On the 18th May it will be International Museums Day. In celebration of this, today’s Story from the Museum Floor, by Fang from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum, is a personal account of her journeys, and her experience visiting museums across the globe.
My Museum Journey
The 18th May is a special day for museum lovers – International Museum Day! For me, museums are open classrooms, the eyes of a city, and windows to the world. And working at Manchester Museum has added much enjoyment and value to my life. Today, I would like to share of my some memorable International Museum experiences.
A HARD JOURNEY AROUND THE FORBIDDEN CITY – A MEMORY FROM MY CHILDHOOD
The Palace Museum © www.dpm.org.cn
The Forbidden City located in the centre of Beijing, was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty (1420 AD) to the end of the Qing dynasty (1912), and has been the Palace Museum since 1925. In 1987 it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Forbidden City is a magnificent rectangular architectural, complex covering over 180 acres. It consists of 980 surviving buildings with 8,886 rooms – although a common myth states that there are 9,999 rooms! Its vast collections of paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, and antiquities make it one of the most prestigious museums in China and the world.
It is a rite of passage for Chinese people to visit the Palace Museum. My first visit was around the age of 4, with my brother and parents. It was a sunny summer day and I was too young to understand the historical and cultural importance, and even to properly appreciate the beauty of its treasures; however, I was fascinated by it. The collection of fine and exquisite things was a feast for the eyes of a 4-year-old. We walked from room to room, through buildings and courtyards, from morning until closing time. It was not easy at that age to walk such long distances for that length of time. Though very tired, I still refused any suggestions to leave earlier. I was carried on my parents’ backs from time to time – even my 8-year-old brother offered his back for a while! Now that I am working at the Manchester Museum, I always have a tender feeling when seeing little kids on the back of their parents or siblings.
The red door of the Palace Museum © kinabaloo.com
I have been to the Palace Museum many times since, and still haven’t seen everything. The scene is always in my mind – leaving the big red door behind at sunset (closing time) and wondering whether I will manage to see more next time! It is hard to describe the Museum in a few words. It is a journey of history, it is an epic place.
2.5 HOURS QUEUING FOR ART TREASURES AT THE UFFIZI GALLERY – AND MY FIRST CLASS AT UNIVERSITY
Uffizi Gallery (Image available from: uffizi.com)
It was a pack-and-go trip to Italy about 10 years ago, and I knew that the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, with its famous masterpieces of Western art, was my must-see, even though I hadn’t done any homework on it. It was a hot, sunny July day, and excitedly we approached the Gallery, and were shocked by the very long entry queue, not knowing that we could have booked tickets in advance to avoid it. Anyway, we joined the queue, in the shade of the side wing of the 16th century palace.
Thirsty and hungry, or maybe due to ‘Stendhal syndrome’ from being in Florence, I felt dizzy. My friends and neighbours in the queue were so kind to allow me to go and sit on the steps of the building. One friend wandered around and bought food and drink for us. The pizza tasted extraordinarily delicious! Waiting and expectant, my brain was recalling memories of slides from my first class at university in China, a long time ago. Though a Biology student, the University offered some welcome lectures, and I chose the ‘Appreciation of Western Art Works’, because I liked the arts as well. The lecturer gave the background to each artwork, and taught us how to appreciate it. With many slides flashing in front of my eyes and many famous names hitting my ears, that was a culture shock! For the beauty and purity of the image, the most impressive one for me was Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’.
The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, 1486, Uffizi Gallery.
After 2.5 hours of queuing, we finally got inside the palace of art treasures – and ‘Stendhal syndrome’ struck again! This time it was a brain- and soul-stirring feeling of finally being so close to the original works which I had learned about at that first University class. The 2.5 hours of waiting was worth it!
A RUSHED HOUR AT THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA, (Image by Alexf at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5)
After a scientific conference in Boston, USA, I visited a laboratory in the Medical School, Harvard University. Afterwards, the Professor asked me what I would do for the rest of the day. “Walk around and visit a museum” I said. He replied that “The Museum of Fine Arts is a good destination, and a walkable distance,” and showed me the route on a map.
It was almost 3pm when I arrived at the museum. I thought it was not too late, but I was then told that the museum would be closing earlier than usual at 4pm! The staff suggested I buy a ticket and have a quick look around, and come back another day as the $20 ticket allows one free repeat visit within 10 days. However, my flight back to Stockholm was the next day. So, it had to be $20 (not a small amount of money for a student) for a very short visit.
I grabbed a map and chose my route for a rushed hour around the fourth largest museum in the USA. I tried to cover the highlights, and spent a bit more time on the Chinese and Japanese paintings. But I could only scratch the surface – as the Chinese saying goes, ‘looking at the flowers while on horseback’. Now that I am working on the galleries at the Manchester Museum, I can perfectly understand how precious the last few minutes can be to visitors.
MUSEUM NIGHT IN STOCKHOLM – A MUSEUM CRAWL
National Museum (Image by ArildV and Holger Ellgaard, commons.wikimedia.org, CC BY-SA 3.0)
In May 2004 I had just started my PhD in Stockholm and didn’t really know the city. Early one evening, a friend told me there was a ‘Museum Night’ tonight – all the main museums would be open until midnight on one ticket. That was just the right thing for me – a museum crawl sounded like a good way to get to know a city!
During the rushed train journey to Stockholm centre, we excitedly discussed a list of museums to visit within the remaining 5 hours. A single ticket that night cost 150 Swedish kronor (about £13), which was a real treat for museum lovers as a ticket for one museum was normally at least 90 kronor. I now appreciate the free admission to National Museums here in the UK.
We focused on the Museum Island of Djurgården, a central ‘oasis’ that has been royal land since the 15th century, and is home to some of the city’s top museums; The Vasa Museum – a maritime museum based around the only, almost intact 17th C warship that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628, and has been salvaged, preserved and fully restored. The Nordic Museum – with an enormous collection of social history items of Sweden. The colourful living cultures of Sweden brightened that night. I loved the museum immediately and told myself I will come back. Skansen – the world’s first open-air museum, opened in 1891. Many historical buildings, dwellings and farms from different parts of the country were moved here. It is also a zoo of native wildlife, such as brown bears, moose, wolves etc. It is old Sweden in a nutshell.
There are other museums on Djurgården we did not visit that night, such as the Pippi Longstocking Museum, the Biological Museum, and the Abba Museum!
That museum night was a highlight of my life away from my Motherland. From then on, the museums of Stockholm became my escape from the University laboratory and office!
Museums at Night, Manchester
When I moved to Manchester, I was delighted to find that here too there are twice-yearly, nationwide ‘Museums at Night’ festivals.
I worked at the autumn event in 2015, and enjoyed seeing so many excited visitors in the Museum (as I had been in Stockholm). This year’s spring event will be on 17 – 20 May! Have a look at what’s on this time round at museumsatnight.org.uk.
My museum story will be continued in Part 2 …