Saturday, September 22, 2007

tyranny of the past

I've been thinking lately (and writing a sermon for tomorrow) about what place, if any, the past ought to play in our living out of the present moment.

In this morning's New York Times, there was an article about the design of the building being built to house the Barnes collection in Philadelphia once it finally moves from the suburb where it's been housed to its new location downtown. The Barnes is an extraordinary collection of art that few people have been able to see. Barnes had unique, or rather eccentric ideas about art and displayed his collection in a very specific fashion, and then left instructions in his will that the art should never be shown in any other way. Thus the art has for decades been locked into the particular house where it was originally displayed, and with constraints of the location and accomodations to the neighbors the art has been so difficult to see that the foundation has gone nearly bankrupt. A court order a few years ago, in defiance of Barnes' will, allowed the foundation to move to a better location, although there will still be attempts to honor Barnes wishes in how the works are displayed.

This is an example of how legacies from the past can work against present, full experience of life, instead of supporting it. The wishes of a dead man have been a burden on the foundation and limited access to the enjoyment of art by generations. The New York Times article, by the way, bemoans the loss of the unique experience of visiting the Barnes Foundation in its original setting. This seems a small price in order to gain greater access to a collection that now should be regarded as belonging to the present, not hostage to the past.

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