The New Year approaches, bringing my favorite program to the museum—our traditional Japanese New Year’s Bell Ringing Ceremony. It’s hard not to be compelled to take part in a feel-good ceremony aimed at curbing the 108 mortal desires (bonno), which, according to Buddhist belief, torment humankind. It’s kinda like a twist on the time-honored practice of adopting a New Year’s resolution. I’ve worked at the museum for 16 years, and I have made a point to participate every year, often encouraging family and friends to join me.
Most people forget how truly unique this program is. I can’t think of any other art museum that actively encourages visitors to take a swing at an artwork. It’s the one time when the typical museum “Do not touch” admonishment does not apply.
But it’s important to remember that the bell is more than 480 years old. Like all ancient things, it should be treated gently and with respect. When you do so, you’ll be rewarded handsomely. Struck at the right spot, and with the right energy, the bell makes a magical sound. You can literally feel it reverberate over your body and hear a pleasant humming whisper in your ears.
Over the years, I’ve witnessed many participants—probably wanting to make sure universe is paying attention—take a mighty swing that results in a loud clang that rattles the body, especially the eardrums. It also rattles the sensibilities of the museum’s conservation team, the experts responsible for making sure the artworks in the collection stay in top shape for future generations to enjoy.
For the wannabe Babe Ruth bell-ringing-type of participant, I share a thought from one of the first ceremonies that I participated in years ago when the museum still resided in Golden Gate Park: The Buddhist priest officiating the event—eager to avoid having her body and Buddhist sensibilities rattled—offered some tips to the assembled masses on the proper form for ringing the bell. She suggested that they consider striking the bell in a way that elicited a tone that echoed a loving mother calling her child home. She asked a fidgety young boy in the crowd for his name. “William,” he replied. She said, “William, what sounds better?” and then screeched loudly “WILLIAM!” She followed it with a sweet, singsongy “Willliammm.” The crowd—and William—got the point, and when it was their turn, did their best to produce a gentle and harmonious sound from the bell that felt good all over—especially for the conservators.