Thursday, 29 January 2009

We interrupt your regularly scheduled program for this special announcement....

I passed my doctoral thesis defense this morning!

Maybe I should rename this blog "Dr. TheMuseumPass."


Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Google Loves Art

Google has a new feature out that allows you to get up close and personal with masterpieces from the Prado Museum (Madrid).  They took their super-duper high res cameras into the museum and took really detailed pictures of some of the main attractions there (Goya, Velazquez, etc). You can then browse these pictures in incredible detail through Google Earth, and see every brush stroke and weave of the canvas.  It's remarkable.  And a total time-sucker for someone like me.  I also think this sort of technology has the potential to completely change the way art history classes are taught.  I remember going to museums after taking a class and standing in front of a painting, thinking "That's not how I imagined it at all. I never knew X, Y, Z."  This detailed database of art shows you things you can't even see if you stand with your nose against the canvas.  And let's be honest, in most museums, you can't get that close to the pieces you want to see.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

The second day we were in San Francisco, we went to the Asian Art Museum in the afternoon.  We had already walked around the city quite a bit that morning so we focused on the special exhibit of Afghan antiquities saved in the museum in Kabul, thanks to the quick thinking of their curators (read more here).  

This assemblage comes from part of Afghanistan formerly known as Bactria, and situated at the confluence of several trade routes between China, India, Central Asia and "the West."  Artefacts in the exhibition dated back to about 2500 BC and spanned rougly 2000 years.  They included antiquities from the famous site of Tillye Tepe and the hoards of more than 20,000 gold ornaments and grave goods from at least six burials of nomadic (and clearly quite important/wealthy) individuals (dated to about the 1st Century BC).  It was fascinating stuff.  Gold jewelry, coins, pottery, you name it.  Culturally, it's a really interesting assemblage that demonstrates how this area was really the crossroads of several major early civilizations.  I don't usually like Bronze Age archaeology, but this stuff was amazing.

The museum also contains a pretty overwhelming permanent collection of art and archaeology from China, Japan, Nepal, India, Bhutan........  My favorite things were the Bronze Age Chinese vessels and jades, which reminded me of one of my favorite classes as an undergraduate.  I think Scott gets really embarrassed as I run from case to case announcing the Chinese words for the shapes of the vessels and the jades: "Oh look, it's a Ding!  It's a Cong!  It's a Bi!  Do you see the taotie on that one?"  I can't help getting excited about them!

Finally, as we were walking out, there was a video playing on loop in the lobby.  As best I could tell, the theme of the video was 'What it's like to be an archaeologist.'  Needless to say, I forced Scott to sit and watch most of it with me.  I think I'm the only person who sat there and said "Oh, it's so-and-so" or "OH MY GOD I LOVE HER!" when various people came on the screen.  I guess I've officially become an archaeo-dork.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

DeYoung Museum, San Francisco

The DeYoung Museum is a strange place.  Aside from our inability to find the building (another story for another day), the collection is truly eclectic.  As best I can tell, it's held together by the common theme that most of the collections are from the New World.  But the collections span pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, colonial paintings, Hudson River School landscapes, and a pretty hefty mass of modern art too (this may not all be American actually, come to think of it, which leads me to wonder if there actually is a theme to the collection).  There's also a collection of Pacific Island arts and crafts, and artefacts from New Guinea.  So who knows.

Things are also jumbled up in places too, so in neighbouring rooms, you can find sculptures made 3 years ago and sculptures made 4000 years ago.  It's strange.

All that said, we really enjoyed it.  We didn't see everything, and we didn't try. We whizzed through the Mesoamerican wing, which included a nice collection of Moche pottery and interesting Olmec stone statuettes.  We moved through the modern sculpture rooms too, on our way to see the American paintings (c. 1700-1900).  For anyone who has taken an American art class, these galleries are like the lectures from that class come to life.  Church, Peale, Sargent, Copley, Eakins...They are all here, largely due to a very large assemblage of paintings from the Rockefeller Collection.
I think my favorite room was devoted to tromp l'oeil art.  Tromp l'oeil literally means "to trick the eye." You may be familiar with this technique from the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo painted columns and architectural features against which his figures could lean, but it had a 
resurgence in America in the mid-1800s.  The central artists in the movement, Harnett and Peto, were masterly at making a flat canvas look like a pinboard with bits of envelop, rubberband, ticket stubs, push pins, etc, sticking out every which way.  

We also enjoyed the building itself, which is hyper-modern, and the large 'Safety Pin' sculpture in the garden by Claus Oldenburg (who, incidentally, has his pieces all over San Francisco...).  All in all, an enjoyable afternoon, but I'd still like to know how all this art is supposed to come together.  Any museum that has Olmec and Oldenburg sculptures in the same space is either seriously misguided....or seriously genius.  :-)

Sunday, 18 January 2009


Sorry for the month's hiatus.  Christmas caught up with me.  During our month in the states, we went to two museums, both in San Francisco.  We spent an afternoon at the DeYoung Museum, and also a few hours at the Asian Art Museum in SF, where we went to an exhibit of antiquities from Afghanistan.  Both deserve posts, but things are a little frantic now that we're back in London.  I'll get around to it, eventually!