Tuesday, June 10, 2014

On museums.

I picture the end of the Roman occupation of Britain like this: somewhere around the late fourth century A.D., people looked around themselves, said, Hey, when was the last time you saw a Roman tax collector? and proceeded to take stones and bricks from Hadrian's Wall to use in their houses, barns, and stiles. They didn't even bother to raise a glass. They just raided, and why not?

Much, much later on the timeline, we went to visit. What is the Roman Wall? we asked ourselves. We bought maps and studied websites and visited sites and discussed things amongst ourselves. There are ruined garrison towns and forts and all sorts. People are digging them up, and providing explanatory placards, and suggesting pathways through the dig. In a word, out of the ruins of history they are making museums: exhibits that narrate a lost past, a past that would be all but invisible but for these efforts.


When we got to Sichuan, we had toured the following:
  1. The Forbidden City (aka The Palace Museum)
  2. The Lama Temple
  3. The Summer Palace
  4. The Mutianyu section of The Great Wall
  5. The City Wall in Xi'An
  6. The Terra Cotta Warriors
  7. The Forest of Stelae (more about this in a subsequent post)
In other words, eastern China's Greatest Hits. 

[Digression: on a first visit to China, would it really be possible not to have gone to see these monuments? Would it really? If I were going back to China, I would still want to see the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace again, because I know that I did not exhaust the interest nor the elements of either place. In fact, when I looked at a map of the Forbidden City, I realized that we had only seen maybe a third of what there was to see. And we spent hours there. Hours.]

[Digression 2: periodically, when we ventured down some dark alleyway or gritty, unpicturesque location, my son would turn back to us and say, This is real China, as if to say: what you've been seeing heretofore has been prepared for your consumption as a tourist. Not this. This is unprocessed, unfiltered, this is not arranged for your comfort or your pleasure, this is how they do it here. Examples: shopping not in the fancy Euro-style mall but down the narrow halls with a thousand booths selling a mad efflorescence of goods. Taking the sleeper train from Beijing to Xi'An. Eating porridge for breakfast on some completely un-touristy street in Beijing. Real China. Whatever that may be. You can feel it when you're in it. Not fancy, not Western-fetish-style clean.]

Resuming the narrative: when we got to Sichuan, we had done a lot of the Major Attractions. (They were awesome.) We had arrived very very late the night before, so we slept in while my son went to class. For lunch, we ate Yan Jian Rou and had some green tea with his friends. We walked around the campus, just to see it, had a smoothie where he often has a smoothie, went to the People's Park. 

What do you guys want to do in Sichuan? This was the big question. We had four days left before we would get on a plane and fly back to our lives.

There are temples to see in Chengdu. Museums. One thing I had imagined doing when we first started planning the trip was visiting an ancient irrigation system near Chengdu. It was right beside a sacred mountain. Also, it happened to be not too far from a panda conservation center. Sights to see: restored and preserved ancient technologies. Shrines. 

We mulled our options over, and my son said, with deliberation: The more I think about it...I think we should go to Four Girls Mountain. 

I was surprised. He'd been somewhat resistant to this idea when I mentioned it--I've already been there, Mom. Let's find a place I haven't gone yet. Which made sense, and was a point of view to which I had come around, if a little reluctantly. He was there with his friend. They posted pictures. I wanted to go there too, to take my own pictures.

[Digression 3: Is picture-taking a motive in itself? Or just another way of seeing?]

He continued: If we go to Four Girls Mountain, we could stay two nights or three nights. You'll see these beautiful valleys. 

I was in. We talked over the details, and the historian decided, yes, he too was in. It would be a completely different experience than anything else we had done. We wanted to see a different part of China, and here was our chance.

My son: To be honest, I'm just so tired of museums.

I think it might have been the Forest of Stelae that did him in. He said, I liked it for about forty minutes. And it's true: it was practically an infinity of stone tablets, engraved with all manner of ancient and historical texts. It was mesmerizing, it was overwhelming. It was, in a word, a museum. A shrine, a temple. Exhibit. Monument.

[Digression 4: I love museums. If there had been, in easy proximity, a straight up art museum anywhere we had been staying, it would have been hard for me to stay away. I love the way an exhibit is a narrative and an argument. I love the way an exhibit, its specific articulation of a collection, its specific gesture of preservation, is a form of cultural love and attention. I love parsing exhibits, and I love falling in love with the museum space. I just love them.] 

As we walked through the first valley at Siguniangshan National Park, my son said, Now what is your favorite thing you've done on this trip? And what he was implying--that this, this setting, the high, high mountains, the shifting mist and the snow, the Tibetan stupas everywhere, was surely the best--seemed inarguable.

Better than any museum, he said. Arguing, but only lightly.


  1. So. Good. I wish you would now follow up on all of your "digressions"!

  2. I will keep reading about this journey for as long as you will keep writing about it. So. Good. Indeed.

    Also, my favorite photos were the four girls mountain pics.

  3. What Radagast said. What Gillian said. You have the gift, Doll. And I LOVE this new header. So eye-popping. My eyes popped right out. They're rolling around on the floor by my new shiny sandals RIGHT NOW.



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