How to museum

img_2406Look at me! I’ve only written the title of this blog post and have already created a new verb: to museum. Normally I’m the last one to adopt new words; for me, “impact” is still not a verb, and I once nipped a potential friendship in the bud because the potential friend said “impactful” in every third sentence. There’s only so much a woman can bear. But now, in my lexicon, to museum is a verb.


We need this verb because the museum experience is so much more than “visiting” or “going to.” A good museum changes you, startles you, awes you. This has certainly been the case here in Berlin, where Mark and I have spent the last couple of days in four top-flight museums. The picture above shows you twilight on Museum Island in Berlin, home of several amazing institutions. We’ve seen the Bode, Altes, Pergamon, Neues, Surrealist, and Design museums. (Ironically, the Neues, or New, Museum houses the oldest of the materials on exhibit.) And although I’ve enjoyed each of these places mightily, please don’t ask me to pronounce them. Mark’s in charge of German in our family, since he had a whopping two quarters of the language in college. Besides that, he’s recovering from a gooey cold and has lots of phlegm, which immensely improves his German pronunciation.

But even if I can’t say where I’ve been, I can tell you a thing or two about them from experience over the years. My love affair with museums started when I was a kid and read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. If you haven’t read this classsic, for heaven’s sake stop reading this blog, go read it instead. In the unlikely event you’ve forgotten the story, let me remind you. Two school kids who are seriously bored with their suburban lives run away to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and take up residence there. They become involved in a mystery surrounding the provenance of a statue of an angel which may or may not be by Michaelangelo. The resolution of the origin of the statue and the kids’ fates is way too good to give away here.

The lovely if less well-known The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright was my next museum book. In this gentle coming of age novel, which was published in 1941, the four Melendy kids decide to pool their allowances and allow each kid to have a Saturday adventure of their own. Miranda, who proposes the idea, takes her pot of dimes and goes to an art museum. There she finds a special painting and a friend, and I won’t spoil the rest of it by telling you more. This book is still one of my favorites, and Randy’s day out is a comfortable homage to museuming.

Once I got to be an adult, I could put away the books and go full steam ahead on actual museuming. I’ve been privileged to see some astonishingly good museums. Whether alone, with Mark, or with the kids in tow, I/we’ve been to several Smithsonians, the Metropolitan in New York, the British Museum, National Gallery, Tate, Tate Modern, and Victoria and Albert in London, the Louvre and Orsay in Paris, the Prada and Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Vatican…. You get the idea. And yes, we did drag the kids to art museums when they were young. At the Art Institute in Chicago, I hauled the two of them to a few famous pieces, made them stand right in front of them, and recited, “This is very important art. Remember that you’ve seen this.” I have no idea whether this tactic worked. Perhaps I’ll ask someday.

Based on these experiences, then, I offer you the following rules for museuming:

1.  Plan ahead. Many museums close on Monday. Check beforehand if that’s a day you were thinking of visiting. And if you’re in a relatively religious country, check to see whether some random saint’s day or feast day will interfere with your plans. This happened to us in Madrid, where the Reina Sofia closed for the celebration of the day of the city’s patron saint. Fortunately, since in Spain religious holidays always involve colorful processions, we enjoyed that instead and had hot chocolate to boot. But our daughter Mary still hasn’t seen Picasso’s “Guernica,” which sometimes makes me feel like a bad mother.

2.  Wear comfortable shoes. For that matter, wear comfortable clothes. Presumably patrons will be looking at the displays and not you. If the displays are so dull that visitors are resorting to checking each other out, you’re in a bad museum. Leave. You should and could more profitably spend your time doing important things, like playing the next twelve levels of Candy Crush or googling songs lyrics you’re not sure of. Face it, nobody really knows the correct words to “Blinded by the Light.”

3.  Take care of yourself. Eat before you go, and pee early and often. Waiting to go at the restrooms on the next floor up ensures that those restrooms are either closed for repairs or being cleaned by the most diligent person in the world, who’s going to take so long that they carry a bucket, mop, and camping equipment in with them before posting the requisite “Closed for cleaning” sign.

4.  Be ready for other people to interfere with your plans. In particular, beware of groups of tourists.  Here’s an example. In 1996, Mark and I visited the Louvre. The place was fairly empty, as we were there in November. So I’m minding my own business in a quiet room, leaning over a glass case to examine some coins inside. Behind me, I hear the sound of a stampede, and about 80 Japanese tourists, led by a guide holding up an pole with the national flag on it, trot into the room. They squish into the inadequate space, bending me over the case so that my cheek is squashed down on the glass. I can’t breathe and briefly consider whether asphyxiation by Japanese tourist is a recognized cause of death in France. The guide delivers a quick spiel, the crowd murmurs its approval, and they all turn around and trot out again to go terrorize some other poor soul in another part of the place. Museuming is not for the faint of heart, my friends. 

5. You have to make the experience your own. Sometimes this means not taking the exhibits too seriously. When Mark and I were first dating, I suggested we go see a showing of Kandinsky’s works at the Houston Museum of Fine Art. Mark agreed to go but was, I think, not exactly taken with abstract expressionism. I guess they don’t have a lot of that in Baytown, where he grew up. Anyway, he grew restive and started, in the nicest possible way, to express his opinion that Kandinsky had pretty much painted amoebas, golf courses, and amoebas playing on golf courses. I should have been mad, but it was all just so funny that it was hard to make it out of the exhibition without descending into gales of laughter which would have made sense to no one else in the room. We now routinely find the funny aspects of serious pieces. On Sunday at the Bode, for example, we saw a painting entitled “The Wave.” Having been to a zillion baseball games, we (briefly) did the wave in front of the painting. You just can’t take this stuff too seriously. 

At the same time, you should recognize the serious when you see it. At another museum here, we viewed a white marble sculpture by Antonio Canova. He was an Italian sculptor of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The piece is called The Dancer, and it’s so lifelike and graceful and masterful that I swear you can see the movement of the dancer’s skin under her robe as she moves in time to music only she can hear. I wanted to plop down on the cold white marble floor and cry for the sheer mastery of the craft and beauty of the work. This is the same feeling I get every time I see the Nike in the Louvre, too, but museum guards probably discourage weeping in the galleries. It makes the floors even slipper than they already are.

Making a museum your own also means that you get to like whatever you like. One of my friends expressed disappointment in the Mona Lisa, because it’s small and lots of people muscle their way in to see it. I think it’s exquisite partly because it’s not the size of a billboard, and it’s not the painting’s fault that apparently some tourists hire offensive linemen from the NFL to clear their path to its display case. I could study this painting all day, so if it gets stolen again, you’ll know I’ve finally put all of that reading about crime to good use.

Finally, museuming allows you to ask your own questions. I don’t have enough knowledge of art to comment on things like perspective and brush strokes; I couldn’t tell you a chiaro from an oscuro to save my life. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting questions to ask about a work. If your feet hurt after lots of walking, which they will, you’ll take the first available seat, no matter what pieces this move lands you near. I recently was marooned near a painting of a sunset with a totally incongruous yellow streak in its pinks and blues. To kill time while my feet recovered, I asked myself, why yellow? Did the artist have a bit left in the tube and operated on the principle of waste not, want not? Or maybe the guy who commissioned the picture stared at a pink and blue earlier version and remarked, “Hmm, don’t you think it could use a bit of yellow to cheer it up a bit?” I’ll never know, but the speculation kept me amused. Or you can play count the portraits  where the clothes were much more fun to paint than the faces. Elaborate, starched Elizabethan neck ruffles (rebatos, to the initiated), golden-threaded damask vestments, dark swirling velvet gowns, and blood-red rubies mounted in elaborate gold and silver rings must be much more of a painterly challenge than the zillionth prosperous, round guy with pudgy fingers and nose hairs that you discreetly omit from the portrait. Let’s get real here.

So that’s my list for museuming. It occurs to me, though, that this isn’t a bad list for living, either. Plan ahead. Take care of yourself. Be careful. Live authentically. It also occurs to me that maybe this overlap isn’t coincidental. Maybe the world is a museum, filled with things to look at and appreciate and marvel at. Maybe Mona Lisa is sitting next to me at the Starbucks where we’ve stopped for a quick warm-up and coffee. Maybe the woman in the red parka and the blue Pom-Pom hat swaying her toddler on her hip as she waits for the S Bahn train is Canova’s dancer. And I’ll be damned if there isn’t a preposterous streak of yellow splat in the middle of today’s  pink and blue sunset. So tell you what. You go on ahead to the next museum. I’m just going to sit here a minute and look around.





One thought on “How to museum

  1. Have you seen this? Seven artworks on display at the Gemäldegalerie museum highlight the unique sensibilities Raphael brought to an iconic devotional scene- Madonnas described in Smithsonian post.


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