Toronto Museum – An exercise in ‘education’, irritation and Bertolt Brecht

‘We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future’.

– North American Indigenous exhibit, Toronto Museum

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(by Tom Griffiths)

Recently my wife and I had the opportunity of visiting the Toronto Museum at the invitation of a Toronto based colleague of hers, in order to see a Viking exhibition. Well, historical remnants and explanations thereof – if you want to see the long boats you need to go to the Viking Museum in Oslo. We did not expect this to be able to match the Viking museum, not a fair ask in any case and in this sense our expectations were met.

Before moving on to the purpose of this post, which is not really about the Viking exhibits, two comments about it, both positive, are worth making, especially since they affected my expectations (and disappointments) of what I would be exposed to in the rest of the museum, or rather those parts I visited. And these left me peeved and irritated with Brecht buzzing around my head. But more on this later.

The two positives, while modest in themselves, showed an attempt being made by either the curating bods at Toronto or Oslo to engage the visitor in the life and times of the Vikings. And having vicariously visited Valhalla courtesy of Dirk Gently’s adventures in The Long Dark Tea-Time of The Soul I was ready to be engaged.

The first positive was an obvious attempt by the curators to explain aspects of context, specifically social and economic, that helped shape the Vikings. As one would expect these days particular attention was placed on the place and role of women, making them visible. This aspect painted with a broad brush. The other positive was about fine detail. As one would expect after a thousand odd years many of the exhibits were showing their age and associated brittleness. One, a sword, made decrepit and fragile by rust, was partnered by a reproduction that had been placed in front of it. Above the repro was a sign saying Touch Me. I didn’t need to be asked twice. Briefly, for a fleeting second, I was able to imagine myself there. I will leave it to your imagination to decide whether ‘there’ was somewhere in the former Viking territories or in Valhalla.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that I was buoyed by this experience, it had certainly lodged somewhere in my head as my wife headed off to work leaving me to explore the rest of the museum. At this stage Brecht was, shall I say, keeping a low profile.

Whilst I did not ‘do’ the whole museum I did see three of their substantial exhibitions. In order of my seeing them these were an exhibition of 1stC to 20thC AD Korean sculptures and artifacts, a North American Indigenous section and a series of 16thC to early 20thC bed and sitting room furniture in ‘typical’ domestic settings. A legacy of European style as the Museum put it. Hint: the inverted commas serve as a warning. By the time I had finished Brecht was buzzing furiously.

Leaving Odin, Thor and their Viking worshipers behind I headed off to a Korean exhibition, the focus of which was mythology, mythological figures (the King of Hell, for example), furnishings and residential representations of the wealthy and … I don’t know what the collective noun is for numerous Buddha statues gathered in a small space is – a chill of Buddhas perhaps? – and a chill of Buddhas.

An O.D. of Buddhas- insouciance for all

I entered this exhibition curious but without any specific expectations. I left it Buddha’d out, having been through a Charge of the Light Brigade moment – Buddhas to the right, Buddhas to the left … The benefit of this over dose was it forced me to think and what follows is a distillation of that.

There were several aspects to this, the most immediately obvious being the historical, the retreat inward in the face of powerlessness. Whilst not true in any absolute sense the old boy himself and his many followers were, like the Stoics of ancient Greece and the Brahmin aesthetes, to name but a few, suffering an acute on chronic shortage of places to go with any dissatisfactions or grievances they had with the material world. And more importantly the people generally had even fewer places to go – they had no choice other than to put up with it and figure out ways to survive.

Hobbes’ dystopian description of the primitive world where life outside society was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ could also have been applied to the social conditions surrounding Buddha et al because life inside these societies wasn’t much better. From such materially and spiritually impoverished soil, “a heartless world” as Marx put it, sprang both need, “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and solution.

Withdrawing into the inner self was something they could do – and proselytise about – and they did. And yes, I know that proselytising about it is an external act and a defacto, if not intentional, political act but we moderns have Buddha et al at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to passing judgement on the value of what he or others were promoting as solutions to the miseries and injustices of social life.

So what is my gripe about confronting these ‘chilled out’ stone figures? None. As just mentioned, judging those times by today’s values and insights wouldn’t even make the grade as picking low hanging fruit; my gripe with the museum’s display is with how these concrete historical figures have been removed from their actual, material conditions and the human needs these ‘nurtured’ and gave birth to and rendered them abstract.

Museums all around the world, including Toronto, promote themselves as having an educative function. Unlike their Viking display, this was not education, but mystification. The saving grace, if I can put it that way, of the Buddas one can see in temples across South and SouthEast Asia – my favourites are the giant, recumbent Buddhas I’ve seen in Thailand and Sri Lanka, whose eyes peer lazily beyond, looking like they’ve just had a shot of heroin – is that they make no attempt to educate in a rational, secular sense; they are religious figures at places of worship.

There the term education takes on an entirely different meaning, one that is part of a religious faith’s ‘job description’. I disagree with the message but have no gripes with their honesty. I am unable to be so generous with the museum and this connects it with the following.

Another aspect is quite contemporary, a comment on the times. At the dawn of the modern era we see someone like Bacon revolutionizing philosophy by turning it outward, to the objective world of things. He took more than a passing swipe at medieval predecessors and ancient Greek philosophy alike for their looking inward and took a very direct swipe at Plato and Platonism generally: “when you taught us to turn our minds inward and grovel before our own blind and confused idols under the name of contemplative philosophy; then truly you dealt us a mortal injury.”

While not directed against Buddha or what his adherents stood for it could easily have done so. There was a world to conquer. The means to do it were emerging and these means were accompanied by and encouraged a spirit full of confidence and vision. This bullish spirit (or should that be Bolshie spirit?) of the young bourgeois revolution, so admired by Marx, is now in an almost apologetic retreat. Where once a critique of the shortcomings and hypocrisies of this revolution created elbow room for proletarian promise and daring do, there is now among ‘informed opinion’ and the broad spectrum of bourgeois ideology a de energised, timid state characterised by a sense of diminished hope and glumness if not outright funk.

And just when we thought things had reached rock bottom who should step, or rather who is pushed, onto the stage, but Buddha, eyes closed or glazed over telling us to focus on the inner self. Now in whose interest could that sage advice possibly be I wonder?

Tellingly, perhaps, my favourite figure in this section of the museum was the King of Hell, a diabolical little chap who at least displayed a sense of vitality. And here Brecht made his first appearance. As I looked and smiled at the King I was reminded of Brecht’s Mask of Evil: “On my wall hangs a Japanese carving/ The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer./ Sympathetically I observe/ The swollen veins on the forehead, indicating/ What a strain it is to be evil.”

As with my little ‘mate’ the King there is tension, there is contradiction, there is life. And thank heavens for that! Or should that be thank hell?
After entering this exhibit with casual interest I found myself relieved to be leaving it and without consulting the museum map soon found myself outside (and then inside) the North American Indigenous Exhibit.

The North American Indigenous section

It may be odd to say this but these exhibits had a certain familiarity courtesy of my childhood and adolescence watching westerns on TV and Saturday arvo matinees. That being said the exhibits were of interest and some attention had been paid (not enough as I was soon to discover) to explanation of context.

Then it happened, an exhibit that not only caught my attention (seized it was more accurate) but made me audibly laugh in surprise and approval. This was the highlight of the museum and demonstrates how the dead and buried can be made to live, for their living descendents to embrace the challenges of modernity without sacrificing their heritage and how easy this transformation can be. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

This exhibit was of three native Americans, life size plaster cast figures, two men and a woman, originally installed about 100 years ago. The male figure to my left was squatting and reaching for something with his left hand; in the middle, and standing was the female figure and to her left the second male figure in a semi squatting pose. An unremarkable exhibit of the past and a defeated past at that. Comforting for the victors perhaps, but not so for the vanquished and it was this discomfort (pissed offness is probably more accurate) that transformed what was before me into something exceptional. What I actually saw and what had given the exhibit life and relevance was the male figure to my left reaching for a power drill, the female figure holding a tripod and camera and the remaining figure wired up with a ipod.

After my initial ‘wow’ response my gaze fell to an explanatory note at the base of the trio. It said it all:

‘We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future’.

European Style through the Ages

I left the Indigenous display in a buoyant mood and soon ended up, in more familiar territory, in the Samuel European Galleries where I was assailed and increasingly irritated by the ‘legacy of European style through the ages’ – the ages here meaning the late middle ages – the birth of the modern period – to the 20thC. I later discovered, courtesy of their website, that during the period covered, “Europe witnessed agricultural, social, economic and industrial innovation that would change how Europeans lived, worked, and viewed with the world around them” and was invited to “examine the influence these changes had through the lens of decorative arts development in central and Western Europe. Walk among period rooms and vignettes, including those of the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, and Victorian periods, and discover the different stylistic signatures of each.”

Now, I need to disclose that I gained this information after my visit and after the irritation I increasingly felt as I walked “among the period rooms and vignettes” conversing in my head with Brecht as I went. Had I had this info with me at the time my irritation would have been greater.

The problem I had was not with what was there but with what was not. The period rooms and vignettes displayed were, not surprisingly, either the “stylistic signatures” of the emergent bourgeoisie (landed or otherwise) or of the decaying aristocracies of Europe. This fails to surprise on two levels. The first is that the display artifacts were made by skilled craftsmen using quality materials and these have a tendency to last and to be handed down across generations. The second is political, or ideological more broadly and ironically sits in the same camp as that identified and rectified by the Indigenous activists referred to above. In much the same way as the common working people – you know, the ones that actually make all the stuff and keep it working – are written out of history, the lens employed at the museum airbrushes them out too. The pity of this is that their signature appears in every single exhibit, but remains unseen and devalued. As I traipsed my way through the centuries, looking at these rooms with their ‘stylistic signatures’ the one signature that emerged as dominant was that of class, of ownership.

On the one hand this is all rather ho hum – what had I expected to see anyway? But on the other, consigning it to the ‘ho hum’ department is itself a problem because it colludes with the obscuring of social relations. The question that kept repeating in my head was ”where are the people?” And I mean all of them – the property owners, the quality sort of chap with his quality sort of wife, their servants (who cooked the meals? who changed the sheets and cleaned? who…?) the craftsmen who had built everything before me. Where were they? And what were their quarters like? where and how did the craftsmen live?

The Indigenous example – the power drill, the camera and the ipod – demonstrated how the past can be made highly pertinent to the present, how the gap between them shrinks and can be traversed. With curatorship guided by curiosity and social awareness and how these are shaped by the times, we can be given the opportunity of asking questions of history. We can tackle, like our indigenous friends, how we can bring these questions into the present and ask ourselves what aspects of this past remain tangled in the present, holding us up and what aspects have opened doors and propelled us forward.

But why Brecht? Why him in my head, needling me? Brecht is one of my favorite poets and the answer lies in one of them, Questions From a Worker Who Reads:

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?
So many reports.
So many questions.


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One thought on “Toronto Museum – An exercise in ‘education’, irritation and Bertolt Brecht

  1. Good article Thomas.

    I recoil in horror at any mention of Buddha or associated nonsense. Yet i’m always staggered at people who purport to be left wing coming out in support of the Dalai Lama ! I recently had a lengthy on line ‘debate’ with a comrade,who is happy to quote Mao and Marx, yet seems supportive of this feudal fascist: bizarre.

    I recall Flo telling us of her time in Tibet during the 1950’s when the Lama’s OWNED PEOPLE. Flo talked of meeting women who worked throughout their pregnancy and if the baby arrived early on the working day they were back at work before sundown.

    These loving peaceful Lamas didn’t just own people, they meted out horrible punishments to those who fell foul of them. Cutting off ears and/or tongues, gouging out eyes, were some of the punishments meted out by these lovely Buddhist demigods.

    No Thomas seeing any mention of Buddha, etc is not an inspiration to me. The best thing to happen to the Lamas and their Buddhist kingdom was the arrival of the Peoples Liberation Army to liberate the people.

    Enuff said.



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