Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Belarus doesn’t get many tourists

In Museums, Places on November 13, 2017 at 2:20 pm

“Why have you come here?”

“Tourism.” I smiled a hopefully at the Belarussian border guard.

He inspected our passports at length, only the creaking of his leather boots and the crackle of his cigarette breaking the seemingly endless silence. This uneasy welcome was to be repeated during our stay in Belarus.

It gets perilously cold in Minsk in the winter and the windows of most bars and restaurants in the city are covered over, meaning tourists can’t peek in to see if a venue has any customers, or even if it’s the kind of place one would want to be in anyway. I lost count of the number of times I turned on my heels at the door, realising I’d stumbled into yet another strip club or casino. As soon as we found a place where the waitress wasn’t dressed in underwear we’d use basic Russian and melodramatic pointing to order dumplings and cheap beer.

At the National Art Museum we managed to communicate – via schoolboy French and yet more pointing – that we wanted to enter and, despite the reservations of the cashier, purchase tickets. The only person we found who spoke English in the otherwise empty gallery was the cloakroom attendant. As she took our coats she asked, “Why have you come here?”

“Tourism and museums,” I proffered, and, now emboldened by a few days in the city, “and to see your many beautiful buildings.”

She shrugged. But the buildings are part of why I was there.

Minsk is an architectural time capsule. Looking down the central highway of Nyezhavizhimosty Avenue that links Independence Square and Victory Square you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Soviet Union’s plan for a grand boulevard to rival the Champs-Élysées had been realised. Despite being essentially flattened in the Second World War, Stalin rebuilt the city at speed and in a modern, yet grandiose, style.
The huge concrete blocks don’t quite fit with the classical columns though, the garish colour choices aren’t in keeping with the grand European vista they seek to imitate, and the prominent KGB head office is slightly unnerving. But the endeavour is impressive.

It turns out that even the most hardened fans of lurid concrete and Brutalism can have too much of a good thing. In a moment of weakness we ventured into the Grand Café, somehow untouched by the Belarussian design palette, where we happily found smoked salmon, sirloin steak and Italian espresso for just a few roubles. We also found a bored waitress who spoke fluent English.

“Why have you come here?” she asked, while we gorged ourselves on treats. Sensing she was the first person we’d met who wasn’t an informant we replied honestly, explaining our fascination with Soviet design and architecture and with museums in the post-Soviet world.

“I would love to go to London one day,” she told us, while acknowledging quietly that a trip outside Belarus would be highly unlikely.

“This is a dictatorship,” she concluded while preparing us more martinis. “I still don’t understand why you’ve come here.”


Museum objects as travel agents

In Museums on April 20, 2016 at 10:25 am

For me, museum objects are inspirational things. And I like to think that museums can seek to inspire visitors to do all sorts of wonderful things as a result of looking at the things in their collections. They can even inspire us to travel.

It’s the theme of a little film I’ve made, currently screening at The Museum and the Global Contemporary conference at the University of Leicester, which starts today.

There’s little point us seeking to be places of inspiration just for the sake of it. Here’s an example of what I mean …

A few years ago I was working on a museum exhibition about ancient Rome. When we were putting the project together someone in our team said “wouldn’t it be great if visitors to the exhibition were inspired to travel to Italy after leaving the exhibition?”

Of course, we’d no real way of measuring whether visitors did indeed book flights after seeing the exhibition. But it was a great way for us as a project team to think about what we wanted visitors to experience as part of their visit.

In museums we talk a lot about ‘visitor outcomes’ – what we want our visitors to know, understand, experience and feel when they are with us. In this little video I argue that we ought to place just as much emphasis on what they are inspired to do as a result of a visit as we do on communicating facts to them.

Museums can be didactic, sure. But let’s make them intentionally inspirational places too. Let’s get people so excited by museum objects that they are inspired to book flights.

50 museums in 50 days

In Awards, Museums on April 14, 2015 at 9:28 am

I’ve just returned home from a trip around the globe – and I reached my goal of visiting 50 museums in 50 days. It was touch and go for a while, but like Phileas Fogg I just made it. Here’s my summing up of the trip (which is actually just me showing off) …

Best museum bar – Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, mostly for the view over the bridge and opera house.

Most jaw-dropping interior – the Alhambra. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so beautiful.

Finest collection – National Gallery of Australia is just packed with hit after hit. Such a shame that it’s locked away in Canberra where nobody goes (apart from civil servants and museum geeks.)

Tea room of the trip – not an easy category to judge. While the Museum of Australia and Hong Kong Maritime Museum both have a great views from their terraces, there’s no beating the splendid vista from the Getty Villa.

Best guided tour – Susannah Place Museum. Definitely take this tour if you’re in Sydney. Be sure to call in advance and book.

Surprise of the trip – Australians know how to do museums

Weirdest display – For years this would normally have been taken by the Museum of Jurassic Technology (Los Angeles), but perhaps the crying wooden statues next to the bed where St John of God died (Granada) were the most full on. Or the home butchery and blood-letting display at the folk museum in Seville. Or the Mars Attacks display in Hong Kong’s space museum. Hmm, tough one to call. I’ll just have to go again in search of more.

If you can deal with any more museological gloating, here’s the full list of 50 museums I visited. I hope it makes you jealous:

Sepulveda Block Museum, Los Angeles
América Tropical Interpretive Centre, Los Angeles
Avila Adobe, Los Angeles
Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles
Japanese American Museum, Los Angeles
LA Firefighting Museum, Los Angeles
Getty Villa, Malibu
Wende Museum, Culver City
Museum of Jurassic Technology, Culver City
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
Catalina Island Museum, Avalon
California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco
USS Hornet, San Francisco
SFO Airport Museum, San Francisco
Maritime Museum, Hong Kong
Art Central, Hong Kong
Dr Sun Yat Sen Museum, Hong Kong
Space Museum, Hong Kong
Museum of Art, Hong Kong
Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney
Anzac Memorial Museum, Sydney
State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
Museum of Sydney, Sydney
Susannah Place Museum, Sydney
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney
Cockatoo Island, Sydney
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Canberra Museum and Gallery, Canberra
National Museum of Australia, Canberra
Australian War Memorial, Canberra
National Library of Australia, Canberra
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
National Film and Video Archive, Canberra
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
National Archives, Canberra
Museum of Australian Democracy, Canberra
Immigration Museum, Melbourne
Melbourne Old Gaol, Melbourne
Melbourne Museum, Melbourne
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
State Library of Victoria, Melbourne
Museo Reine Sofia, Madrid
XIII-Century House, Cordoba
Archaeological Museum, Seville
Museum of Popular Art and Folk Culture, Seville
Museo de la Real Maestranza de Caballera, Seville
General Archives of the Indies, Seville
The Chain House, Cadiz
Museo de San Juan de Deos, Granada
Alhambra, Granada

Right, back to the real world.

Around the world in 50 museums

In Museums on February 23, 2015 at 7:30 am

I’m taking some time out from the day job working on museums and visitor experience to take a round-the-world trip. Some might call it a sabbatical, but it’s actually more of a vacation.

Phileas Fogg was set the challenge of journeying around the world in 80 days. I’m doing it in 50, mostly because I can’t really justify taking 12 weeks off work. And also because the world is a smaller place now. I will cross paths with Fogg only twice – once in San Francisco and again in Hong Kong. It took him 28 days to get between the two cities – it’ll take me just over 11 hours.

But in Around the World in Eighty Days how many museums did Fogg visit? It’s been a while since I read it*, but I don’t recall many museums or galleries on his trip. I think he stopped at a landmark or two, but there were certainly no trips to the museum café or gift shop.

So, to bring the challenge up to date, I intend to try and visit 50 museums in 50 days on my travels. Fogg left London by train at 2045. I’ll be on Virgin Atlantic 1100 to Los Angeles, but like Fogg the clock starts when I leave the UK. We’ll see how I do.
If you want to keep up with progress, I’ll be posting the museums I visit on Instagram museumofsteve.

*I say read, I mean watched the movie and the cartoon adaptation.