Museums can reconnect us and pierce through loneliness – better than social media.
You do not live in the part of London where I live because you crave fresh air, the quiet only pierced by birdsong.
You live where I live because you do not mind hearing someone skateboarding down your street at 4am or watch a street fight conducted in Bulgarian.
In the end, you live inside yourself, so this pandemic has brought what can be called “end of life lessons”. We are now understanding, for example, that maybe we do not want to return to the job, maybe we need more pay – maybe we just need. Period.
My high street is Oxford Street, so I get to see an endless parade of mostly young people, dressed alike: hair alike, talking alike, with their devices in their hands, and their minds on the phone.
How they manage to navigate crowds without looking is one of the mysteries of nature. But they do, and they remind us that we are creatures who have thrived, on one level, because we know how to make tools.
Our nearest relative, the chimpanzee, can make a tool to fish. It is a kind of stick used to poke around. Maybe our hands have evolved because we make tools. So maybe our vision has, too, and that is why the people in the street can walk without looking as they handle their devices.
Observations can come into your head after a lockdown, and a year of sheltering from a raging contagious virus.
I know nothing about Britney Spears, but the crusade launched by her fans to free her from her father and his hold on her estate is perfect pandemic stuff.
“Free Britney” became free because of all of those who love her, and she emerged on Instagram like a butterfly because that is the place that you go now to announce your resurrection. Maybe people looked at her there and saw their own resurrections.
We are in the throws of deep change and some of that change is about mental health and how we take care of our minds.
We have created an amazing technology, but the machines are overtaking our brains.
This has probably happened before, but this time the algorithms that drive social media are different. Their aim, in the guise of connecting us, is to addict us. Make us want more, and that creates a feedback loop that can isolate us. Social media is what you could call a “hot space”.
It is said that in Las Vegas the daylight is blocked out in some casinos so that there is an eternal present.
This is the eternal present in which the player interacts with the game.
As a consequence, it is the game that becomes smarter and creates the environment that hooks you.
When Facebook was first announced, I refused to touch it with a 10ft pole.
My first question was: what were THEY getting?
It was initially advertised to my generation, the Baby Boomers, as a way to hook up with our old friends from school.
We had been raised on the previous technological addiction: television.
Kiddie shows abounded and we were wrapped up in them as part of our childhood.
But I could not think of anything more horrible than hearing from the guy who sat behind me in third grade. To quote Conrad: “The horror! The horror!”
Now Zuckerberg, having messed up this world, wants to create another: a meta-world in which we all inhabit his Zone of Fun.
On the surface, social media may seem like a way to connect, but the algorithms keep us lonely.
I live not far from the British Museum and, having been deputy chair there, I know my way around the place.
There are objects that I go back to again and again: the Akan drum, the oldest African American object known.
And the Benin Bronzes.
After lockdown was over, I sat looking at them. I could see the face of my Nigerian artist friend, who is from same the region that they are.
I could feel what the art historian Robert Ferris Thompson calls their ”mystic cool.”
They certainly chilled me. Because I could see myself, the descendant of enslaved Africans, we who have had our identity, our names, erased.
The African American abolitionist, self-liberator and writer, Frederick Douglass, said that slavery erased the basic unit of existence: the family.
We have had to make families away from our true roots. Our true names.
And so, people like me have been trying to connect, consciously or unconsciously ever since. Which is why the Bronzes have given me solace and refuge.
Yes, I know how they came to be in the museum’s collection. But I will go to see them wherever they return to, connect with them and thank them for their time with me, my selfish time, in which I did not feel so lonely, so disconnected in my adopted city and country. And be grateful for the ones who remain behind, as the oba (king) intends, to be ambassadors of their great culture.
A museum right now can give human connection, pierce through loneliness. There is something strong and beautiful about seeing human beings do the same things, be the same things, throughout history.
It is beautiful to have our human connection, our human healing. Because this pandemic has taught us that everything is fleeting, everything is impermanent. A museum can teach us that we have survived and that nothing is simple.
Except our need to connect.