Warming our Hands Before the Fire of Life


Image from the Turquoise Mountain exhibition at the Freer-Sackler

Image from the Turquoise Mountain exhibition at the Freer-Sackler, Smithsonian Institution

Since the November 2016 elections I have been asking myself how to be, live, and work in a world that appears to sanction autocracy, intolerance, and racism (both veiled and unveiled).  If I had the answer I think I could bottle and sell it!  Yet, over the past past eight weeks I have become aware of  moments of delight, peace, and insight.  Some were moments with family and friends, but many were inspired by the arts–dance, music, literature, and museum experiences.

Nature I loved, and next to nature, Art; I warmed both hands before the fire                                       of life; It sinks, and I am ready to depart.                                                          Walter Savage Landor, 19th c poet

                                  Take your broken heart, make it into art.                                                       Princess Leia, as quoted by Meryl Streep

The thoughts below are in no way original.  The arts have always been valued for their ability to provide meaning and and comfort. Still, I’d like to share a few experiences for a couple of reasons.  First, they might provide you with some ideas for finding your own sense of the meaning of these times. Further, the arts, broadly defined, are a specialty for all of us in museum work. Now more than ever we must nurture and expand their reach. Here, in no particular order, are some personal moments that inspired this post:

  • Attending a performance of The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center over Thanksgiving weekend with my grandchildren,  I was suddenly caught up in the timeless beauty of Tchaikovsky’s music. (How many times had most of us heard this work, yet we were entranced again.) I was engaged by the familiar steps of the ballet, the innovative and imaginative sets, and  especially by the multi-racial make-up of the Cincinnati Ballet cast. For about half an hour I was lost in the sights and sounds and thought–this is the America I want to live in–where future Misty Copelands and Peter Martins can thrive and grow.
  • Reading the responses of 16 writers–essayists, novelists, journalists–to the election of Donald Trump in the New Yorker (Nov. 21, 2016).  Some of these pieces take on Trump directly, but all provide a wider and deeper perspective.  They lifted me above my hamster-wheel thoughts, and even made me smile a bit (Larry Wilmore’s piece was called “Birther of a Nation.”)  Keen, perceptive observers like Wilmore, Toni Morrison, Mary Karr, Junot Diaz  and others featured in this special issue are going to keep truth-telling alive.
  • Visiting the National Museum of African American Culture and History and the Lyndon B. Johnson Library over the holidays. At first I was going to describe these museum visits as bookends, but in fact they are more like parts of a spiral or a snail.  The Johnson Library exhibits reminded me that Johnson not only created Medicare and Medicaid, but his three Civil Rights bills–outlawing Jim Crow segregation, protecting Voting Rights, and legislating against Housing Discrimination–were aimed at ending the injustices that continued the legacy of slavery long after it had been legally banned.  I imagine the cluster of Civil Rights bills as the snail –slow in coming but it got there.  Around the snail is the shell–the context provided by the exhibitions at NMAAHC–that displays with devastating clarity the necessity for these laws.   The combined impact of these museum experiences was relevant and powerful in a personal way: they reminded me that all of these elements of Johnson’s Great Society, from health care for the aging to voters’rights, have been under fire since the 1960’s and are in even greater danger from the upcoming administration and Congress. Exhibitions like these are more important than ever.  As trust in the government and the press declines, museums may survive as one of the few civic institutions people still believe in.
  • Reading the work of two African American writers: James Baldwin and Ta Nehisi Coates. Coates’ recent article in the Atlantic, “My President Was Black,” is another of his great works of literary non-fiction.  It’s a thoughtful take on Obama’s legacy, based on a series of face-to-face interviews.  As for James Baldwin–about six months ago I bought his collected essays, edited by Toni Morrison.  I have found it’s kind of like scripture –you can close your eyes, open the book to any page, and read where your finger lands.  Invariably you will find a thought that seems to have been written yesterday and that you can use today.

My wish for all of us in 2017 is that we will treasure, nourish, and share our rich cultural heritage, and that this will lead to concrete actions to preserve and protect it.  All best for the New Year.

If you are receiving this in an email and would like to comment, please go to www.museumcommons.com or send a tweet to me @gretchjenn.

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