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Molly Brodak

04.09.12

Just outside of the museum it is very still. No wind in the giant trees on the lawn. No sound, no insects. I wish I had not gone into the museum. Or I wish I had not gone past the Roman sculpture, into the dark middle where the walls are nearly black and there are several, maybe even a dozen, Egyptian mummies in coffins. Two were open to reveal the wrapped body inside. Eventually I went near them and looked carefully at the mummies, noticing in myself that I seemed to want to see something past the linen wrappings, although I knew I would be upset if I did see anything there. I was done with the museum, having enjoyed the Greek and Roman things, especially the marble busts and one red-figure volute krater with the particularly excellent renderings of drapery. The faces of the figures were repetitive and empty, but their garments were indicated by hair-thin black lines so fluid I stared at them for a long time, following the lines with my eyes and feeling coarse and childish. A calyx krater next to this volute krater had similarly excellent lines along the handsome arms of the men.

This was in a very small side room that I had entered and immediately exited when a group of five or so people also walked in, since that seemed like too many people to me and it bothered me that one of the men knocked his fist on the Minoan larnax, one of the oldest known bathtubs, right out in the open. I looked sharply at his face to see if I could tell what he wanted out of knocking on the tub. To hear the sound of it? To judge better what the material might be, like when I tap my fingernail on a cup at a store to determine if it is glass or plastic? He looked dark and bored, Mexican maybe. The group circuited the room, dully running their attention over the objects without stopping, and left for the next small room. I quit inspecting the tight corkscrew curls on the forehead of a bust of a smug Roman priestess and returned to the room and felt satisfied that there was a sign near the tub that said DO NOT TOUCH and hoped the man saw the sign too. Having seen the excellent drapery and arms on the figures, though, made me feel like it was worth the embarrassment of leaving and returning, although I’m sure no one noticed but me.

I was done with the museum, though, having seen these good things and even climbed the steps to the African art, which I knew I would not enjoy very much. While climbing the steps I thought about how much the center of the museum smelled like sharp old wood, thinking at first it was the Egyptian coffins, which I was avoiding, but at the top of the steps decided it also might be the wooden African masks. A young man standing guard leaned on a post in the back of the room and I suddenly felt awkward looking at the masks and things, since we were alone together in the room, and I knew he was looking at me because as a guard it was his job to watch me and I felt also him being a young man he might take liberties with his watching duty and be examining or judging me more intently than other non young women visitors.  He began to whistle aimlessly. I fussed lightly with my baggy frumpy clothing, the kind I keep specifically for teaching to make me look older and to hide the contours of my body. I feel protective of my body, like it is a secret I want to show mostly no one, although not because I think it is especially lovely or ugly, just sort of normal and slim, but it is mine. My boyfriend, who is an excellent man, certainly the best man I have ever loved, flatters me by telling me how nice my body is, but it is hard to know what to believe, and sometimes I look at it in my bedroom mirror to try and see what he sees, although I usually end up absently squeezing small portions of fat on my hips or stomach and thinking about something else. His body is sturdy and unblemished, with strong attractive legs and thick-sleek torso, and best of all his marble-pale arms I like to keep my hands on. He has kept his body free of tattoos and piercings, and does not take drugs, which I admire since this is better than I have done for my own body. I think of his body when I masturbate, his good body, which he cares for, a body I think of as an extension of his goodness but not to the extent that it is the total manifestation of his goodness, like the Greeks thought about lovely male bodies. I imagine him at first in a black t-shirt and cut-off jean shorts with a rip in the seat, the things he wears at home when we are just watching a movie and I sometimes secretly look over at him and think about his kissing his jaw or his perfect cock, but he is absorbed in the movie, or sometimes acknowledges me with a squeeze on my thigh or gentle weird scratch on my back.

But I was forced back through the Egyptian art, despite avoiding the center room because of the many coffins, or whatever the correct term is I am forgetting. So I went around the side rooms, looking at the tiny carved amulets and thinking they were pretty but a little stupid, or looking at the painted faces on things, some of which seemed modern, but only by accident, and some seemed very crude. When I team-taught a class in Humanities with an art professor and a music professor, I would do what I could to counteract in my lectures the irritating art professor’s old-fashioned espousing of the chronology of art as a progression, a refinement, with each era improving the last era’s attempts at art. I tried to emphasize that art does not get “better” through time, that older art is likeable and intentioned, partly because I believe this and partly because I felt some of the teacher’s claims seemed racist and I wanted to assure the students that I was not racist. Secretly, though, I know and feel that early art, the kind that looks crude, like the beaded face portrait, is actually crude, and it is crude because the people who made it were often not artists but artisans, meaning that these objects almost always had some other function besides aesthetic contemplation, meaning that these objects were engineered first, then decorated second. Also the people who made the crude art, the beaded face for example, didn’t train very hard in accurate representation of objects/people because it was not important to do so, or perhaps because they didn’t have time, since lifespans were shorter and more difficult then. True art assholes draw a line between decoration and art, and this is why major fine art museums are stocked mostly with paintings, drawings and photos and not dimensional objects, although art snobs do not like to admit paintings are just decorated canvases or panels.

I could not help but come across the animal mummies, which disturbed me, maybe even more than the human mummies, because I relate to animals better than to people, who often seem primarily selfish and ridiculous in a way that animals can’t achieve. A kitten mummy, a falcon mummy, a crocodile mummy, and a shrew casket. I felt upset looking at these because I was sad for the animals, who certainly did not choose to participate in religious rituals, and I felt sorry for the people who had mummified these animals, and even the people implicated in approving or ordering these mummifications, because they seemed so stupid. To outsiders, rituals look so pathetic in their blind seriousness, and since I adhere to no religion and find the concept of God and of religious worship totally silly, I am always an outsider. Among the compact and precise carvings a small rough lump of wood nestled, with lazily carved-in letters like bite marks on a pencil, a mummy label, not art. It startled me. It was so coarse it made me feel foolish to examine it, to take it seriously. I laughed a little. I had now seen everything in the museum except the human mummies.

I let myself go very close even, right up next to the plexiglass, despite my feelings or because of them. The mummies were well-wrapped in browned linens and I could not see any indication of the remains underneath, and if it weren’t for their obvious human shape I would’ve been able to imagine it was just a bundle of fabric. The second one I looked at had a placard that said the person inside was a “temple official”; I remember because that seemed weird, that phrasing of it, and I was puzzled with how small the body seemed. He seemed much smaller than me, child-sized. I told myself that people were generally smaller in the past and perhaps the body had shrunk some as well. His feet and head were not touching the walls of the coffin, so that seemed plausible. How a person can come to be an artwork because of some other culture’s attention seemed wrong to me, but true, and very old, how the absurdity of it concentrated in the art’s placard, in the list of materials: “wood, pigment, linen, human remains.”

I wanted to look at the painting on the walls of the coffin, as the bright primary colors and firm patterns reminded me of American folk art, which I love. But I felt too ill to stand close to the thing for much longer. I looked again at the inner wall of the coffin near the head and saw a darkness, a patch of oily-looking dirt, and thought about putrefying flesh, liquefied brains pooling, the elaborate secret work of rotting bodies in the dark, and I felt weak and dim, staring at the darkness as if punishing myself, although I know the process of mummification inoculates the body against regular rotting, plus with the dry climate in Egypt, there was probably little rot, but still there was the blackness. It could have been anything. I let myself leave. A dead body in a museum. I glanced back towards the collection of ancient Mediterranean glass, shelves of thin lumpy vases, some of which had been made iridescent by accidental reactions underground, how this also is cause for admiration, these ridiculous accidents, and how liking the iridescence made me feel guilty and cheated, staring at the display wondering why glass was lovely, something about how looking through an object seems privileged, or honest. I looked to the farthest point of the museum where a spotlight hit a giant amphora found underwater and now prized for its unintended patterns of barnacles and worm casings, unfair as that seemed to me. On my way out I passed another museum guard, a small Asian girl, sitting on a bench reading a book very intently. I recognized her as the girl who left the Archaic Nubian Kingdom-A artifact room immediately when I entered it, the room with the Vessel Inscribed With The Symbol For One Thousand, a vague hollow cone with the pointed end down, perfect for nestling upright in sand or in a coiled rope, the mark of one thousand like a sharp flag with a long tail, very clear. She has also been reading there on a bench, and I thought about how difficult it would be to read anything in this museum, since the walls at this point are almost black and it was very, very dark in the Egyptian area. I felt embarrassed that she had left the room when I entered it, although that is exactly what I had just done to the Mexican family in the Greek vessels room, and also I didn’t realize at the time that she was a guard, which would have made me doubly upset as I would have felt like she was not doing her job, which was to watch me.

I passed her in the central hall, lined also with huge placards I did not bother to read, and through the sculpture room, which was full of Roman busts and figures, the marble copies of Greek bronzes made obvious by the ugly dumb stump needed to buttress the load-bearing leg of a figure’s contrapposto stance, as with the lithe Hermes, whose missing hand may have been holding a staff or bag of money. I passed by all the small rooms I had dutifully entered despite an unbearable lingering odor from a man’s cologne in a few of the rooms that made me angry and queasy, and one room featured a huge amphora, bigger than me, that a skinny teen was talking about to two younger girls and saying things about the function of it that seemed painfully false, although the young girls were not listening anyway. It was in this room that an archaic Cylcadic Greek figure struck me––a hand-sized, white, flat, almost featureless figure with its arms folded across its chest. I was standing directly in front of it and realized, self-consciously, that my own body was in the same exact position. But I resisted my urge to change myself to unmatch the horrible figure, so I stood there, arms folded tightly, looking at it and wondering if I felt something about it. Certainly the figure was not intended to be so blank; perhaps its detail has worn down over the centuries, perhaps it had been brightly painted, like a lot of Greek white marble bas reliefs or figures we now admire the translucent whiteness of, like the Romans did, how the marble imitates the delicacy of flesh so perfectly, although this is just an accident of time. The figure’s featurelessness seemed holy, how the image of a soul or a ghost is often portrayed, as if we are certain that spirits are not elaborate. I don’t believe in these things but I live with them anyway.

I felt a relief in leaving the galleries for the vestibule, where the admissions desk was. I had checked my bag at the desk because it was really heavy, what with my laptop, a book, a bottle of water, a sweater I had grabbed on my way out thinking, rightly so, that the library would be cold, a bag of licorice and a bag of gross chips I had bought at the bookstore, and whatever else is usually in there, a lot of pens and lipgloss and stuff I think I need. When I checked my bag the chubby black man at the desk with the strange speech impediment insisted on giving me a ticket and affixing another ticket to my bag with a paperclip, although obviously my bag was the only one there, it being not only Sunday but Father’s Day, and I had come to this small obscure museum just to avoid more normal places where I might see young people with their fathers, since mine was in jail and I did not want to think of him there or of fathers at all. I let him give me the ticket, along with my admissions ticket and a receipt from the credit card machine where he had swiped my card, so I had carried these little slips of paper around with me in the museum. When I returned to him for my bag he turned to pick it up out of the cubby hole he had placed it in, and removed the ticket with the paperclip, and said “this is heavy!” when he handed it to me. I reached for it with the hand that had been holding all of my receipts and tickets and he instantly grabbed the bag-check ticket out of my hand, perhaps thinking I had been offering it to him. I said thank you and he said thank you too.

I walked into the store, but it seemed horribly cramped and overflowing with books which I couldn’t imagine anyone buying there, since it seems more people at a museum shop want trinkets and postcards than want books, especially books that did not seem to have anything to do with this museum. I did notice a book that seemed to be exclusively about eels, the history of eels or something, and told myself to look for that the next time I am at Barnes and Noble. I usually like microspecialized books like this, which are also popular at the moment in nonfiction, like the book about the color mauve or the one about cod or salt. I don’t feel particularly interested in eels but I really love the idea of a book about eels, and I would read it only for that reason. Outside of the museum it is very still and hot and bright and I cut directly across the grass for the first time.

 

 

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