I stumbled into Lord Shiva at the MFA, and then I saw Lord Ganesha, and Maa Durga. Lakshmi Devi was there, and so was Lord Vishnu. It was during Navratri a few years back, the festival celebrating the goddess in her many forms, and I felt strangely, even surprisingly, emotional bumping into her like this, unprepared, underdressed, and without any offerings.
I went to the museum to see the Egyptian mummies with my son, who was learning about them at school, so we figured we would see the exhibit, and we would look at some old paintings, and maybe we would see some contemporary ones, and that would probably be the experience. It honestly didn’t occur to me that these deities would be there, but there they were, all together, in that room. But, at the same time, they were completely alone. The room was like a hollow box; a blank space, devoid of all life. The space was the very antithesis of nature: gray walls, LED lighting, glass enclosures. I looked around at the descriptive plaques; they were mostly from Cambodia, but a few were from Sri Lanka, Tamil, and some areas described vaguely as “Southern India,” and “South Asia.” The deities were also placed among artifacts from other nearby areas.
I made sure to spend some time with each of them. I wanted to adorn them, to dress them in silk and flowers, and to offer them fire and water. Sweets: I wanted to give them the sweetness that they have no doubt been missing. I touched their feet, rubbed smooth from hands across space and time, and I prayed quietly, so as not to alert the guard in the corner of the room. “Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha,” my son whispered sweetly to Lord Ganesha.
I wondered, how do other devotees feel when they come across deities in museums? Divorced from culture, from the ritual, from the breath of life, so far from source? Do their hearts sink to the pit of their stomach? Do they hold back tears? Do they feel called to pray? I looked it up. I googled, “Do people pray to deities in museums?” and I came across an article titled, “Met Museum Kicked Me Out for Praying to My Ancestral Gods,” by Sophiline Cheam-Shapiro on the website Hyperallergic.com. If you get a chance to check it out, I recommend doing so, and if it speaks to you in any way, or sparks your curiosity, I recommend checking out the podcast Dynamite Doug that is mentioned in the article.
It shouldn’t be a surprise if you have read this far, but I am not a fan of a lot of museums. The legacy of the colonial gaze is inescapable in museums. The information on the descriptive plaques provide a glimpse, that is often misleading and sometimes straight up incorrect, into the place and the object being perceived. The very idea that art can bring all of its meaning with it when it is removed from its culture is an attempt to separate the viewer from the people of that culture. The separateness creates an illusion of safety, difference, and othering within the viewer. The space which houses these displays is often sanitized and stripped of cultural markers, especially markers that could reveal that the culture is in fact still alive, and so the object displayed becomes an artifact, a relic, a specimen of a time, of a place, of a people, and of a way of life in the mind of the viewer, which serves to impose a distance from that time, that place, that way of life, and especially from those people. This manufactured separateness fosters a cultural divide, an othering, which protects and upholds an idea of the sanitized, separate, colonial experience as modern, superior, and very much alive, while the experience of the other is of the past, inferior, irrelevant to the present, and, of course as a result, also to the future. It denies the actual lived and living experience of millions of people across the globe right now, today, at this very moment. Essentially, it protects the colonial viewer from the non-colonial experience.
I went into the museum this time hoping to be open minded about the whole thing. My son had recently learned about how the MFA possessed artifacts from Nubia that were assumed to have been of lesser value than those from Egypt, so they were displayed for a short time and put into deep storage (worth looking up, by the way). This infuriated him, but still, he wanted to experience the museum for himself. After first coming across the South Asian exhibit, I was surprised to discover the colorful and gaudy ancient European Christian displays, complete with music, golden frames, and dramatic lighting. This surprised me, because the Indian subcontinent isn’t exactly known for minimalism, and yet the displays from India were in blank and isolated spaces, without decoration or cultural references of any kind. There were no colors at all. India has gorgeous fabrics, music, dance, embellishments, gold, and food, that are incorporated into acts of worship, and the decision (because it was a decision) to display some cultures as living artifacts through adornment, and others as relics of the past, or dead, is either ignorant or intentional… my money is on the latter.
Years ago, when I was a student of Japanese history and culture, I went to see an exhibit on the Samurai at the MFA for a class that I was taking. I remember feeling annoyed by the dramatic lighting and the plaques that described the samurai as fierce warriors. The display was meant to evoke images of strength, fear, and war-like feelings in the viewer. It felt pretty manipulative to me, because I knew that the samurai had, in reality, been a class of bureaucrats who existed during a time of relative peace in Japan. Sure their armor was beautifully constructed and was meant to in some way evoke these feelings in potential enemies, but nowhere in the exhibit was this ever mentioned. It seemed to me that the museum was more concerned with the propagation of a mythology that supported an image of the samurai that served an idea than they were with sharing the actual truth. It isn’t lost on me that it might feel safe for a museum in the United States to portray a people who do not have any military power today as having been fierce and war-like in the past. And I wonder, but I haven’t looked into this, would the armor of the ancient Chinese or Russian warriors be depicted with the same intensity? Is there an illusion of separateness, safety, and superiority/inferiority being depicted here? The United States and Japan have a long and complicated history that I won’t go into right now, but this is all to say that I have, by and large, avoided museums ever since. I have avoided being sold a version of history that doesn’t align with what is real.
When I saw the deities in the museum, I wanted to feed them. I wanted to adorn them. Because they are not a relic, and they are not history. Their forms hold the energetic memory of millions, and this memory spans continents, space, time, even lives. This isn’t the memory of the past either, it is living memory, the breath and heartbeat of which has and continues to nourish millions for thousands of years.
On this Navratri, along with millions across continents, space, and time, I bow to the divine goddess. I offer adornments, gifts of water, fire, and flowers, and I pray.
Jai Maa ॐ