Man in the Museum

A couple of days ago I visited the National Museum of Singapore. I actually meant to visit the National Gallery but was confused by the two… nonetheless a highlight there was the ‘Treasures of the World’ exhibit featuring artefacts from the British Museum. Relics were present from places spanning the entire globe, from Europe, Asia to Africa and so on. There was something about looking at millennia old artefacts that is arresting. Many of these artefacts were from cultures far removed from my own, but it seemed as if I was looking at the culture of my own forefathers; I was looking at the culture of Man.

There were certain commonalities in the objects on display; some where household items, a number were religious artefacts, there was even pornography and of course a large number of royal regalia. All reflected a still recognisable facet of man today. Why might the mere passage of time result in this universalisation of particular, otherwise ordinary, objects? I have no answer. Perhaps the everyday objects of every particular culture have always reflected the universal heritage of man, but it is only when they have been defamiliarised by the distance of a thousand years that we see them as they are.

Dust

What do these artefacts as a whole speak about Man? What first came to mind was our futility. This was evident especially as I observed many of the Royal Regalia. They were to be symbols of power, often divine or supernatural power, meant to inspire awe and terror. The objects are left limp in the museum, while their bearers themselves are gone. Man strives to leave a legacy, but their very legacy is but a testament to our vanity. Shelly notes in his famous poem about one such artefact:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Solomon himself claims:

“I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts … man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20)

Glory

And yet this cannot be all, for the very artefacts too are a testimony to the glory of Man. Many of the artefacts were beautiful — they were awash with colour and made with intricacy. There was a beautiful Chinese screen divider which depicted the four seasons and the sun and moon and a number of ritual masks that were as detailed and complex as they were terrifying. What sort of creature is this? The terror and subtlety of the artefacts surely reflect the strangeness and the glory of Man.

And I am then reminded of Lewis’ by now cliche remark:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

The artefacts in the museum are astounding and amazing, yet they testify not to themselves but to another more wondrous creature. Lewis calls us from Man and Culture as considered in the abstract to the people around us, and so should the artefacts in the museum lead us to see their makers afresh. The glory of civilisation is indeed the glory of man; the people around us whom we live with and hate and love — they are the more appropriate and deserving objects of our wonder than any object in the museum.

And so we are left with this odd paradox, Man the wretched accumulation of dust and Man the being of utter glory. What shall we make of this combination of our futility and yet our beauty? The bible says that we were made to reflect the very glory of God himself, and yet by choosing to turn away from the source of all life, our very existences became futile and transient. Our lives now express this duality — there is yet glory and goodness left in all of us but in the end all our strivings will be  in vain.

Behold, the Man

Another image in the Museum caught my attention — it was a painting of another kind of exhibition. A man wearing a robe and a crown of thorns was thrust before a large crowd to be put on display before them. The robe and the crown indicated that he was some sort a glorious king and yet they were clearly meant to mock him at this show trial. I lingered over this painting for a few moments before passing on. In reflection, I realise that this man represented us all — our glory and our shame mingled in a beautiful and wretched sight.

Jesus was the source of our glory, and yet he took upon himself our shame and futility that we might from thenceforth be free of it. What shall we say in response? There is no need to innovate,

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”
(Psalm 8:3-8)

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