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Double Time in the Museum: Lines, Circles, and In Between

In his March 2019 letter, MSU Museum Director Mark Auslander considers how we tell and discover stories inside museums. When do we encounter stories told in a linear or chronological fashion, and when might we encounter stories that stand outside of conventional sequences of time, in eternal cycles? Perhaps, he suggests, our most important work in museums is accomplished when we encourage the bridging of different qualities of time and allow for unexpected moments of creative storytelling that are both cyclical and linear.

Recent visitors to the MSU Museum may have seen a delightful new feature installed on the second floor. Working with the East Lansing Public Library, Amanda Rzotkiewicz and Nick VanAcker on our staff have created a “story-StoryWalk at the MSU Museumwalk,” meandering through Habitat Hall, the Hall of Animal Diversity, and our elephant landing. The featured story is Lola M. Schaefer’s beloved children’s book, “Because of an Acorn.” Illustrated page by page, the book reveals all the aspects of a forest’s ecology that are given life from a single acorn, as it gradually matures over time. (This is a metaphorical lesson that very little people, early on in life, may come to treasure as they ponder what impact they themselves might have on the great world someday.) Amanda and Nick have cleverly added questions to each reproduced page from the book, encouraging children to discover among our dioramas and taxidermy displays something akin to each illustration: a tree, a deer, a bird nesting, all bound together in spiraling webs of life. (This journey of discovery is especially fun since little acorn footprints have been affixed to the floor, guiding children’s footsteps through the Museum.)

Two Kinds of Time

It occurs to me that this exercise asks young minds to conceive of two different kinds of time, both of which are important to museums (and to all of us as we come of age). The first is the time of linear sequence: an acorn slowly grows over time to a towering oak, which shapes its immediate environs. Each one of us grows up, changing over time, and passes this way but once. Yet, simultaneously, the game of following the story-walk asks young readers to enter into what might be called “cyclical time.” This sequence, of dropped acorn to mature oak to dropped acorn, happens again and again and again. By wandering through the museum’s cases and uncovering more and more pages, linked into different vistas of nature, the child enters into the temporality of eternal cycles, such as the periodic waxing and waning of the moon or the unending passage of the seasons.

Museums need to evoke both kinds of time, the linear and the cyclical, and when we do our job best, we ask our visitors to think carefully and creatively about how these different kinds of time are related to one another. We want our young visitors to understand that the cause of the seasons, repeated across vast spans of time, is the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis away or toward the sun as our planet traces its annual path around the sun, year in and year out. This is a form of cyclical time: winter is followed by spring followed by summer followed by fall, and so on, again and again. More sophisticated visitors may be exposed to deeper kinds of cyclical time: due to the gravitational impact of neighboring planets, the earth’s orbit actually changes, from being more circular to more elliptical back to being more circular, over the course of a 100,000 year cycle; the earth’s axis gradually shifts from more upright to less upright over the course of a 41,000 year long cycle; and, the axis itself wobbles during a 26,000 year long cycle. These various astronomical cycles have significant impacts on the intensity of seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres.

StoryWalk at the MSU MuseumYet we also want our visitors to understand that in our modern era of the “Anthropocene,” there are important, discernible shifts across the decades that can be charted in historical linear sequence, as our overall planetary system warms under conditions of industrialization. One of the most important features of our forthcoming major permanent installation, “Science on a Sphere,” opening in Fall 2019, is helping everyone to think carefully about the relationship between different kinds of cyclical time and linear time. How can the cyclical time of seasonal periodicities and the long-term astronomical cycles mentioned above be related to the historical or linear time sequences of our modern era? How should we conceive of this relatively recent climatic shift in relationship to other major periods of planetary climate change over time, related in part to the movement of the continents as they assemble, disassemble, and re-assemble over the course of hundreds of millions of years, as well as to volcanic activity and to occasional asteroid strikes on the earth’s surface?

Consider, as well, our displays on the evolution of life. In our ground floor Hall of Evolution, we display evolutionary timespans in linear form, as movement over time from simpler to more complex organisms, illustrated by fossil specimens and by background paintings that show a series of changing landscapes filled by radically different kinds of beings, from invertebrates to vertebrates, from aquatic to terrestrial environs, from the age of reptiles to the age of mammals. Yet in our BEACON gallery we ask our visitors to conceptualize the cyclical time of DNA replication, in which, across untold thousands of sequences of reproduction, nearly everything proceeds as it has before, except for the minor modifications of mutation, which, under certain special conditions, drive another kind of time, the temporal sequence of evolution or descent through modification. These are difficult concepts to grasp. Indeed, the precise relationship between the cyclical time of genetic replication and the linear time of evolutionary change is intensely debated by evolutionary theorists. Our job in the Museum is not to provide all the answers, but to engage our visitors’ imaginations, asking them, rather paradoxically, to hold in their minds more than one kind of time or temporality at a time.

Measuring Up

One of my favorite instances of co-existing temporalities in the Museum is found immediately adjacent to our Asiatic and African bush elephant skeletons, on the second floor landing. For many years, children have excitedly measured themselves next to a vertical ruler, checking how they ‘measure up’ next to the eleven feet shoulder height of the African bush bull elephant towering above them. When they return year by year, children experience the thrill of engaging in linear time: I am an inch taller than I was during my last visit. I am taller now than I have ever been before.

Yet, every once in a while, we see a child encountering, with rather a shock, a different kind of temporality. An accompanying parent remembers aloud when she or he visited the Museum a generation earlier and measured the same height on the ruler as the child does now. Young children are often puzzled and have to concentrate at that moment, to make the shift to the mystery of cyclical time: we were all, even my parents, once that small height. An imaginative young person might even think: perhaps I too might visit here again, with my own child who again measures just to that line on the ruler, standing next to the same enormous elephant, who remains a stable guardian across the sequence of generations.

Sister Survivors Speak

Downstairs, as we develop with the sister survivors our new exhibition, “Finding our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak,” we find ourselves grappling with different kinds of time progressions, in an often heart-breaking vein. The sister survivors and allies on the exhibit development committee have emphasized that we need to install a detailed, elongated timeline, which in linear sequence documents historically the three decades tragic narrative at the heart of the crisis. Year by year, we read in chronological sequence about ignored reports, cries of anguish, moments of institutional failure, and eventually, prosecution and growing institutional accountability.

At the same time, the sister survivors have rightly insisted that the exhibit must illustrate that every single survivor of trauma works through deep experiences of suffering in different ways and at different rates. Most initially experienced a “trauma cloud” or lived in a “trauma bubble” not specifically knowing that they were experiencing symptoms of abuse or trauma. Only gradually did many of them articulate and denounce the wrongs done to them and joined together to become an “army of survivors,” helping, in turn, other survivors of abuse on their own journeys of healing and empowerment.

To convey this sequence, a kind of cyclical time, the exhibit design needs to step largely outside of the historical sequence of the timeline, to show that this cycle has been shared by hundreds of survivors, in their own different times and places. Having said that, it is vital that those individually distinct cycles be related to one key moment in historical time, the remarkable days of victim impact testimony in January 2018, when so many survivors found their voice, and, amidst unbearable pain, helped transform the lives of millions of survivors around the world.

Double Time in the Natural World

As it happens, in the exhibit’s final gallery, dedicated to the theme of transformations, we return to the domain of nature, which as human beings is our most important treasury for the double conceptualization of cyclical and linear time. Visitors will encounter a grove of nine trees, honoring the nine survivors who were identified in the original indictment of the perpetrator. Each tree is bound by the many teal bows and ribbons that, for six months in 2018, paid tribute to hundreds of sister survivors across the MSU campus. The tableau commemorates a moment in historical or linear time: this collective work of protest art happened at a particular instance in time, to serve notice to everyone that the women’s suffering will not be forgotten and these crimes will not be allowed to happen again.

Yet as we walk through this sacred grove, we will enter, I suggest, into a kind of cyclical time, rather in kinship with the ‘Because of an Acorn’ story-walk upstairs. All trees grow over time, and experience transformation, again and again and again. In the face of suffering and injustice, we hope to be sustained by these eternal periodicities, which may lift us out of the immediate vicissitudes of linear time.

That lesson of double time is reinforced by other works of art in the show. Alexandra’s Bourque’s beautiful Butterfly Dress, described in my January 2019 letter, celebrates the eternal cyclical time of butterflies emerging out of chrysalis, time and time again, even as it honors the singular moment in history of common testimony, when over 150 survivors bravely helped change the world. In our upstairs stairwell, suspended between our beloved elephant guardians, now hang thirty-six teal prayer flags, inspired by the prayer flags of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Mothers of survivors have embroidered the names of their daughters on the flags, on which hundreds of MSU students have written beautiful messages of support and solidarity. In the Tibetan tradition, prayer flags evoke in sequence an endlessly, repeated healing sequence, embodying the cyclical movement from attachment to detachment, from suffering to compassion. These flags are infused by that spiritual cycle while also honoring the unique specificity of each sister survivor, in her own irreducible lineal sequence through time.

Triple Time

Finally, in our Art-Science-Creativity Gallery next to the elephants, visitors will behold survivor artist Jordyn Fishman’s magnificent twenty-one foot triptych, “Together We Roar, Pt. 2.” Set on an epic gymnastics floor, theDetail of Jordyn Fishman's painting, "Together We Roar, Pt. 2" painting’s three panels depict survivors’ transitions across time. In the foreground we see a sidewalk, full of cracks and bumps, evoking survivors’ journeys through struggle and healing.

We glimpse a medical examining table and uneven parallel bars; we see a proud standing gymnast with a strange presence embedded in her lower calf, evoking the demons with which survivors must still contend; we grasp the collective exultation of the full team of performers, as they find solace in one another’s resilience and strength. The artist does not disguise or turn away from the continuing shadow of abuse, which so cruelly deprived hundreds of girls and young women of the fundamental right to own their own bodies. Yet, she also honors the ways in which so many have reclaimed their own bodily beings and human dignity, through struggle, determination, self-acceptance, love, and solidarity with one another. She tells a story that is simultaneously about a single individual (who may or may not be a stand in for the artist’s own autobiography) and about a multitude of survivors. As one reads the sequence of the painting from left to right, the viewer is given a cautious sense of hope, tempered by a recognition of the great challenges and wounds that endure. Contemplating this long, incomplete linear journey, I suspect that most viewers’ eyes will return to the opening panel, to read the unfolding story again and again.

These recursive qualities are, to my mind, why the medieval genre of the triptych is so appropriate for Jordyn’s project. The ancient three-part cycle in church sanctuaries, depicting Jesus’ life, suffering on the cross, and resurrection, inspired countless of the faithful as they struggled with the linear specificities of their own daily travails. So too does Jordyn’s modern work of art present a generalizable cycle that cannot be pinned down to any specific moment of historical time, even as it gives solace and strength to all us, moving in our own specific story-line through life’s mysterious journey. Through the miraculous coordination of linear and cyclical time, in science and in art, we encounter both our own specific life conditions and that which raises us above ourselves, into the life-sustaining domain of the eternal.