Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Tale of Two Museums: It's Complicated

In our never-ending quest to expose Miguel to a variety of cultural experiences, we brought him to two, yes, two museums this week while he’s on winter break from middle school. Unconfirmed reports that our parenting behavior is being closely monitored by the International Red Cross and Amnesty International are false.

On Monday, we went to the De Young Museum in San Francisco and saw the King Tut exhibit with my brother-in-law and niece, Katy, who is not quite three months older than Miguel.

As we waited in line to enter, I puffed my chest out slightly and announced to my family and everyone else within earshot because of my booming voice that I was probably the only one there who’d actually been to King Tut’s tomb in Egypt.

“I could probably be the tour guide inside the exhibit,” I said.

Miguel probably rolled his eyes. As did Verna.

I visited Egypt in 1980 when I was a student in Israel for my junior year of college. My friend Dan and I hitchhiked in a taxi across the Sinai Desert with five other tourists and spent nine days in Egypt, just months after the border between Israel and Egypt had officially opened.

After exploring Cairo and Giza, site of the pyramids and the Sphinx, we boarded a 12-hour train ride to Luxor. I promptly got dysentery, derailing our plans to travel to King Tut’s tomb, about 8 miles outside the city on unpaved roads. Dan went by himself. The following day, no longer violently ill, I rented a moped and a driver of sorts and bumped and bounced my way to the tomb.

I don’t remember much about the tomb. I do know that when the original exhibit toured the United States in the late 70s, I was a college student in New York and tickets were the hottest item in town. It was rock concert crazy as long, long lines formed outside the museum as people waited to purchase entrance to the gold and glitter of the Boy Pharaoh.

None of this mattered much to Miguel even though I retold the story of my trip to Egypt to him while we stood in line.

In the end, he liked the exhibit. Verna had purchased the tickets at a discount from Costco, hoping to offset the traditional Christmas gifts with something of cultural substance, which included vouchers for an audio tour.

Miguel was pretty blown away with how the 3000-year old artifacts have held up so well over the centuries. He was grossed out by the Canopic jars, funerary containers that held the bodily organs of the Egyptian kings, queens, and other officials. But he liked King Tut’s gold dagger, the one that was buried with him when he died mysteriously at 19.

At one point, he and Katy asked if they could get something in the gift shop. I said, “Yes, but only if you can tell me three facts about the exhibit. And not that King Tut was the Pharaoh. Something more than that.”

They both said, “OK.”

A half a dozen facts later, Miguel and Katy were inside the gift shop, a kind of sickening homage to consumptive excess. OK, I know that the museum needs money, but King Tut shot glasses, magnets, pencils, and note pads?

The gift shop only increased the creeping unease I’d been feeling for most of the time we were there. The exhibit was fascinating and the artifacts very interesting, but I felt on some level that it was wrong for Howard Carter and his team to have unearthed the Tomb’s remains in 1922. We should let the dead remain in peace.

“How would you feel if someone went through your gravesite in 2000 years?” I posed to my brother-in-law, Marty.

“That’s fine with me,” he said. “Then they’ll see my Grateful Dead t-shirt, and they can do whatever they want.”

Miguel settled on a container in the shape of King Tut’s head. Not for use as a funerary depository, Miguel’s container will hold his puka shell necklace and other jewelry before basketball and baseball games.

We bought some King Tut-Egyptian stickers for Maya, who was across the street at the Steinhart Aquarium with her grandfather. I tried on a few Pharaoh headdresses and did my best imitation of Yul Brynner from The Ten Commandments:

“So it is written. So it shall be done.”

Yesterday we took everyone, including Maya, to the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, which is about 40 minutes north of where we live. Schulz, a simple and gentle man who earned at one point 30-40 million dollars a year, bequeathed the center, which housed his office, to the museum after his death.

The museum, with live size models of various Peanuts character dotting the grounds, also showcases a brief history of comics in America to the evolution of Peanuts from the Lil Folks cartoon strip in Minneapolis, MN, to a worldwide phenomenon.

Peanuts has always been one of my favorite comic strips, and I’ve read it daily for more than 40 years. I laughed out loud yesterday several times as I read the panels from the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and all the way up to Schulz’s last ones in 1999. He was funny, sweet-natured, and possessed a tremendous amount of empathy for young people. We even watched a fascinating 60 Minutes interview with Schulz, done a few months before he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

As I stared at one of the enlarged panels I whispered (if that is possible for me) to my brother-in-law, “I think I like this exhibit even better than King Tut.”

Later I asked Verna to compare them. “You can’t,” she said. “It’s apples and oranges.”

I guess for me there was guilt that the King Tut exhibit should never have seen the light of day, while the Schulz Museum was uncomplicated and carefree joy over a comic strip I have loved since I was a kid.

I am glad we went to both, though. I learned a lot at each one. And I know Miguel and the rest of the family did as well.

Being the happy consumer already at such a young age, Miguel picked out a Peanuts collection of all the strips from 1963, which he bought with his own holiday money. He read it last night and stopped at times to share particularly funny ones with Verna and me. I left for work this morning with Miguel deposited on the couch reading Peanuts comics from more than 40 years ago.

Who says exposing kids to ‘culture’ is a bad thing? Then again, isn’t everything culture?

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