An Act of Citizenship

Speech to the Texas Association of Museums

Barry Lopez. Photograph by Annie Marie Musselman


Adapted for El Palacio

Editor’s note: This spring, distinguished author Barry Lopez addressed a joint meeting of the New Mexico Association of Museums and the Texas Association of Museums, in Lubbock, Texas. El Palacio was in attendance and subsequently received permission to publish Mr. Lopez’s remarks.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak with you today. And I hope in what I have to say you’ll understand that this is not a gratuitous remark, that I’m honored by the invitation to join people whom I not only admire greatly but whose real work, I think, is not well understood, especially by visitors to museums perhaps more taken up with satisfying an itch for entertainment, or a need for distraction, than recognizing the opportunity for illumination, or wonder, or simply reflection.

But, perhaps this is to judge the average visitor too harshly.

A couple of years ago I spent some time in Kabul, in Afghanistan, where among other things I hoped to arrange the logistics and security that would allow me to travel north and west of the capital city to Bamiyan, a town situated in a mountain valley on the old Silk Road trade route. As some of you no doubt know, this was the site of a cultural tragedy in the spring of 2001, the destruction of two enormous, 1,500-year-old sandstone Buddhas—a husband and wife as I recall—by Taliban militants. They blew them to smithereens, shelling them where they stood in separate grottos in a cliff face about half a mile apart, and then destroying their heads with dynamite.

I thought by traveling to Bamiyan I could learn as much by staring into those two empty grottos as I might have learned a few years earlier by looking at the Buddhas whole.

As it turned out, I was right.

My host in Kabul, at the time a minister in the Karzai government, had told me he believed the worst thing the Taliban ever did was to destroy these two colossi. When I asked him why he felt this way, he said that they’d stood for centuries as a symbol of tolerance, of the ability of the Afghan people to accommodate ideas and even whole systems of belief different from their own, different from what they were accustomed to. For hundreds of years, he said, Afghan Muslims had come to Bamiyan out of curiosity and respect; it was the Taliban’s vehement condemnation of this capacity for tolerance in his countrymen that had so upset my host.

Prior to my visit, I’d been a somewhat casual reader of news reports about what the Taliban had done to the Buddhas; but the symbolic power of this incident, the violent ignorance behind it, took hold of my imagination immediately. I knew if I went there I would become more informed, not so much about Central Asian politics, say, but about how intolerant humans can be; and I would be able to see the geography in which this ideological fury unfolded. I spent a long morning at Bamiyan walking through piles of rubble, what was left of the statues. There were rehabilitation teams working there then from several countries in Europe and Asia, most of them from or affiliated with museums, men and women picking up stone fragments, numbering each one and laying them out on tables under the shelter of large tents, with the idea that somehow they could put the towering statues—one of them was 180 feet tall—back together. These were not, necessarily, Buddhist or

Muslim workers and technicians. They were human beings, people who understood that culture is a mix of complex darkness and complex light, and that when cultural objects like this are destroyed, especially by fanatics whose real argument is with history, all people are affected. The situation recalls for me a prescient line of the mid-twentieth-century American poet Robert Duncan, who once said, “The drama of our time is the coming of all men and women into one fate.”

As I say, I was no expert on this event when I arrived in Bamiyan, so I wasn’t aware of what the Taliban had also done to the motels that had been built in the surrounding countryside over the years, accommodations for travelers who’d come to Bamiyan to stand before the statues, to take in the great compassion and serenity, the perpetuity evident in these massive objects. They leveled the motels, ramming and crushing the structures with armored vehicles, further insulting the integrity of their own people.

This story of intolerance and mob violence could end in any number of places; I’ll end it at the National Museum of Afghanistan, in Kabul. When my host asked me what I wanted to accomplish while I was in the city, I told him one thing I wanted to see was Kabul’s museums. A look of forbearance formed on his face—an exasperated man, it seemed, in the process of making peace with reality. He said the museums in Kabul were not in good shape, but that I could still learn something by visiting them. So one day I went to the National Museum.

My visit was a surreal experience. The overall impression I had, walking the halls and entering various rooms, was of impoverishment. Of the museum’s 100,000 or so objects, 70 percent had been looted during the Taliban’s rule. The emotion I felt most deeply in these rooms was grief—also remorse, though of course I was not responsible for the damage I saw. Let me give you one image. A medium-sized display case, on four elegantly tapered legs of dark wood. Within, under glass, leaning against cubes of pale concrete, were about fifteen fading Polaroid prints, photographs of the objects the display case had once held, before the Taliban arrived with their appetite for Apocalypse, untutored men surging through the halls like young Maoists in China during the Cultural Revolution, hooligans who believed that by smashing pianos and setting fire to libraries they were ushering in a salvific wisdom, a heaven on earth. The Taliban snatched up the more portable objects in the museum, most of them later to be sold, and broke apart whatever was too big or too inconvenient to move. In a room on the second floor, they took axes to nearly twenty tall carvings, made centuries before by traditional people in northern Afghanistan, human forms perhaps meant to honor ancestors. The day I was there, a team of curators from the Netherlands, with expertise in this particular area of restoration, and with, I want to say, infinite patience and concern for our human heritage, were gluing the gouts and slivers of wood back together.

It would be wrong, not to say misleading, for me to imply that all I saw at the National Museum was destruction. An audience less aware than you are of the character of the people who comprise many museum staffs might infer that the curators here were powerless or felt defeated. This wasn’t the case. Three of the rooms I entered were in impeccable order and had beautiful objects on display, things that had, I believe, been locked away in vaults around the city during the rampage. So the museum staff seemed to me brave and enterprising, which is perhaps what my host actually most wanted me to witness.

When I was eleven—a curious and energetic young boy living in Southern California, a boy who could not wait for the next weekend and another trip into the Mojave Desert, or his next outing to places like Zuma Beach, where the Pacific crashed the shore after a storm—my family moved to New York City. In this new environment I grew accustomed to visiting something quite different—the Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum, for example, and the Museum of Natural History on Central Park West, and the Cooper-Hewitt on East 91st. What happened, looking back on it all, was that a youngster keen on the biology and ecology of Canis latrans, say (though he wasn’t aware of that binomial), found in these museums a world as marvelous—as filled with marvels—as the natural landscapes of his childhood; and a world every bit as wild, though in a different way. The infusion of natural history and geography that drew me in as a child was complemented now by rooms replete with the evidence of human culture. And the interweaving of these two realms, over time, produced a way of seeing the world that has been my way ever since, as a person and as a writer.

As a youth, I held in high regard the art I saw on pedestals at the Metropolitan and on the walls at MoMA or at the Guggenheim or the Whitney; and I probably condescended—a ridiculous stance for a callow cultural neophyte from Southern California—toward collections I encountered in museums in the hinterlands, once I began traveling the country heavily by car. But this ignorance eventually disappeared, and I understood that the effort to display and annotate and protect what human beings made was an impulse cultivated by a cadre of similarly driven people, whether they were curators at the Metropolitan or a lone curator at some small roadside museum in South Dakota. Each in his way was a person who cared what happened to us. Their work was largely apolitical and altruistic, finally an act of citizenship, if you will, which not all work in a country like ours can claim to be.

Let me strain at this idea a little, if you’ll indulge me. In order to understand where you’re going, or where your community, however you might define that, might be headed, you have to know where you are (and be ruthlessly unsentimental about evaluating that) as well as where you have come from. What are we? That’s a question every museum I’ve ever been in asks. The museum puts before you what scholars like to call primary sources, the point of departure for the most legitimate inquiries into this ontological landscape of what we are. A curator brings together what he or she thinks makes good sense, like a composer choosing tones or a painter pigments. The best museums make coherent statements, and leave the rest to the visitors, to that marriage of two imaginations. Strictly speaking, the museum is neither a shrine nor a warehouse. When the task is done right, the principal effort is to educate and edify, to elevate our awareness; but it is also to comfort. If your personal world is in a shambles because of what is happening today, say, in Ukraine, or even in your own home every night, the museum’s investment in history, in the long pull of humanity, can be a great comfort. It can generate a kind of hope, quite apart from the objects or the dioramas or the installations that also might give birth to such an emotion.

My feelings about museums, of whatever sort, of whatever degree of sophistication, are the feelings of a visitor, the person being served. I do not know anything about fundraising, about the tedium inherent in some aspects of curating or accessioning, of the need to strike a balance between edification and entertainment; but as someone grateful for these clarifying environments, for the stimulation they provide and the insight they provoke, I want to say that without museums we’d perish. That’s a big word, perish, a dramatic word; but if you lose perspective or come to believe there is no primacy in primary sources, you’re lost as a culture. You become like the hordes of jihadists who tore through the National Museum of Afghanistan, strident and rapacious people, the dogs of Hell.

I hope in doing your work, you do not lose sight of the fact that you serve. You serve humanity, you serve your country, you serve your ancestors. What you do is essential, however onerous, tedious, or ineffective it may seem to you on your worst days. It is because you take the kind of care you do that I can write, that I can walk through the Oregon Historical Society’s exhibits with my grandson and talk to him about James Cook, offshore at Cape Foulweather, gazing at his New Albion in 1778. I can do my work because you are doing yours.
And I’m meaning to thank you this afternoon for that.

Democracy, as you know, is an experiment. There’s no guarantee it will work. And keeping this ideal alive requires vigilance and perspicacity. Or, at the least, simple support. Whatever we are to people around the world at any particular moment, we’re a republic. Our goal is “the will of the people.” Our effort is to enfranchise all voters, regardless of their circumstances, a brave and, from a certain perspective, perilous idea, for it means that the bigot’s vote, the jihadist’s vote, the vote of the poorly informed must count as much as the vote of the just and compassionate student of human nature, the vote of those who, in our society, are considered avatars and wisdom keepers. Each person in this room has an opinion about how we’re faring as a country, on how the experiment is going, and of course I’m not qualified to, nor interested in, critiquing any view here. I mean to underscore only one idea. We never quit. We do not give up on the idea that we can live decently and productively and fairly and wisely. And in these museums you cherish, I see the evidence of this, which, from one ordinary day to the next, may not be as apparent to you. I see that you care what happens to us. And that you want us to do well. And that you set things before us and order them in ways that you believe will help.

With people like you, we have a chance, as a culture and as a country.

I flatter myself to think that my work is something like yours. What I am trying to do as a writer is to tell a story that will help. In fiction or nonfiction, my hope is that the reader will walk away with a more coherent sense of herself, of what she means in the world, of what she stands for, and of what she is capable. I told someone once, who had made a point of how carefully I do the research required for a book like Arctic Dreams, that it seems to me that this is what is required, ethically. You owe this to the reader. And yes, I did end up learning a lot, in that case, about the Arctic; but I am not interested, I told him, in being the reader’s authority. I’d prefer, I said, to be the reader’s companion. The world is so complexly hinged, so baffling and at so many junctures so inexplicable, it requires such an adroitness of mind to traverse without failure, that the best we can do for each other is to be good companions, to offer each other what—by our own lights, at least—will help us navigate the present, so that we do not preclude a future that bodes well for our children.

In our best moments, in other words, we’re thinking of others. Or at least it seems that way to me. You look at an empty room and wonder what to put in it. I look at an empty page and wonder what to put on it. And we both worry about the joinery, about making the ineffable apparent, the elusive concrete.

It is this sense of shared work that in the past has led me to feel excited about the possibility of collaboration with curators and others in museums. Some years ago, Emily Neff, a curator at the time at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, invited me to work with her on a show called The Modern West, which was, I understand, very successful. I don’t want to misrepresent the situation here. This was entirely Emily’s show. I offered a few ideas and wrote an introduction for the catalog; but I was really only a student in this, working alongside someone who was way smarter, I believe, than she knew. I liked our collaboration, the possibility we had to work together on behalf of the visitor, trying to make something that had depth and reach and that might have an impact. It’s what you hope for with a book, too.

I’m wary, I want to emphasize, of the idea of any one person in society being a genius, which we seem to cherish too much in this country, the notion that a few special beings, should they turn up, can solve problems that defeat the rest of us. For me this is a bit naïve. For every great idea that is articulated by a single individual there are a dozen that take shape in conversation with others, that rise up out of engagements with one’s community. What I’m saying is that the notion of a writer struggling alone in a garret to create great art is for me as much a romantic image as an image of reality. Even if the writer or the philosopher or the artist is working alone in that room, it is so very often the case that they are capable of doing what they do because someone loves them. This is not to diminish the arduous work necessary to reify an idea, to create art; but to emphasize something else, too often missed by people perhaps too caught up in the idea of the importance of the individual: an awareness of our common fate.

I’ve always thought of the desire to write or paint or compose music as a social impulse, another reason I tend to see our work as similar. Your work, more obviously than mine, is social. It only makes sense when people—visitors—move through it, though I would argue that my work, too, is an attempt to connect with strangers, with readers wherever they are, down the road from me in rural Oregon, where I live, or in a café in Prague, reading in translation.

I want the reader to do well. And I hope you won’t think it presumptuous of me to say that this is the place where our paths most obviously cross. We want our republic to do well, for these Enlightenment ideas of ours, about justice and education and opportunity, to come more fully to life, as they will in the hands of people who can see beyond the narrow world they alone are dreaming up, a world that is almost always an illusion, a dream that others are not having.

In the weeks and months ahead I hope to be working on two projects, each at a separate museum, one with Sandy Phillips, the senior curator of photography at San Francisco MoMA, and the other with Jim McNutt, the director of the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming. I hope to learn from them more about the enterprise that, in the abstract, we share; and I hope that when we’re finished, our work will have helped, that the reification of our ideas will compel work in others that undermines cynicism and despair, and gives us reason to continue to believe in ourselves, to believe in our possibilities.

We need you. You’re inspiring individuals. Please take care of each other.

Barry Lopez’s books include Of Wolves and Men, Light Action in the Caribbean, About This Life, Resistance, and Arctic Dreams, for which he won the National Book Award. In 2001, Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, acquired Lopez’s manuscripts, notebooks, field journals, professional correspondence, and other archival materials and with them founded the James E. Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community, and the Natural World. He is the recipient of numerous literary and cultural awards and has served Texas Tech as its Visiting Distinguished Scholar since 2003. He is on the Lubbock campus twice annually to work with students, faculty, and the administration.