Friday, March 28, 2008

Highbrow!: A post about musems

In a somewhat recent issue of the New Yorker there was an article that complained of that museums have become so focused on their own architecture that the content—and the visitors—are almost superfluous. Peter Schjeldahl writes, "Witness the revamped Museum of Modern Art: it is less a building than a life-size architectural maquette, in with you and I will the roles of little figures stuck in to convey scale."

For someone who majored in Art History, I've never been much for museums. I find most of them alienating and cold—even the the older, staid, less architecturally bombastic museums like the Met (which Schjeldahl favors) elevate their contents to such heights that I feel inspired to worship rather than connect.

Last year, Derrick and I spent some town in a mountain town in southern Spain called Ronda. One morning, listless and hung over and seeking shade, we wandered into Lara's Museum, which is relatively tiny and (I think) privately owned. At first, the hodge-podge of antiques, dusty clocks and old photos was less than compelling. The owner followed us at a few paces, picking up an old accordian on display and playing a few notes, rearranging this and that. Nothing was behind glass and anything—for better or worse—could be touched. It was hard to take Lara's Museum seriously.

But then we descended into the basement, where we discovered an extensive collection of torture devices from the Spanish Inquisition and an interrogation scene cobbled together with crudely painted mannequins in authentic clothing. The juxtaposition of the exposed mechanics of cheap display and the horror of real (and USED) remnants of torture was disconcerting and very powerful. As was the fact that you could touch the guillotine or the head crusher. As were the bluntly worded and badly translated captions that accompanied each item, for example: "Used to crush head until brain come out ears."

After a while, we weren't feeling very well. That's when the owner, who was still tailing us, jumped behind a display of a 17th century sherry winery and jovially offered to pour us some Moscatel. We were grateful, if a little perplexed. Once recovered, we went upstairs to check out a collection of old World War I photographs unceremoniously tacked to the wall. Again, there was something very affecting about viewing history is all its cracked, yellowed, fragile glory. No glass, no guards, nothing to buffer you from the fact that, yes, all this really happened. It really was something of a revelation. More than coming to understand Spain's difficult history intellectually, me and Derrick left Lara's Museum feeling it emotionally.

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