Thoughts from Museums
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Politics and Activism

Thoughts from Museums

Some Musings on the Value of Life

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Thoughts from Museums
Architectural History of the Victoria & Albert Museum

Over the summer, I walked through many museums, marveling at the statues, paintings, and artifacts that were preserved in the spaces. Carefully curated and secured by panes of glass, lasers, heat sensors, and the sweeping gaze of docents was a tale of human history told through objects, a collection of the mundane that had been elevated to art. As a lover of museums, I was in awe walking through the hushed rooms, peering at the descriptive plaques and studying the priceless objects in front of me.

As I was walking through London's Victoria and Albert Museum, however, I received news of the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in Minnesota and Louisiana. I had to find a bench and sit down, feeling sick as I alternately stared at my phone, scrolling through news coverage on the murders, and at the precious art in the museum, which sat impassively in front of me. The utter ridiculousness of existence struck me as I sat there -- here in front of me was an extreme lesson in the human value system. The life of a Black person in the United States was undervalued to the point where the system justified the extinguishing of that life, while these pieces of art and history were protected by state of the art technology to be preserved for all of time. For a moment, it seemed that what we had chosen to protect was our history, and not our present.

The parallel I drew in that moment was not the most logical, and this is not to say that the objects in museums should not be protected, studied, and preserved for our current generation and all those following us. It is absolutely crucial that we preserve our history and make efforts to understand it, because if we lose any threads in our human story, we risk losing our conception of human possibility. If we refuse to preserve art, we would erase its value, losing the creative soul of humanity that has saved every single person and made us who we are. Yet the idea that the jeweled cup of a king should be more valued than the lives of people of color in the United States demonstrates to me a fundamental imbalance in our collective thinking, a fatal flaw in our logic. Every day, priceless, irreplaceable objects of art live in climate-controlled rooms in museums, while priceless, irreplaceable lives exist under white supremacy, under police and public scrutiny, and underground in caskets.

While beautiful objects can come from scenes of violence, and at least some of the objects in every museum were brought there from moments of pillage and carnage, there is nothing beautiful that can come from this current violence. It is time we learned from our violent past and created a peaceful present. What we have been willing to destroy and allow others to destroy so far says something chilling about our human capacity for apathy, but in human history there have also been scenes of revolution, change, and peace to counter the tides of violence and bloodshed. Perhaps what we can carry away from this current scene of carnage is a revolution of peace, in which we protect all that is priceless and precious. Someday soon, I hope the respect and protection we afford to Michelangelo's David will also be offered to every single life on the planet -- because history matters, and I hope what we contribute to the human story is a chapter of peace -- that the objects that we leave to be preserved in a museum will weave a tale of the fight for justice, and our art will sing of love for every human.

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