Longtime readers of Story of a City will probably be very confused by the title of this post. I love museums, and I’ve said this many, many, many times. I love the fact that I live in a city with hundreds of museums at my fingertips, and I have spent countless hours wandering their halls. If you had asked me a year ago to pick a favourite memory from my museum visits, that would have been an impossible question to answer. There’s simply been too many highlights during my time in Paris. Now, however, there is an easy answer. My visit to the Musée Cernuschi earlier this year to see Painting Apart from the World: Monks and Scholars of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
In general, I love the Musée Cernuschi. It is the museum of Asian arts in Paris, and their exhibitions are always fantastic. It is also a member of the Paris Musées, the collective of city museums in Paris, meaning the permanent collections are free to visit. However, you need a ticket for the temporary exhibitions, and yes, I have an annual pass. Shocking, I know. And earlier this year, I used my annual pass to see the latest exhibition at the Musée Cernuschi. It was dedicated to the paintings of monks and scholars of the Ming and Qing dynasties of China, and it brought together over 100 classical Chinese paintings from over three centuries of history. It was the first time these paintings were being exhibited in Europe, and they were simply extraordinary. They were also fleeting.
What I mean by this, was that upon entering the exhibition space, I was informed that absolutely no photos were allowed to be taken inside. Now, whether or not this rule was in place due to the delicate state of the artwork or because of copyright reasons, I have no idea. But I suddenly found myself without a way to capture for posterity what I was about to see. And let me tell you, the flickers of panic that briefly ran through me caught me completely off guard. I rarely take photos outside of my museum visits, so why was this “no photos” rule so unnerving?
I must confess that I didn’t figure it out right away. I must have spent an eternity in the first room of the exhibition, trying to memorize every detail of each painting. If I couldn’t take a photo with my camera, I was going to take a photo with my mind. But I quickly realized that my quest to remember everything was actually sucking the fun out of my visit. And that was when I had a literal epiphany in the middle of the Musée Cernuschi. I was standing in front of the dozenth or so painting, trying to commit every detail to memory, when I suddenly had a thought. This is ridiculous. You’re never going to remember every painting. Just enjoy them in the moment right now.
I know, I know. Living in the moment is not exactly a revolutionary concept. But here’s the thing. All my life, I have loved going to museums. But every single time, I have felt a pressure to remember every single thing I learn during my museum visits. I read and re-read every placard, listen to every audioguide commentary, and take a picture of every artwork or artefact. And that can get exhausting. Even worse, it can turn your visit into a chore if you’re constantly worrying about whether or not you’ll retain everything you’re learning. And so earlier this year, in an exhibition hall at the Musée Cernuschi, I gave myself permission to just take in the art in front of me and enjoy it in the moment. And gosh darnit, it was the best time I’ve had in a museum in years.
So why am I telling you this story? Fair question. I’m telling you this story because this weekend is Easter weekend, which traditionally marks the beginning of the high season for visiting Paris. And after two years of staying at home, people are travelling once more. Which means that perhaps some of you reading this might be planning a trip to Paris in the near future. Or London. Or Toyko. It doesn’t really matter where you’re going. I want to offer this piece of advice. Wherever you go and whatever you end up seeing and experiencing, just enjoy it in the moment. Read the placards and signs if you want, but don’t worry about remembering every single word. Take a photo of what stands out to you, but don’t stress about getting a picture of everything you see. Just take in what you want and enjoy the rest.
Again, I know that this advice is not groundbreaking. But it did take me quite a while to figure it out when it came to how I experience art and culture. But I eventually did, and I can’t tell you the difference it has made in my museum visits since. I hope the same happens to you the next time you visit a museum.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.