Friday, 4 March 2011

Museum Piece

Lack of planning is generally thought to be a bad thing and is the origin of sayings such as “They couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery”. I would argue, however, that there is a case for a degree of laxity in planning ahead and that minimal preparation can allow the opportunity for serendipity in one’s life, as well as removing the stress that can result from rigid timetabling.

My recent visit to the Manchester Museum may be a case in point. Admission is free of charge but, as I was about to pass through the open door, a security person ambled by, mug in hand on her way to chat with the shop staff. “We’re not open yet. Another 10 minutes”. She continued towards her rendezvous, leaving me with an unexpected moral dilemma: whether to walk into the museum anyway, or to play by the rules and loiter, needlessly, in the lobby. Now this was a situation which would never have arisen had I troubled myself with a little research into the opening hours, but it turned out to have its upside. I diverted into an adjoining room housing a temporary exhibit of Chinese artefacts and, apparently, not subject to the same opening times.

It was a small but diverse and interesting collection, from which I learned two things in particular. One was that the Chinese really did invent a lot of stuff thousands of years before Westerners had even thought of painting on cave walls. The other thing I learned was that they left nothing to chance (remarkable given their present day reputation as gamblers). One of the displays showed a whole set of model furniture for the deceased to take to the next world for use as a pattern to make real furniture for their new life there. In another display there was a ceramic plaque covered in writing which was to act as a sort of passport to hand to the government officials who were expected to be waiting for them in the afterlife. Here in the West we have a saying – “nothing is certain in life but death and taxes” and we can rely on the onset of the former closing the account on the latter. For the unfortunate Chinese of antiquity, however, there was no escape from either. What must it be like to take your tax file with you when you go? It seems they left nothing to chance and were thus both masters and victims of their own forward planning.

On leaving that room I was drawn to an old fashioned office off to the side. Seen through the panes of glass in the oak-framed partition, its furnishings appeared fusty, as if from another age - perhaps 1930- and the haphazard collection of peculiar objects inside was irresistibly intriguing. The brass doorknob could not be turned so I concluded that it must not yet be open. The sign over the door proclaimed this to be the ‘Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism’ and I longed to gain entry. As it turned out though, this fascinating corner of the museum was an exhibit in itself – a piece of installation art by Mark Dion – observable only through the window panes.

I finally did get into the main museum, only to discover another consequence of my failure to plan ahead. It was the half-term holiday, and conscientious parents from all around had brought their noisy, over-excited children to be entertained and/or educated. Since this was not conducive to my relaxed morning exploring antiquities I headed for the exit, stopping only at the beetle and bug department to note the jewel-like qualities of the pinned out specimens, and to ponder why they don’t look creepy at all when they are immobilised. Only later did I reflect upon the unexpected, small but entertaining pleasures gained from having had no methodical plan for the visit to the museum.

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