A sunny day, cool 50 degrees, the wind seems to be absent, and yet the stench of exhaust smoke from cars zooming down the street still manages to slap you wide awake. You are in the Windy City, Chi Town, one of the best cities in the world.
You stand in front of the guardian lions of Art Institute of Chicago, and they slowly make a way for you to enter through doors that seem to be larger than life itself. You are greeted by the bumble of voices, the excited screams of children, the uninterested looks of preteens and the young lovers that push past you in a trance, in awe, just as you are, of the grandeur of the place you have stepped in.
Marble floors, winding staircases and one million ways to travel through time as depicted by artists known far and wide.
Museums, galleries, libraries and other designated preservation and exhibition spaces have served as time machines in which any one of us could travel from today to an infinite number of yesterdays. Museums, galleries, libraries and private collections of priceless and even sacred artifacts are not new places.
Often referred to as Houses of Knowledge by many scholars and educators I have had throughout the years. When you Google the history of ancient civilizations like Ptolemaic Egypt, Persian Empire, Arab empires and the Greco-Roman empires, a pattern that I have seen emerged in their military general methods of conquest was burning down and even tearing down brick by brick many libraries, museums and other houses of knowledge to crush the spirits of the people of the lands that had been acquired.
There is a reason why churches, museums, galleries and libraries are viewed as a kind of sacred space. The Church embodies and safeguards the divine and is a sacred space to strengthen connections to the divine, and museums, libraries and the galleries in between embody the soul, the life-source and even the essence of a people.
However, the purposes of museums, galleries and libraries have not always been innocent or well-meaning. The history of how several museums across the globe came to expand their collections and how their donors came to add to their private collections that would later be donated to museums, is a little sus. Sus-picious in the sense that a clay pot from Acoma Pueblo, used for a traditional ceremony, did not originally belong to a Jane Celeste Doe, heiress of millions and collector of exotic artifacts from the Americas.
That artifact belonged to an indigenous community. Was it stolen? Most likely. Was it bought and traded in the art underworld? Also likely. The point is, that artifact in this example is not in Acoma Pueblo but, rather, put on display in a glass case in the middle of a white-walled room, with top-line security sensors, a blinding spotlight that lets any patron of the museum know that it’s on display for their view, observation and scrutiny.
A stolen artifact, a borrowed artifact that was never returned, sits as a thing to entertain. The clay pot renamed: Clay Pot used for ceremonial traditions (insert estimated number here A.D), Private Collection. Doe, 1979. How did a beautiful time machine become a tool to further colonization?
To be honest with you, I don’t know. I don’t know how a centre for knowledge and learning was turned into a space to uphold structures that mean to erase the genius, beauty and wonder of so many. Please do not assume that the Louvre, the Guggenheim, the MET, the Vatican Archives and Libraries are the only places to uphold colonialism and every torturous ideal that came with it.
Many ancient empires did it first, and if it is anything I have learned about history so far is that if it works and the “it” gives you the results you want, why stop using that method? Now what next, Carmen? Well, I am glad you asked.
The next time you go to your favorite museum, ask questions, take notes and appreciate the artifacts, but, most importantly, appreciate the peoples and the cultures in which these artifacts come from even more. The descendants of the makers of those artifacts are often reduced to only existing and being valued as a priceless exotic object.
Remember that museums, galleries and libraries tell the stories of those that came before us, those that live among us and hopefully teach those that come after us that life is more than consumption and entertainment. Granted, some artists create to entertain, but there are those that create for reasons far beyond our understanding. It is our duty to appreciate the art, the object, the window or door into their yesterday.
What is my point? My point is: houses of knowledge tell us stories — they preserve stories and legacies of a people that we have never met and can only interact with through what they have left behind. Houses of knowledge have become spaces in which the richness of the world’s people can be shared, ideas can be discussed and debated on and where the universal languages of life can bring us together.
As I have traveled around the world, I have realized that the houses of knowledge that we rely on to educate us do not equally and equitably represent or preserve all our stories. They do not welcome all of us with open arms. And that is a problem. I want you to Google world-renown stories and artists, and think about what you see — who is represented, who is seen.
I have said that artists have power, immense power, but so do those that preserve and exhibit the work of artists and creatives.