This is a transcription of Episode 39 — Museums.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Season four Episode 39 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about museums.
[audio clip of news show about museums]
David: We’ve been to museums.
Melissa: We have been to a lot of really good museums. I like the experience of either picking out a painting or an object I know I want to see and doing a bunch of research about it and then going to see it in person to have the impact of seeing it with my own eyes.
Melissa: But I also like, for example, we were walking through the Neues Museum in Berlin and glanced around the room and saw the green head of Berlin, which wasn’t a thing I even knew about. And it’s amazing.
David: It is.
Melissa: It’s a dude’s disembodied head and it’s green.
David: It’s so old. And one of the things that was amazing about that was seeing it in the context of the other work that had been done at the same time, because all of the rest of it was sort of figurative. And there’s this one head that looks like —
Melissa: He looks like he is going to start talking to you. He’s from 390 B.C.. Yeah, I’ll put a picture in show notes. He’s amazing.
Melissa: Green man stole my heart a little bit.
David: Green Man came up in one of the books I read.
Melissa: I also had a really powerful experience at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I don’t consider myself a huge fan of Van Gogh. I’m more a Mary Cassatt kind of impressionist person. It was towards the end of closing day for the museum and you wanted to see the Van Goghs. So we went into the little Van Gogh corner of the gallery, and I walked up to his self portrait, looked at it and burst into tears, and I was like, ‘What’s happening to my face right now?’
David: You know, it was yeah, it was amazing.
Melissa: Just — it was so visceral and felt so alive. And you’ve seen those paintings over and over reproduced as postcards and tote bags and calendars, but in person, the paint is so thick.
David: And yeah —
Melissa: You feel the humanity of the person who applied the paint to that canvas and the energy of that is just amazing.
David: Yeah, there are so many pieces of art that I mean, a photograph just doesn’t do justice to, but Van Gogh in particular, there is something about the way that paint is like put on that canvas, that it’s got a texture, it’s got a feel. It changes the way the light moves around it. It’s amazing to see. And of course, Van Gogh, every time I see a Van Gogh, I think about how he died, striving for recognition, to be recognized as an artist, to be heard. That sort of underpinning is always with me whenever I see one of his works, and it makes it so bittersweet because he does such beautiful work, but it’s such a tragic story behind it. But on the other hand, he left us all that work. And that’s beautiful, too.
Melissa: So I guess we’re going to come down on the very obvious ‘museums are awesome’ today. Controversial point of view.
David: So one of the things we wanted to do with this show is I wanted to tell a story about a time I went to a museum and it had a strong impact on me, not for sort of the obvious reasons, and we don’t really have a place to put that in our show. But we also thought that maybe we would tell you the story as a way of framing up the rest of the show.
Melissa: So rest assured, the 101, and Two Truths and a Lie are coming. Dave’s just going to tell us a little story first.
David: So in 2014, I went to the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. I was working on getting a master’s degree in cartooning. I am older than your average student. When I got to that school, I was 49. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to study as an older person, but I really enjoyed it. I was a much better student in my fifties than I was in my twenties. Part of it was I fully wanted to be there in a way that in my twenties I had other concerns. But in my fifties —
Melissa: I feel like when you’re in college, that’s like a stepping stone to starting your life.
Melissa: And I was in a hurry to get through that. I want to get to the good stuff. I don’t want to be sitting in this class. I want to do it.
David: Yeah. So I fully wanted to be there and the teachers would hand out assignments and I’d be delighted to get the work. One of the early assignments at that school is to write and illustrate a children’s book in two weeks. That is a ridiculous assignment. That is not enough time to do that. But I love doing it. It was it was a joy. One of the things that we did in art school was critique. So that’s when you bring in your work and you talk about it and you share it and hear what the professors and the students have to say. You are sharing your work. I have heard nightmares about critiques in other schools, and it varies even from class to class. I’m not sure that I would have wanted to go through critique with the class that was in front of me, for instance. One angry person can ruin a review, but in my class the comments were fair and presented with a helpful attitude. The critique is something I also had with my first degree back in my twenties, but I saw those a little differently this time. Then, in my twenties, I was mainly worried about myself. I was, Am I doing good work? Do I sound like I know what I’m talking about? Does the cute girl in the next desk understand that I know what I’m talking about?
David: This time in my fifties, it was a little different. I think I paid a little bit more attention to everybody else in that room. This time, I saw week after week young artists standing up and saying, ‘Hi. I made this thing. What do you think?’ And for the most part, these are not brave people. They’re not used to presenting to groups. They’re awkward around people, and they spend a lot of time alone. They are not used to talking about their work. There was something just so courageous and lovely about these young, wild, beautiful introverts standing up and being vulnerable and asking for feedback so they could get better. So they could work on their voice. So they could be heard. And if it went well, if it was a really good day, somebody else would get inspired, and they would say something like, ‘That’s so cool. I wonder if I could do something like that.’ And they’d figure out how to work the new idea into their own art. And everyone got a little bit better. Very slowly. Most of the time.
David: I turned 50 that first year in school, and I wanted to do something special. And so Mel and I went to Paris. I’d been there before, but I really liked Paris. And for me, Paris is never a bad idea. And I’d never been to the Louvre.
Melissa: Which seems like a massive oversight.
David: Yes. It really did. So we made plans to go. We followed Rick Steves walking tour, which is roughly chronological. And the first thing we did is walked into the Pre-classical Greek room. The first thing I remember seeing was a little fish made out of stone. It would fit in your palm. It’s about 5000 years old. It’s one of the oldest items in the museum. To me, it looked like someone had found a stone that looked like a fish and then worked on it to make it look a little bit more like a fish. My first thought was, How do they have this? That morning I lost my museum pass on the way from the hotel room to the museum.
Melissa: You really did. [laughter]
David: That was embarrassing. How do they still have the stone that’s the size of a peach pit after 5000 years. I assume it was missing for 4500 years, but still. And the second thought I had was about the artist, right? I imagine the artist finding that stone on the riverbank and thinking, ‘Oh, that looks like a fish.’ And just that — a moment of delight, right? That the little bit of insight. And then they took it and maybe they put it in a pocket, if they had a pocket, and then they worked with it until they were happy with it and then they showed it to somebody. And then in some ancient, long forgotten language, they said something that sounded like, ‘Hi, I made this. What do you think?’
Melissa: Maybe they gave it to someone as a present.
David: Yeah, I know — somebody they had a crush on or something like. And it occurred to me that the rest of the museum was the other half of that conversation. ‘That’s so cool. I wonder if I could do something like that.’ And then they work on their thing. Their drawing or their painting or their sculpture or their clothes or their architecture. And for the most part, they are also young, wild, beautiful introverts who probably spent too much time alone and maybe had jacked up families. And then one day they got up and they said, ‘Hi, I made this. What do you think?’ And now their work is in the Louvre. And that’s the conversation. That is the conversation that fills every museum. One generation sees the work and loves the work and tries to get better so they can be heard. And for art, that conversation has been going on for a 100,000 years. There’s one of the books I read, talked about the paint they’d found in a cave. It was 100,000 years old, and that’s lovely. That’s what I wanted to say. Do you want to do the 101?
Melissa: Yeah. That was really good. I think most people, when they think of museum, they probably think of a gallery filled with paintings or sculptures.
David: Yeah, sure. It’s the stark white room with the stuff in it.
Melissa: Right. But museums can be honoring all kinds of things. And we’re going to talk about that a little bit. The working definition of museum is it’s a place and an institution. Those two things are key — that collects, interprets and cares for objects. And, and this is a key point — makes them available to other people. So it’s not just a collection of stuff for me. These are things that have been brought together for the public to come and enjoy and understand.
David: Yeah. So my collection of baseball cards in the basement, not a museum.
Melissa: Not technically a museum unless you allow other people in to look at it. Museum comes from an ancient Greek word, meaning a seat of muses.
Melissa: So a museum was originally a place for contemplation.
David: Yeah, and it still can be. And it.
Melissa: And it still can be. During classical antiquity. So that’s your Greco-Roman era between eighth century BCE and sixth century CE — big swath of time.
Melissa: Art was not separated from life. Statues and murals were just there. Everywhere you went, you didn’t have to go to a museum to see them. Yes, but there is evidence of a very early collection that we would recognize as a museum. And that story involves a high priestess, a 4000-year-old statue, and Agatha Christie.
David: She gets around that Agatha Christie.
Melissa: I mean, she is very influential.
Melissa: So let’s travel back in time to 530 BCE. We’re going to the ancient Mesopotamian City of Ur. King Nabonidus was the ruler of this neo Babylonian empire, and not only was he a respected leader, he’s considered the first archaeologist.
Melissa: Yeah. How cool is that.
David: To just look around at all the stuff he was living in and say, ‘I am in the classical period.
Melissa: He excavated foundations of temples that needed to be rebuilt so that he could a) collect the objects that he found there and b) restore them according to their original plans. So he unearthed all kinds of things, including broken statues and I’m assuming pottery.
David: He did the work.
Melissa: He did the work. Things get really interesting when we meet his daughter. Her name is Princess Ennigaldi-Nanna, and she had three careers. In sixth century BCE, this woman had three careers.
David: And two kids and managed to keep the whole house going.
Melissa: Probably. She was probably really beautiful, too.
Melissa: First she was a school administrator. She ran a school for priestesses that was more than 800 years old when she took over.
Melissa: Second, she was named a high priestess by her father. I had to look up what that distinction meant. High Priestess was meant to be the mediator between her people and the gods. So she spent her days at the temple, meditating, praying, talking to common people about their problems.
David: That seems like a really sweet gig if you can get it.
Melissa: Seems like a very serious gig.
David: Zeus says I need a sandwich.
Melissa: I’m pretty sure Princess Ennigaldi wasn’t asking for sandwiches but, okay. Third career. And this is the biggie. When her duties down at ye old temple had been fulfilled, she oversaw a museum where she arranged and labeled the stuff her dad found during his excavations.
Melissa: Yes, she was the first curator.
David: She had a big white room with stuff in it and labels on them. That’s amazing.
Melissa: And we know all of this because of the archaeologists are Charles Leonard Woolley. In 1925, he and his team were digging at Ur which is now part of Iraq. And among the ruins of a Babylonian palace, they found a collection of artifacts from different times in history and different geographical areas, all neatly arranged together.
David: That must have been very confusing.
Melissa: I would think.
David: Digging through old stuff. And you find yet more old stuff from far, far away.
Melissa: They found a 4000 year old statue of an ancient king. There was a boundary marker from 1400 BCE that was inscribed with what Woolley called a ‘terrific curse’ on anyone who removed or destroyed it. And the most remarkable part was that many of the antiquities were marked with labels that gave details about the object. And the labels were written in three languages, including Sumerian.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: So there’s your proof that this was meant for different kinds of people to come in and look at these things. Modern experts say those labels are an early example of metadata.
David: I suppose they are. Maybe the earliest example of metadata. So how did Agatha Christie get involved in all of this?
Melissa: Right. So Sir Charles Leonard Woolley is a British archaeologist. He was married to Katherine Woolley, who was friends with Agatha Christie. Dame Agatha went to visit the dig in Ur in 1928 and 1930. And on the second visit, she met one of his assistants, Max Mallowan. And six months after their meeting, they were married.
Melissa: Christie went on to write Murder in Mesopotamia, which was inspired by her time in the desert and a novel I talked about in our trains episode, The Woman on the Train, is a fictionalized account of Agatha’s visit to Ur and meeting her husband.
David: That old cougar.
Melissa: She was older than him.
David: Yeah. I remember her saying at some point something like ‘marry an archaeologist because they get more interested in you as you get older.’
Melissa: That’s really sweet.
Melissa: Okay, so there we have our proto museum thousands of years ago. Now we’re going to fast forward to the Renaissance. Scholars became fascinated with two things: classical antiquity — they’re bringing back all of that Greek Roman stuff, and empirical methodology. They wanted to verify things.
Melissa: From this desire to understand, it was a small leap for them to collecting specimens from nature to study. And then their appetite for everything just expanded. It went from nature to objects in Europe and then from objects in Europe to objects from all over the world.
Melissa: I want to have something from everywhere. I want to understand everything.
David: Right. This is how you get into those sort of old-fashioned museums that have tables and tables of rocks from all over the world.
Melissa: Yes, cabinets of curiosities. I’m going to talk about them more when we get to our books. But they are a key stepping stone in getting to modern museums. So in the 15th and 16th centuries, people with money, men with money, collected objects in rooms that came to be known as kunstkammers and wunderkammers. In English, we call them cabinets of curiosities. The stuff in these cabinets was eclectic and represented what the collector might have been interested in personally. Whatever caught their fancy right stuff from the natural world. Clocks, googads, miniatures, paintings. Sculptures. The most famous one at the time was, no surprise, collected by Lorenzo de Medici in Florence. And his was actually called a museum. That was the first time that word was used to describe a comprehensive collection.
David: So he did what a woman had done thousands of years earlier, but he put a name on it, and so now we talk about that.
Melissa: Hashtag Princess Ennigaldi Forever. Okay, now we jump to 1677.
David: Oh, okay.
Melissa: A British naturalist is also a collector. His name is John Tradescant. He has a sizable collection and he falls on hard financial times. He was forced to sell his collection to Elias Ashmole, who had a bunch of stuff of his own. Ashmole combined those things. And he said, ‘The knowledge of nature is very necessary to human life and health.’ He took it very seriously. In 1683, those collections became the basis of the Ashmolean Museum, and that was the first museum open to the public. So now we’ve jumped from private collection to public museum. That was the moment when a collection of artefacts and objects became an institution, not just a collection of stuff.
David: Not just my stuff. Yeah.
Melissa: After that, the museum idea really took off. In the next hundred years or so, the world got the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Prado in Madrid, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Louvre in Paris.
David: So the ego of nations got involved and it really got out of control.
Melissa: To all of our benefit, really. We need to talk about the Louvre, because aside from being an amazing place to visit, it’s also important to the history of museums. 1793 French revolutionary government nationalized Louis XVI and that included the Louvre. The palace had already been an art museum when Louis the 14th, moved to Versailles. The Louvre became a museum, but it was only for royals. It was not open to the public. After the revolution, the Louvre was declared a public institution and renamed the Museum Francais. For the first time ever, the royal collection was available for all people to see. People from Paris roamed the halls and looked at the art in a building they’d never been allowed to go in before. That made the Louvre the first National Museum. It didn’t belong to the King anymore. It belonged to the people.
Melissa: 53 years later, in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution opened in Washington, D.C. That is our answer to the Louvre.
Melissa: It’s been called the nation’s attic. You want to guess how many items it includes?
David: Oh, no.
Melissa: 154 million.
David: Wow. Wow.
Melissa: There are research centers, 21 libraries, a zoo, and 19 museums that make up the Smithsonian Institution. It covers African American history and culture, the history of air and space travel, natural history, portraiture, sculpture, Asian art.
David: All the best stuff.
Melissa: Yeah, I love this. Next thing I’m going to say, admission to the Smithsonian Institute Museums in Washington, D.C. is free.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: Except for the zoo.
David: It’s still nice.
Melissa: Obviously, there is so much more we could discuss, like the way museums are making their collections accessible to everyone online. The way many exhibits incorporate interactivity, so we’re no longer just observing objects, we’re interacting with them.
Melissa: Or the proliferation of open air museums that transport you to another time or quirky museums. There’s a museum of SPAM. There’s a museum of Pez candy.
David: What about the Museum of Broken Relationships?
Melissa: Yes. In Zagreb, Croatia, and Los Angeles. That’s a really good one.
David: Yeah, it’s a museum about relationships that have gone bad. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s wonderful.
Melissa: It’s pretty charming.
Melissa: I think it would be really awesome if we could bring back Princess Ennigaldi and walk her through the Louvre. Yeah, show her how that’s all transpired.
Melissa: She would probably see some stuff that she recognizes.
David: I was going to say, look into a case and be like, ‘Hey, that’s mine.’
David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I don’t know. I feel like you’re going to trick me.
David: Oh, I don’t know. So I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel does not know which one is the lie. Here are the three statements One: There’s an art museum on the moon.
Melissa: Come on.
David: Two: There’s a natural history museum which is otherwise operating, as you might expect, except that it’s got an insect problem. It’s infested with little blue, shiny beetles from the Amazon.
Melissa: It seems like it’d be really bad for your collection.
David: And then three: A son got his father, who was otherwise an unremarkable baseball player, honored at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Melissa: So nice.
David: Yeah. So, one at a time.
Melissa: Take ‘em one at a time.
David: There’s an art museum on the moon.
David: There is an art museum on the moon. There is a little tiny museum on the moon. It has works from six different artists. All six of those works are on one small ceramic wafer that’s three quarters by one half inch wide.
David: That’s 19 millimeters by 13 millimeters. It’s maybe the size of a SIM card. One of the images in the museum is a phallus from Andy Warhol.
Melissa: Oh, come on.
David: It’s true.
Melissa: This is the best we have to offer in the world of art?
David: This is what we got. The museum is attached to the leg of the lunar lander used on Apollo 12, which was the second crewed landing on the moon in 1969. The Moon Museum was originally a secret project. What gets better than the Secret Moon Museum?
Melissa: Although who chose the art? I have —.
David: I’ll tell you in a second. So the command team was unaware that they were taking art to the moon. It started when a sculptor.
Melissa: Is it a good idea to keep secrets from the command team? This is just raising more questions than I think you can answer.
David: It started when a sculptor named Frosty Myers had the idea for a moon museum. He approached NASA. They never said no, but they didn’t say yes either. Eventually, Frosty Meyers found a guy who knew a guy, and that guy was one of the subcontractors for the project. The subcontractor arranged to put a chip on the lander. Apollo 12 launched on November 14th, 1969, taking human art off of Earth for the first time. It wasn’t until eight days later that Nasser and the lunar crew realized that they had participated in this. They found out when Myers told The New York Times. He had the patience to wait until the team had returned from the moon to talk to the press.
Melissa: Were there repercussions?
Melissa: They were just like, ‘Eh. It sll worked out fine. No bigs.’
David: Yeah. Second statement. There’s a natural history museum with a little blue shiny beetle problem.
David: That is not true. But there’s a natural history museum in Helsinki, Finland, that does have a bug problem. The museum is an old 19th-century building, which itself is worth your time. It’s a lovely looking building. It might be, for me, the perfect museum building. It is not too big. It’s still very stable. It has lots of light. It’s the kind of place I had in mind when I drew the library of Lost Time Building. According to TripAdvisor, it’s a nice place. Four and a half stars. Everybody’s happy. There they have your usual natural history museum exhibits. They’ve got dinosaur skeletons and dioramas with tigers pouncing on gazelle and such like that. On the top floor, they’ve got a taxidermied two-headed calf. But they also have something no one else has. There is a colony of Chilean recluse spiders loose in the building. These spiders are considered by many to be one of the most dangerous spiders of their type. Their bites are severe and can result in death.
Melissa: Oh, my gosh. I was like, We should go there. Now I don’t think so.
David: The spiders have been there for at least the last 50 years. [laughter] No one knows how they got there. Maybe they came in on woodchips that came with mice back in the sixties. The spiders are about 13,000 kilometers or 8000 miles from where they are usually found. In addition to the 50 years, the spiders also survived a complete renovation of the building in 2004. In 50 years, there has only been one biting incident which happened during the renovation. A worker wasn’t paying attention. Put on a shirt and he got bit.
Melissa: Oh my gosh.
David: Yeah. The BBC says some of the museum workers have become quite attached to the little guys. Which gets us to the final statement: A son got his father, who was an otherwise unremarkable baseball player, honored at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Melissa: And that’s true.
David: That is true. This story starts in Wellsville, New York. It’s 1947. A man named Joe O’Donnell works in an oil refinery. He loves baseball. He’s a catcher for the refinery team. One day, his wife tells him she’s pregnant. They have a son. His name is Pat. Joe turns out to be a pretty good dad. Pat grows up, Joe’s there for him. One of the things Joe does for Pat is introduce him to baseball. And although Joe always gets home dirty and tired, he always finds time to play catch and hit some pop-ups for Pat and the rest of the kids in the neighborhood. And then when the community wants to build a ball field, Joe volunteers. He’s a good dad.
David: Wellsville, New York is about a four hour drive from Cooperstown, where the Baseball Hall of Fame is. And as Pat grows up, he and Joe talk about going there, but they never make it. And then one day Joe died suddenly.
David: It was 1966. Joe had a heart attack. He was 50. Pat was 18. So time passes. It’s 1988. Pat’s going to Cooperstown with some friends for a golf tournament, and he thinks about how his dad wanted to go there and never did. So he grabs an old photograph of his dad, one of his old baseball pictures, in a flannel Sinclair Oil Refinery uniform. And he shoves it in his pocket and it gets to the hall and it’s nice there. We’ve been there. It’s lovely. Cooperstown is a lovely little village and the Hall is about as charming as you might want.
Melissa: I don’t even like baseball that much, and I had a really good time at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
David: That whole area feels so American. So small town America, it’s cozy and it’s got a really sort of pleasant human scale to it. So Pat keeps thinking about his dad, and he goes outside and he takes out the picture and a pen and he writes on the back of it. And then he walks back in with his friend and he says to the friend, Cover me! And he ducks down and he shoves the picture under a case between the case and the carpet. It’s a tight squeeze. He thinks he might have ruined the photo, but now his dad’s in the Hall and he leaves. So it’s a few years later, and it’s 1994 and they’re doing renovation on the Hall of Fame. And some workers move that case and they find the picture of Joe. And at first they think they’ve got a problem because there are about a half a million pictures of baseball players in the Hall of Fame —
Melissa: And not one of them is on the floor.
David: Right. Maybe this guy is famous and the worker turns the photo over to the museum curator, and the curator looks at the picture of the guy on the front, and then he flips the picture around to the back and he reads it. It says, ‘You were never too tired to play catch. On your days off, you help build the Little League field. You always came to watch me play. You were a Hall of Fame Dad. I wish I could share this moment with you. Your son, Pat.’
Melissa: Oh, my God. I’m like full-on crying right now.
David: And that’s when in my imagination, the curator thought, ‘Oh, we’re hanging this.’ And they did. So the photo of Joe still hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s in the section on the ’30s when Joe was playing ball not far from where Pat left it.
Melissa: That is really awesome.
David: Isn’t that nice.
David: It’s a really nice story. That’s Two Truths and a Lie.
David: Before we get into the books, we wanted to tell you about a podcast we find interesting that we think you might do. It’s Unpacked by AFAR and the concept is brilliant. In each weekly episode, they unpack a single ethical question about travel. So, for example, how can I travel with less impact on the environment? Or I know I can’t ride on an elephant, but is it okay to swim with dolphins?
Melissa: Right? I think about that all the time. How do you know what’s okay and what’s not when it comes to delicate environments or awesome animals? Do I go on a train? Do I go on a plane? Do I not go there at all? Am I welcome there? Do people just want me to leave their beautiful place alone?
David: Yeah. So on the show, they do a mix of first-person stories, people talking about their own experiences and interviews with experts in the field, and they give you new ways to think about travel, if that sounds interesting to you. It’s called Unpacked. It’s by AFAR.
Melissa: Which is a fantastic travel magazine.
David: Yeah, that podcast is available wherever you listen to your podcasts. Let’s talk about books.
Melissa: Yes, I loved all of my books for this episode so much.
David: And I think we’re going to cheat, right? Oh, definitely.
Melissa: My first recommendation is _The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith. This is historical fiction. I read it over a weekend and spent 6 hours that Sunday afternoon reading it because I needed to know what was going to happen.
David: Solid use of a Sunday.
Melissa: 100%. I was IN this story. I had that feeling when you put down the book and it feels like you’re swimming to the surface of a really deep pool, re-engaging with reality.
Melissa: Okay, here’s the deal. There are three timelines. We’ve got Amsterdam in 1631. This was a great place to be an artist and join the Guild of Saint Luke — if you were a man. Women were not allowed to paint landscapes. Just let that simmer for a minute.
David: Because women would have to be out in a field.
Melissa: Presumably they would have to be out alone by themselves.
Melissa: Ladies paintings are still lives inside their houses. Moving on to our fictional heroine, Sarah DeVos. She’s fictional, became the first woman to be admitted as a master painter in the guild.
Melissa: And she defies convention, and she paints a haunting landscape of a young girl standing on the edge of a forest, looking out, watching a group of ice skaters on a frozen river. This painting is not only beautiful, its impact echoes through the ages to 1957. Now we’re in New York City.
Melissa: The painting is called ‘At the Edge of the Wood,’ and it’s now in the hands of a wealthy lawyer named Marty. He and his wife are hosting a charity gala at their home and during the dinner. Unbeknownst to him, the painting is replaced with a replica.
Melissa: And we as readers know who the forger is. It’s our modern heroine, Ellie, a struggling art history student. The third timeline is set in Sydney, Australia, in 2000. Our forger Ellie has now become a respected, accomplished art historian and curator. And then the past comes calling as it must, because it’s a novel, and I love it. This story really deftly combines the elements of historical fiction, multiple love stories, and a thriller. There is never a dull moment, and it taught me a whole bunch of stuff while I was immersed in the story, which is my favorite thing.
Melissa: I learned all about the history of Amsterdam and the lives of artists there in the 17th century. Maybe not so great being an artist in the 17th century. Also, did you know there was a tulip collapse in 1637?
David: I knew there was a tulip collapse. I didn’t know the date.
Melissa: You knew there was a tulip collapse? Oh, come on!
David: I knew there there was a tulip craze.
Melissa: There was a tulip craze. People were speculating on tulip bulbs. They would spend like a year salary on bulbs hoping they could resell them for a profit.
Melissa: And then the tulip bubble burst.
David: Yeah, I know about the tulip craze because I know about the Beanie Baby craze. People were comparing the two.
David: Yeah. I hung out with some intellectual people back then.
Melissa: OK. Beautiful flowers aside. There’s also lots of insider detail on what it’s like to mount an exhibit at a museum. I was fascinated by these details. You and I have talked about this. How do they move paintings from one country to another? How do they set up the galleries? What’s the security like? Who handles the hand-off? What if something gets messed up? All of that is in this book.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s really fun. If you like to peek behind the scenes, you will love this book. I also really enjoyed hanging out with Ellie the forger, as she was painting the forgery because all of the tricks of doing forgeries were revealed. So how you get the right canvas, how you mix the paints, how you make sure that things that would have been in paint in 17th century are also present in your modern paint.
Melissa: It’s really fascinating. There’s a lot of that also in the Gabriel Allen spy series. So if you’re interested in art restoration and forgery, those are also really good. The author, Dominic Smith, is great at juggling tone because we have three timelines and a lot of different kinds of characters and he does a really nice job of making the tone kind of suit what’s happening in the story at the time without it feeling disjointed. Sometimes it’s really tense. Sometimes it’s tender. When Marty, the 1950s lawyer, is involved, it’s often really funny and wry. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s this really amusing bit built around the idea of a Rent-a-Beat.
Melissa: 1950s Rent-a-Beat poet to spice up your party. That happens. It’s the set piece where the Rent-a-Beats come to the charity gala. It’s amazing. Underneath all of that, this is a story that explores what art means to people. And it also really understands that our lives have different seasons. Fortunes change, relationships change, for better or for worse, as we move through time. It’s kind of an examination of all of that, too. According to his author’s note, Dominic Smith conjured Sarah Davos as a composite of several female painters of the time, including Judith Leyster, who was the real first woman admitted into the Guild of Saint Luke. For 200 years. Her work had been attributed to her husband.
David: Mm hmm. Yeah.
Melissa: And the beautiful painting ‘At the Edge of the Wood’ doesn’t really exist. But it may as well because it is so vividly described. I feel like I’ve seen it. And the fictional Sarah DeVos feels real. Her story is going to stay with me for a long time.
David: That’s awesome.
Melissa: For readers who’ve read and enjoyed The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish write, this would be a really good pairing. The Weight of Ink is the story of a feisty woman who’s a scribe for a rabbi in 17th-century London. So you pair these two books together, you can kind of compare and contrast what it was like to be a creative, intelligent, unconventional woman into major cities in Europe during that time. And I’m realizing, as I’m saying, that that makes it sound really intellectual and nerdy. So let me just say, both stories are big adventures with lots of heart. This is The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith.
David: My first book is How to Enjoy Art by Ben Street. This book talks about how you can appreciate art without knowing art history or having a background in art production. The author argues that a piece should hit you like a song does.
Melissa: Oh, I like that.
David: Yeah. You hear the song, you embrace it or you don’t, but you don’t think you know. If I knew more about music theory, maybe the song would hit me.
Melissa: That’s true. Why do we think about art so differently?
David: In this book, the author arms readers with ideas that can help them understand and enjoy art. The book is a friendly invitation to come look at art. He groups these ideas into big buckets. The chapters are color, scale, process, placement, and content. It’s a short book about 160 pages. At each step, he writes about what those things might mean, and he gives examples. So how does it affect you that this portrait is tiny and part of a brooch? What’s it mean that the Statue of Liberty is enormous? And how different would it be if it could sit comfortably on a table? What’s it say about work when it’s put into a museum? And how would it be different if it was sitting in a Renaissance-era church with all its weird light and changing temperatures and such? One of the great things about this book is that along the way he walks into some really fascinating questions, like, who decides what’s art and why do we believe them? Right.
Melissa: That is a good question.
David: Yeah. And why is this piece in a museum when another is not? And why is there a difference between seeing a photo of a work and being in the same room with the work? At one point, he writes, ‘A photograph of a painting is to the real thing what a photograph of a sandwich is to an actual sandwich.’ [laughter] He doesn’t specifically talk about time, but he visits it throughout the book. How long did the artist work on this piece? How long was the piece supposed to last? Which is a really interesting idea. He does a thought experiment with a painting or a pictures that going back in time from the museum to the Royal Gallery to the artist’s studio, to the sitting to gathering the materials and shipping them back to when the pigments of the paint were still part of the earth.
David: Yeah. I really enjoyed this book. It absolutely made me want to go to more museums. But I had a problem with this book, and I think it’s a problem with the field. For me, I would have liked some more vulnerability. I would have liked the author to say, ‘I love art, and this piece really struck me and I’m excited about it. Let me tell you why I think you should be excited about it’ because clearly Ben Street loves art, right? He spent a whole lot of time with it and thinking about it and talking about it. So why not open up a little bit that way? And I think I understand why. I think I believe that Street was worried about his credibility with his peers. Right?
David: As far as I can tell, being loudly excited about art is something driven out of art professionals at a young age.
Melissa: I feel like sometimes overt enthusiasm about anything in any field is kind of met with a little bit of disdain.
David: Not seen as the mark of a professional.
Melissa: Yes. But why would you be doing it otherwise?
David: Yeah, right. Why are you there?
Melissa: I’m just going to go on the record. I love books. I’m pretty excited about books.
David: Yeah, but there’s I mean, you know, there’s an approach to art that is so serious. I watched a YouTube video recently of Steve Martin talking about modern art and why he liked the piece so much. And you think of anyone, Steve Martin would be sort of effervescent and bubbly about that. And instead they kind of the person who was interviewing him put him in a place where he seemed very intellectual about the art. So, yeah, it just it feels like if you have that profession, you can’t just say something like, ‘Wow, this is so cool. Look at what this person did.’
Melissa: You know I start with that.
David: Yeah. Also, I wonder, like, you know, maybe if they started talking about how awesome art is, they’d they’d never stop. It’s all fantastic. It’s all over the top. But also, would that be a bad thing? Ben Street knows what he’s talking about. He’s been an art historian for decades. He’s lectured in the National Gallery in London and the Tate and the Museum of Modern Art and Sotheby’s. He’s written several books, including 200 Words to Help You Talk About Art and How to be an Art Rebel intended for children 6 to 8. I want to mention that I’d love the bibliography for this book. Ben Street listed two books that I wanted to read immediately. One of them, which I would read based on the title is Pictures and Tears: The History of People Who Have Cried in front of Paintings.
Melissa: Oh. You could put me in that book.
David: Yeah. By James Elkins. It is precisely what it says: A history of people responding to paintings by crying. Another book in the bibliography is Michael Jacobs’ Everything is Happening, Journey into a Painting. This is a book about a single painting.
Melissa: Oh, I love that. Yeah.
David: Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas. I think the ladies in waiting. This painting is at the Prado in Madrid. You and I are talking about going to Madrid in the fall. I may have given myself a reading assignment. If you’ve read either of those books, let me know what you thought about them. But this book: thumbs up on this book. This is a great place to start. If you’re interested in exploring art, it’s How to Enjoy Art by Ben Street.
Melissa: That seems like it’d be a really good book to read before you go to a museum. Just for fun. It’s so short.
Melissa: Just jam that into your brain before you go. I am about to cheat and recommend two books in my one book slot.
Melissa: Yes. One of the things I love about coffee table books is they remind me of reading books as a kid. Right. They’re big and they are pictures and lots of colors and it kind of feels like playing as you turn these big pages. And it’s so immersive.
David: I love turning a page and having just a picture kind of explode.
Melissa: That’s what it was like reading these two books I’m about to tell you about. The first is Cabinets of Curiosities by Patrick Mauriès. This is a comprehensive history of cabinets of curiosities starting in the 15th century and ending with the surrealists and artists in the 21st century. So big swath of time. The photos in this book are showstoppers. There are reproductions of paintings, there are close-ups of unusual objects. There are illustrations of 15th- and 16th-century cabinets. The whole thing just kind of urges you to slow down and savor all of the details.
David: Yeah, we sat in front of one spread, just sort of looking at like, what’s this and what’s that and what’s this thing over here?
Melissa: I chose this book because it also has a lot of text. I wanted to understand how these collections came to be and know more about the famous ones that don’t exist anymore. For me, the writing and the main text of this book is informative, but it’s really dense. However, every image has detailed captions and those are fantastic. That’s where the author has put anecdotes about the collectors and fun stories about the objects themselves. So the main text is more the academic history and quotes from big thinkers and quotes from the collectors’ catalogues that are written in 17th-century language. And then the captions are where the fun is. It’s a good combo. They kind of play off of each other. I just want to share a few things that grabbed my attention. The author’s theory is that collectors were driven to collect by the fleeting nature of things. They were fighting against the passage of time and ultimately death. And by rescuing and keeping these objects, they could become masters of reality and stop the march of time.
David: That’s a big premise.
Melissa: That is a big premise, but it’s an interesting idea to think about. In the 17th century, there was a belief that both books and objects taken together would create understanding. So geodes and hunks of crystal and a narwhal horn were displayed in cabinets surrounded by bookshelves. And maybe there was a crocodile suspended from the ceiling. And there was an oversized globe in the corner. Physical things and books came together. And you actually see this at the Strahov Monastery Library here in Prague.
Melissa: I’ll put a link to our stories about the monastery library in show notes. Final point that I picked up from this book: The cabinets really meant a lot to their collectors. In 1666, Mandfred Settala lived in Milan. He was a collector and his cabinet was one of the best in Europe. At his funeral, his coffin was followed by a convoy carrying the most curious items from his museum.
David: Imagine that happening today. And some guy dies and they take the items from his man cave and they follow him in a procession down the street.
Melissa: My Xbox.
David: Yeah. Captain America Shield.
Melissa: The next book I want to tell you about is A Parisian Cabinet of Curiosities: Deyrolle by Louis Albert de Broglie. Deyrolle is a magical place in Paris. We have not been there yet, but we’ve talked about going many times. It’s a hybrid of a natural history museum and a boutique. Everything there is for sale. It’s been located on the rue de Bac since 1881. There are two floors filled with lifelike taxidermy, butterfly and insect collections, nd other natural objects. Visitors are invited to pet the animals.
David: How have we not been there?
Melissa: I don’t know. This book tells the story of Deyrolle through really yummy images and conversational text. It’s like having a chat with the curator as he shows you his favorite things and tells you anecdotal stories about the history of the place. It was founded in 1831 by Emile Deyrolle. Being a naturalist was their family business. He was the fifth one in the family. They published educational charts and books for other researchers and for schools. Emile thought it was essential that they engage kids curiosity while they were educating them.
David: I agree.
Melissa: So all of their work — their books, their charts, the space that they have in Paris — all of that came from a place of real enthusiasm and of wanting to create excitement in other people about the natural world. I was very happy to learn that with just a few exceptions, the animals at Deyrolle come from zoos, circuses, and farms where they’ve died of natural causes. To me, that makes the taxidermy feel like a celebration of their lives. They can continue on through time.
Melissa: So let’s talk about this book itself, the physical object. It is beautiful. It’s a hardcover with a slipcase and a really satisfying heft. I feel like I gave myself a present when I got it, and it’s the kind of thing that a Victorian might have passed down through the generations.
Melissa: If they had it. Every page is just filled with wonder if the original cabinets of curiosity were about rich dudes collecting stuff to cheat death, Deyrolle is like a circus master, opening his arms and saying, ‘Come in, come in, come see this amazing thing.’
Melissa: There are geometric compositions made from butterflies and insects that look like a kaleidoscope made out of jewels.
David: Yeah, or like a Busby Berkeley dance routine.
Melissa: Yeah, exactly. There’s an ostrich wearing aviator goggles. There’s a full-size unicorn with wings. There’s a fuzzy little monkey holding a skull in his hands and examining it. And then on page 52, there is a two-page spread of a whole menagerie. There’s a tiger who looks like he’s smiling for the camera. There’s a zebra who gazes directly out of the page at you. A bear is standing up like a man. There’s another ostrich who looks really grumpy. There’s a peacock displaying his glorious feathers. A lioness is lying on a platform and snuggled up next to her belly. Are two great chinchillas the size of grapefruits. It’s just adorable and whimsical. And all of that is in a room with high ceilings, painted spring green with a gilded chandelier overhead and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out into a Paris street.
David: That sounds awesome.
Melissa: I spent about four hours on a Sunday afternoon immersed in these two books, and it was a fantastic way to spend the afternoon. I can imagine that I will grab them off the shelf again whenever I need to escape to a more magical world for a little while. Yeah, that’s the Cabinets of Curiosities by Patrick Mauriès and A Parisian Cabinet of Curiosities: Deyrolle by Louis Albert de Broglie.
Melissa: One last thing before we move on. There are two novels that I read and really enjoyed set in cabinets of curiosities. I will include the titles in show notes if you want to check them out for yourselves and for our patrons. I’ll be sharing more details about those books and what the reading experience was like.
David: My second book is A Little History of Ar by Charlotte Mullins. In 1995, Oxford University Press started publishing a series of books called A Very Short Introduction. Maybe you’ve seen them. These are small little books, usually about 160 pages, and they introduce a topic. Typically, there’s they’re topics that would be interesting to a university student. So maybe you’ll have something like Darwin: A Very Short Introduction or Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction.
Melissa: They’re very satisfactory. They are the way they feel in your hand.
David: They’re nice. They’re like, if you’re interested in the thing, totally worth a read. The series did so well that there are now over 700 titles in that line.
Melissa: Shut up.
David: Yeah. From silent film to smell neat to country music. There is an RSS feed that will keep you up to date on the latest books in that line.
Melissa: Now I just want a shelf dedicated to all 700 titles. I’m becoming a completist with my cabinet of curiosities.
David: There you go. And I love the idea that somewhere someone with a very particular kind of mind is using the very short introductions as a reading list. Plow through all of those.
Melissa: Read one a day. You could knock it out in a couple of years.
David: You could. Yale University Press caught on to this, and a few years ago, they started a similar but slightly different series called A Little History of. These books are a little bit longer. They’re about 300 pages, but still very manageable. The series started with a republishing of A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich in 2008 that did so well that they came out with an illustrated version of that book, which I’m very curious about. Since then, they’ve published A Little History of Literature and archaeology and poetry, among others. The latest one is A Little History of Art by Charlotte Mullins. It came out just this past April and it is precisely what it says it’s intended for a general audience. So anybody who’s probably after eighth grade and interested in art. It is available. Two different things made this book great for me: one of which was not the responsibility of the author, and the other is.
Melissa: Do tell.
David: The first is that the last time I studied art history, there was no Google. If you’re like me and you studied art back before maybe 2000, or perhaps not at all, it is a miracle to read about it now. This might be obvious, but let me say it out loud. There has never been a better time to study art. In the ’80s, art history was taught in a classroom. He saw a slide, usually in a poorly lit room for maybe 30 seconds, and the professor moved on. Or you went to a museum maybe once. Those are your choices. And now you can read about a piece, look it up, see it from different angles. If you’re interested, you can read the Wikipedia page on the artwork and then on the artist. You can read about what other people have said. You can look up the museum, you can plot out what you want to see. It is amazing, or you can research it the other way. What museum is available to me and what is interesting there for me to see? The second great thing about this book is that it’s inclusive. It turns out women and nonwhite people have been making art all along.
Melissa: Look at that.
David: Weird. So as you walk through the history, the author says this was happening here and over on the other side of the world: This. And as a result, I read about pieces of art I had never heard of before.
Melissa: That’s so cool.
David: Yeah. So this book has 40 short chapters. Really short chapters. Each starts with a little vignette of what was happening. Mullins describes artists making art in their time. I found that great because it underlined two ideas. One, that artists are making art everywhere. And two is that art is about people. It’s the object, but it’s also the story. In an interview, the author said, ‘Art history is an exciting field to work in as it is changing so quickly. Developments in Postcolonial Studies, a deeper understanding of artists’ networks, and the rehabilitation of the careers of many unjustly neglected black artists and women artists. However, many of these topics are still discussed in books and papers in isolation. And so the challenge was to knit all of these approaches together into a cohesive and engaging narrative.’
David: The language that I just used is way above the language of this book, right? She has taken all of that and made it approachable. I also thought that was just an extraordinary idea, that art history is exciting and dynamic now because empathy is on the march. This is a solid work if you would like a gentle but effective introduction to art history. It’s A Little History of Art by Charlotte Mullins.
Melissa: My final recommendation is one of my favorite books that I’ve read in recent memory. It’s Metropolitan Stories by Christine Coulson. Yeah, I lost my mind the day I was reading this book.
David: You did.
Melissa: This was written by a woman who worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for more than 25 years. She started as a summer intern in the European Paintings Department, and then three years later, she returned as a full-time employee. She rose through the ranks of the museum. She worked in the development office, the director’s office, and the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. So she has seen all aspects of the museum from the inside.
Melissa: And now we get to go there, too. The novel unfolds in a series of interconnected vignettes. And it really celebrates the art in the museum, but also the less sexy aspects of the institution: the storerooms, the hallways where conversations take place, the cafeteria where all the employees eat. You really get to go behind the scenes. In real life, the Met employees, 2200 people.
Melissa: And its collection includes more than 2 million objects.
David: Like, I don’t know. Never thought about how many people the Met would employ. Yeah.
Melissa: But it’s a lot like a small town.
Melissa: They have paintings by Picasso and Pollock and Titian, Mary Cassatt, Vermeer. There are sculptures and musical instruments and costumes and weapons. There are period rooms — this was news to me — where they recreate different types of rooms through time and place with furniture and knickknacks and lighting. There’s a salon from 18th-century Paris, a bedroom from ancient Rome.
David: Yeah. It’s like going to IKEA and seeing the bedrooms. Except it’s Napoleon’s bedroom.
Melissa: Exactly. There’s a new one called ‘Before Yesterday We Could Fly.’ That’s dedicated to Afrofuturism. I’ll put a video of that one in show notes.
Melissa: You can also download a free PDF of this gorgeous coffee table book they made about the period rooms. It’s out of print now, so you can just download the PDF and have it. There are about 1200 other books and journals available for free from the Met website.
David: Which it’s too many. That’s too many.
Melissa: It was a little overwhelming, but also: Wow.
David: Yeah, I remember hearing about that a while ago and going there and I downloaded five and then got intimidated and and left.
Melissa: So who has not wished they could get locked in a museum overnight? Or imagine that when a painting’s eyes are following you, it really is watching you, right? I anthropomorphize everything.
Melissa: I feel bad for the Christmas trees that are still on the lot on December 24th. Yeah. I worry when I go to pick up a copy of Jane Eyre that the other copies feel bad I’m not picking them.
Melissa: So I loved this book because some of the stories are told by the works of art in the museum. An early chapter is told from the point of view of an 18th-century armchair that once tenderly cradled the derrière of Louise Elizabeth of Parma. The chair — it’s so emotional — the Chair is describing its life, starting out in a home and the heartbreak of being in a storage closet and hoping that when someone opens the door, they’re coming to get — I think of the chair as a her — coming to get her and take her out. There’s the scene where a toddler in the museum breaks away from his mom and is running toward the chair. And like, she’s so excited about the idea that this child might sit on her again.
Melissa: It was so good.
David: Must be so sad to be a historical chair in a museum, never able to do your job.
Melissa: Christine Coulson said in an interview with NPR, ‘This chair lived a certain life. And then do we kill it a little bit when we put it into this exquisite retirement home?’
Melissa: In other chapters, we meet the men responsible for changing the light bulbs in the museum. At the Met, maintenance workers are essential to the art. The right bulbs at the right angle make all the difference for how we see it. There’s a comical scene in which a museum administrator, who has kind of an ego problem, is desperate to find just the right muse to take with him to an important meeting with a fashion designer. So he interviews all the muses from the various artistic periods and types of art found in the museum.
David: I think that would take forever.
Melissa: They come parading in and some of them he’s just like, ‘No, no, next.’ It’s a really funny poke at the politics of museum life, and also it’s like a primer on art at the same time. Coulson does a really nice job of playing with all of the colors in the emotional palette. A lot of the chapters are, of course, infused with wonder. Some of them are really moving. There’s a fundraiser that’s haunted by a variety of ghosts, and the end of that chapter just, like, kicked me in the solar plexus. It was so good. There are big adventures of people finding unexpected treasures in the storerooms and the labyrinth of corridors behind the scenes.
Melissa: I was just delighted over and over and over again by the stories, by the words that she uses, and by my own emotional reaction. The whole thing was just a mélange of feelings. The author said that she had the idea for this book for 23 of the 25 years she worked at the Met, and in 2017 she was granted a sabbatical so she could write it. And then she spent a year working in some of the most amazing places. She did a residency at the American Academy in Rome. She worked in the reading room at the New York Public Library, at the New York Society Library, the Bobst at New York University. And the Met’s own Thomas J. Watson Library, which — I want to go on a sabbatical and work in majestic libraries. This book is like an adult version of The Night at the Museum. It could really easily have been kind of cheesy or too twee, and it 100% is not. It’s really tender and elegant and funny. I read it in one day and then immediately texted my friend and she read it that evening. It’s that kind of book like, you enjoy it so much. You really want the people. You love to have it too.
Melissa: That’s Metropolitan Stories by Christine Coulson.
David: Those are five books we love set in museums. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com because they’re awesome.
Melissa: Oh my gosh. This one’s going to be over the top.
Melissa: So many videos, so many books.
David: We say that every episode, and yet it is true.
Melissa: That’s because I keep topping myself when I make the show notes. Before we sign off, we want to take a moment to show gratitude to our supporters on Patreon.
Melissa: Thank you so much both to our patrons for helping us continue to produce the show and to all of you for listening.
David: Thanks for listening, and particularly thanks to our patrons. There are 216 of you. I’m going to thank you individually starting right now.
David: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much.
Melissa: Merci. You’re awesome. You back there in the corner. We see you. We appreciate you.
Melissa: Sincerely thank you.
David: Where are we headed on our next episode?
Melissa: Oh, we’re going to hit some white sand beaches, maybe tuck a hibiscus behind our ear. Listen to a ukulele playing. Pack your bags. We’re going to Hawaii.
David: Thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Radiokafka/Shutterstock.
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