There is a particularly endearing memory of a museum display that as far as I know is unique in the literature of the United States:
Even though it was so damp and lousy out, I walked all the way through the park over to the museum of Natural History… I knew the whole museum routine like a book… I get very happy when I think about it… Just before you went inside the auditorium, you passed this Eskimo. He was sitting over a hole in this icy lake, and he was fishing through it. He had about two fish right next to the hole, that he had already caught. Boy that museum was full of glass cases. There were even more upstairs, with deer inside them drinking at watering holes and birds flying south for the winter… The best thing though in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south… Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you [emphasis in original].
This memory of the museum comes by way of Holden Caulfield, J. D. Salinger’s misanthropic speaker and protagonist of his bildungsroman, The Catcher in the Rye (1951). For Holden, who can hardly imagine being in an adult, productive relationship with the people and institutions that surround him, the reflex gesture is to defensively negate them. He rarely admits to liking something without dissembling or qualification but the museum has earned his loyalty. I am also deeply fond of the Natural History museum, even the ethnographic displays that give me only idealized, epigrammatic views of times and places and the people who occupy them. I like the way they feel like intellectual industry, neatly organized and packaged. I like the way they provide shelter from the rain, the way they dwarf me, the way that like a book I’ve read many times before, they can fall open to the right page, containing a favorite passage, so I am never lost.
But it’s the museum as institutional yardstick against which I can measure myself that is the most intriguing part of Holden’s story. What other institution can accomplish this small grace—acknowledging my own growth, change, and mortality without succumbing to it—except one founded on disinterested stone and a museology that was centered on its collection rather than the visitor? Stone only speaks to stone.
Once upon a time, intellectual projects of illustrative display that took little notice of the museum visitor could stay undisturbed because the scholarship that took place behind closed doors was the chief aim of an institution that was always deferring its discoveries for perpetually future generations. What stories could last for generations? The Eskimo didn’t need to change because the new crop of schoolchildren waiting in the wings would need to be taught the lesson of hunting and gathering, how to live off a land that contains life that might, in turn, give us life.
It’s a kindness and blessing that this museum wouldn’t age and become fickle or distracted. It wouldn’t get a navel piercing one day and come down with chlamydia a month later. Unlike my own parents it would stay upright, not stooped, would never mumble, but always communicate in stentorian tones. This museum would not be neutral, but it also wouldn’t defer to me. I could depend on it to tell me the migratory patterns of birds in the Northern hemisphere and the foraging habits of deer and other fauna who adapt to the changing seasons. Because I am vulnerable, malleable, and given to wasting away over time, I value the idea of something that is incorruptible. Isn’t this like believing in some god who never changes, never vacillates, never turns her face from you?
Holden’s version of the museum doesn’t widely exist anymore. Exhibitions tend to be more responsive to public sentiment and visitors now conceived as partners and clients are frequently told that the museum belongs to them, will bend to their supple needs. But what if some museums returned to being impermeable stone, not cold but disinterested? As a wanderer at heart, I might be profoundly bored. Or I might sit with the Eskimo until I understood how many fish would be enough to let me live. I might spend enough time meditating on the birds to learn their ways of lightness, then strip my clothes, unzip this skin and take the air, and for some good time, never touch down.