I have a confession to make. According to me, museums are like exercising. Not my first choice on any given day, a bit of a struggle to get through but in the end, I know the exercise is good for me.
My childhood memories include visiting many museums with my family and remembering how my sisters and I were getting yelled at for wrestling or lying on the floor. We were always wondering when it was going to be time for lunch. In college, I remember venturing to the Museum of Science in Boston with some guy friends from MIT and faking it the whole time. I did my best to pretend I understood what we were looking at and acting as if I was fully engaged. I felt in over my head but didn’t want the guy I had a crush on to figure that out.
I am convinced there are ways to engage people and teach them to understand and appreciate art in a way that is interesting and exciting. Walking in cold and just looking at paintings is probably not the best way to create interest. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I am a total dud. I love looking at historical items; letters written years ago, historic clothing and jewelry, fossils that have been found and preserved. That is easy to understand. It is the artwork and the complexity of it that is more difficult.
What I have come to realize is the biggest mistake I made in college was not taking an art history course. I realize this because when I visit museums with my husband, who did take an elective course (he was a business major), he walks in and immediately recognizes artists and works and his enthusiasm and appreciation for them is apparent. So the course he took has proved to be a great choice and one with life-long benefits.
Even my children at a very early age took a class in art history. Their kindergarten class did a full year study of famous artists. The class was instructed to lie on their backs and paint the underside of the table like Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. At the end of the school year, the class of 5 and 6-year-olds toured the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston pointing out works by van Gogh, Monet, and Renoir. I think all the adults in the museum were floored by what they were observing. Years later when my boys were 10 and 12, we traveled to Florence, Italy and toured the famous Uffizi Gallery and it struck me how good they were in the museum. They didn’t wrestle and fidget like me and my sisters and truth be told, seemed to have a longer attention span than me. Years later, I was still geared up for lunch.
This past weekend my long time college friend Ginny came to visit me for the weekend. It had been years since we spent time together because we have been busy raising our children in different states. Now our children are grown and we can lift our heads up for air and start to not only reconnect with our friends but make time for ourselves. So, of course when she emailed about visiting I was excited to see her. I had thoughts about wining and dining and maybe some shopping thrown in. Then I read the next line of her email. “I am coming to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Harvard Arts Museums. Would you like to join me?” Ok, I knew I couldn’t fake it with Ginny.
Ginny always had a passion for art. She wanted to major in art history but was advised to pick a more marketable and sensible career. Now years later her children have left the nest and she like many of us is thinking about her next chapter in life. As she searches for her next step one thing she knows is she has always had a passion for art. She applied and was accepted in a volunteer, year-long art history training program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Her training prepares her to give guided tours to school groups who visit the museum. The learning curve is steep and she spends her free time outside the program educating herself. Therefore, the reason for the visit. So who better to visit these museums with than someone who understands and can teach me how to look at these paintings and not think about what is for lunch. I can be myself with her, show my deficiencies and actually learn something to enrich my personal experience.
Our first stop was the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The museum was established in 1903 by Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924), an American art collector, philanthropist, and patron of the arts. It is housed in a building designed to emulate a 15th-century Venetian palace. This is a picture of the beautiful courtyard that sits in the middle of the museum and visible from each floor you visit. You might have heard of the museum because in 1990, thirteen of the museum’s works were stolen; a pair of thieves disguised as Boston police officers gained entry to the museum and a total worth of the stolen pieces has been estimated at $500 million, making the robbery the greatest single property theft in US history. The high-profile crime remains unsolved and the artwork’s location is still unknown. As you walk around the museum, the spaces where those paintings hung remain empty. There is a constant buzz of visitors still talking about the theft and asking questions of the guides.
I felt like I had my own personal guide with Ginny. Not that she was familiar with everything she saw but she explained the history and influences of the time, how the artwork fit into that time period and the layers of complexity behind the works. There are a variety of methods of applying paint on different surfaces and why and how artists used those techniques. Paintings reflect the social, political and cultural ideas of the time and understanding the history adds to understanding the painting and what is represents. We also talked about how art is really everywhere, sometimes we walk right by it. Case in point when we took a trip to the ladies room. Have you ever since such a beautiful ladies room? Ginny has an Instagram account where she regularly posts art that she sees every day around her. This picture of the ladies room made the cut. If you are interested you should follow her on Instagram @art_encounters. She also contributes to the blog ArtfulObserver.com.
Next stop was Harvard University to see the Rothko exhibit. Totally different era and different style. The exhibit included canvases that Mark Rothko painted more than 5o years ago.
So, of course, I would look at the painting and reflect on how I love the colors but don’t understand all the attention. Is this something I could paint myself? Again, such a simplistic view and as Ginny started to explain the technique of layering paint and creating color which evokes emotion I became more and more intrigued. Especially given the fact that these works had faded significantly and this exhibit used light to re-create the original look. Each day at 4pm, the lights turn off so viewers can see the painting in its’ current faded condition.
As the weekend came to a close we talked about how we transition from our lives from raising children to something equally rewarding and stimulating. We brainstormed about ideas for Ginny to take her interest to another level and develop ways to engage children at an early age to learn and appreciate art. I think reinvention starts with identifying your passions and finding a way to incorporate in your life. We are never to0 old to learn and challenge ourselves. I think Ginny had a good time practicing her tour guide skills on me and hopefully, I was a good student. I now look forward to our next trip to the museum. And as soon as she walked out the door, I picked up the phone and called my son at college and told him to take an art history course.