Rikki Li is an official CAPA blogger for spring 2016, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. An English Writing and Psychology major at the University of Pittsburgh, she is studying abroad in London this semester.
This week, Rikki heads to London's V&A to see a fraction of the museum's collection and reflect on art itself and the way we interact with it by shadowing a stranger.
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I have a professor who calls the Victoria & Albert Museum, quite simply, the “museum of stuff.” The V&A’s website officially identifies itself as “the world’s leading museum of art and design,” but perhaps that begs the question: what is art and design?
The museum houses over 4.5 million objects from a dizzying spread of eras and countries—one moment, you could be looking at the towering plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David, and in the next, you could be touching the blue porcelain of a 14th century Chinese vase. I don’t doubt that a person could lose themselves in the museum for days, wandering endlessly in a suspended, distorted spell between the marble curves of Greek deities and the engraved filigree of silver spoons.
However, let’s return to the question: what is art? Is it archaism? Beauty? Historical significance? When does an object transform from an everyday commodity to a safeguarded relic? Perhaps the more accurate inquiry would be: what isn’t art? For example, within the V&A’s Japanese collection, you can find the ancient silk patterns of a kimono displayed right next to a 1990s Hello Kitty parasol. Both of these objects deserve to be called art because they illustrate the same purpose: the recognition and preservation of human culture. It’s pretty awe-inspiring to think about, isn’t it? Not only do we have the capacity to create art, but we also have the awareness to protect it, to learn from it, and most of all, to be fascinated by it.
I suppose that’s why, aside from the museum itself, the most intriguing part of the V&A is the company it attracts. All sorts of people come to the V&A for all sorts of reasons, and even just a few minutes of people-watching will open a barrage of curiosity. Are they alone or in a group? What exhibits do they take interest in? What are they thinking about? Why are they here?
As a personal writing exercise, I decided to follow a random museum visitor for about 30 minutes, taking note of where she went, what she did, and what specific objects she seemed most interested in. From her concrete actions, I then reconstructed her thoughts and emotions into a narrative. Reality into fiction.
So, here is Rosalina. This is her story.
The museum closes in about an hour. This is how she likes it best. Soon there will be an augmented trickle of people leaving through the main atrium or the gift shop, and when that happens, she will follow right in their footsteps and feel like she’s part of something, even for just a moment.
The jewelry exhibit is dark and gleaming, with special lights that refract off the precious artifacts in such a way that the room seems like it’s always in motion. Alive. She’s wearing all black too, so she blends right in. Her dark hair is braided in a tight crown around her head.
Londoners like to wear blacks and grays, she’s learned. There is comfort in the uniformity, but also a sadness.
She pauses by a glittering tiara, the diamonds and pearls shaped into flowers. “Wreaths of flowers and foliage were in fashion throughout the 19th century” says the plaque. It’s a British artifact.
For a moment, it reminds her of her quinceañera from so long ago. Her dress was bright red and made of satin. Instead of a tiara, she wore a crown of pink roses, from her abuela’s garden. It was so warm that day, almost unbearably so. She can still feel the sweat that had collected on the back of her neck, dampening the hairspray-stiffened strands.
She lifts her camera to take a picture, but a security guard stops her. “No photos ma’am,” he says. When he turns his back, she snaps a quick one anyway.
She visits the cast courts next. The ceilings are tall and arched, creating a steady, ambient echo of voices. All around her, the plaster coffins of ancient kings and queens stare up at the ceiling, arms folded peacefully. She wonders what it must be like to stare at the same ceiling for eternity. She stops by a statue of the Three Graces, the daughters of Zeus. They are demure and elegant. They are holding hands.
She misses her family.
A gift shop catches her eye as she makes her way back through the sculpture gallery. She stops in briefly, runs a hand through the scarves hanging by the wall, thumbs through a book on Botticelli. They’re selling elastic headbands embellished with fake flowers. She puts one on and stares at herself in the mirror.
The Medieval and Renaissance Europe exhibit comes next. She meanders slowly around the statues, past Hades and Persephone and Samson slaying a Philistine. There is a small, bubbling fountain in the center of the room, as if this were a garden. A marble garden.
She rummages into her back pocket and pulls out a bronze two-pence. Holds it between her thumb and forefinger for a brief second, then tosses it into the water.
She turned 30 yesterday. A new era.
Half an hour left. The museum will be closing soon. She decides to stop by the café. There are still a few stragglers sitting at the tables, trays empty, chatting with one another. A piano plays gently in the background.
She pauses in front of a refrigerated display of lemonade and remembers the taste of summer.
Rikki's journey continues every Tuesday so stay tuned.