There are a couple of ways to contemplate time when visiting the Kingdom of Scotland section of the National Museum’s permanent exhibit galleries in Edinburgh. One way is to contemplate the artifacts from the various millennia and imagine all the local and world events that these have persisted through, arriving safely in the present moment in the collections department of today’s governing powers. Hopefully this patrimony will also persist long centuries into the future, as well. From this way of seeing things, we who live today are “dew on the morning grass” to use the imagery famous in the Bible. Compared to the brief lives of museum visitors, the stonework, metal work, or other materials are here for longer periods. If the ancient and historical pieces on display and those held in storage or being studied by curators out of view (or the acquisitions being prepared by conservationists) could speak, they might declare, “we are just passing through; we are not concerned about the current events or issues since our destination is far ahead from now in the future.”
A second perspective on the passage of time that is on display at museums comes from taking the visitor’s standpoint. Instead of seeing the artifact as a time traveler or long-distance vehicle that likely will outlive us and the next several generations, this second perspective comes from browsing the many display cases and noticing the diverse locations whence the many artifacts came from and the (pre)historical period of their origins. This point of view uses the present moment as the fixed frame of reference against which each item can be measured to appreciate its age. In this way, a look around an exhibit hall might turn up items 200 or 1200 or 2000 years old. An analogy for this way of seeing might be a very big, extended, family reunion with 4 or maybe 5 generations present. A look around the venue would include people of many ages all coming together for this occasion. Possibly one’s time consciousness will grow from the realization that one’s own life can be reckoned relative to those present in the room from the generations that came before or after one’s own. This same multi-age awareness belongs to the museum displays, too.
Expanding or elaborating one’s consciousness of history, the processes of change, and the passage of time is one way to appreciate the museum display, or indeed the scenes from daily life surrounding one’s routine passage to work, school, or home. Reversing the vision, though, you can identify your point of view as part of the “time traveler” cultural artifacts that persist as long-lasting elements of the cultural landscape. This way offers still another vision of time’s passing. According to this perspective, the myriad daily details and risks and opportunities become ephemera that come and go, of little consequence to the enduring and extended time frame of these artifacts that we modern residents temporarily co-exist among. We mortals take life’s exit ramp maybe around age 75 or 80, but those durable artifacts do not exit the world’s stage for centuries or longer; either in glass cases, in constant use one generation after another (e.g. roadways, sea routes and facilities, river crossings), or perhaps discarded by one generation but excavated by future researchers. In sum we mortals are “just passing through” and the artifacts and natural landscape change only slowly, serving as our lifestory backdrop. Or is it the reverse: that the long-lasting cultural artifacts are “just passing through” and we mortals just come and go as background; of little consequence relative to the long timeframe of these artifacts or works of art. Are we the figure or the ground?