Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

I love shadows in museums

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

The Islamic Art Museum in Doha was designed by the great I.M. Pei. It is a thing of beauty. I’ll post about the museum itself more tomorrow.

Inside, there were many fine exhibits, but one thing caught my eye particularly: the shadows. Sometimes museum lighting causes multiple shadows on the wall or display table, and, in this case, they were more exciting then the pieces itself. Generally, I am taken by the odd shadows of a Rococco frame in the Art Institute of Chicago since it has so many edges. But in this case, the three shadows come together to create different layers and depths of this simple circular shadow. It contrasted elegantly with the detail of the piece itself.

Sir Norman Foster’s Sheikh Zayed Museum

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

The Sheikh Zayed Museum which is–being designed by Sir Norman Foster–will be quite an icon. I’m not yet sure how the spaces will be used, but it will a sight to behold, which is what a lot of Abu Dhabi and Dubai is about.

The view from a distance is unique and powerful, but I wonder how the subterranean spaces will interact wth the blossoms above grade. The museum and this exhibit represent a great program to honor the father of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed.

The museums of Sadayat Island

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Last week, I visited the Emirates Place Hotel in Abu Dhabi and saw an exhibit on the Sadayat Island museums. Sadayat Island has been developed on-and-off over the past few years, and may now be stalled a bit once again. The plan is to bring some of the greatest art and architecture to Abu Dhabi.

The building designs are wonderfully imaginative, including the zen-inspired Maritime Museum by Tadao Ando (about which I’ll post details tomorrow), the beautifully arabic Jean Nouvel dome with its wonderful shade and filtered light, and of course Zaha Hadid’s otherworldly, soft, and sensual performing arts venues. I am concerned that the local construction wooers will not be able to render Hadid well here, having seen the construction disaster that is her opera hall in Guangzhou, China.

A separate room features Sir Norman Foster design for the Zayed Museum, which is an amazing centerpiece. I’ll profile that on Wednesday.

The overall exhibit talks about Abu Dhabi and the importance of bringing culture to the Emirates. The legacy of Sheikh Zayed will certainly be solidified through these great projects if they move forward. The only one that troubles me is Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim–it looks like a typical bunch of toys left unkept. Some compare it with the Bilbao project, which is somewhat more controlled. This one will not have much usable space as it’s just a bunch of forms tossed about.

Maurizio Cattelan at the Guggenheim

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Maurizio Cattelan’s exihbit at the Guggenheim was an amazing hanging exhibit in the atrium. It is the first time that his work is shown together: Pope John Paul II struck by a meteorite, a hanging donkey, Hitler as a child kneeling, and other commentaries on the current state of affairs. Many of them are images of Cattelan himself.

The entire museum ramp was emptied so his work could viewed from a distanc. This is where this kind of atrium museum excels in having the opportunity to hang such a unique installation.


Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Arcosonti is the desert encampment of Italian architect Paulo Soleri. Located about an hour outside of Phoenix, I have visited there just about every year for the past 2o years. Over that time, I’m sad to say I’ve seen very little progress on the vision that Soleri had for his self-sustaining community.

Like Talliesin West, Arcosonti is an architect’s vision of a live-in school that teaches architects about design. On this particular visit, there were 36 trailer homes that contained a school from Denmark touring the US via Route 66.

Arcosonti is most famous for its cast bronze bells designed by Soleri and featured in the gallery here and in Scottsdale. The bells were the linchpin of a major fundraising effort for the school over the years. I have a half dozen at my home and office clanging in the wind.

The buildings of Arcosonti sit on the edge of and face into a valley. The most dominant building is the casting kiln for the bells with its arc and unique shape on top.

The students own their own crane that has the word Arco Santi on the front bumper. Like Taliesin West, this has always been a site under construction, but, in this case, it will never be finished. The model shows a grand vision for this otherworldly place that looks like a space station on Mars from a science fiction movie from the 60s. Although we were not allowed to explore on our own, we snooped and enjoyed the climb onto a roof and through the living part of the campus.

I hope the school will live on as Taliesin since it is certain that the students learn well about the fluid nature of bronze, concrete, and steel.

(Buy some bells; they’re wonderful.)

The opulent U.S. Capitol Visitors Center

Monday, September 6th, 2010

The U.S. Capitol Visitors Center opened a couple years ago at a cost of over $700 million to construct the entire sub-terranean space. It is an amazing space akin to the reception of the Louvre in Paris. It uses the same materials as the Old Capitol, which is constructed of polished Virginia sandstone, flame-cut (see the shots of the lower level columns below). The space accommodates large crowds, up to 17,000 folks daily. I have not taken the actual tour in years, but recommend it highly.

Making our way upstairs to the rotunda the space continues to be awesome. The sculptures in both this space and the one below change every couple of years. Seeing statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis was a surprise. Each state can pick a new person every two years, made of either white marble or cast bronze. The newest bronze ones are Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower, both of which are not well proportioned or posed compared to the white marble specimens.

The ceiling of the rotunda has a god-like image of Washington in heaven, surrounded by the other inhabitants. He is like Zeus on Mt. Olympus.

The visitors center exhibit was designed by Ralph Applebaum & Associates. It shows the evolution of the Capitol itself in model form during each time period of its evolution. The entrance to the exhibit is quite beautiful, anchored by a model of the Capitol’s front face, with large white marble walls nearby, featuring incised quotes.

The entire space is very much like the presence of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but, in this case, conveys a civic statement instead of a religious one.

Outside the National Building Museum

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

The old Pension Building has long been the National Building Museum. It has a freize along the entire façade that portrays the Union soldiers for whom it was made. They’re classically-inspired, and have been maintained well.

Many great exhibits are inside, and SEGD–an organization to which I belong–used to have its offices there. One unique feature inside: the stairs inside are shallow to allow horses to climb them with minimal trouble.

Shadows Outside The Picture Frame

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

For years I have been fascinated by the multiple shadows of paintings, and not just within the paintings themselves. The intricate Rococo frames like these in the Small French Painting Show in the National Gallery of Art give the best shadows. Some of them have openings in them that allow the shadow to show light though it.

Sometimes these shadows are more interesting then the paintings themselves. As one looks at them one can see that there are different lights pointing from the gallery to make up the different shades. The one painting I show here is van Gogh’s Green Baby, something I haven’t seen before. These small paintings have a larger shadow per proportion of frame, and are particularly interesting to observe.

Gdansk’s Solidarity Museum

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Late last month I arrived in Gdansk, Poland for the second time in a couple of years. Besides it being an old Polish port city, I couldn’t wait to see the redesigned Solidarity Museum.

I was a bit hesitant to see how the remake turned out. I feel that sometimes one can do too much and be too polished, leading to a loss of the message and intimacy. I feel that way  about the new Newseum in Washington, D.C. The old one was quite small and its messages were clear. The new version, however, has its own building on the mall, and has lost the spirit of gumshoe journalism. Despite the engraving of the noble First Amendment on its façade, the new Newseum has become a hodgepodge, no longer a carrier of the message and promise of journalism, but, rather, a place that appears as an empty void with too much white space and a prevalence of television monitors.

Whether by chance or good design, the Solidarity Musuem is a lot like the old Newseum. Located in the basement of Solidarity Party headquarters just outside Gdansk’s historic district, it’s not as easy to get to as it might be, but, despite the logistical difficulties of attracting visitors, this is part of the story. The road to freedom, after all, begins in back alleyways and eventually makes it onto the streets. From the entrance, one is confronted with an armored militia (Communist police) vehicle and is led to the back of the building, closer to the Gdansk Shipyard entrance and the 1970 monument to the killed strikers.

The exhibit itself is called “Road to Freedom.” One enters through a subway-like entrance that is convoluted at odd angles so you can’t see where you’re going until you make three or four turns (and even then you’re disoriented). The passage has a recorded voiceover of people being arrested, allowing you to feel the panic of the moment. It reminded me of my father’s experience before my family moved to the US in 1962. He spent four months in jail for not naming the person from whom he bought a piece of leather on the black market in the 1950s.

The Solidarity Movement developed when the people of Poland had enough of one-party dictatorial rule. The leaders of the movement looked at the example of revolutionaries in Prague in 1976 (and also how Moscow called the Warsaw Pact nations to use violent force against them). In Poland, the movement had small beginnings in the Gdansk Shipyard in 1970 following an explosion in the shipyard in which 21 workers were killed due to lax safety measures being taken by the employer (the government). It was then that the workers united to be heard and not only be represented by the government sanctioned and supported union. To get a great picture of all that happened, I recommend watching Strike (2005), directed by Joan Stein. The 1970s strike was disorganized, almost like a mob war with police in which many were killed by police, and many were labeled as enemies of the state and blackballed from having a shipyard job. It was years later when Lech Wałęsa and his associates brought the government to its knees by having “solidarity” with other workers (and the Catholic Church) around Poland that froze transport, commerce, and, essentially, the entire planned economy. A Catholic priest named Jerzy Popiełuszko was interrigated and killed by the militia, which angered the Solidarity folks even more. Poland was in a state of war for over a year during which martial law applied to the entire country. These victories by Solidarity were the beginning of the fall of the Iron Curtain across Europe.

The exhibit shows the stores of the Communist period, which, as I remember from my own experience, had four eggs, two pieces of sausage, and a milk truck in front that ladeled milk iont your glass bottle. The ticket to the exhibit is actually a rationing coupon, making the truth of the past all that much more real to visitors today. Of course, Communist Party members had their own stores and did not have to stand in line. Even lines had a purpose in Poland’s government-planned economy: standing in line kept you from having time for idle thought like revolution and being unhappy with your situation in life.

The best thing about this museum is the attempt–mostly successful–to give visitors a glimpse of life under Communism. The bathroom section shows the typical–some often crude–jokes that were made during the time: a scrawled note says “Making Cheese for the Soviets” on the back of the toilet.

Another room contains a jail cell, as well as a replica of the tables where Solidarity’s negotiations were made with the government, showcasing the 21 Demands, including free speech and labor unions independent of the Communist Party. It surprises some that this “worker’s paradise” methodologically discarded ideas such as pensions, workplace safety, and paid maternity leave, and health care. In the c enter of the room sits a white statue of Lenin, similar to one appearing at key government buildings throughout the Soviet empire. A film runs in the background, showing the signing of the papers.

Incidentally, the papers were signed with a pen that had a photo of the Polish Pope Jan Paweł II who was instrumental in keeping the Poles inspired and together during this time. Religion, of course, was mostly abolished by Communist rulers, being deemed incompatible with communism. Government control over this private part of an individual’s life is sadly nothing new. In Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic), for example, the Prussians invaders abolished Catholicism and the Russian Orthodox Church to try to instill Lutheranism. This made the Czechs skeptical of religion to this day. Poland, on the other hand, has always been devoted to Catholicism, which arrived in Poland in 966 AD. The Church, in fact, were the keepers of the Polish language, culture, and music at the time when Poland–as a state–did not exist from 1795 to 1918. The Polish language was forbidden in public education during that time. Even well into the 1910s when the Austro-Hungarians, Prussians, and Russians controlled portions of Poland, people were learning in clandestine environments. My brother was in Poland until 1980, taking English classes in a Lutheran Church since the only government sanctioned foreign language was Russian.

Back to the museum: one walks into the next space and amidst images of the strike and the death of Father Popieluszko. The next three rooms chronicle the events around the 1970 strike and how people were killed and kept in prison. The last room has an effective visual of cause-and-effect, demonstrated by a series of red dominoes that eventually all fall down. The museum even houses a series images from Tibet, talking about the Tibetan people’s wish to be free of China today.

The point is that the story of Solidarity and of the Soviet-era Polish state was a gritty one, and this museum lets you feel it with the spaces, the lighting, the threathening voiceover, and the footage. No matter how well designed and crafted the exhibits are, it’s useful that they’re a bit rough around the edges (as can be seen in the 21 points sign board).

The Solidarity Museum in Gdansk is worth a visit for anyone interested in learning about this very recent turning-point in human history.

The Fryderyk Chopin Museum

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

The Fryderyk Chopin Museum is located in the 17th century Ostrogski Palace in downtown Warsaw, rebuilt after being completely razed during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. It’s off the beaten path, so you’ll really only find it if you are recommended. And it is a sight to see, depicting the life of this major figure in Polish history beautifully and effectively.

The new reception building next to the museum holds the ticket office, while, on the right side, sits the Frederick Chopin Institute. The museum opened recently on the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth in 1810. The exhibits are a mixture of interactive media, music, and artifacts from Chopin’s life, including his death mask. The graphics are elegantly placed, the casework very well done, and the lighting kept intentionally low level so that the drama stays within the space.

One of the rooms is devoted to the women in his life, telling in-depth stories of his relationships. Another is a bright green room for children, offering listening and play stations.

The journey from the mansion into the catacomb-like spaces of the other section is dramatic architecturally, containing glass walkways and staircases. Everything is well integrated, keeping the historical context. The only gripe is that some of the multimedia gets in the way of the communication of the historical message of Chopin’s life, but all in all, it’s very well done and definitely worth a visit for any classical music fan or museum design aficionado.