Monday, June 13, 2011

Field Trip: England! Part 3: Museums

N. loves to draw and is generally interested in art and is even familiar with the work of some specific artists, but he has often been overwhelmed by traditional art museums and unable to tolerate spending much time in them.  He can't articulate why this is so, but perhaps his strong interest in the visual makes museums too stimulating.  We've been careful not to push museum visits when we travel, which is a bit hard for Tim and me because we love spending hours wandering through museums!  When we travelled to New York in March, however, we all happily spent several hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Egypt rooms, the Temple of Dendur, in the musical instrument collection, and a bit in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French painting galleries.  The objects attracted N. more than the paintings, but I was glad he wanted to look at a few paintings.

National Gallery, London
On our recent trip to England (Part 1, Part 2), we went to a few museums but with low expectations; because the art museums in London are generally free, we could leave right away if we wanted to without feeling that we'd wasted money on admission fees.  Wandering in Trafalgar Square, we decided to go in the National Gallery primarily because we thought N. would enjoy the architecture of the building, which he did.  But he was arrested by the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English paintings and some of the French post-Impressionists as well, so we spent a really rich hour or more looking at the paintings in a couple galleries and talking about them.  The paintings that especially grabbed him were:
  • Gainsborough: his lovely pictures of his daughters -- N. was intrigued that the latter is unfinished and loved looking for the bare outlines of a cat on the girl's lap
  • Joseph Wright of Derby: we talked a lot about "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" -- N.'s first observation about the painting was the smoothness of its surface and he wondered how the painter achieved that; we made connections to some of the science history N. studied earlier this year (what is a vacuum, when did people figure out what was in "air"); could we tell what the artist's view of the scientific experiment might be?; Wright's use of strong light/dark contrasts
  • J.M.W. Turner: N. was really struck by his luminous skies and seas and his strong brushstrokes, and enjoyed the contrast of these paintings with his earlier, more conventional paintings of ships.  I thought N. would like "Rails, Steam, and Speed -- The Great Western Railway" but he dismissed it out of hand as not detailed enough for his taste and "too abstract!"
  • Degas: a brief look at his dancers
  • Seurat: N. was very taken with Seurat's pointillism method, and also very interested in the tiny studies that are hung alongside the large paintings.  It was interesting to think about how the artist prepared to make the full-sized painting via the studies.
  • Renoir: N. liked "The Umbrellas" -- so much packed into this picture!
  • Van Gogh: Tim pointed out "Sunflowers" and mentioned the high auction price of the various versions, but N. was interested in "A Wheatfield with Cypresses" because of its swirling sky; he commented on the difference between this painting and the smooth surface of Wright's.
The V&A
Another day we went to the Victoria & Albert Museum.  I was excited to take N. there because it is such a fabulously Victorian building, plus he likes the work of William Morris, so I wanted him to see the Morris, Gamble, and Poynter cafe in the museum.  This is a museum of objects, so I thought N. would enjoy whatever we saw there; even so I was pleasantly surprised by our experience.   I was disappointed that the fashion and textile rooms (my favorites) were closed, but we went to the Architecture Gallery.  We got there via the Glass exhibits, and I was surprised that N. was so intrigued by the cases of jars and vases (I assumed we'd walk right through this room to get to our destination).  He spent a long time looking at the glass, and liked guessing the time period in which the objects were made. 

When we finally got to the Architecture room we discovered that in addition to drawings and floor plans, it consisted of models of famous buildings.  N. was in heaven!  He loves models, miniatures, dollhouses, etc., I presume because with  a model he can grasp the building in its totality.  There was an amazing huge cross-section drawing of St. Paul's Cathedral hanging on the wall that we all admired as well.  We spent a lot of time in this gallery!

Then we went to a few of the  nineteenth-century galleries (full of Gothic revival stuff, which N. loves and I despise), where N. found a model of another of his favorite buildings, the 1851 Crystal Palace, as well as paintings, drawings, and plans for it. Very exciting!  And there was a children's room nearby where he played with acrylic blocks to build his own Crystal Palace.

 Another day we went to a different museum run by the V&A: The Museum of Childhood.  This museum displays collections of toys from the late 16th century to the present, as well as some clothes.  To supplement the cases of objects, there are some related playthings that children can use (without this, I think it would be hard for a kid to look at all these objects and not be able to play with them!), such as rocking horses near a case of various old rocking horses, or a model train layout that you could make run for 20 p.  N.'s favorite things here were the model train sets and the doll houses.  We had a really lovely afternoon there.

One day we went briefly to the British Museum, but only to see three things: the Great Court that was built in 2000 over the Reading Room, the Reading Room itself (which turned out to be closed for the installation of an exhibition), and the Elgin Marbles.  There is so much to see in the British Museum and it was quite crowded, so we decided to save a more extensive exploration of it for another trip.  The Parthenon was also one of the earliest buildings N. got really interested in; he likes its form, it led him to learn column and capital styles, and he's fascinated by its history of neglect and partial destruction.  So most of his interest in the Parthenon frieze and pediment sculptures was related to their damage.  He wanted to hear over and over again about the Parthenon being used by the Turks in the 17th century as an ammunition depot, and to figure out what was damaged by the munitions explosion and what was damaged by the passage of time.  He's also perplexed by the problem of whether these sculptures should be in England at all.  I tried to draw his attention somewhat to the quality of the sculptures themselves and to their ritualistic significance for the Greeks, but it was hard for him to look at them outside the context of their later history. 

When we walked across the Millennium Bridge one day, we popped in to the Tate Modern so N. could see how the Bankside power station had been repurposed as a museum.  Again we decided to save the exploration of the galleries for another trip.

On the last day of our trip we went to the Museum of London, which again is full of lots of models; N. especially liked the models of Roman Londinium.  We all were wowed by the preserved sections of the Roman city walls around which the museum is built.  You can learn a lot about the history of London here, (although I personally don't absorb information terribly well in this format).  This museum was really crowded the day we were there because it was a bank holiday, but N. was so happy to see a model of Old St. Paul's Cathedral as well as a famous painting of the Great Fire.  N. would have liked to linger longer in the Museum of London but I found the crowds oppressive. In this case I was the one feeling overwhelmed by the museum and needing to leave!

I hadn't expected museum visits (beyond the London Transport Museum and the National Rail Museum, of course) to play such a big role in our trip but I was pleasantly surprised by how much N. enjoyed London's museums.

    1 comment:

    Emily said...

    I'm so glad you got to see the model of the Old St. Paul's! And the Elgin marbles. (-: