Once upon a time, my house was a mansion.
The master bedroom walk-in closet was, of course, the elevator. I’d step in, close the door, step out and there I’d be in my parents’ fifth-floor bedroom—which was different from their second-floor bedroom. On the fifth floor, for a start, I didn’t have parents.
My house-mansion operated on pretty standard parallel-universe principles. Infinite floors meant infinite possibilities, but I had to be careful. If I didn’t remember to ride the elevator down to ground before I was called to dinner, I might get stuck in the ether forever.
Let’s fast-forward a decade. I’ve found a real-life mansion, and what do I do? I pretend it’s my house.
That mansion is Cantor Arts Center, decked out with all the trimmings: marble staircases, near-deserted wings crammed full of antique artifacts, the occasional catered dinner party and, of course, some pretty nice art stuck up on the walls.
It’s funny, hanging out in my house with a bunch of strangers. Especially when none of them know that it’s my house. It’s as if I’ve thrown some sort of subdued gala and then decided to attend it in disguise. My guests won’t give me two glances, and if they need to find the nearest restroom, they’ll just ask the uber-conscientious house sitters I hired to watch the place over the holidays. I’ve tried telling my house sitters that I’m back and can take it from here, but they always pretend not to hear me over the fizzle of their walkie-talkies.
The stakes are higher, now. Unlike my house-mansion’s rules, which were enforced by my own developing neural pathways, the rules that preside over my mansion-house are enforced by flesh-and-blood adults wearing uniforms and headsets.
They’re perplexed by me. They must think I misread the campus map during NSO and that no one had the guts to tell me this wasn’t the library, but they still respect me enough to watch me as if I pose a real security threat.
There are games you can play without anyone knowing, but studying in an art museum—much like brushing your teeth in Terman fountain or plugging in your computer at a nightclub—is not one of them. Also like those things, it is not specifically disallowed. You’ll be held up at the front door if you’re wearing a backpack, but tuck it under your arm like a tote bag and no one will look twice. No pens in the galleries, but pull out your laptop and park yourself in front of “Interior with Cityscape,” and you’re perfectly legal.
By standard measures, Cantor is a catastrophe of a study spot. It’s jam-packed with distractions and patrolled by serious gatekeepers. There are few electrical outlets, the cafe is pricey and you’ll get chastised for pulling out a ballpoint.
Despite all this, Cantor saved me freshman year.
This is not a love letter, and if it was, it would be a very bad one. Happy people do not want to live in mansions. Happy people want small houses with armchair-legs sunk into the carpet. They don’t keep their dinnerware in sealed glass cases, and their air conditioning is never turned up too high.
But when I discovered Cantor, I was not happy. I was trying to figure out where home was, and what it was, and whether it was anything more than a storage unit for the meaningless objects I was continuing to amass.
Cantor did not dispel my loneliness. The Rodin statues did not become my friends. The photography exhibits did not keep me company. Cantor did not welcome me with open arms or slather me with oil-paint kisses. Like I said before, this is not a love letter.
Cantor was not my home, but it offered me validation. We were well-matched. I was a lonely person, and it was a lonely place.
Cantor made sure that whenever I visited, it was raining. I stuffed my umbrella in a plastic bag, and I read or wrote or coded or whatever needed to be done. I liked being alone with other people, who were also being alone. I always stayed until one of the guards warned me that I had five minutes until they locked the doors.
Sometimes visiting a museum does not feel like enough. Who, really, is satisfied just to look at things? Sometimes you must find a way to exist as a part of it. I wanted to absorb the museum into me, to swallow up its hard corners and unforgiving floors. I wanted brushstrokes instead of eyes; I wanted to feel bronze starting to harden in my arteries. But I couldn’t do that, so I did the next best thing.
Cantor was not my home, but I could at least pretend it was my house.
Contact Helen Anderson at helena1 ‘at’ stanford.edu.
To read a news article on the variety of ways other students interact with the Cantor Arts Museum, click here.