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Museum Musings

Essay: Speak, Memory

The Ancient Greeks believed that artistic achievement does not arise spontaneously but as the result of outside intervention. The custodians of inspiration were the Muses, or Mousai, nine sisters who were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. They were also the minions of Apollo, god of light, truth, music, poetry, and the arts (see the cover of the issue you are holding). The Muses, each with her own bailiwick, granted -- or withheld -- the spark necessary to prompt the memory and create art. It is for this reason that ancient epics begin with an invocation to the Muse, a prayer for inspiration. In this tradition, Homer’s Odyssey, which recounts the story of Odysseus’ journey home from the Trojan War, begins, with “Sing, O Muse.” The opening words of that epic are sometimes translated as “Speak, Memory,” a phrase Vladimir Nabokov borrowed as a title for his book of memoirs.

Euterpe, Muse of Lyric Poetry

Erato, Muse of Love Poetry

Thalia, Muse of Comic Poetry

Today’s museum is a descendant of the Greek mouseion, or temple of the Muses, a place devoted to the preservation of art and knowledge. The original Musaeum was a place of study, of enlightenment, a repository of history and cultural accomplishments – in short, of memory. It was also a place to receive inspiration, itself a sparking of memory. Thus intellectual creativity and poetic inspiration are closely connected with memory through a link that goes back to the ancients.

By the time of the European Enlightenment, the ancients’ notion of the museum as a place where knowledge is stored for use and preservation had again gained currency. It is through contact with Europe that the idea of the museum as we know it came to Russia. Peter the Great’s Cabinet of Curiosities is popularly considered the first museum in Russia. Still in existence today, Peter’s Kunstkamera exemplifies the typical Enlightenment impulse to explore the natural world as a means of satisfying the desire to know. And this desire to know -- to acquire information and understanding, is itself a form of collecting, an activity which, in turn, implies preservation. In this way, the connection between inspiration and memory asserts itself.

Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry

Urania, Muse of Astronomy

Clio, Muse of History

International Museum Day began in 1977 as a result of a resolution taken by the International Council of Museums at the initiative of Russian museum workers. The Museums Association defines a museums as places that collect and safeguard “inspiration, learning, and enjoyment” and “makes accessible artifacts and specimens that they hold in trust for society.”

It is appropriate, then, that Museum Day and Victory Day should share a month; the fundamental task of both holidays is to receive inspiration through exposure to memory. On May 9, we do not celebrate so much as commemorate the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. The injunction to celebrate is, at its root, an injunction to remember – to remember and seek inspiration from this memory that it may speak through you. So whether it is in an art gallery or exhibition hall, on Red Square or anywhere wlse, keep your eyes peeled for those muses. They’re sure to be afoot trying to inspire through the gift of memory.

Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy

Terpsichore, Muse of Dance

Polyhymnia, Muse of Rhetoric

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