Why I love museums

Over in the MuseumsTO Meetup page, Julian Kingston asked the group what our “lightbulb moment” was – when was it that we first fell in love with museums.

I actually had to think about it. I grew up in Toronto, so like many Toronto kids, I went to the ROM, AGO, and Ontario Science Centre on weekends with my family, on weekdays with school trips, and in the summer as a camper. I can’t actually remember my first visit to any of those places, but I do remember my visits always being incredible.

Julian really got me thinking about what it was that drew me to these institutions. I mean, they are full of cool stuff and a big part of their mandates is to present cool things in a cool way. As I read other contributors’ responses to this question a common theme emerged – a moment when each of us felt a connection to the past. Julian was standing guard as a historical interpreter at Fort Henry in Kingston when, for a blissful moment, the visitors and sounds of modern life faded away and he realized he was looking out on a vista veritably unchanged since 1853.

That confusion of space and time (if only) is what gets me. I thought back to my first time seeing the Rosetta Stone. And as incredible as this artifact was in itself, in its importance in deciphering hieroglyphs (where would museums be without children’s fascination with Ancient Egypt?), I was more struck by how I was standing a mere foot away from the inscriptions, as had millions of tourists, as had its discoverer, as had the person who had etched those signs. This mental collapsing of space and time was like that scene from The Time Machine (minus the moon colony part).

I get the same feeling when staring up close at a work of art. In the physical space in front of a masterpiece I get the feeling: This is it. This is that piece you’ve seen in books, and studied, on which you’ve been tested and written papers. And aside from the historical and cultural significance of a specific piece, there’s another thought that crops up: And the artist once stood where I’m standing now. Michelangelo/Monet/Cardiff/(insert artist’s name of choice) once looked at this work in the exact way you are looking at it now.

And I mean, come on. That’s pretty cool.

The feeling gets even more intense when I visit a space or building with history.  I remember walking in Rome and being blown away as a young teenager. Gladiators walked on these roads, man. I climbed stairs that had been worn away by millions of feet over the centuries, and my shoes were adding their own microscopic mark.

Then I got to thinking about digital museums. They’re brilliant because they take away the barriers of distance and cost of admission and thereby make artifacts and artworks infinitely more accessible. But you sure don’t get that same feeling a I was talking about. I suppose I could picture other digital visitors staring at their monitors in the same way I do. But that connection to past viewers, and to the work’s creator, is diminished so much as to be lost entirely for me.

Somewhere between these two experiences lies the Google Art Project. For one thing, you can Google-drive your way around some of the institutions, which are in themselves masterful. A stroll through Versailles, anyone? And what really gets me, what brings me back to that connection with the artist, is when you zoom all the way in. You get to see the markmakings up close and personal – even more so than you would in real life. You can have your very own Ferris Bueller experience. What’s up, Courbet?

Do you love museums? Why? What’s your take on virtual museums?

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