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Motown Museum May 7, 2018

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I recently visited the Motown Museum in Detroit. The museum showcases the history of Motown.

Here are five nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. Berry Gordy Jr.’s father worked as a contractor, while his mother sold real estate. Gordy initially struggled to find a regular source of income; he worked on a Ford assembly line, received plaudits as a pugilist and even owned a jazz record store. Eventually he tried his hand at songwriting; when Smokey Robinson laughed at his meager remuneration of three dollars and nineteen cents, he was spurred to form his own company. He took out a loan of eight hundred dollars from his parents with the stipulation that he repay it within one year at six percent interest. He coined the term “Motown” for his new company in honor of his hometown.

2. Gordy spared no expense in developing his stable of talent, including:

  • purchasing an upright piano and labeling the keys to assist those who lacked formal musical training
  • hiring Maurice King to teach music theory and serve as a voice coach
  • hiring Cholly Atkins to teach choreography
  • hiring Maxine Powell to teach comportment.

3. The Miracles were one of the earliest Motown acts to achieve commercial success. Their lineup included Robinson and Claudette Rogers, who would later marry. Their hits included Bad Girl, which was their only release on the Motown Records label, and You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me. They also wrote the hit song My Girl for The Temptations. Last but not least, they broke a color barrier by performing on American Bandstand.

4. Gordy eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1972, as he wanted to use the silver screen to promote Motown. He co-produced the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross, Richard Pryor and James Earl Jones. He also directed Mahogany, starring Ross and Billy Dee Williams. He would later write the book for Motown the Musical.

5. Gordy purchased seven homes on one side of West Grand Avenue in Detroit (and one home on the other side of that street) and repurposed them for his company. Recording sessions occurred in the renowned Studio A. Vocals and instrumental tracks were mixed in a control room, while another room was designated for billing and collection. One room contained a vault of master tapes. This set of buildings was later designated as a historical landmark in 1987. Gordy’s sister, Esther, founded the museum itself in 1985.

The exhibits in the museum can only be viewed in the context of a guided tour. That being said, our tour guide was friendly and well-informed. She related several anecdotes and even led us in several renditions of Motown hits, including Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.

I don’t have any quibbles with the museum at this time.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum, and I would recommend it to tourists in Detroit (supporting the theory that I advanced in the final paragraph of this post).


The Metropolitan Museum of Art October 29, 2017

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I recently visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The museum presents the history of various societies through the lens of their art.

Here are twelve nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. Many natives of Kwangtung migrated to present-day Thailand. They founded several kingdoms, including the:

They also practiced a conservative strain of Buddhism that was influenced by religious practices in Sri Lanka, as Muslim conquests of India marred its reputation as a stronghold of Buddhist orthodoxy.

2. Present-day Burma has been shaped by several kingdoms, including the:

The first king of Burma, Anawrahta, was a devout adherent of Theravada Buddhism. He also subdued the Mon people, enabling the Pagan to control Burma until it was toppled by repeated Mongol invasions.

3. The Srivijaya kingdom was a maritime and commercial power that originated in Palembang. It controlled the strategically vital Strait of Malacca. The early years of its influence overlapped with that of the Shailendra dynasty that controlled Java. The notable Buddhist monument of Borobudur was constructed during the reign of a Shailendra king.

4. The Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II rebuilt the city of Calah. His citadel was surrounded by a wall that was five miles long; it covered an area of 900 acres. It was guarded by two large statues; each statue included the features of a human, a bird and a bull. The extant reliefs from the citadel include a depiction of a sacred tree and Akkadian inscriptions; Akkadian was written in cuneiform script (“cuneiform” is derived from a Latin root that means “wedge-shaped”).

5. The Licchavi dynasty in Nepal actually originated in India. It was succeeded by the Thakuri dynasty; later, the Malla dynasty would rule over the Kathmandu Valley. Eventually the Kathmandu Valley was dominated by three city-states: Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. The Shah dynasty was the last imperial dynasty of Nepal, ruling until 2008.

6. The Chenla kingdom controlled much of present-day Cambodia. Later, Jayavarman II founded the Khmer Empire at Phnom Kulen. One of his successors, Yasovarman I, moved the Khmer capital to a location near Angkor. There, another Khmer ruler, Suryavarman II, constructed Angkor Wat. The Khmer Empire reached its greatest territorial extent under Jayavarman VII, who is often depicted with a protective naga, or snake spirit.

7. The Diadochi warred over Cyprus after the death of Alexander the Great. Eventually, Ptolemy I gained control over that island; he established his capital at Nea Paphos. The Cypriots would later devote themselves to the worship of various deities, including:

After Cyprus became a Roman province, Cicero briefly served as its governor.

8. The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula and The Denial of Saint Peter were the last two paintings of Caravaggio. The former work depicts the Hun siege of Cologne; the titular saint allegedly led eleven thousand virgins in an attempt to lift the siege, yet she was slain by an arrow fired by Attila the Hun. The latter work depicts a woman pointing two accusing fingers at the titular saint; a soldier is also shown pointing a third accusing finger at him.

9. The development of Norwegian art was facilitated by Norway’s declaration of independence from Denmark in 1814. Notable artists in this movement included Johan Christian Dahl and Peder Balke. Dahl’s status as the founder of this movement, though, overshadowed the contributions of Balke for many years. Balke successfully avoided military conscription by leaving his boyhood home for Stockholm. He would later travel to Dresden and study with Dahl. Some of his best paintings were influenced by his visit to the North Cape in Finnmark.

10. Kraters were large vases that often depicted prothesis – the laying out of the body of a deceased person while surrounded by mourners and soldiers in boats and chariots. Kraters exemplify the Geometric style and were often made from terra cotta.

11. The mao, the pi and the jian featured prominently on the battlefields of ancient China. In particular, the jian was optimized for close-range striking and stabbing. The rise of iron production during the Han Dynasty impacted the design and development of these Bronze Age weapons.

12. Inlaid celadon was developed during the Koryo dynasty, where slip was poured into carved clay and fired. During the Choson dynasty, buncheong ware was eventually replaced by porcelain, as it reflected the Confucian virtue of simplicity. The demands of the nobility for porcelain were met by the bunwon kilns near Hanyang.

The museum is expansive, and one can spend an entire day browsing through its numerous exhibits. I especially enjoyed the special exhibit that included a section on warfare during the Qin and Han dynasties; I was impressed by its detailed animal figurines and plethora of ancient weapons.

My only quibble with the museum is that the staff gradually closed the exhibits as the afternoon progressed. It would have been better to allow unrestricted access to the entire museum during its operating hours.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum, and I would recommend it to those who happen to be in the Big Apple.

San Jose Museum of Art July 22, 2016

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I recently visited the San Jose Museum of Art in San Jose. This museum showcases several local artists and special exhibitions.

Here are three nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. The tonalpohualli was a 260-day sacred Aztec calendar. This calendar was divided into 20 weeks, each consisting of 13 days. Each day was associated with a particular deity; the Aztecs believed that one’s birthday shaped their destiny.

2. At one point, the U.S. Border Patrol placed sensors near the U.S.-Mexico border that could detect the footsteps of migrants. Migrants adopted ingenious strategies to defeat these sensors. For example, they would bring bicycles to the border, toss them over the border fence, clamber over the fence, and then ride them for a sufficient distance before abandoning them in the desert.

3. The U.S. Border Patrol has also attempted to detect the presence of migrants by linking several large tires with chains and dragging them to level a patch of ground. If any migrants then passed through that area, their tracks would be easily spotted. Migrants have adopted various countermeasures, including tying carpets under their shoes and then walking on them for a sufficient distance before abandoning them in the desert.

I was especially impressed by the Border Cantos exhibit that featured 1) a plethora of gripping photographs of the U.S.-Mexico border fence and flotsam discarded by migrants and 2) a collection of musical instruments that had been constructed from this flotsam. These musical instruments were made from sundry items including pages from a Spanish-language New Testament, empty shotgun shells that had been fired by U.S. Border Patrol agents, and childrens’ sneakers.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum, and I would recommend it to any visitors in the area – especially if it is hosting an intriguing special exhibition.

Triton Museum of Art April 17, 2015

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I recently visited the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara. This museum is dedicated to showcasing the work of local artists and promoting arts education in the local community.

Here is a nugget that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

Allen Ginsberg is arguably best known for his poem Howl. Ginsberg performed the first public reading of Howl at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. On that momentous occasion, Jack Kerouac took up a collection for wine before any of the poets in attendance read their works; he later returned with gallon jugs of wine, and the wine loosened the inhibitions of the poets and their audience. In particular, while Ginsberg began his reading of Howl with carefully measured tones, he grew more animated and demonstrative. The audience responded enthusiastically to Howl, heralding the arrival of the Beat Generation in the American consciousness.

I was pleased to see a range of local artists on display at the museum; I especially appreciated the range of media that they employed, including gouache on wood, glass beads, and the standard approach of oil on canvas. The museum also appears to provide art classes for local high school students, which is neat.

Probably my main quibble with the museum is that it is rather small, and so I did not end up spending much time there. I should note that the museum offers free admission; thus, I suppose that, “you get what you pay for.”

If you reside in the Bay Area and are interested in arts education, I would definitely recommend one of the musuem’s workshops.

Harvard Art Museums May 13, 2012

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I recently visited the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge. This museum features an art collection that highlights various genres and time periods.

Here are five nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. Hand-held fans actually served as a medium for East Asian artists, and this art form reached its height in the 6th and 7th centuries A.D. Lollipop-shaped fans originated in China and were introduced to Japan and Korea by the 6th century A.D. The more familiar lunette-shaped folding fan originated in Japan during the Nara period and were later introduced to Korea and China. Fans of that era typically had artwork on one side and a beautifully-written calligraphic poem on the other side.

2. Arabian horses were imported from the Fergana Valley to China in the 2nd century B.C. These horses replaced the Mongolian ponies that were prevalent in China at that time. Known as “thousand-mile” horses, these equine marvels had unusual strength and stamina.

3. The Mogao Caves at Dunhuang were situated at a critical junction on the Silk Road. Interestingly, this cave complex was replete with replicas of Buddhist-themed art. One of the motifs in these art pieces featured a seated Buddha with its hands held in a mudra position; this Buddha was surrounded by various figures, including angel-like creatures known as apsaras.

4. The Entente Cordiale consisted of a series of agreements between Great Britain and France that were designed to isolate Germany in the years leading up to World War I. Edward VII and Joseph Chamberlain were instrumental in bringing these agreements to fruition. On the flip side, the Germans did score a major victory over the British when the use of dum-dum bullets was outlawed at the Hague Convention of 1899.

5. Lyonel Feininger, though a noted painter, also happened to be an excellent photographer. He joined the Bauhaus in Dessau and experimented with photography 1) at night, 2) in unusual weather conditions and 3) from odd angles. Much of his photography was melancholy in nature, particularly his images of street life in the early years of the Third Reich. Interestingly, his promotion of the avant-garde movement drew the ire of prominent Nazis.

The museum’s collection of Asian art was rather impressive, and I enjoyed inspecting works by famous artists including Pollock, Monet and Rembrandt. I also enjoyed browsing a series of Cold War-era photographs that were actually being used for a Harvard course.

I don’t have any quibbles at this time.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum, and I would definitely recommend it to art buffs who happen to be in the Harvard area.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum July 22, 2011

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I recently visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. This museum showcases the eclectic art collection of Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Here are five nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. John Singer Sargent was particularly noted for his society portraits; he produced two portraits of Isabella Stewart Gardner, one of which was painted soon after she had suffered a debilitating stroke – she would be dead within two years of that tragic incident. The other was more controversial as it painted her in an iconic – even somewhat religious – light and was initially hidden from public view. Yet Sargent enjoyed painting nature scenes where he could experiment with perspective and brushstrokes; one of his notable works in this genre is Yoho Falls.

2. Rembrandt van Rijn was particularly noted for his self-portraits, as he produced over eighty of them. He enjoyed experimenting with colors, perspectives and shading in producing that series of works. In one of his earliest efforts, he presented himself in a rather confident manner – this was probably intended to attract the attention of prospective patrons. The feathered hat and gold chain that he wore for this work accentuated its dignified atmosphere.

3. In Sandro Botticelli’s Virgin and Child with an Angel, the wheat and grapes are probably meant to foreshadow the Eucharist, which was instituted by Christ at the Last Supper to serve as a reminder of His sacrifice for the sins of mankind. This painting shows Mary carefully picking some of the wheat, which may have been designed to show that she understood its significance. Interestingly, the infant Christ is holding up his right hand as if He were in a teaching position.

4. St. Martin of Tours is most noted for the following – possibly fictional – account. One day, while wearing his military cloak, he met a shivering beggar. He quickly cut his cloak in half and gave one half to the beggar. That evening, he had a vision where Christ appeared, wearing the half-cloak that he had given to the beggar. Christ then blessed him, triggering the series of events that led to his becoming the bishop of Tours.

5. The legend of Lucretia begins with her being raped by the son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, who was the king of Rome. Due to her chastity and overwhelming shame, she committed suicide after this abominable act. Her death shocked the people of Rome, and Lucius Junius Brutus seized this opportunity to rally opposition to the king; after overthrowing the monarchy he established the Roman Republic.

The museum contained many interesting pieces of art, including The Rape of Europa by Titian, Portrait of Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel by Peter Paul Rubens and El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent. I also enjoyed contemplating Gardner’s experimentation with lighting, furniture placement, and juxtaposition of art forms from diverse genres.

I don’t have any quibbles at this time.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum, and I would definitely recommend it to art connoisseurs and fans of history.

Peabody Essex Museum August 9, 2010

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I recently visited the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. This museum features a large art collection that provides a window into the diverse cultures of the Americas, Asia and Oceania.

Here are ten nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. During the Joseon Dynasty, Korean artists tended to incorporate objects from nature in their creations; the objective in this case was to invoke blessings such as wealth, children, and longevity on their creations’ owners. Animals such as deer, tortoises, and cranes were viewed as symbols of these desired blessings, and so they were prominently featured in the artwork of this period. When preparing their artwork, Korean artists took great pains to 1) preserve the inherent beauty of the raw materials at hand and 2) leave traces of the creation process in the final product.

2. Korean artists also tended to incorporate symbols such as the swastika and the taegeuk in their creations. Note that “taegeuk” represents harmony and balance, while the term “swastika” arose from a Sanskrit word that was later modified in the prevailing Buddhist traditions in Korea. These symbols are analogous to the Chinese yin and yang. Interestingly, the Chinese character for “double happiness” also appears prominently in Korean art.

3. Village life in rural China was drastically altered during the Cultural Revolution. Loudspeakers were installed in many private homes to broadcast the government’s patriotic messages; in an annoying twist, the volume could not be adjusted. Also, people were forbidden from honoring their ancestors in their homes’ reception halls by burning incense and offering food and other gifts for the afterlife. In addition, strict limits on the degree of socializing in private homes were enforced; these restrictions were later lifted during the rule of Deng Xiaoping.

4. Village life in the Huizhou region of Anhui province revolved around agriculture; in particular, villagers focused on growing key crops including rice and tea, which apparently grows well on hillsides. Women and children comprised the bulk of the villagers, as the men usually worked in large cities such as Shanghai and Hangzhou. Interestingly, the men gravitated towards occupations such as pawnbroking and accounting, and they would send money home to the families that they could only visit infrequently.

5. To form porcelain, one would usually start with raw clay, especially soft kaolinite and hard petuntse. Then, a glaze would be applied that consisted of silica and cobalt oxide, which was used to add coloration. Finally, the resulting mixture would be fired at a high temperature to fuse the kaolinite and petuntse, yielding a beautiful material with both strength and translucence.

6. Porcelain is commonly considered to be unique to China, though the art of porcelain-making draws on external influences and has benefited from the creativity of Western artists. For example, the concept of applying cobalt oxides as part of the glaze-addition step was influenced by similar work that was done in Persia. Also, Chinese artists produced many beautiful porcelain wares that depicted Western motifs, including the coat of arms of their upper-class clientele. In addition, Western artists often took porcelain from China and embellished it via gilding, yielding more ornate objects that would be appropriate at formal gatherings.

7. During the 18th and 19th centuries, a typical upper-class New England resident would carefully select their home furnishings to earn their desired position in society. Women were particularly concerned with obtaining ornate tea sets and well-designed parlor furniture, as socializing was an integral aspect of high society in New England. Men were particularly concerned with obtaining furniture such as the great chair that would establish their sense of supremacy and authority. In general, these upper-class citizens selected raw materials of the finest quality and imitated Greek and Roman culture in the design and construction of their furniture.

8. The American painter Fitz Hugh Lane was one of the pre-eminent maritime artists of the 19th Century. He was influenced by the English maritime artist Robert Salmon. In general, Lane made a strong effort to capture the realism of the situations that he was depicting; in particular, he took great pains to accurately display the effects of light and water on the scene at hand.

9. In Navajo culture, it is common for one Navajo to introduce themselves to another Navajo by naming their mother’s clan and father’s clan. In particular, they note that they have been born to their mother’s clan and born for their father’s clan. This theme has been integrated into the work of artists such as Nathan Begaye.

10. One of the central themes in the work of modern Native American artists such as Diego Romero and Judith Lowry is the tension between their tribal heritage and external influences. In particular, their artwork explores issues such as the impact of nuclear weapons testing at the White Sands Missile Range on tribal life, the ramifications of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the “Westernizing” of Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yana people.

The museum, as expected, contained a literal treasure trove of beautiful art pieces. I especially enjoyed strolling around the Yin Yu Tang, as it provided a welcome window into domestic life in rural China. I was also impressed by the liberal sprinkling of “communal areas” throughout the museum, which provided opportunities for patrons to relax, read texts that provided additional insights into the artwork on display, and chat with other patrons.

In terms of quibbles, it was somewhat difficult to find the museum, as the directions on its website note that one should turn onto New Liberty Street to find the museum and a nearby parking garage. New Liberty Street, as of now, though, cannot be found on the relevant Google Maps directions.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum, and I would definitely recommend browsing it and exploring any special exhibits that may be on display.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston October 13, 2009

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I recently visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The museum features a variety of exhibits that present artistic treasures to the general public.

Here are ten nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. John Singer Sargent was commissioned to decorate the museum’s Shapiro Rotunda. Sargent originally wanted a set of reliefs to serve as the centerpiece of his project; after observing the amount of ambient light in the rotunda, he changed his mind and had the reliefs serve as embellishments of several paintings depicting various scenes from world mythology.

2. A central aspect of tribal life in Oceania involved the sculpting of figurines for special occasions, including coming-of-age ceremonies and funerals. Such figurines were often used to represent tribal ancestors and were designed to invoke the ancestors’ protection and blessings for a given tribe. The figurines would be handed down from one generation to the next and supposedly acquired power, or mana as time passed.

3. A central aspect of tribal life in Africa involved the sculpting of female figurines. Such figurines were often crafted to display an image of fecundity and strength; this was accomplished via providing the figurines with exaggerated reproductive organs and elaborate coiffures. Tribes that sculpted these figurines hoped that they would yield both a population boom and a good harvest in the coming year.

4. Many of the prominent 20th-century Mexican muralists and artists were politically active and agitated for a variety of causes. One of these artists, Leopoldo Mendez, poked fun at the great Diego Rivera and his support of the exiled Soviet leader Leon Trotsky with a humorous painting that caricatured Rivera and Trotsky as skeletons.

5. Persian and Ottoman art was influenced by extensive trade with China during the Ming Dynasty. For example, artists during the time of the Safavid Empire would create beautiful blue-white cups and bowls that were based on porcelain items from China. The Safavid-era artists would then add their distinctive touches to their cups and bowls, such as selected verses from the Koran and depictions of flora native to the Middle East.

6. Animals can often be found in Indian art depicting scenes from Hindu mythology; these animals are highly symbolic. For example, cows are highly esteemed in India, as they project an image of serenity and assiduity. This is best exemplified by the white bull Nandi, which can be found in various paintings of the god Shiva and his consort, Parvati. On the other hand, water buffaloes do not enjoy the same degree of admiration and respect; this is best exemplified by paintings that depict the goddess Durga and her victory over a demon that hid in the body of a water buffalo.

7. Artists who produced early Buddhist works generally refrained from showing the Buddha himself in their sculptures and paintings. To indicate the Buddha’s presence in their works, they employed symbols including his footprints, a throne that he was supposed to have occupied, and the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment.

8. The Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction to the “creative stifling” and “dehumanizing effects” of the Industrial Revolution. Two architect brothers, Charles and Henry Greene, were inspired by the movement to design houses and furniture that were both functional and aesthetically pleasing. For example, the Greenes would carefully select woods such as Honduran mahogany for items such as tables and chairs, aiming to use their grain patterns and aromas to create a pleasant atmosphere for their clients.

9. Like Persian and Ottoman art, Vietnamese art drew inspiration from China. To provide a distinctly Vietnamese touch to their works of art, local craftsmen would use soft white clay that could only be found in the Red River region near Hanoi. These craftsmen would also use elephant symbols in their works, as elephants were still prevalent in northern Vietnam during the Ly and Tran Dynasties after having become extinct in China.

10. One of Japan’s major art forms, ukiyo-e, was actually a natural venue for various artists to display a humorous bent. In fact, many ukiyo-e works would reference the Heian period in a nostalgic manner while simultaneously poking fun at it. For example, some ukiyo-e artists would depict scenes from Lady Murasaki’s famous novel The Tale of Genji, but they would add humorous twists by altering key plot details in their prints.

From my perspective, the museum is really an art lover’s paradise, and one could spend hours browsing its various exhibits and learning about art from a plethora of perspectives. I thought it was quite neat that the Oceania, Africa and Asia section was near the entrance on the ground floor; I initially wandered into that section from the Shapiro Rotunda, and I was exposed to an art genre with which I was only vaguely familiar.

In terms of drawbacks, as alluded to above, the museum is quite expansive, which makes it difficult to explore in its entirety during a one-day visit. Note that the museum is only open from 10 a.m. until 4:45 p.m. on Saturdays. Also, as expected, the food options at the museum were rather pricey.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum and I learned a lot, though I would like to return at some point to browse the exhibits that I missed.