Saturday, June 18, 2011

Unmanageable Museums

Dr. Nell and I will blog separately this year. Dr. Nell is going to be responsible for sending what I call "post cards from home." I will try to reflect a little bit and give some additional insight on each site we see, it part to give students in my Travel Reporting classes models of different kinds of travel reporting. So bear with me, and if all you want to do is see what we are doing, look for Dr. Nell's posts.

So here goes . When we promote this class during the school year, we promise the students that they will see all the A sites of Paris as well as many sites off the beaten track (like the Martyrium, where the founding Jesuits first promise to work with each other after they were all ordained, and which connects our students to nearly 500 years of Jesuit education). So we visit the Notre Dame on the day the students arrive. The second day we go to the Louvre and the the third day (today) we head to the Musee d' Orsay, the museum with works of the Impressionists (one of the foci of the course) and modern French art.

The Louvre is basically impossible to negotiate. Even with an audio guide it is very difficult to find your away around. To compensate, we give the students certain specific works to look for, some related to the class and some because they are the "it" pieces in the Louvre--The Mona Lisa, The Winged Victory and the Venus de Milo. Of all the thousands of pieces of art in the Louvre, those are the three that everybody must see. That is reductionism in the extreme.

For those of you who have not been there, the three large buildings joined in a U shape that make up the Louvre are cut up into hundreds of little rooms, each generally with a specific collection Technically you can move from wing to wing but it isn't easy. Wondering around, you can go directly from a collection of artifacts from Mesopotamia to 18th century French Sculpture. Nineteenth century French paintings are not next to 18th century French paintings and even when I look at a map and am not sure how to get from one section to the other. I once took a audio tour and still got lost. Often it is just easier to exit from one wing, cross the central lobby--which is heated up by being directly under the I.M Pei pyramid--and entering another lobby.

So it seems to me that you basically have two choices, wander around in this huge jumble of art and artifacts or build a sense of purpose that enables you to look at specific works and ignore others. You have to reduce the Louvre into something manageable. But even then, you are bound to get lost.

The Orsay is smaller than the Louvre and completely different in its architectural look. But it too is divided into small rooms. But while I find a visit to the Louvre wearying, I find the Orsay deeply affecting, and it is not just because of the works themselves,though that plays a role in it. The Louvre, for me, is a "must do" site. While the same sense of obligation exists for the Orsay (it is an A site afterall) the payoff seems more meaningful.

As for the students, the visits to both museums wears them out. But as they follow the direction given to them, they understand that they have taken steps forward.

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