The Quiet Things of Life

Words whirl around us in Facebook updates, Gchats and Twitter feeds. Images flood from Tumblr; videos, from YouTube. An urgency hangs in the air to consume all and do all — at once.

But when I approached the Morgan Library and Museum on Madison Ave. in Manhattan, a wave of calmness swept over me. The warm light emanating from the glass front signified a permanence and stateliness found only in great physical institutions.

The doors opened, releasing the pristine notes of classical chamber music. Inside, a small number of the city’s museum-goers relaxed in the museum lobby or at cafe tables. Guards in maroon suits guided visitors to the coat and bag check. Beyond them, wooden symbols of the Chinese character for bird from Xu Bing’s installation streamed down from the ceiling over a trio of musicians.

Their melodies enriched the beauty of the place. Music by Mozart and other classical composers resonated in the open space: sparkling glass panels against glistening stone floors. Harmonies blended together to transform the bright hall into a crystal sent from heaven.

I remembered. I had forgotten. The music stirred in me a memory of a lost world, some blissful wonderland where I had once been, very long ago.

In the library itself, precious volumes lined the walls for two stories, rising as high as the ceiling, which was covered with elaborate paintings. Antiquated but not old, the recently renovated rooms were a living picture of Morgan’s studious lifestyle. In the presence of those books, which included Lord Byron’s manuscripts and Mozart’s original compositions, I realized that I had forgotten how wonderful the written word was.

An original edition of Gutenburg’s 1455 Bible, a mold of George Washington’s face, manuscripts by Cervantes and Lord Byron, and an early edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia round out the items on display. But many more, including the only surviving manuscript of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and original manuscripts and drawings for Babar and The Little Prince, wait their turn in the archives.

In another room, Charles Dicken’s letters and original illustrations for his books are displayed in honor of his 200th birthday. Intricate drawings of Nicholas Nickleby and Fagin by George Cruikshank bring to mind damp winter afternoons and evenings of quiet reading.

Across the hall are drawings from the Lourve. On view upstairs are documents featured in the Smithonian-published book Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Lists of words, numbers, drawings, and even pieces of cloth demonstrate how essential such notation have been to the formation of our society.

Yet with modern lists on Stickies or GoogleTasks and our drafts existing in virtual space alone, society has lost an opportunity to remember and record. Today’s e-mails can be saved, but the hard type of the computer cannot capture the idiosyncracies and humanity of the sender. In the next century, artifacts documenting the works of these times will change. Perhaps we will soon peruse galleries of virtual artifacts on digital screens, just as we do everything else.

At the Morgan, the galleries are left with nothing more to see, and the music has finished. But the quietness of heart that enveloped me when I first entered remains.

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