Panta Rhei, as Heraclitus the Obscure once said, “everything flows;” and yet… Today we repeat his words here, at the very heart of a building created for the preservation of objects for posterity. But everything flows.
The word museum (Mouseion/Greek, Musaeum/Latin) was first used for the sanctuaries dedicated to the Muses (Mousai), the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who preside over literature, poetry, history, art, music, and astronomy. In Hellenistic times, the word Mouseion was used to designate a building complex in Alexandria established by Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian general who fought with Alexander, as an encyclopedic library dedicated to instruction and research, along the lines of Aristotle’s peripatetic school in Athens, the Lyceum—itself named after the Athenian gymnasium of the same name. What traces of the temple and the ancient school might be found in this museum—in any museum—as it exists today? The building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art used to be called the “Big Greek Garage,” obviously in reference to its expansive size and architecture. It sits properly on top of its own local acropolis in a city that carries a name that, perhaps coincidentally, was used as the epithet of Ptolemy II, the successor of the first Ptolemaic ruler, Philadelphus, himself a great proponent of the Museum in Alexandria.
In fact, the modern museum finds its roots no further than the Renaissance, and acquired a large portion of its ideological baggage centuries later, during the passionate debates of the Enlightenment. 1 A building such as this one here calls attention to the enormous relevance that the ancient legacy supposedly had for its builders. It is in modern times that the Museum’s purpose becomes defined around the preservation, research, display, and augmentation of its collection, and its collection conceived as ensemble of objects, primarily—–but not exclusively—paintings and sculptures. From a relatively marginal position, the function of display would progressively adopt a role that has become central for the institution today. So, here we are, very far from the temple for private devotion or the comprehensive library of manuscripts for study and research. However, an attentive listener could still perceive, in this very building, the potent echoes of that remote past. In its secular vests, the Museum is still silently traversed by many traces of the divine. It is not just the many gods and goddesses, in so very many paintings and sculptures, in different poses and guises and degrees of covering and uncovering, but the very notion of the divine and its kernel of eternity investing not just the figures represented in the works, but the very workings of the institution. To care for and to preserve forever—but are those terms equal and the same?—the contents of the collection. Panta Rhei.
- 1. See The Classical Tradition edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis. Harvard University Press Reference Library: Cambridge and London, 2010. Entry on “Museum,” pages 604 – 607.