Object lessons

What do museums save of our pasts and which of those treasures do they surface in public?

 

In a giant two-year-old warehouse in South Greenwich, the Prince Phillip Maritime Collection holds… well, almost anything you can imagine that connects to Britain and the sea. Huge rooms filled with racks of paintings. Calfskin charts of the Mediterranean that predate lines of latitude and longitude, 400-year-old astronomical globes of remarkable precision and beauty, a 4,000-year-old Egyptian boat model… altogether, something like two million objects. Last week it was my privilege to take a behind-the-scenes tour of this motherlode, led by friendly staff.

I also wandered the Museum of London, just north of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and its beautifully designed galleries with artifacts along a timeline from the prehistorical to the present day. This is not at all a small museum but a vastly larger version is well underway, created in part to display more of the  collection of some seven million items. And I gave a wave to HMS Belfast, the largest survivor of the British WW2 navy.

I’m a huge fan of digital humanities efforts, notably the European Time Machine megaproject, that seek to digitally preserve and present a wealth of historical material that otherwise could never appear in public. But we also hunger to see the original beasts—to come (almost) close enough to touch the actual paintings or charts or globes. How do museum curators choose?

 

HMS Belfast

Nobel art of science

Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s drawings lay out the brain in surprising detail—and beauty.

“An entire universe that has scarcely been explored lies before the scientist… Each cell presents us with the unknown, and each heartbeat inspires profound meditation within us.”

He grew up in poor Spanish hill towns near the French border, bright, impulsive, strong-willed, prone to escapades that have more than a touch of the medieval. He was endlessly curious, experimental, energetic, determined to think things through by himself. By eight years old he was drawing incessantly wherever he could, coloring his drawings with paint flaked from walls, bitterly opposed by his doctor father. He was a famously disobedient student, often beaten by teachers, once locked up by himself for more than a day. His father pulled him out of school and apprenticed him to a shoemaker for a year. He was an enthusiast and expert for drawing, painting, birds, nature walks, wooden cannons he built himself. Years later, he plunged deeply into gymnastics, chess, gymnastics, philosophy, hypnotism and whatever else caught his interest. When he grew excited by photography, he not only taught himself excellent shooting skills but developed emulsions for developing prints that were better than what he could buy. He and his father stole bones from a graveyard to help their anatomy studies. He joined the Spanish army as it fought rebellions at home and in Cuba. He survived malaria and then tuberculosis.

Such was the education of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who became the world’s greatest neuroscientist.

He won the Nobel Prize in 1906 and is best known for his theory that nerve cells in the brain are not directly wired together but connected by chemicals—a theory not confirmed until the electron microscope debuted, decades later. He possessed an astonishing intuition for guessing at brain function based on structure, backed by an astonishing amount of hard work to reveal that structure. He couldn’t afford a good microscope until he was given one for his help in a cholera epidemic. He taught himself German, the language of biomedical science, to keep in touch with the latest findings. He published his own scientific journal when it was the only way to spread his own discoveries, which were numerous and major.

Perhaps most famously, Ramón y Cajal presented what he saw in the brain in thousands of drawings that elegantly show the brain’s wild menageries under the microscope, artwork that is stunningly created to emphasize structure and concepts. You can now see 80 of these masterpieces in the well-received Beautiful Brain exhibition at the MIT Museum.

Ramón y Cajal lived in a very different time—for instance, his autobiography has nothing but good to say about his wife but never mentions her name. He was not just genius but appealing human being. He was thoughtful, kind, wryly humorous, sociable, patient with others, resourceful, surprisingly tough, endlessly curious.  He wrote superbly on science and his own remarkable life. His aphorisms are still quoted. His lessons still stand.

“Drawing enhances discipline and attention, for it forces us to observe the totality of the phenomenon and see details overlooked in ordinary observation.”

“In our parks are there any trees more elegant and luxurious than the Purkinje cell from the cerebellum?”

“Nature is a harmonious mechanism where all parts, including those appearing to play a secondary role, cooperate in the functional whole.”

Museums and the shock of the old

Coming face to face with the Dama de Elche

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Millennia later, physical reality still has its moments, at least in museums.

In Madrid last week for Thanksgiving, at the quite wonderful National Archeology Museum, I suddenly realized that I was looking at the Dama de Elche. I hadn’t known that this limestone bust from the 4th or 5th century BC was life-size. Or so haunting, so human. She stands near two full-length compatriots, the irritable Dama de Biza and the huge-eyed Dama del Cerro de los Santos. No one is smiling. Who were these women? Were there ever Señores de Elche, Biza or Cerro de los Santos?

The museum’s remarkable collection of artifacts also includes the beautiful sandals below, which look almost as wearable as when their Neolithic weaver tied the last knots 7,000 years ago. Museums clean up these ultra-rare survivors but leave almost all of their mysteries, along with the realization that they were created by people very much like us.

sandals_neolithic