Saturday, September 6, 2014

Family, Friends, and an Art Museum

6 September 2014

It has been a whirlwind of activities since I last blogged, so I'll do three catch-up blogs to cover it all.  There were all the family things - the niece, nephew-in-law, and their two very cute and very bright kids for an afternoon of play and dinner; various cousins meeting up for lunch and getting caught up with their lives and our travels (one set of cousins has a view of the Philadelphia City Hall from their apartment - is this not a gorgeous building?  I'd love to have that view on a daily basis!); and of course hanging with Richard's brother and sister-in-law, just doing normal kinds of things.  Plus planning for when we hit the road again.

And while Philadelphia has boring manhole covers, apparently someone has tried turning them into places for advertising, which I thought was quite funny.  Love the elephant manhole safari concept!

Then friends drove up from Virginia to visit family and spend a day with us.  We started at the Reading Terminal Market, which is in the old train terminal.  Well, one of the old train terminals - there were originally two terminals here, one for local in-state trains and one for longer distance (out-of-state) trains - sounds good until you come in from Lancaster to catch a train to New York and have to run several blocks with luggage.  Eventually someone figured out it made sense to have one main train station, and the Reading Terminal was changed into a fabulous food center and farmer's market (with sort of a train museum upstairs).  Anyway, it's the first place we've found in Philly that has a café with beignets, and since I became addicted to these tasty morsels in New Orleans, I fed that addiction.

There were weekend concerts earlier in the week around the art museum, so the parks were decked out in gorgeous lanterns.  

The Philadelphia Art Museum may be best know for its stairs, which were featured in the Rocky movies, with Sylvester Stallone (Rocky) running up and down the stairs as part of his training.  And yes, many people run up the stairs and pose for photos.

We went in through the back door and avoided that silliness.

This museum, like many others around the world, had various portals from castles, churches, forts, etc. as the entries to different exhibits, sort of setting the time period and location for the artwork to be seen.  However, unlike many other museums, these were not replica doorways, these were the originals.  Removed from the castle, or fort, or whatever.  

And usually, my reaction is "wow, how terrible to go around ripping out statues or doorways or whatever you want, stealing the history and heritage of the people, having such an attitude of cultural supremacy that you can just go around burglarizing historic sites all over the world!"

Yes, that is often the case, especially with museums that were established a hundred or more years ago.  There was little sensitivity to the need for a developing country to retain their treasures and their heritage.

But then, we talked to a museum guard about one particular exhibit, and I saw a whole other side to the issue.

I'm hoping the Indian statue lines up with what I'm writing.

This statue is from a temple in southern India.  It dates back some 600-700 years.  The temple carvings tell the story of the ancient gods helping the people in this area, and so they built this beautiful temple to honor the gods.  There's a monkey god, a lion god, and various figures of gods in human form.  Also the king from that time.  

We were admiring the statues, and started chatting with the museum guard, a friendly older man.  He showed us around, pointed out where you could see the monkey or lion tail on the half-human-half-animal figures, all kinds of details we might have missed.

So I asked how this temple came to be in Philadelphia, and how did the people of India feel about it?  And I was amazed by the answer.

Mr. Guard explained that this temple was in the middle of a jungle, with the usual wild animals wandering around.  People would make almost a pilgrimage to the temple and sit inside, and see nothing but jungle and sky surrounding them.

But then the British colonial powers decided to tear down the temple - they didn't believe in these deities, these weren't their ancestors, this wasn't their cultural heritage.  They just knocked everything down, and left it all lying on the ground in the jungle.  And the Indian people of the region knew that if they rebuilt the temple, the British would just knock it down again, so they left it lying on the ground but mourned the loss of this lovely little temple that was so important to them.

Years went by, and in the mid 1800s, a couple from Philadelphia was in India on their honeymoon.  Somehow, the arrived at the location of the destroyed temple.  And they decided it was terrible to see it lying around in pieces.  Now, I'm not too sure exactly who this couple was, but apparently they had money.  And some political clout.  They contacted the Indian government and somehow arranged for the temple pieces to be bought and shipped to Philadelphia, and rebuilt as an exhibit in this museum.  So that they were actually saving this important religious building.

Wow - quite a reversed point of view for us!  But it gets better - Mr Guard said that people from India come to see this temple at the museum, and he said they've told him how thankful they are to have the place standing and guarded and in one piece, not destroyed in the jungle.  That the temple wasn't lost, but was saved by this couple.  They are actually happy to see it here, and not in India!

As I said, it really opened my eyes to an entirely different way of viewing museums - not as thieves stealing artifacts (though there is that aspect at times) but as places to save those artworks.  (I would, however, like to see the Elgin marbles back in Greece.)

But it was such an enlightening moment, and I probably will never visit a museum without thinking of this discussion with Mr Friendly Guard.

Anyway, we had a lovely time at the museum.  They have a phenomenal Asian art collection, including a Japanese tea house which was just lovely.  I really liked the lions on these Korean screens - they were described as "gamboling lions" - very Alice in Wonderland!

The Impressionist collection wasn't large, but it did hold some of the major artists of the time as well as showed the progression of Impressionist art from the early works on through to the Post-Impressionists (think Cezanne, Matisse, etc.) as well as works by some Pennsylvania artists who worked in the Impressionist style.  

The five photos, above, are a few of my faves - lifted from the internet, because while the museum allows photos, flash photography is not allowed.  From top to bottom, the artists are:  

Claude Monet (you recognized him by the waterlilies, right?) 

Berthe Morisot (who I like so much better than Mary Cassatt)

Pablo Picasso (one of his "Three Musicians" compositions)

Camille Pissarro (love this market scene)

Vincent van Gogh (with his signature sad sunflowers)

Of course, we only saw a fraction of the museum, but had a great time.  It was fun hanging with friends, and having new insights when wandering around the galleries.

Definitely add the Philadelphia Art Museum to your list of places to visit when here - this is their website:

Okay, I need to go catch a flight - more later when we get to Bellingham! 

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