My sons and I didn’t drive three hours south over Memorial Day weekend to score candy; we went to see friends in my hometown, visit the graveyard, attend an Italian heritage festival, and watch the parade, which was basic but authentic: A VFW color guard, dignitaries in Chryslers, local marching bands and a pom-pom squad, students from a dance academy, a howl of fire trucks, Shriners in tiny waxed cars, a giant American flag borne by a platoon of citizens, men walking Harleys like hobbyhorses while pouring on the throttle, and the mascots for a minor-league baseball team—a muscled-up miner and a bundle of TNT with a grin and a jaunty fuse on its head—staggering along in heavy costumes in the heat and humidity, drawing sympathetic comments from onlookers such as, “Good god, it must be hot in that suit!”
There were no high-budget floats, no Sponge Bob dirigibles with dedicated crews on handling lines, no paeans to tourist icons or corporations, just a community celebrating its own tenuous existence. The people need jobs, and the city government needs money for infrastructure and social services. It’s the kind of place where there’s hope that the rumored Taco Bell franchise will materialize, and where much of the tax base comes from the devil’s deal of a waste transfer station on the edge of town.
But the parade route was short and candy is cheap, so everyone was throwing handsful of it to the crowd with a generosity that began to seem like compensation for something. My boys couldn’t believe their luck and declared their two favorite places on earth to be Chicago’s Loop and my hometown. They ran out in the street, grabbed candy before it clattered to a stop, showed off what they had, argued over it, shared with younger kids, and ran back to the curb to await the next volley, which came immediately. They were quickly soaked with sweat. After half an hour they had slowed down and were panting. An old woman I didn’t know kept insisting every couple of minutes that they hustle out for more as if it might get away and they would miss a real opportunity. They did as they were told, politely but wearily, until finally they collapsed on the grass with bulging grocery bags of the stuff, a bigger haul than at Halloween in our much bigger town.
The parade was over by then anyway. Normal traffic resumed, and the cars began to run over all the candy left lying on the main drag.
I’ve been thinking about museums lately, especially the ones where private collectors put their stuff on public display. Why are they always so odd, no matter their size, funding, or the effort involved? I can think of few other enthusiasms where things can go so tangibly wrong. And while an amateur cook’s bad meal can be fed to her Irish Wolfhound banging its massive skull on the underside of the table, it’s impossible not to feel trapped by the hopeful interest of the owner of a country road museum filled with century-old, flea-bitten taxidermy, amateur oil paintings by his dead grandpappy, and dust so thick it’s turning back into dirt. Won’t you buy my suspicious jellies? he asks. Proceeds support museum conservation efforts.
The closest agony to this experience used to be home movies, which were museums of the family, but YouTube solved a lot of that.
Even wealthy private museums, which presumably preserve important artifacts, often have no coherency, just the emotion that precedes it, and the effect is of isolated, atonal chords rather than song.
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, which I did enjoy years ago, has paintings by Velázquez, Titian, and Tintoretto, “splendid treasures of the Turkomen tribes,” entire buildings filled with circus memorabilia, copies of Michelangelo’s David and of Roman and Florentine fountains, and a Venetian Gothic mansion modeled on a Doge’s palace that’s “a tribute to the American Dream.” The state of Florida has apparently assumed control of the museum since I visited, but at heart it is what it is: Eclectic things chosen by the whims of a rich couple.
Umberto Eco writes about the castle of William Randolph Hearst (“his own Fortress of Solitude”) in San Simeon, California, which contains an “incontinent collection, [with] the bad taste of the nouveau riche,” all higgledy-piggledy with its jumble of Roman sarcophagi, baroque stairways, “fantasy Greco-Roman temple,” “Spanish-Mexican-style cathedral” with two 36-bell carillons, Gothic tympanum, a “great hall [that] is fake Renaissance presented as Italo-French,” and so on:
[W]hat offends is the voracity of the selection, and what distresses is the fear of being caught up by this jungle of venerable beauties, which unquestionably has its own wild flavor, its own pathetic sadness, barbarian grandeur, and sensual perversity, redolent of contamination, blasphemy, the Black Mass. It is like making love in a confessional with a prostitute dressed in a prelate’s liturgical robes reciting Baudelaire while ten electronic organs reproduce the Well-Tempered Clavier played by Scriabin.
But Eco finds that the Hearst castle is no anomaly. It fits right in on the California landscape, with this motel as neighbor:
The poor words with which natural human speech is provided cannot suffice to describe the Madonna Inn. […] Let’s say that Albert Speer, while leafing through a book on Gaudi, swallowed an overgenerous dose of LSD and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minnelli. But that doesn’t give you an idea. Let’s say Arcimboldi builds the Sagrada Familia for Dolly Parton. Or: Carmen Miranda designs a Tiffany locale for the Jolly Hotel chain. Or D’Annunzio’s Vittoriale imagined by Bob Cratchit, Calvino’s Invisible Cities described by Judith Krantz and executed by Leonor Fini for the plush-doll industry, Chopin’sSonata in B flat minor sung by Perry Como in an arrangement by Liberace and accompanied by the Marine Band. No, that still isn’t right….
Eco suggests all Americans have a horror of emptiness, so we set out to provide ourselves with evidence of “insane abundance” in order to “wish nothing further.” It’s a way of saying all Americans are prone to the collecting impulse, whether it’s Picassos, pornography, or old newspapers and cat piss. If that’s true, the private museum--or its online counterpart--is mere feedback to our determination to “wish nothing further”: I have something to display, therefore I am.
Museums are like any other cultural product, including blog posts, in that people create them to say one thing but often accidentally say another, especially when working independently. Our weekend trip reminded me that when I was a child, the tour of a mansion down on the river ended in the attic to see the reputed Native American scalps; Native American graves unearthed near another river were on display under a tin roof for a few bucks admission; and genetic mutations floated in bottles in the general store of a town where tourists drove to buy fresh peaches. Because of their contexts—or lack of them—these displays offered damning truths less likely to be discovered in governmental or corporate museums, where a greater attempt is made by committees to keep irony in check.
Last week I checked out a dozen books on museology, or museum studies. Obviously there’s been a change in recent years in the thinking about what a museum is, what it’s for, and what sorts of things should go in it. To try to catch up I’ve been browsing through Museum Origins, Hugh H. Genoways and Mary Anne Andrei, eds.; Exhibition Experiments, Sharon Macdonald and Paul Basu, eds.; Museums in a Troubled World, Robert R. Janes; Museums in the Material World, Simon J. Knell, ed.; A Cabinet of Curiosities, Stephen E. Weil; Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926, Steven Conn; Displays of Power, Steven C. Dubin; Museums of Influence, Kenneth Hudson; The Emergence of the Modern Museum, Jonah Siegel, ed.; Collecting: The Passionate Pastime, Susanna Johnston and Tim Beddow; and The Museum in Transition, Hilde S. Hein.
It’s interesting to use Hein’s framework to consider the private museum as I’ve been portraying it. Hein says the traditional purposes of museums have been “collection, preservation, study, exhibition, and education.” Some private museums perform only two-and-a-quarter of those functions. Hein says when we think about museums we must consider their users too. But a private museum might consider only its ideal user—its owner—and assume this view is edifying to others. Hein says the “ethical function” of a museum is to teach but that in the most recent thinking this has come to mean a place to learn to learn. This is most definitely not the function of the worst private museums, which are kin to the sideshow—unless the experience is potion against being taken by JoJo the Wolf Boy a second time.
Part of the charm, or sometimes horror, of private museums is their unconscious denial of the “widespread decline of faith in the singularity of reality,” as Hein diagnoses the condition of our postmodern, virtual world. Their owners still believe in the world they possess and have faith we’ll accept it as our own when it’s shown to us. We’re all alike in this, even the relativists who think we should all be relativists.
Hein wonders, Is the museum a world or the world a museum?
We each curate our own little museum of the world that teeters on the far flat edge of coherency.
After a picnic lunch with my sister and brother-in-law, and a visit to the midway where the carnies took all my money, my boys and I got in the minivan to come home. We were exhausted after a day in the sweltering heat, but the air-conditioning felt great, we had cold drinks and music for the ride, and on the way out of town Park Avenue was covered in crushed candy spilling like powdered art glass from gold, black, red, blue, and silver wrappers all over the pavement, a perfect paradise of enthusiasms.