Exhibit One

23 07 2011

It’s got to be some sort of record:  fifteen museums in four days.  That’s what Daughter Number One and I did in Washington, D.C. recently while Daughter Number Two participated in a Journalism Seminar at a nearby university. [Numbers refer to birth order and do not imply academic achievement, intellectual standings, or favoritism of any sort.] And as Daughter Number One, hereafter called “Christa,” will tell you, when I go to a museum, I read everything and visit every exhibit.  Although, I will admit that I didn’t read the plate beside each painting in each of the seven art museums we visited.  My brain starts hurting when I try to decipher how the artist’s use of line, form, and color indicate certain emotions, qualities, or statements on the condition of life.  Christa, an art student herself, pointed out one abstract work that apparently touches people so deeply that they start sobbing when they look at it.  I, too, almost sobbed when I saw the $7 price tag of a simple pb&j sandwich in the cafeteria of one of the museums.  And it was on white bread.  Artists, I’ve come to realize, live in a different plane of existence, sort of like the difference between me and the Dalai Lama.

Museums are great bastions of self-inflicted learning.  Here’s a few things I learned.

1. The Etruscans, the people of ancient Italy before they knew where they were, spent an enormous amount of time making and naming jars solely to confound Art History students.

2. The Guerrilla Girls didn’t monkey around when it came to letting the world know of the inequities laden upon female artists.  Because of them, pieces such as Niki de Saint Phalle’s  Les Trois Grâces are now on display in the middle of the street outside the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

3. The real exhibits are not the ones behind the glass or velvet ropes of the museums.  The real exhibits are the visitors trouping through, laden with cameras, diaper bags, snacks, and water bottles, dragging their children (or running to catch up with them), pushing their elderly parents in wheelchairs, or napping on benches behind museum brochures outlining all four floors and sixteen galleries.

At first I felt sorry for the guards standing around all day making sure that all was secure and everybody knew where the bathrooms were.  The most noticeable guard is the one who greets you as you enter and then pokes a stick around in your purse, backpack, or diaper bag to make sure you are not carrying around anything sharp or explosive.  I wonder what they do when confronted with the occasional dirty diaper.  I had one very meticulous guard who made me unzip each of the 29 compartments in my L.L. Bean bag, even opening a pouch containing another bag (which I always carry just in case I find something I have to have that won’t fit in my five-cubic-foot shoulder bag), but not even looking in the huge white paper bag that contained a loaf of breakfast bread I had bought at a street market we had chanced upon.  It could have been a bomb.  It must have been his first day.

Then there are the guards who stand in each room.  Occasionally they will tell you that photography is not allowed, and I even had one tell me to carry my bag on the front instead of on my back.  Christa said it was because I was less likely to knock into objets d’arte that way.  I think it was a power thing.  Most of the time, though, they stand there motionless, sometimes shifting positions as you enter so you won’t think they are statues and want to take a picture of them.

“How do they stand the boredom?” I thought.  Until it occurred to me: they had a never-ending display of exhibits constantly moving through their room.  It’s kind of like that Disney ride where you sit down and then moving images and wind give you the impression that you are traveling at great speeds until you start to get that queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach and start looking for the nearest exit.

These guards see it all: whiny children whose only interest is what toy they can get at the gift shop, whiny husbands who want to get back to the hotel so they can watch ESPN, and whiny mothers who want to hurry up and finish already so they can mark it off their list (Check: Provided Children with Enriching Summer Experiences).  I saw a beautiful Jewish family, with father and son wearing skullcaps and daughter with long blond braids, make their way slowly through the National Geographic Museum’s exhibit on The Race to Antarctica.  Mom and Dad took time to explain each area to the two children in their terms, letting the children’s interest lead the way.  I saw a huge family group of fifteen or more, with a severely disabled child in a wheelchair, explore the National History Museum.  The logistics of keeping up with a group that size in the crowded museum boggled my mind, but they all seemed happy and excited to be there together.  I felt like a foreigner in my own country, listening to languages of unknown origin, wondering how the Asian family in traditional dress stood the heat, understanding the tone if not the words as families laughed, fussed, or played with each other.  Most touching were the elderly: the husband and wife slowly making their way from room to room, stopping frequently to rest on benches; the adult child patiently walking beside her elderly mother’s walker, stopping to examine a painting with a cocked head.

It reminds me of that cell phone commercial where the people have bars over their heads indicating the strength of their provider.  Each group, each person visiting these museums had a story: where they were from, what they were doing, what they had experienced in their lives.  How interesting it would be if above their heads was a marker of sorts, telling their story, telling their strengths!  I imagine those guards, after months of experience, can piece together some of their stories from the bits and pieces they leave behind.  How much could we learn about our world and how to get along in it, if we just paid more attention to the real exhibits in the museum.