The slowest and most expensive museum refurbishment in world history must be that of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It is taking longer and costing more than it took and cost to build it in the first place. Let us hope that the result will be magnificent, with all the interactive features that any modern child could desire.
For those who cannot wait for the re-opening, however, there is always the branch Rijksmuseum at Schipol Airport. This was an inspired idea, a tranquil space in the middle of the busy airport where the Rijksmuseum displays a changing selection of minor works from the Golden Age. At Schipol recently with a few hours to kill, I visited the branch museum. There was a pleasant little exhibition there, but its pleasures were quickly exhausted and so I turned instead, as I often do at exhibitions, to the visitors’ book.
It seems to me that exhibition visitors’ books are a neglected source of information about contemporary culture and human psychology. There is a little French book on visitors’ comments at Auschwitz, but I know of no other. I became interested in visitors’ comments when I noticed what someone had written in the book at Freud’s house in Maresfield Gardens: ‘I am glad he was not my father.’
One of the most illuminating pair of comments that I ever found in a visitors’ book was in that attached to an exhibition in Birmingham of the portrayal of black people in 18th- and 19th-century British art. I had expected the exhibition to be a festival of political correctness, but in fact it was beautifully and sensitively curated. On one page in the visitors’ book I found these successive -comments:
I am thankful to God that he has allowed me to live to see this exhibition which shows black people in all their beauty.
This exhibition is an insult to all black people, portraying them as less than human.
They suggested to me that it is not only beauty, but a lot else beside, that is in the eye of the beholder. For the record, I inclined more to the first than to the second.
In general, though, there is nothing quite like a visitors’ book for appreciating the preponderance of the banal in human thought and existence. About 90 per cent of the comments in the Schipol Rijksmuseum book were complimentary, inevitably in a Christmas-cardy kind of way, for there are not many ways of saying something nice about something nice, but one complimentary comment, that of Mahmoud Ali Atwa, moved me:
Although I am 10 years old, I appreciate the museum and was attractive to it. Really I like it.
Some of the praise of the museum was for distinctly extraneous reasons:
Your couch is really comfy. I will sleep on it again when I return.
It was a very nice museum. I was able to find my husband here and now we are happily married. Thank you Amsterdam Museum. I love you.
Best place to fart in the airport.
An Indian wrote:
Amazing art show. Got new trivia about European culture.
Between a tenth and a twentieth of the comments were bizarre in various revealing ways. First was the purely egotistical:
Hey Bridget, I can’t believe we’re finally in the same place at the same time, but apart from my flight… I miss you like crazy and check in your Facebook to see all the fun you’re having… I will leave your present at your house so you can get it in December. Don’t forget that trip that we’ll plan.
This is signed Hanna, with a little heart that — well, makes the heart sink. Or again:
From Boston Bar, to Amsterdam, to Kenya and back again. 13 small town members travel half way around the world to help build a primary school in Kenya. What an adventure!
All the way from Sac-Town, California! Holla! Always mackin, never slackin.
Egotism is international and not the property of one country:
I’m from Taiwan.
Next came the patriotic-xenophobic range of comments:
Bonjour à tous les French people qui passeront par ici! Escale dans cet aeroport en direction Nouméa! Faites bon voyage les français.
Hello from Cleveland Ohio, in America, aka USA. The land of the free, if you didn’t know.
Bien por inculcar cultura en general espero haya variedad de presentaciones en específico México.
A foreigner has tried his pidgin Dutch to say something ideological:
Europeers is niet die beste kunstenaars! (Europeans are not the best artists.)
USA! USA! USA!
Then there are the religious enthusiasts:
He died for our sins – J-C – Praise God for the gift of eternal life.
Waddup! Shout out to Bethany Church and my second family from Terradise! Love you guys!
Then there is the purely-irrelevant-to–outright-thought-disordered range:
I love sandwiches.
Amsterdam 4 ever! But the prices are RIDICULOUSE!
What’s Jello meat about… thanks, -Belarus!
Girl don’t play with my fine art! Ain’t gonna put no dance Club or nothin, but as museum? bid please! – Ya heard.
Finally, there is the facetious to vulgar range:
Wally the pregnant walrus was here.
Charles son of Darmouth, King of Uranus, we appreciate this here service.
Please excuse my terrible language. Now bugger off.
Literally mindblowing, where’s my mind? My breasts just about fill this hell hole.
Wordup to all you Motherlickas from the nasty nati.
No me gustó el arte holandés, nunca estuvo de moda. Pongan unas chavas bien chulas! (I didn’t like Dutch art, it was never cool. Put up some pretty chicks!)
To which someone has appended Puto, male prostitute.
Of course, those who write things in visitors’ books are a self-selected sample of humanity, and one cannot derive scientifically valid conclusions from their efforts. But the world cannot be apprehended through science alone. And from my examination of visitors’ books at exhibitions, I have come to the conclusion that self-expression is far from an undiluted good, and indeed that most thoughts lie too shallow for words. That is why an age of easy communication is almost certain to be an age of absence of communication. There will be no plumbing the shallows of the human heart.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012