Museums: Why Looking at Really Old Things Makes Me So Darn Tired!

Does anyone reading this post truly love visiting museums? Art museums especially? Because we should have lunch together and go to a museum and chat. Because in Moscow, I spent a glorius 4 hours at the touted Tretyakov State Gallery, and in Moscow, I spent an exhausting 9 hours over 2 days in the State Hermitage. And I can’t even begin to organize my thoughts on the matter of museums and preserving art (but here goes anyway). Whenever I go to a museum, I’m blown away by the artistry and the oldness and the history all around me. So really, if anyone here fancies a trip to a local museum to broach the subject, I would absolutely love to toss it around for a few hours (or however long you can stand my infuriating philosophical questioning (if it makes it any better, I really do care about whatever answers you come up with)).

Here are the thoughts I’ve scared up and somewhat organized thus far: Museums are weird. They really are if you think about it. I mean, sure, it’s cool to look at a piece of pottery that is several hundred or even thousand years old…but really, it’s just a piece of pottery. What would the people who used that pot say? “Man?! Why are you hanging around looking at our scraps? Look at everything you’ve got now. Who cares about this pot we used to get water?” I’ve always thought that they would feel misrepresented, too. “You know, I’m glad you’re trying to remember us dead folks from a thousand years ago, but is looking at our chipped dishware really the best way to think of us? Does that really represent us at all? What are you learning here?” But perhaps they’d be glad that we’re trying to connect with them. Maybe they’d be proud of our wisdom.

Sometimes I wonder what things from our age would end up in a museum. Suppose that the apocalypse happens and every human dies, and a benevolent, curious alien race comes to our planet to record some things five hundred years later. What would they take for their museums? Would we actually find them important artifacts or would they just be random objects? And what if we, as a human race, keep making museums for another million years? What will happen when there are more museums than houses and so much of the past that there’s no room for the present anymore?!? Now. I realize that, logically, that will never happen. But just imagine for a moment that it could. I mean, couldn’t our dedication to the past hinder the future?

In Moscow, I saw a piece of paper signed by Napoleon. Yes, THE Napoleon. His signature was like my own actually, in that it started with an N and was entirely too perfectly legible to be very cool at all. But while I was there I started to wonder why this is the sort of thing that I would go home and tell my friends about. “No guys, like, Napoleon actually touched a pen that touched this paper. He probably touched the actual paper, too.” What does that matter? Why is that story material? Am I somehow more cultured because of this vague connection to some legendary giant of a man (pun intended)? Was I awed by it? Did I absorb a shred of his his greatness?  Yet we hear things like this all the time. “I shook his hand.” “This is the bed he slept in.” “I got her autograph.” “I touched the hem of his robe.” Do inanimate objects somehow absorb and house the notoriety of those they touch? It would seem so, since autographs are sold nowadays for thousands of dollars. And can we leech some of that notoriety or fame or greatness from them? Or do we merely hang around these objects hoping to hear of the stories they would tell of the people they’ve met, if only they had words and memories and souls?

I think that listening is really it, why museums amuse, astound, and silence me: the immense poetry of things having souls. We like this idea of things remembering things. Being nostalgic. Being proud of their celebrity contact. Or being lonely in a museum. Being gazed upon but ultimately useless.  Being traumatized.

This is as good a time as any to show you guys a song that I was ecstatic to come across. I was thrilled that I’m not the only person who is perplexed by (or at least thinks about) museums. Regina Spektor does, too!

But if souls would tell stories of the amazing, wouldn’t the also speak of the mundane, no? Which leads me to my second main point: we love the simplicity of that soulful piece of paper with Napoleon’s signature on it. We know, just by looking at it, exactly why it’s special. What it’s defining moment was. That paper is a life whittled down to one moment of excitement, one witnessing of importance, one event that defines.

At museums, I want to ask the objects what they’ve learned. What they think of their past. What was it like? What do they think of their current lives? Is it better to let them die? Or continue bearing silent witness? An eternal life. Forever marked for their imagined history, mistaken or not. No escaping it. Stuck behind a glass case for years and decades and wars, watching faces pass by so close and yet so far, as millions imagine them as people in an effort to create a more tangible connection to the past, clinging to whatever bears witness against the erosion of time. Because we, as mortals, cherish things that defy decay, elude entropy, hoping against hope that we might one day do the same.

And all of that is why I have an art saturation point. I can museum my life away quite happily and ponderously for maybe two hours, after which I become exhausted by some deep-seated drive to witness every piece of art or pottery in the museum even if I am so full of inspiration and old thoughts that I can house no more. My mind has run itself in exhausting circles, and I give up trying to understand and attempt to merely see. Because doesn’t every artist deserve to be witnessed? Don’t the objects of art themselves? They’ve all lived stunning, full lives; shouldn’t I make it my simple role to witness?

But those are questions for another day. Hopefully my thoughts have made some of you think; they’re still bothering me because I feel like I’m missing something. Anyone have any additional thoughts or ideas?