Holidays in the sun 

Have mercy on me, dear reader, for I spent most of today in irons (have I mentioned my hotel used to be a prison?)

I spent hours in irons. But not shackles. Rather, I surrounded myself with Iron, bronze, silver, and marble, too. I made a visit to the Istanbul Museum of Archaeology my first order of business, thinking I’d spend an hour, perhaps 90 minutes there, before revisiting Tokapi Sarayi and the Aya Sofia, maybe pay a visit to that doge interred on the upper gallery. Best laid plans, and all that.

Founded in the latter half of the 19th century to house a number of the palace’s growing collection of sarcophagi, the collection currently spans four buildings, with a prodigious amount of exhibits off limits while engineers shore up the main building against seismic activity.
Given the utterly overwhelming volume of artifacts I saw, I decided to pinpoint three areas where I felt the museum excelled. I qualify that by pointing out this museum doesn’t do anything badly or even merely competently. The labels could benefit from some proofreading, but that detail doesn’t detract from the scholarship, the choice of items on display, or the superb framework the curatorial text lays out for visitors.

I was most interested in two areas when I started exploring — the local Chalcedon Culture that began roughly concurrently with the Hellenic city of Byzantium and pre-Persian (or Parthian) inhabitants, of the region around the Sea of Marmara.
The Chalcedonian aspect of my curiosity they handle extraordinarily well because there’s so much archaeological material right here in town. Since the Chalcedon culture was firmly entrenched from the sixth century before the common era (bce) in the areas between Uskudar and Karakoy on the Asian side, digging the subway endured a wealth of artifacts. 

They coyly hint at the uncertainty of the etymology for the culture, but one can discern that whoever wrote the text sided with the account that the Persian warrior King that defeated both them and Byzantium called their kingdom the land of the blind, joking you’d have to be blind to choose to live anywhere but the promontory currently occupied by the Topkapi Sarayi and the archaeological museum, among other highlights.

Given Istanbul’s location and the trade advantages its position between the Bosphorous and (some ways to the west) Dardanelles, the city has been a sort of grand central station to the Hittites, the Phrygians, and countless others, so my interest in preparthian history is very well served by this museum.

What I didn’t know was that at some point in Istanbul’s inhabited history, both the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea had been fresh water 

That must have complicated trade a little bit, but not enough to dent the city’s trade profile. Interaction with Assyrians, Cypriots, Hellenes, and the Parthians visibly shaped what one sees in the local grave coverings, but it also adds weapons technology, additional materials (like soapstone, alabaster, and eventually marble) to the attention of local artisans. 

What I didn’t walk into the museum expecting was the superb level of granularity that the exhibit on Troy provided. I’ve seen two or three exhibits that focus on what Schliemann did and the mistakes he made (attributing jewelry to Homer’s Troy that belonged to an earlier civilization, to name one), but never have I seen an exhibit which breaks down every layer; details its population and area consumed; described burial methods; discussed their economic position; and described their relations with neighboring cultures.

If I am to be honest with you, the fact is I haven’t done this museum and its four buildings’ contents even remotely well. This complex took me the better part of four hours and I read almost every label. 

I barely scratched the surface. I doff my hat to the curators who’ve assembled this amazing treasury of glass, statuary, jewelry, ceramics, weaponry, and even the oldest love poem!



Let’s just say that out loud, shall we? 


There. Wasn’t that fun? An abbreviation of MUseum MOderner Kunst, Mumok sits in The Museum Quarter and exhibits challenging works that ask the visitor to reexamine the role of art in society, in one’s life, and over time. 

A current exhibit, Painting 2.0, tirelessly examines how the Internet, Social Media, and technology at large have transformed our understanding not only of painting as a medium, but also audience; surface; and representation. Actually, the exhibit has the admirable effect of causing me to wonder where artists go from here. 

When representation and abstraction are no longer binaries opposed and the idea of shocking images (be they erotic, violent, politically charged or morbid) no longer elicits a thrill or (much) outrage, what’s next for the artist? For the critic? For the collectors? Or just consumers of art like myself? What do we want/need?

How do you conceive of a next step when folks like pollock, Stella, Rauschenberg, or Warhol took things to a plateau and the Internet doubled down on the programmatic challenges (who is the audience? How important is the medium? How important is the material, when you can reconstitute it in pixels?)

I found Painting 2.0 an excellent stab at the directions artists can take next — have taken already — and what are the stakes. But I didn’t glean insight about me, or about art as it is becoming. I don’t fault the curators of this exhibit for this failure on my part — they did their job, and the artists did theirs — admirably so. 

What struck me most emotionally was a collection below street level which traces the founders’ efforts not only to collect and display,  but also to promote artists and movement they might not have personally liked. Also worth noting was the tireless effort of the founders to bring artists who’d fled the nazis back to Vienna, particularly Oskar Kokoshka. 

These drives to promote unknown bro dynamic artists and honor those already influential struck me as admirable, and made me happy that I had worked my way through the entire museum

Bauhaus Archiv

Nothing I’d read of the Bauhaus movement prepared me for the museum the Bauhaus Archiv houses. I found myself floored by a number of  realizations about a movement I had thus far admired from afar. 

I am constrained in the number of images I can display here — the museum did not permit photography inside, but I’m none too upset by this. How could my meager photography skills capture the breadth and depth of imagination on display?

The overarching epiphany here was the sheer magnitude of disciplines the Bauhaus instructors undertook to teach students and the superb pedagogy that went into producing so many artists.

I also had to adjust my thinking about the Bauhaus aesthetic over all. I’d conceived the signature look to be limited to clean rectilinear shapes and the occasional curve relieving the angles as an accent, not an intrinsic factor in the design.

I also failed to see the warmth and humor shared by the proponents. Instructors such as Vassily Kandinsky and  László Moholy-Nagy collaborated on a wonderful workbook for one of Walter Gropius’ birthdays, and the sense of both creativity and community one gleans from its pages suggests something special, something binding and intense, sort of like what the Corcoran School of Art students used to describe.

What I really loved — what comes firstly from the curatorial text — is the attitude that students needed to get familiar with the properties of the media and objects they worked with before embarking on theoretical coursework. 

Students explored properties like hardness, weight, curvature, and interactivity with other things. In particular, the way light, color, and shadows affect what we see. 

From the close interaction of instructors with students, the sense of closeness, whether in Dessau, Weimar, or Berlin, and the sense that the future lay in embracing both the form and the function of things, but also their suitability to the human spirit, the permanent exhibition really makes the visitor wonder what the future could have looked like, had nazis basically chased all the luminaries of Bauhaus to foreign shores (like Chicago and North Carolina). 

A temporary exhibit about textiles reinforced the values of the original Bauhaus instructors by exploring the means of production and what we mean by the word textiles. Recycled plastic, woven milk casein, and esoteric materials lent insights into traditional methods of production, as well as querying the future and purpose of the textile industry. 

Though small, this exhibit asked visitors to deconstruct and build anew their relationship to the practical world around them, whether worn, sat on, or carried.

Taken as a whole, the Bauhaus Archiv museum nominally wouldn’t consume too much time, but I found myself retracing whole sections’ labels and background text for clues to how Bauhaus evolved as it moved from one city to the next and coped with cuts in funding, as well as moral opprobrium from the nazis.

I think I’d need a semester or more to grasp fully what I sought in drawings, paintings, coffee pots, and sculptures, but coming to grips with that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of this museum. 

I want my mummy (And other jarring topics of a canopic nature)

After I staggered out of the artifact-rich Pergamon museum, I lurched towards the Neue Museum next to it and dove into more than eighteen dynasties of Egyptian pharaoh sand their carefully cultivated conflation of gods, death, and divine right rule by oligarchy after oligarchy, until cleopatra ended the Ptolemaic dynasty and Rome out the Nile into not-so-benevolent receivership.

Much as I’ve lauded the cultural legacy of the Islamic culture that followed the Hejira, two facts can not be gainsaid:

  • The fate of the poor Egyptian  citizen probably didn’t change much from pharaoh to caliphate
  • Egypt wasn’t lacking on engineering and artistic fronts, either.

All things being equal, I found I rushed through the Egyptian collection a bit more than I had the Assyrian and Islamic works next door. Part of that was hunger; by the time I wended my way through the Neue Museum’s collections of Egyptian, Trojan, Roman, and Bronze Age steppes’ cultures, I had been walking for no fewer five hours, not counting my transit time to reach the island where these museums sit (hence, “museuminsel.”)

But there’s something else. I seem to have wearied of the Egyptian mystique somewhat. Not that I’d turn down a chance to see the Valley of the Kings of the opportunity arose, but the artifacts do not intrinsically thrill me the way those in the Islamic arts sections of the Pergamon museum did. Not sure why. 

Safe travels (or what’s a word worth)

Much of my daily efforts center around figuring out what words mean and what people mean when they say them. In my experience, the lacuna between those two stretches wide as the Sargasso Sea.

Not so yesterday. People may ask how’s it going and not want to hear the answer, and lots of folk say, “safe travels,” because habit dictates we wish our fellow sojourners well. 

But the world I grew up in and the world we inhabit today has changed in one drastic fashion: folks who hate no longer confine that bile to the remote zones we associate with extremism anymore. 

They export their zeal to rock concerts in Paris; nightclubs in Florida; and highly trafficked airports in countries known for cosmopolitan and secular modernity. Like Kemal Ataturk airport in Istanbul, where I have three scheduled transits. 

My  trip to Berlin for my annual birthday jaunt passed through Ataturk yesterday, leaving for Tegel in Berlin a scant three hours before the latest attack took lives and left numerous people wounded.

Suddenly, “safe travels” doesn’t sound like a cute and folksy colloquialism. 

What great curating looks like

Without a doubt, the highlight of my day wandering around Frederick, Maryland, has to be The National Museum of Civil War Medicine.  Superb curatorial text, thousands of authentic artifacts, and knowledgeable staff make this two story museum a testament to medical history, technology, and social progress.

The museum strives to educate visitors not just about the status quo of medicine during the Civil War, but how much the technology of healing soldiers evolved during a half decade that saw a president assassinated; a barbaric linchpin of our nation’s economy abolished; and the balance between agrarian and urban culture permanently disrupted. 

I hate the colloquialism “game-changer,”  but the exhibits here illustrate how aptly that expression describes how the civil war affected the way medicine was practiced — not just in the US, but worldwide. Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton both effected change overseas, born of observations on the battlefield, and Walt Whitman, the compassionate nurse, transmuted what he saw in civil war hospitals into soulful verse.

Of the eye-opening lessons I carried away from this museum, these made the most impression on me:

  • The idea of triage originated with one of the first battlefield surgeons (as did an effective and comfortable ambulance service). 
  • Changes made in lighting, hygiene and control of space between the patients’ beds not only dropped the mortality rate of patients to 8% by the end of the war, they changed america’s perceptions of doctors from bloodthirsty butchers to gentle and careful healers. The fact that the practice of bleeding fell out of favor during this time helped effect that.
  • Many more women, masquerading as men, fought in the civil war than I ever dreamt was possible. Of course, since with exams rarely were performed with integrity, that was easier than I’d have imagined. Many went on to work as spies for either side, as well as fight in combat.
  • Whether because they were captured or circumstances threw them together, confederate and union doctors worked side by side in many theaters of the war, their only goal to heal as many soldiers as they could, regardless of allegiance.
  • As the US navy grew, skirmishes and hostile engagements between the union army and the confederacy occurred everywhere from the shores of France to the Bering Straits — not just the battlefields outside DC, Frederick, or Richmond.
  • There being so few schools that would take women prior to the civil war, the concept of nursing as a profession took off as a consequence of the thousands of soldiers who contracted infections, std’s, and nutritional disorders — all of which slowed both armies in their tracks. 
  • And, finally, the prosthetics that surgeons fit amputees with featured shockingly modern mechanics, given the time and tools on offer. 

The museum occupies a furniture maker’s atelier, which was fitting because those were the professionals contracted by the army to embalm and build coffins for soldiers who perished.

The physical aspects of the museum — layout, lighting, and decorative elements — encourage a logical flow of learning, starting with recruitment propaganda at the beginning of the war and ending with the coffin and embalming operations when soldiers died.

A decorative element that caught my eye — being a train geek — was a mural on both sides of a corridor. Depicting the interior of a train which transported soldiers from the front to big hospitals. Those trains, and the riverboats that got pressganged for that purpose, struck me as Faustian. 

On one hand, sure, trains and ships transported higher quantities of soldiers to hospitals faster than ever before, but given the coal dust burned to propel trains or boats, but how clean could those have been, and how many patients contracted infections or gotten motion sick from the journey?

Still, as the docent I spoke to about these and the nurses pointed out, progress is never simply linear or unilateral — just think of all the men and women of color who got on a professional footing while working in the war, only to face jim crow laws during Reconstruction.

This museum does a bang-up job of not only answering hundreds of questions, but inspiring many, as well. I’m glad I took my time. Aside from the music I came to Frederick to see, this place will count as the highlight of my visit. 

A portable medicine cabinet, pioneered during the civil war to deliver necessities to field hospitals and the front. 

Splints and prosthetics 

Mural and descriptive text about medical rail cars.

Patented wheel chair.

She Who Tells a Story

If you live in Washington, DC, or happen to visit between now and July 31st, you owe it to yourself to head to the National Museum of Women in the Arts to see “She Who Tells a Story.”

Collecting photography from Persian and Arab women, this collection lays waste to monochromatic depictions of women in the Iran and the Middle East. Is there suffering, oppression, misogyny? Sure, but there’s also plenty of humor, absurdity, and hope. 

The exhibit’s highlights for me consist of the juxtapositions between actual imagery and whimsical, often unexpected touches. Nermine Hammam’s Dreamland I and II, for instance, showed make soldiers in the frame of old fashioned post cards of paradise. “Codes of My Kin,” featuring a surprising image of a woman in a bright blue bra, surrounded by men,” plays with western illusions of the Middle East’s exoticism.

On a quieter note, Rana El Nemr’s visions of women on the Cairo Metro lays claim to a vital participation in every day life by women of all ages and class. Rania Matar contributed to this healthy image with her series, “a girl and her room.” Young women like Bisan offer a picture of tomorrow with strong self-assured women who won’t be silenced like the singers in Iranian artist’s Newsha Tavokolian’s series, “Listen.”

A combination of still and video images of women prohibited from performing in post-Revolutionary Iran, “listen” points out the ways women are silenced in extremist culture, but we know it happens in the West, albeit more subtly. The standout image in this series is “Glass Ceilings,” which looks like an album cover, evoking both Rene Magritte and Pink Floyd, yet more haunting.

Speaking of haunting, Rula Halawani’s “Negative Incursions” feature stark photographs of urban spaces in Palestine, bulldozed or otherwise destroyed by unlawful occupation. By printing the negatives of these photos, Halawani accentuates the grievous toll inflicted on Palestinians — male and female. 

Such scenes get mocked with grim humor by Gohar Dashti’s series, “Today’s Life and War,” in which a couple carry on mundane tasks like dining in a war-ravaged landscape. Photo number five sticks in my memory the most, with a just married couple sitting in a ruined car amidst utter ruination. 
Contrasted with those series, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s work in “the book of Kings” and “women of Allah” seem sanctified by a welcome and cerebral staginess that doesn’t leave the viewer tense for hours afterward. 

Taken together, the images these women have assembled feel triumphant, gutsy, and determined to break down walls. I felt fortunate to see them all in one place. Don’t miss this exhibit — it exhilarates and fills one with both wonder and hope.