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On museums

Back from our travels and I was writing my diary. I was just about to echo the words I'd used in the last post about wandering around Extremadura and "the Splendid Roman Museum" or more accurately the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano. As I wrote I was thinking forward to how to describe the trip around the monastery at Guadalupe and my pen hovered. In some ways the Roman museum wasn't that good. The building was great, the display was uncluttered, the labelling was relatively informative but there was no context - nothing about the place that art took within Roman society, nothing about artists, nothing about technique, nothing about changing styles over the centuries, no interactive displays, no opportunity to try your hand at something. And the shop was a joke; shops are obviously about making profit for the museums but, alongside the T shirts are the books and DVDs that continue the work of the museum. Not in Mérida they didn't. Not in Spain they don't.

The Monastery tour was much more Spanish. A guide ushered a party of maybe 50 people into some space. She started talking before the last people at the back were in place. She was competing for the Fanny Craddock and Patrick Moore Speed Talking Award. Most explanations consisted of a date, a name and a fact. This crucifix was carved by Michelangelo in 1523. Christopher Columbus received a letter here from Isabel and Ferdinand in 1491 granting him permission to sail to the Indies. Sometimes the facts were interesting enough, did you know, for instance, that one of those illustrated books that monks used to spend their time colouring weighs in at around 70kgs which is why the books are fitted with wheels? But again, no context; nothing about the daily life of a monk, nothing about why they were colouring books or what place the books had within the monastery or a wider context. And why was Cristóbal Colón (that's Columbus to you and me) in Guadalupe anyway?

More than 30 years ago I did a tour around St Peter's in Rome. The story about Michelangelo's work there, on the dome, has stuck with me all this time. In Versailles, in a room a bit short of furniture, the guide made up for it by describing what the room would have contained and why it would have been like that given the social and political setting at the time. Someone who took me around Peterborough Cathedral told me about how the masons worked and left me with something to remind me of that story every time I search for their marks in the stone.

Just in writing this I've realised that, with one possible exception, I've never actually been to a good Spanish museum. Lots of them are fine but in most of them the owners don't really want to give away too much information. The possible exception, that I've come across so far, is the Palm Museum in Elche which has videos of men shinning up palm trees to explain what they did in each season, working models of irrigation systems and lots more in a similar vein. I hope, I'm sure, there are other good ones too. I just haven't found them yet.


isabel said…
Yes, I think you are right, Spanish museums tend to be very old fashion, I would say too serious, with no "life" into them.

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