Thursday 27 June 2013

Museum Serendipity

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford had a very extensive renovation a few years ago, including some pretty major architectural work to open up the galleries and create a sense of connection between different collections and time periods.  This is all very interesting and worthy and, when wandering around the main galleries, the whole place seemed utterly transformed from how I remembered it as as student.  So what followed was quite odd and I can only attribute to the power of habit.

After exploring the new galleries, I took the (new) lift upstairs, turned right, then left, and with hitherto unknown homing instincts made my unerring way through a series of smaller galleries to this door:

This, my loves, is the Library of Western Art where I used to spend many happy hours looking at plates of Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoesDuccio's Maesta and other delights.

Sadly, I now no longer have a reader's ticket and one of the attendants was looking somewhat suspiciously at me, so I ducked into the nearest side gallery - which turned out to be a gem.

My recent trip to Amsterdam had given me a new appreciation of Delft tiles - and here was a whole gallery filled with the English equivalent.

I ran my fingers over the glazed niche,

admired the pithy sentiments on the tableware,

and considered the neighbouring kings.

I exited the museum past some more old favourites and left with a new appreciation for the Ashmolean, delighted that they've managed to renovate while keeping some pockets of eccentricity.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Overheard: Ataturk's Epilogue

Overheard in Dublin, Ireland, 25th April 2013.

Ataturk's Epilogue

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.  Therefore rest in peace.

There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us here; they lie side by side here in this country of ours.

You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.

After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Monday 24 June 2013

Paying Respects

At 6am on the 25th April last I left my house in Dublin and drove through the pouring rain to Grangegorman Military Cemetery.  Along with perhaps 200 other people, I stood by the graves of soldiers who died in the First World War and listened as the Australian Ambassador to Ireland, the deputy New Zealand High Commissioner from London, a representative from the Turkish Embassy in Dublin and members of the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces read poems and prayers.  We sang Abide With Me and a musician from the Irish Defence Forces played the Last Post.

As I stood there with rain trickling down my neck and a tear or two trickling down my face, a somewhat more detached part of me was wondering why I was there.  Why had I felt compelled to visit this military gravesite when I am, after all, a pacifist?  One, furthermore, who finds that many military memorial services tread on the wrong side of the fine line between remembering and glorifying war.

The date is a clue.  25th April is ANZAC Day, the anniversary of the day when an ANZAC force landed at Gallipoli, part of modern-day Turkey.  In Australia, the day is almost (if not as) important as Australia Day and the traditions of dawn services and wearing sprigs of rosemary for remembrance are well established.

For me the day was an opportunity to pay my respects - in the truest sense.  For nearly three years I was responsible for curating a new Australian museum - one that deals with a seminal event in Australian history.  It seemed (and still seems) to me to be a great responsibility and privilege to have been given.  And in as much as I was entrusted with this responsibility, I feel a sense of obligation to respect and care for Australia's history and cultural icons.  I don't know how it is that seven Australian and three New Zealander soldiers came to be buried in Dublin, but I feel an odd sense of responsibility - hospitality? - towards them now.

Having attended the dawn service in April, I resolved to come back to spend a little more time at the cemetery.  Last Sunday found me wandering through the neat rows of graves.

Mapless, it took a little while to locate them - but eventually I spotted the distinctive 'rising sun' emblem of the Australian Army on a stone.


I can see why that fine line between remembering and glorifying gets crossed, by way of sentimentality.  It's hard not to sentimentalise, to wish I could somehow tell Muriel that I had visited her dearly loved husband's grave, to tell her that his last resting place was a green and peaceful part of a friendly city.

The war Joe Barnes and his comrades fought for may remain incomprehensible to me (and lest sentimentality take over, let's not forget that the Gallipoli Campaign was pretty well a disaster for the Allies from soup to nuts) but I can still honour them.  In fact, I think the root cause of my grave visits was a distinctly biblical sentiment: your people shall be my people.  I may have decided not to settle in Australia for good, but there is a little part of me that shall forevermore be Australian.

Or as I occasionally find myself saying, Austrylian.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Untouched Ireland

Or, unretouched Ireland.  As with yesterday's photos, today's scenes are from the glorious Sunday at the beginning of June I spent in and around the fishing village of Kinsale.  Here is the evidence, completely un-photoshopped.  Yes, it really was that sunny.

The photos were mostly taken on our walk around James Fort (or James's Fort), named in honour of King James I and built to keep out pesky Spaniards, mostly.

View of the inlet,

and view back to Kinsale.  I've decided I'd like to live in the cottage with the red door.

We then went to the Old Head of Kinsale (head as in headland) where I stopped to admire this shrine and the flowers.

The untouched highlight might have been our encounter (which, sadly, isn't photographed) with a game of traditional road bowling.  Something like French boules crossed with golf, this is a competition that takes place along country lanes where people try to get a metal ball along a certain distance* in the least amount of throws.  Being in the middle of a crowd of oul fellas taking their time, playing a game that probably hasn't changed in detail since James Fort was built was a delightful experience.

All in all, it was one of those days that reminds me how beautiful and special my home country is.  (Funnily enough, those days happen most often when the sun shines.)

*Distance from pub to pub.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Overseen: Foxgloves

Overseen in Kinsale, Ireland, June 2013.

Glorious.  Also poisonous.  Also containing digitalis.  In short, a multi-purpose plant.

Monday 17 June 2013

Anne Frank House

Though I mostly bookmarked places in Amsterdam to return to another time, I did find time to visit the Anne Frank House - which is, as most people will know, the preserved building where Anne, her family, the van Pels family and a man called Fritz Pfeffer hid during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.  The heart of the museum is the suite of rooms (the 'secret annex') where the eight hid.

One practical hint: though the line outside appears very long, it did move swiftly.  The ticket office is actually in a neighbouring building (you pay a small admission charge) and there's also an orientation area with a short film about the events leading up to the occupation and the impact it had on Dutch Jews.  Then you move through into the building proper.

Photography is not allowed (not that it felt particularly appropriate to take photos) and, in any case, you don't need photos if you've ever read Anne Frank's Diary.  What I had both expected and dreaded turned out to be true: the house is exactly as Anne describes it.

Walking through the offices of Otto Frank's business helps to prepare you a little bit for what's to come: there are interviews with his employees who undertook to help the families hide.  There's also the surreal experience of looking out the window at the canal - the epitome of gracious, ordered Amsterdam and hearing about people being hunted like vermin.  But then, it must have seemed surreal to the Jewish citizens of Amsterdam, too.

From the offices you go upstairs and encounter one of the famous secret doors of literature.  Except that there are no friendly fauns or Turkish delight on the other side of this one: just six small rooms (if you can even call all of them rooms) and a cubby hole under the staircase.  My memory from reading the book as a teenager was an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia.  Now that I've been in the space I think I should multiply that by a thousand.  It is almost inconceivable that people stayed in this small space for so long with only the briefest glimpses of the outside world.  The attic (used for storing potatoes) where Anne spent much of her time is like a kind of heaven above the other rooms - at least there was a window in it.

Visiting the Secret Annex reminded me of the other strong feeling I had on reading the book - that sense of grief that the hiding, the claustrophobia, the heroic efforts of the 'helpers' were, ultimately, in vain.  Of the eight people who hid, only one, Otto Frank, survived the Holocaust.  There are heartbreaking stories of his search for his daughters after the war and of his decision to publish Anne's book.  Anne was in fact a prolific writer and several copy books and manuscripts of diaries, stories and other writings are on display, including one of 'the' diaries.

When I said that I dreaded discovering the house and the annex were just as Anne described, this is why: reading a book, you can sometimes pretend to yourself that it's just a story ... details are changed ... facts embellished.  But when I visited the Anne Frank House I had to accept that, in the words of one of my favourite poems*, 'the story is true'.

*Robert Creeley, 'Bresson's Movies'

Thursday 6 June 2013

Bookmarking Amsterdam

I visited Amsterdam last month and was charmed.  It was just after the inauguration of King Willem-Alexander and the buildings were still decked out in patriotic colours, with photos of the new king and queen all over the place.  I was in Amsterdam to work, so my excursions were more in the spirit of bookmarking: noting places I want to revisit next time I'm here (and there will be a next time, of that I'm sure).

I noted lots of street art, 

walked along the canals - particularly in the Nine Streets area,

and took lots of photos of tall, thin canal buildings.  Including several - interesting museums.

I didn't have time for much shopping, but I did buy my little sister a big block of cheese.  Check out this shop - you could smell it from the end of the street!

Everywhere, there were interesting things that caught my eye.  This photo friendly memorial to Rembrandt, for example,

or these plaques outside the Amsterdam Museum.

Perhaps my favourite stumble-upon was this - I had noted on my map some oddly tulip-shaped icons, but didn't work out what they were until I more or less walked into the floating flower market.

Amsterdam, you were interesting and friendly and I can't wait to go back and browse in your Delft tile shops (I had a quick poke in one - exquisite tiles dating back to the 17th century!  Amazing.) and eat more cheese and wander the canals and go to the Van Gogh Museum.  Please save my place for later.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Overseen: See, Read, Fly

Overseen in Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, May 2013.  The library is part of the Dutch public library system and includes books on Dutch history, culture, people - with extensive (and very comfortable) seating.

It certainly beats killing time in Duty Free.  

See this article in the New York Times or follow @airprtlibrarian to find out more.