Sunday, 17 February 2013

Visiting museums: The Louvre

When I travel I invariably visit museums, as I did the Louvre the last time I was in Paris. Visiting museums is an ideal tourist activity, especially as I tend to travel off season when the weather is less conducive to outdoor activities.

I am partial to art museums, but I also enjoy national history museums, natural history museums and crafts and technology museums. And I most especially love quirky little museums obsessively dedicated to one person or theme. I like looking at individual things in museums, but I also like considering how the collection as a whole expresses something about the person, place, culture or time that created it.

It puzzles me that not everyone enjoys visiting museums. This got me thinking about what exactly it is about visiting museums that I enjoy. Partly it is because I subscribe to the idea of art as a spiritual project. I don't attend church much anymore, so I have to get my spiritual experiences elsewhere. Gazing at the colours and forms of beautiful paintings can sometimes give me a hint of transcendence that is at the heart of spirituality.

But it goes farther than that - I feel that visiting museums can be like a formal religious experience as well. There are two aspects of religion that I miss - ritual and community - which I now find in museums.

Museums are temples to human ingenuity. You pay your tithe at the ticket office, you enter the sanctuary speaking in hushed tones, you listen to a sermon (if you use those infernal audio guides) or you read the liturgy (the text on the walls), and you circle the temple in a specific direction, experiencing the display in a prescribed way.

Objects in the temple to art

The communal aspect is the most important part. You experience museums with the rest of the people who are there with you, but you also commune with the people who created the objects and all the other people over the ages who have communed with those objects. And, since many of the objects in museums are ritual objects, the religious feeling is only heightened.

Communing with the Easter Islanders

Of course, with many of the older religious objects we have only the sketchiest idea of how they were used in ritual, but I don't think that completely erases their religious impact - if anything, it enhances the sense of sacred mystery. After all, it is the same with religious rituals that are enacted in churches, temples and mosques. They have been passed down over the generations, but their meaning and expression have been modified over time. When I recite the Apostles creed, I feel I am speaking along with my Dutch ancestors and with Christian communities since the 2nd century. It is quite an intense historical experience, even apart from the religious aspect.

Like good anthropologists we assumed this was a
ritual vessel depicting a cult practice. Because what else??

But back to the Louvre. I have visited it many times and have only scratched the surface of their vast collection. I try to attend on free Sundays at the beginning of the month, and visit the less popular sections  (i.e., anywhere away from the Mona Lisa) to avoid the crowds.

Despite its huge size, the Louvre has a rather specialised and frankly conservative collection. It covers the usual 'civilisations': Egypt, Greece, Rome, Near East and Europe. Paintings from after 1848 have been transferred to Musee D'Orsay, and if you want to see anything from Asia you have to visit the Guimet and Cernuschi collections instead. As for the rest of the world, you have to go all the way to the excellent ethnographic museum at Quai Branly.

Or so I thought, until I discovered that the Louvre also has a small collection of art of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. It is tucked away in a rather inaccessible corner, and closed on Wednesdays and Fridays.

It is a lovely little collection of strange and wonderful objects. Since we're not just solemn and serious at museums, while we fulfilled our religious duties we also had some fun drawing completely inappropriate comparisons between the objects on display and things in contemporary life and culture.

I decided this must surely have been the model for the blue alien in the Fifth Element.

And this could easily have been the inspiration for the goblins in the Hobbit.

So, museums are places to go for religious and spiritual sustenance, on top of which they allow you to travel through time, space and the imagination. All while killing a few hours on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon when all the shops are closed. What's not to love?