Mary Beth Writes

Do you go to museums? I enjoy them, but I think they are more complicated than we give them credit for.

This past weekend Len and I and our daughters, plus Len’s sister and her teenage sons, spent the day at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. At 400,000 square feet, the MSI is a huge old place; the buildings were part of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 that were re-purposed into the Museum during Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress. (An aunt once told me about seeing a black and white electrical show in a box at the Century of Progress. They called it television.)

MSI stores, displays, and interprets tens of thousands of items that lead to or are the products of (duh) Science and Industry. A lot of it is fascinating. A lot is, if you ask me, is deadly dull. Whatever.

When I was a kid my parents would drive five hours from our small town to Chicago several times a year for city weekends. Sometimes we spent a day at MSI, so watching the baby chicks in the incubator this past Sunday brought back memories. (I just learned yesterday that most of those baby chicks go on to the Lincoln Park Zoo to become supper for various carnivores. TMI?)

MSI has a special exhibit right now about Robots; this was the bait to entice the teenage nephews to come along. One of our nephews is on his high school’s robotics team. He was full of questions for the docents, he and his mom and brother did some cool things with the equipment and options that were part of the exhibit.

Len has also visited the Science and Industry submarine since he was a little boy. The first Leo Lamberg served on a Navy submarine during the 1920’s. Gramps Leo would take his little namesake to visit the museum’s submarine; Len remembers many pleasant hours spent in that exact sub.

Images presented here are for the express use for promoting the Museum of Science and Industry. All images must be properly credited. Images may not be reproduced by third parties without express written permission from the Museum of Science and Industry.

All the family except me paid extra to take the submarine tour. (It costs an extra $12 on top of the $12 entrance fee, and frankly, I love people-watching way more than I love submarines.) Members of our family like to do this particular tour with Len because his knowledge and enthusiasm takes over and he ALWAYS knows more than the docents. He is not rude, but he does start explaining things to our kids (I have witnessed this, it’s hilarious) and people abandon the docents to follow Len. 

The tour is supposed to take a half hour.  After they had been gone an hour, my 30-something daughter texted me. “Dad sure knows a lot about submarines…”

….

So. Museums.

  • There are more than 55,000 museums on earth.
  • The word "museum" comes from the “the Muses”; a building set apart for study, arts, and knowledge
  • The first museum/library is considered to be the one of Plato in Athens. When I tried to research what this means, I learned that Plato (and others after him) taught students just outside Athens next to a sacred olive grove. It was less a collection of things than of curious people. This was 428BC and the school would continue on in various iterations until 88BC.  In Plato’s era, two of the students were women; Axiothea and Lasthenia.  (In case you get to name any females soon. Cool names!)

People have been collecting interesting objects forever. Noticing stuff, wondering about those items, bringing them back home - curiosity is humanity’s middle name. 

Museums really kicked in during the Victorian age - 1800’s thru the early 1900’s. That’s when the location of wealth in societies changed mightily. As nations industrialized, wealth accumulated, not around royal and noble families, but around the men who owned and operated industries in manufacturing, transportation, banking and investments. Most of this wealth was magnified by astounding exploitation of workers. 

What did these fabulously rich people do with their new fabulous wealth? God forbid they should raise income or improve working conditions. 

Instead of justice, most of the new super-rich chose Ostentation; i.e. giant houses filled with expensively outfitted people and priceless stuff. I suppose they were simply following the wealth patterns of their role models –the lords and royals of yore. Same as the uber-rich do now. The hugely rich are so unimaginative in their spending; modern tycoons continue to act as if paying a fair wage is unacceptable. I do not understand. Seems like it would be the most memorable legacy of all…

Many Victorian industrialists and their families developed the hobby of “competitive acquiring” of exotic items from around the world. They went on safaris to kill beautiful animals one couldn’t kill back home. They toured exotic (to them) lands to steal antiquities from ancient sites. They bought art from talented artists, or scooped up antique art of previous generations. I don’t mean these were all terrible humans; many were among the best of their generation. Well-educated, energetic, and determined to do interesting things with their lives. It’s just that then, as now, white privilege comes at the price of suffering and loss of opportunity for everyone else.

Once these collections grew too big to show off in one’s own mansion/s, it was time to ramp up the acquisition hobby. Sponsor the building of an impressive building; put stuff in it. Get other people to help pay for all of this and get them to put their stuff there, too. Hire smart people to classify and preserve the rare, beautiful, remarkable stuff.

And there is your classic museum.  Treasures from other places, times, and cultures brought right here, right now, for us to peruse at our leisure.

What’s wrong with this?

This may be a mythical story, but it’s so good I’m sharing it anyway. A bright teenager babysat my kids several hours per week in the 1980’s-90. We all adored M; to her credit she became a college professor and my family still communicates with her. While she was our babysitter, she also had a student internship in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. She said people there told her this; that in the Plains Indians hall there was a large glass case in which a Pomo “medicine man/ceremonial person” mannequin was dressed in the full regalia of such a person; including clothing, rattles, and headdress– all of which had been taken from an actual tribal ceremonial person in the early 1900’s.

M said others said the display case was unusually powerful and to not mess with it. That sometimes they would come in the morning and even though nothing had happened the night before – the glass would be cracked. That sometimes objects moved near it. That it had a power beyond what curators could understand.

Probably this story isn’t true. People of the dominant culture - like us – tend to invent and believe weird tales about cultures we don’t understand. We take away people’s autonomy and then tell ourselves they have “magical powers”.

What this weird story DOES say is that museums are repositories of other cultures’ best stuff. Items were stolen, sometimes with the best of intentions, usually not.  Objects were removed from their context to become five minutes of amusement for people who will never study the whole story. 

It seems to me that it would be better for us all if a lot of museum exhibits would crack their cases, and go home in the night.

Knowledge is critical for humans to survive and advance. Yet putting amazing things on display without a really clear and filled-out context– this is poor ethics that teaches our kids that it’s fine to be temporarily entertained by others – and it becomes racist quickly. What would you think if guys from a Native American nation came to your church, stole your pastor’s clergy robe, the pulpit used since the founding of your congregation, the silver communion set, and maybe the cross over the altar - and took it all back to hang in a pole barn for their people to look at once in a while?

And yet … Sometimes modern museums display artifacts beautifully …

Walking into the Pawnee Lodge at the Field Museum is amazing. Everything you read or hear about plains Indians becomes more real after you have spent even five minutes in that replica of a lodge. You know how big yet cozy a lodge feels; how the roof slants upward in embracing curves; where the smoke holes are; how short the legs are on the sleeping platforms. You can intuit how it might have felt to be a member of that community. You know something worth knowing. You will not feel like making racist Pocahontas jokes. You might want to sign up for a day-long class in Native American culture, or read a novel about Native life to yourself or your kids. You might think about how sustainable their lives were then in comparison to ours now. You might pay more attention the next time you hear about the Water Protectors protest at Standing Rock, holding forth on the American plains now.

Without going too far from home you experienced a different way the world can hold together.

The Museum of Science and Industry jump starts interest in planes, trains, and submarines; or the machinery of industry, or how weather works (our nephews had to stay “20 more minutes, Mom,” to see the Tesla coil (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4db9BGT1Hc). A person can begin to see understand that civilization us is not static, but is layers of human ingenuity and experimentation.

Art museums are inspiring and spectacular. Art museums are also monuments to greed, rape, exploitation and the stroking of oversized egos.

Len and I discovered, years into our marriage, that we had both loved particular paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. Apparently 10 years before we met we were already on the same awkward and melancholy wavelength. I bet a lot of moody teens love Van Gogh’s “The Poet’s Corner” and Breton’s “Song of the Lark”. Art produced by talented people who are struggling to keep their art and lives going reaches out and touches the spirits of less-talented humans who are struggling to keep their lives going. A painting or sculpture can be a wave from one time and place to another, a place where kindred spirits are not divided by space and time.

Art museums are also the repository of what rich people want to look at.  Read the biography of almost any artist and what you soon realize is that that person produced a lot of art for income, a little art for art’s sake. What happens when the thing you were born to do has to charm a rich person’s whims?

And this.  Who are all those nude women, girls, and handsome young guys?  I’m not talking about being offended by nakedness, we are not children. But in many cases, when we admire a painting or sculpture of a nude - what we are viewing are young women and young men who were selling their privacy because they were desperate for income.  We see the calm gorgeous young woman; so often that girl is 15 or 16, selling her nakedness for a pittance; vulnerable to assault by that painter or others around him.  This is not the story of just one painting and it is not a irrelevant issue. These were people in hard times and places; how do we think about that when we are admiring light on flesh, the invitation in her eyes, the muscles in his legs.

Really?

Museums inspire, educate, and preserve.

Museums exploit, steal, horde, and divide.

We need to respect that museums are complicated places, requiring more of us than the price of the ticket. 

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Comments

it's a date...mystery tour of Milwaukee's hidden museum gems....also....see Susan Powers novel Sacred Wilderness for a native american painting that cracks some glass....

Very thoughtful reflections on the pros and cons of museums. l will be thinking about what you said for a long time - certainly every time I go to a museum. In ABQ there is The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center -- I particularly like it because it is a creation of and is run by 19 NM Pueblos -- they did not have to steal the stuff there because they own it and have loaned or donated items which they want to share with the general public. There is also a nice restaurant which features Native American food and a gift shop that sells wonderful stuff (some exceedingly pricey) which is guaranteed to be made by Native American artisans. And just recently they opened a Laguna Burger joint on the property -- now folks from ABQ do not have to drive all the way to Laguna Pueblo to get one of their famous burgers. And no, I have never eaten one because I am allergic to wheat, but I trust the good reputation is deserved.

Modern museums are a whole new breed. There is a museum of FLOUR in Minneapolis! that was fabulous! http://www.millcitymuseum.org/ The Holocaust Museum in DC. I would love to see the new African-American Museum of the Smithsonian complex. https://nmaahc.si.edu/ It is energizing to be in these places where the question is the truthful story and how to tell it - instead of rich people collections and how to show them. When we come to your town (ABQ is how we abbreviate it??) - I want to see that museum.

We went to MSI a few times as kids. Grew up and took our own kids. Love your stories. Is the coal mine still there?

Yep, and it still clangs throughout the hall when the elevator goes up and down.

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