Saturday, January 2, 2010

To the things themselves

Thinking about the Pierpont Morgan and an image I posted a while back that was overly cryptic and that I had meant to go back to explain...

About fifteen years ago I visited the museum, back in its original incarnation before the Renzo Piano addition. I like the new light- and air-filled space in and of itself, but wish it weren't attached to the museum, the experience of which has been irretrievably altered for me as a result. From a patron's perspective, all that seems to be left of the original museum are Mr. Morgan's library and study, and to enter those encapsulated spaces from the atrium is like stepping into a tomb or sarcophagus. My memory of the museum isn't entirely clear (and I wonder if I might be conflating it with the Gardner Museum in Boston), but surely there was more to it than remains now. For example, wasn't there a long hallway along which images were displayed? (I recall framed Beatrix Potter illustrations at one time.) And that the hallway maybe overlooked a peaceful courtyard? I had enjoyed the sense of stepping back in time in the original museum. It had felt timeless and spacious to me - vital and energizing, stirring my imagination, not just a pair of dutifully preserved rooms.

In my visit years ago, in Mr. Morgan's library room was a display of correspondence by various writers, artists, scientists, and others. I vividly remember my experience of peering down at a glass case and setting out to read a letter by Virginia Woolf. The room was hushed, footfalls cushioned by carpeting, patrons silent or speaking in whispers. One could concentrate to read. I made out Woolf's handwriting, even and neat as I recall... the two most perfect novels in the English language are Emma, by Jane Austen, and The Small House at Allington, by Anthony Trollope. Wow! What a recommendation! But why? I made out the words. Woolf posited that more so than in any other works, the hand of the author is entirely invisible, that the main characters and situation are so perfectly conceived and realized that all the action flows seamlessly and inevitably from them as a result.

Virginia Woolf came alive for me at that moment, and over vast gulfs of time, culture, and intellect, I felt as though she was speaking directly to me. I took her recommendation to heart. That very afternoon I purchased the two novels, which in the weeks that followed I read in light of her insightful pronouncement, and enjoyed greatly. I marveled that Woolf had actually caused me to read those books at that time, and together. I own them to this day, and while I confess to not remembering a single thing about the Trollope, to dip into Emma at any point is to bring her charming and insufferable self to life and to be reminded of the havoc she wreaks.

I think of this peak museum experience now in connection with a contrasting one, at the same museum, last Saturday. I visited the Morgan to see an exhibit of Jane Austen correspondence and ephemera, anticipating with pleasure being able to read her words in her own handwriting. But I found it impossible to read the material on display because a video was audibly playing in a corner of the gallery space. I don't understand why the video needed to be played there. Downstairs was a theatre where I had caught the tail end of a 16-minute film, shown hourly, on Austen (which ended charmingly if improbably with Cornel West saying that he'd want to give Austen a hug). The theatre sits empty for some 44 minutes of every hour. Why not show the other film in this space? That way patrons who are visiting a bibliophilic museum - and who might be expected, as a result, to actually wish to read - may be able to do so. Was the distracting intrusion of the video a de facto assault on the old-fashioned act of reading itself - that words on paper that patrons have voluntarily journeyed and paid to see, aren't enough? This curatorial approach seems to me to be consistent with the way that the original museum, with all its grandeur and charms, seems to have been purposely engulfed by the new addition.

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