on museums – all sorts

Spent the winter break helping my father downsize from a large house to a condo. This combined with my recent move from the US to the UK has caused me to think about the material culture which matters most and which we chose to journey with. Neither my father nor I (in my London shoebox) have space for the accumulation of 60 years of marriage or of inheritances and souvenirs of lives well-travelled and well lived. We both must, without sentimentality, carefully curate the objects we most identify as representations of a life past which we wish to carry into our own future. The things with which we populate our living spaces take on multiple meanings – they embody our memories, hopes, dreams, vices and virtues, loss, friendship, history and heritage. We create our own living museums.

As many of you know I travelled around and about in Central Asia to meet up with our project teams there and had many intimate conversations with the most amazing humans – every day met with a new high. While I didn’t have the chance to visit many archaeological sites (next trip!!) I spent countless hours wandering or being guided in the many urban museums (thank you Temurkhan JAXONOV in Tashkent and Bobomullo BOBOMULLOI in Dushanbe and Dr Kunbolot AKMATOV in Bishkek). A national museum is a place where the material remains of the very intimate life of an individual comes to represent a gender, culture, an ethnicity or multiethnicities, artisanship, social class, economic systems all on a grand scale. Now the objects which were once part of someone’s personal legacy serve to teach the museum goer about all these things and include them in a larger community of shared history.

My favourite pieces were the small clay oil lamps. It doesn’t matter from which time or place, they are an object which gives light to the darkness, a sensory experience all humans seek so they link the museum goer to the creator and the user in a very personal and cosy way One Kushan Empire woman reading by lamplight is not very different from me – we may even find we are reading the same thing: a letter from a friend, a book of stories or fables, a religious text. We may even feel the same irritation at being interrupted by domestic obligations or relish a moment of peace after a laborious day.

Admittedly I’m also drawn to the jewellery or other ‘women’s things’ as one curator described these burial goods consisting of scissors, mirrors, beads and earrings (Ysyk-Kol, Naryn, 13-14th century CE). Every day elements of life, they also journey into the afterlife with their bearer. Many years ago I was given a Tibetan agate (dzi bead) from a close friend. I wear it not as adornment, though it is beautiful, but in the intended way – as an amulet and manifestation of the relationships created during my time spent living there. When there are no hotels and you can only stay in your friends’ home your experience is something closer, more casual, more spiritual. Like the beads this woman carried into the grave, my dzi carries its own stories and embodies memories and though those stories remain a mystery they exist nonetheless.

This small portable Buddhist figure once served a similar purpose – providing many layers of divinity to the bearer. Its essence has not diminished though it was buried for a thousand years and now sits pinned to Styrofoam. With the other objects that caught my attention it continues to live and serve. One cannot walk quickly past it but must stop, breathe, take a moment to digest this tiny fragment and only then begin to imagine its social life and the various meanings it has represented to so many different people. In this museum there is also a large Buddha in parinirvana from Ajina-tepe. The National Museum, only 3 km away, displays a replica. In the gardens around the National Museum I met a woman and her uncle who after finding out my archaeological background asked: ‘why would there be a Buddha in Tajikistan – a Muslim country?’ During the ensuing conversation it became clear just how important museum interpretation and outreach are. I hope that in the end they did visit the less grandiose but expertly curated Museum of National Antiquities to experience the original Buddha and wall paintings not as much for authenticity as for the interpretation painstakingly presented in Tajik, Russian and English. Here he might still walk away with plenty of questions (a virtue) but they would be based on a foundation of education rather than sight alone which often leads to confusion or misinterpretation. Thank you most especially to these two strangers who engaged and whose thoughtful discussion inspired me to think about how the two museums related to each other and how we as individuals experience objects and our own histories. Seemingly, it was a random event in a garden but in reality this Buddha brought us together in serendipity.

Without museums – for all their political complexities – we would not be able to be exposed to the lives of others, to their pasts and the ways in which our present is directly related to ancient individuals. Their aesthetics, journeys, choices in material objects and textures are wonderfully like our own and where we differ there can only be yet more opportunities for exchange of knowledge. Museums are places where we should learn about the diabolical madness of humanity but also our capacity for magnanimity and imagination – all represented in the social life of the objects housed therein and in the ways in which those objects come to be in the collections and how they are displayed (or not) and used by the museum to educate a curious public. We are not afraid to learn the truth – in fact, museums are in a unique position to address with honesty the relationships between things and states and the sociopolitical, economic and ideological conditions which intersect there. They, like the homes we inhabit and populate with the artefacts of our own private lives – also multi-layered histories – are active entities with the capacity to breathe and evolve rather than solely enshrine.


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