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November 16, 2022
The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka located at Crescat Boulevard, is a landmark when it comes to the promotion of modern and contemporary art in Sri Lanka.
Why do we call it a landmark? Because it is definitely an important stage in the development of art in Sri Lanka. Modern and Contemporary Art is a fascinating field and this museum has been long awaited in this country. The museum has much to share with the public. A lot of hard work has been put into this museum and without a shadow of doubt it will surely have a grand future. It is a result of hard work and dedication.
The “Museum Intensive Program” event is funded by the Netherlands Embassy in Sri Lanka and The Maldives. It looks at the professional development landscape in Sri Lanka’s museum sector.
A lecture was held by Ruben Smit on Friday, October 21 at its premises. His lecture was a series of subjects/topics that challenged the audience to think. It challenged the audience to maybe look at these subjects differently. Maybe even look at life differently.
This lecture was one of the first of many important lectures. This Museum Intensive Program is supported by the Dutch Embassy in Sri Lanka. The Dutch Embassy has seen the need for knowledge exchange and the importance of building relationships and networks of a professional nature between Holland and Sri Lanka.
Ruben Smit is very passionate about museums and humanity. He started off with a very simple question to the audience – ‘Who really loves museums, or who thinks museums are very boring?’. Several hands went up in the audience! He then immediately changed the topic to another subject which was the painting of the Mona Lisa.
We know that the painting of the Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings in history. Smit shared with us some important information about the painting. The woman in the portrait is thought to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. The painting is believed to have been done in 1503. It now hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris. During this part of his speech, Smit touched on the mystery of the Mona Lisa which is her smile. A mystery which has puzzled and fascinated people for centuries. Smit then made a very interesting comment – how would a child view the Mona Lisa? The mind of a child. Fascinating is it not? Smit’s idea was really brilliant. He started his speech with the Mona Lisa, one of the most famous paintings in the world. The perfect topic in the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. The perfect topic for the evening in an audience that appreciates modern and contemporary art.
“This is a little girl’s fantasy. This is someone looking at the image and using her imagination. This is the mystery of the Mona Lisa,” he said.
He then again changed the subject to the British Monarchy and spoke at length about Kensington Palace that has a rich history. The Royal Collection is a remarkable collection of royalty. It is awe inspiring because the works of art, each tell a story about the personal tastes of Kings and Queens who ruled England. All of this is priceless because we know that history is part of our identity. If we are to truly appreciate modern and contemporary art, we need to understand its origins. Again Smit chose a wonderful topic for the evening.
“Again think of the storytelling! What a humbling experience managing to move around these exhibits. Fortunately, all this has been made public.”
The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is in a way storytelling. What we see now, will be history one day. Walking through the museum is like walking through a passageway of time. A museum is a time machine. “Even one garment can tell a story of madness and death. There was this woman of royalty who went completely mad, possibly because of her circumstances. She ran down the stairs one evening, fell and actually broke her neck. So all these items tell little stories.”
In his address, Smit spoke briefly about these little items on display such as garments, perhaps because something that many would regard as trivial (to them), could have had great sentimental value to a person.
Smit reflected a lot on the human condition. He reflected a lot on frailty. He reflected on death. On suffering. The passing away of loved ones. When looking at a painting, perhaps there is so much we don’t see. But when we have had a similar experience to what the painter went through, then we see that painting in a whole new way. We see the hidden meaning. What the painter was really trying to express. Those personal intimate little messages.
Smit also spoke about escapism, escaping to other realities. How true is that? Art too can be a means of escaping. As Smit puts it, there is a real world out there. “Sometimes we are closed in our own space or place and because of our minds we can escape by entering other spaces/places, other realities.”
Smit spoke about dealing with everyday life, how we try to make sense of the world around us, how we learn to cope and deal with this difficult world. The real and the unreal. Smit also mentioned a quote which I will try and partially paraphrase for our readers. He said: “It is daily life, with its messy details and frustrating lack of definition….”
At this point in the lecture, Smit mentioned Guy Claxton, an English Professor and Writer. He too spoke about how we deal with everyday issues and how we make sense of the world. The transition from youth to adulthood. How we deal with complex situations. He proposed four modes on how we operate – thinking, acting, feeling and dreaming. Interesting isn’t it?
“Thinking is what we normally do in our lives. An intellectual exchange of what we think and what we know. It is using your brain for reasoning. It is analyzing and communicating things. Acting is of course exploring and investigating in the real world, the real life. It is to experiment. With feeling comes real creativity. Because it is emotion and emotion along with thinking creates empathy. You are able to relate to an audience. This is when new ideas come up. Then the last part is dreaming. Here you use your imagination. We use this to visualize things. It helps storytelling. All this is essential for the museum experience.”
Museums are actually exciting and it can be an adventure. Much of this is about emotion says Smit. Simply that. “Any good experience can be passive or it can be actively participating. You need to really participate with your heart to benefit. This applies to entertainment, as well as education. Because in a way we are really searching for meaning. This is how you learn from museum collections. You need to be emotionally and actively engaged”.
Lastly in his lecture he spoke about the human brain. Something extremely powerful. He spoke about various parts of the brain. The brain is extremely complex and cannot be fully discussed in this article. But we know that control, response to pain and levels of pleasure are directly related to activities in the brain. This museum experience is directly linked to neurons. They also control your arousal. Memory too is crucial when it comes to the museum experience – what we remember and how we connect that memory to what we are seeing at the present.
The Daily News asked Smit about how he would define reality? To which he answered – “There is this philosophical stance that all that is around us can be perceived as real, but it is our perception. So I might think that what is in front of me is a table, but you might say that it is also a place where you can sit. Yes, we can also sit on this table as well. So the perception of the individual always colours the reality that is out there. A philosopher Berkeley, an Irishman in the 18th Century, noted the somewhat difficult idea that if in the wood a tree collapses, and there is no human being witnessing it, then it probably did not happen. You need a human being to take notice of it to make it reality. It is our brains that transform what we see into reality. So we need the human connection. Plato the Greek philosopher claims that there is a real world outside of us. It is our duty to find out what is real and what is not. You need to discover the real world outside. But maybe the real is something in our minds.”

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Eric Rajapakse

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