Monday, November 8, 2010

Natural and Artificial History

κατέβην to the Mall (from 'most any part of the city, it's always "I went down" to that notable agora of America) and visited the Natural History Museum.  The museum itself is rather too much to take in at a time, as befits an institution of its scope, so I had to pick which exhibits I wanted to focus on. Some come to Natural History for the dinosaur bones, others for the Hope Diamond. I came for the crochet.

Part I: Crochet.   
Back behind the ocean hall is a fiber phantasmagoria, a science fair as rendered by a hallucinatory knitting circle with a fixation on marine life. The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef is a project to, well, crochet coral reefs. Why? Apparently crochet builds upon itself in much the way that corals do. It's part public art project (yes, I would like to see one outside a metro station) part advocacy, and part math experiment. 

As exhibited at the museum, the first two aspects dominated. One ghostly white reef (a "bleached reef") illustrated the effects of the death of microorganisms on corals.  Another was constructed entirely from plastic trash. The knitted wire sea creatures, delicate and translucent, were a testament to the unique expressive power of the needle arts. A section of reef had been done by DC-area crocheters.* The exhibit doesn't really delve into the math of hyperbolic space, which is really a pity. "There's some kind of science of ruffles!" is cool, but only in a BBC science headline kind of way, the way where you learn that drinking tea will extend your life by an average of ten years, or that women have evolved a superior sense of smell which explains their shopping habits.

Part II: Cyprus
Cypro-Archaic II period (ca. 550-500 BC)
Biodetritic limestone
Cyprus Museum, Nicosia
All right, I'd surveyed the crochet pretty throughly.  Where next? There's not really a natural flow through the museum (though the most logical sequel would probably have been the ocean hall) so I picked my next special exhibit priority. Upstairs to Cyprus! A pair of sphinxes guarded the door to the exhibit, traces of polychrome still visible on their wings.  Time replaced the alarmingly brilliant paint with the bare form in stone**;  perhaps our far future will imbue even us with dignity!

Within, the exhibit is strictly chronological; a straight shot down the long hall. Artifacts from each time period, generally including religious objects, tools, and occasionally bones, illustrate each chunk of the timeline from the Neolithic to the Byzantine. 

Where does stylization come from?  Is it a case of compensation for our own imperfections - that is to say, if we had the ability we would have a woman's form in exact miniature instead of slab with a nose and arms? Classical Greek statuary would argue yes. But the more naturalistic you become, the harder it is to easily signify one person or one idea in an easily replicable way. Does religion depend on stylization? Is religion itself a stylization: picking an image and sticking to it?

No point in pretending, if I'm in an archaeology-focused exhibit, I'm going to make a beeline for the pottery. (A literal beeline - I will ambulate from piece to piece, circle them several times, then do an dance to show all the other nerds the awesome things I have found. File that under "Things that will get me into trouble someday.") Anyway, my takeway from Cypriot pottery was the raised rather than incised figures, the spiral motifs and the large, enthusiastic slip decorations featuring birds. They looked more Egyptian than Greek, but that was part of what the exhibit was trying to emphasize; the crossroads-of-cultures thing. I could have done with more notes here - something about the introduction of the potter's wheel and more commentary on what kinds of ware Cyprus imported and why - but honestly, just stick me in front of a double-spouted jug and I'll be too distracted to protest

In the later ages, each section featured a selection of coins from that era. There's a tight connection between coins and history - pity it doesn't interest me in the slightest. Perhaps because the coins are too small to look at properly?  That doesn't seem right - I'll survey tiny inscriptions in alphabets I can't read, and scrutinize thumbprints on jars. Even without the coins, there were plenty of physical objects that plainly showed forth the march of time and empires across the face of the island. Statuettes of the Great Goddess became statuettes of Aphrodite and were replaced by large lively icons. The spiral designs of the earliest pottery reappeared on sophisticated glazed wares. And right at the end of the exhibit is a Last Judgment from the monastery of Agii Anargyri.

If there's one thing I love even more than pottery, it's the end of the world. No, this isn't the entry where you get the explanation of this peculiar fixation.

Part III: Other Stuff

There was still a good hour before the museum closed. Downstairs to the dinosaurs!  But though no one can fail to find triceratops skulls compelling, and gallivanting through time periods with names straight out of pulp sci-fi is always fun, yet I think that I was not quite the right person for the exhibit. Fossils of sea life appeared as sketches on clay, their ridged edges curiously similar to the ancient works upstairs. But unless they're beautiful I don't start thinking about them. 

Art moves me more than science. Art gets me asking questions, while facts get me saying "Huh. That's cool."  Perhaps it's because the scientific method requires me to sustain a viewpoint more optimistic than my own. But if there's one thing I've learned from feminism***, it's to refrain from assuming my experience is universal. Thus, not everyone shares my own shortcomings, and I can't fault the museum for not making more of a missionary effort to bring me into the science-question camp. With such an overplus of artifacts from every age and discipline, perhaps it is better served by targeting each exhibit to those who are inclined to love the subject.

"Wooooooooow!" hooted a small boy, racing past me. "Jellyfish! Jellyfish!"

And, after all, are they really so separate - history, science, and art? We can see a healed abscess in a dinosaur leg. Do we draw conclusions about the ineradicability of pain, the probable age of the creature, the nature of human knowledge? Keats wasn't writing exhibition tags for an archaeology show, and probably shouldn't have been. The sheer abundance of the Museum of National History encourages extradisciplinary forays, and we're usually the better for it. 

*This is the link you should click on if you want to see cool pictures. The Institute of Figuring has pretty strong language about use of their images, so I'm not including any.

**And even Sappho, glory that was Greece's/Lives best, I blasphemously think, in pieces.

***Add this to the list of things that I will expand on the future. 

Place: The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
Pros: Lots and lots of things
Cons: Exhibit notes could be be more rigorous and pedagogical.
Definitely Check Out: Whatever you're into. They have that..
Rating: 5-9/10 artifacts

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