Warning: Some Spoilers.
For a few days this past week, I put real life on hold as I spent every free moment reading The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. I had been curious to learn what story Brown would weave out of the museums and landmarks here in DC, and once I’d opened the book, I was sucked in.
I am not going to write a whole blog post about the quality of writing in the novel, or about the inaccuracies in Brown’s description of security procedures at the US Capitol. Nor will I delve into what The Lost Symbol suggests about almost every major religion (except Ethical Culture or Unitarian Universalism… I feel left out), or how its message about the mystical powers of humans applies to a world inhabited by a whole lot of creatures besides human beings.
Instead, I want to look at the hat Robert Langdon and other characters sometimes don in the book: the museum educator hat.
Langdon, a renowned expert on symbols in art throughout history and a professor at Harvard, is summoned to decode a series of messages, given in words or symbols, in order to give the villain access to ancient mysteries (and prevent the villain from killing Langdon’s friend and causing a national security crisis). As the expert, he tags along as high-level security officials grudgingly take him to the most secret spaces in DC’s historic sites and watch him solve codes using the knowledge that only he possesses. He thus ends up in museums, where he educates the other characters about Masonic symbolism hidden in both the art available for public view and the nooks and crannies behind walls and below basements.
Regarding the sites visited in the book, one could argue, “That’s not a museum! It’s a [government building! botanic garden! library! cathedral! temple! monument! storage facility!]” However, all of these examples in the novel are places I would consider museums.
When Langdon first accepts an invitation to speak at the Capitol, the caller asks Langdon to give a talk that “involved symbolism in the architecture of our nation’s capital – it sounds absolutely perfect for the venue.” Although it’s a lecture about the capital to be given in the Capitol, Langdon’s response indicates that the talk addresses the “Masonic history of the building.” The caller then appeals to the idea of knowing one’s audience:
As you know, Mr. Solomon is a Mason, as are many of his professional friends who will be in attendance. I’m sure they would love to hear you speak on the topic.
Later that day, Langdon finds himself not at a podium facing an audience of professional Masons, but instead hastily trying to explain to a top-level CIA official the symbolism in the Rotunda. On page 83, Brown implies that an educator is needed to elucidate the meaning of art even when the art is right before the viewer. “Vestiges of [the Capitol’s] true history still remained in plain view,” Brown narrates. For the next several pages, Langdon describes layers of symbolism present in the Rotunda’s dome fresco, The Apotheosis of Washington. The need for a museum educator is declared even more clearly on page 85, where Brown writes that this fresco “got stranger and stranger the longer [people] looked at it.” Luckily, Langdon is there to provide fact and interpretation to Director Sato and Police Chief Anderson.
Later, Langdon and Katherine Solomon arrive at Washington National Cathedral, where their conversation takes the following format:
Katherine Solomon: Does the Cathedral really have ____?
Robert Langdon: Yes, [insert explanation here].
(Repeat three times.)
Langdon seems to enjoy this question-answer format, in which he can spend a few minutes playing tour guide to an enraptured woman despite being in the midst of a life-or-death catastrophe.
On page 426, the authorities pursuing the case agree to allow Langdon to accompany them to the House of the Temple (the Scottish Rite Temple on 16th Street) only after he makes the case that they will never find their way through the building without his guidance.
Toward the end of the novel, the characters taking on the role of museum educator also become blindfolders: the surprises they are about to reveal are so momentous that they wish to maximize the suspense for the viewers. In an aside involving minor characters, Nola Kaye follows Rick Parrish in the dark to an “unknown location” which remains unknown until they arrive at the sculpture Kryptos. The blindfold becomes literal in the following chapter. Here, Langdon is the learner and Peter Solomon is the museum educator, and Solomon insists that Langdon stay blindfolded until they have reached (by elevator) the top of the Washington Monument.
As Peter Solomon and Langdon descend the Monument’s staircase, some object-based learning takes place. Solomon silently points his flashlight at a particular medallion, Langdon silently turns his questioning eyes to Solomon, and Solomon’s eyes “shone with mystery” while he applies the Socratic method to the medallion but then answers his own questions. Solomon continues to talk, and talk, until Langdon finally utters a response of skepticism.
If the role of museum educator is an important one, it is equally dangerous. Langdon and Solomon narrowly escape death. An employee at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center, Trish Dunne, is not so lucky. When she embarks on an impromptu tour of the Center’s collection of giant squids for the villain, he drowns her in a specimen tank after feigning an interest in the animals – the kind of interest museum educators love to see.
The real life of a museum educator is generally not so fraught with peril. The Lost Symbol is by no means a manual for the museum educator, but it does remind us to know our audiences. Is our audience an educated crowd of Masons hungry for even more esoterica and willing to sit through a long lecture? Or is our audience a CIA director with no time for nonsense, interested only in the information absolutely necessary to a particular task at hand with high stakes? Alternatively, is our audience a twisted tattoo artist and mysticism fanatic eager to kill us at the first opportunity (let’s hope not!)?
This is not to say that the characters always do a great job of knowing their audience. Langdon fumbles along, talking to Sato as if she were a class of Harvard students, much to her fully expressed frustration. On the other hand, the special sunrise dome tour that Peter arranges for Katherine and Langdon at the end turns out to be exactly what the two of them need in order to feel lofty – literally and figuratively.