Thursday, July 20, 2017

Days...and Nights at the Museum

One of the fun things about having grandchildren is getting reacquainted with all the story books you read as a kid.  What goes around comes around; a good tale does not pale....even after a half century and more. In a curious juxtaposition of coincidences, this past week found me 1) seeing a Facebook post about visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2) reading a piece about "" The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler", a book I read in Scholastic paperback that turns fifty years old this year, and 3) spending a couple of sticky hot and humid days in Washington, D.C., a situation that will drive nearly anyone to the cool halls and galleries of a museum.

I have been to New York's  Metropolitan Museum of Art, walking up its stairs and entering its halls in reverent fashion, as befits a temple dedicated to genius and beauty.  I only spent a few hours there, not staying past closing time as did the children in The Mixed Up Files, but we stood amid the Pharaohs..and the knights in shining armor...and the glories of Art Nouveau.  I was too scared of security to try taking pictures anywhere else!  The Metropolitan staged its artworks beautifully, with lighting and backdrops that seemed to reveal the piece like a child would show off a captured firefly...or tree frog. Art is a great mystery...if it weren't, would we spend so much time trying to decipher what it is and is not?  And every gallery should indeed provide a sense of the wonderful.

Years ago, our family visited my aunt and uncle in Detroit.  I can remember two things about the trip: crossing over the river into Canada...a foreign country!  And visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts. There we wandered first into what appeared to be a medieval courtyard, echoing and dark.  Now I wasn't  a fan then...and still won't go out of my way to see the pale faced, two dimensional, heavily symbolic art of the Middle Ages.  But the surroundings of the gallery were so spectacularly reminiscent of what I thought a castle..or a medieval hall..should be that I could hardly bear to travel on to the next exhibit. Whatever it was. I wasn't looking for art; I was looking for magic.

No matter how many people surround me, magic is what I find looking into the eyes of Rembrandt  in a self portrait, the reflections in the water of Monet's garden, the turbulent maelstrom of a Turner sky.  I am speechless in the presence of Catlin's Indian portraits as a priceless recollection of a bygone era. When we stand in a gallery, we have firsthand experience with the artist in a way that we never can with a manuscript or a piece of music, no matter how much we are moved.

A couple of years ago, Blake and I were approached in the National Gallery of Art in D.C. by a man with his little digital camera.   We were strolling through the Dutch galleries when he asked if we would take his picture next to a Rembrandt.  His smile stretched clear across his face as he posed and I clicked the shutter; his delight was palpable, even as the guard chastised him for getting too close to the priceless painting. What was it that brought him such joy?   He didn't strike me as particularly knowledgeable or a matter of fact, I thought he might have been pretty simple.  But childlike or not, he was looking for genius and chose to find it in art...and not in a sports stadium or a movie theater.  That day, Rembrandt was 'the Man'.

Today Lizzie sat at the dining room table with her pastels and her construction paper.  During the course of the hot afternoon, she created two different designs with a big stylized daisy in the center and colorful tendrils and flourishes trailing toward the margins.  She smudged and mixed the colors until the shading suited her and the pictures resembled Early American stencils in a thoroughly modern palette.  Meanwhile, Abbie fetched one of her watercolors of fields behind a long brick wall and trimmed it until it fit into an 8x10 frame so she could enter and exhibit her artwork at our county fair.  Neither girl was shy about her efforts, nor coy; instead, both had independent and original visions and executed them without artifice.  It was a pleasure to see them take their work so seriously, especially for the lady with sweat stains back and front and pickling lime up to her elbows.
At ten, my vivid imagination made me thrill to the coal mine in the Museum of Science and Industry with its spooky lighting and deep dark elevator.  Or one could walk the streets of old time Chicago with gas lamps and 19th century storefronts; it might look kitschy now, but was as good as time travel to me then.

 The grand daddy of all museums of that ilk is still Harold Warp's Pioneer village way out in central Nebraska near Minden.  Blake and I stopped there on our first vacation with baby Lee; she rode down the dusty streets contentedly while we peered into one or another of the antique businesses, churches, post offices, or schools, a whole community of them!  The air-conditioned museum buildings were just as big a draw: presidential yachts and farm machinery of esoteric purpose that would have been familiar to Blake's grandfather.  It was a grand scavenger hunt and one of my favorite living history destinations: just loads and loads of stuff with note cards political or cultural revisionism and barely an attempt to curate. Years and years later, we discovered that the Pioneer Village Warp is the same as Warp Bros. Plastics, still producing products like the polyethylene we use to cover our greenhouses!

I didn't enjoy the visit to the Oriental Institute on the campus of the University of Chicago.  The darkly Gothic buildings didn't invoke grandeur so much as gloom and the exhibit of artifacts from the explosion of Vesuvius was far too realistic to be anything but terrifying.  The twisted agony of someone's pet dog has been imprinted on my mind's eye for lo these many years and the vividly colored murals accompanying the ashy relics seemed to have been created for no other purpose than sensationalism.  Sometimes a museum can do its job too well!  After that experience, I had no desire to peek inside a mummy case.....

If the past at the Oriental Institute was a petrified hand reaching out to grab me from the ashes, the past in Springfield, Illinois on a humid summer night was flickering behind the curtained windows and brick streets in front of Mr. Lincoln's house. I'm certain every facet of the home is preserved and protected now, but years ago when I first visited, the interior wasn't air conditioned or well lit at all; the parlor was dim and stuffy with the unmistakable smell of old wallpaper. It might have been anybody's old house.  That night, I  could easily imagine Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln taking a walk after the sun went down, waiting for their home to cool before heading indoors.  They seemed so alive to me..

That would have been a night at the museum....

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