Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dry Storeroom no. 1 by Richard Fortey

Cover of Dry Storeroom no. 1 (left), British Museum 2001 – People Looking at an Easter Island Moai (right)

If you are a museum junkie or even the occasional museum visitor, then Richard Fortey’s book Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum will likely interest you. In the book, Fortey, writer and former paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, is your guide to the inner workings of the museum. In the book, you go behind the public spaces and into offices and forgotten corridors. Colorful anecdotes about people and events are part of the story explaining how science works, how science moves forward slowly but surely based on the work of dedicated people - famous, infamous, or neither. The book is stuffed with interesting facts, like the titular storeroom. For example, there is the story of Geoffrey Tandy, seaweed expert, and his role in World War II due to the similarity of the words cryptogam and cryptograms. “The code was cracked, thanks to the fact that the word Linnaeus used for organisms reproducing by spores was but one letter different from the word describing messages written in code.” (Location 2557. Chapter 5: Theatre of Plants.)

In Chapter 1, Behind the Galleries, Fortey starts with the interesting quote “All our lives are collections curated through memory. We pick up recollections and facts and store them, often half forgotten, or tucked away on shelves buried deep in the psyche.” Fortey concludes the chapter and completes the thought with “We are all our own curators.” This is an idea that has strong resonance with us. This blog, Travelmarx, is the visible tip of a much larger iceberg (storeroom) of a life of capturing, organizing, and curating events, people, and knowledge that comes into our life. Welcome to the Travelmarx museum or maybe it’s just a cabinet of curiosities for now.

What is storeroom No. 1? It’s a room in basement of the Natural History Museum that contains a “motley collection of desiccated specimens.” Fortey draws the connection between the storeroom and the inside of one’s head, the room is the physical analogy for the jumbled room of memory. The memories make the person and so the storeroom makes the museum, in a sense. Fortey unravels the behind-the-scenes working (and at times intrigues) of the museum with the storeroom as a touch point.

In Chapter 2, The Naming of Names, Fortey talks about the foundation of the museum as we know it today under the leadership of Richard Owen (famous for coining the term dinosauria and being an outspoken critic of the theory evolution by natural selection). In that time period, the “Victorian sense of self-improvement through knowledge” was an important consideration for designing the museum. Later in the chapter Fortey writes: “The great proliferation of museums in the nineteenth century was a product of the marriage of the exhibition as a way of awakening interest in the visitor with the growth of collections that was associated with empire and middle-class affluence. Attendance at museums was as much associated with moral improvement as with explanation of the human or natural world. Museums grew up everywhere, as a kind of symbol of seriousness.” While this growth had its darker side as Fortey points out, the idea of self-improvement by going to a museum is more than a pleasing thought to us; we routinely seek out museum experiences to learn and more importantly be inspired.

At quite a few points in the book, Fortey talks about how the Natural History Museum and other similar museums have changed in time and what might lay in store in the future for them, in particular in regard to the Internet.

  • On the prevalence of Internet search engines to pull information from all sources, good or otherwise: “What these images do not necessarily have is the imprimatur of somebody who really knows their stuff, because there is little quality control on the identifications placed on the web.” (Location 2722. Chapter 5: Theatre of Plants.)
  • Musing on the role of the Internet in the potential return of the modern, botanizing vicar. “If the early phase of systematic learning was mostly powered by privilege, the middle phase by support from government for professionals, maybe the third phase will be immensely democratic, and driven by the freedom of information exchange thrown up by the web.” (Location 4558. Chapter 9: House of Muses.)
  • On watching BBC1 Horizon programme about the Natural History Museum broadcast on 7 September 1970 and realizing that he didn’t remember some of the people featured in the program and that worked at the museum at the same time he did: “In a strange way this demonstration of the limitations of memory proves the importance of collections in museums. They defy time; they transcend what any one scholar might make of them; they are outside our own little personal histories.” (Location 3830. Chapter 8: Noah’s Ark in Kensington.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rothko: Portland Art Museum

Entrance to the Portland Rothko Exhibit (left), Rothko Self-Portrait –1936 (middle), Hierarchical Birds – 1934 (right)
Rothko: Portland Art Museum Entrance Rothko: Portland Art Museum - Self Portrait 1936

Watching People Watching Rothko at the Portland Art Museum, May 2012
Rothko: Portland Art Museum - People Looking at Rothko
Rothko: Portland Art Museum - People Looking at RothkoRothko: Portland Art Museum - People Looking at RothkoRothko: Portland Art Museum - People Looking at Rothko

The exhibition Mark Rothko was at the Portland Art Museum from Feb 18 to May 27, 2012. We caught the exhibition in its last few days. The exhibition featured 45 works by the Russian-American artist Mark Rothko (1903 - 1970). Rothko (born Marcus Yakovlevich Rothokowitz) emigrated from Russia (now Latvia) at the age of 10 and came to Portland, Oregon. He would return to Portland several times throughout his life. Rothko’s first museum exhibition was hosted by the Portland Art Museum in 1933-1934. And, the recent exhibition is the first retrospective of his work staged in Portland.

The exhibit was compact, with just a few interconnected rooms, but it did not disappoint. In the exhibit, Rothko’s works were arranged chronologically so you could really see how his style changed, from figurative, to surrealism, to transitional “multiform” paintings, and finally to his “late” period of stacked, translucent rectangular forms.

We were unfamiliar with some of Rothko’s early work, in particular his subway series with their attenuated figures and bleak settings. And even more surprising were the works in the early 1940s that deal with myth. An exhibition description described this Rothko period as

1941-1943 “Works closely with [Adolph] Gottlieb to develop an aesthetic based on Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian myth. They share an interest in Jungian and eternal symbols, the power of myth, and psychological content in art.”

It was fun to see and perhaps would have been pleasing for Rothko to see people standing before his late period works, lost in the expanse of color. There is something undeniably powerful about the floating color fields. In the book Mark Rothko by Jeffrey Weiss et al., Rothko is reported on one occasion to have advocated a viewing distance of eighteen inches. For some of Rothko’s works the effect can be like getting lost in the color.

After the exhibition we purchased the book The Artist’s Reality - Philosophies of Art. It is a collection of essays by Rothko discovered in 1988 and eventually organized and edited by his son Christopher Rothko and published in 2004. The essays are estimated to have been written in between 1940 - 1941. In the essays we get a peek at Rothko’s ideas on art, beauty, myth, and more. We are warned in the introduction that “Rothko has no patience for anything that did not aspire to the highest ideals.” and “[h]is own feeling of deprivation adds an extra bite to his words.” For example, in the essay Art as a Form of Action, he states: “In fact, the man who spends his entire life turning the wheels of industry so that he has neither time nor energy to occupy himself with any other needs of the human organism is by far a greater escapist than the one who developed his art.” (We read this as we sat, early one morning before heading off to one of those wheels.)

Honestly, the thoughts expressed in the essay are beyond us and are for scholars of Rothko. However, the introduction is a good read and filled in some of the background we were missing. We also suggest watching Simon Schama’s Power of Art (2007) Rothko episode.

In the end, our reaction to Rothko’s late pieces remains the same as the day we walked into the Rothko Rom at the Tate Gallery: wonder, sadness, hope, peace, agitation - emotion and feeling - not really thinking, but feeling and emotion. Yes, at times, the colors are pleasing to look at but that’s more an aside. Hopefully, Rothko would be pleased. Schama in the Rothko episode says this of the viewer’s reaction: “emotionally stirring, sensually addictive”.

To visit the exhibition, we took a day trip to from Seattle to Portland, following the bone-rattling and noisy Interstate-5 for a couple of hours each way. A bright spot was finding a nice French restaurant in Olympia called La Petite Maison where we ate at on the way back.

Milton Avery - Bathers, Coney Island – 1934, An Important Influence on Rothko (left), In the Middle of a Red Canvas (right)
Milton Avery - Bathers, Coney Island – 1934Rothko Closeup

Entrance to a Subway – 1938 (left), Subway c. - 1937 (right)
Rotko, Entrance to a Subway – 1938 Rothko, Subway c. - 1937

Three Rothko Works Showing the Progression of His Work in One View (left), Untitled 1941-2 (right)

The Artist’s Reality – Philosophies of Art Front (left), Back (right)
The Artist’s Reality – Philosophies of Art Front The Artist’s Reality – Philosophies of Art Back

Fremont Dragon

Fremont Dragon 
On the way back from the Fremont Sunday Market - where we go to eat Sunday afternoons - we came back by way of the small alley (between N 34th and N 35th) behind PCC and saw this mural of a dragon, the Fremont Dragon.

Fremont Dragon

Monday, June 25, 2012

Lonesome George - Adiós

Lonesome George Photographed January 4, 2012
Lonesome George - Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni
El Solitario George or Lonesome George died today. We saw him back in January 2012 one of countless tourists visiting the Galápagos and passing by his pen. The sign near his pen read:

Lonesome George is the last survivor of the dynasty of land tortoises from Pinta Island. He was found in December 1971 and taken to the Charles Darwin Research Station in March 1972. All efforts to find other specimens from that island have been in vain. He is now sharing his pen with two female tortoises of the population from Wolf Volcano.

Scientists estimate that George was about 100 years old and that his subspecies (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni) had become extinct. George’s carapace or shell is saddled-shaped which means that his species had to reach their necks up high to get at food - typical of tortoises found on drier islands. Tortoises with dome-shaped shells get their food close to the ground. The name of the islands comes from the word galápago from the old Spanish name for saddle, inspired by likely by the site the saddle-backed tortoises like George.

Silly yes, but when I saw George for the first time and now when reading the news of his death, a Rickie Lee Jones song comes to mind. The song is A Face in the Crowd from her 2003 album The Evening of My Best Day:

I know what it takes to be loved by you
Talk like you talk
Think like you do
You never were human so
How could you know?
We fall so hard, we can’t let go

I am the last of my kind in this town
Everyone else has gone underground…

You can find our trip overview Selected Plants of the Galápagos Islands.

Sign Near Lonesome Georges Pen (left) and a Distribution of the Galapagos Giant Tortoises at the Charles Darwin Foundation (right)
Lonesome George - Sign Near PenDistribution of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise

Lonesome George Photographed on January 4, 2012
Lonesome George - Chelonoidis nigra abingdoniLonesome George - Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Monique Lofts - NKO Mural

Crystalline Forms on the North Wall of the Monica Lofts
Monica Lofts - NKO Mural Monica Lofts - NKO Mural    
The mural on the north wall of Monique Lofts, a Capitol Hill condo between Pike and Pine streets on 11th Avenue), was created as a response to the routine tagging that occurred on the building. The thinking is that if respected graffiti artists, in this case Scratchmaster Joe (aka Joe Martinez) and partner NKO, created a piece of art on the besieged wall, then they would less likely be the target of tagging. The piece was finished in September 2008 and when we passed by it on this sunny Saturday in May 2012, it looked great.

The 100 foot high by 65 foot wide mural sports crystalline geometries which grow on the building. The epiphytic-looking jagged shapes leave a fair amount of the building’s concrete showing and result in a spacious feel to the mural.

Concrete and Mural
Monica Lofts - NKO MuralMonica Lofts - NKO Mural

Monica Lofts - NKO MuralMonica Lofts - NKO Mural

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Copying Files in Order Using the MS-DOS FOR Command


Scenario: Copying pictures from a Windows 7 computer to a Nix X13A Digital Frame. In Windows 7, I arranged the pictures in the order I wanted using Windows Explorer, by name like Photo 001.jpg, Photo 002.jpg, etc. Then I copied them to the Digital Frame and discovered they were out of sequence.

Figuring Out What Happened: The Nix site says that to ensure photos in an exact sequence, you should load them one-by-one which implies it uses the date stamp of the time in the device (digital frame) to determine order.

Solution: There are many solutions, but this is what I did to copy each file one-by-one, in order automatically using the FOR loop command.

1. Open a command prompt, e.g. by typing cmd.exe in the Start menu. (Or use the winkey + R which opens a Run window and then type in cmd.)

2. In the Windows Command Processor window, navigate to the directory where the pictures are kept on your computer.

3. Type the following DOS command and check the output to make sure that the files are listed in the order you want.

for /r %i in (*) do echo %i 

You can customize the command. For example, if you want only files starting with “Photo”, you can modify the command as shown below.

for /r %i in (Photo*) do echo %i 

4. Assuming the Digital Frame is connected and appears on D:\ and the folder you want to copy to on the device is “Some Folder” then this command will do the task of copying the files in the order you want.

for /r %i in (Photo*) do copy "%i" "D:\Some Folder"\. 

Note: The ordering of files in Windows Explorer when you sort by file name can differ from the ordering in a Windows Command Processor window using “dir * /O=N” which orders by name which is the default. In particular, this difference occurs when you use use the bulk rename feature in Windows Explorer. The bulk rename leaves you with files that have parentheses in the name and the sorting gets interesting. For example “Test File (10).jpg” comes before “Test File (2).jpg” in the DOS output but not in Windows Explorer. So beware.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Seattle Center Paul Horiuchi Mural

Paul Horiuchi Mural Below the Space Needle, Early Evening
Seattle Center Paul Horiuchi Mural 
The granddaddy of murals in Seattle surely must be the 17 feet high by 60 feet wide mural at the Seattle Center by Northwest artist Paul Horiuchi (1906 - 1999). Horiuchi was commissioned to create the mural for the Century 21 Exposition (Seattle World’s Fair) for the backdrop of an outdoor amphitheater close to the base of the Space Needle. An informative article at the HistoryLink (Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History) gives a good introduction to Horiuchi’s life and works.

The mural is made of mosaic pieces from Venice that assembled into large color shapes. The shapes are irregular and sharp-edged, layered on top of each other rather than fitting together perfectly. Horiuchi gained his fame as a collagist. From the HistoryLink site: “Horiuchi gained fame as a master collagist. Collage was a medium whose moment had arrived, the darling of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris. A decorative form of collage, called shikishi, has been used in Japan since the Heian period, in the twelfth century, by poets and calligraphers who arrange torn papers into the likeness of landscapes. Horiuchi drew on that tradition, cross-fertilizing it with a charge of abstract expressionist vigor.”

The HistoryLink site mentions a statement of his [life, artistic?] intent that was in the program at Horiuchi’s memorial service that I find moving: “I have always wanted to create something serene, the peace and serenity, the quality to balance the sensationalism in our surroundings today.” Amen.

The Horiuchi Mural From a Distance (left) and Signature (right)
Seattle Center Paul Horiuchi Mural Seattle Center Paul Horiuchi Mural - Signature

The Horiuchi Mural with a Gray Afternoon
Seattle Center Paul Horiuchi Mural  Seattle Center Paul Horiuchi Mural

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs (Seattle)

Canopic Coffinette Front, Side and Back View. Held the mummified stomach of Tutankhamun.

The Exhibit

The Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs exhibition is touring the US from 2008 to 2013. The last stop on this National Geographic Organized Exhibition is the Pacific Science Center (May 24, 2012 to January 6, 2013) where we saw it. As a kid, I saw an earlier exhibition, The Treasures of Tutankhamun (1972 - 1981), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979. It was a memorable experience for a teenager who rarely left the Berkshire Hills. Yes, right about the time of Steve Martin’s King Tut was on the airwaves. How could you not like Martin and his backing band, the Toots Uncommons?

Overall, we thought the Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs exhibit was very well done. We walked out informed about the boy king Tutankhamun and some of the pharaohs that came before and after him. The exhibition contains twice the number of artifacts than the Treasures tour, so there was a lot to see. In general, the written descriptions accompanying each artifact were good. We appreciated that they put the descriptions at many locations around an artifact and in some cases up high so they could be read when crowded.

We’ll mention two minor missteps with the exhibition, at least in the Seattle Center venue. First, the music was too loud and a tad schlocky. It would have been nice if they turned it down a bit. Second misstep was that the audio guide was okay, not great. It could have been more descriptive of the artifacts we saw and given more optional backstory. Also, the sound seemed a bit muddled - likely the mechanics of the wand-like audio guide. For $6 dollars a handset, the audio guide should have been much better. Why not make it free and downloadable, e.g. like Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise? The audio guide for Tutankhamun is narrated by Harrison Ford with thoughts and recollections by Zahi Hawass, world-renowned Egyptologist.

The layout of the Tutankhamun exhibition in Seattle is dictated by the layout of the Science Center and so this exhibit felt similar to Lucy's Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia. The exhibition space is broken into two levels. You enter on the bottom level and exit on the top; connecting the two levels is a large ramp. In the Tutankhamun exhibition the ramp is used with good effect as it represents the long ramp into Tutankhamun’s tomb. Right before the ramp, Howard Carter the discoverer of the tomb, is introduced and then you walk up the ramp to “experience” what he found back in 1922 in what is now called KV62 in the Valley of the Kings. 

The sections of the exhibit are organized as follows: Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, Pharaoh’s Family, Pharaoh’s Court, Pharaoh’s Religion, Pharaoh’s Gold, Discovery of a Pharaoh [Tutankhamum](Antechamber, Annex, Treasure, and Burial Chamber), Pharaohs’ Fate, Gift Shop, and Modern Science. Yup, shopping before science.


Damnatio Memoriae

There are usually a few interesting tidbits that catch my attention in an exhibit. Somehow our minds keeps coming back to the tidbits trying to understand them. The belt of the kilt on a statue of Tutankhamun was one of them. The statue was one of a pair of colossal 17 foot quartzite figures associated with Tutankhamun. Tut’s successor “Ay appropriated the statue and carved his name on the front of the belt. Horemheb, in turn, took it over for his use and reinscribed the belt with his name.” It struck us as strange. Horemheb, the last ruler in the Eighteenth Dynasty, usurped many of Tut’s monuments. Why?

The Eighteenth Dynasty was a period (c. 1550 - c. 1292 BC) in ancient Egypt which included some of the most well-known pharaohs, including Tutankhamun. One of the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs was Hatshepsut - a rare, powerful female pharaoh. She ruled more than 100 years before Tutankhamun. A statue in the exhibit shows her wearing a royal kilt, headdress and beard typical of male pharaohs.

Tutankhamun was the third from the last ruler in the Eighteenth Dynasty, ruling for just nine years from ca. 1333 - 1323 BC and dying before reaching twenty years old. Tutankhamun’s father Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) had moved away from traditional Egyptian polytheism and focused on just one god, Aten, the sun-god. Under Tutankhamun’s reign the restoration of traditional beliefs was started, taking Egypt back to polytheism. But alas, it wasn’t enough because after Tutankhamun’s death, Ay ruled for a few years followed by Horemheb who instigated a damnatio memoriae against rulers associated with Akhenaten.

But against all odds - the damnatio memoriae, what may have been an unexpected death and hasty burial, and tomb robbers – Tut today is one of the most widely known pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Tutankhamun may have faded from public consciousness in Ancient Egypt within a short time after his death and remained virtually unknown until the 1920s, but he is back in a weird twist on the afterlife. From a description in the exhibition: “Pharaoh’s fate, however, was different for Tutankhamun. His early death led to a hasty burial in an atypically located and small, almost undecorated, tomb. No grand ceremonies took place for him. No funerary cult was established to keep his memory alive. The rulers of the revolutionary religion of Aten were officially forgotten, their names omitted from the lists of kings. Their statuary and monuments were appropriated by their successors. For the Egyptians, Tutankhamun did not exist. Yet it is his tiny tomb, his banned name, and his hidden treasures that people envision when they hear of Egypt’s pharaoh. Tutankhamun, unlike any other, attained an eternal afterlife.”

Speaking of forgotten, all the craftsmen and workers who build the pharaohs’ temples and monuments usually do not show up in exhibitions. In this exhibition however, there are four figurines of Inty-shedu, a master builder of the pyramids of Giza. The four statues represent the builder at different states in his life. (The pyramids of Giza were built more than a thousand years before Tutankhamun’s reign.)

On a final twist of damnatio memoriae, during the embalming of a royal person the brain was discarded - there go all the memories. Egyptians thought the brain to be useless. Four viscera, the liver, lung, stomach and intestines, were dried out and protected by the four sons of Horus.


Exhibit Words

Museum and exhibition visits can often hit you with a barrage of terms that you have never seen before. Here are a few terms we noted with definitions courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • Anthropoid Coffin - a container for a body that resembles a human, anthropoid coffins where often used as inner containers for a rectangular outer coffin.
  • Calcite - a common crystalline form of natural carbonate, CaCO3 that is the basic constituent of limestone, marble, and chalk. Also known as alabaster.
  • Canopic - related to or being an ancient Egyptian vase, urn, or jar used to hold the viscera of an embalmed body.
  • Cartouche - a special pictorial way of representing a royal name in Egyptian hieroglyphs; it is an oval with a horizontal line at one end. Tutankhamun’s birth name (prenomen) means “living image of Amun” and is what the cartouche represents. A cartouche is also used for a royal person’s throne name (nomen).
  • Damnatio memoriae - erasing someone from history.
  • Senet - a board game from predynastic and ancient Egypt.
  • Shabti – a funerary figure placed in the tomb of a pharaoh that acted as a substitute worker for the deceased should he (the deceased) be called upon to do work.
  • Unguent - a soothing preparation spread on damaged skin. One of the artifacts in the exhibition is a vase that held unguent, found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
  • Ureaus (plural uraei or uraeuses) is the stylized, upright form of an Egyptian spitting cobra, used as a symbol of sovereignty, royalty, deity, and divine authority in ancient Egypt.

Amenhotep IV - Tutankhamun's Father (left) and Tutankhaman (right)
Amenhotep IV - Tutankhamun's Father Tutankhaman

Colossal Statue of Tutankhamun - Belt Detail (left) and Annotated To Show Rework (right)
Colossal Statue of Tutankhamun - Belt Detail Colossal Statue of Tutankhamun - Belt Detail  

Unguent Vase (left) and Shabti (right) – Items in Tutankhamun’s Tomb
Unguent Vase (left) and Shabti (right) – Items in Tutankhamun’s Tomb Unguent Vase (left) and Shabti (right) – Items in Tutankhamun’s Tomb

Examples of Exhibition Descriptions
Examples of Exhibition Descriptions in the Tutankhamun Exhibit Examples of Exhibition Descriptions in the Tutankhamun Exhibit

Amenhotep III Jewelery Box - 18th Dynasty (right), “Cat Box” - Tomb for a cat that belonged to Thutmose, son of Amenhotep III (left)
Amenhotep III Jewelery Box - 18th Dynasty Tomb for a cat that belonged to Thutmose, son of Amenhotep III

Lid for Canopic Container (left) and Shabtis (right)

Shabtis (left), Pectoral with Scarab - Sheshonq II - 22nd Dynasty (middle), Gold Death Mask of Psusennes I –21st Dynasty

Kahfre, A Fourth Dynasty King (left) and Inty-Shedu Four Figurines - Old Kingdom

Queen Nofret - Consort of 12th Dynasty Pharaoh Senwosret II (left) and Thutmose III Offering Nu-Jars - 18th Dynasty (right)

Statue of Kai and his Children - Tomb of Kai, Late 4th Dynasty (left), Stele (right)