Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A post-Soviet kind of moment in San Francisco

Déja vu: in a half-empty museum, a lonely educated curator welcomes sporadic visitors. He's dressed for warmth, not formality. The visitors -- other than the school groups, of course -- arrive at random, unprepared. They're not sure if reverence is called for. He doesn't know if they'll listen.

To the ones who listen, he spills out rich stories about rare experiences. For example, about the austere precision of Ming Dynasty rosewood furniture, built for the needs and tastes of influential scholars long ago.

He tells how, as curator, he had the chance to reassemble complex pieces that were built three centuries ago for riverboat travel. A chest of drawers, for example, each drawer as well finished on the inside as on the outside. How the sections were made for seamless reassembly upon each arrival. How they still do fit together.

On Commercial Street, at the Pacific Heritage Museum, the curator is Roy Duret. He's also artistic coordinator and docent. Joel and I met him as part of our Lunching in Public walk last Saturday. We hadn't known there was any museum on the street. We went there to visit nearby Empire Park. The park turned out to be closed weekends. But the museum was open and admission was free.

The museum is in the shell of San Francisco's very first U.S. Mint. The Mint building (later Sub-Treasury), is an chunk of old brick drowning in glass-fronted high-rise architecture, above it as well as beside it.

Right now the main exhibits are the basement displays of the Mint/Treasury material: walls, steel barriers, a guard's catwalk, a 45-degree mirror that helped the guards see around corners. Necessary in the Gold Rush days. They were guarding millions of dollars' worth of bullion in the place.

I was in Russia in 2000 on a research trip with my mother for the travel business she had then. The visit with Mr. Duret at the Pacific Heritage Museum reminded me of some conversations we had there.

I'm thinking of being taken to cultural sites by intellectuals working in tourism. There were a few unexpected conversations with deeply educated people. In environments formerly rarefied, sometimes places of literary or religious pilgrimage, but lately not so much declassed as bypassed. Our guides' explanations of landscape, architecture and culture were at risk of becoming classified as trivia or entertainment, though in another context they would have been understood as conveying precious core knowledge about the nature of civilization.

Sadly, I've never been to China. I'm sure if I had been, this experience would bring up another set of associations entirely, especially about the recovery of respect for old things.

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