by Leanne Ogasawara
Friends have been talking about Michael J. Lewis' recent article, How Art Became Irrelevant. An art historian at Williams College, Lewis is basically stating what we all have come to suspect: that museums have become the bread and circuses of our day.
Arguing that that there has been a collective disengagement with the fine arts in our society, he says that young people no longer care or have an emotional response to the art works themselves. And that is a worry.
Like many people, I have wondered about the pretty significant changes seen in art museums over the past twenty years. I'm pretty sure that no one passing the mob in the room where the Mona Lisa is hanging in the Louvre could fail to wonder if the picture itself is in any real way relevant to the experience of “seeing the Mona Lisa.” Especially fresh in my mind was something that recently happened to me at the Uffizi. Standing in front of Botticelli's Venus on a very crowded summer weekend, an American family of five stepped up right in front of the painting and posed while someone else took multiple versions of their picture. It was a rather long process involving corralling the kids and then the posed shots. It was bizarre.
In LA, it is said that people go to the Getty but they don't look at the art. The Getty is putting on more photography exhibitions and flashy blockbuster shows now, maybe to address the financial implications of this (though you would think of all museums the Getty with its massive budget could do its own thing as directed by its own particular history and the endowment).It's actually not at all clear whether it is the commodification and privatization of museums (museums' disturbing transformation) that has affected these changes in museum-goers that Lewis describes or whether their lack of care is what is driving the transformation of museums into entertainment hubs. I have no idea.
I do, however, think that it takes an almost impossible level of focus to be able to emotionally connect to a work of art seen as part of a blockbuster museum show. And, I have found that more and more I love finding myself in unexpected museums, where the museum has not really caught up with the times, or –better yet– those museums which consciously aim to exhibit the art in a more old-fashion manner.
Some of my own favorite museums are more low-tech and sleepy places like Brera Museum in Milan (home to one of the most splendid art collections I've seen) or the Saint John Hospital in Bruges (probably my favorite art museum on earth). Like the Groeningemuseum (also in Bruges) and the Sabauda in Turin (which not only lacked audio guides but didn't even have a gift shop!), these museums seem to have more humble aims; that of preserving and exhibiting their collections. In all these places, I found the other museum-goers visiting these galleries to be startlingly enthralled by …. yes, the art.
I wanted to tell a story about the wackiest museum I have ever been to. But before I do I have to ask if anyone has visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA. This is a museum that museum people like to talk about-because it pushes most commonly-held ideas about museums on their head.
First of all, the museum is very strangely located in nondescript building in West LA near an auto shop and a little India Sweets and Spice Mart on Venice Blvd. Also, it is not even devoted to Jurassic technology at all! But rather it is a quirky collection that seeks to create a Renaissance “Cabinet of Curiosities”–yes, right in bustling West LA. Here is a great Smithsonian article that describes the eclectic collection, composed basically of anything that ever struck the collector's fancy! With opera arias piped in, one can view holograms and see ant eggs (believed to cure love sickness in the Middle Ages); as well as see a display of stink ants from Cameroon and the Horn of Mary Davis of Saughall (with this latter one you can see that “fact” is less at issue in this place).
In its original sense,” reads a Museum brochure, “The term museum meant a spot dedicated to the muses — a place where man’s mind could attain a mood of aloofness above everyday affairs.” This museum certainly is that spot. The displays evoke an 18th century cabinet of curiosities, ranging from micro-sculptures in the needle of an eye to “Garden of Eden on Wheels,” a collection devoted to trailer park culture. Many exhibits are confusing, nonsensical, or simply made up, but don’t expect to get answers. Just enjoy the sense of wonder.
Ok, brace yourselves–because some of you are not going to like this next part!
So, here is a story about one of the most moving experiences at a museum I've ever had. It happened very unexpectedly this summer, at a place where I would have never imagined myself becoming so moved: at the Museum of the Shroud, in Turin.
This small museum is run by the Confraternity of the Most Holy Shroud, an order founded in 1598 to promote the devotion and worship of the shroud. It was absolutely grueling to get there, walking across Turin in a blazing heatwave and then having to wait till they finally re-opened the museum after their long afternoon break. It was incredibly hot and from the street, you couldn't see the church (where the famous replica is kept) so we were never sure if we were in the right place.
She: Are you sure this is it? It doesn't really look like a museum
He: Well, I am just going by that sign over the door
So, we waited drinking warm coke without ice in an airless cafe on the corner. When finally the doors creaked open, we found ourselves in was really the quirkiest museum I have ever been in–so quirky, in fact, that it immediately called to mind the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA! I still can't decide which is quirkier.
Like the “Cabinet of Curiosities” in LA, the Turin Shroud Museum immediately strikes one as a kind of hodgepodge collection of artifacts, blending actual relics of historic significance along with other hard to explain items that must have simply struck the confraternity's collective fancy. Also like the Jurassic Museum, there is a striking combination of science and myth. That is to say, one steps in off the street to find themselves in a Borgesian world. (It could always be worse, right?)
The shroud itself is kept elsewhere and only on view once in a great while (we had missed the last showing by only a few weeks).
Though not home to the shroud, a great wealth of objects relating to the shroud is there on display: from contemporary sculpture on the theme of the Passion to the 16th century cedar chest used to bring the shroud from France to Turin. Also on display was the camera used to take the first photograph of the relic as well as the first photograph. There are also countless folios and books and replicas of the crown of thorns and of the nails used in Crucifixion. Absolutely everything in the museum, as this video explains, is an illumination of the final hours of the man of the shroud. (In all museum literature, they refer to him as the man of the shroud). And then finally, you see the famed replica of the shroud itself, in the confraternity's church next door.
Despite the fact that we were both enormously prone to disbelief–my astronomer, because he thinks of himself as a scientist; and me, because I am a devotee of Umberto Eco and have learned quite a lot about the ins and outs of the medieval relic trade… still, would you believe, I became incredibly moved and broke down and cried after I left the place?
The only experience that even compares to my emotional reaction to the museum was what I felt upon seeing Leonardo's Last Supper, which was another huge surprise to me since I am not a Leonardo fan nor do I care much for that particular last supper theme (the version focusing on the betrayal). But the restoration was startlingly well done and they keep tourist numbers to a small number for a limited time. I was just incredibly moved by this fresco and did feel (as others say) that the painter was somehow right there in the room. My visit to the Holy Shroud Museum was like that–both incredibly moving but also enriching to me. (By the way, some conspiracy theorists believe it was Leonardo who created the shroud)
For me as a visitor of the shroud museum, it didn't matter whether the shroud dated from the Christ's death or whether it is a fabulous Medieval creation (which I think is the case based mainly on the carbon dating results, but I will never know, will I?) It simply didn't matter because the museum was not there to persuade but rather existed to exhibit a centuries-old collection of artifacts related to the holy cloth that was brought from Chambery to Turin in 1578.
As I mentioned, in all the museum literature the image of the man seen in the shroud was always referred to as “the man of the shroud” and what one sees in graphic detail is the absolutely gruesome way this man died. Beaten to a pulp, he was then tortured to death–and it can all be “seen” in the relic. It's all there, from the nail wounds, the blood from his head and swollen cheek to the horrible postmortem injury to the side. Every drop of blood in the fabric speaks of brutality. And walking through the exhibits, contemplating the final hours of a man who was brutally beaten, whipped and then crucified–made to die slowly (maybe in front of his mother) one simply could not help but draw to mind the tremendous suffering going on in the world today–things we know about but turn away from. If it didn't happen to a man called Jesus of Nazareth, we know it happened to others since it was an ancient form of the death penalty practiced across the Roman empire, among other places. And this kind of cruelty continues today.
Anyway, this is, in my opinion, what an art museum should be doing: (to speak in Heideggeresque language) museums should be places where works of art “work.” And I think this is very much tied to feelings relating to curiosity and enchantment.
The fate of our times, Max Weber bemoaned, is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world. I had suggested a few months ago here in a post about the Piero della Francesco trail that perhaps it is science and art which alone have the power to re-enchant us with the world. And that is what is so wonderful about seeing frescoes in the churches where they were painted or to see art collections that continue in preserving art within the context of the shared values which informed their creation. This is something maybe that has mainly disappeared in US Museums, where the drive to commodify and privatize is so strong…?
I have a friend who playfully suggested that one of his top reasons for time travel is that he wants to go back in time to see musical performances back when things were not overly “produced” and when sometimes musicians simply flopped! Yes, me too! It is why I wanted to see an opera at La Scala so badly–for I had read that at La Scala, often the audience boos! Art is talked about in Italy, and opera at La Scala is part of the national conversation. Maybe the bottom line is that when you “buy” any experience you come with expectations and a need to check off a list. But the profound and unexpected experience of art comes when you least expect it, when we can have the space to experience a deep emotional connections to things– whether playful, aesthetic or ethical.
Long live the sleepy, the playful and the quirky!
Highly recommended and fabulous writing (Pulitzer finalist): Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder
Video: Shroud Museum