Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Rebel Without A Camera: Museums, Images, and Memory

No Flash!
My old Brownie.  No flash!
My job as a college professor brings me to a lot of museums and archives, and this summer has been especially full of visits to museums, historical sites, and archives in Greece, Norway, the U.K., and the U.S. 

As a kid I found most museums boring, but now I really appreciate and enjoy them. I've spent many days of my life in the British Museum and in several museums in Athens, and each time I'm there I feel that time is rewarded with fresh discoveries and with reacquaintance with familiar objects.

Some museums have a reasonable policy of not permitting flash photography, since the bright light of camera flashes can degrade the colors of paint and dyes.  Others must insist on no photography when the objects on display are on loan from owners who will not permit reproductions of their images.

But in general, I object when museums and archives prohibit photography, especially when the aim is to force more visitors to come to the physical site.  Most people the world over will never be able to visit the world's great museums.  And many scholars could benefit from digital images of archival materials.  During a recent visit to an archive that hosts many of Henry David Thoreau's papers, I was disappointed to learn that I would not be permitted to take photos of some of the papers I wanted to read later.  This forces scholars to spend more time in the archive, which means spending more money - simply prohibitive for many of us.  So I type, or scribble, as quickly as I can to transcribe texts in some archives, and hope that I can somehow find what I need in the time I have.

The Ballpoint As A Tool For Seeing
But what if what you want to remember is not a text but an image?  Scott Parsons, a gifted artist and a friend of mine, has taught me that one need not be very talented with a pen to begin to capture images.  As Dr. Cornelius said in one of Lewis's stories, "A scholar is never without [pen and paper]," and I've tried to make that my rule, too, carrying pen and paper with me everywhere.  Scott tells me that a cheap ballpoint pen is, after all, one of the best tools for seeing.

It turns out, he's right: the pen is often mightier than the camera.  I think this is because the camera captures all available light, while the pen only captures what my eye and hand tell it to.  The chief obstacle to overcome is the disconnect between what my eye sees and what my hand draws.  Scott has pointed out to me that this is not the fault of my hand so much as a problem of mistaking what I think I see for what I actually see.  In other words, it is a problem of misdirected attention, when I pay attention to what I think is there rather than to what the light is actually doing.

Thoreau Farm
So far, no one in any museum has objected to my drawing what I see.  In most cases, when I draw pictures, people seem honored that I should take the time.  I drew this picture of the Thoreau homestead in Concord this summer, and a curator there happened to see it as I journaled.  She seemed pleased that I took the time to try to draw it.  I find that taking the time to draw helps me to notice details I'd have otherwise missed.  You can see I'm not a great artist, little improved from my youth.  But I'm not ashamed, because even if it's not a brilliant representation, it doesn't need to be; it is a record, in blue lines, of ten minutes of attention.  The image is not a photograph; it is a symbol of memory, like a call number for a book in a library that helps me to recall quickly the time I spent sitting on the grass in Concord considering the place where Henry David grew up.

Norwegian waffle: a bouquet of hearts
Norwegian fireplace
Memories Of Delight
I've also begun drawing inside people's homes when I'm a guest there - always with permission, of course.  This summer several kind Norwegian friends took me in for a week, giving me space to write while overlooking a fjord, and cooking me delicious Norwegian food.  In the evening we built fires in the hearth and talked quietly or played cards.  These are fond memories with friends, but they're also memories of delight in seeing new shapes of things.  Norwegians build fires and eat waffles as we Americans do, but the fireplaces and the waffle irons are different from the ones I know from my home.  The waffles I saw were all shaped like heart-flowers, giving visual delight in addition to the delightful taste (though I'm not yet sold on brown cheese as a topping.)  The fireplaces I saw were all open on not just one side, but two.  They looked different, but it was only when I began to draw them that I noticed what I was seeing.  This is a small thing, perhaps, but it is a reminder that what I take to be the natural shape of things often has as much to do with the traditions I grew up with as with nature.  As an aside, when I take the time to draw pictures, it often seems to be taken as a sign of respect, which is just how I intend it: this place you live in, this object in your home, is so wonderful to me that I wish to give it my attention and make it a permanent resident in my journal, the log-book of my heart.  May I?  Thank you, and thank you for the hospitality that allowed me to witness this.

Pics Or It Didn't Happen
Sometimes I choose not to take photos simply because the camera is itself a sign.  When we hold it in front of our face, it becomes not just a lens through which we see, but a symbol of distance: this moment, this image, matters because it will matter somewhere else, somewhen else.  There's nothing wrong with wanting to preserve the moment, but when the apparatus becomes the medium through which we perceive everything - when we feel we must record a photonic image of everything to make the moment real, reality itself somehow becomes less to us.

Ecce: the heart of Christ, a luminous doorway
Icons As Luminous Doorways
This summer I had the privilege of visiting the Monastery of Hosios (Saint) Loukas near Delphi in Greece.  I'm not Orthodox, but I have real appreciation for what I learn from the Orthodox traditions.  An Orthodox priest in my town has told me that icons are not objects of worship, but means of worship, images that help us to pray, just as windows help us to see.  The pray-er who regards the icon isn't supposed to see the icon, but, as with windows, to see through the icon.  In some sense the artistic image is intended to vanish when it is doing what it was intended to do.  This language has been a little bit mysterious to me at times, but at the monastery this summer I had an illustrative experience: I stood in a doorway with bright sunlight shining behind me.  Ahead, I could see through another doorway into the narthex of a chapel, and then through another doorway, to the altar at the far end.  Beside every Orthodox altar there is an icon of Christ.  This one was covered with glass, as icons often are.  The glass reflected back to me the image of the doorway behind me, as though in the center of the image of Christ there were a luminous doorway.  I tried to take a photo of this, but the contrasts were too great.  So I took out my paper and pen and sketched what I saw.  It's not a superb image, but it turned out far better than my photographic attempts did.  And, as in other cases, I found myself feeling considerably more present and more respectful of the place.
First Parish, Concord, Mass.

African Meeting House, Boston, Mass.
The View From The Pew

This was the case with several other holy sites I visited this summer as well.  I had the privilege of hearing Robert Richardson lecture on Emerson in the Unitarian church in Concord, MA this summer, and then to visit the "African Meeting House" in Boston, a site of worship and of community activism for African Americans in the 19th century.  It somehow didn't feel right to let the camera intrude into these places.  The pen, by contrast, felt like an instrument properly reverent.  Each stroke of the pen strengthening lines became like a prayer or an act of gratitude and reverence for the places I was in. In each case I sketched a "view from my pew," the view I had while sitting as worshipers have sat there in times past - and present.

No Photos!
But to return to the complaint with which I began this piece, too many places insist that no photography be allowed inside.  While participating in a Summer Institute on Transcendentalism sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities this summer, I was able to visit some wonderful places, like the Thoreau Homestead, several of the homes of Louisa May Alcott, and Emerson's home.  Visiting these places makes me a better teacher: they help me to tell a better story about the texts and ideas that emerged from them.  Bronson Alcott, Louisa May's father, may have been odd, but his oddity is fascinating and delightful.  He built this outbuilding to house his Concord School of Philosophy, for instance:

Alcott's Concord School of Philosophy, Orchard House
Architecture As The Embodiment Of Ideas
And he had some beautiful ideas about education: like the belief that children should be allowed to learn what they love to learn, that they should become bodily and sensorily engaged in their learning, that they should run and play and have recess, that art and literature should be significant in their learning, and so on.  I knew these ideas before visiting his Concord home and Fruitlands, but seeing the buildings he built to house his ideas helps me to see how he envisioned those ideas at work.

Chair in the Orchard House
Unfortunately, I can only show you the outside of the buildings at the Alcott house, because there's no photography allowed inside, nor at the Emerson home either.  So if you live far away, tant pis.  I guess you'll have to just travel and visit it.  Or, if you like, I can share the sketches I was able to make in our hurried tour.  Yes, let's do that.  I loved this chair, which is so oddly shaped.  In a time when so many chairs seemed intended to make you sit ramrod straight, this one seems to invite you to slouch in different directions, to be at ease in your own body, to delight in sitting in the company of others:

Louisa May Alcott's writing desk
The Alcotts weren't wealthy, but Bronson and his wife managed to provide each of their children with a room of their own, and each of those rooms is suited to the disposition and arts of the child.  Louisa May's room has a beautiful little half-moon shelf-desk jutting out between two large windows, perfect for writing stories and books, with excellent light.  When I visited, the room was full of tourists, so a photo wouldn't have captured it anyway, and my drawing is very hasty and a little cramped itself, but here's a rough idea of what it looks like while standing beside her bed, plus an attempt to give the bird's-eye view:

The Alcotts' sleigh-bed
Bronson and his wife Abby had some lovely furniture, and I was especially captivated by their sleigh-bed.  Its curved ends and gentle woodwork make the bed seem a place worth being, a place of rest and delight:

What I wish is that the owners and curators of these places would recognize that allowing visitors to take photos can help us to preserve the very places we are visiting, and to teach others about them.  I understand the desire to make those places special, just as I understand the fear that if you allow images to be taken maybe fewer visitors will come.  But for us teachers, taking pictures can be a way to allow our students to visit a place they might otherwise never go.

Thankfully, no one has yet prohibited my pen and paper.  Or yours.  I'm not up to Urban Sketchers quality, and may never be, but I'm not ashamed to use my pen as a visual instrument, nor to share with you what I've seen through it.  And I hope you'll do the same.


  1. "I object when museums and archives prohibit photography, especially when the aim is to force more visitors to come to the physical site"

    I always thought that the aim was to make you buy reproductions in the gift shop.

    1. No doubt! And I don't object to museums selling quality reproductions to support the maintenance of their collections. But when the museum supports the gift shop and not the other way round, the museum itself is cheapened and its educational mission becomes the servant of commerce.

  2. Scott Parsons emailed this comment to me:

    "Even in the era of cybermodels, what the mind feels like is still, as the ancients imagined it, an inner space—like a theatre—in which we picture, and it is these pictures that allow us to remember. The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs. This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering." - Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

    I'd humbly submit that if you really want to understand something, draw it!


  3. Some folks have responded to this post by Twitter as well (I'm @davoh, if you're interested) telling me that there are some private foundations (like the Biltmore Estate, they say) and even some public buildings (including some castles in the U.K.) that prohibit drawing. This is a shame. When my kids were young we lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, an art-rich town. We'd take the kids to places like the Georgia O'Keeffe museum with crayons and newsprint and let them draw what they saw. The O'Keeffe people were fine with that, as they should be. Who would want to keep a child from drawing? The answer: someone who doesn't want a child to really see.

  4. And for those of you who teach or study abroad, here's another good use of pen and paper: when you visit a city, or a museum, or whatever, spend some time at the end of the day drawing a map of what you know of the place. Repeat this every day, and you will find you know the place far better with each drawing.