To be sure, these are vital question for all of humanity. In this brief essay, I’d like to reflect more narrowly on how museums, as heirs to the ancient temples of the Muses, in which persons from many different walks of life are normally invited to gather together to contemplate the mysteries of the universe and the full range of the products of human imagination, might continue to pursue our core ethical missions, even as we must, for a time, restrict the physical proximity of human bodies within our galleries.
Museums and the Age of the World Picture
During a recent (face to face) conversation with philosopher Andreas Teuber at Brandeis University, it occurred to me that these challenges might be framed in terms of trying to connect several aspects of the (admittedly difficult) thought of Martin Heidegger. In his “Age of the World Picture” essay, Heidegger famously unpacks the overwhelming tendency in the modern world to experience the world-as-picture, to conceive of reality as fundamentally organized through the mediation of mirrors, windows, painted canvases, still and moving projections on screens, refracted images glimpsed through microscopes and telescopes, and other framing devices. All such instances of the world-as-picture may be potentially subject to formal mathematical characterizations and formal abstracted analysis. Real knowledge is, we have been long conditioned to think, dependent on knowing the world as a picture, as organized by and accessible through pictures, screens and charts, which seemingly impose upon the chaotic flux of sensory impressions that continuously stream upon us the possibility of order and rigor, allowing us to “know” (or at least to think we know) the world in a coherent fashion. This long term modern tendency has only been intensified by our increasing proclivity to live our lives on and through screens, to know the world through computers, smart phone displays, and related technological systems which, in Walter Benjamin’s sense, distance us from the primal “aura” of direct sensory encounters with external phenomena.
Since their inception, museums have been in many respects temples dedicated, in effect, to the age of the world picture, in Heidegger’s sense. They are filled with paintings, or photographs, or equivalent organizing visual devices (including exhibition display cases) that frame selected exemplars of natural or cultural phenomena within organizing and authority-conferring confines (usually composed of right angles and straight lines), as a way of giving our visitors, we imply, a glimpse into deeper knowledge of the world. We intensify this tendency to “know” the world-as-picture through video displays, touch screens, and web-cams, which invite our viewers to explore the mysteries of the universe and our place within it, by gazing into the microcosmic confines of a framed-off picture. A marvelous example of this technology is the “Science on a Sphere” system from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in which the “screen” becomes a great globe itself, which visitors can manipulate a touchscreen to call up hundreds of dazzling visualizations of complex datasets depicting all manner of natural and social phenomena, across the planet and across the universe.
Crossing Over, Together
Yet, museums are so much more than than amalgamations of framed-off pictures and screens, predicated on distanced, abstracted apprehension of studied phenomena. They are very particular kinds of places, human-created physical structures that contain objects, stored in vaults or displayed in galleries, in such a way that invites people to move within them rather like pilgrims of old, seeking something that is emphatically beyond the frameworks of ordinary, conventional experience. As Stephen Bann reminds us, early modern cabinets of curiousity, the forerunners of modern museums, were themselves transformations of medieval reliquaries, the destination of pilgrims, who sought enlightenment and transformation through direct encounters with framed-off esoteric objects. Like ancient pilgrims, modern museum visitors find themselves at times bowled over, simply overwhelmed, by the experience of encountering objects of jaw-dropping wonder in the presence of other people. We are taken out of ourselves, out of our conventional solitary experience, through encounters with the miraculous; and sometimes our most meaningful moments within a museum are when we find ourselves talking about an art work or a soaring re-assembled dinosaur skeleton with a person whom a moment earlier had been a complete stranger. We are bound together in the museum, often unexpectedly, with our fellow travelers, in the irreducible presence of the physical object.
Andreas, in the course of our conversation about how museums might navigate this current moment of crisis, mentioned Heidegger’s fascinating mediations on bridges, as articulated, for instance, in his essay, “Building Dwelling Thinking” For Heidegger, the bridge encapsulates the miraculous qualities of human-built things, which actively transform the spaces they occupy into meaningful places, gathering together normally disparate or opposed aspects of experience. The bridge not only unites opposed banks of a stream or river, but makes distant destinations proximate, and grants to those who cross it a shared sense of wonder, a sense of together being momentarily between worlds, of being lifted out of our ordinary existence, being grounded on something that is emphatically not normal ground. Crossing the bridge, we are lifted up for a soaring moment towards the sky above, even as we have not entirely left the earth. For this reason, Heidegger suggests, medieval bridges often displayed a statue of a saint, blessing all those who journeyed across it; the bridge offers a momentary passage into the Other World of the great beyond, and in that sense presents in microcosm a vision of our great journey through life and across domains of existence. As Heidegger puts it, “The bridge gathers to itself in its own way earth and sky, divinities and mortals.”
Museums as Bridges
At their best, museums are bridges. They are human-built passageways that lift us, for a time, above our regular selves, in the presence of other travelers. They gather together those of us are living, and those who came before us, they unite the terrestrial and the celestial, and give us thrilling glimpses of that which lies beyond the regular frames of our daily existence. They are in-between places, which we move through with others, as we are reminded of early childhood wonder, that which we may have always known, but which we all too often forget.
|National Gallery of Art, East Wing. Second Level||Bridge|
|Interior bridge, US Holocaust Memorial Museum||(Max Reid)|
The Work of Bridging
Today (Friday, March 13, 2020) is the last day for weeks, perhaps for months, that these museums, and the bridges they contain, will be open to the public. Our challenge, in the museum world, is how do we preserve those bridge-like qualities of museums, when we must, for reasons of safety, part with one another physically, and confine ourselves within our separate quarters? How might our screens, through which we tend to know the universe in our modern era of the “World Picture,” somehow afford us the bridge-like sensation of profoundly meaningful discovery, exploration, and journeying, in the presence of others? How might we still gather together, as Heidegger puts it, “earth and sky, divinities and mortals”?
In the period ahead, it seems to me especially important that our virtual exhibitions do more than simply convey information about the crisis (as important as public health advisories are). We need to encourage our virtual visitors and community partners to reach across the isolating flatness of their respective screens, as it were, and connect meaningfully to one another. Together, we must continue to nurture the bonds of community, even (especially) in the era of “social distancing.”
As we extend our public programs and exhibitions into virtual domains, museums cannot cure all that ails us. But we can serve as vital bridges, continuing to bind us to one another during these strange days and nights, and remind us all of our better angels, gathering together all who are stranded, for a time, across opposite banks of the great river.