WE ARE MUSEUMS
Museums sometimes find a silver lining
to poverty––the treasures in their vault
that they dig out, and save, gold miners mining
their heritage, thus staving off default.
They don’t sell off treasures, God forbid,
but unearth what had for long lain buried,
like mummies that from all the living hid,
till like Euridyce from Hades ferried.
Looking back at them curators gaze
like Orpheus, and like him risk the loss
of all the hidden treasures that amaze,
stones that have not rolled or gathered moss.
We all possess some heirlooms that, if sold,
might help us keep the bailiffs from the door,
but though their price may be as great as gold,
they have more value to us than the ore
that miners dig with shovels from the ground.
No treasures in museums ever may
be sold to make financial statements sound;
the donors gave them trustingly away
as gifts no beneficiary may sell.
Our heirlooms that are close to us as wives
have stories we to grandchildren must tell.
Museums do not mine their vaults to trade
the past in order to ensure that they
survive. Our past would surely be betrayed
if we made catalogues––not raisonnés!––
in order that, before our mortal coils
are shuffled, we allow to go to waste
what we in youth accumulated, spoils
that show the world we always had good taste.
We are museums, if you like, with treasures
that give the context of our life, and thus
enable us to vault with vaunted pleasures
worth more than objects traded for cost-plus.
Holland Cotter writes an article about three great museums that have fallen on hard times, despite the treasures in their vaults (“Museums Look Inward for their Own Bailouts,” January 12, 2009):
Major art museums in Detroit, Newark and Brooklyn are prime examples. Forged a century ago or more from idealism and dollars, they are American classics, monuments to Yankee can-do and, in the case of Detroit and Brooklyn, can-do-better-than-Europe. As latecomers to the culture game, American museums had to buy art fast and big, and they did. Their fabulous collections are our national treasures. But times and fortunes — we all know the story — changed. Depression, recession and politics brought powerful cities to their knees. Populations shifted. Whites left as blacks and new immigrants came; a once predominantly European culture became African, Asian, Latino…. In the mid-1990s, when money was scarce, a team of staff curators (of the Brooklyn Museum) went into the vaults, pulled out the museum’s long unseen collection of Spanish colonial material and created a cross-departmental show, “Converging Cultures: Art and Identity in Spanish America.” People who saw it were stunned. Who knew that this fabulous stuff — textiles, portrait painting, furniture, glowing religious icons, high art and low art, elitist and popular — had been there in the dark all that time? Clearly, everyone said, this museum is sitting on a gold mine. It is. Mr. Lehman should start digging now. Sooner rather than later, given the state of the economy, he may not have any choice. For our older, underprivileged, underloved museums, this is the silver lining of hard times. These institutions have the art, the real thing. They have the space; if not much. With luck they have scholarly expertise and curatorial imagination, which they should value like gold. Now is the time, if ever there was one, to look within and bring forth what’s there. People will come. And bigger, richer, less adventurous museums will follow.
© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/12/09