Wandering through museums

There is something refreshing about the blank spaces of museums. On an otherwise hectic day, you might enter a museum, walk through galleries full of bright paintings hung on dull coloured walls, and emerge with a new view on the bustle outside. A museum’s galleries are designed not to call attention to themselves. These photos were taken in Duesseldorf’s K20, built in 1986. I took these photos soon after the architects, Dissing+Weitling of Copenhagen, became famous for their design of the Oresund bridge. They capture my experience of walking through any modern museum: long views through doorway after doorway, the enveloping quietness.

The long sight lines are part of the design, making a museum guard’s job easier. It is not an easy job; having to stand for hours, keeping an eye on all visitors. Now and then, when I enter a museum at an off-peak time, I can see one sitting down, perhaps to read a newspaper. Otherwise they are usually on their beat, perhaps occasionally exchanging a few words with a colleague. It wasn’t a dangerous job till now.

Six pieces from the ancient world

Walking through the wonderful exhibition called India and the World at the museum in Mumbai, I noticed something that everyone knows. The oldest artifacts of humans are stone axes and blades. Then, almost as soon as agriculture is invented, we begin to find almost everything that we use in our daily lives today. What a massive change in lifestyle that was!

When the waters of the oceans were locked up as ice, the lowered sea level created land-bridges across the planet. It is incredible that our most ancient ancestors walked across them, and settled into almost every one of the continents. As the glaciers retreated, humans found themselves in a slowly warming and wet world. In a geological eye-blink, a span of just over a thousand years, agriculture was invented independently many times over. And with agriculture, came the first cities.

The oldest “modern” object I saw in the exhibition was the piece of decorated pottery from Balochistan, almost 5000 years old. The box from Ur celebrated their life; the face that you can see in the photo here shows agriculture and animal herding. The calcite tablet from Egypt, about the size and shape of an iphone, and the limestone tablet from Lagash show the first writing. And you can see the exquisite jewelery of Oaxaca and the Indus valley in the remaining photos. Bowls and boxes, jewelery and writing; truly we live in the shadows of these early civilizations.

Hamburger Bahnhof

It was a stormy day over northern Germany when we decided to wait it out in the Hamburger Bahnhof. Built in 1846, this railway terminus became am exhibition hall in 1906. It was massively damaged in the second world war. Although it lay in the British zone of Berlin, it was given to the East German government at the end of the war, but passed back in 1984. The current building was made to the plan of Josef Kleihues in 1996, when it opened as part of the Berlin State art collection.

The oldest pieces of contemporary art on display are probably the pieces by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. We moved from these into more recent works, notably a few of the more interesting works by the German conceptual artist Josef Beuys. Our eyes snagged on an incredible work by the Chinese artist Qin Yu Fen. There were some remarkable works by Raimund Kummer on display in a special exhibition.

One of the most interesting works by Beuys on display is the piece called Tallow, which is a cast of the bottom of a pedestrian overpass in Muenster made in mutton fat. The physical properties of this medium were unknown since they had never been used on this scale before. Physicists were brought into this effort to compute the cooling rate and stresses on the framework made to contain the material. The disassembled pieces on show have thermometers inserted into them which indicate that your body heat changes the work slightly.

It would take more than a day to see everything here. So we made our departure from the place as usual when we found our legs beginning to ache. The storm had cleared, but it was decidedly colder outside.

Birdwatching in the museum

2015-05-28 16.18.41 2015-05-28 16.20.05 2015-05-28 16.21.19

The first time I encountered realistic Indian miniature paintings of birds was in the museum of the City Palace of Jaipur, a long time ago. Since then I have found little examples hidden away in galleries across the world. They are not as famous as the paintings of court life, but there seems to be a dedicated band of collectors and curators who love to acquire and display these.

2015-05-28 16.17.54From almost the earliest times, Chinese painters have delighted in depicting nature. The most famous subjects which the paintings deal with are grand vistas of landforms, and hidden away somewhere a few people, houses, boats, and domestic animals. They are beautiful.

Now, with a month of visiting museums and collections of paintings, I see that there is a less well-known stream of work: nature in the small, beautifully observed and rendered. The Shanghai Museum had two remarkable paintings: one of a praying mantis done almost calligraphically, with a minimum of brush strokes, and one of a lotus seed pod. I found later that the lotus seed pod is a staple, every master seems to try his hand at it. But also, over the weeks, I began to notice birds. Mandarin ducks are ubiquitous because they represent marital fidelity in the Chinese culture. But there are so many other birds which we saw.

2015-05-28 16.21.46Today, walking through the National Museum in Beijing, our birdwatching instincts came to the fore. We stalked through the galleries looking for birds, and we hit a jackpot. There are lovely pieces in the collection, but photographing them is not easy. There are multiple layers of glass between the painting and you. As a result, you can see my reflection in many of the photos here.

I wish I could have shared more details about the painters and their times. Unfortunately, many of the galleries in the National Museum only have labels in Chinese. There is an audio guide, but I could not get any information on them from the information desk.

The photos here show only the paintings. The jade and bronze galleries hide more birds. Herons and peacocks abound in the pieces of jade, but there are also other birds. A popular genre of jade carving was a scene in a forest. These are usually full of animals and trees, and, hidden in the trees, birds. Hidden among the displays of ritual bronze vessels are small figures of birds.

I wish there were good quality reproductions which one could buy, and information in English.