Thursday, 7 August 2008

Communist Museum, Prague

Taking advantage of my trip to Prague, I made it a point to visit the Museum of Communism. The museum is tucked away off from Wenceslas Square between, and this is not a joke, a MacDonald's and a Casino. As a person interested in history and politics I thought that the museum would be an interesting look into the lives of Czech's behind the Iron Curtain. The museum does a good job of balancing the absurd with truths of communist rule.

The exhibition is divided into three themes: dream, reality, and nightmare. The visitor is first presented with gigantic statues and busts of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. Placards on the wall explain the initial praise of the liberating Red Army following the war and the communist party's eventual rule of the country. The 'dream' section offers a glimpse into the hopes of the Czech people and their belief that communism will bring them an improved quality of life. There several books displayed in this section filled with communist propaganda. Following the 'dream', the 'nightmare' exhibit represents a vision of life under communism. The placards explain that shops usually lacked basic goods and customers could expect to wait in long lines for little selection. This section also displays examples of the constant communist propaganda forced upon the public. The final portion of the museum depicts some of the terrible civil rights violations perpetrated against the Czech people and their resiliency in the face of this treatment. A video showing footage of protests Velvet Revolution, a non-violent protest against the communist government, demonstrates the violence inherent with a totalitarian government.
The film was an excellent tool in truly displaying the tactics used by the communists to ensure obedience. Records such as this are extremely important in preserving the past and offer very specific and literal imagery of events. Guerilla videos such as this are becoming more common and should be regarded and preserved as historical record.

Franz Kafka Museum, Prague

Perhaps one of the most surreal museums I visited in my travels was in Prague in the Czech Republic. The Franz Kafka Museum is located right around the corner from the Charles Bridge on the Vltava River and is an experience. Kafka was born in Prague and lived and worked there most of his life. Because I was visiting the city, and because one of my favorite books in high school was The Metamorphosis, written by Kafka, I decided to visit the museum.

From the very beginning of the tour the visitor is transported into a surreal environment. Letters written by Kafka to family members are displayed under what appears to be rippling water. There are also the sounds of dripping water and static noise. Despite the unconventional setup the exhibit moves in a linear pattern. The historical sources and manuscripts follow a young Kafka throughout his life and work as a bureaucrat. They outline the troubled relationship between father and son and offer insight into the authors numerous love affairs. Most of the documents are facsimiles and many of the originals are housed at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
The exhibit moves from the life of Kafka and concentrates next on the publication of his books. The cover page in the picture above is the original published in 1916 in German. Kafka, Czech by birth, wrote and published almost entirely in German. I was fortunate enough to see a letter written by the author at the Bodleian library in his native Czech, a rare occurrence.
The last portion of the exhibit attempts to take you inside Kafka's novels themselves. The picture of the red staircase, shown above, marks the descent into a world of alienation and surrealism. The visitor is presented with long hallways of filing cabinets and the sound of a telephone ringing endlessly. Kafka worked as an insurance agent for many years and his writing reflects his frustration with his work. Also represented in the exhibit is Kafka's belief that life should be looked at from different angles in order to get a different perspective and gain insight. This is represented by the mirrored room above.
I found this exhibit to be truly extraordinary. I've never before seen an exhibit which challenges the viewer to step inside an authors mind in this way. Also, I have never seen documents displayed in such a nontraditional way. I would definitely reccommend this museum to anyone who is remotely interested in Kafka or surrealism.

Imperial War Museum

I chose to visit the Imperial War Museum on my first day of independent study. I have always been interested in history and the First and Second World Wars in particular. I thought that this would be a great opportunity to see these wars through a different frame and perhaps gain another perspective.
The museum was short, rainy, walk from the dorms on Stamford St. and very easy to find. Just outside the entrance to the building is displayed a fragment of the Berlin Wall, shown above. I was impressed at how well it was preserved and by the artwork displayed on the facade. The entrance hall to the museum is filled with artillery and aircraft from both of the World Wars. I was proud to see that one of our own Sherman tanks was displayed in the museum, attached with a favorable description.
The first exhibit I entered achieved my goal of gaining a different perspective of Britain and the Second World War. The exhibit was centered around London during Hitler's Blitz campaign of bombing. The focus was not just on general citizens of London but the children. As an American we sometimes forget that London was severely damaged during the war and thousands of civilians lost their lives. From the beginning, I noticed, the museum utilized sound recordings in the exhibits to underscore events or add depth to an item. This made me begin to think about recorded sound as an aid to exhibitions and its importance as historical record.
I was really impressed by two portions of the World War exhibits. Both contained artifacts from the wars such as uniforms and weapons but both made an attempt to put their observer into the environment. In the exhibit World War I, visitors were given the opportunity to walk through a trench on the Western front. There were life sized models dressed as soldiers occupying various foxholes and performing different duties. Meanwhile, the sound of mortars and gunfire echo overhead. It was a very effective way of illustrating life in the trenches. The World War II exhibit put the visitor inside a bomb shelter while the above surface was being shelled. The room actually shook and vibrated from the exploding shells overhead. This too was an effective interactive exhibit which put the visitor, as best it could, in the war.
The last exhibit I visited for the day was the most moving to view, the Holocaust exhibit. A difficult subject to cover, the museum did a great job of incorporating sound and film recordings in order to capture the atmosphere leading up to the actions taken by the Nazis. These historical documents were used to give depth to the exhibit and I found it to be very successful.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Wednesday, July 16: Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum Library

The class took a different form of transportation for our visit today, boat. The destination, was the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. We jumped on the boat beneath the London Eye and traveled down the Thames. After a quick breakfast we were ready to meet our contact at the Caird Library.

Hannah met the group on the second floor of the museum and gave us a quick introduction to the library. She told us that the library was founded in the 1930's after an enormous donation was made by James Caird, whom the library is named after. We were also informed that the Caird library is the largest research library on maritime history in the world. In the libraries collection is: 100,000 books, 20,000 pamphlets, 20,000 bound periodicals, and 8,000 rare books. Some of the items in the special collections date as far back as the 15th century.

The library allows users anyone above the age of 16 to use the library. It is a reference library only and books cannot be removed from museum. The library has developed on online catalogue and is preparing to update the model in order to make it available to the public. Hannah mentioned that the library recieves between 3,000 to 4,000 visitors a year. Most of these are authors conducting research for books or articles.

The group was then taken quickly through the library and taken to a conference room in the rear of the building. In the conference room where we were met by Renea, a digital servic librarian, and Mike, part of the manuscripts team. Both librarians had selected so items in the collection to talk with us about. Renea chose several books commenting on various aspects of life at sea. One item which was particularly interesting was a 'How-to' book about becoming a sailor. A section even instructed a man how to start a fight with another seaman. Mike's items were primarly manuscripts, logs, or letters. A favorite item in this collection was a captain's log book describing the local flora and fauna. The captain happened to be an apt artist and drew many of these animals in the journal.

I found that both Renea and Mike were very excited about their job and both seemed to enjoy sharing their items with the class. I think that this was due in part because of their involvment in the library and its selection of items. Renea mentioned that she had just recently wrote a request for book and had had it approved. This is the type of environment I would like to work in.

Tuesday, July 15: National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum

On today's trip the group visited the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The museum is located just South of Hyde Park. The class entered the museum through a tube tunnel that runs by the museum. The V&A has six levels with thousands of pieces of art from all around the world. Included in this collection are many manuscripts, prints, correspondance and books which the National Art Library is responsible. The library itself is comprised of three large reading rooms. The first is a public reading room, the second is dedicated to special collections, and the third is closed for rennovations. The library is a reference library and the safety of the collections is a priority. This is immediatley noticable upon entering the first reading room by the presence of a guard.

The class met our tour guide at the large entrance doors to the library. She walked us through to the special collections rooms and took us behind-the-scenes. We were able to walk through the various floors floors or bookstacks. The collection is constantly growing and the library has a large budget for acquistions. Some of the more famous pieces in the collection include Charles Dickens personal letters, Beatrix Potter, and Leonardo Da Vinci's note books.

The second half of the tour took place across the facility in another bookstack. The class was presented with about 20 different pieces in the library's collection. Each book or print was different from the next and was representative of the diversity of the library's collection. Some of the items displayed for us included an elevator design book, books of art, and a first print edited by Dickens.

I found this library to have a very diverse collection. I have never before seen such a wide variety of books.

Monday, July 14 Museum of London

Our first trip in our first full week was to the Museum of London. The museum is a close walk from the Barbican Center and St. Paul's Cathedral. The Museum of London was created in 1976 by combining the collections of the Guildhall Museum and the London Museum. Just recently the museum became part of a larger group of organizations interested in preserving the history of London. The Museum in Docklands, Museum of London Archeology, and the London Archeological Archive and Research Center are all under the title of Museum of London.

The class was greeted by Jon Cotton, a curator at the museum. Mr. Cotton gave a brief lecture on the history of the museum and their goal as an organization. Their goal is to preserve the history of London throughout the ages and exhibit it in a way for all to understand. It seemed that Mr. Cotton's specialization was on pre-historic London. He explained to us that "pre-history" includes the time period before the written word and recorded history existed. London was inhabited by our earliest ancestors during this time and Mr. Cotton's goal is to educate to public about this fact. One of the more exciting artifacts he chose to illustrate this point was a piece of a clay jar. He pointed out that the jar had been decorated by inserting a fingernail into the wet clay making an impression. This artifact held an exciting connection between past and present.

Mr. Cotton went on to explain the construction of the new pre-historic exhibit. He and some of his colleagues met with contracted carpenters to get ideas for the new space. The group traveled to several museums and discussed what they liked and didn't like about exhibits. The design of the pre-historic exhibit is modeled on four principles. Mr. Cotton believes these to be essential to understanding this time period in London. They are: climate, River Thames, people, and the legacy.

Following the presentation our class was asked to walk through the exhibit. I found that it was organized in a very linear way and incorporated all of the aspects Mr. Cotton believed to be important. I also thought that the exhibit incorporated enough interactive information to keep a viewer interested.

At the conclusion of our class session we were able to explore the museum on our own. While on my on tour I found one artifact to be a far more compelling reminder of the past than any other. This was the remains of the Roman city wall still standing after 2000 years.

Thursday, July 10: Barbican Library

The Barbican Library is located in the larger Barbican Center in the City Of London. The Center itself is a venue for art exhibitions of all kinds. The building has 6 floors with several concert halls and theatres. The library is located near the front of the building and occupies two floors. It is a lending library and it serves the citizens of the City of London.

When our group arrived at the Barbican we were given a tour of the children's reading room. The children's area is located at the rear of the library. The library employs one full-time children's librarian and at least two part-time workers. The children's librarian explained their role in the community and discussed some of the reading programs offered. It seems the library is involved in various reading development plans for young readers fom infancy to tweens.

After a short break for tea and bisquits our tour continued. The Barbican Library has a large music collection which includes CDs, DVDs, sheet music, periodicals, and reference materials. The library has even purchased a piano for those interested in practicing their chops. All of these materials are available to patrons to take out. They can also sit at one of the listening stations, provided by the library, to hear their music. The staff meets regularly to make suggestions on expanding the collection. The collection is broad in scope and has several CDs in the various musical genres.

Finally, we were given a quick overview, by a very enthusiastic librarian, of the adult reading room. The lay-out of this section is a bit akward as it has huge columns in the center of the room. Our guide also mentioned problems with lighting which had just recently been addressed. Most of the patrons that use the adult reading room live or work in the area. We were told that the library is highly used during lunch by local workers.

This was a good view of a lending library in a metropolitan environment. This library was partiuclary interesting for me due to its music collection. I plan on using the Barbican as a source when writing about music archives and the collection of music in libraries.