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On Wonderland, After Hours

June 2, 2016

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.’

Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Tim Walker, Eagle Owl and Hatched Eggs, (2010)

 

Above the grey, chimney-strewn rooftops, the sky is dusky indigo. Of the little darkened storefronts along the rue du Bac, only one remains lit. Monsieur Deyrolle’s old taxidermy, the front door is ajar. We tiptoe up the creaky, winding stairs, to a secret menagerie, where spots of light from the street lamps outside filter softly through the tall glass panes. Paintings and plants, books and animals are all fast asleep. Our intrusion goes unacknowledged; the bear’s nose barely twitches, the lion’s tail does not stir.

 

To the right, Assyrian winged bulls. To the left, white Indian peacocks. Strange plants pressed onto yellowed pages, Raphaelite paintings on the walls. A stingray floating overhead, a country goose in mid-flight. A giraffe stares out the window, watched over thoughtfully by a Vermeer.

 

‘An empress’s bones, a stolen painting

 

of a man in a feathered helmet

holding a flag-draped spear.

 

Wonderland, after hours. The curator’s one-hour tour. Chardonnay in hand, we peruse this odd museum where ‘time is transformed into space.’

 

Glass cases of oddly colored starfish, sea urchins, and shells. King crabs flirt with fine porcelain teacups on the dark oak shelves. Victorian fans with ostrich feather trims, Persian chandeliers. Hand drawn sketches of medicinal plants, Alexandrian scrolls.

 

A vellum gospel, hidden somewhere long ago

forgotten, would have sat on that pedestal;’

 

this glass cabinet could have kept the first

salts carried back from the Levant.

 

We have always loved to travel, and bring bits of the world back home. Maps of constellations from distant bits of sky, Victor Hugo’s notes.

 

The Babylonians, ancient Greeks and Romans showcased their collections to impress mortals and please the gods. Later, the Europeans of the Renaissance, to inform and educate. These used wunderkammern [1] to bridge the gap between nature and the divine. Intellectuals sought them to understand the world; philosophers, where in it they fit. Explorers, for inspiration on where to go next; aristocrats, just for fun.

 

Today, these ‘cabinets of curiosities’ are whimsical hiccups in time. Visitors stroll from room to room, minds wandering free. Sailing the São Gabriel with Vasco da Gama, around the Horn of Africa to exotic Indian lands. Riding down the Silk Road with Marco Polo, from China to Italy. Smelling Cleopatra’s bath salts, discovering America.

 

Staring at beautiful, wondrous things. Wondrous things staring back. No need for a balloon or eighty days to travel the world in these halls.

 

‘The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is;’

- Marcel Proust

 

Wonderland, closing hours. The Chardonnay glasses are empty, the one hour tour is done. We tiptoe down the creaky, winding stairs, and quietly turn off the lights. Lock up and step back into the world. The sky is now royal blue.

 

a vacant room echoes with the spill

 

of jewels buried by a pirate who died

before disclosing their whereabouts.

 

- Rebecca Lindenberg, In the Museum of Lost Objects

 

Our collections are our interpretation of the world, the dots we connect; to each of us our own story, our own set of eyes. To each life its own cabinet, and to ours, tonight, we shall add a cake urchin; a souvenir from Wonderland.

 

 

[1] Cabinet of wonders

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