Saturday, April 28, 2012

Musing on museums


Years ago, in Rome, I was looking lost. I was in St Peter's and the sign, in English, said "Pilgrim's Tours." That wasn't me, I was a gawping tourist not a genuflecting, body crossing pilgrim. One of the guides saw my hesitation and put me right. Tourists and pilgrims were the same. It was a great tour full of little stories - So, Mick's on his back in the Sistine Chapel with Dulux dripping in his eye when the Pope yells up to ask him if, when he's free, could he design and build a dome for the place? The sculptor complains that he's a sculptor, not a painter and certainly not a brickie. The guide's language was colourful, he filled me with wonder for the building and its purpose.

A couple of years ago I was in the Guadalupe Monastery here in Spain. It's a beautiful spot. The tour was much more Spanish. A guide ushered a party of maybe 50 people into each room. She started talking before the last people at the back were in place. She was competing for the Fanny Craddock or Patrick Moore Speed Talking Award. Most explanations consisted of a date, a name and a fact. This crucifix was carved by Michelangelo in 1523. Christopher Columbus received a letter here from Isabel and Ferdinand in 1491 granting him permission to sail to the Indies. Sometimes the facts were interesting enough; did you know, for instance, that one of those illustrated books that monks used to spend their time colouring weighs in at around 70kgs which is why the books are fitted with wheels? No detail though; nothing about the daily life of a monk, nothing about why they were colouring in books or what place the books had within the monastery or within society. And why was Cristóbal Colón (that's Columbus to you and me) in Guadalupe anyway?

Thinking about it I've not come away from many Spanish museums or art galleries enthralled by what was on offer. I know it's close to heresy but stunning as some of the pictures in the Prado are it's not much of a visit as a tourist. Obviously if Velázquez does it for you then you will have a whale of a time but if, like me, you need someone or something to bring a place alive then you're going to be hard pressed to find it in Spain.

Here in Cartagena we've got a couple of lovely museums. The Underwater Archaeology place is great - an architecturally interesting building, with nicely presented and well labelled exhibits but there is no context. It's the same in the Roman Theatre. Stunning museum building, great concept and the remodelling of the actual Roman Theatre is as good as anything I've ever seen. On the other hand the exhibits are tedious and there's nothing about what sort of productions they put on or the place that theatre took within Roman society. Nothing about actors or sets or technique or about changing styles over the centuries, no interactive displays, no opportunity to try your hand at something. There's a nice frying pan though.

I'm not after the impossible or even spectacular here. I may even have a local exception. It's the Palm Museum in Elche. It's not large, it's not got a lot of zing but it does have videos of men shinning up palm trees to explain what they did in each season, it has the tools you see in the video next to the screen, there are working models to explain the husbandry and lots more in a similar vein. I came away knowing a lot more about palms and the people who earned their living from them.

Anyway we didn't come for the museums did we? I think it's going to be sunny, I may go out and get a cold beer.

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