Museums: Pie and Revolution

I’ve been wondering about adding a Pie Museum to the Slice of Heaven 24-Hour Pie Shop and Driving Range. It seems to me that it might draw in a few more people in the off season, and besides that I like the idea. There’s certainly no shortage of golf museums and gol halls of fame, but pie appears to have been short shrifted.

I’m sure that there are some glorious pie paintings, prints, and drawings that I could instal there. I already know of several sculptures, or at least ceramics. Several movies have certainly featured pie: whipped cream pie, shaving cream pie, warm apple pie, and other varieties. I always liked the John Travolta movie Michael, in which he played an angel, supposedly the very one who invented pie, and it includes a lovely scene of Andie McDowell singing about pie. Then there’s the more recent movie Waitress, and on network television, there’s Pushing Daisies about a piemaker with the touch of life, or death.

Perhaps I can also include some history of pie, science of pie, and the future of pie. There’s a lot of pie memorabilia, not to mention equipment, costuming, and cookery. For example, there’s that four-and-twenty blackbirds story. Perhaps you’d like to know more about that. Let me know. The museum is just in the planning stages, and we have plenty of time to get it right. Perhaps we can come up with something as appealing as Cranberry World in Plymouth, Massachusetts, or even the World’s Largest Teflon Frying Pan.

I like all kinds of museums, ranging from the tiny one that used to be — and maybe still is — in Silver Plume, Colorado back in the days when local residents freely grew pot plants in the window-boxes of their homes, to the utterly fantastic Provincial Museum in British Columbia.

My favorite fictional museum is the Barnum Museum in the book by the same name, written by Stephen Millhauser who also wrote the short story that became the movie The Illusionist.

In Havana, though, my favorite place in the city was the Museum of the Revolution.

When I sent my dear friend Ms. Jay my collage from Cuba, she wrote back that she was very glad that I had been to the Museum of the Revolution, and said, “I could picture you looking at the wax sculptures of Che and Camilo coming out of the jungle.”

Yes, and I could see her there, too. For me, the Musee was the high point of the trip, my primary reason for being there on the island South of Key West. The building itself was once the dictator Batista’s palace, and the ornate architecture said a lot about that time and place when there was such a huge gap between the haves and the havenots. Revolution, indeed. Our tour guide Michel Ten told us a story about a group of students who tried to storm the palace in Batista’s days, but Batista easily escaped through one of the many secret tunnels. The students? They did not survive their act of revolution.

What drives a people to revolution? Extremities, and that was very clear just in seeing the contrast of the building, and imagining it as it once had been, with the simple displays, and open windows, and peeling paint on the interior walls.

I’m sure the displays in the Museum of the Revolution did not meet the standards of even the most basic interpretation in the Smithsonian, and yet I don’t remember ever being so moved by a museum, so touched. I once read an essay in which a young boy visiting the British Museum once and reported back that that the thing he loved best was Nelson’s shirt, “with his own blood on it”

Everything in the Museum of the Revolution, it seemed, had someone’s own blood on it. And, yes, that’s what I like best, too. Nothing really cleaned up or laundered. Nothing polished or restored. But room after room, in what had once been a fabulous palace, I read and saw the tale of an island and its people, their struggles, and their blood.

The lack of artifacts was what spoke to me the loudest: A placard related the story of a hero, and then in the case, a piece of cutlery with a note: “Here is a spoon he once used.” For another, a pair of cuff-links. Letters from Fidel, written in perfect Palmer method penmanship. Photographs of friends and comrades, in good times and bad.

I read recently, that people who grew up in the time of balck and white television are more prone to dream in black and white, rather than in color. I dream in color. And I don’t know where that quite fits in here, except to remind me to tell you that nearly all the photos in this museum were black and white, and as we went through the rooms, we eventuallyl came to one with a black and white television, and old black and white television, playing a continuous loop showing a plane landing, and then two soldiers solemnly coming down the stairs, with the box containing Che’s remains hoisted on their sholdiers.

Not a coffin. A box. No pretense that all of Ernesto Che Guevara’s remains were there, so much gone already into the earth or scattered. I sat in my gray-metal folding chair in the unbearable brightness of the room and watched the loop again and again, until I felt I could finally move on to the next section where, indeed, I did see the wax figures of Che and Camilo running out of the jungle.

A crowd of school children had come into the museum earlier, surging around me as I squatted to read the inscriptions next to weapons and cufflinks. By then, I’d been asked a couple of times by adults, if I were Cuban, ut the kids had no doubt that I was a foreigner in their midst. They looked at me with curiosity, but also with comradeship, explained things to me in slow careful Spanish, which I did not understand as well as I felt the effort they were taking to talk to me, and then they ran ahead to point at their next favorite item or display.

By the time I caught up with them again, two of the boys, maybe nine or ten years old, were posing in front of the wax figures of Che and Camilo, running out of the jungle; two young boys, eerily wearing the same solemn faces as the soldiers who had carried the remains down the stairs from the plane. No joking, no fooling around.

Even now, my mind is full of those images of artifacts in tattered cases, and unsmiling school boys who have learned well the message of work, learn, and fight.

But then, all I could do was to wipe my eyes, find Little Peach at the edge of the crowd, and walk down the sweeping Scarlett O’Hara staircase to the floor below.

We next went into the ballroom, filled with gilt-edged mirrors which, I’m sure, only hinted at how opulent the building had really once been. Our eyes were drawn up to the grandios mural on the ceiling, and I lay down on the floor to see the whole thing. As I did, coins clattered out of my white-pants pockets all around me, echoing hollowly through the room. I gathered them up and lay down again, Little Peach guiding me to the best spot to see the host of angels and also the fire that they were dousing. A crystal chandelier hung down from the center of that ferocious heaven, and I lay below, thinking of Che and Camilo running out of the jungle, and the unsmiling boys.

No one told me not to lay on the floor. Then again, no one else joined me there.

I felt colorless and pale as we left the building and headed back up the street toward the Museum of Contemporary art, a modern structure built around an open courtyard and sculpture garden. We started at the top and began to work our way down, but I did not find much there that appealed to me, so I left Little Peach on her careful and thoughtful stroll and went down to the courtyard to reflect on what I’d seen — perfect, temperature-controlled and well-lighted painting and sculpture– and I wondered at the sadness that pervaded everything for me.

Perhaps the sorrow was left over from the Museum of the Revolution, or maybe it was a sense of art that was never alowed to fully blossom, kept in check somehow. The impressionist paintings there all reminded me of the French masters, but they seemed to be copies, not originals. And the more recent images seemed to be pervaded with death, disease, famine, and pestilence.

I wanted more originality, more spirit. I wanted the Cuban art of the murals and the streets to find its way into the fine galleries of the world, too. The art museum left me feeling unsettled and unhappy. Drowsy, I rested on a bench and watched a busload of teenagers in red tee-shirts milling around outside the museum doors.

In time, Little Peach joined me, lifting my spirits, and we sauntered companionably back up the street to our hotel, at an easy pace, not at all like Che and Camilo running out of the jungle.