We have experienced a lot of culture on this trip. From bazaars to ruins, we swim among the eddies of other histories and civilizations, soaking in life among otherness. But what about the solidification and gathering of this “culture” — the tried and true depository of learning known as the Museum?
The hushed silences, somewhere between cemetery and library, the museum usually feels like the crypt and catalogue of some dead society. If we were to visit these stuffy institutions every day or even every country, we may learn the facts of the people we visit but would likely want to kill ourselves, collapsing down to become a part of the silent history found hermetically sealed within.
Most major metropolises have a museum district, a sort of cultural heritage center. So from among the many, here are the few which we loved.
Buttoned-up Munich has museums such as the Alte Pinakotek (home to some impressive Rubens), Neue Pinakotek (late 18th Century to Picasso) and the Pinatkotek Modern (a modern design and installation museum), The Kunst Haus (don’t forget its awesome subway installation space) and Lenbachhaus (currently being remodeled and expanded) all literally across the street from each other. Wait until Sunday to visit —you’ll be able access all these for only 1 Euro.
Most of the major museums of London are free, from the V&A and Tate Modern (housed in a cool converted industrial plant) to the Science Museum, and Natural History Museum with its hands on Darwin, Dinosaurs and Human Body Exhibits.
Of all of these traditional museums, one of the most impressive was the Pergamon Museum on Museum Island in Berlin. Years ago, Germany had “borrowed” some of the most impressive pieces of history, and they are now on display here (well, until each respective culture gets its works back). They have the altar of Pergamon at almost full scale, the actual gates of Babylon, a vibrant Greek Gods exhibit and more Greek columns than you can imagine. It is the staggering size of these exhibits that overwhelm.
Thanks Wikipedia for this great shot — our lens just couldn’t take it all in!
There are plenty of places that have become museums in themselves. The Wieliczka Salt Mines outside Krakow where immense halls hold churches and sculptures all carved from the salt are located some 300 meters below ground.
The best part? The high-speed, pitch-dark elevator ride back up. Equally scary? licking the salt walls.
The Memento Park outside Budapest, although small and simple, is filled with statues that represent histroy’s biggest ideals. In true communistic dualism, they were showing an interesting footage from the Secret Police training films.
Of course there is the grandaddy of all, Auschwitz outside Krakow, Poland. A massive, unrestored piece of land-locked anguish that must leave the Poles feeling trapped with a place and time that can not be allowed to be forgotten. You can understand how it must feel to be occupied, forced to help in building this monstrosity and then to have this scar never heal, to continue to exist to this day as part of a greater good, and common education.
To walk any curious visitor through these bottomless cities, New Europe delivers a brilliant plan. All over Europe, you’ll find their free walking tours. The word “free” had us excited to begin with, but we soon realized how priceless these tours actually are. Within a 3 hour walk, you get the feel of both the past and present of the city, easily marking off places to return to, avenues to explore not often found so clearly in the guide books. Do not miss the Berlin walking tour, by far the best of the bunch.
Ah, but where are the exciting, immersive museums that don’t drop us into the walking dead, silent ghosts among the ghosts of our pasts, never to get closer than a stern faced docent would allow? Oh, there are a few. The DDR Museum in Berlin shows the lighter side of grey communism by letting you sit in a Trabant, known as the “Paper Jaguar,” among other less complimentary names. You can watch the difference between West and East Berlin news shows or communist era cartoons designed to indoctrinate. We learned stern East Berliners were also dedicated nudists when the weather was nice. See, you can always learn something new at the Museum.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum tells the tragic tale of the Poles doomed attempt to fight back against the Nazis in an immersive museum leading you through everything from sewer tunnels (the common mode of evading the Nazi troops) to home made gun defenses and a full size reproduction of a plane used to drop supplies.
And yet our favorite Museum experience so far was the House of Terror, housed in the former Secret Police building in Budapest. Several stories of interpretive exhibits plunge you in to experience the true difficulties of the Hungarian people during Nazi occupation and Communism’s Iron Fist and Forced Labor Camps.
Each room is carefully constructed: from a room with every surface shellacked in court proceedings (estimated one in every three adults had a case brought against him or her to instill fear in the populace), to the grizzly labyrinth of soap, through to the memorial to those who lost their lives located one floor under a oil-slicked tank. The artful representations contrast with the drastic nature of the information you absorb, always fascinated to find out what the next room will reveal.
Just because it is a museum, doesn’t mean it has to be dry and droll. Old towns located in nearly every city and each varied way a town tries to leave a mark on you — to excite you in their history or open you to their present. Still, we can’t always drag up the energy necessary to make it another stodgy statue or dusty priceless art exhibit.
Then again, we had a blast stumbling around in the dark of the Labyrinth beneath Buda Castle in Budapest. And there was the Mao exhibit in this guys garage? We think the best part was how drunk and excited to see us they were.
Are we the disaffected youth who can’t be bothered to read the tiny cards below a lovely lithograph? Probably. But luckily we aren’t the only ones changing and making demands. Culture is created by the people, and more of this refusenik spirit is now being channeled into the sacred halls which collect our social history. How exciting is it to travel the world, and to find it speaking our language, bending over backwards to continue speaking in the vernacular of our times. Bravo to all the curators and creatives who are freeing the Museum from it’s stodgy, slow churn.
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