off the cuff

Musing about museums

Despite all our scouring of internet sources and the maps and directions we carried along, we were usually bowled over by the unexpected wonders we chanced upon

Cheryl RaoSpecial to Gulf News
16:42 May 19, 2017

The celebration of International Museum Day on May 18 brings to mind the many museums we have visited during our travels.

Tourists to faraway places often like to go out into the streets, sample the local cuisine and observe the local population to get an idea of the similarities and differences between people, but some of us also like to browse through local museums to do that.

Often, the group tours we joined did not include museum visits, and if they did, there was limited time there. Despite that, however, we did not want to miss out on the masterpieces we had heard about since we were young. The pleasure of a leisurely lunch at a roadside café did not appear as attractive as a chance to stand before the beauty and perfection of Botticelli’s Venus or Michelangelo’s original David.

We knew we would have to trudge up and down stairs, sometimes race through a maze of rooms in search of the items we wanted to see — but we had help on this front. What was the internet for if not to show us how to get there? So, before we set out, we “googled” our way through the museums in each place and what they had on display. Then, with a few quick calculations of time and speed, somewhat like those arithmetic problems we did in school, we figured out how many “must-see’s” we could cover in the time at our disposal.

Despite all our scouring of internet sources and the maps and directions we carried along, however, we were usually bowled over by the unexpected wonders we chanced upon along the way to the items of our choice. So, there was always a problem of time and we sometimes had to skip some of the items on those carefully-prepared lists. Our choices were not made lightly, but we still considered them as “losses” — until we weighed all we had seen and all we had learnt and we acknowledged that, in the balance, we were still on the plus side.

Perhaps our only disappointment was in Cairo, at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities: Not because the exhibits were disappointing, but because ours was a lightning trip to see the articles from the tomb of Tutankhamun. With an extremely focused — and rather severe — guide leading the way, we were not allowed to let our attention get diverted by other marvels and we were not allowed to linger.

So, each time we came to a standstill before a fascinating statue or sarcophagus, we were hurried along with a gruff “Let’s go!”

We were on the verge of open rebellion, ready to turn on him and demand more time, when we got to Tutankhamun’s treasure — and then we forgot everything but the riches on display. It took many months for us to get out of our bedazzled state — and to regret not being able to see the other treasures beyond compare at the Cairo Museum.

Now, our lessons learnt, we try to make sure we have enough time in each place when we travel. We do not overestimate the speed at which we can manoeuvre our way through labyrinthine corridors and vast halls filled with objects that unexpectedly claim our interest and we do not make too many plans. Instead, we go back to technology to read up on other people’s experiences: How long did they have to stand in line to get entry tickets? Could they worm their way through the crowd in front of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or John Constable’s Hay Wain and actually get close enough to appreciate each stroke and hue?

Technology has served us well while meandering through foreign museums — now all we have to do is find out about the museums at home.

Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.