Window

We love it when folks stop by our museum to look around, and when big yellow buses creep up to disgorge loads ‘o kids. All day, people come and go—they’re the reason why we’re here. I imagine that very few visitors realize that beneath their feet lies a subterranean world where folks toil with the museum’s unseen internal workings. Those of us stationed in the basement are light-heartedly referred to as “dungeon dwellers.” It’s a bit like a sensory deprivation chamber down here, a near total lack of sound, outside stimuli, and natural light. Some days we only pop up above ground for lunch and breaks, otherwise oblivious to happenings above and of weather’s capricious whims. For a few hours it’s easy to forget there’s a world of light and life above us.

zinnias outside stairwell window

Zinnias (and a butterfly) outside the museum’s basement stairwell window.

Ascending the stairs from our basement, there’s a ground-level window looking west from a landing near the summit. Whipping back a curtain that keeps afternoon sun from baking the stairwell presents a worm’s eye view of the world outside. Rising from the basement, it’s our first dose of sunlight, served with a sliver of western sky, a glimpse of weather not quite here yet. Atmospheric reality thus revealed often surprises, does not agree with expectation. Weather doesn’t care, changed its mind while we were underground. Welcome to the Ozarks.

Humans need to be outside. Failing that, those of us under the building will settle for a little sunlight. That window is important. Summer’s abundance brings no hardship on dungeon folk. But when clocks fall back and cheating winter night steals our light, the window disappoints at day’s end, provides no solace. Those few short days of both arriving and departing in darkness take a toll. Like that first gasping breath after surfacing from a deep dive, that first sight of sunlight is anxiously anticipated, finally warms the heart when escaping basement darkness. Natural light is like air—you need it, but you don’t miss it until you don’t have it.

When the curtain parts, sometimes wondrous wee creatures look back. For twenty-some years, green-white curls of ho-hum monkey grass (liriope) held sway over window’s court. Those days we peeked out at snails, slugs, grasshoppers, lizards, and spiders that dwelt therein. Passing squirrels or an occasional tiger-striped cat broke the monotony. Suddenly Marty (Powers, our groundskeeper) wrought his vengeance on that foul liriope, wielding backhoe’s jaws to overthrow despot monkey grass, banished to the compost heap. Masterful Washington County Master Gardeners Renee and Brad Baldwin graciously arrayed a varied and colorful palette, woven of plants that give succor to flutter-bys (butterflies), hummingbirds and sundry busy-buzzing pollinators. Summer’s view from our window stretched, yawned, and awoke.

Monarch butterfly on zinnia.

Closeup of a monarch near the stairwell window, taken by museum photographer Bo Williams.

Certain basement denizens have been down here for decades. As far as I can discern, our bodies haven’t yet begun to physically adapt to underground environs. No loss of pigmentation or eyesight, yet, though greying hair and cataracts laugh and hint otherwise. However, a behavioral adaptation marks the senior dungeon dwellers. They have to stop and look out that window on their way up the stairs. We wish we were outside, failing that, we’ll settle for a little sunlight.

Curtis Morris is the Shiloh Museum’s exhibits manager.


 

Restroom Recuerdos

Photo by Marcin Nowak on Unsplash

Working in and around museums for well over twenty years has jaded me somewhat. Considering all the cool and different stuff we get to experience, it’s rare that something really surprises me. Then I turned the corner into the men’s room at the Shiloh Museum and heard . . . Spanish classical guitar music? I was convinced I was dreaming or hallucinating, because there was no other way to make sense of the sound that I thought was coming from the men’s room, and here’s why.

I love to search for and listen to solo acoustic guitar performances. There are many flavors, old and new, from Spanish classical and flamenco to New Age stuff with names like “percussive acoustic” or “heavy wood.” Not what you normally encounter in Northwest Arkansas, but it’s often the soundtrack in my head. YouTube is about the only place to search for these genres. Just one performer, one instrument, no overdubs, no multi-tracks, but it often sounds like a group of players. It’s a tour de force sort of thing—musicians showing off because they can, and I love to listen. I’ll occasionally attempt to play a feeble line or two, just enough to appreciate the challenge. My family suffers much, but I digress.

Since I’m in a restroom in Arkansas and not on a street corner in Seville, my logical conclusion was that these familiar sounds were all in my head. But rounding the corner in the men’s room, I find a nicely dressed young man perched on a chair, scrunched over his Spanish Classical styled guitar, with his right foot propped on a tiny stool. He’s playing “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” by Francisco Tárrega, and he’s killing it. The acoustics in the bathroom are shockingly good. Startled by my sudden appearance, the young virtuoso was quick to apologize for invading my, um, space. I was quick to encourage him to keep playing, and asked if he would take requests!

In what sounded to me like a high Castilian accent, the musician explained that he had found a quiet spot to practice for a concert later that evening, just up the road at the Arts Center of the Ozarks (ACO). It wasn’t until much later that I learned he was part of a group of world-class musicians, winners of an international competition held in Ragusa, Italy. The contest is sponsored by the IBLA Foundation in New York, and the grand prize winners participate in a world concert tour. They play such prestigious venues as the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall in New York, the Tokyo Opera City Hall, and the Tchaikovsky Bolshoi Hall in Moscow, with a sprinkling of other venues across the United States. It’s a big deal, and we’re lucky that the IBLA performers have played in an Arkansas venue for the last eighteen years, luckier still that they wound up playing the ACO in Springdale.

Turns out the young guitarrista with the intriguing accent did take requests—he played everything I could remember from my mental list of classical selections. His take on Issac Albéniz’s “Leyenda” (“Asturias”) was superb—both the traditional Segovia-styled version, AND a faster and technically precise rendition in the manner of modern Croatian artist Ana Vidovic. Wore me out just watching. I was deeply impressed and humbled.

Fate had other plans for my evening, so I was bummed about missing the concert. It’s OK though, I enjoyed a neat little micro-performance in the most unlikely of places. And the acoustics were wonderful.

Curtis Morris is the Shiloh Museum’s exhibits manager.