside Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop, and showcased the Terracotta Soldiers from China. At the Field Museum, in Chicago, her hometown, Mueller explored Sue, the most intact Tyrannosaurus Rex ever discovered.
Mueller also visited the New York Botanical Garden, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Broadcast Communications, The Adler Planetarium and The Cloisters.
“We’re trying to really get lots of different museums for lots of different tastes and then give a little more information about whatever the topic is,” Mueller said.
Museums and aquariums have played an important role in Mueller’s life, who fondly remembers her visits to various exhibits in Chicago as a young student. In middle school, she started taking art lessons at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I would hop on the train, go into the city and take the bus over to where the art institute was, and that’s when I really started getting a feel for what it was like to be in these museums,” Mueller said. “We were seeing things behind the scenes, at closing hours or sometimes before they opened. We would be set up in front of paintings, and we were told to try and copy them. We’d see museum exhibits being set up. That part of it was always kind of interesting to me, and I tucked it away in the back of my mind.”
After a career in advertising and a move to Greenwich, Mueller decided to go back to her roots by painting again and being involved with the fine arts. After being interviewed by Cablevision about one of her art exhibits, she had the idea to produce a show highlighting artists and creative people in the Fairfield County area.
Mueller ended up putting together a show called Art & Style for PBS stations, which ran for about a decade. While making the show, she called upon her interest in museums and the idea for Museum Access was planted. Production on Museum Access began around 2016-2017, and Season 1 first aired last spring.
Over 80 percent of U.S. households had access to the program, which is something that was important to Mueller when deciding where to air the show.
“I felt public television was the only place that I was going to be able to keep this show the way I had created it. PBS embraced it,” Mueller said, noting that PBS is well-respected and trusted throughout the country.
Season 2 takes Mueller back to Chicago where she gets a private tour of the Saturday Night Live special exhibition at the Museum of Broadcast Communications. She also gets access to the private museum located within the CIA Headquarters, in Langley, Va.
“This one was so cool,” Mueller said. “You either have to be an employee of the CIA to see the museum, or be invited.”
Mueller was able to see the first drone ever used from the 1960’s, as well as other espionage gadgets from over the years.
“What I found most interesting was seeing a scale model of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It was the model that was brought in to show the President how the assault team was going to go in and do their job,” Mueller said.
Season 2 also features visits to Mystic Seaport Museum, in Mystic, Conn, the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, in New York City, the Wild Center Natural History Museum, in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, and the Phillips Collection Museum, in Washington, D.C.
Mueller even visits the local Bruce Museum in Greenwich and its world-class exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec portraits from the Herakleidon Museum, in Athens, Greece. Mueller said it was extra special to visit a museum in her backyard.
In all of the museums and exhibits Mueller has experienced so far, two that stand out to her can be found in Season 2.
“I didn’t even realize it was on my bucket list, but one of my favorite moments so far was going up on a B-17 Bomber and flying over Long Island Sound and looking down and seeing Westport, Greenwich and going down towards White Plains and circling back up,” said Mueller about her visit to The Collings Foundation’s “Wings of Freedom” traveling aviation museum.
“My father had recently passed away, and I knew he flew these, and he had pictures of the cockpit and whatnot. But to actually take off in one with this low rumbling sound, and thinking in terms of having German fighter pilots after you and you’re hoping your P-51 mustangs that are to the left and right of your wings are going to keep you safe. That probably was the most thrilling moment, for just a multitude of reasons.”
Another “wow” moment happened when Mueller visited the Harley Davidson Museum, in Milwaukee, Wis. Before going to the museum, she had discovered that her grandfather had worked at the Harley Davidson factory in the 1920’s.
After Harley Davidson realized they had a successful business after opening in 1903, it decided to keep one motorcycle off the assembly line after a new model was made. This ultimately led to the opening of the museum.
“I was talking with someone from the museum, behind the scenes, and he said, ‘I guarantee you on that rack over there, your grandfather’s hands were on that motorcycle.’ Those were the days when everyone’s hands was on every piece that went down the assembly line. It was one of those weird coincidences,” she said.
The education and learning doesn’t end with the show. On museumaccess.com, there are “Fun Sheets” for each episode, which are geared toward young students and homeschoolers, parents and teachers. The sheets are free and downloadable, and have fun-facts from each episode, and suggests fun and educational projects, such as making a homemade sundial.
“For kids, museums breathe life into history,” Mueller said. “[The Fun Sheets] give parents a chance to continue educating at home.”
Mueller said the show has evolved into something much more important than she realized when the idea first came to her. Season 3 is currently in production, and Mueller is excited to see where the series goes.
Museums are important in making up the fabric of our society, Mueller added. She pointed out that there are over 35,000 museums in the United States alone, attracting 850 million visitors every year. According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, twice as many people visit museums than attend all major league sporting events and theme parks combined.
“These museums hold the cultural wealth of our nation. We see things we might not normally see. It gives us a better understanding of our heritage. It gets us talking. If we don’t have these places, we kind of lose our links to the past and our achievements that have been done,” she said. “Museums are so accessible to a lot of us. I’m making it more accessible through the show. Even if you can’t get there, you can watch something like this and learn a lot.”
For more information and to support the show, go to museumaccess.com. To see when Museum Access is airing where you live, check local listings.