To go before the mast of the world… and exit through the gift shop

Yesterday, I walked through a plexiglass tunnel surrounded by sharks.  It was beautiful.  Especially the head-on view of the shark swimming directly towards me, slowly growing larger, more detailed, the sway of its body mesmerizing me to stillness.

I found my feet eventually, and, still swaddled in the experience, moved forward with a group to the end of the blue-lit tunnel.  We passed through an archway and were immediately poured into the bright lights and exuberant options of the Aquarium gift shop.

A few months ago, after journeying through a carefully curated and meticulously detailed exhibit of Picasso’s Paris, still rapt over Man Ray’s images of Fitzgerald and Joyce, Picasso and Stein, and holding my newest mental acquisition, a small Bracque still life, in my mind, I discovered the final display of the exhibit ended similarly, with a cash register.

My fear is not so much that I will find a gift shop on my hikes through city parks, when I check books from the library, and as I exit public transportation, though that is present.  My fear is that the gift shop is now part of the exhibit, a part that you cannot avoid, and that it might become the whole experience.

Yes, museums and cultural venues are looking for every possible means of support as public funds disappear.  Ticket prices and membership dues reveal that.  But do we want an overrun of gift-shop cul-de-sac design with no escape options?

That way carries with it a serious question – can we feel we’ve truly experienced something unless we are able to carry a piece of it home with us?  (And yes, I’m totally guilty of this in my travels, tyvm Paris street vendors.) What value do our impressions and feelings about those sharks, that Bracque still life bear, in the face of an object that so clearly has a value attached to it with a small plastic tie?

And yes, absolutely, museums are not by any means the mast of the world.  But they are a way to begin to get there.  As is the internet, in all its messy exuberance.   They are gateways for those who don’t have the time or the means to obtain a PADI certification and throw on a couple tanks and a regulator, or time travel to Paris.  They’re a start.  Then, for many, comes venturing out with a tent or a small boat, possibly a journal, for a few days, then longer.  Eventually comes making our own creations and experiences public for the world to see, no matter the consequences.

Does the gift-shop cul-de-sac put a stopper on that flow towards us valuing our own thoughts?  I don’t know about anyone else, but for me it’s certainly replaced rapture with absolute crankypants do-not-want more than a few times.

I hope the future holds exhibits with paths around the shopping experience, that let me think my own thoughts for a few more minutes.


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