Across Northern Europe: Why Bother Going to Berlin?

Museums make me thoughtful, or maybe just a bit precious, and I was in the Pergamon museum here in Berlin today thinking that there may be no more pointless thing than going to a museum. I was having very big thoughts about museums though.

Art, I think, is about distillation. It’s about someone spending hours, months, years creating something for us to admire for a few minutes. We’re looking at all the time they spent making it; it’s all concentrated down onto a canvas or sculpture like a very high proof liquor.

And it’s also, obviously, an example of the best anyone has been able to do. Only the best distillations make it to the museum and that must have been a very cool thing a long time ago.

But these days we’re surrounded by movies, books, computer software, furniture, sitcoms that all perform the same trick every day: They take a great amount of expert effort and focus it into consumable pieces for our enjoyment. How many hundreds of man hours do you think go into a 23-minute episode of The Office? How much time did I spend dreaming up this ridiculous blog entry for you to skim for three minutes (and fortunately stumble upon this sentence)?

We’ve become desensitized to distillation.

I think this is why so many people have to work so hard to pretend they care at all about the things they see in museums. Stand in the corner of any gallery in any museum anywhere in the world and watch how many people spend less than ten seconds at each piece of art, when they even bother to stop at in the first place.

And usually when we care the most — indicated by us snapping the greatest number of terrible pictures — it’s because we’ve seen the artwork so often before in popular culture. How often have you been anxious to see a work you hadn’t already seen reproductions of?

It seems to me seeing great art once meant much more for two principle reasons: 1) you couldn’t see a reproduction from home and 2) you couldn’t reach the art very easily. For a boy from New York to see some stuff in Berlin would have been a big deal 200 or even 20 years ago, but not now.

This got me thinking about travel in general because both points 1) and 2) are becoming less true for all sorts of things other than art; it’s easier for the world to come to you and easier for you to go to the world, which starts to erode the reasons to go traveling at all.

Need I waste a paragraph listing ways the world is coming to us? We’ve already seen reproductions of the paintings, tasted reproductions of the food, heard reproductions of the music. Etc to infinity.

And meanwhile going to the world is easier than it probably should be. Look at the twelve of us sitting here in the Heart of Gold Hostel common area in Berlin, Germany. Look at the Koreans on their wi-fi, the dressed up Europeans slurping the bottom of their cocktails, look at me sitting here typing rubbish.

Berlin, Germany, man! There was a wall keeping the world out so recently that if reunified Germany was a backpacker it wouldn’t be old enough to drink the Jager shots on tap at the hostel bar. But in 17 years visiting here has morphed from tragically impossible to impossibly easy.

That’s point 2: When seeing the painting takes no effort you end up spending ten damn seconds in front of it. And these days I look at Russia and the Middle East and say, “At least there’s still somewhere you have to work a little to get to.”

So could travel be on a collision course with itself? Is the world coming to us and us going to world becoming so easy that the magic is disappearing?

No, there won’t be empty planes in 50 years any more than there are empty museums today. We’ll still go. We’ll go because we’re supposed to. We’ll go because its a status symbol. We’ll go because there are some tastes, some colors, some sounds and feelings and sights that will never be fully diminished. And we won’t even really know it’s different, I bet. It’ll be like drinking beer when you’ve never tasted grain alcohol. That’s plenty distilled, we’ll say, wiping our mouth. We’ll hold the glass up to the light and admire it, like we do now.


Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.