At the start of my summer vacation I spent 4 days in Berlin with an old friend and her partner. 4 days packed full of catching up (it had been four years since we had last seen each other) but mostly full of lots of good food and museums. The excuse for the trip was that I was supposed to be doing an interview - research for the thesis (D-day minus four months now, stress level = amber). My contact got sick, however, and in the end my trip was just too short. I still managed to spend plenty of time in museums, however, packing five (two of three of which were HUGE) into four days.
Day 1 - Museum for Communication (after jet-lag induced late morning and an attack of "WOW! Clothing in this country actually FITS! that resulted in half a new wardrobe)
Day 2 - German History Museum (DHM)
Day 3 - Jewish Museum
Day 4 - Gandhara - an exhibit of Buddhist Art from Pakistan at the Martin-Gropius-Bau & Technology Museum
I enjoyed all - for different reasons. Unfortunately, however, my time at the Communication Museum suffered from my jet lag induced cotton ball brain-ness, and I just couldn't get beyond the lack of explanation of the large robots drifting around the larger inner atrium. I had seen pictures of and heard talks about the DHM, but I was still overwhelmed by the museum (my friend gave up on me and left me to wander at my own pace, going on to see the whole exhibit and two special exhibits before browsing the gift shop and going across the street for coffee and rhubarb cake, and reading a chapter or so of her book before I finally came out of the regular exhibit area...) The Jewish Museum was an unforgettable experience and very thought provoking - also hands down the BEST museum cafeteria I've EVER tried! The art exhibit was fascinating, especially with pieces on display from museums in the Swat Valley, an area in the news at the time. The Technology Museum was also overwhelming in sheer size - I thought I had seen the whole thing and was feeling rather pleased with myself when I met up with my friends at the appointed hour - only do discover I hadn't even found the largest wing of the museum!
With the exception of the art gallery, I was rather surprised to find copious amounts of natural sunlight in the museums. Both the Technology Museum and the Communication Museum also had open windows in the exhibit space. One of the things drilled into undergrads in the curatorial certificate program in Japan is the need for climate-controlled exhibit space and the evils of natural light. When you are exhibiting wood-block prints or ink paintings in a country where summer weather can reach the high thirties with 90% humidity on a clear day, the need for such protection is obvious (heck, VISITORS need the climate-controlled environment to be able to happily visit a museum with those conditions). Although it is definitely arguable as to whether they actually do much, almost all exhibit cases in a Japanese museum will contain some sort of desiccant. Given the regular occurrence of earthquakes, all objects are securely and safely fastened. The lack of all these familiar things really surprised me at first. I was surprised and began getting worried about object conservation. After a few museums, however, I realized just how conditioned I am to the Japanese museum, and I began noticing unique and interesting techniques being used to protect objects while also having them on view.
There were your average pull-out drawers, dressed out with eye-catching colours and at an easily viewable height.
There were spiffy glass covered cases with multiple levels of documents on sliding panels that retracted slowly back when released.
There were traditional pull-out drawers topped by heavy covers that revealed documents when opened (and due to their weight would not be left open by even the most absent-minded of visitors)
And there were these canisters on the wall that, after a good ten minutes spent trying to figure out HOW to open them, delighted me to no end (simple minds, simple pleasures, right?).
I was also impressed by the use of bright colours and whimsical touches in many of the museums we visited. The Gandhana exhibition was in a white space, but all of the case bottoms were either bright orange or lime green - a strong contrast to the grey stone of most of the objects! All of the museums, however, used bright colour, something I found refreshing from the blandness of most (older) museums in Japan.
Of course the first section of the Jewish Museum has no colour - it is all white, black, and cold greys. The lack of colour further and effectively heightens the impact of the space.
I'm really still only beginning to think through the museums I visited, and look forward to presenting on one of them next week when our inter-university grad student museum studies group has our first meeting back after the summer vacation. I really want to think this through some more... I loved being shocked out of my "Japan-centric" museum mind-set, and being reminded that things are done differently in different museums around the world. I'm eagerly awaiting my next chance to explore more "foreign" museums!