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  • Writer's pictureMatthew T. Messina

My Magdalenian Muse

It sucks being in love with a woman who died 12,000-ish years before I was born. The conversation is really lacking. Brings new meaning to being ghosted.

The first time I saw her I wept. She was curled in the same position she had been for the thousands of years. The Magdalenian Woman. One of the many mothers of humankind.

Copyright The Field Museum

I first met her in 2013 when she was used in a temporary exhibit at the Field Museum entitled, “Scenes of the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux”. Part of the Field Museum’s permanent collection, the “Magdalenian Woman” is the name given to the most complete early modern human skeleton in North America.

This woman lived 12,000 years ago in what is now known as France, not far from Lascaux. When she died, she was buried alone, positioned toward a frieze of horses carved into the Cap Blanc rock shelter wall. She peacefully rested there until 1911, when workers excavating the cave to better see the horse carvings discovered her by putting a pickaxe right through her skull. A few years later she was purchased by Henry Field, shoved in his suitcase, and brought to Chicago. So much for her loved-one’s plans for a final resting place.

After the closure of the temporary Lascaux exhibit, she was moved back to the permanent "Evolving Planet" exhibit with the rest of her humanoid ancestors. I visit her every time I am at the Field Museum and I wonder, “Who were you? What was your story?”.

Momentary began as a quick scribble on a notepad next to my bed just as sleep was about to overtake me. “Momentary. Everything is Momentary. Theatre and museums?”

We can trace the origins of performance back to the stone age (music and dance), but owe the credit to the Greeks for giving us the theatre as an institution. It was the Greek tragedies honoring Dionysus that drew audiences to the amphitheaters. They watched great cautionary tales about a fall from grace. The downfall of these tragic figures evoking catharsis, pity, and fear. They left the performance warned of the consequences of human flaws, such as Oedipus’ hubris. They left the amphitheater changed, pondering the consequences of their own actions.

We also owe credit to the Greeks for museums. The etymology of the word “museum” comes from the classical Greek word, “mouseion” which translates to, “seat of the Muses”. A mouseion was a physical space meant for contemplation and philosophical discourse. By the 17th century we see the word “museum” being used to denote buildings, accessible to the public, housing collections of cultural and natural material.

The theatre is where we tell stories about life. Museums are institutions that catalogue material evidence of life. Both chronicle human progress. Exiting a theatre or museum should produce the same effect: it should be a transformative experience that sends the spectator out into the world asking new questions.

Let’s throw it back to the Magdalenian Woman.

Copyright Marina Lezcano

She worked, but not for currency. She cooked, but not for pleasure. She fabricated clothes, but not for aesthetic accolades. Yet, all that is left behind is the stone tool. The wooden utensil. The bone needle and animal hide. These remain, encased in glass, or buried in the collections of a revered institution of natural history.

But what do the material proof of these acts matter without the story behind them? She toiled to refine raw resource so a son born prematurely could thrive. She cooked meat that took days to hunt—days where she feared her love had frozen in the snow. She sewed clothes from sacrificed game to keep her love safe and warm on the next hunt.

She loved. She lived a life.

When I met my love in 2013, she was resting beneath the words, “…it is through art that [we] became human.”

Our reflection upon experiences make us human. Our analysis of the past, and how it should inform our future, sets us apart from all other encountered lifeforms. We have the stunning ability to track and interpret our progress as a species.

Momentary blends the age-old institutions of theatre and museum to put ideas and actions on exhibition through the vessel of storytelling.

Momentary is reflection and reaction.

Momentary is where you come to sit with the muses.

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