On not visiting

As part of my overly-ambitious plan for my trip home this winter break, I had planned to go to New York as an appetizer for family-related celebrating in Boston. The proverb goes, "man plans, God laughs," and in my case that is usually true; this time, I got sick two days before we were set to leave. With paranoia about H1N1 still rampant, and not wanting to risk being kicked off the plane for sneezing, or to infect everyone in NY while sitting miserably on the couch but in a foreign city, we cancelled that leg of the trip. I spent my recovery jealously thinking of the places I planned to go: the Strand bookstore, the Met gift shop, the Frick (old favourites, all); the Kandinsky show at the Guggenheim, the Tim Burton show at MOMA... I consoled myself with thoughts of visiting the Toulouse-Lautrec show at the MFA in Boston instead, and drowning my sorrows in their wonderful bookstore. Alas, that was not to be, either. Whatever time I had apart from family obligations was eaten up by ... well, more family obligations.

So what happened during those days? How did my not visiting museums alter my experience of my vacation?

Well, I realised two things:
1. Museums (of a national/international profile) bear little relation to their geographical setting. That is, they contribute little to a sense of place other than an aura of cultural sophistication, even if they contribute landmark architecture.
2. Relatedly, by taking the museum out of the equation, one experiences place much more intimately - as a set of bounded relationships, travels, sights, and sounds which connect in a more meaningful way than a set of guidebook checkmarks meant for the tourist.

By this I mean to say that in a paradoxical way, I felt I belonged to the place (Boston) more than I do when I take the T downtown and spend the day in the MFA or the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. My visit was about family and my own personal heritage, not about world culture within dimly-lit walls. Sure, I still feel pangs of regret at not seeing those exhibits or buying those wonderful books I might have - but the nature of my trip was fundamentally different than it would have been had I tried to combine the tourist element with my other aim, that of being with family.

The moral of the story, kids, is: you are under no obligation to visit museums, and sometimes it's important to engage with the living, not just the ghosts of the dead.


Elee said…
True, but the flipside is when you live somewhere for ages, and never take advantage of the museums and culture because you're too busy with day-to-day life.

I lived in Oxford for four years, and in that time I never visited the Ashmolean or the Museum of Modern Art. And who knows if I'd have visited the University museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers unless I'd been directed there by tutors.

Because I did visit the Natural History museum, it has become part of what I love about Oxford. I looked at the website the other day, had a flashback to the smell of the museum, and felt a pang of joy at the thought of going there again. It has become like a friend that I must visit if I ever go there, to find out its news, but also to feel its familiarity.

Weirdly, much of the rest of Oxford has lost that sense. The people that I knew when I was there have all gone, and I feel a bit sad and lonely wandering around with all those strangers everywhere. But as long as the museum is there I know I'll have at least one friend.
J said…
What a lovely story, Elee. So true! I often think of museums and museum objects as old friends!

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