I was in the Ashmolean yesterday.
I love the Ashmolean, and I visit whenever I’m in Oxford. It’s a busy museum, not least because the city is a popular destination for tourists, so there are always a great many people milling about, and there are security people and attendants at every touch and turn.
I usually visit the museum with the husband, but he was working, so I went alone. It was a wet afternoon, and I’d just walked back from trying to find a dress in Little Clarendon Street, totally without any luck. As much as I love Oxford, I couldn’t live there; we stayed an extra night, and I couldn’t find anywhere that would sell me a dinner dress or a decent pair of knickers, so shopping’s a total bust.
Anyway, the museum is roughly divided up by eras and continents, so I wandered around the ancient bit, as I always do, and then up the staircase to the English section. I like looking at all the little personal objects, especially the buckles and clasps and other pieces of jewellery from the Medieval period. Then I took myself off to sit in front of Jenny Saville’s Study for Pentimenti III, which is currently on show, and which I urge you to go take a look at. It is extraordinary, and sits very comfortably among the Titians and Michelangelos in the Italian Renaissance Gallery.
I sat in front of it for rather a long time; the gallery was busy, and people, kids mostly, kept getting between me and the object of my desire.
I had been in the museum for perhaps half and hour of forty minutes when I was approached by a very serious security guard. He gestured at the umbrella that was standing, tip down on the floor, with my hands resting on the handle, and asked me if I needed it for support. I looked at it, and answered, honestly, that I didn’t, that it was simply my umbrella. The guard relaxed a little when he realised that I was a perfectly pleasant, and actually rather apologetic woman, and he confiscated the offending article and strode off with it.
The truth is that I am no longer perceived to be any sort of threat, physically, politically or in any other way whatsoever, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that. Lately, it seems that I am constantly reminded of my status as a middle-aged, white woman... I say status, when actually I appear to have virtually no status at all. I walked into the Ashmolean carrying what amounted to an offensive weapon, and the people paid to track down and intercept dangerous individuals simply allowed me to blithely stride on through the building unmolested. I went entirely unnoticed.
I was, for all sensible purposes, invisible. I could have deposited a poisoned pellet in the calf of an unsuspecting dignitary with the point of my brolly, or simply used it to carve up a priceless canvas. Either way, all those apathetic mop-headed teens, who stood in line for ages, messing about with their smartphones while their rucksacks and tote-bags were systematically rummaged through are, I am sure, less politically motivated on any given day than I am... about anything... but especially about their standing in society.
The security guard took my umbrella, which, shame-faced, I collected from the information desk on my departure. He did not, however, search my capacious handbag; a little part of me almost wishes that I’d been harbouring a fugitive egg or two... I couldn’t bear to defile a work of art, even with a splash of albumen, but perhaps I might have had some sort of minor accident with them and at least got myself noticed for a moment or two.