In a new place, there is comfort in finding little pockets of home. The 1738 Tea Room has become my reading nook, as I sit sipping rose fig tea and feeling very elegant and ladylike, although I daresay I look like a ravenous, dead-eyed college student munching furiously through my scone like a hungry rat. The English Faculty Library is also a favorite place, although a bit of a walk: I can turn around in a room full of the words of every author I love, and feel like I deeply belong.
The Ashmolean Museum, where all the statues in my video are housed, has also become one of my favorite places in Oxford. One evening, the museum extended its hours to later than usual in the evening, so my visiting student friends and I dropped by to briefly explore. The museum offered something to pique everyone’s interest: I was struck breathless by ancient Greek art, and realized why it had inspired so many eulogies and poems; Emily and Jess were drawn to the earthen-colored mummies and ancient Chinese relics; and Berlin and Lou were eager to see the famous Stradivarius violin. On the way to the museum, I heard them plotting details of the greatest heist of the century. Unfortunately, the museum guide politely crushed their high hopes by explaining that the violin was not on display that night for the after-hours event.
“OK. Why don’t we just go home now?” Berlin stood up in disgust.
Lou laughed. “Yeah. The whole point of coming to the Ashmolean was to stare salivating at the Stradivarius for an hour.”
They were eventually persuaded, however, to stay and explore the rest of the Ashmolean’s treasures; and we were soon convinced that it was certainly worth the stay. I had never been to a Western art museum before, and the experience was overwhelming. “Oh,” I whispered, almost painfully moved, to see hieroglyphs and sculptures from thousands of years ago. I had never been very convinced by the philosopher Heidegger’s enthusiasm for the “thingliness of things,” but I saw now a little of what he meant. The artifacts around me weren’t just objects you could toss or buy at a moment’s pleasure: they were things, brimming with the weight of their thingliness—their stories, the pain of long and silent centuries, the caress of hundreds of hands through which they had passed and passed again…
I have always been moved by the power of old things. When I was doing my summer research in the National Library of Scotland, I felt deeply moved to touch the crumbling paper of a beloved author’s manuscript in my hands, actually feel the contours of his handwriting beneath my presumptuous fingers. Until then, I think James Hogg (the 18th-century novelist) had never felt quite real to me; he was just the Ettrick Shepherd, the fanciful genius, the man of myth and legend, who lived in scholarly editions and introductions to his novels. But his letters and the smudged ink of his pen suddenly made me realize that he had been human, just like me, in a flesh-and-blood, intimate way that was inexpressibly shocking. If something from the 18th century was already so full of story, imagine the richness and almost otherworldly mystery of objects from thousands and…oh, thousands of years ago. I felt like I was standing in the presence of something beyond comprehension, something almost like the brink of deep time.
“So how did you like the museum, Esther?” Jess asked as we walked out into the cold open air. The street lights glimmered silver in the dark night, like starlight expired from light-years away. I shivered and drew my coat closer around myself.
“Museums are so beautiful, yet they make me so…sad,” I murmured. “History just seems like a complex, compelling fiction we tell ourselves, you know? But when I see it before my eyes in handwriting, or objects made with such tenderness, it seems so real. I almost get tears in my eyes at how splendid but short life is, when I know that there were actual human beings just like us who lived and loved and created so much, and then died…”
“It freaking hits home.” Jess nodded, quietly. We were silent for a moment, pondering.
“Whoaaa. That’s way too deep.” Lou laughed nervously, and we snapped out of our reverie, laughing. Life may be short, I thought, looking back at the pillars of the museum, but there was something tragically courageous about what beauty humans could make in its short span. Without forgetting the transience of my individual existence, I, too, wanted to leave behind something in this fleeting and fragile world. Something beautiful. Something with a story. Something to remind people of the tenderness and intensity of life, something with all the thingliness of a thing…