Friday, January 21, 2011

The Great Museum-Off

Some experienced travellers claim you can't gain a true understanding of the world's myriad peoples by visiting museums, and that only by walking the streets and interacting with the locals will you really be able to appreciate foreign cultures.

But a lot of the time, the locals don't know anything and the streets are too strewn with innuendo to be of any cultural value. That's why sometimes, to truly appreciate a civilisation, you do need to visit a sterile museum and look at endless identical vases behind glass, viewed through the gaps in a Japanese crowd.

Luckily, there are some museums that manage to make history fun. Not like the teacher at school who tried to be your mate but just ended up being weird (and arrested), but by displaying fascinating cultural treasures in a way that's easy to digest. Just as composition and brush technique are equally important in Chinese art, so museums need to present interesting things in an understandable manner, or risk facing my wrath when I get easily confused. Getting scared yet, museums?

I've probably been to some of the world's best museums (and doubtless some of the worst too - the Cumberland Pencil Museum remains unchallenged thus far), which have helped me to appreciate the past and present of civilisations in context. But which one is best?

Some would say that to compare museums in such a flippant way is to fail to really understand them. I say 'no, it isn't though' - thus I win.

Bargello National Museum
Florence, Italy

I wasn't planning on getting bogged down in the Renaissance when I visited Italy, until I realised I'd had the fortune to arrive on the weekend when museums were inexplicably free. Not enjoying the prospect of the ridiculous queue for the showy Uffizi, I went to the less austere Bargello instead - which was probably a lot better. And I'm not just saying that because I didn't get into the Uffizi.

The smallest museum in this list, the Bargello served as the perfect introduction to Renaissance sculpture, but I would have appreciated it even more if I'd gone around the Mediterranean in the right chronological direction to see how the sculpting tradition evolved. These gods, heroes, mythological figures and unpleasant birds looked great and everything, but they're nowhere near as old as the statues in Athens and Cairo, and isn't that what counts? (I don't know... is it?)

Bad luck, Florence - have your Renaissance a couple of millennia sooner, next time!

Best thing: Statues clustered in the courtyard, rather than being cooped up indoors. What harm have the elements ever done?

Worsties: Too many Madonna + child combos. You can tell even the artists were getting bored of this gimmick after a while, and started messing around - letting Christ have a cheeky suckle, and so on.

National Archaeological Museum
Athens, Greece

Bloody huge is the first thing that comes to mind when I think back to this museum, but apart from a rubbish wing dedicated entirely to vases, the quantity never felt overwhelming.

This is the best organised museum I've visited, arranging exhibits chronologically and thematically and even allowing itself some wild deviations, like having an Ancient Egyptian section. Visiting this place more than made up for the disappointment of the Acropolis, and it renders the Acropolis Museum pretty pointless too.

Best thing: Colossi dredged out of the sea.

Worsties: Vases.

The Egyptian Museum
Cairo, Egypt

The Egyptian Museum always shows up in top 10 lists of 'essential things to do in Egypt' (most pages like this are admittedly written by people like me, who haven't even visited the place), but collecting things together in a museum seems a little redundant when Egypt's most impressive sights are the open-air museums of its various necropoli and templi.

Then again, you couldn't realistically leave these treasures lying around underground (that's sort of the reason there are so few of them left already), so it's at least nice that the Egyptian Museum building in Cairo has an air of antiquity about it - making these statues, trinkets and endless sarcophagi feel less out of place than they would in a more modern building, like the museums in Athens and Taipei.

The dead stuff might end up leaving its charmingly dilapidated home soon, with the apparent upcoming relocation of the collection into a brand new building elsewhere in the city. While it'll be a shame to lose those archaic typewritten labels that haven't been updated for at least 30 years, moving to a larger premises might mean some of the less well-treated exhibits can be given more of a chance to shine. There are plenty of museums and private collectors that would give anything for an authentic Ancient Egyptian coffin, but this place just piles them up out of the way like they're so many worthless copies of The Official PlayStation Magazine c.1997.

Oh yeah, Tutankhamun's stuff is here too. And they don't even make you pay extra to see it, unlike the mummies. That's nice of them.

Best thing: The mummies.

Worsties: Half-arsed display methodology on upper level.

National Palace Museum
Taipei, Taiwan

Boasting the largest collection of Chinese treasures in the world (so they boast), Taipei's must-see museum lacks character, but if you like jade and porcelain you'll feel right at home. I don't as it happens, finding them about as interesting as Greek vases, but I was glad for the chance to explore Chinese history and put it in its proper context. And to see loads of art and calligraphy, which is just fantastic.

The museum loses points for some sections being closed when I visited, including the rare books exhibition which I was interested in most. I also found it distinctly lacking in stereotypical Oriental music, which probably would have been needlessly distracting and irritating after a couple of hours, but still would have enhanced things on a couple of occasions. I should have prepared an MP3 playlist or something - it's not like I'm ever going to shell out for an audio guide.

Fortunately, everything was handily labelled in English this time, so no guide was necessary, and it's fun to observe whoever they put in charge of writing the overly self-aware descriptions varying between modesty and arrogance, then getting really enthusiastic when his favourite topics come up, like curio boxes. If only the museum took more design cues from these complex treasure chests and there was a real possibility of getting lost amongst the ancient treasures, the museum might be a more interesting experience.

Best thing: Room-length panorama paintings that I want on my wall (if I had a wall).

Worsties: Too many China pots. Which they don't call 'China' over here, for some reason.

Cumberland Pencil Museum
Keswick, England

I had time to kill on a trip to the Lake District, is all I can say. At least the architecture's nice, right?

Best thing: The fact that they're proud to house the world's second-longest colour pencil (they're the world's only dedicated pencil museum, yet they can't even bag the biggest).

Worsties: The perpetually looping scene from Raymond Briggs' The Snowman being played every seven minutes, which is presumably only there due to the tenuous link between the book it was based on and Derwent coloured pencils.

But which one is the best?

What? Oh, I forgot about that... Athens probably.

So far...

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