I’m in the Princeton Art museum, in the exhibit “Weapons Throughout Time: Remarkable Instruments of Survival and Warfare.” It’s a small carpeted room where the AC creates a quiet hum over my head and chills my body. Glass cases lined with hatchets, spears, shields, and arrows surround me as my eyes dart around quickly taking in the deadly weapons enclosing me. I sip my coffee to warm myself, enjoying the sweet taste of creamer as it flows down my throat. My eyes finally focus on an arrow that was used by the Lakota Sioux in the 1800’s. Its shaft looks like a brittle piece of wood about to snap but the metal tip gleams a blue iridescence in the dark lighting of the room. On the wall next to the arrow, I find a white poster summarizing the weapons. It says humans had to be creative and manipulate the materials around them to compete against nature. It said these weapons, evolving from clubs to firearms, were critical for survival and advancement so they were decorated and became part of that culture.
I understand why the Princeton Art Museum chooses to display these. Back in time, people had to protect themselves from the natural world to survive. An exhibit like this is to show how nature and humans collided. However, it is a little ironic that killing tools are decorated beautifully, like the painted designs on the wooden shields. Years ago these bright yellow and orange designs could have been splattered with blood. I turn around and see a massive firearm that takes up an entire glass case which sparks something different in me. The caption below reads “Chauchat Light Machine Gun. France, World War I, World War II, W.R. McGeachin Collection.” This shift from wood and tiny stone spear heads to the gun’s icy metal and sheer size intimidates me. I turn to the wall behind me and see pistols with swirls etched into their metal, something called a “poison pocket”, and a “knuckle buster” made of twine lined with sharp jagged stones. Suddenly I see more blood on the weapons, animal blood as well as human.
The horror and atrociousness of the room now makes itself plainly clear to me. Death surrounds me from every direction but yet it took me so long to realize it. It makes me think that people are so accustomed to others suffering, the horror of it all doesn’t always sink in, like the true nature of these weapons didn’t sink in at first. I look around the room to see the evolution of these weapons throughout time-from brittle sticks to heavy metal capable of firing of hundreds of bullets. These weapons have evolved with us, evidence that evil and violence always seems to thrive, belong, and coexist with humans, even in the simplicity of our everyday lives. Sinisa Malesevic in her book The Sociology of War and Violence, notices our fascination with violence. “Whereas it seems there can never be enough books and films on Hitler and the Nazis, the work and deeds of Gandhi and Mother Theresa draw very modest audiences. While peace and brotherly love might be proclaimed ideals, it is war and violence that attract popular attention and fascination. All of this could suggest that below the surface of civilized manners and altruistic ethics lays a dormant beast.” Even in everyday life hints of a darker nature appears. Now I dare to consider myself. What exactly drew me to the museums weapons over the other exhibits and held my attention? Was something underneath keeping me from at first realizing the horror that surrounded me? Perhaps the weapons intrigued a part of me that I’m not aware of.
I look at the Chauchat in a glass case once more and picture Normandy Beach. Through the AC vents I can feel the chill of water that sprays me as waves thrash against the beach. I can taste a grotesque concoction of blood and sand in my mouth as the sound of gunfire comes from every direction and bullets fly by. I picture this Chauchat there, its cold metal aiming at its next target. These weapons aren’t remarkable. They signify our evolution from blood. I look around the room and I see humanity evolve from killing for protection and food to killing animals for sport and killing humans for selfish reasons, satisfying a darker part of us. These weapons aren’t remarkable; their engravings and painted designs aren’t beautiful for they are covered in blood.
Everything I saw at the Princeton Art museum taught me its own special-life-lesson, whether it be weaponry, or any other kind of art. Most of these excursions about the art work here were negative however. It was a beautiful yet horrid site visiting some of the exhibits here, for art can display just as much ugliness, as it can beauty. I take one last deep breath and smell of the art museum, and slowly walk towards the front of the building. I pass through the small carpeted room once again, the AC is still creating a quiet hum over my head, and racing thoughts plus chills pulse through my body.
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