Great Museums Not on the Stupid “Best Of” Lists
BY CURT HOPKINS
I saw an article called something like “The 25 Best Museums Did You Visit Them or Are You Some Kind of Asshole?”
Out of that fetishist, Instagrammy dick-list, I have visited four: the Pompidou, the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and the Prado.
But the only conclusion I drew from this dreck was this: There are so many smaller, or less advertised, museums that are extraordinary, or that you stumble upon for the right reason or at the wrong time or by kicking left when you meant to go right or by mispronouncing the street name or getting off at the wrong ferry stop, that lists like these are not just useless, they’re harmful.
Here are a half dozen of the great museums in my life. They are not great because they’re on a list – not even this one – but because they have meant so much to me.
The question I want to ask you who are reading this is as corny as it is sincere: Not how many of these have you been to, but rather, what does your list look like?
Museum of Natural and Cultural History. The University of Oregon’s natural history museum has by far the oldest shoes ever discovered: sandals woven out of sagebrush and found in dry caves in the Great Basin. They are 10,000 years old and they are so evocative you fly across the centuries like a spark between electrodes. Oregon has an eerie hold on the past. You may not see the painters and the paintings of the Hudson Valley School by looking into the Hudson Valley or vice versa but you can see Lewis and Clark’s expedition rafting up the Columbia just by pulling over to the side of the road on I-84. By the same token, the pyramids may be too anchored in the touristic present to transport you back to the time of the Pharaohs, but the modest sandals Lewis Cressman found in Fort Rock Cave certainly will – and farther too.
de Young Museum. The De Young is a standard big city art museum. But what sets it apart for me is the Tlingit thunderbird longhouse screen from the Native Artists of Western North America exhibit, which opened in 2017. It’s enormous, graphically powerful, and aesthetically distinguished. If you are a Northwesterner as I am, it is also a startling glimpse of home. It is also a vivid reminder that aesthetic and theological integrity was not a recent nor a European invention.
Münchner Stadtmuseum. This was the museum my high school exchange student friend Stefan (now a doctor in London) wound up in as we wandered a city neither of us called home. We were blessed by not knowing the museum we were supposed to go to was the Alte Pinakothek. The Munich City Museum was almost completely deserted when we showed up, leaving it for us to wander about on our own like a couple of fancy burgher boys. The exhibit that stuck out the most was a room packed with panoplies of 15th and 16th-century Bavarian Plattenrüstung or plate armor. Right out the window of the museum was a Platz across which the very men who once wore those sets of plate had walked.
Pergamonmuseum. I had heard of this museum, on Berlin’s Museuminsel, or “museum island.” But I really was not expecting the aesthetic and emotional wave that came over me when I entered the enormous room where the rebuilt altar rises. Here, sections of the temple from the acropolis of the Asia Minor city loom above you. Also in the museum stands Babylon’s Ishtar Gate rebuilt from deep blue and gold glazed tiles. There are so many genuinely interesting things to see you will tire mentally before you can see it all. It also confronts you with the reality and scope of its cultural theft.
British Library. When my wife and I went to Europe so she could attend a conference, we stayed in a hotel near the British Library. We weren’t sure what we could see given we weren’t cardholders. nut being book weirdos, we decided to visit anyway, and were awfully glad we did so. The library has a modest exhibition room called the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, where representative objects from the collection are shown. It had a higher holy-shit-per-square-foot ratio of any place I’ve ever been. Here we saw the Sarajevo Haggadah, the illustrated Passover text created in Barcelona around 1350. We saw the second oldest Christian bible in the world, the mid-fourth century Codex Sinaiticus, written by the monks of my perennial obsession, the Monastery of Saint Catherine’s on Sinai. When I saw Wilfred Owen’s manuscript copy of Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth with Siegried Sassoon’s corrections it was everything I could do not to bawl.
Museo del Prado. I’m loathe to include one of the museums from the dick list, but it’s impossible to ignore the context in which it entered my life. I was there the first time fresh off the plane with a friend who was fantastically ill-equipped emotionally for international travel. We didn’t know how to use the public transportation so wound up walking most of the way through the empty Sunday city, only to find the waiters in Madrid all on strike. Neither of us slept on the plane either, so we arrived at the Prado in a state of profound exhaustion. Thanks to both the waiters’ strike and the airline’s unspeakable gruel, we hadn’t eaten in a day and a half and we were famished as well. At this point, my friend homed in on Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and then ran face-first into Goya’s Pinturas Negras. I found him shaking like a toy poodle in a corner, his soul tethered to his body by a single, fraying string. Poor fellow, he was back on a plane to his sister’s place on Telegraph Hill within two weeks. My other friend and I (and eventually my wife-to-be) were there for most of a year. In retrospect, it seems like an excised chapter from Being Geniuses Together.