The Seat of the Muses

Essays

A war has raged across this world for over one-hundred years, yet none call it a war and only small bands, on the fringe, offer resistance. None call it a war because its assault does not threaten to destroy buildings, blow apart bridges, or darken the power grid. No bodies are left mangled in a battlefield. It is not a war in the physical sense. Instead, this silent war is waged against the human mind and spirit. It is a war on our perception of reality. The enemy’s tactic is distortion; its strategy is progress; its favorite weapon – technological innovation. As the twentieth-century dawned, new technology captured the human imagination in the forms of talking cinema and commercialized radio. They constituted a thunderous opening barrage. Then the slaughter began. Television sets stormed the beach, personal computers went house to house, and video games rounded up the youth. Then came the destroyer of worlds, unprecedented in the ability to fragment human consciousness. The Internet flashed like a digital Little Boy and smartphones – this war’s Fat Man – quickly followed. Before we knew what hit us, we were already irradiated by social media.

The fallout we now live in is well illustrated by a 2014 conference held in San Francisco. The conference, dubbed Dreamforce, was the largest software event ever held. It was orchestrated by Salesforce, a company that produces and sells Customer Relationship Management software. At one conference event, in a large auditorium, media-mogul Arianna Huffington and spiritual proselytizer Eckhart Tolle held a public discussion. The focus of their discourse revolved around meditation, present moment awareness, and reconnecting with the self. Why was such a talk scheduled at a conference focused on information technology and marketing? An anecdote relayed by Huffington hints at an answer. On the subject of the painfully distracted nature of our society, she somberly noted:

“It’s the same in museums, you know. My youngest daughter . . . she graduated in art history last year and one class was about going to a museum and standing in front of a painting for two hours – and writing what you experienced. And she was at the National Gallery in London and she was standing in front of a painting, and after twenty minutes the guard came up to her and asked her what she was doing. (audience laughter) because even in museums people are so used to rushing through from one thing to the other” (Huffington).

The fact that quiet contemplation is questioned inside a museum should wake us up to the war on perception. Professor Camille Paglia, a fiery and erudite social critic, who is not asleep, states: “amid so much jittery visual clutter, it is crucial to find focus, the basis of stability, identity, and life direction” (Paglia vii).  She continues: “art is not a luxury for any advanced civilization; it is a necessity, without which creative intelligence will wither and die” (Paglia xviii). Ironically, advances in technology, such as the electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) offer evidence to support critics like Paglia, and suggest a correlation between the benefit of museums and optimal brain function. The museum, as an idea, is an ancient treasure handed down to us through cultural and linguistic transmission, and contains deep wisdom related to human perception that can provide a necessary counterbalance to the pathologically pervasive distractions of our age.

ORIGIN OF THE IDEA

The origins of the museum begin in Greek myth. Per legend, Zeus, the god of all gods, and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, gave birth to nine daughters collectively known as the Muses, “each of whom was assigned the presidence over some particular department of literature, art, or science” (Bulfinch 8). The Muses’ nine domains were epic poetry, history, lyric, love poetry, tragedy, dance and song, comedy, sacred poetry, and astronomy (Bulfinch 8). Metaphorically, the Greeks determined that literature, art, and science were the offspring of absolute divinity and human memory, suggesting that our species’ creativity was forged out of this mysterious relationship.

The Muses of myth were important to the Greeks. They appeared elsewhere in their canon as owners of Pegasus, undertakers for Orpheus, and victors over Thamyris (Bulfinch 124, 186, 193). But the Muses were more than an imagined idea for the Greeks; it was one they acted upon. They erected buildings dedicated to human ingenuity and creativity, calling each a mouseion which meant seat of the Muses (Alexander 3). Most noteworthy of these was the Mouseion of Alexandria which was constructed in the third century BC (Alexander 3). The Alexandrian mouseion served primarily as an academic university, but also housed an immense library, a collection of statues and scientific curiosities, a botanical garden, and even a zoo (Alexander 3). Other Greek temples also housed collections that resemble our modern idea of a museum. They sheltered “gold, silver, and bronze objects, statues and statuettes, paintings, and even bullion that could be expended in case of public emergency” (Alexander 4). In ancient Greece, the seat of the Muses was no myth.

HISTORY OF MUSEUMS

Over time, ancient Greek culture was transplanted to Rome and the mouseion idea with it, represented in Latin by the word museum. The Romans, however, decentralized the idea. Individuals amassed their own Muse-worthy collections, usually the plunder of conquests, in a disparate variety of forums, public gardens, temples, theaters, and baths (Alexander 4). The Emperor Hadrian created what may have been the first outdoor museum, where he built replicas of the Lyceum, the Athenian Academy, the Vale of Tempe, and the Egyptian town of Canopus, mixing history with visual awe (Alexander 5).

The Roman private-collection model endured until the Renaissance, though precariously. “The museum idea was barely kept alive in western Europe during the Middle Ages” (Alexander 5). Prior to the seventeenth century, religious institutions and stately nobles were the only conservers of the museum tradition, stowing precious artifacts away in cathedrals and palaces. Then, in 1671, the Greek museum precedent was restored when the first university museum was established in Basel, Switzerland. England followed suit a short time later with the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (Alexander 5). The trend intensified in the eighteenth-century with the creation of the Vatican museums, the British Museum, and the world-renowned Palace of the Louvre. America was not to be outdone by its European cousins. The Smithsonian Institution, New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Museum of Natural History were all established in the next century (Alexander 7). This energetic movement, spurred by Renaissance and Enlightenment ideas, returned the seat of the Muses to the public, coming full circle to the Greek’s original insight.

LINGUISTIC TRANSMISSION

Geoffrey Chaucer

The survival of the museum as an idea across multiple millennia is truly remarkable and much is owed to the writers who kept it alive. The linguistic transmission of the idea from Greek inception to Roman adoption is direct and easily observable in the words mouseion and museum. Though the Latin word came to English unchanged, the idea itself lay dormant for centuries. While surely some Europeans of the Middle Ages knew of the Muses and the word museum, they did not act out the concept. If an idea is not realized in any concrete form, it must be kept alive by other means. Enter Chaucer, the revered fourteenth-century English poet. He claimed new territory for English literature and brought the Muses with him. In 1384, Chaucer wrote “So songe the myghty Muse, she That cleped ys Caliope” (Oxford University 1880). Caliope was the muse of epic poetry in Greek myth. In writing of her, Chaucer – a poet – did more than reintroduce an ancient character; he attached himself to the idea. His poem mentioned the other eight muses, but only as Caliope’s eight sisters. Though there were four muses of poetry, Chaucer only named Caliope, displaying intentional choice and a deep understanding of the Greek idea.

A few other Chaucerians wrote of the Muses, but the idea gathered significantly more steam in the Renaissance and beyond. John Milton, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and various writers for The Spectator all mentioned the muses (Oxford University 1880). When comparing literary inclusion of the Muses and the eventual renewed interest in building public museums, there seems to be a causal relationship between the two. However, that is somewhat misleading, because the idea as it existed in English literature and other usage was undergoing a new kind of turmoil, specifically the forces of semantic extension and degeneration. Though the linguistic turmoil would not affect the construction of museums, it would affect how people would come to experience them in the distant future.

Six hundred years ago, Chaucer evoked the Greek sense of the Muses, but later poets began to extend the idea, applying it to a nameless, singular Muse as well as mortal characters, a state of being, and verb forms. Tennyson, for instance, romantically elevated a mortal above the Muses: “I learnt more from her in a flash, Than if my brainpan were an empty hull, and every Muse tumbled a science in” (Oxford University 1880). Tennyson also referred to a generic, singular Muse in other poems. Browning dispensed with the personification altogether; he wrote, “Where she dwells, forever in a muse” (Oxford University 1880). In that line, Browning applied the word to a state of consciousness. Such extension was a good thing insofar as it spread the idea, but it also led to degeneration.

Edward and Mary Alexander, museum scholars, accidentally display the extent of degeneration in their assessment that “musing and amusement are interrelated and reflect pondering and deep thought as well as diversion and entertainment, it is no surprise that museums have long been considered to be places of study as well as repositories of collections” (Alexander 4). Unfortunately, what they imply is both sloppy and wrong. It is sloppy because the terms musing and amusement may sound the same, but their meanings could not be farther apart. The Greek Muses never embodied the ideas of diversion and entertainment; they mediated the divine sense of inspiration. The Alexanders’ assertion is also wrong because they draw false links between form and function. In their estimation, the museum as a place of study is where one does musing, while museums with collections are for amusement, a place to be diverted and entertained. Such a false dichotomy is why Arianna Huffington’s daughter was hassled by a security guard. But it is little wonder that the Alexanders misconstrued these ideas, for the etymological distinction between muse and amuse is not evident at face value.

The verb to muse comes from Old French muser, meaning to loiter, to reflect (Partridge 421). From this, the English definition became “the action of musing; profound meditation or abstraction” (Oxford University 1880). Based on profundity and abstraction, the idea behind this definition retains the Greek spirit. But muser morphed to amuser in French. The latter word literally meant “to cause to stand with muzzle in air” (Partridge 421). Dogs were the semantic inspiration for this alteration. When on the hunt, dogs stop and stand still, lifting their muzzles to sniff the air in order to better ascertain a scent (Oxford University 1880). This idea, though somewhat degenerated, still means to pause and reflect. However, time and usage would further divide the terms.

Though Shakespeare never used the word amuse, subsequent English writers began to use it in a negative sense (Oxford University 74). Several definitions are given for amuse by the Oxford English Dictionary, but the one closest to current usage is “to divert the attention of (one) from serious business by anything trifling, ludicrous, or entertaining” (Oxford University 74). In 2018, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines amuse as follows: “to entertain or occupy in a light, playful, or pleasant manner” (Merriam-Webster). An additional definition, “to occupy the attention of”, is listed as obsolete (Merriam-Webster). Therefore, the Alexanders need a correction. Musing and amusement were interrelated, but are no longer, since these two words represent very different modes of being in the world. The former is the quiet, contemplative expansion of consciousness provided by a museum. The latter is the fragmented, dopaminergic distraction provided by a smartphone muzzled about one’s face.

Thus, a look at linguistics restores the original point. There are two starkly contrasted methods for experiencing the world. There is the Greek method of beautification, artistry, inquiry, and awe found in the museum – the seat of the Muses. Then, there is the method of the information age – constant data flow. What began with radio and television has evolved to the purpose of twenty-four hour amusement. Human attention flits from TV screen to phone call; from e-mail notifications to at-mentions; from taking pictures of food to uploading, to posting, to worrying if anyone liked the picture. To Refreshing, and refreshing, and refreshing. In a final linguistic observation, it must be noted that the trend of this dichotomy is going in a bad direction. Google Books’ NGRAM tool provides the ability to search the corpus of English writing over the last two-hundred years and demonstrate frequency of word usage. A search for the words museum and amusement reveals two facts worthy of note (see fig. 1). First, the terms are inversely related. The more one is used, the less writers employ the other. Second, at the close of the twentieth-century, amusement trends upward while mentions of museum fall off. Given that what a society writes about is a reflection of what it thinks about, the birth of the internet and smartphones appears to correlate to a growing preoccupation with amusements.

Fig. 1. Usage data for museum and amusement from 1800 to 2008. Source: Google Books NGRAM viewer, 25 April 2018, https://books.google.com/ngrams.

 

SCIENTIFIC AFFIRMATION

The argument that a museum in the Greek sense, as a place of inquiry and a collection of magnificent, unusual things, can benefit the human mind in ways that information technology cannot, is affirmed by science. John Kounios and Mark Beeman, researchers at Drexel University and Northwestern University respectively, have used EEG and FMRI to study how the human brain experiences insight. They define insight as “sudden comprehension—colloquially called the ‘Aha! moment’—that can result in a new interpretation of a situation and that can point to the solution to a problem” (Kounios 211). Their definition sounds exactly like the Greek idea of being visited by a Muse. They found that insight arises from a specific brain state based on three preconditions – positive emotion, location in an expansive physical space, and a brain blink (Kounious 215). The final precondition, a brain blink, occurs when one experiences momentary sensory deprivation, meaning they stop noticing some of their sensory input in favor of one specific sensation. Museums are tranquil, often beautiful, places that promote positive emotion. Museum buildings are usually grand in scale, offering both immense spaces and larger than life objects of contemplation. Museums also offer the opportunity to be caught-up by, or absorbed in, an idea or display, to fully concentrate, assuming no concerned security guards interrupt the musing.

Another researcher, Iain McGilchrist, studied hemispheric differences in the brain as they relate to how we perceive reality. McGilchrist found that the left hemisphere provides us with a sort of piecemeal attention that “helps us make use of the world, but in doing so it alters our relationship with it” (McGilchrist 10). It alters our relationship because it flits from one small concentration to another without seeing the interconnectedness of what we observe. “Equally the right hemisphere subserves a broad open attention which enables us to see ourselves connected to – and in the human case, to empathise with – whatever is other than ourselves.” (McGilchrist 10). To paraphrase, the left side sees utility, while the right sees the big picture. McGilchrist argues for unity, using the whole brain; it is the type of experience available in a museum. When one is struck by the Muses, having a brain blink, it appears that the whole brain is engaged as a single unit. On the other hand, when one walks around seeking amusement and distraction, half the brain is muzzled.

CONCLUSION

Collectively, we tend to give information technology the benefit of the doubt, assuming the positive will always outweigh the negative. However, it would be prudent in such rapidly changing times to ponder whether our ancient ancestors perceived something we currently do not. What value do museums hold in our era? We should contemplate that question for two reasons. The first is respect and humility. It is so unlikely that the beautiful idea of the museum would survive for over two-thousand years. One civilization collapsed after another, yet the idea persisted, transmitted through language, erected and resurrected in reality, eventually spreading through the entire world. If human beings so cling to the idea of a physical seat of divine inspiration, it is worthy of remembering. The second reason we should contemplate museums and how we act in them comes from the neurological frontier. Advances in brain science seem to be saying that we are going astray, abusing our human perception with flashy, electronic amusements. However, if history’s lessons are learned well, we will think more about museums. We will write about them more. We will build them and create the art to fill their wings. We can – we must – reclaim the seat of the Muses from which we, mortal men and women, contend with the divine.

 

Works Cited

Alexander, Edward P. and Mary Alexander. Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums. Plymouth: AltaMira Press, 2008.

“amuse.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2018. Web. 25 April 2018.

Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Mythology. Avenel: Avenel Books, 1979.

Huffington, Arianna. YouTube, uploaded by French American TV, 20 October 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhao5i5P10w.

Kounios, John and Mark Beeman. “The Aha! Moment: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 18, no. 4, 2009, pp. 210-216.

McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of

the Western World. London: Yale University Press, 2009.

Paglia, Camille. Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Partridge, Eric. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Greenwich House, 1983.

Oxford University. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Glasgow: Oxford University Press, 1971.