I spent a week in Washington, D.C. this summer. A strange trip, to be sure. Friends tell me it is a great city for museums and monuments and not much else. I’m not so sure. I give cities many chances. I am often surprised. I was quite differently surprised there that week.
When one goes to a museum, one expects things. This is true of most places one goes– there are expectations, met, surpassed, events that fall far short of the bar. Things rarely happen just as one supposes things should. In a museum, one usually expects… quiet… engagement with the exhibits, perhaps… sometimes awe… and usually, acceptance of the material presented.
There are certain things in a museum one does not expect. I was quiet after meandering through the gems and geology hall in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, winding down the ramp from the second to the first floor and into the fossils and paleobiology exhibit. Bones. Bones and bones, tree bones, stone bones once vegetable flesh, the cellulose preserved for perhaps as long as this planet decides to last, then the fossilized frames of the hulking giants of Kingdom Animalia who no longer walk the sod now beneath my toes, fish bones mounted to the walls, frozen in time as though frozen in water. And there, still amid the jostling crowds from so many nations, silent amid the voices speaking so many languages, there was the triceratops. It had been years since I had given dinosaurs the least of thoughts, decades since I had proclaimed “I want to be a paleontologist!” But here he was, despite my forsaking him. A skeleton as big as a bull Indian elephant, a specter of my childhood passions. I stood transfixed, unicorn in pocket, leaned up against the railing and rocked to the core. Here was my triceratops. I had longed as a little girl to see him, this one, and finally, finally here I was. I had longed to dig the bones of his kin out of the earth, to touch them with my own fingers, to heft them in my hands after dusting off the last bit of dirt with a tiny brush (after the shovels and the heavy machinery had made this last careful work possible). What changed? Why did I turn to the study of people when these ancient giants waited silently beneath for my touch? The anthropologist in me was quiet for the first time since high school, and I could feel the tears pricking at my eyes. The whole world, despite the children running, the photos snapping, the roar of a hundred different languages spoken at once, the whole world was small-quiet-still and glowing.
I held these questions heavy in my head as I back-tracked through the museum and wandered upstairs to the Western Cultures Hall. Humanity and our buried history fascinates me, and yet the ancient traces of people long gone did not hold the same power as the triceratops. The anthropologist in me woke up: what are the social implications of the dioramas presented by the museum? What kind of ideas do they provoke in the visitors? Is this a responsible way to portray the people of the past? Are people as engaged with this as they are with, say, Colonial Williamsburg? Why not the history of “World Cultures?” How many visitors understand the bias and value judgements implicit in focusing on so small a section of the world? The questions kept churning; they wouldn’t stop.
The walls of the exhibit hall wear painted silhouettes of people– a male and female figure, each. Near the heads of these silhouettes are a set of lines marking the height of ancient people of the area featured in a nearby diorama, and a set of lines marking the height of modern peoples in the same area. When one enters the hall, the first of these sets of silhouettes is marked 30,000 years ago, at least as I recall. I know they were a tool to help engage visitors with the exhibits they were seeing, but even still, I didn’t think much about these murals.
There are certain things in a museum one does not expect. On my way out of the exhibit hall, I passed the “30,000 years ago” silhouette, and a young couple stood gazing at it. What caught me short was his voice: “If I lived 30,000 years ago, I wouldn’t be this tall, because no one was alive then! This is such bullshit! None of this is proven! The earth is only, like, 6,000 years old! They should read the Bible.” I stopped completely, halted in my tracks. The only response I could muster was to stare at him disgustedly, but inside something hurt. I couldn’t pin down exactly what it was that ached so with his comments.
At first my mind spun out questions: what was he doing in this museum if he was so adamantly against the exhibits? Then I wished I had talked to him– my dirty look had been aimed at his entire belief system. That must be an awful feeling, to have someone angry at your religion… but there was something missing still. That last thought held an empty spot, a missing chunk of thought. He wasn’t thinking about what others around him thought when he said what he did. He didn’t care that he had spouted all of that off in a place of… (and here I paused, as the realization bubbled up after a long quiet)… in a holy place. In a temple devoted to our society’s origin myths, in a place where the past as the (white secular mainstream affluent) West understands it is revered. He had shit in my holy.
And it was holy. That was the glow. Triceratops was the god of my childhood, no longer my patron, but still of my pantheon, ancient and secret and strange. Part numb and part tingling, like a shadow I floated along the walls down to the gift shop; like a tourist at Lourdes, I bought my icon of the apparition– a bean-stuffed triceratops, soft and vaguely musty-smelling; like a pilgrim on the road, I made my way back to the hall of fossils and stood against the flow of bodies and stared at Triceratops. I asked a blessing of His ancient bones.
And I asked a blessing of His ancient bones. There are certain things in a museum one does not expect.