Storehouses or exhibitions? That is a question I occasionally ponder when working my way through museums. Is it a collection of great works for which the creativity or ingenuity deserve wide recognition? Is it a representation of important events that altered society’s path and should be forever remembered? Do the various displays intend to document history, hoping to educate humanity so that it might learn from the past and avoid repeating prior tragic decisions and actions? Perhaps it is more about personal fancy – collections of things we enjoy enough to accumulate; and since we take pleasure from viewing them, we assume that others might like to peruse our collection? Or at the extreme, are museums formed by those things we meant to take to the local thrift store but never got around to, until finally it is easier to charge admission for others to view them than it is to pack them up and cart them away! Perhaps it is a mixture of all the above. Whatever the motivation, I have seen enough collections to know that people will make a museum in honor of just about anything. And, in many cases time spent there turns out to be a memorable experience, though perhaps not for the reasons anticipated by the curators.
For instance, the British Crown Jewels are displayed in the Jewel House (where else!), located in the Tower of London. It is not clear how wearing these gems makes one a better monarch, or what it is about ruling that entitles a person to be adorned by them, but that is the way world often runs. However stunning one may find this collection of precious jewels, the most memorable part of that museum experience for me was that visitors step onto a conveyor belt and ride through the collection. What else would you expect from a country that knows a thing or two about formality and process, to the point of earning a reputation for being a bit stuffy? Having witnessed hordes of visitors push and crowd to see whatever the current exhibition of the moment is in many places, there is something to be said for a moving sidewalk that keeps the group progressing in an orderly manner. Look fast lest you pass the jewels before you can say “Your Royal Highness.”
At the Louvre, where the French have been collecting art since before Napoleon was knee-high to a grasshopper, a conveyor belt would have been handy to navigate through about 15 acres of collectibles. It is a spectacular museum. Amusing to me is that among the more memorable moments there was hearing a visitor complain on the way out: “I don’t know what all the fuss is about the Mona Lisa. It’s a small painting and she’s not even that good looking!” Everyone really is a critic, it seems. That comment, and paying $16 for two Diet Cokes (with ice) at a café across the plaza from the museum are forever linked to my visit there. For the record, I’d pay the $16 again just for the pleasure of resting my aching feet while being able to soak in the ambience of sitting in view of the museum. As for the Mona Lisa . . . well, she could work on her smile.
I’ve been fortunate to visit several noteworthy museums. I have strolled through some of the findings from King Tutt’s tomb in Cairo. Talk about a guy who didn’t get the memo that you can’t take it with you! I marveled my way through the Hermitage, probably with my mouth agape, where the hallways and room décor rival the collections. But not all museums edify by exposing us to art and brilliance. Some take a much different tact. Museums devoted to the Holocaust leave its customers in a subdued, saddened place while trying to fathom such cruelty. Seeing a school converted to a primitive prison and standing beside a large glass container, perhaps 3 feet x 6 feet, filled with human skulls collected after the genocide in Cambodia leaves its mark. It is difficult not to imagine and mourn the hopes, dreams, and personalities so abruptly snuffed out. As I said, we will make a museum out of just about anything in the hope of expanding minds and elevating causes. We choose to remember for a multitude of reasons.
Not all museums have such lofty, serious ambitions. For instance, the U.S. is home to a Museum of Bad Art. I tip my hat to a sense of humor willing to create such a venue and then creatively name its collections with titles such as “Poor-traits” (portraits) or “Look Ma, No Hands” (a collection where the artists found ways to avoid painting hands). In the 21st century spirit of “everyone gets a trophy” I suppose it is only natural to honor the artist that is within us all and encourage us to express our talents, or lack thereof. Besides, why should only good art be celebrated” And who decides what is artistically good, anyway?
As strange but memorable exhibitions go, there is the BODIES exhibition in Las Vegas. Controversial in some circles because of its treatment of the human body, it displays skinless whole bodies as well as some that are dissected. Fascinating as it was to view these exhibits, it rattled me just a bit to see that thinly sliced portions of a human closely resemble pieces of shaved ham. That’s why it’s always important to be able to trust your chef. Just because it tastes like chicken doesn’t mean that it is!
In the “Why Do We Care?” category, there is the Chaffee Barbershop Museum in Arkansas. It is memorialized for one particular haircut—the one Elvis Presley received when he enlisted in the army. Since I was not yet born when this occurred, I may simply not understand why it is referred to as “the haircut heard around the world.” It drew 250 people for its 51st anniversary, which is more than have ever attended my birthday celebrations, so who am I to judge what is museum worthy?
To the list we could add museums for: lawnmowers; popcorn; miniatures; the world’s largest ball of string; the world’s largest frying pan; SPAM; mustard; broken relationships; spy museum (where, no doubt you’ll feel like you’re being watched). And recently – a barbecue exhibit in an impressive small, local museum in High Point, NC – there were no samples, but it did offer some really satisfying smells. As good as it was, it still won’t resolve the “best barbecue” debate!
As enjoyable spots in quaint little places go, a new favorite of mine is the Gateway to the Blues museum, located in Tunica, MS. We stopped there on a recent riverboat trip down the Mississippi River. A few different places along the river offer a chance to learn more about the birth and development of the Delta Blues. To be effective, museums need to engage us in some way – perhaps through intellectual stimulation, or triggering an emotional response, or even providing tactile opportunities. This little museum offered an interactive opportunity to write and record a three-line blues refrain. Though I was resistant to the idea, my wife cajoled me into doing it. Singing in public is not something I ordinarily do, but something came over me that day. Just for the heck of it, here’s my one and only attempt at a blues hit:
Don’t worry. I won’t be performing at an arena near you any time soon.
Isn’t it wonderful that others have had the foresight to assemble works, great and otherwise, so that the masses might be introduced and perhaps even inspired by the talent of others? Even the quirky collections introduce us to passions outside of our usual range of interests, and at least for few moments immerse us in a new experience that adds to the colors we see in this world. Their value extends beyond merely representing the efforts of others when they also actually inspire us to take a risk and try something new. It seems museums are much more than tributes to the past; in their own way they are helping us make our future.