Museums as travel in time and space; or, how plants led me to some unexpected realizations
This summer, I had the absolutely wonderful experience of interning at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in lovely, sunny San Marino, California. An institution unlike any other, The Huntington combines three separate collections to form a greater, interdependent whole (yes, the botanical gardens are just as much a collection as the art and library materials—there’s even a Curator of the Rose Garden, which is a title that I aspire to hold one day, despite my complete and utter lack of plant-based knowledge).
As an intern in the art division, I spent the majority of my time not only working on projects in the offices, the galleries, and the library, but walking the grounds between those spaces, too—acres and acres of breathtaking botanical gardens dotted with different architectural styles which culminate in an unexpectedly coherent whole. There are whole gardens devoted to everything from the humble herb to tropical jungles. As the Huntington’s website notes, this is a place where one can “enjoy being overwhelmed.”
One day, during my lunch break, I decided to see just how much ground I could cover in the gardens in the span of half an hour. I found that could easily move from the Neo-classical space just outside the art division offices, through rows of over a thousand rose cultivars and into the Japanese gardens, whose shady, verdant slopes and carefully trimmed bonsai trees seemed to transport me to another continent entirely, despite the relentlessly dry, three-figure southern Californian heat. I reveled in the fact that I had so many different options. I could move onto the poetic expanse of the Chinese garden, or transport myself somewhere wholly different, to the dazzling and ever-changing colors of the subtropical garden. What a privilege it is, I thought, to feel as if I’ve traveled so far without even leaving the Huntington’s grounds.
Then it struck me. This is one of the great privileges afforded to us by institutions like the Huntington, as well as our very own museum at Princeton. It seems obvious enough, and yet I had never really considered that it was this ease of movement between the unique microcosms of different times and spaces, past and present, which contributed so much meaning to my multifaceted experience as a museum-goer. It was my walk through the different gardens of the Huntington which augmented this phenomenon to the point that I could immediately realize just how magical the coexistence of those spaces is.
I’m looking forward to coming back to campus in the fall and experiencing our own collection through this new lens. I’m sure this will be particularly exciting and somewhat different from my experience at the Huntington, as we have an encyclopedic collection ranging from ancient Greco-Roman art to modern and contemporary pieces. Keeping in mind that throughout the history of art, the past often informs the present, one is reminded that the ability to contain these connections under one roof, and to experience so many places and times at once is something quite spectacular. Perhaps, one might say, as spectacular as time travel.