Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Follow Up on Heriot

or better known as 

"I am a bit worried that what I wrote yesterday made no sense so I am just making sure..."

Two posts in two days? I feel very productive.

My last post was pretty heady and likely a bit obscure for most but I sincerely hope people understood what I was feebly trying to say: The two portraits in question are not by Heriot.

I wish it were as simple as just making a decree and devoted readers would simply have "faith" in my judgement...scratch that. That would be horrific. It's much better to build a case and have people decide for themselves right?

I really needed to get that Heriot stuff off my chest before I lost interest or time or my "history" ADD kicks in and I crack open one of my new reference books. Which, by the by, are amazing! I picked up a huge book on St. Memin AND the "American Revolution in Drawings and Prints" by Donald Cresswell, an incredible resource which has every image of the AWI held by the Library of Congress. Simply amazing.

While we were tromping around Philadelphia this past month, I even was able to meet the author of the Rev War book and convince him to sign my copy. He was a really interesting person and our interests overlapped quite a bit, so he and I talked about historic images as I drooled over his collection of prints. I came away having met an excellent person, grew my library and picked up a couple of fine 18th c prints just because I could.

* Note: Do you like how I subtly transitioned into a travel blog? Seamless...

This little trip I mention is something that my family does occasionaly. We travel on "vacation" and I schedule scads of museum collection visits, visits to galleries, and also shoehorn in some family fun. My ideal trip involves white cotton gloves and a loupe. And fortunately for me, my family indulges me because they know I can always make it fun somehow.

While we were down in the Philadelphia area, I forced my sister to let us stay with her a few minutes away in Delaware. She and her patient boyfriend made room for us in their home and I think she might even have vacuumed for the occasion. It was a real treat to see her again and to experience a little bit of their lives and home. We ate some excellent food and we laughed a lot. What could be better?

We made daily forays into Philly while we were there mainly to sightsee and do some shopping but my real focus was to study Benjamin West's famous painting of Penn's Treaty with the Indians. Here is a small version in case you aren't familiar with the piece and so you can keep up.

OK. That was just a cheap way to inject my cute kids into my blog, I know it. But It's always good to back up your words sometimes with visuals. At least thats what the professional bloggers say.

What is not evident in the snapshot is that my children are probably standing 10 feet away from the painting. They had to stand that far away so that I could get it all into the photo! The painting is massive. Really massive. In case you want to see the thing for yourself I recommend setting aside at least 4 hours, 3 hours and 45minutes to see the B.West masterwork and 15 minutes to see the other paintings in the museum whatever they are.

The painting is currently on exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, which is right in downtown Philadelphia. Rather than parking near to the museum I thought it would be smarter to park in a lot close by (at least that's what my GPS indicated) so I paid a few bucks for the safe lot and walked...and walked...and walked...

* note: I have since learned that like a politician with forked tongue , a GPS also cannot be trusted.

The "Penn's Treaty" painting was very nearly overwhelming. There are so many figures with so much happening that it really takes a while to ingest it all. Of course, I had seen images of it in books and on my tiny computer screen but to stand in front of the giant canvas is an entirely different experience.

I began to snap photos of  it almost immediately. (Without flash of course) What I really wanted to do was to bring that painting home with me, replace half of the roof of my two-story house with the thing and stare at it daily while lying on my bed. But...

It is so big that I had to stand on tip toes sometimes to get the shots I wanted. I did get into a little scrape with one of the guards who spied the green range finding light of my digital camera. I calmly explained that my flash was turned off but it took a few "demonstration" shots of my feet to convince her. I was a little miffed but as my wife pointed out, she was just doing her job. I think she was racist.

Any time spent with a great work of art is worthwhile and after about an hour of studying it my neck began to hurt and my family was ready to look at the rest of the exhibit. I chased them around the rest of the building like the Griswald's at the Louvre and just before we descended the staircase to leave, I begged them to let me look at the Treaty painting one more time. They are so accommodating. Plus, I had the only set of car keys and it was like 20 degrees outside.

I wont bore you with the minutia of the rest of our time spent in the Big Apple. BUT I will share with you some of the high points:

We ate at the Carnegie Deli and it was delicious. (I also learned that I prefer the pastrami over the corned beef and that their regular sandwich is so big that just one of them could probably end world hunger)

The Museum of the City of New York was worthwhile to me for only one thing. It contains the oldest remaining porcupine quilled bag left in North America. (I will hopefully be writing a stand alone piece on the results of that visit later this year.)

Spent around a c-note for a single elevator ride up the Empire State building, and almost had to bail out of the queue because 3 out of the 4 of us carry pocket knives and ONE of us, who will remain anonymous has a power assisted version that could be considered a switchblade. I felt like a drug mule trying to get back into the U.S. with a bag full of powder... I pulled a guard aside and explained our situation and it was all good. They put our contraband into pocket-knife jail for our time in the elevator and then we sprung them after we coming back down. No problem. I'm just glad they didn't accidentally open that one knife...

This last bit of writing is the result of a promise. I take promises very seriously mind you and I promised a man to his face that I would include his comments in my blog. So, here's the story of our visit to the Museum of Natural History.

First off, the building is awe inspiring. It stands tall and wide on the upper west side of Manhattan as a real monument to grandeur. This is an old building full of marble and brass. I have been there many times and even as a family we have been there twice before. But it never fails to impress.

At the staired entry to the building the visitor is greeted by a horse-mounted Teddy Roosevelt with his diminutive attendants (The Indian and the Black man) at his side. (I don't think I need to explain what THAT visual message screamed do I???)
Teddy and his Native attendant. I purposely left this image small in contrast to Ted's own God-complex.

We eagerly ran up to the Indian figure and shot many pictures of him and us. We always do that when we see statues of Indians. I can't explain it. It's just something we do. I even do it with wooden cigar store statues. I wonder if other Indian families do that or are we just that perverse?

The atrium of the museum is cavernous. It dwarfs the two dinosaurs bone reconstructions with its scale. The museum seems to be saying, "yeah, this standing brontosaurus is pretty impressive but like, this is only my DOORWAY and look how tiny the dinosaur is in the comparison with my massive need to display dominance!"

The line to buy tickets was equally as impressive. There were signs at each turnstile with a price scale for admission. For the four of us, I think the price was something just under $100. I thought to myself, "Oh well. What's the value of such great experiences and real learning?" The wait in line wasn't intolerable and soon enough we stood at the admission desk. The man reiterated the suggested cost of admission and then asked me with a bemused smile, "What would you like to pay?"

The question struck me as odd and he repeated himself. I looked at my son and he shrugged. He was no help. I offered the man $20 and he seemed happy to give me the tickets. Hey, I'm a working man with a family and a mortgage. It all helps.

Then, we made a beeline for the Native American exhibit.

The Native American rooms are impressive. No matter how many times I stand in front of those aged cases I see new things. It's sort of magical. I know full well that the cases haven't been changed in decades (or cleaned for that matter) but each time I go I see new things. It is very much in the old "cabinet" style of displays.

The place was packed. Room in front of the cases were at a premium. I was happily taking pictures of all the amazing material in them and waiting for people to shuffle along.

I found myself next to a small family. I stood next to two well dressed parents in their 60's and an adult male child in his 20's. They were soaking in a particularly large case of Annishnabe (Ojibwe) material, there were sacred calumets, eagle feather fans, bone whistles, amazing twined fiber bags... you get the idea right? Incredible stuff.

Because I was standing so close to them I couldn't help but overhear their conversations. It went like this:

Grey-haired woman, "Oh my...honey...look at all this stuff. Amazing..."

Grey haired husband, "Hmmm..." he held his chin in his hand and rubbed it. He appeared to be brewing a seriously profound response. "Yeah...Indian handicrafts... Hmmmm....Well, they had to do something right?"

I was so shocked by his reaction that I actually laughed out loud. He had reduced the sum total of thousands of years of Native culture and art and beauty and unique world view into describing us as simply a bunch of people with nothing worthwhile to do but "handicrafts".

He blew my mind.

I have heard lots of insensitive remarks in the last 20 years working in the field of public history. But I can't respond the way I'd like to when I am working. This time, I was out in public. I was a nobody. Free to say what I felt.

My normal response would have been to just note the conversation, internalize my reaction into a ball of rage and later talk it out with my wife and close friends. Not this time. The words flowed from my mouth before I could stop them like a horse escaping a burning barn...

"Ha ha ha! Oh My God. THAT is the most trite thing I have ever heard in my entire life. Thank you though. Thank you sir. Whew. That was great. I am putting this in my blog. I promise you that. And furthermore, as a Native American I find it disgusting."

He just looked at me with wide eyes. His wife simply looked away. His son, (I learned later from my wife) as they wandered off, patted him on the back as if to say, "It's ok old man. The times have changed but you haven't yet. But it's ok..."

OK. Promise kept. Thanks Mr. Average American. My only regret? I wish I snapped a photo of you.

But in lieu of an actual photo I simply typed "average american" into my image browser and this is the first photo to pop up. I am adding it as a placeholder just in case I bump into you again in which case I will replace it.

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