My first time entering a museum as the COVID-19 pandemic begins to pull back, opening up greater opportunities for experiencing normal life, was an interesting one. I returned home to Los Angeles, California and visited the Getty Villa Museum in the hills of the Pacific Palisades. The Getty Villa is a full-scale recreation and replica of a Roman country house populated with artifacts that have been excavated and collected from Italy such as statues and pottery. It is truly a marvelous experience to be there because visitors feel as if they have stepped from their world into one of the past.
I spent so much of the past year wishing I could be living in some other time. A time when I didn’t have to think about whether exiting my home would be a life-or-death decision for myself, a family member, or even a stranger. I wanted to be able to escape to a time when I could worry about other things. So, it was interesting to experience a space manufactured to make me feel like I had succeeded. But there was a falseness that pervaded the whole experience. It may have been my desire to read all of the descriptions on the walls, but the words “modern replica” were everywhere. This was a replica of reality, not a return to one from the past.
To make my conundrum worse, there was a garden where all of the pieces were labeled “modern replica.” It is a good thing that the true bronze statues that these pieces were modeled off of were left in their home country, but the repetition of these words was unsettling. I was looking at a replica in a replica. It was oddly grounding for me. I was the only non-replica in the space. I felt more grounded in my own time than I had in over a year. I was able to focus on how human and real I felt in that moment by comparing myself to the seemingly perfect replicas around me. These statues and walkways and buildings did not themselves experience the fall of Rome or house a Roman official. It is the experiences that we have, our histories, that make us real. We cannot be replicated.
The Getty Villa is a beautiful space, with sweeping views to the Pacific Ocean, nestled into the hills framed by what seems to be all of the greenery that Los Angeles has, which is not a lot. But it is a simulation of reality. It is a quick escape from the freeways and cars and frenzied activity of the city below, hidden from view by planted olive trees that do not grow any olives. But the people who visit it, seeking a respite from the speed of their ordinary lives, leave with a greater sense of their own aliveness. The visitors bring authenticity and life to this simulation of history.