Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tour d'Ivoire

Little known fact about Katie Jacobs: does not like museums.


My love-hate relationship with museums began while working in the living history field during college. There were a few very nice exhibits at my particular historical site, and I dutifully familiarized myself with them. And then I made friends with an archaeologist, and it was all over. All of a sudden, these artifacts of long ago were real, not encased behind glass with neat little placards telling me what to believe about them. One afternoon, we had a discussion about the manufacture of pins in the 18th century, and he explained how they were different than the commonly-used pins available to us at the fort. The next day, he brought in a couple of pins that had actually been excavated on-site, specifically for me to look at. I got to touch them. All of a sudden everything he had said about the way they were made and how they ought to look made sense. He held them in the palm of his hand, inches from my nose. That's when I made the connection between "living" and "history."

I guess it all comes down to accessibility. The thing I love best about living history and reenacting is how real it can all be. How it can be such a visceral connection with the past--you're living it, doing it, and it's part of you. In contrast, stepping into a museum feels very...sterile. Rows and hallways of little (or big) cases with special glass to cut down on glare. Scads of little signs, full of dates and factoids. A pall, a hush, and docents all-too-ready to accost you or tell you not to touch the one or two items that aren't behind glass. For each of those little signs, someone decided what he or she thought was important about the object in question, and that's all you get to know--so there. There's no connection, no identifying with the objects. They're important, they're behind glass, and that's as much as you get. Now don't leave nose prints on the glass, there's a good girl.

No, thank you.

But then, the ivory tower has never been for me. I've always looked askance at academia, and the elitism that goes along with it in so many cases. I'm also extremely stubborn, and if someone tells me I can't do something, you'd better believe I'm going to try my hardest to do just that. I'm THAT visitor--the one who all but crawls around on the floor (actually, I may have done that before) trying to see each thing from every angle. Anything not covered by glass will get breathed on as my face hovers inches from its surface, picking out details as closely as possible. And you'd better believe that if there's a hands-on section, I will be all over that.

All this is not, however, to complain about museums. It's to give you a little background so that you'll understand when I say that I am madly in love with the Winterthur collections, you'll understand how big a deal that really is. Because I am--in love, I mean. The Winterthur collections are the standard by which I measure all other museum experiences, which leaves other museums sadly lacking. True, I visited twice not as a conventional tourist, but as the guest of a Fellow there. That means I got to go places that normal people don't get to see, and see things that others don't. I'm all right with that. Because how can you not love 180 rooms crammed full of top-of-the-line American antiques, with next to no locked cases, fancy glass, or velvet ropes?

You can't not love it. Period. And traveling with Tyler, the student in question, opened up so many proverbial doors even in places where things were roped off. At one point, he shed his shoes in the middle of an exhibit, stepped onto the raised platform, and lifted a decorative dome on a lady's writing desk just so I could see what it looked like inside. He opened and closed a folding commode for me in the same exhibit, and opened pocketbooks for inspection of the stitching in the textile storage area. It was the epitome of all museum visits, wherein nothing was off limits and I had a fount of ready information at my side, willing to open, close, poke, prod, and explain things as needed. Magical. Simply magical.

In such a place, it's no only easy, but a joy to connect with the collections. It's almost as if the absence of glass or restraints mean you don't have to touch or hold anything, because it's just right there. Tea sets displayed naturally on beautiful cabinets, dishes laid out on a table. Architect's tools lying on a writing desk, as if the draftsman himself had only stepped out of the room but might return at any moment. You don't need to touch anything because you're in it, and it's one of the more amazing feelings I've ever experienced.

So there it is. That's the draw of living history for me. The mental, physical, and emotional connection with things, and by extension, people of the past. The challenge--get as close as you can to how it was, to feel as your ancestors felt and think as they thought. Train your eye to see as they did, and see what worlds unfold for you.

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