Category Archives: museums

Hidden in Plain Site: Downtown DC

Last Saturday, my best friend since fifth grade, Debi, and I went on a DC downtown adventure (a very late celebration of her birthday, which is in October).  We met at a very crowded Renwick Gallery to take in one of the last days of the Murder is Her Hobby exhibit.  Visitors huddled around the little murder rooms, created by Frances Glessner Lee, depicting sordid deaths of the working class.  We all speculated freely about what had happened to the hapless victims.  It was grisly fun.

We then pigged out on delicious cheese redundancy at the nearby GCDC Grilled Cheese Bar.  A shared ramekin of lobster mac and cheese and cheeseburger grilled cheese sandwich later, we rolled out and sought caffeine at Compass Coffee a few blocks away.

Time for a walk.  Consulting a map attached to the side of a bus stop, we set off to visit an obscure monument to The Nuns of the Battlefield.  But we got distracted by St. Matthew’s Cathedral and totally missed the monument.  Yes, there is a cathedral in the middle of downtown DC and it is gorgeous inside, with a majestic rotunda and interesting art in all the side chapels.  We spent some time reading about all the artwork and marveling at its intricacy.  (I’ve attempted my first ever Word Press Gallery here to showcase some highlights!)

After walking blocks out of our way, and finding another little known monument to German homeopath Samuel Hahnemann, we got some intelligence from a passerby that the Nuns were located, logically, right across the street from St. Matthew’s and we had walked right past their monument.  We circled back to pay homage.   There they were, the noble ladies, in bas relief flanked by female warriors in 3-D.  Elsewhere in the city, modern day female warriors were marching in their pink hats and chanting in support of other noble causes.  Here, hidden in plain site, was the quiet testimony to these Civil War era women who did what they could, when they were needed.  Visit them sometime if you can find them.


Art in, Art Out, Art All About

Nothing like visiting museums to make you see the world just a bit differently.  Last week we were visiting San Francisco, and we went to two art museums, one the first day, and one the second:  the Museum of Modern Art and the De Young.  We spent the better part of the day at these museums, since they are both huge and have a lot to see.  And hear, which I will get to a bit later.

Looking at a lot of art, then walking around the city streets, everything suddenly seems like art.  Building facades, business signs, vibrant sunsets, reflections on the water.  It makes you look at things differently.  (I know I am not telling you anything new, just stating the obvious.)

The MOMA right now has an installment of art and sound called Soundtracks, which is super cool.  I especially liked the big shallow pool of water with hundreds of ceramic bowls; when one hits another, it chimes gently, like random wind chimes.  I could have sat there and watched/listened for hours, zenning out.


But, there was more to see, and even more the next day at the De Young, which is located in the middle of Golden Gate Park.   First you have to climb the tower to see a spectacular view of the city from all angles.  Then, if you’ve paid the extra admission, the current special exhibition is a massive collection of artwork from the ancient (modern day Mexican) city of Teotihuacan.

What to see next?  Tough choice, as sensory overload begins to set in after a few hours.  We chose to spent some time exploring the exhibition, “Revelations:  Art from the African American South.”  Found materials was one theme, including a large installation composed of charred pieces of wood from a burned church.  Insightful quotes from the artists were blown up on the wall, and so I will leave you with the comment of artist Lonnie Holley:

“What is art?  Art is everything that we have used, waiting to be used again.  That’s all art is.”

Musing on the Museum of Appalachia

A couple of weekends ago, I was visiting my old friends Bobby and Teresa Fulcher in East Tennessee, one of my old stomping grounds and the inspiration for my novel, Seasonal.  Bobby, who had served as my supervisor on the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project in summer of 1980, took me on a marathon nostalgia tour through the highways and byways of my youthful fieldwork days.  This included a tour of the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, TN.

The Museum is a wonderfully eclectic collection of the stuff of life, with leanings toward old-timey, traditional items such as quilts, baskets, wittlings, weavings, and that sort of thing.  It is the brainchild and more or less obsession of John Rice Irwin, who I visited at least once during my summer research to get some leads.  Say what you will about John Rice (and some people have said a lot, not all of it positive), he amassed a collection of artifacts that boggle the mind and cause one to marvel at the unending creativity and skill of East Tennessee folk.  Interpretation is not a strong point, especially if one is looking for the unobjective curatorial view.  But, if you just want to see a whole lot of East Tennessee stuff from people’s barns, attics and hidey-holes, John Rice has assembled it here for your viewing pleasure.

I had interviewed some of the craftspeople and musicians represented, as Bobby pointed out.  Memories were cloudy on some of them, but others brought back fond memories, such as whiling away an afternoon chatting with former coal miner and woodworker Troy Webb and purchasing several of his amazing “water dog” carvings.

One object that captured my imagination was Asa Jackson’s Fabulous Perpetual Motion Machine dating back to the mid-1800s  The Museum allowed a gentleman named Dave Brown to study the wheel and sketch it extensively, resulting in a book, but apparently this has brought us no closer to knowing if the wheel, when in working order, really had the capability of creating perpetual motion.

The wheel for me is a sort of metaphor for the hyperactivity of collecting frenzy that John Rice Irwin himself must have been capable of before becoming too feeble to pursue his life’s work.

This item was not labeled and I still haven’t figured out what it might be. Any ideas??

The result is something that, like the machine, is a curiosity with no clear purpose but with a great wealth of largely untapped and possibly unending potential.  Just what will become of The Museum of Appalachia and its vast collection in the future is unclear.  So, if you find yourself in East Tennessee with several hours of leisure, make a visit while it is still intact.  Be prepared to be amazed.