07 February 2009

On the Field Museum, Aztec Religion, and Using a Wheelchair.

I went to the Field Museum with the significant other today, fully confident that seeing the Aztec World exhibit would solve all of our problems and also cure depression. While it didn't quite do all of that, it was amazing, italics necessary. A decent portrayal of a non-Christian religion by the Field Museum was enough to put me over the moon (if you've ever been to their exhibit on ancient Egypt and read what one curator or another thought of their gods, you'll know what I mean; it's not actually like the Trinity at all, guys), but more than that there were artifacts upon artifacts that had never been displayed, had never left Mexico, were on loan from private collectors -- rooms on rooms of things I will never be able to see again. I am incredibly glad I did see them.

Parts of certain exhibits at the Field feel sacred: the Tibetan temple reconstruction and nearly all of their ancient Egyptian collection, the Ancient America exhibit's ritual items and deity representations, and even, incongruously, the dinosaurs. The Aztec ritual items, which included bloodletting spikes for willing blood sacrifice, knives for involuntary sacrifice of the lives of enemies, boxes that held human hearts and were buried to feed the gods, and items common householders used in their home-based religious practices from tobacco pipes to ceremonial drums, didn't feel quite so intense to me. This is very possibly because many Aztec gods scare the pee out of me, some in a way that inspires awe -- Mictecacihuatl, for one -- and some in a way that makes me want to hide behind my significant other and close my eyes -- Xipe Totec, or Our Flayed Lord, comes to mind. It could also simply have been that there were a lot of people around, and I try to visit my favorite exhibits at off times. At any rate, the buzz I tend to get from items with a long ritual history just wasn't there. I did end up with a little porcelain skull bead as a scrounged-change present from the S.O., though, and it's on my altar. Issues of appropriation will I am sure rear their valid heads sooner rather than later.

On quite another note, I use a wheelchair when I'm at the Field -- the thing's nine acres, which is not a distance I like to walk if I can avoid it, and they lend out wheelchairs for free and will kindly check my cane with my coat. Using a cane has gotten me some looks and comments, but absolutely none of it stacks up to what I get in a wheelchair. I like to wheel myself around, but that's not always feasible; my shoulders, after all, are almost as inflamed and painful as my knees during a flare. Therefore, the S.O. ends up pushing me much of the time, provided I can swallow my misplaced pride.

Today I learned first-hand that sitting in a wheelchair makes me an object. A fellow museum patron who crashed into me out of inattention apologized profusely -- to my partner. My sentience was apparently in question. People would move only begrudgingly to let me see the (varyingly visible to a person sitting in a wheelchair) display cases in the Aztec exhibit, and usually only when my partner asked to get through, not me. I already know that most people consider it a huge bother to have to move their asses two inches to let me get by (or two seats down the train or bus to let me have a priority spot) when I use a cane, but this was almost comically pronounced.

I'm not exempt from being an ableist dick, as I was forcibly reminded today. There was a man in the gift shop who was using a wheelchair; I was wheeling around aimlessly without the S.O. and we nearly bumped into one another. He said hello, and I quickly wheeled away. What the fuck is that about? I'm already a shy person, which is part of it, I guess, but my reaction was totally unwarranted. This bears further examination, but what I'm guessing is that I'm afraid to be in the same category as people I consider more disabled -- after all, I don't use a wheelchair normally. That's pretty exceptionally disordered thinking, and I definitely need to learn to check my able-bodied privilege, which still exists even though I'm no longer able-bodied, at the door.

And then I went home and had a nap, which is how many of my exploits end.


  1. I also have people only react to my husband's excuse me and not to mine--sometimes I think the difference may be that people can't hear me or don't expect a voice lower down/further away. At other times I feel deliberately ignored.

    We who use wheelchairs/scooters more can often tell pretty quickly who's using a wheelchair only temporarily or before getting a more permanent wheelchair--the wheelchair type gives it away since transport chairs would quickly cause seating issues and pressure sores. But I don't hold judgment about those who need them periodically or for long distance only as I've been in that group myself. I do wish more people who are temporarily using wheelchairs would say hello because I know that they're experiencing what I do, even if for a much shorter time.

  2. It could well be that people aren't listening for voices at their waist level -- that makes it seem less consciously malicious, and I like maintaining faith in humanity. Thanks for that, it puts a different lens on a few things.

    I think being afraid of judgement could be it -- sometimes I feel that if I don't need it all the time I'm just being an unnecessarily delicate flower by using a wheelchair instead of my cane. I'm also sort of slowly learning what's okay and what's not in terms of acknowledging other people with visible disabilities. I'm generally okay with a nod or a wave, but I'm afraid striking up a conversation on that basis might be offensive.

    In short, I'm totally neurotic. Thanks for your comment, which has allayed a couple particular neuroses.