I have a love/hate relationship with zoos. I love the idea of the contemporary zoological park–one that’s dedicated to preserving life from around the planet. The tiny Mill Mountain Zoo in Roanoke, VA, is one of my favorites. It specializes in both plentiful and endangered species from Asia, mostly. Many of the animals there live in woodlands or mountains similar to the gentler Blue Ridge mountains near the zoo. I grew up with frequent trips to the Cincinnati Zoo, and have spent countless hours–happy, desperate, and even dramatic– at St. Louis’s Zoological Park. Still, I have a hard time watching the mammals and primates behind their fences and in their cages. It breaks my heart to see their repetitive, obsessive pacing along the bars or glass. I can’t help but feel some kind of empathy. How many times have I felt so trapped, unable to free myself from somewhere I knew I didn’t belong?
When I walk into most museums, I feel a similar twinge of guilt–of indecision about whether I should be enjoying myself. Every item in a museum has tendrils in the past. Nothing there is sentient, of course, but when I see bits of sculpture or jewelry or pottery unearthed from some funeral mound, or ancient grave, I can’t help but think about the people who put them there. How could they imagine that some 19th or 21st century anthropologist or treasure hunter would dig up what they’d laid by for the ages? Perhaps I’m just superstitious, but I feel like those objects trapped inside glass boxes or raised up on pedestals and impaled with metal rods to keep them in prime viewing position retain the gravity of their pasts. It doesn’t matter whether they were objects simply created for trade or art’s sake, or they were faith-encumbered sacrifices to the future. They were vital to someone, somewhere.
Still, I’d pretty much rather be in an art museum on a frigid January afternoon than anywhere else on earth.
I spent this past Saturday afternoon at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the first art museum I ever visited. My children were with me. I’m not sure why I hadn’t taken them there before. We were particularly drawn there that day because it was the last day for the museum collection’s Arms and Armor exhibit, and Bengal, like his daddy, would do pretty much anything to spent quality time with a real suit of armor.
The museum itself has been around since 1886, and, like all of its peers, has seen periods of feast and famine. One thing that has led to its current survival and success is its significant concentration on Cincinnati itself and all the amazing art the city’s inhabitants have produced and encouraged since the late 18th century.
There was far too much to explore in one afternoon, so we concentrated on the small armor exhibit, the Cincinnati Wing, and “Wedded Perfection: 200 Years of Wedding Gowns.” (Bengal was very tolerant. He’s watched many episodes of Project Runway.)
This was my favorite gown from the dress exhibit:
It was commissioned by a Japanese-American bride and made by an artist named Claudy Jongstra. It was designed by Arlette Muschter, from The Netherlands. Wool, silk, cotton, cashmere, linen.
Here’s the back. The design is a phoenix, felted into the fabric. It reminds me very much of the work of my friend, Scottish designer Ingrid Tait.
I’m always drawn to decorative arts exhibits. Have you heard of Cincinnati’s Rookwood Pottery? The museum has an enormous historical collection of its work. Founded by Maria Longworth, a terribly talented heiress, in 1880, Rookwood had a stable of designers that produced world class art pottery. Longworth herself came up with a way to create design beneath the glaze–a method that revolutionized the art and created an industry.
My phone camera photos turned out badly, so I picked this one up from a Cincinnati Beat article:
I’m not quite sure if this was a Rookwood piece, but I thought it was pretty fabulous.
How brilliant is this sculpture? I wanted to include it because the image of a baby’s hand emerging from a sunflower is beyond surreal. Called “Loulie’s Hand,” it’s a plaster model for a marble work by Hiram Powers. It’s the hand of his five month old daughter, Louisa. The year was 1839.
An art museum is nothing without a painting or two. This is by Edward Potthast, 1924
“The Mother,” by Elizabeth Nourse, 1888.