Museum of Museums II: How do museums reveal the unknown?

In March I started a “Museum of Museums” on Pinterest. Thank you to readers who suggested additions from Dylan and Collins, as well as the film “Museum Hours.” Here are two more additions, which I share in part because I find them so beautiful. But also because they remind me of the mystical aspects of museums, the ways in which museums can open new external and internal worlds for visitors.

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

Her father sends her on a children’s tour of the museum where he works. The guide is a hunchbacked old warder hardly taller than a child himself. He raps the tip of his cane against the floor for attention, then leads his dozen charges across the gardens to the galleries.

The children watch engineers use pulleys to lift a fossilized dinosaur femur. They see a stuffed giraffe in a closet, patches of hide wearing off its back. They peer into taxidermists’ drawers full of feathers and talons and glass eyeballs; they flip through two-hundred-year-old herbarium sheets bedecked with orchids and daisies and herbs.

This tour ends with a locked door, and a story about a priceless jewel that may or may not bring bad luck, that may or may not be real.

An herbarium sheet

An herbarium sheet

What if museum exhibitions and tours simply shared wonder? After all, this is what museums once were – cabinets of curiosity, wunderkamer, places to encounter the marvelous and the unknown. This is much harder to achieve in today’s world, when the “unknown” can be known – on some level – through a google search. But it must still be possible…

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central paintings of a triptych, titled ‘Bordando el Manto Terrestre’, were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world. Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she’d wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. She could carry the sadness of the moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears, those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from cry to cry. She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there’d been no escape.

[There are no uncopyrighted images of this Remedios Varo painting that I can share on this site, but you can view it here.]

When does a museum visit lead us to discover something about ourselves? Oedipa has an epiphany about her life because of this painting. How often does this happen? How would we know? If it can’t be measured, does it matter? (Yes.) If it is an individual response, is it worth considering this possibility in our exhibition and program planning? (Yes.)

If you know of novels, poems, or other sources that convey the mystical wonder of museums, please share them. It’s a nice way to remind ourselves of what museums can be.

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