By Emma Dittmar
Walking up to the Art Museum, even from a distance, was like approaching a monolithic fortress — an entire massive property filled with beautiful art twisted with extraordinary amounts of symbolism and the burden of colossal historical memory. Set far away from the bustling center of the city, removed from the buildings and nestled in a sanctuary of isolated nature, the Museum feels like a holy site. There is an air of untouchable-ness and daunting importance around the towering, sandy colored Romanesque main structure and the sculptures that dappled the landscape around it. The temple design harkens to the greatness of the old past and the perfection of architecture, its grandeur doubtless.
The major sculpted structure, a dark browned bronze, is huge, beautiful, and deeply haunting. The four base corners sport different Native people of the Americas flanked by Native American wildlife on either of their sides. Crests sporting birds of prey adorn the central pillar, and at the very top, the pinnacle of the pillar and the centerpiece of the entire structure, is George Washington seated upon a majestic steed. The connotations of the arrangement of this extraordinary work of art are staggering. The lounging positions of the Native personifications surrounded by animals, all under the eye and in the shadow of the figure of the first American president, the major symbol not just of American independence, but of European domination of the Americas and destruction of Native populations and wildlife. The arrangement of such things is never accidental — consciously and subconsciously ideas and beliefs about power differentials between beings are being presented to anyone who peers upon them, which they will internalize (again, consciously or subconsciously).
It was a personal achievement to get a couple of pictures with the famed statue of Rocky Balboa, moved to the right hand corner in the foreground of the Museum. It was smaller than I expected, but meant no less. I find it fascinating how a piece that was once a central figure to the entrance of the Museum was moved to such a shaded, easily overlooked location. Devoid of the heavy implications inherent in most pieces of American art, the statue is a simple and thoughtful reflection of the virtues of determination, strength, mind over body, and the triumph of the individual. I commend it for its unsung contributions and refreshing lack of political or charged undertones.
Soon after running up the steps (in homage to the Rocky movies) we entered the Museum, and walked first through the exhibit on Korea, the special exhibit for a time. There were some pieces being presented that had never left Korea since their coming into being until being sent to Philadelphia for this exact showing-I would hope that the curators of the Museum and the art and history lovers of the city itself would find themselves deeply humbled by such an act. Every piece that was shown was always labeled as a “treasure.” It is not art made for art’s sake. These were practical and incredibly emblematic objects used by actual people in their everyday lives and meaningful rituals. These astounding feats of creation fashioned hundreds of hundreds of years ago embody and tell the story of an entire civilization and a whole period connected to the collective memory of a society continuing to this day. Such things are easily forgotten in a country like ours-it doesn’t cross our minds. Our collective memory is small, and we are young as a people.
The Museum is huge, impressive, and full of too many areas to catch all in one day. The only other area that I was able to see besides the section on Korea was the armor and weaponry section, housing suits of armor, shields, stained glass, and all kinds of assorted weaponry from the Middle Ages. It was within this section that I picked my single object to do my small analysis on for my paper on the importance of site and arrangement. I chose a small dagger inserted in a fan assortment of swords, the details of which can stay in my formal paper. In the glass case over were two long-barreled rifles that painstakingly reminded me of Last of the Mohicans, one of my favorite movies. It was terribly exciting.
However, all too soon it was time for the Museum to close, and us to leave. Walking home it started to rain a little, and I couldn’t help thinking of the DIA back home, the sodden forests, and the smell of rural rain as I texted with my loved ones impulsively. It is amazing how hard it can be to live in a moment when your very core is pulling you back to a place that lives in your blood.