Photo by Niamh Jones
I am sitting in the forecourt of the Ashmolean. I am sitting with my legs crossed, one of my shoes wedged against the edge of the stone bench; I am by the grey flowerbeds. And I am looking up at the museum, at the small queue, at how the people have decided to stand while they wait, how they’re looking at each other and how they’re looking at the museum. I wonder what they are thinking about the museum; they are closer to it than I am, they cannot see the whole entrance and they cannot see the roof. I wonder what it looks like from the hotel on the other side of the street.
Because I can’t really see the museum either—its long, rounded columns, the yellow and white walls, the stone canopy; I am too close, or not close enough. It seems impassable, and only more impassable because I am so close to it, waiting to see who will be allowed to enter and who will be turned away—and who will walk away when they have almost reached the gate. I watch the woman at the entrance scanning tickets, smiling.
Other people have also sat outside the museum, talking, remembering how they had sheltered from the rain under the stone columns at the entrance, or by the Taylorian library; is there a bin nearby? It is sunny today, but cold; it’s strange, it’s been a long winter but today, today, is a “Here Comes the Sun” day. It’s a beautiful Tuesday; are Tuesdays beautiful?
The museum looks like a strange house, an uninhabitable house with hard walls. The most habitable part is where I am sitting. And it occurs to me that I am looking at the outside of the building. But inside there will be people looking at paintings, and they will not notice the building, not remember the stone canopy they waited under. They will notice a painted person, a sculpted figure, an ebony cabinet; perhaps I am the only one looking at this building, the house of houses.
Earlier that day I had heard a description of heaven—someone’s heaven—a heaven, they said, which had tall ceilings, ceilings with windows, how it was a U-shaped building and how instead of there being sand by the beach outside there was only grass. The Ashmolean has tall ceilings—the central stairwell is all height—and it has windows: it could be someone’s heaven. And even then its paintings could be another, a heaven on heaven. This person’s description of a U-shaped heaven is full of big spaces; where are there more spaces than in the Ashmolean?
I wonder if the Ashmolean is anyone’s house, if it is anyone’s heaven, and where this heaven would be: which painting, which face, which body. I wonder if the whole museum means something, if this house of worlds is really a house of worlds to anyone; how they walk through it, how they are walking through it even as I am sitting down. I wonder what expressions the portraits have as they are being looked at, and the expressions of the people who are looking at them.
I wonder if I should go in, make an expression of my own, walk through, look at the top of the stairwell which I have never looked at before. I wonder if I should stand and queue at the entrance. I wonder if I will be allowed through the gate.