Museums, Memory & Change
So I have a story to tell about a lesson learned. Here goes . . .
In last Friday’s Commercial Appeal I saw that the Memphis Symphony Orchestra was going to perform Modest Mussorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition. This piece of music holds a deep fascination for me. At the age of 14, Pictures at an Exhibition was the first classical music I ever heard. Since then, I have listened to the half hour score a couple hundred times, either as the original piano piece or as orchestrated by Ravel. Pictures at an Exhibition is the most powerful piece of music I have ever heard. Here is the story of all that.
So when I read about the upcoming performance, my wife Emma and I decided to go. I had not heard the piece played live by a full symphony in about 30 years. I was excited about the upcoming performance. I thought the experience might even supersede the incredible Bob Dylan concert from earlier this summer.
This past Saturday was the Symphony performance. The show began with several movements from Michael Gandolifi’s The Garden of Cosmic Speculations – a pleasant and surreal experience. Then there was 25 minutes of violin and orchestra concertos that were relaxing and perfectly executed. Next was the intermission and then there was Pictures at an Exhibition.
Before beginning the piece, Conductor Mei-Ann Chen introduced Jose Francisco Salgado from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. Salgado talked about the iMaxesque visual performance that was going to play along with the performance that evening. The visual was going to contain lots of images of the cosmos, galaxies, and other such things. I listened in complete disconnect. What did these celestial images have to do with the piece written in the 1800s by Mussorgsky to commemorate the death of a painter friend? Or my history with the piece that included traipsing through art museums over the years, from my first experience at Cincinnati Art Museum, or the Art Institute of Chicago where I saw my first Van Gogh, to the my favorite, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis? or how Pictures at an Exhibition played in my head when walking through the cityscapes of my life travels? None of my history with the piece were remotely related to cosmic imagery.
The musicality of the live performance on Saturday surpassed my iPod experiences with the piece while mountain biking, or now as I write this, or any other sound system Mussorgsky has played on over the past years. I kept my eyes closed during the concert, trying to get in touch with my expectations for the piece. I was distracted by the “oohs” and “ahhs” of the audience fixated on the celestial images that broke the reverence I held for the piece.
I talked with Emma about the experience as we left the concert hall. She thoroughly enjoyed the visual experience and was not buying my point of view. She raved about how the visual was linked to pace of the music – how it all flowed together. But the processing of my reaction hit me over the head like a ton of bricks. I had my history with the piece. I now experienced what all the folks who come to museums and want to see what they saw as a kid, or thirty years ago. My response to the concert was no different from the folks who come to the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa where I am the Director and want to see the staged Native American performance in the reconstructed village they remember from the 1970s. I thought about a video from The Pinky Show – “We Love Museums . . . Do Museums Love Us Back?” The cartoon mockumentary of sorts notes that the museum’s job is “To treat each object in the collection like it is frozen in time. Nothing is allowed to get old and fall apart, which of course is impossible and goes against the laws of nature.”
To quote Pogo “We have met the enemy and he is us.” I have a new perspective on linking past performance to the present and into the future. I noted to Emma that had I known in advance about the visual show during the concert performance, I could have reconciled myself to the reality, and even enjoyed the fresh approach. I think of the occasional letter I get from a disgruntled visitor to our museum whose expectations weren’t met based on their visit from 20 years ago. Though I can respond about our new exhibits, the hands-on lab, arboretum, herb garden and more, that does not address their expectations not being met. I understand that place better now.
How do you prepare visitors for change?