Yesterday, Ophelia and I went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The Gardener Museum was once the house of Isabella Stewart Gardner, a wealthy woman in the late nineteenth century. After the death of her husband, she turned to collecting; eventually, after her death, she left her house and collection as a museum, with the proviso that it not be altered. And it generally hasn’t been. The collection itself is interesting and idiosyncratic: it looks a bit as though she traveled through Europe picking up whatever struck her fancy, and what struck her fancy were often quite beautiful things. I told Ophelia that we were going to visit a castle, and the museum does rather look like a castle on the inside. This is the central courtyard:
I think I go to museums with Ophelia so often because I was taken to museums so often as a child. And not just museums: we were always going to ballets, operas, plays, concerts. (I was usually bored at the concerts.) Without thinking about it too much, my mother was steeping us in culture — I say without thinking about it too much because it was the way she herself had grown up. You did not necessarily have money — my family lost all its property after the war, and was only compensated for it after the fall of the communist regime — but you could always have culture. You could always know music and art. Where I grew up, in Washington D.C., most of the museums are free, so we would go in whenever we wanted, and often on weekends I would simply wander around the National Galleries or the Hirshhorn. Museums still feel like home to me: I feel perfectly at ease in them, as some people do in churches. I love to wander around and then sit in the café (there is always a café) with a cappuccino, reading or writing.
At the Gardner Museum, I took Ophelia to the café, which was terribly overpriced. But I suppose that’s part of the experience I’m giving her — I want her to feel comfortable in museums, and know how to behave in cafés and restaurants. (She’s eight, so I’m in the midst of that — trying to make sure she knows how to behave appropriately in public, knows the codes. Because living in society means knowing and negotiating a set of codes, doesn’t it? And I want her to know it, so that if she later wants to break the rules, she’ll know what they are and how to break them. You have to know a system if you want to rebel against it.) Today we are working on how to dress for an evening at the theater, because we’re going to Boston Ballet’s new Nutcracker at the Opera House. (I wanted to write this blog post before it was time for me to get dressed.)
I got something very special out of going to museums as a child, something I think most children don’t get. It seems to be reserved for an elite, although it shouldn’t be. (I was certainly not part of a social elite, as a child. Except perhaps educationally.) It’s the sense that human culture belongs to me, and I belong to it. That I participate in it. Picasso and Matisse are not intimidating. They are brothers in arms, and we are all trying to create something, to produce art of various sorts. Of course, some parts of that culture belong to me more than others, simply because of my own cultural heritage, and I would be wary of using material from non-European cultures. I would use it, but with more care. Nevertheless, there’s a sense, not so much of ownership, but of participation.
That matters to me deeply in my own art, and it’s something I want Ophelia to have as well.
Good for you for taking your daughter to museums. I remember well all the museums my parents took me to as a child. The art I saw in them inspired me even at a young age and shaped my thoughts and ambitions. It’s wonderful how many free opportunities there are to educate and inspire our children if we will only take the time and effort to do so.