Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Night at the Museum, or, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Recently I’ve been on a touristy streak, having realized that I have lived in Chennai for 5 months and seen only a fraction of the city sights that a traveler would see in two days. So my friend Mike and I decided to take a tour of the Government Museum over the weekend.

You know those experiences that you can already hear yourself retelling (or writing in a blog) while you’re still going through them? This was one of them. The museum was a typical underfunded, poorly labelled government project with dozens of valuable ancient artifacts just lying around in open air, deteriorating and occasionally falling victim to petty vandalism. Some of the pieces (mostly religious carvings and writing slabs) were just slapped down on the floor and loosely covered with plastic. Others had been residing on window sills for so long that when the caretakers decided to “renovate” by giving the sill a fresh coat of paint, instead of removing and then replacing the slabs, they just painted around them and left the bottoms with an inch or so of bright blue paint. I kid you not.

But that’s not what made the story retellable. We also visited the “animals” section, which was more like a high school biology exhibit. Or as Mike would describe it, the Mütter Museum of medical oddities transplanted from Philadelphia to India. There were taxodermied displays of just about every animal on earth, from birds to tigers to fish (yes, taxodermied fish). To display the anatomy of certain animals, there were exhibits featuring the disembodied wings, tail and head of various birds. There were cheetah paws, just the paws, cut off at the elbow. There was a whole section on insects, complete with 50x models of dog ticks. My personal favorites included the displays on humans (one case showing the skulls of “man, horse and elephant,” another featuring a full human skeleton alongside a full horse skeleton, in a posture that would never have occurred in real life). Another favorite was a cat, split open all the way down its belly, floating in a jar of formaldehyde so you could see all its innards. Oh, and a Siamese twin pig fetus, also floating in formaldehyde.

But I still haven’t reached the climax of the story. We were so engrossed by the displays in the museum that we wanted to see more, and had the curator open up the door to the botany section (which clearly hadn’t been viewed for decades, not because it wasn’t open but because no one was interested) for us. There we found such treasures as algae floating in formaldehyde-like jars, except the preservative had evaporated halfway so the leaves were only partially submerged. Also a display of mosquito repellents over the years, progressing from a jar of eucalyptus oil to a tube of commercially manufactured bug cream.

We had been exploring this section of the museum for about 10 minutes when the power suddenly went out, leaving us in relative darkness (thank goodness for the glow of our cell phones). We decided this would be a good time to leave and headed for the exit. When we got to the door, however, we found it mysteriously closed. We messed around with it for a couple minutes until we realized it had been locked – from the outside. That’s right, we were trapped inside the museum. In the darkness.

We also heard some rustling around outside, so we banged on the door and yelled out. We promptly heard the rustling stop, and someone walk away. Then silence. Literally, a curator had heard us inside, continued locking up, and just walked away.

This is about when the panic started to set in – as much as I enjoy a good museum mystery, the dinner I was planning that night sounded like somewhat better company than the algae. We tested out a couple other doors to the room, to find all of them locked as well. Mike went to work on a window next to the entrance, and miraculously pried it open and looked out. His comment “it’s a little steep” was a bit of an understatement – it was a straight fall two flights down onto a winding staircase. I managed to convince him that wasn’t a good idea before we got a window to the courtyard open and started yelling through it. Finally someone heard us and came over, realized what the problem was, and disappeared to find the people in charge. Fifteen minutes, 6 security guards, a lot of yelling and lot of requests to “wait wait” later, the door was opened and we were released to freedom.

Mike would like it to be noted that we had found a way out on our own, in case the guards hadn’t found us. I would like it to be noted that the guards are idiots. We did, however, have many plans of what we were going to do if no one found us (break down the door with a stool, burn a hole through it with Mike’s lighter, swing through the window to a fire escape, take a bunch of stuff from the display cases and have a party all night just like Claudia and Jamie).

So for any others who decide to visit the Government Museum in Chennai – be aware, it closes at 5 and if you’re not out by then, you might be there all night.

Upon recounting this story to my roommate Ponnu, who happens to be a journalist, she (and subsequently her editor) found it entertaining enough to run in the paper. My debut in the Indian Express:

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