Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “museums”

Freeway-Free in Texas: Magical Marfa

20190325_192143docMarfa, in the Big Bend Country of Texas, is the home of the mysterious Marfa Lights, a phenomenon which has been photographed and videotaped and in honor of which the local Chamber of Commerce has erected a very nice viewing site complete with benches and rest rooms.

20190325_193228webBut the real mystery of Marfa is not the lights, but how a town of scarcely 3000 manages to maintain not just the grand old El Paisano Hotel, build in 1930 with an elaborate facade, courtyard with fountain, grand lobby with Spanish tile floor and check-in desk, beamed ceilings, stuffed longhorn and buffalo heads, and a bustling bar and dining room, but also a second “retro-contemporary ” hotel, the St. George, which is all clean 50’s decor, expansive space, modern art and furnishings, and what looks like another top-line restaurant, as well as a book store specializing in contemporary art.

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And next to the St. George is a large contemporary building which houses a conference center as well as a rec center including a swimming pool with an outdoor bar. The town also boasts several art and craft galleries. How do these establishments scratch a living?

The cast of “Giant” stayed at El Paisano while filming, and the lobby is decorated with posters of shots of the stars on and off the set. If it is not occupied, you can see room 211, which was the party room with a big balcony overlooking the fountain. While waiting for sundown, we had an excellent (three AAA diamonds) dinner of salmon with pesto sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts, and pilar, preceded by a delicious dip trio of guacamole, salsa, and black bean hummus. Not your typical West Texas fare!

After dinner,  out to the Viewing Platform. The Marfa Lights were shy, but the STARS! Orion, normally just a belt with a sword in light- polluted Californa, was festooned with decoration. W had loaded a SkyWatch app on her phone which allowed her to point the phone at the sky and it would tell what constellations we might be seeing there. We confirmed Cassiopeia, the big straggling W, but I couldn’t remember much more from my brother’s Boy Scout Handbook.

On a second evening we stopped in Marfa again (on the way back from the Middle of Nowhere – see future posts!) and discovered more about the magic.  It seems that the city is literally the “lengthened shadow of one man”-modern minimalist artist Donald Judd.  Judd  vacationed in Big Bend country in the 70’s and decided the area could provide the ideal space for installations of his gigantic outdoor (made of concrete) and indoor (made of polished steel) cubic artworks. After renting a summer home in Marfa for several years, he plunged in, bought an abandoned military site with a couple of warehouses, and gradually also bought a number of empty commercial buildings in the downtown, including a National Bank building with lovely tile work which is now the office of his son’s architectural firm, a block-size office buildings which houses the Chinati Foundation,  a facing building for the Judd Foundation, and others. You can purchase an all day (6 hour plus 2-hour lunch break) tour to see both the inside and outside ateliers plus gallery exhibits by other artists, or a 3 hour indoor tour of all the buildings, or a free tour of the outside installations.

The presence of this driving force gave new life to the rest of the town. Conferences organized by the Chinati Fund  invited artists and tourists from Los Angeles and New York, some of whom stayed to open art galleries featuring modern as well as regional and native art. With the artists came foodies who brought the old hotel’s bar and dining room up to 3 diamond standard, and converted another hole in the wall into Stellina, a hip wine bar/restaurant with “some of the best veggie enchiladas ever” per W.  On a Wednesday evening by 8PM the young folk are sitting on the sidewalk with their wine buckets and generous pours waiting for tables, with more coming up the street. 20190327_184100web

Other movies such as No Country for Old Men have also used Marfa for HQ. It’s “the quirkiest town in Texas” per Texas Highways.  And the promoters of Lollapalooza are exploring holding a Burning Man -type festival on the outskirts of town which would attract four times the normal population. But even Donald Judd doesn’t explain why that grand hotel was built in 1930. There is still mystery and magic beyond even the sorcery of Donald Judd. Marfa in the Back of Beyong has almost more liveliness than it can stand, while Ozona, a similarly sized town with an equally attractive center square, and located on a major transportation corricor, molders away.  Go figure!

 

 

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Freeway Free in Texas: An Austin Highlight

I touched down in Austin for just long enough to glimpse the Capital building and visit one excellent museum.  The state Capitol of Texas looks like a clay model of the California State Capitol – Instead of a  white wedding cake with a gold dome, it’s plain terracotta.

Instead of strolling the Capitol grounds, we trusted AAA and headed for a Gem – the Bollock Museum – The Story of Texas (and beyond). The building is what you might expect of a museum of Texas history in the Texas Capitol, sporting a giant five pointed star in front, flanked by the six flags of Texas.  Inside, an atrium goes up three stories, with a mural in the center of the lobby best viewed from the third floor, depicting Indians, cowboys, missionaries, oxen, and horses from above, all seated or grazing around a smoking campfire. Odd but quaint perspective.

The main exhibit (which continues until mid-June) was about WWI, what the US society was like before the war, and how the war affected the society (the chaos after the war.) (From this exhibit I can understands a little better why my father feared a recession after WWII.)  After WWI per this exhibit there was a huge slump in manufacturing, and lots of layoffs, leading to violent strikes. Adding to the unrest were returning black soldiers being uppity and suffering the consequences, plus women fighting for the vote.  (American suffragettes like Alice Paul were force fed as the British Pankhursts had been.)

Great care was taken to credit women and to credit negro activists, and to talk frankly about race riots and lynchings before and after WWI. The interpretation of history was very much from the 21st century point of view  (e.g. videos about “conservative” post- Civil War governors  who enforced segregation, vs. “progressive” governors who raised taxes and used sales of public resources (oil rights) to pay for schools and roads. 20190323_161537web - Copy

Another exhibit tracked the growth of Texas by exploring restrictive immigration laws, including an interactive display of “When could they be allowed in?” where you were supposed to figure out when a particular ethnic groups would be most likely to be admitted to the USA (too bad if you were Asian).

Presiding over everything from the atrium balcony is a spectacularly homely statue of Lady Liberty holding up a Lone Star instead of a torch. (to be fair, she was meant to be viewed from a considerable distance, so her features were exaggerated.) She formerly stood on top of the Capitol building, but the welded zinc and iron plates forming her structure did not weather well, so she has been replaced by a copy.

All in all, a fine way to spend a couple of hours as an introduction to the Texas Capitol.

Freeway Free in Scotland: Another Bloody Battlefield

IMG_0684doc Why do we yearn over battlefields and lost causes?  At the Battle of Gettysburg, the High Water Mark of the Confederacy gets more photos than any other monument.  Even on our cruise in  Alaska we toured a battlefield – the last stand of the Kwakiutls or some such. We are in awe of places where lots of young men died for reasons they and we no longer understand. And here we are at Culloden, where young Scotsmen in kilts wielded swords and battle axes against British cannon and riflery, and died bravely for a prince who escaped the carnage and lived out a wastrel life in Italy. .

Culloden is a beautiful place on a bright summer day, a broad pasture stippled with swathes of greenery and shrubbery, sweeping off to distant hills and a blue sky studded with white clouds.  And then you notice the clan markers, where the bodies of slain Scotsmen were heaped into trenches and covered over with earth.  No individual markers for the Scots, just a stone with the clan name.  And maybe the bodies underneath match the name, or maybe not.

The Culloden Battlefield has one of the best visual representations of slaughter that I have seen. We are told 50 Englishmen died vs. 2500+ Scots. That seems like a lot. Then we see the wall – the extruded bricks represent a death.  – 20 feet of bricks represent the Royalist deaths – another 10 feet are flat, then 1250 feet represent the Scotch deaths.20180724_145704doc  You see, you understand.

Freeway Free in Britain: Discovering York

20180721_174408docI  was thrilled to be going to York long before I had seen a picture or read an itinerary – as a long-time fan of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, I’m convinced that Richard, Duke of York, got a raw deal in Shakepeare’s heavily politicized portrait of him as Richard III, hunchbacked arch-villain. So I was eager to see the city which had given him his title, and which, according to history, mourned his overthrow by the usurper Henry Bolingbroke.

York has a lot more than Richard III going for it, though.  It has a beautiful minster cathedral which rivals the best of France’s Gothic cathedrals, with stunning stained glass and a flowerlike central vault.

Unlike most European cities, York still has a nearly intact city wall, which makes for a charming and informative stroll along its ramparts.  From any vantage point on the wall you get views of the minster, plus sneak peeks into verdant gardens, lively back yards, and the lives of modern Yorkists.

Within the wall the city maintains a medieval character wit its narrow twisting streets and odd alleyways, while somehow exuding a modern energy and excitement.   Outside the wall are other points of interest, including a really comprehensive railway museum calling attention to when York was a rail center for all of northern England.

My railway buff husband would love to spend more happy hours there, while I would return for the alleyways and pubs and to walk a few more miles of the wall. 20180721_095012doc

 

Freeway Free in New Orleans: All that Tourist Stuff

20180520_145218docYou recognize this photo of the Cathedral Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  It could almost be a postcard if the cars would get out of the way and the sky be a bit bluer.  It was a warm day in May, and I was glad of the clouds.

 

You recognize these wrought – iron balconies in the French Quarter too.  A walking tour of the area between the Square and Bourbon Street has countless examples of this lovely lace work

.Of course, New Orleans means music.  We saw ragamuffins playing on washtubs, we saw street corner quartets, we sat on hard benches enthralled by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, we were escorted to our restaurant by a second-line band.  Music is all over the French Quarter, and it’s all great!

 

And of course, there’s the food – Beignets and Bananas Foster and Jambalaya and Gumbo and so on deliciously, served in well-known trendy restaurants like NOLA and well-known traditional restaurants like Arnaud’s and Brennan’s, and not-so-well-known but still delicious hide-aways like The Court of Two Sisters.

 

And don’t neglect the simple pleasures of walking around the Quarter, peeking into garden courtyards, stumbling across artwork tucked away at the end of arched corridors, and gawking at window displays. Take your time.  New Orleans is a city for leisure – it’s too hot and humid to hurry!

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Hidden treasures: If you need an air-conditioned break, there are two fine exhibits tucked into the building just to the right of the cathedral as you face away from the square.  One details the how’s and why’s and consequences of Hurricane Katrina;  upstairs is a museum of Mardi Gras costumes.  Talk about contrast!

 

 

 

Freeway Free in New Orleans: the National WWII Museum

20180519_092657webWhy, I wondered, is the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, rather then in one of the principal embarkation cities for the European or Pacific fronts?

DSC_6027a.jpg-0373webI guess I was not the only visitor with this question in my mind, as the neighboring plaque explains how A.J. Higgins’ design for landing boats “won the war for us” per Eisenhower, leading to the establishment of a D-Day museum in New Orleans, site of four Higgins plants.  Once the D-Day museum was established, widening its scope to include the rest of the war seemed sensible and cost-saving.  And the National World War II Museum is a true gem.

The main museum is divided into two major sections, one devoted to the European theatre, the other to the Pacific war. The exhibits include photos, little-seen films, recordings of memories from actual participants in the various political and military battles. I spent most of my time in the “Road to Berlin” section, while my partner skimmed through that to explore the Battle of Midway.   I also toured the exhibit adjacent to the lobby which covers the Home Front,  with dueling radio broadcasts from national hero Charles Lindbergh, the most prominent of the isolationists,  and Franklin Roosevelt advocating support of the British through Lend-Lease for Liberty.  Then Pearl Harbor settled it all.

20180519_095524webAn excellent introductory film, “Beyond All Boundaries” shows in the Victory Theater Complex, which also offers live entertainment in vintage 1940’s style. the film orients you to what was at stake in World War II and how the conflict developed.  Even with this as a guide, there is too much to cover in one day.  The Home Front section includes a 40’s era -themed Soda Shop where a visitor can sit down and refuel.

Other buildings include the Boeing Center which displays WWII era airplanes, and a Restoration Pavilion which features displays on the technology advancements that came about under the pressure of war.

The National WWII Museum is a far cry from Mardi Gras, the French Quarter, and Cajun cuisine.  But it’s a Don’t Miss!

 

Freeway Free down the Mississippi: Huey Long’s Long Shadow in Baton Rouge

20180517_173530docBaton Rouge is to New Orleans as Oakland is to San Francisco, forever in the shadow of its more glamorous sister city further south along the Mississippi. As the capital of the State of Louisiana Baton Rouge has its own history and its own character. Like Washington DC, it started out as a small town strategically located in the center of the state. Just as Washington grew into its role and was transformed by Pierre L’Enfant and his grand plan, Baton Rouge was also transformed by a man with a vision. That man was not an urbane French urban planner like L’Enfant.  Baton Rouge had  “the Kingfish” the great populist politician Huey Long.

When I was in high school I read the great novel All the King’s Men, which Robert Penn Warren transparently based on the life and death of Huey Long.  I had been equally enthralled by that other great Southern novel, Gone with the Wind. The contrast between the world’s of those two novels is neatly visible in Baton Rouge.

20180517_173652webBefore the Long Reign, Baton Rouge sported a perfectly ghastly Capitol building, a crenellated castle built in 1849 as if to withstand attacks by the protesting proletariat.  As a proud member of the proletariat, Huey Long naturally preferred a more modern design.  The new Capitol  is a miniature of the Empire State Building,  the tallest Capitol building in the country, and seventh tallest building in Louisiana.   A massive statue of Huey Long  marks the burial site of the Kingfish,  It stands facing the building rather than the city ” so he could keep an eye on the Legislature. ”

20180517_174737webThe Governor’s Mansion seen above, also built by Huey Long has a totally different vibe – it is said he had it built based on Thomas Jefferson’s original designs for the White House, so when he was elected President he would already know his way around.

Long’s mansion was replaced in 1963 by a new building which was modeled on ante-bellum mansions (specifically, Oak Alley in Vacherie, LA).  It could have been used as a site for the exteriors of Tara in Gone with the Wind.  Louisiana’s public face has come full circle.3284_New-Gov.-Mansion_9eff8afb-5056-b365-ab007987e9bb3f4b

Freeway Free in Cajun Country – The Myth of Evangeline

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When I was in high school we studied the poetry of Henry Wadworth Longfellow, and particularly “Evangeline”. To this day, when I am walking in a redwood grove, the introductory line comes to me: “This is the forest primeval/the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.” (Although redwood trees don’t exactly murmur, or if they do, it is so high up I can’t hear them.)

So here we are in St. Martinsburg, site of the supposed reunion of lovers Evangeline and Gabriel in the classic poem. The “Evangeline Oak” is the largest of several very impressive trees in the Evangeline/Longfellow State Park but there is no actual connection to the poem, as Longfellow never visited Louisiana, nor does the poem mention an oak tree. The statue of Evangeline which formerly sat near the oak has since been moved across from the City Hall in St. Martinsburg. It is actually modeled on Dolores del Rio, who starred as Evangeline in the 1929 move, and it was donated to the town by the movie cast. It has been replaced by a bust of Longfellow on a plinth whose plaque includes the stanza from “Evangeline” which mentions St. Martinsville.20180517_151453web

Adjacent to the park with the oak tree is the Museum of the Acadian Memorial, a small but effective installation with a focus on tracing the emigration pathways of the displaced Acadians and also provides assistance with tracing Acadian genealogy. Co-located in the same building is the African American Museum, which traces a different diaspora from Africa through the slave trade to the various Southern slave markets. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

Before visiting St. Martinsburg we had stopped at Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf, a well-known local Cajun restaurant and dance hall at the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp. It was hard to reconcile the down-home flavors of Cajun food and music with the high-flown verses of Longfellow, but “Cajun” is undeniably a shortening of “Arcadian” which has been passed down for 200 years. History is a twisting river.

 

Freeway Free down the Mississippi: the Shadow of Slavery

 

Floating down the Mississippi on a multi-tiered cruise ship, I was inevitably sucked into the “Gone With the Wind” myth.  We docked up at a number of pillared plantation homes.  We saw a home where James Audubon was employed as a tutor to the children, and drew his marvelous bird protraits from taxidermy models he had made.  We walked down a oak-lined alley with a lovely double-decker veranda’d mansion at the end of it.  We saw portraits of blonde children in lace-trimmed dresses, and dainty embroideries done by the ladies of the house.  And always the dark shadow of the enslaved people who made it all possible lurked behind, only barely acknowledged.

I believe it started with climate.  In this hot, humid region, African laborers were prized over Europeans because they had better tolerance for the climate.  Once that advantage was established, economics took over.  If there is a demand, someone will supply it. 

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The restored mansions include lovely murals, swooping staircases, and even the apparent remains of a poker party – one can imagine Scarlett O’Hara lifting her skirts as she goes up the stairs, or Rhett Butler sweeping up the chips with a rakish grin.

But the musty flavor of slavery still permeates.  In the dining room where crystal cut-glass sparkles, a huge fan hangs over the table – it would have been pulled back and forth by a silent slave in the corner.

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Freeway Free on the Mississippi: Tying up at Vickburg

DSC_6027a.jpg-0033docI had never paid much attention to the Siege of Vicksburg in my readings about the Civil War.  Of course, the victory at Vicksburg made Ulysses Grant a hero and set him up for Appomattox later, but the other great Union victory at Gettysburg overshadows what was happening at almost the same time at the other end of the Mason – Dixon line.   The Battle of Gettysburg lasted only four days, the territory of the battles is compact, and there is a clear turning point, dramatically titled “the High Water Mark of the Confederacy”.

In contrast, the Seige of Vicksburg lasted seven weeks.  There were a number of small, inconclusive battles which took place miles from Vicksburg in April and May which led up to the Seige.  Grant finally won his victory by cutting off supplies to the town and bombarding it from both river and land.   The Vicksburg National Military Park, like the Gettysburg National Military Park, surrounds its eponymus town on three sides, but the actual battlefields are miles away.  Like Gettysburg, the Vicksburg NMP has  monuments scattered about commemorating different states’ contribution to the battle, but they are much less numerous and massive than those at Gettysburg, as if the city was simply too exhausted to raise many tributes to the fallen.  We are, after all, in Mississippi, on the losing side of the war.  The two Civil War re-enactors who talked to us at the Park seemed ruefully anachronistic, as they were both at least forty years older than the soldiers whose roles they were playing

20180513_153815webThe Old Court House Museum in the center of town is small, intimate, and indomitably Southern.  It includes battle flags from the Confederate Army, but few from the winning side.  It includes donations of baby shoes and quilts and beaded purses from local ladies.  It includes an un-abashed depiction of slavery which defends it as a humane and mutually beneficial relationship between master and slave. It includes an exhibit of china which is exactly like the set I inherited from my great-grandmother.

The walk down to the dock on a hot afternoon was a step back in time.  As we left the historic district the sidewalks became more uneven, cracked, or non-existent.  Black families sat on their front porches, lazily waving palm-leaf fans.  Our tour boat waited for us on a nearly deserted quai, walled off from the town by a protective barrier which marked the height of historic floods.  Vicksburg seems caught in a bubble of history, waiting for the past to come around again.

 

 

 

 

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