The Museum – a short story

The museumshutterstock_48556354

2654 words

1.
The museum felt…inadequate. It felt like it was losing bits and pieces of itself, although nothing had changed for a long time. There were even moments when it forgot why it existed at all. At those moments an ice cold fear crept up its facade. Just when it was felt it was going to panic, it remembered. It remembered and knew why it was forgetting.

Then it looked out of its enormous, wall-like windows and observed the world. The world wasn’t crystal clear anymore. Not since the cleaners has missed their appointment. And the next three appointments. The museum had tried to blink, but its vision remained grainy and cast in a greyish hue. It looked out now and saw the empty square. It was a good square – good size, good trees and good attitude. At night there used to be lights and during the day a row of small fountains launching jets of water into the air. Now there were leaves, lots of leaves. Leaves and leaflets. It couldn’t read the leaflets anymore. The words had long since faded into nothingness.

The leaves and leaflets rolled over the square in whimsical clouds of red, yellow and grey. They turned and whirled and frolicked over the grey stones. When the museum squinted, it saw little green sprouts trying to take their place among the stones, but the stones held their own. With a heavy sense of sadness the museum visualised the paths of the thousands of humans who used to cross the square every day. It was a chaotic web of straight and curved lines – beautiful in its own way. The museum didn’t know why the humans were no longer there, but it missed them greatly.

Although the people were gone, nothing else had changed. The museum sat unmoving as the winds came and went, the rain poured and evaporated and the occasional bout of unusual weather coloured the sky an interesting green. But the museum didn’t enjoy them as it used to. The absence of people felt wrong. It opened its doors every morning, but all that entered was the occasional flurry of leaves.

At least it kept its exhibitions in perfect condition. While all the lights had disappeared from the city, the museum still felt a strong current of electricity running through its conduits. However, as it didn’t need the light itself and there were no people, it kept most of the lights out. It was better for the objects and the artworks. Apart from the main hall, which needed sweeping, the museum was simply waiting for its staff to arrive and get back to business.

One morning the museum was scrutinising one particular piece in its collection. It was an austere, black dress and the museum had thought something had moved. Now it had a couple of lights pointed directly at the dress and was studying the perfect folds of the fabric for movement. It was concentrating so hard that it took the museum a couple of minutes before it realised something much bigger and much more interesting was moving in the main hall.

The museum immediately abandoned the dress and focussed on the unmistakable shape of a human being standing in its main hall. It was a rather pitiful specimen of a human being, wearing dirty clothes and lacking in self-confidence, and the museum did not approve. Yet it was able to push aside enough of its disapproval to rejoice in the fact that an actual human being was standing in its main hall after all this time! So it fired up all its lights, displays and computer screens and waited for the man – it appeared to be a human of the male persuasion – to buy a ticket.

But there was no one behind the desk to issue a ticket. Fortunately the museum had control over the machine that printed the tickets. As the machine came to life with a louder than usual purring, the man spun around and cowered in front of the desk. The museum felt another surge of disapproval, but watched with glee as a shining ticket fell from the machine on the desk. The man cowered a little longer and then went to collect it, making the museum shiver with satisfaction. The man looked around, opening his mouth to say something but then thinking the better of it.

The museum watched closely as the man first spent some minutes searching the untidy museum cafe before moving up the stairs to the automatic entrance gate. He tried to push them open, much to museum’s discontent. Yet it waited patiently until the man – with a look of extreme confusion and suspicion on his face – scanned his ticket and the doors glided open. The museum tried to ignore the stark contract between the man’s smudginess and the pristine museum halls as the man moved towards the first-floor exhibition.

After ascertaining that every light, every object and every display was looking its best, the museum simply enjoyed the feeling of a visitor moving through its halls. Even if it was an extremely disappointing visitor. The kind it would have despised before all the humans disappeared. The man hardly looked for more than three seconds at any one object, although the collection of prehistoric knifes and arrowheads held his attention for a full minute. He even tried to dislodge the display case, but the museum knew it was unmovable and pretended it didn’t see the dirty smudges left behind.

With ever step the man seemed to grow more confident. He was almost standing up straight by now. This pleased the museum to no end. In the main exhibition hall the man looked around in awe, taking in the displays. Looking over his shoulder, the museum was proud at what it saw. Perfectly lighted displays, interesting objects and a soft, ambient soundtrack to compliment it all. Perhaps this mismatched visitor would become a decent visitor after all.

Suddenly the man stepped forward and reached out towards a small painting. It was a valuable painting, the museum knew. It had shining gold details and was generally considered beautiful, although the museum itself preferred a different style. The man’s dirty, stained fingers were headed straight for middle of the painting and the museum recoiled in shock. As a result, a loud alarm sprung into action and red lights flashed all around the painting. The museum couldn’t help it, it was a reflex.

The effect on the man was profound. He jumped back, grabbed his soiled bag and sprinted for the exit with a speed that the museum had not anticipated. He jumped over the exit gate, ran through the main hall and exited the building before the museum had a chance to grasp what was happening. Only when the man disappeared from sight, a profound disappointment spread through its walls and shut down all the lights.

It took a while before the museum woke up again. It now remembered exactly what it existed for, and hated itself for chasing away its only visitor. All it could think of now was to try and get the man to come back. But it did not know how. That night it tried to turn its lights on and off in an attempt to attract attention. No one came and the museum felt deeply disheartened.

2.

Many weeks later the museum had given up all hope and was dreaming of the past, when against all odds it saw the man running nervously across the square. Its lights flicking on with renewed vigour, the museum threw its doors open as far as it could. The man hurried inside, turned and started tugging at the doors. It took the museum a moment to realise what the man wanted. Obediently, it closed its doors.

“Who’s here?” he asked, uncertainly. His voice was rough.

The museum responded by printing another ticket. Warily, the man picked it up and continued into the museum to the point where he had left off.

“No touching,” he muttered to himself as he passed the expensive painting and the museum sighed with delight. It had disabled all of its alarms and red lights for the moment, but wasn’t sure how much touching it could endure. It wasn’t until the man, who appeared to be looking for something, arrived at the next exhibition that its tolerance was put to the test. In front of the weapons display, the man slowly and deliberately reached out to take one of the ceremonial daggers that were lying there.

The museum froze, but held its alarms and flashing lights. Whatever happened, it must not scare away its only visitor. The man, in the meanwhile, looked around expectantly, his hand a couple of centimeters from the dagger. Then he grabbed the hilt and levered it out of its straps. The electrical currents in the museum’s conduits were now so powerful that it could not help but turn on one of the red lights. It flashed unimpressively in the absence of blaring alarms. The man put the dagger under his belt and nodded solemnly at the museum. Then he yawned hugely.

The museum felt a thrill of excitement as it had an idea. It shut down all of its lights and then turned a single light back on. The man, now crouching with the dagger in his hand again, eyed the light suspiciously. The museum gave it a quick flash. Then it turned on another light, further down the hall. Understanding its meaning, the man edged down the corridor, following the lights. The museum wondered about his behaviour. None of its previous visitors had acted in this manner at all. Eventually it led the man to a period room. In the room, there was a bed in a closet in the wall. It was a museum bed, a precious bed, but the museum had always thought it lacked an occupant. Not a doll – it disliked dolls – but an actual occupant. And now it had found one.

The man, after some hesitation, crawled into the bed with shoes, bag and coat still on. Then he closed the closet doors. The museum disliked this, as it defeated the purpose of having an occupant. But if it meant the man would stay, it would accept it. Just like it had accepted the dagger. As it dreamily observed the closed doors hiding its only visitor, it felt both nervous and gratified at its own ability to adapt to the situation. It knew it had a mission: to keep its visitor, forever if it could. It had been a long time since it had felt so much like a museum.

It was very early – the sun had only just risen to the horizon – when two more men crossed the square. The museum looked on in wonder as they approached its doors. Had the man told these men about the museum? That was a good sign. It was far too early for the museum to open its doors, but then again the museum was feeling particularly flexible now. As a bonus, these men were carrying their own daggers. The museum felt comfortable they would stay away from the precious ceremonial daggers. So it opened its doors with a satisfying sliding sound and printed two tickets as the men entered the main hall.

The men, however, had no interest in the tickets. Instead, they jumped over the entrance gate and marched into the first-floor exhibition. Like the original man, these men moved rather oddly through the museum. Carefully, vigilantly. Unlike the original man, however, these men moved with self-confidence. They had no interest in any of the objects, except some of the larger ones, which they touched. It took the museum all of its restraint, but it was able to stop itself from activating even the smallest red light. Even so, the touching hurt it at a very deep level.

It wasn’t long before the museum realised the men were looking for something. The objects they touched were objects that had an inside. A fairly big inside. A man-shaped inside. Delighted that it had figured this out, it turned to the period room and woke the original man by flashing the lights until the closet doors opened. It didn’t need to do more, because the two men were making enough noise that the original man heard it. The man quickly jumped to his feet and crept along the corridors towards the two men. Rather than meeting them, however, the museum saw him recoil as he noticed the men.

The original man slunk away backwards as fast as he could, the dagger clutched in his hand. The museum watched worriedly as the original man crept into a hidden corner and then left again, apparently not satisfied. The two men, in the mean time, had become even more bold. The museum stared in horror as they pushed over the stern black dress and laughed. That was more than the museum could bear and immediately it turned on all the alarms and flashed every red light it could find. To its satisfaction, the men flinched and backed away hurriedly. For a couple of minutes, they lurked in opposite corners of the hall while the alarms continued blasting.

But these men wouldn’t be scared away by alarms. The museum watched uneasily as they ignored the alarms and continued their search. The original man, in the meanwhile, was still looking for a good hiding place. It only took the museum a minute to make its decision. The original man was a good visitor. He had started as a poor visitor, but now he was already a decent visitor. With some more time, he might be a great visitor. The two men, on the other hand, where very bad visitors. Destructive visitors. The museum was certain they would never become good visitors.

And so the museum knew what it had to do. First, it closed its front doors. It locked them firmly and turned off all the lights that shone outwards. From now on, the museum was closed. Then it turned back inwards. It observed that the two men were already on the tail of the original man, so the museum started leading the original man. It led him towards the museum studio, but not into the studio. Instead it shone a light on a special display which it knew was hollow. The man hesitated, but then crawled inside. Quickly, the museum turned off the light and then led the two pursuing men past the display. The men followed exactly as the museum had hoped, and it led them straight into the studio. Thousands of children and adults had made paintings, photos and drawings in the industrial-looking room. The studio was designed for messiness, for pencils, paint and everything that came with it. The exact opposite of the exhibitions. This meant the studio had a separate air control system. A system the museum controlled, just like it did the lock on the electrical doors.

It took the two men a minute of throwing open cupboards to realise that the original man was not in the studio. It took them another minute to realise they were trapped. It took them twenty-two minutes to suffocate.

The museum watched the bodies for a few minutes more. It wished the men had died more aesthetically, even if they weren’t a part of any exhibition. They could easily have crawled into a corner and been almost invisible. Or laid down in a more symmetrical pattern. The museum liked symmetry and it was thinking about pleasing patterns when it noticed the original man had emerged from his hiding place. The man was also staring at the bodies in the studio. Then he looked up and gently padded the wall.

“Good museum.”

The museum looked back at the man. All was well.

————————————————————

So, I hoped you enjoyed reading my story. Let me know what you think! I’m quite pleased with it myself and would really like to turn it into a film. I just might…

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