Hulloo, everyone – I’m back. :)
I actually flew in last Wednesday night, but it’s taken me a while to catch up on sleep and feel like a real person again. And to do some reading – it had been a shockingly long time since I read a book (finished HP No. 7 and am half-way through Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell).
You know, I used to think that travelling for work sounded like a lot of fun. I mean, how often does somebody offer to pay for your plane ticket and hotel and send you to another city? My imagination conveniently left out things like my dislike for airplanes, 13 to 15 hour work days, and the general stress of event-planning. As far as I know, everybody was pretty happy with the meeting (while agreeing that lectures and poster sessions from 8 am to 8 pm every day is just too long). But it’s done! I have to put some meeting photos online soon – I ended up acting as general photographer – and I’ll post a link, in case you curious about what scientific meetings look like. Hint: they’re about as exciting as you’d expect, with the exception of the occasional verbal catfight during the Q&A portion.
My boss/travelling companion and I did have a little bit of time for sightseeing, so we headed over the the St. Louis Zoo and Art Museum in Forest Park (we also visited the Missouri Botanical Garden as part of the conference, and I’ll post pics from that later). We did not go to the Arch, which was probably a big omission. However, I found out the day after we could have gone that one of the elevators had gotten stuck dangling hundreds of feet off the ground for two hours before they could get it down and unload the frightened passengers. Was very glad we had passed.
The zoo and museum both turned out to be free, which was lovely, and the zoo had quite a lot of animals. The bounding hippopotamus was my favorite. Did you know that the fish eat the hippo’s poop, which is actually quite nutritious? And then the villagers downstream eat the fish? (Too much information, perhaps.)
As I was wandering around the zoo and the museum, I thought for a while about the strangeness of creating special locations for people to go and look at things.
This strangeness was reinforced by the number of people (like myself) wandering around the zoo, camera in hand, trying to get a nice shot of the bears or penguins or antelope with the least number of visible cage elements. You know, as though we were wandering around the savannah and just happened to see some zebras. I almost put my camera down because the thought was so ridiculous, but at the same time it seemed so natural to wait until the elephant made his 40 foot loop and came around so I could get that nice full-body shot.
After a while, the zoo and the museum seemed to me to have a lot in common. They’re both unnatural environments for the things that people are coming to see, and yet we’ve come to feel that the connection is logical. Picasso = museum, lion = zoo.
[Lest you think that I’m on an anti-zoo tirade, I should add that I’m not opposed to zoos across the board, especially if the animals were injured or bred in captivity and wouldn’t last two seconds in their natural habitat. The main reason why I liked the St. Louis Zoo, though, was the realization that the fact that I had seen these animals in person made them much, much more real to me. It’s one thing to read watch a documentary about rainforest destruction in Brazil and quite another to come face to face with the bright, beady eyes of a bird that is one of the last 1000 of its kind. This might be a stock argument that conservationists make for zoos and education and whatnot, but it seemed very real when I stood – for 45 minutes – in the bird house, watching creatures that I never knew existed flit from faux branch to faux branch.]
As for the art museum, one of the many differences that I saw as I walked from the medieval reliquaries and madonnas to the modern abstracts and installations was a change in the manner in which the art was meant to be presented. I doubt very much that it ever occurred to a 16th century portrait artist that his work might some day hang in a museum (did they even have museums back then?). Art used to hang in houses and castles and churches, over furniture and bookcases and walls that weren’t perfectly white. But now we want to take all of it and put it huge halls that are about as divorced from everyday domestic life as you can get.
As I walked through the contemporary section of the gallery, however, it seemed that a lot of the artists had adapted quite well to this change and were creating art that was meant to hang in a museum (or a very museum-like house) and no where else. One small room contained an installation that was made up of a fluorescent bulb hung diagonally in a corner. Um, if that was in my apartment, I’d want to replace it as soon as possible.
These are just thoughts and mutterings, of course, but I hadn’t been to a “real” museum in so long that I’d forgotten what the experience is like. Tragically, I’d forgotten my sketch pad that day and had to scrounge for whatever paper scraps I could find (I love sketching at museums), so this is all I came up with. The top drawing shows the head of a statue from a 15th century church, and the bottom is the first Rouault painting that I’ve seen in person. His paintings are so much better on the wall than they are reproduced in books, which leads to a whole discussion about why people should see art in person. But I’ll save that one for later.