Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Art museums are dangerous places

Yesterday I went to the Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. The exhibit disappears (well, migrates, I presume) after Monday, so everyone is going crazy this week trying to get some last minute art viewing.

Picasso is one of my favorite painters (granted, I have limited knowledge of art and art history), so it's a moot point that I enjoyed the exhibit. But, instead of writing at length about the awesome paintings, drawings and sculptures I saw, there are some anthropological oddities I want to share.

I arrived at SAM around 11 and found a massive line snaking through the lobby and around the corner. You know how sometimes when there are wild weather patterns or huge traffic jams and strangers are stuck in awkward situations together and form a kind of impromptu camaraderie? Well it was sort of like that. We built a fire in a trash can and told ghost stories and elected a leader who we then mutinied against. Ok, that last part didn't happen. After nearly an hour - and one tense incident where a man in line yelled at an elderly woman for cutting in line, when really she was just trying to connect with her friend - I made it to the front of the line.

Lots of museums have started using audio tours. You've probably seen them: Some sort of box you hang around your neck with headphones attached that's loaded with pre-recorded information and analysis. This exhibit used those, only they look like cellphones. You hold them up to your hear, just like you are listening to a phone. It's a pretty cool design, because it avoids sharing ear-wax with the thousands of other people who have used the audio device before you. But it is also inadvertently hilarious because everyone in the packed exhibit halls (and they were Tokyo-subway-at-rush-hour packed) looks like they are talking on the phone. I would have taken a picture - because it really was hilarious! - but photography was not allowed.

The guards/bouncers in the exhibit were on point. One of them came up to me and told me I had to wear my messenger bag at my side instead of at my back to avoid bumping things/people. (Weird, I know.) He also spotted a water bottle poking out of my bag and warned me that if tried to drink it I'd be very, very sorry. I actually had forgotten I even had water with me, so I really wasn't planning on it. I promise. Later, as I was taking notes on one of the pieces, a different bouncer came up to me and said pens aren't allowed in the exhibit halls. Oh no! But wait, it's ok. He handed me a golf pencil and said that every guard has loads of them in case I wear this one out.

I was very impressed that, with the streams of people, the museum-bouncers were so good at honing in on my "suspicious behavior." What exactly did they fear might happen? Here are some doomsday scenarios that came to mind:

  • A small child (for an exhibit so blatantly about sex, there sure were a lot of kids there - witness a Picasso quote on the wall: "Art is never chaste") bumps into my bag, causing me to stumble, trip on a bench, launch the water bottle out of my bag so that it explodes and splashes all over a painting.
  • I get really, really annoyed with the herds of cell-phone-device shufflers and decide to take my frustration out on a painting with my pen.
Feel free to come up with your own permutations of these situations. Lucky, nothing of the sort happened. But be careful, folks, museums are dangerous places.

Oh, I couldn't take photos of the Picasso exhibit, but I did take a photo of the exploding/flying car installation in the SAM lobby:

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