We visited the Centraal Museum last weekend to see all of the renovations finally complete. It’s still a stunning and highly creative museum. Even the shadows are works of art.

This is my contribution to the Weekly Photo Challenge, whose theme this week is abstract.

Tank Man

During the summer of 2013, the Call of the Mall art event took place in the Hoog Catharijne shopping center here in Utrecht. A variety of art works in multiple mediums were placed throughout the mall. The Celestial Tea Pot, which still stands on the roof of part of the mall, was and is a popular piece, but there was one piece that really created a lot of interest, at times blocking much of the walkway in which it was placed.

Tank Man, a lifelike sculpture by Fernando Sánchez Castillo, refers to the unknown man who stood down a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square in China in 1989 after the Chinese military had come in to shut down protests. Although a few names were bandied about at the time, it seems that there is no reliable information about the man’s identity and fate.
Tank ManAlthough we don’t know what became of the man dubbed Tank Man, we do know what happened to the statue. It was purchased by the Centraal Museum, where it now has a home. I never got to see it while it was on display in the mall, but I did finally get to see it on my most recent visit to the museum. It’s a powerful piece when you stop and think about what this man did, especially at that particularly violent and repressive moment in time.

The video footage and photos that made it out of China are hard to forget. The close-up photos like the one by photographer Jeff Widener are staggering, but it was one I saw a few days ago that really made me think more deeply about it all than I have in many years. The wider angle shows the scope of what this man was up against. To see the tiny figure of the the man standing against at least 20 tanks just on the road, not to mention the numerous other grouped tanks in the background is incredibly moving and thought-provoking. It’s hard not to put yourself in his shoes and wonder if you would have been able to take such a stand. I think being able to come face to “face” with the Tank Man via the statue is what helps to make it such a powerful piece, because you do suddenly find yourself face to face with your thoughts about what you’d be willing to stand up for and against.
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Pretty Vacant

Rietveld Landscape's Pretty Vacant
You’ve got to love an art installation that calls to mind both the Sex Pistols and medieval architecture. The installation titled Pretty Vacant, by Amsterdam-based Rietveld Landscape, was in one of the chapels at the Centraal Museum. However, because I am woefully behind on this blog post, the exhibit is no longer there. I won’t tell you how far behind I am on it. I am the queen of procrastination.

The blue foam is actually the remnants from another work that the group did for the 2010 Venice architecture bienale. That was an exploration of the amount of available space within the Netherlands. With the Pretty Vacant installation, the way it is placed within the chapel, it becomes self-referential to the medieval windows within the chapel, with the shapes calling to mind stained glass patterns.The city shapes combine to both obscure the view, as well as create a new, alternative view of the Dutch landscape.

The structure makes use of both positive and negative space to block light and filter it, creating an atmospheric setting within the former chapel. The chapel itself is divided into two levels. The installation begins on the second level and rises to the top, however it can also be viewed towering over anyone standing below on the lower level.
Rietveld Landscape's Pretty Vacant
Rietveld Landscape's Pretty Vacant
I saw it from different levels on different visits. The first visit was when I saw it from the ground level. Around a year later, I saw it again from the upper level. The ground level is almost overwhelming with the height and solidity of the wall of blue. On the upper level, I found it more peaceful and contemplative, particularly with the light coming through the chapel’s side windows. The upper level was vacant except for the blue foam, allowing visitors to sit or stand and contemplate the piece with out any other real distractions. I’m glad I managed to stumble across that level and experience the work for myself.
Rietveld Landscape's Pretty Vacant
Rietveld Landscape's Pretty Vacant
Rietveld Landscape's Pretty Vacant
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Celebrating Nijntje (Miffy)

Dick Bruna Huis/Nijntje Museum
While friends were visiting in November, I finally got around to seeing the dick bruna huis. Admission is included in your ticket to the Centraal Museum (which is across the street from the dick bruna house), but I had never gotten around to visiting in the past. Who is Dick Bruna, you’re possibly asking. Bruna is the creator of Nijntje, AKA Miffy, the illustrated rabbit who is celebrating her 60th birthday this year, with some festivities taking place as far away as Japan. As the Alphaville song goes, she’s “big in Japan”. Bruna is an Utrechter famous for his work as an illustrator, writer, and graphic designer, with work for all ages.

Although I didn’t grow up reading the Nijntje books, I have been aware of her for a number of years. Someone in the office building across the street from my office in New York even had a couple of Nijntje posters up in their window, so I often found myself looking at the adorable little rabbit while I tried to find inspiration for my own work. However, having neither a childhood connection to the books, nor children of my own, the dick bruna house was never high on my list of places to visit. It was always one of those things I figured I’d get around to eventually. Fortunately, having visitors is a great way to see those sites you otherwise put off.

As it turns out, it was announced just last week that the dick bruna house is going to be renovated and renamed as the Nijntje Museum, with the full focus being on the famous little rabbit. Work starts in early July and will likely run through December.

As it is, the site is already primarily focused on Nijntje, with walls full of the various books in a babel of languages, interactive play areas, and a large golden statue of Nijntje. It is definitely geared more toward children, but visually it’s still an interesting place and certainly worth a quick browse if you’ve already purchased admission to the Centraal Museum. I’m glad I did finally visit. If nothing else, I ended up with a great selection of postcard versions of some of Bruna’s book cover illustrations that I really love.
Dick Bruna Huis/Nijntje Museum
Dick Bruna Huis/Nijntje Museum
The towering wall (one of three) full of the various Nijntje and friends stories, translated into numerous languages.
Dick Bruna Huis/Nijntje Museum
Beneath the books are a few listening stations and cute little seats for children to sit down and read and listen to the books.
Dick Bruna Huis/Nijntje Museum
Dick Bruna Huis/Nijntje Museum
It’s not all Nijntje, though. There are also photos of Dick Bruna at work, as well as a few photos of Bruna with the king and queen, riding his bike in front of the Domtoren, and standing in front of the Rietveld-Schröder House.
Dick Bruna Huis/Nijntje Museum
Dick Bruna Huis/Nijntje Museum
The interior is a great mix of white walls to show off the works, as well as kaleidoscopes of color in some of the rooms and passageways. And there’s always the golden Nijntje if you want a touch of glam …
Dick Bruna Huis/Nijntje Museum

It’s a Surreal World and We Just Live in It

surreal worldSome art is beautiful, some is disturbing, some makes you think. Surrealism seems to cover all of the bases. I love it! During my studies, I focused more on Italian Renaissance (architecture), but I always found Surrealism, Dadaism,and similar styles to be incredibly fascinating. So when the Centraal Museum in Utrecht opened their Surreal Worlds exhibit recently, I knew I had to see it.

Surrealism developed initially in France around 1920 and took about 10 years to make its way to the Netherlands. Interestingly, it was here in Utrecht where it really took root in the country. Much of Surrealism dealt with getting rid of the moralism, sexual inhibition, and stifling rules of Catholicism and the average bourgeois culture. Utrecht, which had so long been a seat of power for the Catholic church, may have been rife with artists ready to open their minds to this new way of expressing themselves. Surrealism moved beyond the rational world, turning to the dream world and free association.Surreal WorldMost of the extensive exhibit focuses on the Dutch artists, from the 1930s until present times, who were drawn to Surrealism. One of the most prominent of the early Dutch Surrealism artists was J.H. Moesman, whose work is on display, capturing the essence of so much of the style.

However, the exhibit does include a few small pieces by some of the biggest international names of the movement, including Man Ray, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, and Marcel Duchamp. It was fun to see some of the pieces in person and to recognize the styles of these individual artists.man ray ironduchampjoan mirómax ernst(Apologies for the less than stellar photos. Low museum lighting and an ancient camera phone aren’t the best combination.)

The exhibit is incredibly well done, covering a variety of artists through the last 80 years or so. They also chose a fascinating way of displaying many of the works, dividing them into groups based on various body parts, even the “naughty bits”. Interested in seeing a large net bag filled with glass breasts and penii? They’ve got it. From head to toe, there are some fascinating works that range from creepy to stunning.

They also have some works by Pyke Koch, a Dutch artist who lived for many years here in Utrecht. I first learned of him because of his design of the lamps throughout the city, but his paintings, done in the Magic Realism style, have really grown on me. I really enjoyed getting the chance to see more of his work. This one, in particular, really caught my eye:pyke kochThe exhibit runs through 9 June and I highly recommend it if you have even a passing interest in Surrealism. This weekend is a great time to visit the Centraal Museum, because it’s Museum Weekend. Museums across the city are opening their doors for free or for reduced entrance fees. You can visit the Centraal Museum this weekend for just €1, so there’s no excuse not to go. This piano alone makes it worthwhile!Surreal World

Heads Up with a Side of Escher

FramesThis was going to be a Wordless Wednesday post, but I thought I’d throw in a few words of explanation. This is the view looking up through one of the stairwells at the Centraal Museum. I love the alternating frames that emphasize the artwork of the light at the top. And if you look at it all a bit twisted, there is a sense of Escher to the whole scene. Just more proof that it pays to look up.Frames

Revisiting the Catharijneconvent Museum

MonstranceA little over a year ago, the Catharijneconvent Museum experienced a robbery. Only one item was stolen, but it was taken in broad daylight during opening hours. The monstrance, a large gold vessel used to hold the consecrated Eurcharistic host, is one of a handful on display at the museum. Fortunately, police were able to recover it and it was eventually put back on display.

The Catharijneconvent has a new exhibit — Thuis in de bijbel (At home with the Bible) — that I was curious to see, so while I was there the other week, I decided to quickly stop in to see the recovered monstrance (seen in the photo above). It’s an effective display room that I remember from my previous visit. It’s a small, dark, low-ceilinged room with the items on display spotlit. All the gold, silver, and similar materials really do shine in that setting. Some are old pieces, while others are relatively new, including some of the bejewelled rings on display. I’ll hold my tongue on the amount of Church wealth on display in that one room.

I gave a quick walk-through some of the other areas I’ve seen before and this time I took a photo of the carpet in one section that I get a kick out of. As you’re walking through the room, you don’t immediately notice the pattern of the carpet cut-out, but when seen from the right angle, it becomes quite clear. A bit of modern styling amid centuries-old religious artworks.Carpet Design

Cow Smell Made Visible

Hazy OutlookThe day started off misty and ended up hazy. Although I suspect that the haze is the physical manifestation of the stench of cow manure that is overwhelming the city today. It’s not a completely uncommon scent, but it seems particularly strong today, making it impossible to keep doors or windows open.

I went to the Catharijne Convent Museum today to see their new exhibit Thuis in de Bijbel (at home in the Bible) and considering the number of cows represented in many of the paintings, if they’d had a window open, it could have been a surround-smell experience. Actually, the cows were some of my favorite bits of many of the paintings. One painting, in particular, caught my eye. God verschijnt aan Abraham in Sichem (God appears to Abraham at Shechem) by Claes Moeyaert has some lovely big cows, but there’s also a man (wearing green, next to the man in red) directly behind Abraham who stood out to me. Sadly, I can’t find a version large enough to show why the figure drew my eye, but there was something in the depiction that looked so realistic and contemporary almost, more so than any of the other figures. And then the irreverent part of me kicked in and I found myself laughing as I realized it looked a bit like he was “photobombing” Abraham.

Ahem, anyway …
As soon as I walked outside after my tour through the museum, the smell hit me once again. The cool breeze was nice, as the museum had been quite warm, but the smell made me disinclined to linger along the Nieuwegracht. I did stop to take these photos, though, although the actual haze of the day isn’t as evident in the photos. But I still loved seeing the Domtoren rising up over the rooftops, a little soft around the edges, and one of the transepts of the cathedral looking large against the other buildings, but small next to the tower. Hazy Outlook

Aboriginal Art Museum of Utrecht

Aboriginal Art Museum of Utrecht
The other week, taking advantage of my museumkaart (a card good for a year that gets you into most Dutch museums for free), I finally visited the Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht. Located right on the Oudegracht, just a short distance from the Domplein, this museum is unique not just for Utrecht and the Netherlands but for all of Europe. You see, it’s the only museum in Europe dedicated to contemporary aboriginal art from Australia.

The museum is spread out on three floors, but each floor is relatively small so it’s not overwhelming at all. The lower floors feature the special exhibits, which change two or three times a year, while the top floor contains some of the permanent pieces (although I believe they do change a bit, as well).
Aboriginal Art Museum of Utrecht
The current exhibit is called Country to Coast: The Colours of Kimberly, focusing on the variety of colours and styles of aboriginal artists from this remote north-western region of Australia. Most of the works on display are canvases, but there’s a special section dedicated to paintings done on bark of the Wandjina. The Wandjina are the ancestral beings who created the country and are responsible for various lagoons, rivers and other water sources.

Despite a degree in art history, I admit that I know next to nothing about aboriginal art of any period. I was able to pick up on some information by reading some of the placards throughout the museum, but mainly I focused on the visual forms of each painting. After all, art is art. There’s no one way to view it. Even within art history, there are multiple approaches, including focusing more on form than content/context. And truly, many of the paintings were visually stunning and evocative in their own right. There are a few in particular that have stuck with me. There’s a fantastic use of colour throughout, but also a number of graphic elements that were equally fascinating. Oddly enough, some even reminded me of the works of Keith Haring, for what it’s worth.
Aboriginal Art Museum of Utrecht
If you enjoy art in general, I do think a trip to the museum is worth it. The signs throughout the museum are all in Dutch, which may make it a bit less accessible for foreign visitors, but on a purely visual level, it’s still interesting and a nice way to spend an hour or so. The museum’s website does have information in English, though, so it’s possible to get some basic background on the works on display to round out the visit if language is an issue.

It may seem unusual to have a contemporary aboriginal art museum in Utrecht, but it developed from a group of aboriginal art enthusiasts. They created an association in 1999, paving the way for the opening of the museum in 2001. Interestingly, the chairman of the board of trustees is Hans Sondaal, a former Dutch ambassador to Australia. It is still a private foundation, with money coming from donors, rather than government funding. There seems to be a fair amount of support, though, and the gift shop, which features a number of beautiful pieces, probably helps add a few more funds to the coffers.

ETA: I’ve heard from the museum and they have English texts of the current exhibit now available. So there’s no excuse not to go!

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