Last Week’s Power Outage

On Tuesday night, Nov. 12, AIA and the Science Museum, along with The Leakey Foundation, presented Dr. Randall White, foremost expert on Paleolithic art, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Imagine this scene: The introductions are almost complete. A FULL house is anticipating a talk about the first art made by humans, 40,000 years ago in caves. The speaker introducing Dr. White is talking about caves without light. SUDDENLY, THE ENTIRE BUILDING IS PLUNGED INTO DARKNESS!! I hear sharp intakes of breath and gasps of panic from 400 people. This outage was not part of the special effects for the program! I rush out into the hall and find out the surrounding area is completely dark. A major power outage is affecting the entire Museum and Med-Center district. Looking out the window, I can slowly see some lights coming on in the Medical Center as their emergency generators begin to kick in. The HMNS staff works valiantly to find a battery powered microphone as tiny emergency lights come on and dimly light the hall as the emergency generator kicks in. We give the audience the choice of leaving, or staying and listening to stories told in the dark – just as might have happened 40,000 years ago! Half of the audience decides to stay.

Our intrepid lecturer begins. He talks of gorgeous art produced in the deep depths of caves illuminated only by animal fat lamps or torches; thousands of stunningly tiny beads made from pearlized shell nacre or calcite, each of which took three hours to make (why devote that many hours to adornment production rather than food procurement?); multitudes of prints made from the hands of a wide range of individuals…two-year olds up to those with arthritis; an image of a bull constructed from densely overlapping handprints. This is what it means to be human. We are all sitting in the dark, mesmerized by his tales. My skin is prickling as an amazing sense of wonder and community begins to envelope me. 40,000 years later, we are still huddled around a story-teller in the dark. It’s enchanting.

After thirty minutes, electricity surges. We have power. Dr. White quickly zooms through his magnificent images of wondrous sites. The image of the bull made from human hand prints is breathtaking. The Chauvet depictions of lions and horses are…indescribable.

We depart into the cold night for well-deserved drinks around the fireplace at a pub, made better by an uncommon encounter with who we are and who we have been for thousands of years.