The Cabinet of Natural Wonders – Graz & Wien part 4

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I have now visited it twice, the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, and I’m still not done with it. I have seen the most of the first floor twice and on both times it has been equally exiting. Maybe next time I will make it to the exhibitions of the second floor.

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Go in as soon as it opens. Trust me, you’ll need the whole day.

The tour begins with minerals, rocks and fossils and since it is an imperial collection, there are hordes of those. Last time my hubby said he would not be interested in the mineral collection. Yeah, right… We ended up going through every single display. There are the traditional mineral samples, cabinet after a cabinet, room after a room:

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Green stuff. I can tell where it came from (it reads in the labels) but I have no idea what it is.

While they might seem boring and a bit intimidating at first glance, give them a chance and look carefully. They are quite beautiful and intriguing. Like this miniature ice berg:

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A chunk of Aragonite.

But since it is an IMPERIAL collection, it’s not just exhaustive (after a few hours, quite literally), it is also breathtaking size-wise. For a scientific collection it would be enough to have a comprehensive collection of illustrative samples but an imperial collection is a collection of curiosities. It’s not enough to have all the samples – a bit like having all the Pokémons – you need to have the most impressive samples you can get and there is nothing more impressive than something huge:

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A rock crystal. There is a larger one but it’s so huge it doesn’t photograph well.

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A topaz. Merely 117 kg. For a ring, maybe?

Then there are the gold nuggets with one, the goldenklumpen “Welcome”, weighing precisely 68,98 kg. One needs to be exact with these things. It is a natural history museum after all. Which also means that it’s not just all samples and impressiveness. One of the really interesting displays is the one built in old wall cabinets explaining the etymology and the logic of the naming stuff. Why there is rubintyrann, the vermilion flycatcher in English, or zebramarmor and zebrajaspis. The minerals and stones are displayed next to their namesake birds and other critters and it’s easy to get the idea even when you don’t speak a word of German.

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The fossil collection is just as comprehensive and impressive. My favourite one is this large fossil of Scyphocrinites that used to float around oceans all around the wolrd some 410 million years ago. The amount of detail is amazing! You can click on the picture to enlarge it.

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Scyphocrinites in detail.

The museum also has few replicas of fossils of large animals, like this Devonian fish. The head alone was close to 1,5 m long. The real things are too fragile to be put on display, but the replicas are so detailed that it doesn’t matter much. Besides there are real ones too, even a real dinosaur leg bone that you can touch. It’s worn smooth and polished where the visitors have caressed it.

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It took an hour to draw this. School classes kept on getting in the way.

Last time I had time to draw other stuff too:

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A volcanic bomb about 50 cm high and a tiny trilobite.

What is interesting is that the human evolution and prehistoric cultures are placed in this museum. The evolution part I get, but the prehistoric art is slightly out of place. I suppose it’s an old divide dating back to the imperial days and the 19th century sensibilities that did not see it as art proper. After all, many old natural history museums also house anthropological collections which were considered primitive and therefore belonging within the natural historical and not art. And so the Naturlhistorisches Museum is where you go when you want to see the Venus of Willendorf and other famous prehistoric venuses. I decided to draw it from a slightly different angle to make it more interesting. What a bum!

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Earl Grey too had come to see the famous Venus of W.

When you start too feel tired and drained it’s time to head for the museum café. Seriously. Go and have a cuppa. The whole building is – just as its counterpart, the art history museum, is – a sight so see in itself. Don’t forget to look up while touring the exhibits as every room is decorated according to its theme with paintings and sculptures.  Take a look at the dinosaur room’s statues especially. The café is situated under the central dome which is much more modest than its counterpart across the yard:

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It’s difficult to drink your cuppa while staring at the ceiling.

And the food it delicious. Do try the traditional pancake and apple strudel. The price will double once you walk across to the art historical museum…

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Imperial Curiosities – Graz & Wien part 2

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While in Vienna for an archeological conference last November, I sneaked away for a visit in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, the Art Historical Museum. I entered soon after it had opened for the day and exited 7 hours later – and I hadn’t seen even the half of it.

The museum seems to have everything from the Ancient Rome and Greece to the modern and the contemporary, from polished gems to huge canvases. If you go through the museum following the chronological order from the oldest to the latest, the first parts are more like a curiosity cabinet and that makes it even more fascinating. It is easy to imagine that you are visiting the private collections of the emperor seeing his favourite curiosities – which most of the artifacts and works of art originally were. The splendour, the sumptuousness, the sheer extravagance is breathtaking. For example, take a look at this vase:

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Looks like crystal, doesn’t it, but it’s not. It is actually made of a single quartz crystal, a rock crystal, not glass. It big, huge, actually: maybe 50cm from the base to the top. And it was not the only one. If you look carefully, you can see two others behind it, and that’s not all of them. There are dozens of various sizes on display!

It’s difficult to comprehend the amount of wealth that made collecting on this scale possible.

Another impressive piece of craftsmanship were these structurally realistic and extremely detailed, delicate bouquets made of various metals. The patience it must take to create one of these:

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Nice, but I wouldn’t want to dust these. Suppose that’s why one would have an army of servants…

There were so many amazing works of art that I just walked from one to the next in complete awe. It wasn’t until I got to the Roman and Greek collections that I managed to draw something. The Classical statues and other artifacts were more familiar and they therefore did not left me as wonderstruck as the other curiosities. This classical athlete/prince was one of my favourites:

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The bronzes and other statues were extremely well lit, as you can see. The light levels were rather low (it’s not necessary for the conservation) and spotlights highlighted the statues beautifully. (Hihii!) But seriously, an even, monotonous lighting is not the best for three dimensional works of art. A more subdued and directional light reveals the character of the statues. Also, the museum had succeeded in avoiding one of the most annoying mishaps of museum lighting: the head of the visitor shading the object. You might have noticed this in most museums. Often the spotlights are placed so that when you get closer to a vitrine to have a closer look as something, your head and shoulders get in front of the light and you unavoidably cast a shadow on the object. No matter how you try to move, the object remains in shadow unless you move back and you again can’t see the detail you were interested in. Here this was seldom a problem. All the artifacts in these pictures were in vitrines but, as you can see, there are only a few reflections from the glass.

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The was my favourite one. It’s not a Classical but a Neoclassical sculpture. Sadly I have lost the piece of paper on which I wrote the artist’s name.

There ware so many incredible artifacts there that it would have been easy to become lost in photographing everything I saw. I did manage to fight the urge and drew these two treasures:

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I bet Eutropios lit up the room when he walked in.

The one on the left was a bust of a really sour looking fella. Not your standard Classical head. Delightful! The one on the right was a small, maybe 6-7cm tall bronze figurine, a kind of an idol. Sadly there was very little information available in English in the exhibition. I really would like to know more about these disfigured idols.

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It wasn’t only the objects of art that were impressive, the museum building itself is magnificent. This, of course, should not be surprising. What else could an originally imperial art museum be! However, the trouble with imperial splendour is that it sometimes overwhelms the art, like here in the hall of classical marbles where the sculptures were lost in the marble walls and gilded ceilings. Sometimes you just can’t tell the trees from the forest (not the other way round).

The marbles hall aside, the building is an art historical wonder in itself. You could spend a day looking at it alone, drinking in all the architectural details, period features, and intertextual clues and icons. Sitting in the upper restaurant was in itself a superb experience. And the lunch wasn’t too bad either.

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Now this is a proper staircase.

It was a wonderful seven hours but while it uplifted me, it was also slightly exhausting. In a way is was a delight to return to the conference the next morning and to spend most of the day listening to various presentations. Not that they were dreary but they are less exiting in an electrifying kind of a way. More subdued and intellectually inspiring in other ways. Though I would love to be there when a scientific presentation gets the audience to jump up in excitement…

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Daleks in Nineveh

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See?!

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It’s clearly a dalek in disguise attacking a walled city in a panel from the North Palace of the ancient city of Nineveh. Either that or a tank.

Kinda hoping it is a tank.

If it is a dalek then where is Doctor Who? Is there a panel, a vase or a statue of him hidden somewhere in the vast collections of The British Museum? Do they have the Tardis? No, wait, that actually seems to be parked here.

Makes me wonder what I will find the next time I spend three days roaming about the British Museum.

Proof of Time Travel?

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Never mind it’s been more than a year without a post. I have something much more interesting to show you.

Last week we spent five days in London and three of them in the British Museum. That meant we had time to see maybe a third of the stuff on display. Which means we need to go back there someday. I did draw some of the artifacts but more about that in another post. This is far more important.

Have you read any of those articles online that claim they have found evidence of time travel from old photographs? You know, those pictures with people who look almost exactly like some famous person of today? If you haven’t, just google it and you’ll see.

I don’t know about those photos. They are so easy to fabricate. These days one can Photoshop anything it seems. What I found is hard evidence – literally.

First I noticed this ancient Greek lekythos, a kind of an amphora that was often used in funerals and thus they are often decorated with scenes depicting funerals and the deceased. The picture on this particular lekythos was, according to the museum’s object card, a depiction of a departed young woman who is saddened to leave behind the world of the living.

Really?

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Looks more like young Sylvester Stallone to me. I guess it’s easy to interpret the person as a woman by her hairstyle but she does look a bit masculine, don’t you think? Think of Stallone as Rambo and suddenly the hairdo makes sense. Just add a headband. See?

I suppose someone might not agree with me on that but how about this then:

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Sylvester Stallone has traveled back in time to ancient Greece more than once. You have seen the evidence. I rest my case.

Oh, wait.

Maybe he’s a time lord…

The Day of the Birds

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Few weeks ago I spent a weekend in Helsinki while my partner had his annual weekend get-together with his old army buddies. I didn’t realise until just a few days before the trip that is was the Halloween weekend and I wouldn’t be able to go shopping for art supplies on Saturday like I had planned. No matter, instead of shopping I just spent more time eating and drawing in the Natural History Museum.

The day started with a lunch with my friend in an excellent Chinese restaurant called China (yes, really, even in Finnish). Except we were there a full hour too early and the place was still closed. No matter, we decided to have the dessert first which is always a good solution in situations like this. We had rather bad tea and delicious pastries in what supposedly is one of the best cafes in town. It usually is a really good choice but for some reason the tea was just water this time. Incidentally, one time the then president of Finland Tarja Halonen was there too when we went in for a cuppa. *Enter appropriate amount of awe here* Anyway, an hour later we were in the restaurant looking at menus and trying to figure out what to order.

We decided to avoid all the usual choices and went for this as the starter:

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Steamed chicken legs in black bean sauce. Sounds disgusting but actually really, really tasty. Not much in them to eat, though. It’s basically just skin, tendons and cartilage with lots of small bones to spit out. I have eaten some really horrible ones but these were delicious. I can highly recommend them – in this restaurant at least.

As the main course we had steamed Chinese vegetables and Cantonese pork:

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Tasty! And here the jasmine tea was good too. And, of course, we had the second dessert too like any decent Hobbit should. I had almond milk tofu with fruits and that too was, you guessed it, delicious.

From the restaurant I went to the Finnish Museum of Natural History. I had intended to draw some beetles and such but the collection they had on display was so small that there was nothing really interesting to draw. I guess most visitors are more interested in dinosaurs and large mammals than in insects. How weird is that! There aren’t many things more beautiful than beetle’s pelvis and legs.

A new plan was in order and so I decided to draw some birds. I picked the most colourful birds of the Finnish fauna, the common king fisher and the Eurasian golden oriole. The page still had space left for one more and I decided to draw the head of the great black cormorant with its piercing glare. I drew the head of the king fisher too small, which means I learnt something and next time I will know what to do.

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The museum was packed with families, of course, but to my surprise there were quite a few tourists considering it was so late in the autumn. Even more surprising was the number of young adults and even teenagers present. And they, these fairly typical city inhabitants, were really enthusiastic about the birds. They eagerly shared anecdotes about birds they had seen and wondering about the size, shape and colours of our feathered friends. It was a really nice surprise! Most of the times I have been there practically all of the other visitors have been families, but clearly on a national holiday – when everything else is closed – a natural history museum is a valid option for leisure.

Maybe there still is hope for the planet.

PS. I did realise birds were the theme of the day until I typed the title. It also was a day of changing plans.

Edinburgh 2014 And Not a Drop of Rain

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Haven’t been to Scotland since 2010 and I have been missing it a lot. What can I say, I’m a Scotland junkie. I managed to talk my scout troop (Boys and girls belong to same groups here in Finland.) into selecting Scotland as this year’s group trip destination and so, after a year of fundraising, we spent four nights in Edinburgh. And you know what: it didn’t rain at all the whole time we were there. That has never happened to me before. All that rain gear – for nothing! I even carried my raincoat in my backpack the whole time. Not that I’m complaining…

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My first plane sketch ever. We left home at 5.30 in the morning and boarded the plane to Stockholm, Sweden, around 13.30. We changed planes and eventually landed in Edinburgh around 20.00. A long, long day. Usually I sleep in cars, trains and planes, I love to sleep in them, but not this time for some reason. So instead I drew these guys fast a sleep on the plane to Edinburgh.

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Monday was Tour of the Town -day and I didn’t have time to sketch anything from my tour guide duties. But Tuesday was day trip day. The famous Rosslyn Chapel was our first stop. It’s a pretty awesome place and the Da Vinci Code doesn’t do it justice. Go see it if you ever have the chance and take your time with the decorations. And listen the guide as s/he takes you through its history. You’d be amazed!

Tantallon Castle by the sea and close to the beautiful coastal town of North Berwick  was our second stop. It is a stunning place to visit. Just look at the pictures:

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The curtain wall of the Tantallon Castle. Notice the sky: not a single cloud to be seen!

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The eastward view from the castle. Only the curtain wall remains. The other three have (mostly) fallen to the sea.

And there is a magnificent view of the Bass Rock with its tens of thousands of sea birds from the castle too. You can see the Rock all the way from the Edinburgh Castle or the Arthur’s Seat on a clear day, but from the Tantallon you can see that it is white because of the birds, the largest colony of gannets in the world in fact. The bird droppings may have something to do with it too. The island is actually about 300 million years old volcanic plug, just like the rock on which the Edinburgh Castle is built. How cool can one tiny island get?

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Yes, that’s a lot of birds.

That Tuesday was A Great Day. I just wish I had had more time at the castle. There were so many things to draw there.

On Wednesday everyone roamed the city on their own. Some went shopping. Some went to the Edinburgh Zoo which they said was really good, especially because the animals had ample enclosures. I went to visit the National Museum of Scotland. In 2010 the older, originally Victorian part of the building was still under renovations so I went to see how it had turned out. Boy, was I in for a treat! I had a cuppa and a delicious sandwich first (I had taken three persons to the Edinburgh Castle first. I’m a life member of Historic Scotland and can take two adult guests with me for free.) before I begun to roam the place. The trouble was I had a sore throat and probably some temperature too, and I simply did not have the energy to see as much as I would have liked to. So I concentrated my energies on the natural world.

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I learned that there is a reason why the tip of the tail of the stoat is black: it actually confuses birds of pray that try to catch a stoat and deceives the attacker into aiming at the tail instead of the stoats head giving stoat time to flee. Never knew that. What a neat trick!

The main attraction for me, however, was the temporary exhibition of Ming Dynasty, my favourite Chinese dynasty. It wasn’t particularly big exhibition but they had some absolutely masterful objects of art on display. Sadly my flu-infected mind forgot instantly all the names of the artists I liked. One particularly brilliant ink painting was a huge picture of a stormy sea. I almost could feel the gale tearing the sails and feel the waves heaving and taste the salt of the sea. All that using only white paper and black ink. Stunning. I could have spend hours staring at the paintings alone. There was so much to learn.

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He looks a bit too cocky to be the Buddha.

I wanted to draw something just to remorise the exhibition. Of course there was no seating, not even those folding chairs you can often find in museums, and I was getting really tired quickly. What would I have given for a seat! Luckily there was only one other person in the exhibition at that time so I could drop my backpack on the floor and scatter my drawing stuff around it without bothering anyone. I just wish I had had the energy to draw more.

I new I had to take off soon. My energies were just about spent. However, I braved the Animal World -exhibition first. There was so many interesting things there but all I could manage was this quick sketch of the African elephant and the jaw bones of a blue whale. I knew blue whales are huge, enormous. So big, in fact, that you can drive a Volkswagen Beetle in its aorta (David Attenborough said so on the telly, so it must be true), but to think that its tongue weighs as much as an African elephant! Oh boy, that’s big for you.

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That’s all from Scotland for now. Next trip me and my partner make might be a week in London and just the British Museum. That would be so sweet…

The Coolest Thing to See in The Kon-Tiki Museum Is…

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… this scull with a picture of a fish carved into its forehead. It’s from the Easter Islands and they suspect that it probably is the scull of a shaman or a tribal leader. Why else would you carve a fish into it? Of course it must be some how special but maybe it was made special by carving the fish into it and not the other way round. But who knows. This is the handicap of archeology: there are seldom eyewitnesses around to tell us what the heck it is that we just unearthed.

I mentioned the Kon-Tiki Museum in the previous post but it’s such a special museum that it deserves to get a post of its own. Kon-Tiki is the name of the balsa raft the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his crew used to cross the Pacific Ocean in 1947 just to prove that the South American cultures could have sailed all the way to the west across the ocean. Heyerdahl did a similar trip a cross the Atlantic on the Ra II made out of papyrus reeds to prove that you could do that with ancient Egyptian technology. The first Ra didn’t make it. The second proved the point. Heyerdahl had other adventures too but these are the famous ones. Not only did he prove that you could manage such journeys using ancient technology but his crew collected a lot of data about the state of the oceans during their travels. The dark, stone-looking lumps of oil on display in the museum are –. Well, let’s just say that they do make you think. Anyhow, the rafts are pretty awesome too and the exhibitions are breath taking.

But I have to admit, sculls and skeletons and any human remains in museums make me wonder if they really should be there. After all, they once used to be living persons. This scull, though, might be a slightly different thing since it used to be some kind of a ritual object so you could argue that it didn’t come from a burial. I don’t think its exactly okay to put on display human remains without the exact permission from the deceased or her/his relatives. But what about the mummies and other burials of ancient, long gone cultures? Burials are often the only thing or at least the most informative thing left of their lives.

The drawing is from my notes for my dissertation on museum exhibition architecture. You can’t always draw spaces and display structures. You gotta have your occasional scull there too.

Evan Thompson

Professor of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

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