Show Museum or Teaching Museum?

You probably can tell without my saying much that I am a sucker for museums. Art museum, science museum, history museum, folk-life museum, botanical garden, I’ll probably at least poke my head in to see if it looks promising. I’ve been very, very fortunate to be able to visit, and re-visit, many of the great art and history museums north of the Alps, like the Kunsthistorischesmuseum [Art History Museum] in Vienna three times, the Gamäldegalarie [painting gallery] in Berlin twice, and a few others, like the Louvre (twice over two days. Don’t bother with the southern art section, IMHO).

This time I visited some less prominent art museums and several wonderful history museums. One thing I started thinking about was based on a comment someone made at the fine art museum in Hamburg: it’s not a bad art museum, but it would be fantastic for teaching art-history. There are very, very few Old Masters paintings in Hamburg. It does have a wonderful collection of German Romantic paintings, especially Caspar David Friedrich, some good realist and Impressionist rooms, and a huge post-Impressionist and modern collection. The museum is arranged chronologically and it would be very easy to start with medieval/Gothic, then Renaissance,  Baroque, Mannerist, Rococo, Classicist, Romantic and so on to the Twentieth Century. You do not have masterworks to spend a lot of time focusing on, but a wide variety of decent works to use to show the big trends and ideas.

Hamburg’s collection is a municipal collection, drawn from wealthy merchants and professionals who donated things. This is in contrast to the Kunsthistorisches or the Prado or the State Hermitage, which were princely/imperial collections. The Louvre was a royal collection augmented by looting, er, that is, Napoleon’s eye for art and historical treasures. But The Louvre is a poor teaching museum, because of how it is divided by region as well as time. You have to work back and forth between sections if you want to show different aspects of, say, the Renaissance. And to be honest, working around people taking selfies and photos of the art was a real pain in the patoot.

(When I was at the Louvre, the trend was that if you didn’t post photos of yourself with stuff on Facebook and Instagram, “you weren’t really there.” So people were walking through the galleries taking pictures of the pictures and sculpture but never looking at the art! That was the Southern European section. The northern side, with magnificent Merovingian carvings and sculptures, and Rubens and Van Eyche and Dürer and a few other “minor” artists was almost empty. It was rather sad in a way.)

The museum in the small German city of Stade is both a great museum on its own and a wonderful teaching museum, in part because that was how it was designed. You start with prehistoric life, maps of different find sites, and a discussion of the environment and artifacts to look at as well as reproductions. Under the exhibits are “caves,” little nooks for younger children to duck into and crawl on furs (for the early Stone Age) or look up close at bones and things like that. The display progresses from the end of the Ice Ages to the decline of Roman influence, the arrival of the Saxons, and the early Middle Ages. You are free to wander back and forth, following time or not, comparing pottery and weapons, or whatever floats your boat. The next floor is the Hanseatic League, with all kinds of displays of trade goods, ship models, demonstrations of how much easier shipping was by boat vs. overland, reproductions of documents about the Hanse, models of warehouses and of how house styles developed, urban life and all kind of facets of High Medieval life. Alas, I ran out of time for the third floor, but I did score some excellent books and maps about the town and the region. That is a wonderful teaching museum.

The Hanseatic Museum of Europe in Lübeck may be the ultimate teaching museum. I spent over three hours in it and rushed the last few exhibits, skipping an entire section because of time and exhaustion (we’d already been to St. Ann’s art museum at the other end of the city, then walked around the walls.) The Hanseatic museum immerses you in the history of trade and the Hanseatic League. If you are not really, really interested in business history, or do not want to read much, you will not enjoy the museum a great deal. There are neat displays and it is very cutting edge in the use of technology, but you have to be fascinated in the topic to get a lot out of the place. However, you will leave with an in-depth knowledge of how trade worked or didn’t, the history of trade and business, opposition to trade, politics of the Hanse, and merchant culture. For example:

Part of the display about goods going in and out of Bruges. Click for detail.

More of the same display. This is not a kids’ museum.

A “kidney knife.” Which appears in Of Merchant and Magic, in case anyone wonders.

You cannot just roam through the Hanseatic Museum, unlike an art museum, or Stade or some of the other history museums I’ve visited (the Cluny, Würzburg, The Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, Hamburg city history museum, Hamburg Maritime Museum). You are on a set route. the Hanseatic Museum also has an odd “flavor” to it, because it is about trade and the Hanse and business, but often treats trade and business as something less-than-good. (More on that in a later post)

For concentrated jaw-dropping, free-roaming “Oh my gosh is that a Titian? Rembrandt!” the Gemäldegalarie in Berlin is the single best small art museum I’ve visited. I wouldn’t use it to teach the broad sweep of art history like I would Hamburg’s fine art museum, but it has so many examples of Old Masters in a compact setting that it is great for a “Highlights of Art History” day. And it has ample places to sit and just take in the works. You are not overloaded, as can happen in Vienna.

Each museum is different, each has a different goal and flavor. Some are better for some things than for others, some are just flat badly laid out, or out-dated, and some are obviously an individual’s labor of love and should be taken as such. I’d not really considered before how some are aimed at teaching, while others are for displaying treasures, be they Old Masters or someone’s collection of pig things (Stuttgart.) Perhaps because I teach, my mind leapt to how I would use Stade and Hamburg, if I were able to bring a group of students there. In Bruges, I just stood and stared, absorbing the paintings and carvings. In the Musee de Cluny, I wept at the beauty. But that’s a story for a different time.

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7 thoughts on “Show Museum or Teaching Museum?

  1. I’m not much of an art person, I could spend days in a history museum, reading the fine print about every displayed artifact or photograph, and discussing how each was made or could be used. But I’m a photograph person myself, and that is the kind of art I like, if you have to study it to see it is a painting and not a photograph, that I like. Even paintings of fantastical creatures or space battles, etc. can be good, if the reason you know they are a painting is because there really aren’t dragons in real life. But otherwise, not much of an art person, I’ve never understood why something like the Mona Lisa is worth more than the price of a drivethru meal at Dairy Queen. I mean it is a picture of some pouty woman who I don’t consider more than passingly pretty, at best. But give me a rusty chunk of iron and the fine print revealing that is a broken pike pole tip, found near the headwaters of River X; I will be fascinated.

    • What little I could see of the Mona Lisa, from 12 yards away, was not impressive. On the other hand, I’ve spent half an hour in front of Rembrandt’s portrait of the Mennonite preacher and his wife, looking at the details, wondering what he’s explaining, and what she’s replying or possibly correcting.

      You and my Dad would have fun. I thought we were going to lose him in a construction site once, he leaned over so far to see the tool-marks and construction techniques used on a 14th century half-timber house that was being restored.

      • You’re right, your dad and I would have fun. That is the kind of stuff that interests me.

  2. My family usually leaves me in museums because I take so long to go through them. We went to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science last week on vacation, were there all day, and didn’t see half of what they had. Part of that was because I spent the better part of the morning in the viking exhibit. I miss the days when I lived in the DFW area and had memberships at the Kimbell and one or two other museums.

    • When Sib was in college and grad school, I used to go hang out down in Ft. Worth and visit the Kimbell and the Amon Carter.

  3. Some museums and art pieces strike me … others not so much; just goes to show that I’m not normal 😉

  4. I’ve only been to two German museums, the BMW one and Deutsches Museum. But I’ve done the Louvre, a number of museums in Rome and around Italy, and a couple in England. Most of the time it was ‘low passes’ to look at specific things. I tended to stay away from the Old Masters, simply because they were so crowded, pretty much every where we went.

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