Some thoughts on Museums

In my life, I have had two concentrated periods of visiting museums. The first was around the end of 2004 when I first tried not being an engineer. I visited my parents in the UK, and for a couple of months my mother and I, sometimes my father too, would drive each day to an abbey, museum, art gallery, stately house, castle, roman settlement, or whatever else was available. The second, two years later, was the principal occupation of VUW’s “Greek Field Trip”, where 20 students and 2 lecturers travel around Greece looking at the remnants of the classical world. Each day, we drove to temples, museums, libraries, and piles of rocks, where one of our number would knowledgeably talk for a half hour about what we should learn. It was an intense trip – 7 years later I’m still learning from the experience. Well, for several reasons, I have recently found myself going to an unusual number of museums and art galleries. I have been finding this a little less edifying than I was expecting, and I’ll reflect a little on why while picking on some specific experiences.

My trip to the UK in 2004 represented a first step into a larger world. I was not enjoying my career as an engineer, and so had resolved to waste my time doing something silly, an arts degree in English literature. I had always had a facility for the subject: my best grades at Canterbury were in English during my intermediate year. During my travels, I engaged for the first time in trying to write. I wanted to write a game for White Wolf’s Dark Ages Mage that would bridge into the Sorcerer’s Crusade. I found, still find, both settings fascinating and believe there is a compelling game that bridges the two. Simultaneously, I began to read with a semi-critical eye the material I wanted to study, principally the Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea books.

Visiting ancient sites had very obvious connexion with my reading material and with the kind of roleplaying game that interested me at the time. There was a synergistic effect that amplified the interest of each part. Ultimately, little came of this effort – it was another year before I studied those books in an academic way and I never managed to formulate the game I’d been inspired to aim for. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the exploration of the ancient world very much, and there’s no doubt that it contributed in a significant way to a massive period of intellectual rejuvenation in my life.

The Greek Field trip at the end of 2006 is the natural book-end of this period. In every way, it was the culmination of my studies over the previous two years, where I had twinned my English major with a Classics major. Going to museums gave me the chance to see the objects I had painfully memorised in the Aegean Art paper, and going to the ancient sites merged classical knowledge with the engineering knowledge from my career. Seeing the objects of study and going to the places of historical interest cemented and clarified my book-learning. Perhaps just as importantly, I learned a lot about being a human being on that trip – a topic for a different discussion.

In between now and then I have gone to other museums, but in much the same way as I might go bowling or to a rock concert. Interesting, enjoyable – but not contributing in a significant way to any specific pursuit or endeavour. It has been an incidental activity, and so good or bad has hardly mattered. This has put museums into much the same entertainment category as Hollywood Blockbusters. Sometimes interesting and entertaining, but incidental, creating few new thoughts or connections. Instinctively, that can’t be right. The role of a museum is to place historical objects into a historical context – rarely done better than in “A History of the World in 100 Objects”.

The central kernel of the Pitt Rivers Museum is the private collection of Pitt Rivers. The museum itself is a single large room, some 3 storeys high. The ground storey is packed with display cases containing artefacts from every culture he came into contact with. These cases extend up the walls on 4 sides, serviced by mezzanines. If I try to apply the notion of placing objects in context, I must apply that in the broadest possible sense. We have Samurai accoutrements adjacent to shrunken heads and a few steps away from shadow puppets. The context is “humanity in the 1800s”. This is most useful if you wish to form a grand theory of everything human, but otherwise any interesting individual object is like an individual star, and so in some sense only becomes interesting when the surroundings are excluded from consideration.

I am not trying to form a grand theory of humanity, or at least, not via the Pitt Rivers Museum. If I were there to look at some specific aspect of colonial plundering, I may have found what I was looking for, but as someone with a fairly general interest and unfocused perspective, I’ve found the museum quite overwhelming and unapproachable.

The Ashmolean is a more structured museum that by its nature makes more of an effort to contextualize the objects on display. The ground storey is halls of Ancient Greek and Roman statues leading into rooms of display cases containing neolithic art blending through the Bronze Age into high classical. I am on familiar ground and looking at familiar objects – including replicas whose I have written on and seen in the flesh. I could fault their lack of this or that representative art from the ancient world – but what would be the point? The Ashmolean remains a generalist museum attempting to chart the course of Human History in a very confined space.

What the Ashmolean shows me is a little hubristc. Once you are an expert in one area, you realize that you are an amateur at everything else. Even as a lapsed expert in classical art, I recognise that the information displayed is for the true amateur and so those classical galleries seem to me the weakest of the museum. I found far more of interest further up the building, where my knowledge of the available knowledge is more limited. I had the amateur’s enjoyment of observing the knowledgeable hold forth their wisdom.

However, despite miscellaneous wanderings, observings and viewings, I would be hard pressed to tell you any fact I learned at the Ashmolean. Without some purpose or use for the information, my brain refuses to retain it. I think it would be entirely possible to make the argument  that all of my attempts to engage with these and other museums were essentially a waste of time; indeed, to generalize that argument to say that the museums themselves were an irrelevance. I like to think instead that the information is lurking somewhere in my cerebelum, waiting for its chance to rise to relevance.

Instead of trying to learn factual information from museums, I have been trying to think about how I would adopt the objects I see in my daily life. Would I put a Cycladic figurine on my mantlepiece? Do I think that a Rembrandt or a Monet would better suit my entry hall? Consciously divorcing objects from their historical context may not tell me much about the world, but it has helped me hone my own aesthetic sensibilities. I rather like Minoan vases, but find the similar art of the Mycenaeans too rigid. I find myself enjoying most of the Victorian art inspired by the Old Testament, but find their New Testament treatments cloying and one dimensional.

Connecting with historical objects on a personal level has helped me recognise a crucial aspect of my previous successful experiences. Historical data is important, but that is not actually the key function of a museum. The key function of a museum is to simulate a sense of connection between living people and dead people. Physically traversing Phaistos conveys a sense of connection with the people who lived there far better than any expertly written conjectures about those people possibly could. But that still seems a little insufficient to me to justify the investments we make in museums – not just in having them, but in individuals going to them. The far more important connection is with the still-living people with whom we share these objects.

All of these elements came together when visiting the Landesmuseum Zurich. I went around the museum with Christine, a German friend of Clare’s. The museum focused on the history of Switzerland, and while there are ancient objects, the strength of the collection is in early modernity, from the Reformation onwards. The collection constituted a very good platform for Christine and I to compare and contrast our particular and general experiences as foreigners whose cultures experienced parallel events to the Swiss. The museum provided a context for comparing aesthetic sensibilities, and at least partially comparing those sensibilities on a cultural as well as personal basis. The museum provided a kind of holistic context for getting to know Christine that would not have been available if we’d simply been drinking coffee for that several hours.

I began this discussion of Museums by recalling two experiences whose overt benefits were expressed in terms of knowledge. There is an entirely different way of thinking about them – as experiences where I had prolonged meaningful connexions with other human beings. Travelling to the remnants of the ancient world in Britain remains my longest and most engaging experience with my parents. The Greek Field trip was as profound an life-changing experience of how to relate to other human beings as I ever expect to have. Sure, both of those experiences were also great for knowledge acquisition, but any secular humanist will tell you that human connection is really what life is about, and that is what museums really provide, across space, time and friendships.

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