Humour by Rehana Munir: Museum musings
The pandemic has made me nostalgic about nostalgia. Which is to say, I miss walking around museums. In this transient world of disappearing stories, there’s still a space we can retreat to that preserves the past. It’s an unrivalled feeling, losing oneself in the sprawling halls and high-ceilinged rooms of a well-curated museum, the key qualities of which, everyone knows, are a clean loo and good café.
Bowie and Buddha
My first visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London was on a blustery autumn morning. I was one of the lucky few who had been admitted inside for an early viewing of what was to become their record-shattering David Bowie exhibition. Drifting from one jaw-dropping exhibit to another – here a display of iconic costumes, there a full-blown concert flashing on the towering walls – my imagination was fired by the possibilities for making history not just come alive but grab you by the throat and make you pay attention.
Taking a break near the fountain outside with a meringue from the stunning café, I returned inside to see some of the permanent exhibits. Here, I saw a young man holding up a child of about four – presumably his son – so he could have a better view of a metal statue of the Buddha meditating. I remember him saying to his child: “This was a man who found a way out of the violence and misery of the world. He showed us that there is a peaceful way…” Bowie and Buddha are forever fused in my mind thanks to that magical morning at the museum.
Three inches to the left, please
Not all museum experiences are transcendental, of course. (Raise your hand if you, too, have suffered the fibreglass stack of paos at the confounding Museum of Goa.) Six months before the world closed down, I was granted an audience with the most objectified woman of the last few centuries, at the Louvre. I had been forewarned about how the chaos of the scene takes away from the art and the emotion. Just as anticipated, I was herded into the hallowed hall, got my two minutes of darshan from the far end of the room, and was allowed a fleeting close-up while being herded right out. Not exactly the best conditions for communing with da Vinci’s muse, but looking back, being in a roomful of unmasked strangers from around the world without fear is a memory to savour.
In the garden of the Musée de l’Orangerie, I encountered two bronze-cast lovers in eternal embrace in a version of Rodin’s The Kiss. Inside, Monet’s Water Lilies were displayed as per the artist’s wishes, in two elliptical rooms with curving walls, with natural light from the roof taking the sun’s daily commute along the Seine into account. Something to bear in mind before hanging a Monet print on your wall and then abandoning the project in a fit of inadequacy and guilt.
A book, a museum and a free ticket
In Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (2008), the Nobel-winning Turkish author weaves a pathos-laden love story set in Istanbul between 1975 and 1984. In it, the protagonist Kemal preserves objects related to his one-time lover, Füsun, with whom he still maintains a social closeness. Even as he wrote the book, Pamuk conceptualised a museum to go along with it. The museum, which stands in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district, houses objects that spring from the book and upper-class life in Istanbul during the period the story is set in. And here’s the cheap thrill: There’s a ticket printed in the closing pages of the book, which allows one entry into the museum for free. The edition that I read was about 800 pages long, and I’m personally grateful for this reward.
Often, the architecture of a museum is a work of art in itself, like the softly beckoning mosaic dome of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly The Prince of Wales Museum, established in 1922. The Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla, known as ‘The Victoria and Albert Museum, Bombay’ till 1975, started life even before, in 1872. For a city that is too often forced to forget names and misremember histories, it’s particularly comforting to have charming public spaces that stand as monuments to memory.
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From HT Brunch, July 11, 2021
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