Let me start by saying that I adore museums. For me they are spiritual and meditative places. I don’t mean that to sound corny. I’m not shivering with awe when I step into a museum; it’s just that they help to take me outside of myself and my everyday problems. At the same time, they also seem to help reconnect me when I’m feeling untethered or disgruntled. There’s a peace in the reminder of past cultures and traditions as well as in the innovations of contemporary artists. Museums help me mentally reset, and I’m ever thankful for them.
And yet. Museums are also warehouses filled with shockingly amazing artifacts, new and old. They are pristine and orderly (usually), with things taxonomically arranged on walls, on pedestals, and in glass cases. The stuff in the glass cases often gets passed over, don’t you think? I mean, when you step into a museum and there’s a massive canvas painting on a wall in the gallery, you’re not going to miss it. But those little fragments and jewels and manuscript pages in a glass case? Small, off-the beaten path . . . Therefore insignificant, right? Hardly.
In the context of a museum, it can feel that way. Take, for example, my recent visit to the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) with my infant daughter. We (I) were admiring some Assyrian and Persian relief fragments in (or maybe just above?) a glass case as we walked through a gallery. I was so underwhelmed by them that I had to remind myself of their original context. As much as these sorts of displays often make us feel like we’re looking at computer-generated visitor-center-type imagery, they’re not. Emphatically.
Standing at SAM in front of a collection of relief fragments, I called on my art-historical training to remind myself of what Assyrian art was about. About who King Ashurbanipal was. I was reminded of the tremendous age of this amazing artifact. Of the skill of the person who created it. Of the way it might have looked in its original context in “Room XXXIII of the Southwest Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh, Iraq.” I tried to picture the firelight flickering against the relief as ancient music played. I pictured Jacob Hirsch of New York excavating this in Iraq at some point in the early twentieth century. His excitement upon uncovering this remarkable find. And it reminded me to not pass this work by, in spite of its diminished context.
The sad thing is that a lot of museum visitors don’t have an art-historical or historical knowledge of the ancient Near East to draw on and help them appreciate these “lesser” works of art in a museum. I’m not sure it’s the museum’s job to provide the context to make the average visitor appreciate how remarkable and rare and special these works of art are. But I’m not sure it isn’t either. Something to ponder.