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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Converting to Museums

The Denver Art Museum, when does the spacecraft depart?
The British Museum, London,
--columns anyone?
When one utters the word "museum" nowadays, one of two images comes to mind. Either you visualize some massive, Greek Revival edifice of grey limestone from which you might expect Socrates or Plato to saunter forth a la Raphael, or, conversely, a massive contemporary pile of polished stone, chrome, and glass that looks to have been created by an alien architect homesick for Delos 4. And, frankly, I'm not sure which is most intimidating to the average viewer who makes a pilgrimage to the vaunted and vaulted temples of fine arts only once every decade or so. I love art and love museums, but even I find either type as intimidating as they are exciting. In either case, the first thing I look for after the restrooms is a brochure map so I don't get lost in the damned place.

The Orsay Train Station, Paris
The Orsay today, only tourists arrive and depart.
But, thankfully, museums aren't all like that. Today, many new museums are being designed and built as works of art themselves, perhaps so that if you don't like the art, you can at least enjoy the building. The Guggenheims and the Gettys come to mind. Older museums, designed and built for the purpose of sheltering and showing art, of course come in styles as varying widely from Gothic to lavish Beaux-arts confections. But almost from the beginning of the very concept of public museums in the eighteenth century, countries and cities have also been in the business of converting antiquated existing buildings into museums (hence the plethora of Renaissance and Greek Revival museum structures). Former palaces, it was thought, made excellent museums (at best, a questionable idea today). The Hermitage and the Louvre come to mind. More recently however, other structures have come into play, such as the Musee d'Orsay in Paris (above), a former train station, and most recently, Vienna, Austria has converted the former imperial riding stables into a contemporary arts centre (below).

Vienna's Museums Quatier Wien--so big only through distortion can it be encompassed.
The Austrians call it the Museums Quartier Wien. In fact, the complex is not one, but several, related museums of various sizes housing both a permanent collection and traveling shows. As well, the complex contains artists' studios, dance studios, children's art classrooms, also film and recording studios. In the 4,500 square foot Winter Riding Hall, where once Lippizan Stallions pranced and danced, today, more traditional dancers make their leaps in leotards and tutus. The new complex is a meeting of the Baroque and Cybertech - eighteenth century and twenty-first century architecture blending for dramatic effect and creative purpose. At 60,000 square feet (the size of six soccer fields), the five museums and ten other arts institutes make the MQ Wien one of the ten largest arts complexes in the world.

You can't beat Michelangelo in adding
a touch of class to any museum.
In Cleveland, Ohio, is an even larger museum - it measures its space in acres. But it too has been "converted" from an earlier purpose. It still goes by the name, Lake View Cemetery, but it's now also referred to as an "outdoor museum." You won't find many paintings there, or dancers, or artists' studios, but you will find some of the best monumental architecture/sculpture on this side of the Atlantic marking the graves of the famous and the infamous. The centrepiece of the "museum" is the burial monument to President James A. Garfield, but the Cleveland Rockefellers also have a presence as does Michelangelo. No, he's not buried there, but a bronze replica of his famous Vatican Pieta makes his presence felt. Like any first class museum, Lake View also has visiting exhibits. The museum likewise has an education program, a benefactor program, and guided tours. Boston and Buffalo have similar cemetery museums. But only Cleveland's is open year around. Admission is free, but tickets are required because (to resurrect an old joke) people are just dying to get in.

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