Diary: On Museums And Self-Respect

I have the immense pleasure of living mere minutes away from some of the world’s greatest collections of art, culture and history in the world. The full list of consequential institutions would stretch for longer than Museum Mile: the Met, Guggenheim, Natural History, Cloisters, Breuer… and that’s not even delving into the specialized niches, like the Tenement Museum, the Jewish Museum, or the Museum of Sex (surprisingly educational). One could spend decades and not see it all.

And tourists flock to Times Square and gape at fake Iron Men.

Growing up, my parents cultivated for me an appreciation for ‘quieter’ hobbies and distractions (nowadays, of course, my life is a different story) – they encouraged me to read when I could’ve watched TV or listened to music, bought me LEGO when they could’ve given me action figures, and when it came to sports, they enrolled me in swimming, perhaps the quietest, most contemplative and solitary sport there is. Perhaps as a direct result, young me’s cultural tastes developed to be a bit more, um, niche than many of my peers.

And although I’ve diversified my tastes as I’ve grown older, some vestiges of it remain even today – I adore expensive whiskey, read hundreds-pages-long history tomes for fun, and can say things like “hmm, this chive-raspberry vinaigrette pairing with that chimichurri skirt steak is simply bursting with umami flavor!” and actually get away with it.

But my most venerable hobby, since I first started school, is my adoration for any and all things museums.

I can’t put my finger on why I’m so attracted to them, but I suspect it has something to do with my parallel appreciation for history, and storytelling. It’s one thing to read about medieval siege castles – it’s another to actually stand inches away from a real set of horse armor used hundreds of years ago.

I don’t simply visit museums: I devour. I rent the audio guide. I pore over the map. I sort the exhibits, all of them. I start in one corner and go through the entire building.

And I read, and see, everything.

Something that drives me nuts when I visit museums with other people: they walk into a room, sweep it once with their eyes and, satisfied, move on to the next. Maybe take an Instagram selfie or two.

And then they, invariably, look back at me – still engrossed in the first display – and stare askance with some confusion. Aren’t you coming?

No. No, I’m not coming. I’m barely halfway through one of the literal dozens of artifacts in here. I could literally spend an hour in this room.

And at the end of the day, they are satisfied, because they saw the entire museum!

Such hubris!

Where was that spirit when they snapped their umpteenth photo with the Midtown impersonators?

Although, counterpoint – there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with going to Times Square and gaping at fake Iron Men. And it can actually be quite fun, if you can understand that there are different mediums of entertainment and that one isn’t necessarily superior to any other.

(People who don’t understand the above are also the same genre of people who decry the explosion of superhero-centric movies in the past decade, moaning, what happened to REAL movies??)

But here, the same criticism also applies: if the only way you’ve seen Times Square is from the top of an excursion bus with an apathetic guide on the microphone, can you truly say that you’ve experienced Times Square?

Regardless of mass appeal, to fully appreciate and digest cultural activity requires a degree of healthy respect in how you choose to imbibe it. Whether you’re in the middle of a gaggle of Midwestern tourists in Times Square, or surrounded by genteel Old Money bourgeois at the Guggenheim – if you’re satisfied with admiring it for a few minutes before crossing it off on your mental checklist, you aren’t approaching it with the right attitude. These memetic shared experiences demand time, energy and effort to fully understand, and this is why I frown at those advertising “Four-day New York tours!! Central Park, Statue Of Liberty, Times Square and MORE!!!” because each one of those things could easily take up a day or two of anyone’s time to fully appreciate and live up to its potential.

Take the Statue of Liberty, for example: one could conceivably go to Battery Park, buy a ferry ticket, and visit the island, and then technically they could claim that they’ve seen the Statue of Liberty. Right?

Not really, but not for the reasons most people think: sure, you could pay extra to climb to the pedestal or the crown, but if that’s the only additional thing you do, you’re still not even close to getting the complete experience that Lady Liberty has to offer.

Do you understand its cultural significance? Have you read up on how it influenced later building techniques, its place in popular American culture, its position in New York’s post-Neoclassical history?

Do you understand its place in engineering history? How its cast-iron construction was a direct descendant of the Eiffel Tower? How its pieces were originally assembled in France, then cut up into pieces, then re-assembled? Did you know that the statue wasn’t green to begin with, or that its pedestal is actually built on the remains of an old military outpost? That brings up so many more questions: why was there an outpost in the first place? Why was it demolished? Why did they pick this little island to build on?

Have you read the informational plaques that surround its base? Or were you too busy taking gimmicky selfies?

There’s a difference between seeing the Statue of Liberty and understanding the Statue of Liberty. Millions of tourists do the former; sadly, very few ever attempt the latter.

Back to museums: I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday. There are several famous paintings that everyone flocks to – the enormous panorama of George Washington crossing the Delaware, for example – but there are innumerable little alcoves and cul-de-sacs where you could sequester yourself and not see anyone else for the entire time you’re in there.

I found one of these places during my visit, and it struck me: there are paintings in here worth far more than I ever will accrue in my lifetime; works that artists have toiled over for their entire lives, maybe even generations. Priceless artifacts of entire artistic periods lay in repose here, in this room. And no one pays them any notice, just like hundreds of others like it. If these paintings were human, I think they would be very sad.

So the next time you visit a museum, take it upon yourself to pause once in a while. Stake out a room and fully explore the breadth and depth of it. Devour the exhibits; think critically about how everything fits together; and truly pay attention to what you see.

If you do that, I think you’ll find that the museum will give back to you in spades.

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