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Travelogue G23

February 3, 2016

A five-minute walk found me before the British Museum, my final destination on that summer day. Having made arrangements with my companions, I lingered in the entrance courtyard a moment. They were, not, however behind the columns or to one side of the court and so I considered how I might best make myself as conspicuous as possible, a line of thinking to which I was not typically given. Looking about and turning the thought over, I decided at last to take up a position on the jutting pedestal to the right of the main stairs where I would be silhouetted by a column and away from the masses milling about.

My hunch proved a good one as my travel companions, near the entrance, sighted me easily enough. With my hands, I pushed myself off the ledge, and my feet met the ground, perhaps a little unsteadily, a short distance below. Contact made, we turned to the question of our path, for, in a museum so large, the viewer must inevitably confront a series of choices and construct for herself a universe, or collection thereof, from the disparate materials with which the institution presented her. Still, it must be decided how and by what method the person goes about constructing that universe.

My experiences that day confirmed prior such experiences: most came in with a prior agenda in the form of their collateral interests and commitments, such that a group path required splicing together the individual. My companions cast aside Persian, First People and Oceanian; they retained in their place the Egyptian, Greek and Japanese collections. The Japanese collections being held on the upper levels, we set our steps one above another in order to work our way back down later.

A replica of the Kudara Kannon statue greets the visitor to the first of the Japanese rooms. It would seem that the craftsmen behind the replica had reproduced it in accordance with the most exacting standards of likeness, for their creation was precise down to the finest of details. The reproduction encompassed not just the hues of the paint or the grain of the material but even the damage marring the statue’s surface. Although the signage suggested nothing of the sort, I liked to think that the craftsman might be called upon in the coming years to recreate on the replica incidents having occurred on the original or, still further, that a law of absolute likeness now bound the original’s appearance to any accidents befalling the replica. In my mind, it was almost as if the replica could only exist in perfect parallel with the original to the point that, having been made for the same fate, the original would disappear with the replica.

Still, as a replica of a National Treasure, the statue would encounter no fate of the sort. I remembered having read in a Japanese travelogue, as experienced by a Frenchman, that the National Treasures were not limited to buildings and artworks alone but extended as well to entire crafts, traditional skills, and, in rare cases, people. I entertained my companions for a short time with the suggestion that the Living National Treasures, like the inanimate, had been copied for the sake of posterity and that a sufficiently curious traveller could find in any given Japanese thoroughfare a potter’s flesh-and-blood replica or the breathing reproduction of a weaver. In this way, they lived beyond their years.

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