Marble and Childhood

Posted on 2012 June 28


Recently, a security guard at a Southern California museum came upon a group of children climbing on a priceless marble statue. He asked the woman watching them to have the kids get off the artwork. The woman turned and gave the guard lip! She argued that there were no signs forbidding marble climbing; she claimed a docent had let them “touch everything”; she wanted to file a complaint. The guard suggested the reception desk.

This story put me in mind of a similar incident involving me. It’s filed in my head under “Most Embarrassing Moments in My Life”. It went like this:

London, Buckingham Palace, summertime. I was 16. I wanted a picture of the Changing of the Guard, but the eager crowd of onlookers blocked my camera. I looked around: right in front of the gates stood this towering assemblage of marble and bronze statues, and nobody’d shown the sense to climb it for a better view, so I had it all to myself.

I clambered up and was sitting on the lap of a large marble demi-god, adjusting my camera, when a loud Cockney voice boomed up from below: “Get off the Memorial!!” I looked down: a Bobby, wearing the classic tall London policeman’s hat, stared up angrily at me. Confused, I looked down at him; my mouth must have hung open like an ape’s. Louder, he shouted: “GET OFF THE MEMORIAL!!” Suddenly I understood why I was the only person perched on the statue. My behavior was a huge no-no.

It turns out I’d effectively desecrated the Victoria Memorial, one of Britain’s most treasured works of public art.

Alarmed and guilty and embarrassed — what an idiot I was! — I managed to scramble off the statue in seconds and present myself for punishment. The hot breath of humiliation had worked its way up past my collar and onto my face. I’d been a total jerk. But the Bobby, mercifully, didn’t arrest me; he’d already walked away. Apparently he was used to dealing with clueless tourists on a daily basis.

I learned a lot in those few moments. But I was young and teachable. The woman, who let the kids climb all over the museum marble, may have been old enough to vote and sign contracts, but she was unreachable, her ways already set in another kind of stone.

If we fail to mature as we grow older, we may get to adulthood with the moral viewpoint of a petulant minor. We then become merely children in grown-up suits.

Anyway, to this day, I never touch anything in museums.