First choice for the favorite museum we visited during our recent two months in England isn’t a museum; it’s the Bodleian Library. But when the Bodleian rolls out some of what it has been collecting since Sir Thomas Bodley (1545–1613) donated his fortune and a good portion of 2,500 books for a library for Oxford students, it plenty makes like a museum.
Since Bodley’s donation in 1598, the library has collected more than 13 million books, manuscripts, paintings, letters and just about anything you would or would not expect in a library. This year, it put together an exhibit called “Marks of Genius,” an amazing display of the ability of human beings to create, to think, to write, to make music and to be . . . geniuses. A copy of the Magna Carta, Queen Elizabeth’s calligraphy, Asian painting, Shakespeare’s folios etc. etc. My only disappointment was that the library gift shop did not drop the price of the accompanying coffee-table book down from 40 pounds after the exhibit ended.
“Marks of Genius” made clear a general truth about museums and their like: How well you like a museum may depend on a special exhibit being featured. That was true for us at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the second museum on our list of favorites. The place has floors full of history, art, musical instruments, mummies, Roman statuary, but it also has regular special exhibits. We went to two of them, one on the miniature painter Adam Buck and another one entitled “Titian to Canaletto: Drawing in Venice.” While I could not impress an art historian with my knowledge of drawing in Venice after seeing this exhibit, I came away with a better understanding of the role drawing plays in the creation of art. I especially liked that one part of the exhibit had a display of the materials — ink, paper, charcoal, etc. — used by the artists. That helped me understand the drawings and why they looked like they did.
The Ashmolean Museum showed us how a museum should be visited: again and again in small chunks. To do that you have to be around for a while and nearby, which we were for the Ashmolean. We visited three or four times, spacing out our trips over the eight weeks we were in Oxford. We chose the special exhibits for two visits, spent another trip on artifacts from the early history of England and followed a suggested “10 highlights in an hour” for another excursion.
The 10 highlights? Powhatan’s Mantle (father of Pocahontas); Lawrence of Arabia’s robe; Mummy of Meresamun (about 830 -715 BC); Greek Octopus Jar (1450 – 1400 BC); Buddha from 200 AD; 1700’s Samurai Suit of Armor; Bodhisattva from 960 – 1127 AD; The Alfred Jewel, Anglo-Saxon (871 -899 AD); Uccello’s “The Hunt in the Forest (1397 – 1475) and Van Gogh’s “The Restaurant de la Sirene, Asnieres” (1853 – 1890).
Making those visits to the Ashmolean made me realize how little I have followed this practice where I live. I’ve been in Seattle since 1976 yet have never set foot inside the Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus where I spent five years getting a graduate degree and another five years teaching. It wasn’t until I spent two seasons driving for Ride the Ducks of Seattle that I thought in all honesty I should visit some of the attractions I was touting to the people in the seats behind me. Since then I have made it to the Experience Music Project and done the Boeing factory tour, both of them with out-of-town visitors. I still need to make my first visit to MOHAI, the Museum of History and Industry. Looks like I need more visitors for me to take advantage of what is close by.
Next on the list of museum favorites would be two museums that share another distinction that can make a museum special: They are on the site of some historical event. Bletchley Park was where the Allies worked to break the German code during World War II. The huts where the work was done are still there along with a museum that I barely got a glimpse of. Would love to go back.
Same with the Churchill Museum in the War Rooms where he ran the show during the war. The rooms still have most of the articles that were there during the war supplemented by displays using modern technology to tell the story of the great English leader and the history in which he played a commanding role.
Then we come to the National Gallery in London, made special for us by the exhibit “Goya: The Portraits.” My knowledge of Francisco Goya was limited to his painting of the events of 2nd of May, 1808, his grotesque drawings, prints of which were once displayed at Davidson Galleries in Pioneer Square, and to the movie “The Naked Maja” starring Ava Gardner, a source of titillation in my youth (hey, that was pretty risque for 1958).
Turns out Goya made his day-to-day living as a portrait painter, which was no easy task in Spain during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Kings came and went, and Goya worked as the court painter for more than one of them. He had to be a political chameleon to stay employed and alive. That only went so far, and Goya spent his last years with his liberal attitudes intact as a refugee in France.
While working as a court painter he might flatter his subjects, once painting the queen of Spain with full cheeks even though by the time she sat for him she had lost all her teeth. The audio guide that went along with the exhibit noted that when Goya painted her she had given birth “to no less than 13 children.” She may have pulled out all her hair, too.
In contrast to the portraits he did for paying royalty, when Goya painted his friends, family and himself, flattery played no role in what ended up on the canvas. He painted them literally warts and all.
Last on the list of museum favorites is another one made special by an exhibit while we were visiting. The Christ Church Picture Gallery was showing a selection of art from the 200 paintings and 2,000 drawings left to the college 250 years ago by Gen. John Guise. These included work by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. It was another lesson in art history and appreciation, another experience in how much you learn by traveling.