Museums: Love ’em or Leave ’em?

Graveyards for stuff. Tombs for inanimate things.

Their cavernous rooms and deep corridors reverberate with the soft, dead sounds of tourists shuffling and employees yawning.

They’re like libraries, without the party atmosphere.

Occasionally a shrill voice bounces down from a distant hallway: “No photos!” and I swivel to see something, anything, that might be interesting.

But it’s not.

Leering at a censured tourist for kicks says more about my own desperate situation than it does his, and anyway, it could have been me.

I unwrap a biscuit to get through the next 50 yards of 19th-century teaspoons and the same shrill voice rings out again: “No food!”

I’ve always hated museums.

This is the beginning to an opinion piece that ran a little over a week ago, by a CNN senior travel producer. Titled, “Why I Hate Museums“, the piece complained about how boring museums are and how they should be more interactive and closer to the kinds of museums geared toward children. As an art historian of some sort (I have a degree and I even taught the topic.) I was particularly put off by what I saw as a childish, immature rant. The piece certainly caused quite a bit of discussion among art historians, although I think many, like myself, ultimately disagree with his statements.

Can museums be full of dry facts and little background? Yes. Can they feel sterile and separate because of all the protective ropes and glass? Of course. But is it not better to keep these items protected for generations to come than to risk their decay and damage? I constantly regret the buildings, paintings, sculptures and more that I can only appreciate through old drawings, photographs (if I’m lucky), or simply descriptions in a worse case scenario, because they’ve been lost to history through destruction.

I understand that not everyone is going to enjoy every museum. It certainly does help if you have an interest or some knowledge about the items or period on display. But what one person finds incredibly boring, others may find completely engrossing and may be a major highlight. The author even touches on this, somewhat hypocritically, when he says:

Of course some artifacts speak for themselves.

The Royal Armories in Leeds, England, shows off an 18th-century tunic on which you can still see the blood of the soldier who was speared, and presumably killed, while wearing it.

A brief description suffices — imagination does the rest.

He finds this tunic interesting and doesn’t think it needs much explanation, as if it’s an absolute truth that it should be appreciated by all. In truth, others may find it off-putting or simply not that exciting.

My biggest issue with the article, though, is the way he talks about how exhibits should be more interactive, complaining of the “collect-and-cage policy”, yet he doesn’t seem to give any valid examples of alternatives. If you’re going to write a scathing piece about the pointlessness of museums today, at least offer some specific (and realistic) suggestions of what you want to see and experience.

In truth, I suspect he’s over exaggerating much of what he writes, just to get a reaction (and page clicks). He’s following the path that much of modern media seems to be taking nowadays: style over substance. After all, CNN is hardly a paragon of virtue these days when it comes to accurate, informed reporting. The author seems to be advocating the same shallow demand to be entertained rather than truly informed.

I also find it suspect that he hasn’t visited any museums that he’s found entertaining. I truly doubt that Utrecht is that unique that we’ve cornered the market on interactive, entertaining museum exhibits. Sure, a recent visitor and travel writer to the city called it a “museum-lover’s paradise”, but I’m sure there are equally fascinating museums to be found around the world. She herself comments on the negative associations some people have with museums but also points out that the museums of today are different creatures.

Appropriately, today marks the 175th anniversary of the opening of the Centraal Museum here in Utrecht. (FYI, there will be an official celebration on 22 September.) Surely, in the past 175 years, the museum has changed the way it exhibits its art and artifacts tremendously. I would argue that in many ways, the Centraal Museum may be the kind of museum that the CNN author says he wants.

The museum, as winding and confusing as it can be sometimes — the result of being housed in a former cloister — still manages to create clearly defined exhibit areas. I’ve mentioned the new arrangement of Utrecht-related art, which groups pieces by decades and styles. As simple as it is, it really does do an excellent job of showing how Utrecht artists through the ages have developed, been influenced, and served as influence for others.

There’s also the 1000-year-old remains of a ship that I think of as the link between the two major exhibit areas. Interestingly, I realized on my last trip that even this simple (and smelly!) exhibit gets updated on occasion, with changing lights and sounds. Simple, but fun and fascinating!

When it comes to the space for the larger, more frequently changed exhibits, that’s when things really get interesting. There are plenty of pieces behind glass or not to be touched, but there is also plenty of interaction and visual interest.

For example, the current exhibit about the history of the Treaty of Utrecht (which closes soon, so go now!) on its own actually isn’t completely my cup of tea. Much of it focuses on the War of Spanish Succession. While I find the history of the individuals involved interesting, and the machinations involved in finally agreeing on the series of treaties that brought an end to the war, the actual war aspects are not of particular interest to me. However, I know this about myself, so I’m less likely to go to a war museum in general.
Vrede van Utrecht/Treaty of Utrecht
That said, there were still aspects of the exhibit that I found interesting. The walls themselves were covered in more than just the usual paintings. There were maps, quotes, and thought-provoking questions, which helped put each room into further perspective. There were also pieces of furniture from Versailles and money chests from both Amsterdam and Utrecht (ours on the right is bigger and prettier).
Vrede van Utrecht/Treaty of Utrecht

On top of all of that, there are spots throughout the exhibit where you can use an optional audio device to gain further information about aspects of history, individuals, etc. They’re more enjoyable than the traditional audio guided tour, because they complement the exhibit, rather than methodically take you through it.

For the author who thought the blood-stained tunic stood on its own, there were plenty of weapons and other gruesome instruments and an electronic map charting various routes, formations, and shifting battle lines. There was even a child’s small coat of armor.
Vrede van Utrecht/Treaty of Utrecht
At the end of the exhibit, there was even an interactive spot for both kids and adults. Whole walls were dedicated toward letting you write down your own ideas of where you’d like to see peace, with comments ranging from warring siblings to overall world peace. There were also actual games that could be played with two or more players.
Vrede van Utrecht/Treaty of Utrecht
The point is that even for someone like me who isn’t overly interested in war history, I still found the exhibit interesting and worth the visit. This was hardly a unique exhibit, either. Similar steps were taken for past exhibits I’ve seen there. The larger the museum and the larger the number of tourists, the harder it may be to create the same sort of interactive involvement, but those museums also have the major works of art that people will happily flock to see, despite the crowds. Sure, I didn’t have the best view of the Birth of Venus, but I’m still happy I saw it in person.

Not every museum is going to be exciting and not every person is going to enjoy even the best museums. Museums are trying to change and give visitors new experiences, but they also need to remain a place where both great works of art and smaller parts of our cultural history can remain in a safe, protected place. If you’re not a big fan of museums, try to find ones that actually showcase things that you find interesting. If you don’t like handbags, don’t go to the handbag museum in Amsterdam. Of course, you’re likely to be bored. If you prefer aviation to art, visit the Space and Aeronautics Museum rather than the National Gallery.

The point is that with the wealth of information available online nowadays, there’s no excuse not to do a bit of research before you go to a new city, country, museum, etc. Find what appeals to you, but also try to keep an open mind. You never know what you may experience. If you’re a parent of young children, there are ways to help your child really enjoy the experience. Try a scavenger hunt, like the author of Life in Dutch did with her little boy. To be honest, a scavenger hunt could be equally fun for adults and can be done for almost any museum with just a bit of imagination.

Vrede van Utrecht/Treaty of Utrecht

Rainbow Brite Bike

Rainbow Brite
I’m finally going back to the US for a visit later this month. It will be my first trip back since moving here. I’m expecting a bit of reverse culture shock, including the lack of innovatively colored bikes that I see almost daily here.

While I try to cram a month of work writing into a week or so, I think I’ll take this week to share some of these interestingly decorated bicycles that can be found throughout Utrecht (and the whole country). Meanwhile, for everything you could possibly want to know about cycling in the Netherlands, check out the fun and informative blog Bicycle Dutch. Mark does a great job explaining the Dutch cycling infrastructure and how it can work in other countries. Plus, lots of great videos!

Pump It Up

FietspompIf you’re new to the Netherlands and not used to the ingrained bicycle culture, you could be excused for seeing one of these barrels with a plunger on top and being a bit nervous. Visions of Wile E. Coyote may dance through your head.

Fear not, though, as these barrels are simply bicycle tire pumps (fietspompen). With 14 million bicycles trips made in the Netherlands each day — for work, school, shopping, and general transport — it’s not surprising that bicycle pumps are required from time to time.

Typically, most bicycle shops have a regular pump available for use if you’re out and realize your tires are getting a bit flat. However, the pumps are usually only available during opening hours. What do you do on a Sunday or when the bicycle shop is closed?

To solve that problem, Duco Douwstra, a successful taxi driver from Vleuten, has spent his own money to have these pumps placed around town. There are also tire repair kits attached to make them even more useful. To make them harder to steal, the pumps are built into barrels weighing close to 100 kilos/220 pounds.

To help pay for additional pumps and to keep them stocked, Douwstra hopes to raise funds by letting businesses purchase advertising space on the barrels. So far, I know of at least three on the eastern side of town: Janskerkhof, the corner of Biltstraat and Wittevrouwensingel (pictured), and another next to the Albert Heijn on Nachtegaalstraat. Have you seen more around town or in other cities?

Fietspomp

Free Wi-Fi in Utrecht

Domplein Festivities
A pilot program exploring the benefit and use of free WiFi in Utrecht has begun. For the rest of the year, free WiFi will be available at four of the city’s main squares: Domplein, Neude, Stadhuisplein, and Vredenburg.

It kicked off at Neude last Friday and I stopped by on Saturday and sure enough, it was working. The rest of the squares have gone online this week. So if you’re in town and want some free WiFi access, now you know where to go. No special passwords needed.

Edited 6/10/14: By the end of 2014, there will be free wifi throughout the city center and it will also be available at Griftpark and Willhelminapark.

Edited: July 2015: There is free wifi throughout the city center and at the spots mentioned above, as well as on Biltstraat and other individual locations outside the city center. In other words, there is extensive free wifi throughout Utrecht. Enjoy!
terras

Looking Out

sepnew

Book Couriers and Bookstores in Utrecht

Bookstore and Library
I came across a new service here in Utrecht that is handy for book lovers. There is now a book courier service available that can get a book to you within two hours. Order between 9-20:00 and they’ll deliver between 10-21:00. For free!

The service is through Selexyz, one of the large book chains in the Netherlands. They have a good selection of English-language books, and probably a few other languages, as well. If you prefer to browse the store yourself, their Utrecht location is on the Oudegracht, right across from the Stadhuis.

I get a lot of people visiting my blog after searching for places to buy English-language books in Utrecht, so I figured I’d update the list. Sadly, the used-book store I used to go to on Voorstraat has closed. I’m not sure if they’ve just moved or closed for good. Fortunately, there are a number of other book stores offering a variety of books.

On Saturdays at the outdoor market over at Vredenburg, there’s a stall that sells used books. They also tend to have a section devoted to English-language books, as well as some in French and German.

Savannah Bay (Telingstraat 13) was the first Dutch feminist bookshop, founded in 1975. It focuses primarily on gender/sexuality/literature/poetry, with a large selection of English-language gender studies books, but other topics as well.

Aleph Books (Vismarkt 9) has a mix of new and used books, with a large emphasis on art and history. Books are available in Dutch and English.

Boekhandel Libris (Servetstraat 3) is right next to the Domtoren and looks out onto the Flora’s Hof. They have a mix of fiction and non-fiction in Dutch, English, French and German. It’s fun to browse and you’re bound to find something you want to read.

De Rooie Rat (Oudegracht 65) has a mix of new and used books in multiple languages. Most books lean toward philosophy and politics, but you never know what you’ll find.

Bruna has both online and brick-and-mortar shops. There’s a Bruna in the train station that comes in handy with magazines and books (in Dutch and English) for those times when you realize you might need something to read to pass the time. There’s also one on Steenweg, as well as the corner of Maliebaan and Nachtegaalstraat (or whatever it’s called at that point)

Finally, Bol.com is an online shopping option, similar to Amazon before it started selling everything and the kitchen sink. They’ve got books in multiple languages, both new and used, as well as music, games and various electronics. Play.com is a similar website.

1 Billion Rising

Neude Crowd
As a feminist from a very young age, I’m constantly frustrated and horrified by the treatment of women around the world. I’m not just talking about the horrendous rapes of women that have taken place in India and South Africa recently. I’m just as upset over the fact that the Violence Against Women Act in the US was not reauthorized and only given an extension yesterday. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the US is the only democracy in the world that hasn’t ratified the United Nations Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (otherwise known as the international bill of rights for women).

ONE IN THREE WOMEN ON THE PLANET WILL BE RAPED OR BEATEN IN HER LIFETIME.

ONE BILLION WOMEN VIOLATED IS AN ATROCITY

ONE BILLION WOMEN DANCING IS A REVOLUTION*

Tomorrow, 14 February 2013, women (and men) all over the world will be rising up to protest the violence against women that takes place everywhere. This peaceful protest will take the form of singing, dancing, and flashmobs. Cities and countries all over the world have events planned and you’re free to take part, even if you haven’t learned the flashmob routine. Just dance and support women everywhere!

Utrecht will have its own event taking place, starting at Hoog Catharijne and then moving to Neude. The goal is to have one billion people around the world speaking out peacefully against this brutality. No matter where you are, look for an event near you. Or start your own! It doesn’t have to be big. Just find your own way to raise your voice.

*stats from onebillionrising.org

Tap Water Challenge

Water in Janskerkhof
The latest TEDxUtrecht took place this week and it seems that one of the discussions was about ways to encourage Utrechters to turn to tap water instead of bottled water. Not only is tap water the cheaper option, but it’s also better for the environment, since you don’t end up with all those plastic bottles. Considering the fact that plastic recycling isn’t the easiest form of recycling here, it seems particularly relevant.

The Utrecht Tap Water Challenge, organized by TEDxUtrecht and supported by the Join the Pipe foundation, Vitens, and the city of Utrecht, wants locals to get involved and come up with ways to encourage others to choose tap water. The winning idea will win a prize and have the opportunity to see their idea implemented. The deadline is 30 November 2012.

Water in Neude

A number of free water points have been established in locations around the city and other locations are being considered. If you’re out and about and have a reusable water container or some other sort of cup, you can always fill up, rather than spend €1 for a plastic bottle of water. In a pinch, you can go really green and use your own hand, of course! There’s one at Janskerkhof, Park Lepelenburg, Neude, Griftpark, and Marco Poloplantsoen.

Drink WaterPerhaps you’re like I used to be and have some unpleasant associations with tap water, whether it’s smelly, tastes bad, or comes with a warning as it did years ago when I lived in New Orleans. I used Britta filters and bottled water like many people and continued to do so when I first moved here, simply out of habit. Then I tasted the tap water here. It’s actually really nice! Utrecht has a reputation for the quality of its water. In fact, the water we get from our tap is the same spring water that gets bottled by brands like Sourcy.

Not everyone has access to quality tap water, but it’s worth trying from time to time, rather than simply buying bottled or shelling out for all of those filters. The irony is that we do have such great water in Utrecht, but it’s very hard to actually get tap water in restaurants here. They’ll bring you a bottle of still water, instead, as there’s no profit to be made off tap water. Perhaps that should be my suggestion for the competition: encouraging restaurants to provide tap water on request.

If you want more information about the contest, check the Gemeente’s website or visit the TEDxUtrecht idea site where you can submit your ideas. (Editor’s Note 1/8/13: contest has finished)

Views Without Vertigo

I have a confession to make. Despite my love of the Domtoren, I’ve never climbed it. You see, I did climb the Campanile bell tower in Florence, but that was when I truly understood that I’m not a fan of going down stairs without a handrail. I always have a feeling that I’m just going to pitch forward. I’m like that with any stairs. Walking down the narrow, heavily worn, relatively steep steps of that tower was a nightmare for me and it’s about 30 meters shorter than the Domtoren. Fortunately, it was narrow enough that I could put a hand on both walls to give myself some sense of security, but occasionally we’d be met by people going up the stairs, which meant I often sort of pressed myself up against the wall and waited until they passed, for fear that their momentum would somehow unbalance me.

In the case of the bell tower in Florence, we were left to our own devices going up and down, so I could take as long as I needed to, but here in Utrecht, the tours of the Domtoren are guided, so you have to go with a group. Add in a knee injury a few years ago, and the result is that I’ve never gotten up the nerve to go up.

Fortunately, thanks to Google, I can now take a virtual tour of the Domtoren. Using the same street view option that allows you to get a 360-view of streets, neighbourhoods, and cities, you can now do the same with certain moments, including the Domtoren.

You can see the different levels of the tower by choosing levels 1-5, from the ground floor to the top exterior. I’m particularly fond of the view on level four, as you look up at the bells and the massive Gothic windows. On level three, you can actually move the image so that you are standing beneath the bells, looking directly up into them, clapper and all!

So if you’re like me and have an issue with stairs or heights, or if you just can’t get to Utrecht, you can now explore to your heart’s content with this great option. Zoom in, twirl about, look at the details … and maybe you’ll find yourself determined to get over your issues so you can go see it all in person.

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I’m going to canvas for comments again for my blog over at Expats Blog. Many of you have already left me amazing comments that have truly moved me, but if you haven’t and feel so inclined, please leave a comment on that page. With enough positive comments, it will help me be chosen Top Netherlands Blog.

Reasons to Visit

Gathering

Lonely Planet recently listed its top travel destinations for 2013. Under top cities, they ranked Amsterdam number two. Overall, kind of cool, I guess, although many of you know my frustration with travel publications never seeming to look past Amsterdam. Still, they did list Utrecht as a hidden gem earlier this year, so I guess I can’t complain too much.

When I looked at the actual Lonely Planet article I found out their reasoning for choosing Amsterdam is that there are lots of anniversaries being celebrated next year. The canal ring turns 400; Van Gogh’s 160th birthday will be celebrated, along with the 40th anniversary of the Van Gogh Museum; and the Rijksmuseum re-opens after a 10-year renovation (although it’s been partially open throughout).

Those are all good reasons to visit Amsterdam and rather than complain that Utrecht wasn’t chosen, I’ll simply suggest that anyone who is planning on visiting Amsterdam in 2013 should also plan a visit to Utrecht. You see, Utrecht is also celebrating a major anniversary next year. 2013 marks the 300th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht, which brought about the end of the War of the Spanish Succession.

Treat of Utrecht

I first learned about the Treaty of Utrecht in some long-ago history class, although it was the name that stuck with me, rather than the history behind it. So when I knew we were moving here and people asked if Utrecht was famous for anything, I always mentioned the treaty. It turns out there were a series of treaties and that they formed the Peace of Utrecht, which explains why it’s usually called the Vrede van Utrecht here (vrede=peace).

It’s not exactly clear why Utrecht was chosen, although it was probably for a number of reasons, including the fact that the city had been positive toward the French in the past and previous successful treaties had been signed in the Dutch Republic. It still took more than a year of wrangling and negotiations at the Stadhuis – which had dual grand entrances that eliminated any diplomatic issues as to who should enter first – but eventually the series of bilateral treaties were signed on Tuesday, 11 April 1713.

In theory, a 300-year-old treaty doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, especially since the Dutch Republic didn’t seem to be involved other than as host. In fact a member of the French envoy tauntingly said, “De vous, chez vous, sans vous” (referring to the fact that the negotiations included the Republic and were taking place on their own lands, yet the Republic had no say in the outcome). However, 300 years later, Utrecht is turning the treaty on its head, in a sense, taking over control of how the historic event is celebrated now.

Stadhuisbrug

Utrecht has been preparing for the celebrations for years. The Trajectum Lumen light art installations are just one of the many lead-ups to the official 2013 celebrations. Various cultural events that take place every year will have specially themed events throughout 2013, including the Nederlands Film Festival, the VJ op de Dom light and music event, and the music Festival de Beschaving, just to name a few. There’s a whole year’s worth of events being planned around the idea of celebrating peace, which makes Utrecht worth a visit in its own right.

Over the past year or so, Utrecht has been promoting tourism in the city, using the tagline: te veel te leuk voor één dag (too much fun for just one day), and it’s true! For one thing, anyone visiting the city should stay overnight so that they can walk through the city and enjoy the Trajectum Lumen light exhibits all over town. They keep adding new ones, including the new lights in the Nieuwegracht by the Pausdam (where you can see other fantastic artistic light displays). Utrecht is a beautiful city at night, with the warm glow of the Pyke Koch lamps on the ancient city streets, and there’s plenty to do, with great restaurants, fun night clubs, and inviting cafés. Plus, there’s a ton to do during the day, whether it’s shopping along the Oudegracht, visiting local breweries, enjoying some of the unusual museums, or climbing the Domtoren.

So if you’re thinking of visiting Amsterdam in 2013, consider adding in a trip to Utrecht. Plus, Utrecht is a great central location for visiting other cities and is a short 20-minute train ride to Amsterdam. You could make it your base city and probably find cheap hotel rooms that cost less than similar rooms in Amsterdam. We’ve got everything from youth hostels to 5-star hotels right in the city center. Plus, I learned last year that all those souvenirs everyone (rightly) buys to take home to family and friends are much cheaper in Utrecht, including the cozy clog slippers.

Drive-By Posting

Birdie
I’ve been a bad blogger, not even updating the calendar of events. But everyone gets into a funk every now and then and hopefully I’ll work up the energy to post some interesting stuff in the next few days. In the meantime, here’s a bullet list of random interesting things and events and a picture of some new wall/door art I noticed.

  • Coming Out Day 2012 is held on 11 October and Utrecht will be one of 36 municipalities flying the rainbow flag. The goal is to promote safety and acceptance for the 20,000 GLBT residents of Utrecht.
  • Also on 11 October, Utrecht’s new Information Center will be opening on the Domplein with Nijntje/Miffy opening the center. The t-shirt chosen from the numerous entrants in the Big T-shirt Contest will also be on display.
  • The Impakt Festival is also starting on 11 October. This is a five-day multi-discipline festival focusing on media art.
  • And now for something completely different that is already out … BlogExpat.com kindly invited me to participate in their expat interview series and it’s out now. In it, I ramble on various topics and show why it is important to always have someone else proof your own work no matter how good you are at proofing the work of others.