D H I T I

Museum madness!

In Baltic states, Europe, France, Germany, India, Places, Random, Travel on February 27, 2012 at 3:28 am

What do you think of when you think “Museum”. Chances are that if you are British, you would be thinking of the British Museum, if you are French, then the Louvre and the other 1,000 odd museums in Paris and if you are Indian, like me,

At the Indian Museum, Calcutta, India. The guard having his afternoon siesta.

you would probably be transported to a dark musty naphthalene smelling room with a sleeping guard and objects which seem to have grown roots, they have been untouched for so long. Of course I am exaggerating and lets not forget the National Museum in Delhi and the Prince of Wales museum in Bombay/Mumbai, amongst others which are absolute delights.

(Note: The Prince of Wales museum has now been renamed, (and not the last in the renaming frenzy that has gripped politicians who have realised it to be a money-making business) into a name which is an exercise in patience and for those unfamiliar with Hindi/Urdu, it can be quite a tongue-twister. Well, here goes try it yourself: Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. Bravo! Anyway, for those thinking they will never manage to tell the auto-rickshaw guy where they want to go, the good news is that Prince of Wales museum is still accepted and understood by everyone in Bombay/Mumbai.)

When travelling in India, I normally never think of checking out the local museums, primarily because they evoke in me damp, musty and neglected rooms. It’s a shame really considering the amount of artifacts we can easily flaunt, even after loads of them find their way into European museums. The first museum of repute that I visited was the Prince of Wales museum and it was a pleasant surprise. By now, I have been to the museum almost as many times as I have visited the city itself and my favourite piece in the museum are two ivory sculptures which are so fine in craftsmanship that I can stare at them for any length of time without getting bored. One of them depicts everyday life in a Japanese village and the other is a carved box.

Paris was a surprise to me. Long queues in front of museums, and not just in front of the Louvre, absolute chaos on the

My favourite Greek sculpture from the Louvre collection.

days when the entrance is free (the first Sunday of every month) was mind-boggling at first. Why so much fuss about visiting a museum??! I don’t consider myself to be a very museum person but I do have tourist standards to maintain and visiting the Louvre is definitely on the list of things to do. However, once inside, the richness of the exhibits from all over the world shows why the museum is so popular. Besides, there is so much to see that you can never finish it all in one go which means you need to keep coming back again and again. For me, I go to the Louvre once in a year and then I forget what I had seen the last time and I end up doing a lot of repeats. I am still not sure I have covered all the rooms. Hmm, time to go back maybe. The museum does not score on presentation however. I think they know they are going to get the crowds anyway and so they don’t even try to make an effort in presenting their stuff better.

The most recent (relatively speaking, of course) addition to Paris’s long list of museums is an absolute delight: Le Musée du Quai Branly, inaugurated by Jacques Chirac houses tribal art from Africa, Latin America and Asia. And for me the museum gets 10 on 10 for presentation. I don’t know about you but I can get bored looking at rows and rows of bits and fragments of pottery etc. Where Quai Branly scores is the presentation of its objects which is informative for those wanting to know more about the objects, colourful and beautiful for those simply seeking beauty, accompanied by enough audio/video clips to not make the presentation monotone. Plus, the rooms themselves coloured in rich earth colours and with rooms being separated often by partitions of walls that don’t touch the ceiling and look more like the boundary walls of  tribal huts, the ultimate feeling is of being far away from the city. Frankly, it’s a welcome change to be in a museum which is not sparkling white.

Exhibits at the DDR museum

Travelling in Europe, you can see how much presentation influences the popularity of a museum, whether it is the Pergamon museum in Berlin or the History (of the city) museum in Tallin. We keep equating museums to be boring places with lots of text and lots of information to be absorbed in a very short time, but it does not have to be like that. The museum on East Germany in Berlin or the DDR museum is a case in point. Just the mention of East Germany evokes a sense of doom and depression and so the museum was a delightful surprise. Through innovative ideas like games,quizzes and small models representing various facets of life, they teach you more about daily life in East Germany than any amount of text can. You can try to pretend to be the owner of a factory and make sure it meets its yearly objective amidst strikes, lack of resources etc. You can listen to the music that they listened to, try your hand at one of the most popular cars of East Germany and feel the engine, check out the food and clothes they bought via the food and clothes on exhibit, the books they read via the books collected and put up like in a library etc. You come out of the museum feeling like you had an enriching experience and not bogged down by long documentaries and text.

A farmer's house at the Open-Air museum near Tallin

However, the type of museum I love most is the open-air museums. Covering vast expanses of land, these museums give me the chance to do what I love most: walking outdoors. The earliest Open-air museum appeared in Scandinavia and quickly gained in popularity in Europe and later in Northern America. These kinds of museums concentrate on showcasing rural culture and traditional rural buildings.

We discovered these kinds of museums during our visit to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All three countries have their own open-air museums and all of them cover an area of roughly 70 hectares with around 60-70 separate buildings, ranging from the fisherman’s house, the farmer’s house, the blacksmith’s house, the local school, the fire-station, the tavern etc. To make sure that your walk is not boring, the museums permit local artisans to sell their wares so you can chat with them about their life and buy  wares directly from the artisans, while strolling through the museum. Some of the buildings house exhibitions of rural fabrics, clothes, utensils etc. The tavern usually sells refreshments and often they try to serve peasant food to match the surroundings.

Folk dance at the Open-Air museum near Tallin.

Cultural programmes are also organised. We were lucky to visit the Tallin open-air museum on the day when they had organised one such event. The event was made to look like a village fair so there was dance and music and also games you could take part in. Most of the participants seemed to be of the older generation and they sure seemed to be having fun!

I think museums should be fun places. Informative, definitely but fun too. It’s always nice to visit some place and know a bit more about the history and the culture of the place. And if the museums can help us tourists, without getting on our nerves with endless text or rows and rows of artifacts which are definitely more interesting to archaeologists than to a tourist like me, I think it would be great. Don’t get me wrong, I have been amazed at some of the objects on display at some of the most boring museums but really, why do they have to be boring?

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  1. […] some ways I feel like I am taking up from my last post where I wrote on open-air museums, but it was absolutely great to be able to enjoy walking in a forest while admiring the sculptures. […]

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