Arts and Culture in the Metropolis

Tower of London
Tower of London

The Mayor’s Priorities for Culture 2009-12.  See the document here for his vision on maintaining London’s position as a world centre of cultural excellence.

For an another viewpoint let’s turn to Gotham Girl’s analysis of transatlantic museum visiting.

The British Museum wallops the Met in ancient civilizations

The Elgin Marbles – that is a proper test of wills

The Tate Modern is notably NOT just a storage space 

I love museums. I live only a short walk from Museum Mile here in Manhattan so museums figure prominently in my leisure schedule at home as well as abroad.

Few places in New York offer better “people watching” than the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met for short). Few places in New York offer more beautiful views than the roof of the Met.

I don’t think the front of the British Museum offers quite the same experience.

great_hall Met
Metroplitan Museum of Art

At the Met, I can curl up with a book in Engelhard Court. I frequently head to the Temple of Dendur to visit with friends. We can – and do – even enjoy lunch or drinks now that they’ve reclaimed the first floor for the Greek and Roman galleries and the eateries have had to move downstairs. This move hasn’t done much for the Greek and Roman collections but it has improved the “grab a bite of lunch” experience at the Met tenfold.

Still, museums are, on many levels, the sum of the collections and much as I love the Met as a whole, certain galleries don’t fare very well when compared to their British Museum counterparts. The British Museum wallops the Met in ancient civilizations. The Greek and Roman collection of the Met is a bit “meh” – well, a lot “meh.” The Temple of Dendur, aside, their Egyptian collection isn’t much better and is displayed abysmally. As for controversial artifacts – the Met pales in comparison. Sure, Turkey went after the Metropolitan about the Lydian Horde but the Met returned it so – in a mere six or so years – that was that. The Elgin Marbles – that is a proper test of wills. Impressive.  Oh and here’s a handy tip – don’t make remarks on how “liberated” the marbles look within earshot of guards. Goodness, how that man glared. Still, it wasn’t as bad as the time at Westminster Abbey when I stomped on Thomas Hardy’s name in Poet’s Corner. Still, that’s another story for another time (and in my defense I think MOST people would like to stomp on Thomas Hardy).

The Met does have its strong points — including The Cloisters (home of the Met’s Medieval Collection) which are very special – the collection, the location, the garden, the views, the building. Not to be missed. The Costume Institute is often the reason for my visits to the Met. Their shows are, by and large, beautifully curated and amazingly well-written (so many shows in so many museum are NOT well-written). The collection is impressive in scope and remarkably well used by those in charge. OK, the Costume Institute doesn’t have a British Museum counterpart. That’s more a V&A thing and the V&A’s textile and fashion collection is top notch. But I still prefer the space and form of the Met’s presentations. 

Elsewhere on the museum landscape: I adore the Cooper-Hewitt (properly called the ‘Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution’ but who has time for all that!). The Cooper’s collection includes both historic and contemporary pieces so it’s a bit like mixing 3 cups of V&A with a dash of Design Museum.  I say ‘a dash’ of the Design Museum because I haven’t been but from what I’ve heard it isn’t the powerhouse it aims (or claims) to be quite yet. Has anyone been? Would love to hear what it is like.

Guggenheim Museum

Also on Museum Mile is the Guggenheim. Sigh. I know the building is iconic. I know its 50th anniversary is coming in two weeks. I know it just underwent a massive revamping. I just don’t care much for it. I will go for particular exhibits but it’s not somewhere I feel drawn to for its own sake or the sake of its permanent collection. Given a choice, I’d rather wander around the Museum of the City of New York (just up 5th Avenue). I’ve also been known to kill time at MOMA but if I’m going to spend my day looking at modern art, I’d rather do so at the Tate Modern (speaking of iconic buildings). MOMA is – well, dull. There. I said it. The space may be ‘state of the art’ and goodness knows the renovation a few years back was extensive enough but there’s nothing special about it. The Tate Modern is notably NOT just a storage space. The space is part of the collection and central to the experience.

Of course, both London and New York have their versions of Madame Tussaud’s and having been to one (in London, years ago), I can’t see a reason to go to the other (or revisit the first one, come to think of it).

26 thoughts on “Arts and Culture in the Metropolis”

  1. any second now – my phone will ring and the indignant tone of friends will chide me for calling MOMA dull. But I shall be brave. I shall stand by my statement.

    Or, I shall screen my calls. 🙂

  2. We should expect a huge deluge of Americans over in London for cultural visits now that the dollar is so good against the pound.

  3. Why is there so much nihilism and emptiness in the exhibits in the Tate Modern – just as a dramatic contrast to the other museums perhaps

  4. @jb: my bad, JB. I was wholly London focused at that moment. Well, on that and lunch (which was great fun by the way).

    The Victoria & Albert is great fun – and a bit like rolling the Met, the Cooper Hewitt and the Asia Society into one large museum and adding a history of architecture collection in for good measure.

  5. I haven’t been to London in years so i can’t speak to the Tate Modern but I enjoyed the Design Museum immensely and as you know one of my favorite places on earth is the costume institute at the Met(and the Temple), though the last show was disappointing and the exhibitions are far better when they get them out of the basement. I’d give the MOMA another try(friday afternoons when its free – 20 bucks is too much) if only to see Monet’s Waterlillies which are BACK!

  6. @Misstee: well, the Costume Institute is more fun when you are around to share it with but yes, I love it too. I’ll have to check out the Design Museum next time.

    You’re right about the $20 – but if Fridays are still free (and according to NewYorkology — they are), I will give it another go. I do like the shop. Maybe if I am in a retail mood, the whole thing will feel better. 🙂

  7. The shop IS the best part of MOMA and sadly the Guggenheim as well. I have to save my pennies and do a trip to London soon…

  8. I run a group in London called the London Cultureseekers Group –
    We meet up 3-4 times a month and visit London’s history and culture. It’s a great way to see London whilst making new friends.
    We have 1800 members and are a very friendly, free group.

  9. The museums in London are truly wonderful and what I like most about them is that they are free. This is a truly great thing becuase it is not art for the rich but for all. And they are always packed, every school holiday. Isn’t that great?

    Isn’t that a truly great thing?

    The poorest child, for the cost of the fare (and some bus svs cost £1) can benefit, be inspired, be enlightened by the best the world has to offer in art, history, science and culture. The museums open up new worlds; a cacophony of contemporary sculpture, a symphony of colour and form in renaissance art, a fresh breeze of modern art, a delight of science, an epic of culture.

    Our museums should remain free entry.

  10. I couldn’t think of an adjective for the natural history museum. Got one now:

    A roar of natural history.

    Or as Ian Whybrow magically puts it: RAAH!

  11. @Philipa: I agree wholeheartedly that making the museums accessible for everyone – regardless of what they can or cannot pay – is very important. It’s one of the reasons I was so amazed when MOMA jacked up their entrance fee after their revamp. The fee went from $12 to $20 and that 63% raise set of quite a few protests.

    The Met, the Natural History Museum, The Frick, etc. all operate on a “suggested admission fee” for adults so you can pay the suggested amount or give them a $1 (just a quarter) and that’s fine. I don’t mind paying an entrance fee since it helps keep the museums free for children (as most of them are for kids under 10 or 12) and accessible for others who may struggle with that fee.

    I think libraries are important for many of the same reasons.

  12. @Philipa: I quite agree that museums should be free entry, and for that I applaud the various London museums. I also think they shoud be run like swimming pools, with scheduled time-slots for school parties, Senior outings, and the like. The British Museum, for all its capaciousness and grandeur, is all too often a
    grimly cacophonous experience for the person not attached to a tour group. Not to mention the sense of actually waiting to board public transport, rather than getting a decent look at the Rosetta Stone.
    I’m not suggesting Singles Hour At The Museum (which would still be a better movie than either of the previous Ben Stiller films in this vein), but rather a couple of hours each day when the museum was closed to groups, so that others who might have specific interests in mind (re the artifacts) could have time for longer, quieter contemplation of any given collection or piece.

  13. @patrick: “museums should be run like swimming pools, with scheduled time-slots for school parties” what a novel and brilliant idea; well done Patrick. Working in Westminster, I would certainly go along more frequently on that basis to museums at my doorstep such as the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery – I would choose the slow lane/quiet contemplation slot; for art-lovers who want to soak up the atmosphere unrushed and away from sardine-packed noisy crowds.

  14. @patrick: I thought the “scheduled time-slots for school parties have always typically been between 10am and 3pm in term time. Outside those times it’s reasonable to expect to avoid most school parties. Or go at weekends, the museums are open!

    I find the children are quieter than parties of adults who have no scruple chattering when the guide is speaking or elbowing you out the way. Children don’t tend to do that and are typically quicker at moving on. And I can see above the heads of most children.

    You’d hate me at a museum – I talk to my children and we discuss colour, form, imagary, history and they tell me what they like and why. I get dragged all over on threads of ‘look at this, mummy!’. We haven’t done the British Museum yet where I may get ‘look at this mummy’, I don’t know ?

  15. @Philipa: Your trips to the museum sound fabulous. I wish my parents had been inclined to discuss the pieces like that. My father does go into “plaque reader” mode but that’s not quite the same thing. I mean, I could read the plaques myself from a very early age. Still, it makes him happy.

    On one trip years and years ago – he hilariously (and tediously all at the same time), he insisted on reading (to himself, thank goodness) all the plaques next to all the breastplates from the Spanish Armada display at the Tower of London. At issue? The breastplates are ALL THE SAME. It was part of the uniform. The only difference was the name on the plaque. There were tons of them. I tried to point out this out but *shrug* – he just continued. He caught up eventually.

    I must say that I have found groups of school children in London and Rome (and Jerusalem, come to that) far better behaved than the ‘no-neck little monsters’ here at home. The kids I’ve spent time with in Rome are especially fun in museums. Goodness knows they know more than I do. I found them very informative and entertaining.

    That said, Patrick and I almost got a group of girls on a ‘school outing’ in trouble once. It was part of the “Westminster Abbey” incident which I referenced earlier. I blame him entirely — for making me laugh (and for causing the girls to giggle as well). See, I was already prone to giggles after an encounter at the ticket window so pretty much anything would have set me off. Then as we walked around, we saw this sign and it said “no lecturing, please.” Well, Patrick turned to me, shook his finger in my face and lectured mock-sternly, “if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times…”

    Well, I started laughing, the two girls nearest us started laughing, which then set their friends off. Again – glares from adults all round (a hurried “sorry, my fault. Bye, girls!” and we moved on. Looking back, I like to think that rather than being disruptive, we were just making a “joyful noise unto the Lord” – at least that’s the story I’m sticking with.

  16. @patrick: others who might have specific interests in mind (re the artifacts) could have time for longer, quieter contemplation of any given collection or piece.


    Do you remember the last time we went to the British Museum? We strolled through like we were on a decorating spree. If someone had seen us at a distance, they might have thought from our gestures and facial expressions that we were discussing the intricacies and artistic merit of the beautifully carved Egyptian sarcophagus. Had they moved closer however, they would have realized we were trying to calculate what it would cost to convert it into a soaking tub and whether it would be best to have facing the window or sitting along side the window (I still say “along side” is best).

  17. @dmnyc: The way they’ve edited the article makes what comes up first on screen (without scrolling) seem like NYC great and the British Museum not so good. Don’t like that.

    Incidentally, Ed I suggest that links open in a new window rather than taking you away from this site.

  18. @Philipa: I agree with you. I mean, I love NYC and all that (even in the hideous weather we are having this weekend) but I don’t love it exclusively. The way the article is handled there, misrepresents it on many levels so I’ve popped them a note. We shall see.

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