Part detective, part history buff and total traveler Don Wildman has learned a thing or two about being on the road, unearthing treasures from the vaults of the world’s museums for TV show “Mysteries at the Museum.” In anticipation of the premiere of the show’s eighth season this Friday night on the Travel Channel, the adventurer took time to chat with us about his most intriguing finds and the things he never leaves home without.
You’ve visited museums around the world. Which is your favorite and why?
We've done over a thousand stories for “Mysteries at the Museum.” Hard to play favorites, but my heart goes out to the magnificent Philly museums of my youth: Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Franklin Institute, the Mercer, Mütter and the Barnes Foundation. These places supercharged my curiosity and gave me real-world context to an otherwise bookish education.
What’s the most mysterious artifact you’ve seen at a museum?
Perhaps because I'm so lame at engineering and science, I'm more fascinated with human ingenuity than anything else. The men and women who invented new technologies, who overcame the odds to break new ground for the advancement of society thrill me. In this spirit, for sheer mystery, nothing comes close to the Blaschka Glass Flowers at Harvard's Natural History Museum in Boston. Created between 1887 and 1936, this renowned collection of botanical models makes an impression that lasts a lifetime. How did they make them so real? And how did they ship them? It's a mystery!
Which city offers the most for museum-lovers?
Los Angeles. First of all, there's more museums in this sprawling metropolis than most any other (more than 200!) so they're tucked in all parts of the city. You can plan your travels within town by anchoring yourself to, say, the Getty in Malibu, the Natural History Museum downtown, or the Norton Simon in Pasadena. There's a new museum, the Wende Museum, now under construction in Culver City that will hold the world's largest Cold War archive. The new Broad Museum design will blow minds. LA is where it's really happening right now.
As a history buff, can you recommend some historical places every traveler should add to their bucket list?
It kind of depends on what era of history most intrigues. For sheer volume of historical display, you can't beat the Smithsonian, of course, and it's wonderful to ponder our nation's heritage while wandering across The National Mall. But for my money, New York gives more immediate context to so many amazing tales of people and events that shaped the country. Spend the morning at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, then hike across Central Park to the Museum of the City of New York. After, head downtown to Gramercy Park and Teddy Roosevelt's childhood home. The rest of the place will take the better part of a lifetime.
What’s the strangest place you’ve ever visited?
Strangest place ever? The Valley of the Golden Mummies in Egypt. Upwards of 10,000 gold-faced mummies from the Hellenistic period all buried beneath the Black Desert three hours south of Cairo. Dr. Zahi Hawass guided me into some of the 12 tombs they've opened so far. It’s amazing to see commoners buried like pharaohs—Egyptian one-percenters! Egypt in general holds so many lesser-known archaeological sites. It's always worth investigating the means to get off the beaten track to see them. The same is true of Mayan Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Adventures await!
Why should travelers visit museums? What do they tell us about the places they’re in?
As much as I adore being inside a museum, I prefer to use it as a backdrop for my travels outside. Museums concentrate my interests, zooming in on what most intrigues me most about a certain locale. Since less is usually more in travel (let alone life), I can enjoy, say, Rome a lot more if I focus on the reigns of several Caesars instead of trying to gobble up the vast history of the Roman Empire. The same goes for most any culture or art of any era. Choose the period or subject you're traveling to investigate. Read a book on the subject before leaving then use the local museums as reference guides for the material. You'll be a calmer and more specialized museum-goer—and a lot more interesting at your next cocktail party.
What are some things you always carry in your suitcase on your travels?
Three things in my suitcase make a difference. 1) My lucky malachite egg, which has gone everywhere with me since the 80s and sits on its putty stand beside my bed. 2) Rubber bands and baggies to wrap up loose items like socks and underwear. 3) My scrapbook. I gave up journaling a long time ago—I'm the worst at that kind of scribbling—so now I collect anything small and relatively flat that defines the day and then, before sleep, collage it all in my book with a glue stick. I'm a hound for matchbooks, business cards and drink umbrellas.
What’s it like to be constantly on the road?
It used to be easier than it is now, but I never forget how lucky I am. If I had to go to the same office every day, I'd perish like a shark that stops swimming. While I may dream from time to time about someday not sitting in airport bars, I'm also well aware that life is most worth living when new discoveries are imminent. So when I get grumpy about the travel grind, I go visit the magazine rack and realize how much of my world is yet to be seen.
What would be a perfect trip be for you?
Perfect trip: Turkey. Fly to Istanbul, the world's sexiest and most surprising metropolis. Spend three days with the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia Museum and the Grand Bazaar, sail across the Bosphorus, explore the Topkapi Palace. Immerse yourself in that wondrous city, you won't be sorry. Fly to Cappadocia and sleep in my friend's majestic rock-carved hotel, and be guided to the lesser-known underground cities and churches throughout those ancient Hittite lands. Head south to the Golden Coast and visit Troy and Bodrum, book a cruise for two nights, scuba dive to an archaeological site, and generally laze on delicious sun-soaked beaches. Learn some Arabic and try it out on strangers. Read some of the Koran, I dare you. Despite the news we so often hear in the west, Islam is a fascinating and rich religion worth understanding. Turkey is the place to learn and appreciate it in a friendly and fairly liberal environment.
What’s coming up this season on “Mysteries at the Museum”?
“Mysteries at the Museum” enters its eighth season full steam ahead. Same format, six artifacts per episode, same spirit of intrigue and wonder. But this season, we're going farther and wider to find our stories, to regions of the planet untapped in the past. It's the inevitable challenge for a successful show, it can't rest on its laurels. “Mysteries at the Museum” is a favorite show not only for its viewers, it's also a favorite for its producers and me because it keeps us striving to improve.
Got any funny tales from the road?
One day in the Arizona desert, I interviewed a kindly man who operated an old gold mine. I had the idea that this guy was a throwback—he was 80 and walked with a limp—and I approached the day basically feeling sorry for him. After six grueling hours of shooting, the guy hadn't complained once we gathered up the gold dust to pour his once-monthly gold ingot. I asked him how long he was going to keep operating the mine. "Next week," he chirped. "I just sold it to a Canadian mining company for eight million dollars!" I didn't feel sorry for him after that.
Season 8 of “Mysteries at the Museum” premieres Friday, Apr. 3, at 9 pm ET/PT on Travel Channel.