One last Philadelphia post. While PJ and I were in Philly last week, I had the opportunity to visit a couple of non-eighteenth-century-related museums. I’ve been wanting to write a little about museums in general, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to post my thoughts on museums in general and the Philadelphia Art Museum, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and one or two other museums in particular.

I love museums. Art museums, science museums, historical museums. It doesn’t matter. But not all museums are created equally. Some really work, and some don’t. Maybe it’s obvious, but it seems to me that a museum should educate its patrons about its subject(s). I not only want to see great art and artifacts; I also want to be able to learn more about the ones that strike my fancy. For me, a museum is successful when I leave wanting to read more about something I say in it, an artist, a particular painting, or a historical event. When PJ and I visited Spain last summer, for example, I came away from the Museo del Prado wanting to know more about the work of Diego Velazquez, so I bought a book about his work from the museum’s store, which I read on the plane back. Since then, I’ve also watched a documentary on his painting “The Rokeby Venus,” which I’ve since seen at the National Gallery in London.

My two favorite museums thus far are the the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the National Portrait Gallery in London. I’ve always had a tendency to love Asian art. As a budding gay teen, for example, I dreamed of someday decorating my bedroom in a Japanese motif. I now love House of Flying Daggers, which is Chinese, of course. And I’ve started collecting images of Ganesh (mostly postcards and photos of sculptures in museums). So, when PJ and I were in SF last May, I went to the Asian Art Museum while he was at a conference. I had never been to a museum dedicated exclusively to Asian art. It was wonderful. It has excellent holdings from each nationality/ethnic group. And I felt genuinely educated about the works and their historical contexts. I bought two books there: The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco: Selected Works and A Curious Affair: The Fascination between East and West, a book about a special exhibit on five centuries of interaction between Asian countries and the west.

I’ve visited the National Portrait Gallery twice. On one level, it’s simply amazing to see the original portraits of some of the authors I study and that I have only seen in books or on the internet. On another level, it’s fascinating to see whose portraits are deemed worth hanging for public display. This last point is especially interesting in the contemporary section. This museum always impresses me with a concrete sense of history, of how one historical period leads to another and then another. I love it.

Other museums are not so successful. The Sherlock Holmes Museum, for example, is practically useless. I know what you’re thinking: why would I ever even go to the SHM in the first place? For two reasons. First, my sister came with us to England this past summer. We had given her a guide book for Christmas last year and told her to pick out whatever she wanted to do while we were in London and Cambridge, and we’d do it. The only thing she picked out was the Sherlock Holmes Museum! Second, I spent a year reading the Sherlock Holmes stories in high school (somewhere between reading Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers). So, I went (PJ refused). It was even more disappointing than one might imagine. Wax figures of the major Conan Doyle characters, which were fine, and recreations of Holmes’s drawing room and bedroom. But it didn’t put forth much effort in trying to educate its patrons about the Victorian period, Arthur Conan Doyle, or anything else really. I couldn’t help but feel sorry that the museum didn’t use Holmes’s popularity for people like my sister to ease them into more knowledge about something else too.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is popularly famous (kind of) for being the locale of Rocky Balboa’s glorious jog up the front steps in the first Rocky movie. The space itself is great, and the museum’s motif is to recreate period rooms and architectural spaces from various cultures and historical periods: a Japanese tea house, a Medieval church, an eighteenth-century Philadelphia kitchen, etc. PJ and I both enjoyed the special exhibition that was there this time: “Tesoros: The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820.” The gruesome sculptures of the Passion of Christ were especially striking, but we were both particularly interested in the castas paintings, series of paintings depicting intermarriage between people of different races. The exhibit suggested that they were used to illustrate the positive aspects of intermarriage. NPR has also done a story about them. I would definitely like to read more about these works.

I feel compelled to say something about one particular work of art in the PMA: Marcel Duchamp’s “Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illumination Gas.” This is the most disturbing work of art I’ve ever seen. You walk into a room with an old wooden door at one end. If you go up to the door and look through the cracks/holes in it, you’ll see the body of a nude (and maybe dead) woman laying in an outdoor scene. Here’s a page with an animated picture showing the experience. This work is disturbing in part because it implicates the viewer in whatever’s been done to this woman. We become voyeurs standing idly by as this woman lays there. Believe me: it’s disturbing!

The African American Museum in Philadelphia was a mixed bag, in my opinion. It has four floors of exhibits. The first two were terribly disappointing. They are dedicated to remembering the “Glorious Legacies of Our African Past” and “Thanks — for 30,” an exhibit in tribute to “those who have supported the AAMP throughout its thirty-year history. These exhibits aren’t well presented. The other two floors, which showcase the work of African American artists in/from Philadelphia, are excellent. I came away with a list of several artists I would like to know more about: Anyta Thomas, whose work, made of molded screen wire, was nevertheless full of energy and dynamism and Earl B. Lewis, whose watercolor series “Sheila’s Lament” is beautifully rendered, especially stand out along with Dane Tilghman (I liked his “Going to Church“), Horace L. Broughton, Robert Jefferson, Jose Sebourne (I especially liked his figurative paintings “Hope” and “Just Standing“), Ronald Padgett, and Louis Sloan. I came away from the African American Museum thinking that it desperately needs money. If I’m ever wealthy I will definitely make a contribution to a museum like this one. It’s exhibit of contemporary artists is really great.