Saturday, May 7, 2011

Dirt, etc.

My mental to-blog list -- on topics as varied as the fascinating books I've read lately (Lauren Benton's A Search for Sovereignty; Saibou Issa's Les Coupeurs de route; Edward Keene's Beyond the Anarchical Society; and, for lazy weekend reading, Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin) to research anecdotes I'm mulling now as I write to observations during recent travels -- is starting to overflow my too-small head.

First up: the timeliest item. In early April I had the good fortune of spending a couple of weeks in London. Most of the time I spent holed up in the apartment pecking away at my keyboard, and much of the rest of the time I wandered around and gazed into the windows of too-expensive pubs and restaurants, like the grad student Oliver Twist, while nibbling a Sainsbury's pre-packed egg and cress sandwich (half price on its sell-by date!).

But the one place I felt rich was in museums. Many of London's best museums are free, making it easy to pop in and out as if the Dutch masters section of the National Gallery were actually your living room. I enjoyed the John Soanes Museum by candlelight (a special treat the evening of the first Tuesday of the month). Soanes was an architect, and his mansion -- now the museum -- is preserved in the overstuffed manner he designed with paintings, sculptures, and even a sarcophagus.

But the two museums I implore you to visit, if you happen to be passing through, both have an anthropological bent (surprise, surprise).

First up, the Pitt-Rivers Museum at Oxford. Mostly housed in one large room full of dusty, dim glass cases, the displays of cultural artifacts at the Pitt-Rivers have changed little in the nearly 100 years since it was founded. I had expected a lot of "exotic" pieces from "native" cultures of the world (Ecuadorean shrunken heads being an obvious example), but I was surprised to find that the collection included many exotic pieces from England as well. Most interesting to me were the items related to witchcraft, and the fact that an Azande rubbing board shared pride of place with various British charms and spells, like preserved lemons stuffed with pins to ward off evil doers, or a bull's heart punctured by nails and needles. A beautiful silvered flask bore a faded type-writer-written tag:

"Small glass flask of bilobed shape, silvered over the inside and stoppered. This is reputed to contain a witch, and the late owner, an old lady living in a village near HOVE, Sussex, remarked, 'they do say there be a witch in it, and if you let un out there'll be a peck o' trouble'. It was obtained from her in 1915."

Exoticizing, Orientalist -- pick your cultural theory-derived insult, and the Pitt-Rivers Museum could make an easy target. But it's impossible to leave the place without feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and elated by the vast riches of human cultural production.

Whereas the Pitt-Rivers Museum is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future, the other expo I recommend will shutter in a few months. The Wellcome Collection, a wonderfully bizarre museum, is hosting an exhibit inspired by the outstanding Mary Douglas's argument that "dirt" is a socially constructed category. "Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life," is an exhibit too wide-ranging to capture successfully in just a few sentences, so I'll just say, if you pass through the city, Go! It combines fine art (seventeenth-century Dutch paintings linking sweeping and other chores of household cleanliness to Godliness); scientific discovery (the first microscope in the world and some of the things its inventor looked at -- first up: the "batter" full of "little animals" that he scraped from his teeth); public health, design (such as the architecture of hospitals) and the development of info-graphics (John Snow's gorgeous map showing cholera cases clustered around the Broad Street Pump -- a feat of visual communication impressive still today); installation art (I admit, I was less taken by the majorette dances in a London waterworks than by some of the other displays); diaries (including the amorous letters between a London photographer and his working class subjects, especially a maid named Hannah); maps depicting the plan to move Parliament far upriver to avoid the noxious sewage stench that pervaded London in 1850s summers...and on and on. I often find museums have a calming effect, encouraging slowing down to ponder the development of artistic technique and its relationship to beauty. "Dirt," in contrast, was quite simply hugely stimulating -- almost as if I could feel new synapses connecting previously dusty or shuttered off corners of my brain.

Now I'm in Berlin and can afford the cafes and bars but not the museums. Go figure.