(Sky) Lines and Memories
22 February 2009 |
Of all the skyline images in Philadelphia, perhaps the one that hangs on the second floor of the Rosenbach Museum is most achingly familiar — and not because the tallest building is a slick, bulky glass tower that rises above a wide plaza. This isn’t the contemporary city, but rather the skyline of memory: Maurice Sendak’s interpretation of his mother’s pantry, the dreamscape city of In the Night Kitchen.
Sendak’s skyline, which itself is seared into the childhood of so many, is a view to the fluid mind of a child, who so joyously, and sometimes melancholically, conflates forms, names, sounds, and memories. “What interests me,” says Sendak, “is what children do at a particular moment in their lives when there are no rules, no laws, when emotionally they don’t know what is expected of them.” Then, milk bottles become glistening towers, salt shakers Victorian palaces.
This is Sendak’s territory, a place of a child’s “ungovernable emotion,” where the urban form is tangible, alive, still another wild thing. No other children’s author quite gets this intersection of childhood and place without mythologizing the moment; Sendak’s Brooklyn of the 1940s was brilliant and frightening, loose and strict, maddeningly social and terrifyingly lonely.
Now, thanks to a long-evolving relationship between the author and the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Sendak feels as much part of Philadelphia as New York. His life’s work is here, for 10 more weeks on display in the sprawling and intimate There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak. Here’s the human scale of Brooklyn in Pierre and The Sign on Rosie’s Door; Little Lorie’s Manhattan, Mickey and Max and Kenny; the war-time Prague of Brundibar. Here too is Sendak’s original drawing of the languid streetscape of an Italian village in Philadelphia author Frank Stockton’s The Griffin and the Minor Canon. In that book, Sendak makes a Victorian fairy tale about a medieval town resonant. The fearful villagers grasp for but don’t seem to be able to control their future.
This is certainly the case for the original people of Philadelphia, decimated by European disease beginning in the late 16th century. They couldn’t control their future, but what’s extraordinary is that they predicted it. The Lenape “Prophesy of the Four Crows” imagines the genocide of illness, the movement into hiding, and a hopeful realignment with nature. Broadly speaking, the Lenape, a people whose history may extend back 30,000 years, were peacemakers (in particular contrast to the more warrior-like Iroquois, who lived in present-day New York), hunters and gatherers, fishers and planters who lived in various settlements along the creeks and tributaries of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers.
Conventional history says that the Lenape were pushed west in the 18th century, to Western Pennsylvania and Ohio, and later out into the American frontier. But that schematic misses those who managed to stay, some of whom married German immigrant settlers and outwardly assimilated. There are at present about 300 Lenape in the region (larger and more politically powerful tribal groups of “Delawares” live in Oklahoma). In Fulfilling a Prophecy: The Past and Present of the Lenape in Pennsylvania, an exhibit at the Penn Museum, on display until September, 2010, this story is told for the first time.
“This project is a gigantic step in a lot of ways,” says Abigail Seldin, the Penn senior who co-curated the exhibit with members of the local Lenape community. “It’s a coming out,” she explains, for those who don’t openly acknowledge their heritage. It’s also groundbreaking anthropology, the unusual instance that a major institution has allowed a native group to tell their own story.
That story—its iconography, creation narrative, prophesy, and spirits — has been orally passed down along the lines of generations with great care, impossibly and fiercely protected. The Lenape language, too, survives (though it is endangered), a sound, an intonation, a system of thinking still more than fading memory. Now the Penn Museum, so long guilty of cultural imperialism, has given new voice to these original people. In so doing, they are also expanding the particular Philadelphia perspective, exploring ever more honestly and also hopefully, about what this city means in the year 2009.