At Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Museum, a sculpture of three human-sized women guards the entrance, as Winged Victory dominates the Louvre stairway. The first room holds ancient Egyptian amber ring-seals and slim gold necklaces. Behind a Plexiglas window stands a few modest sculptures. A small black basalt of a man’s head looks so lively, I think I passed him on the street this morning.
Three hundred year old carpets are floor exhibits while equally old textiles are wall-mounted. Assyrian and Egyptian stone life-sized reliefs bring thousands of years of human life into present time. But it is the exhibit of coins that unites me most with the past. Small Greek gold and silver coins look like they belong in my own pocket! They look new, with sharp features of Alexander the Great adorning them. Standing before these coins, Time encircles me.
Nearby, medieval over-sized Latin books, margins enriched with gold designs and vivid multi-colored Biblical scenes, connect me to Judeo-Christian history. Antique furniture widens my eyes: marble tables, mother-of-pearl inlaid designs on desks, 1800’s dressers and a grandfather clock.
Outside, among elaborate gardens seeded from Portugal’s old empire, I remember a friend’s antique carved three hundred year old Dutch bedframe in which I slept. In the morning, at the foot of the bed, I stared at the light brown wooden carving. A man and woman stood slightly apart, greeting each other, with a village scene behind them. This was their marriage bed, years ago.
Amid Gulbenkian Museum’s famed tropical gardens, I shed tears for all the lovely homes I never had and will never have: homes filled with museum treasures in every room, three foot high bouquets of colorful flowers resting upon round marble tabletops inlaid with semi-precious stones, and gold gilded doors and walls. None of this beauty will ever be mine, except in books and imagination.
Jacobean Revival dresser, made of solid wood with spiral columns, 1930s
My present apartment resembles my first in college: small, cold, and cheap furniture, except in the bedroom. There a matched set of ornate Jacobean Revival dark wood creates comfort. I own nothing of value except for a few rugs from Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.
In museums, however, art – ancient and old wealth from world civilizations – such as the stolen Elgin Marbles, enthrall millions. The Gulf Wars also hijacked more Babylonian artifacts to art collections.
At the end of the day, overloaded with visuals, time-travels, and riches beyond my humble life, I have learned that visiting museums connects me with people and history, adding great art to the museum of my heart.
The Ishtar Gate, built in 575 BC by King Nebuchadnezzar II, now housed in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.
Gulbenkian Museum http://gulbenkian.pt/en/