Beyond Rubies...

Though museums will always hold a special place in my heart, I must confess, I have not been getting out to see them with my usual enthusiasm ever since I lost my job at the History Museum and it was no longer free to do so. Much as I believe in cultural enrichment and supporting these institutions, the price admission for most of the larger museums around the city is double that of a typical movie ticket, and I don't go to the movies either unless I have a gift certificate, free passes, or I'm seeing the cheaper matinee showings. I just don't have that many entertainment dollars to spend, even for something as important to me as a museum.

Hence, when I started seeing the signs around town for the Field Museum's current special exhibit entitled, "Maharajah: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts," splashed with images of glittering gold, rubies, and diamonds, I did not make a beeline to go see it. Instead, I asked my mother if she was interested in going, because she has special museum privileges through one of her credit cards that get her her guests in for free at several local institutions. From there, I could only bide my time until we could find a time that was mutually convenient for us both.

That day turned out to be Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, since I had the day off from work (one of the perks of no longer working at the History Museum, where MLK Day was one of our busiest days in terms of programming and events). However, when the day rolled around and the weather proved to be miserably frigid cold, we had no choice but to persevere and go anyway, because it was the last week the exhibit would be open. This is why you shouldn't procrastinate folks, especially in winter!

As I mentioned, the advertising for "Maharajah" featured spectacular jewels and precious objects, so I was expecting a jewelry-focused exhibit. The Field knows that these are the kind of exhibitions that draw the crowds (hence last year's "Gold" exhibit and "Diamonds" the year before), but I felt that they were engaging in a bit of false advertising with this one. In reality, there were not that many pieces of jewelry on display, though there were an impressive array of other grandiose artifacts. There was a gilded howdah, or elephant-mounted carriage, and numerous gem-encrusted ceremonial elephant wrangling tools and fans from the processions that carried the maharajahs through town in a display of power and affluence. There were numerous prints and etchings depicting court life at the time, and incredibly elaborate clothing worn for weddings and other ceremonial occasions.

Really, it was more an exhibit about Indian culture and government, and its interaction with the forces of colonialism than anything else. For that reason, it was more educational than I Was expecting, not that that was a bad thing. I felt like I learned a lot about a time and place that I was relatively uninformed about before, so I have to give the Field Museum credit for hosting an exhibit that was information-rich, and actually furthered their mission statement. However, I couldn't help but feel cheated out of the opportunity to see lots of pretty, sparkly jewelry. Sometimes I don't want to have to think too hard, and this was one of these times.

I don't think people need to be tricked into participating in educational activities, like trying to get a small child to eat their vegetables. Besides, I think if you know what to expect, and go into a cultural experience ready to learn, you will take more away from it. The Field offers enough mindless opportunities to ogle shiny jewels without having to sell their educational content short. I enjoyed the Maharajah exhibit, don't get me wrong, but if you go, you should enter with an open mind and be ready to encounter a new culture, not just its loveliest artifacts.

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