Monday, April 13, 2015


A lot of people feel like museums are eerily quiet. I've never felt that way. For me museums are some of the loudest places on earth. Everything has a history. They all want to tell you their story. Not just the one printed for you on the informational card. It's much more personal than that. Who had the skills to make that piece? How lovingly did they perfect their craft? How many hours did the artist put into it? Was it ever lost? How long did it wait to be rediscovered? You only get to see the object as it is for you in that moment, often far removed from its original luster. For many people it can be difficult to imagine the object the way it was intended but for me they look as beautiful as ever.

When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art the things that stood out to me were never the famous pieces. In the Egyptian wing there was a tiny wooden dog with painted eyes and a movable mouth. It was a toy for a child and was never intended to be displayed as a work of art. But it was stunning! The paws were carved out in immense detail and the body was made to look like it was in motion.

It was not made for glorification it was made for the happiness of a child. Yet obviously a great deal of time and care was spent on this toy. It was made to be a simple play thing but became elevated to the status of art, just as much for its beauty as its ability to survive. 

There was the tombstone of a young girl who died in Greece. She was depicted cradling her pet doves in a gentle embrace. When she died her family chose to honor her love of birds. What a privilege it is to be able to know something so touching about a person who lived over 2,000 years before I was born. 

In the Boston Museum of Art lies the barber Nes-Ptah and his wife Tabes, a songstress. In their native Egypt they would have been buried separate locations, but in Boston they sit side by side. When you walk between them you can't help but notice that the air feels different. Almost like they are still trying to talk to each other. Unlike most Egyptian couples they've gotten to travel the world and they truly get to spend an eternity together.

These are the things that capture my attention as I wonder from room to room. The objects are beautiful in their own right but the story behind them can often be fascinating and surprisingly touching. History hold so many gifts for us. The chance to glimpse into the personal life of someone who lived long before me is one of my favorites treasures. It is the closest you can come to time travel and talking with the dead.

I was on my lunch break at work and I decided to scroll through facebook while I waited for my food to heat up in the microwave. I found this link that one of my friends shared on her news feed:

"ISIS thugs take a hammer to civilization: Priceless 3,000 year old artworks smashed to pieces in minutes as militants destroy Mosul museum"

The video that accompanies the article plays without audio. The silence almost makes it worse. Men topple statues then smash them with hammers. Another man on a ladder destroys the face of a sculpture with a power drill. The casual demeanor was the most haunting aspect by far.

The reason they did this was because they felt that the statues promoted idolatry. To be fair there are a few schools of thought on this matter. In much of Islamic culture figural representations are frowned upon. They do not create images of their God because they have a strong aversion for anything that could be perceived as paganism. They choose to not to create images that could distract from the worship of God himself. Instead they create astonishing works of art from calligraphy and intricate mosaics.

However, most Western cultures seek to create representations of their God. It is not viewed as disrespectful but as a way to honor God. Western art was dominated by religious iconography for hundred and hundreds of years. It was their life and they wanted to see it all around them. Religious iconography was also an important way to teach a population that was largely illiterate. Education was granted through images.

I am Roman Catholic and I grew up with religious iconography. I always loved art and the depictions of Saints and stories made history come alive for me. But I can understand why it can be looked upon with disdain. One of the most iconic images of Christianity is the depiction of Jesus on the cross. For most Christians it is a symbol of hope: Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. But for non-Christians it must look absurd. We pray to the image of a man broken, bleeding, naked and near death. Not only are we visually depicting our God but we have chosen to depict the most horrible moment of his life and glorify it.

The choices to create images or not create images are both fine and the ideology behind both makes sense, it's just a matter of perspective. It is the lack of respect and the imposition that I can't reconcile.

I do not practice blood sacrifices like the Mayan did, but I also wouldn't fly to Mexico to destroy their cultural heritage.

Sometimes it's not even about the iconography. It's about the craft. It's about the person who made and the skill that they had. Someone made those monuments in Mosul three thousand years ago in the desert with primitive tools and a sophisticated level of skill. Now someone is using sophisticated power tools and a primitive mind-set to destroy these works of art. It is like we are watching are own evolution in reverse.

The library at Alexandria burned to the ground, Mayan codices were destroyed by Spanish priests and the Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown to pieces by the Taliban. We have lost enough. I want to see knowledge thriving boldly. I want a link to the past so profound that it can never be broken. I want to see a flood of new artwork so great that we forget what was lost.

Some things cannot be destroyed. Some things fall into the right hands. Some things survive with scars that make their story richer. Ancient objects large and small all become powerful monuments. They show us how far we have come and what we have already survived.

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