Nether Nether Land

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

IMGP1015 Copy Philip the Second is an afterthought. That's what a college professor once said. We were reading Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. The professor was pointing out the significance of the book's title. Philip II comes at the end, and he's really just the name for an Age, an Age defined by The Mediterranean and The Mediterranean World. The beginning of the book is mostly about geography, weather, seasonal migrations of various kinds of animals. Braudel was of the Annales School, a group of historians for whom history ought to be told in the little stories, the ground level (literally), the details of life as it is experienced by the mostly unnamed creatures who toil for their time and then pass away.

Wandering through the New York State Museum in Albany, I had the sudden realization that I was exploring a three-dimensional Braudelian space. Here was the attempt to capture, in fragments and chunks, the fine-grained details of life as it was lived in this region — by man, beast, and shrubbery alike — over the last 400 years. The dioramas and models are anachronistic in this digital age, but somehow they work anyway. I'm not entirely sure why they do; perhaps it is best explained in the exhibit of a reconstructed subway train from early in the 20th century. It contains the life-sized model of a young woman riding the A train. A nice-looking girl, she also seems annoyed. Her expression says, “Damn I hate riding this train.” The same thing could be said of the prehistoric mammoth in another scene; he's just cold. Or take the skull of a man from the cemetery of a 19th-century flophouse. His skull is a wreck and the wall description surmises that he probably died from getting his ass kicked too many times. Life was hard. Life is hard still. In being true to that basic fact, the New York State Museum has made low-tech a virtue.

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