Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Museum Is Open

Such ingenuity can easily be missed. I certainly failed to notice it for the first hundred times I passed the Rijksmuseum. Almost every day, my eyes happen to glance across the front of this Amsterdam landmark on the route between my home and office. My peripheral vision cannot escape the vast canopies erected over the front side of the building -- reassuring and reminding would-be visitors that the world-famous museum remains open even during the major renovation project currently blocking the front entrance. Even in the midst of such chaos and construction, the museum boldly broadcasts that its greatest and most beloved masterpieces are still on display within. The message is clear for anyone who passes by: "Museum is open!"

It only occurred to me this week that the phrasing on the sign is a bit strange -- almost a sort of pidgin English, if you think about it. If one tries to say it with a fake accent, the effect is comical: "Museum is open!" "Nice painting inside for you to see!" "You can take photo!" I mean, would it really be all that difficult to write a complete sentence instead? Or deliberately do it in a more headline format, like, "Museum Open at Southwest Entrance")? Maybe it's not so spatially appealing to add extra lines, or maybe it costs extra for each letter?

But as I further considered the declaration, I realized that the sign on the front of the Rijksmuseum isn't strange at all -- in fact, it's brilliant. As a native English speaker, I had seen the sign countless times and only recently actually stopped to consider the economy of words... I'd always assumed the sign was just a shorthand way to communicate the message, "The Museum is Still Open for Visitors," and my mind had always filled in the blanks appropriately. However in its subtle ingenuity (without my previous awareness), the sign had simultaneously been communicating a different message to others in the city all along -- namely, "Het Museum is Nog Steeds Open om te Bezoeken." Perhaps I'm not so bright for having failed to consider this earlier (the sign is posted on the Dutch national art museum, after all, in the center of the Netherlands' principle city) -- yet I believe this is precisely why the "Museum Is Open" sign is so clever. The pronunciation on the sign's three-word declaration is significantly different, depending on the reader's native tongue... But this fact is such an afterthought that one typically only considers the message itself and not the medium.

I have much to learn from such an example.

As a person trying to straddle multiple cultural boundaries -- American/Dutch, Married/Single, Christian/Unbeliever, Villager/Urbanite, Privileged/Disadvantaged, Postmodern/Modern -- it is both a science and an art to effectively communicate a single message to a diverse audience. So often I do it poorly, trying to meaningfully articulate a message to two (or more) different constituencies but instead just confusing everyone in the process. Or I choose to make sharp distinctions between a meaning for one person and an alternative rendering of the same meaning for another person -- sounding clumsy, muddled, and awkward in the process (even if I succeed in getting the meaning across). How I long for an ability to communicate with meaning and precision -- transversing all the various cultural boundaries -- while still allowing people to hear the message as if it is only for their particular culture!

I may not often succeed in this ambition... But it's worth the attempt. If the Rijksmuseum can remain open to such possibilities, I can certainly do my best. Hear me now, world: "Eric is open!"


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