Thursday, February 23, 2012


While lunching with colleagues last week in San Francisco, California, the conversation turned to multimedia in art museums. This is a sphere of almost limitless potential, and some institutions are much farther ahead than others. I remarked that as regards my own knowledge and experience of new, web-based technologies at times I feel rather like Ping, Ping the duckling. To my astonishment an excellent colleague from the Legion of Honor Museum fully appreciated the reference because he, too, had a vivid memory of The Story of Ping, the children’s story by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese, with its lovely lithographic illustrations, which was first published in 1933.

Ping was a beautiful young duck who “lived with his mother and father and two sisters and three brothers and eleven aunts and seven uncles and forty-two cousins. Their home was a boat with two wise eyes on the Yangtze River.” The daily routine was simple: In the early morning Ping and his family left the boat, and went foraging “for snails and little fishes and other pleasant things to eat” until, in the evening, hearing the call of “La-la-la-la-lei” from the duck-herding boatman, they trooped back home and, one by one, waddled up the gangplank. The last duck back on board got a spank on his back with a cane—evidently the boatman’s firm incentive to maintain a brisk pace. One day, Ping was momentarily distracted by some submarine morsel, and, surfacing, realized that he would be the last duck back on board. Wishing above all not to be spanked with the cane, Ping hid in the rushes. In the deepening gloom his boat, with all his family, sailed off, leaving Ping quite alone. The next day Ping went in search of his family and his boat, and encountered many strange sights and sounds, among them a boy splashing about in the yellow waters of the Yangtze, with a tasty rice cake. The boy’s father caught Ping, and put him in a bamboo cage—duck for supper! But a little while later the boy took pity on Ping, and quietly set him free, at which point Ping heard the familiar call of “La-la-la-la-lei,” the call from his own boat, the one with the two wise eyes. This time Ping paddled with all his might, and, despite the certain knowledge that he would be last back on board, gratefully scrambled up the gangplank and—SPANK!—rejoined his family.

Is there any greater terror in early childhood than that of being left behind, or getting lost? Perhaps this is why Ping has stayed with my colleague and me for more than forty years. One might look askance at the freewheeling manner in which Flack and Wiese so gleefully played on such fears—and, in the process, admitted of corporal punishment, the risk of being eaten for supper, and other dubious points with which to disturb the very fertile imagination of little children. Yet—having now retrieved a copy—I am amazed by how vividly the recollection of certain of the illustrations has remained etched upon my consciousness, none more so than this especially haunting one. I suppose it is hardly surprising, therefore, that when confronted by current advances in the realm of multimedia, my natural instinct is to hide in the rushes, for fear of being the last on board and getting spanked with a cane.

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