Friday, September 24, 2010

Every day should be Museum Day

Tomorrow, Saturday, September 25 is Museum Day in the United States.  With leadership from the Smithsonian Institution, some 1300 museums across the USA are offering printable online coupons for free entry.  If you are south of the border, take in a museum. (The interactive map at the link above identifies all the participants.)  Far as I can tell, Canadian museums are not part of the project.

Speaking of museums, I recently took in "The Warrior Emperor and China's Terracotta Army" at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. An exemplary museum exhibit, I would say. It only runs until the New Year. Go if you can.

There's the intrinsic interest. The exhibit only has ten of the many thousands of terracotta figures, and seeing them here cannot be anything like seeing their serried ranks in situ. But they still impress. And in exchange the exhibit offers us Westerners a powerful introduction to the world of Qin Shihuangdi, the "First Emperor" who unified China by conquest in 221 BCE, and who had the army fashioned as one small element in the tomb he prepared for himself.

Qin's conquest was preceded by five hundred years of "the warring states period" -- long enduring nations, enormous battles, political intrigues, cultural shifts and borrowings. It is a whole massive period of vastly complicated history -- and largely unknown to us for whom the doings of, say, Pericles, or Rameses or Charlemagne or Napoleon, are familiar historical and cultural icons.  It's a bigger place than we often realize, the human past. This exhibit immerses in one big story from it.

The ROM exhibit present its story very effectively in a very historical show. The artifacts are presented not simply as artifacts for artistic appreciation, but as integral parts of a historical exposition on war and culture in China 600 BCE to 200 BCE: the warring states, the life and consequences of Qin Shihuangdi, his megalomaniac afterlife planning, and the era that followed. The whole thing is well-designed and cleverly presented, and the exhibit texts are intelligent and appropriate.  Bravo, ROM.

Just a little melancholy thought: imagine if we had a museum in Toronto that would apply this kind of talent and passion and resources to a Canadian history subject. I wonder if that might be on new director Janet Carding's horizon, at all.
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