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Why I love museums

My first trip to the British Museum

So, in my travels for research I’ve been to a number of museums (not for research; for personal edification and fun). In Germany I’ve visited three museums in Munich (one of Egyptian art, two of Classical), one in Leipzig (Mendelssohn’s house), two in Wolfenbüttel (Schloss & Bibliothek). In Firenze alone I visited the Archaeological Museum, the Palazzo Pitti, the Accademmia, San Marco, and the Uffizi (one museum fewer than in three German cities!). In Milan I visited the museum in the Castello Sforzesco and the archaeological museum, plus the exhibit in the treasury of Sant’Ambrogio. In Paris I visited the Louvre, the Musée nationale du Moyen Age (aka Cluny), and an exhibit/archaeological site beneath the parvis in front of Notre Dame. In Oxford I visited the Ashmolean and the Pitt Rivers Museums.

I don’t think I’ve been anywhere else on a research trip. Yet.

Anyway, I like going to museums. There are lots of reasons. Here are a few: old stuff rocks, museums connect us to the world, local museums connect us to where we are.

Old stuff rocks. (Do old rocks stuff?) This is the primary reason. In Munich (and here’s the actual inspiration for the post) I came face to face with this tiny, little carving. It was about an inch and a half wide, and an inch tall. It had a few wee figures carved onto it. Apparently it was the top off a sceptre. From 3000 BC.

That’s right. 5000-year-old art. Right in front of my face. Mind-blowing! Mind-boggling! Exquisite. Beautiful. Fantastic.

So much old stuff everywhere. I love observing the beauty of old, ancient objects. Real people, long dead and turned back into the dust whence they came, fashioned these objects. And through the many vicissitudes of time and history, these bits of human creativity have survived. And I, and anyone else who happens to visit these museums, get to see them.

What an immense privilege! A direct connection with our ancestors, with the people who forged our civilizations, who made decisions that may affect us now, today, for good or for ill.

As you know from my post about the Louvre (still having troubles linking to content on this blog, sorry), I love visiting Roman Emperors and Empresses and guessing who they are. That’s how precise Roman portraiture is. I  feel like I’m looking a pasty-white Augustus in the eye, you know?

Old stuff rocks.

Museums connect us to the world. Museums connect us to history; this is what the above stresses besides how much old rocks stuff (wait a minute …). In the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, you can see the tunic worn by Sir Isaac Brock, saviour of British North America, the day he died in the War of 1812. There is a clearly visible hole where he was shot.

But in the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, I as a boy got to see arms and armour from far-away, fairytale Europe as well as local artefacts of note. In a world before jet-setting the way people do now, this was a very important function of the museum. In Toronto, I could go to the Royal Ontario Museum and look at their very fine Egyptian collection, including mummies and a Book of the Dead and all the usual things. I couldn’t afford to go to Egypt (still can’t, frankly). But the museum brought Egypt to me.

The special exhibits hosted by the Canadian Museum of Civilization (in Gatineau, Quebec, across the river from Ottawa) brought to me as an undergrad Vikings and Danish Bog People and the Dead Sea Scrolls and Petra and Pompey. Fantastic.

Museums have also brought me into contact with cultures that are less well-represented on this blog. At the Glenbow when I last visited, they had a special display about Buddhist and Hindu art. Very interesting and very fascinating. I can even less afford to visit India, Korea, or Thailand than Egypt, but the museum brought their art to me, and I learned about their cultures.

Local museums connect you to where you are. This final point was one stressed at Milan’s Archaeological Museum. Why care about local archaeology and artefacts? Because that is what makes your city, your people unique. World history has shaped us; local history has shaped us.

In an age when all cities are homogenising with similar architecture and the same shops (Tesco in Shanghai, Pizza Hut in Cairo, Second Cup in Nicosia), it is the archaeological and material culture of your city’s own history that help make it unique, different. These objects connect us to these places, they help us see what has made them what they are, what they were.

So in Milan I saw some very fine Late Roman artefacts, through to the material remains of the Langobards (Lombards) and mediaeval frescoes in a Late Roman guard tower turned chapel. There was Milan, itself, unique, before me in the archaeology and artefacts of its history and the history of Lombardy.

So visit a museum soon. You might find some old rocks that stuff. I mean, old stuff that rocks. (I like that terrible, terrible joke far too much.)