How to be a museum curator

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What you’ll need: an art history degree

Songlist: Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer, The Art Teacher by Rufus Wainwright

Further reading: The Night at the Museum by Milan Trenc, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (but don’t actually read this one)

Monet's waterlilies curve around the specially designed rooms of Musee L'Orangerie in Paris

Yesterday my boyfriend and I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for a family-friendly event called ¡España! I had been lured by the promise of flamenco guitar in the galleries. Since I was fairly sure I would know the guitarist(s)–the Twin Cities flamenco community is not all that big–I was more interested in the concept of looking at art with flamenco guitar as a backdrop than the music itself. After wandering around the galleries waiting to hear guitar strings vibrating in the vicinity, we finally just asked a docent where to find the guitarist. He pointed back the way we came: all the way to the end of the hall, take a left, and all the way to the end of that hall. We wound up in a bright white atrium–no art on the walls–facing an empty black chair with a microphone forlornly angled at the floor and a sign saying “Flamenco guitar: 12 pm-4pm.” I looked at my watch: 3:15 pm.

The day was not a total waste, though, because I always love wandering the Institute’s halls. We walked past old favorites–the easy to love Monet haystack and Van Gogh olive trees, the more violent Max Beckmann triptych that my mom and I discovered last April–and temporary galleries of photography and modern art.

It wasn’t always like this. When I was a kid and it was one of my parents’ birthdays or we had a visitor from out-of-town, we would invariably go to the MIA. I was not bored by the art at the time, but I always assumed beforehand that I would be; this assumption, voiced in protest to my parents, meant that I could not thereafter be seen enjoying myself at the art museum.

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)

Perhaps it was when I visited London with my mom at the age of 14 that I suddenly realized how much I do enjoy being at art museums. We went to the National Gallery and I fell in love with two paintings there: Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm and The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche. Because they were the first paintings I truly loved, they are still the paintings I love best.

And while I haven’t fallen quite so hard for any other painting, I have been strongly affected many times since while touring art museums: at Madrid’s Reina Sofia I stood shocked at Picasso’s Guernica and felt intensely nostalgic in front Dali’s Muchacha de Espalda. I felt awed by the gigantic water lily paintings that wrap around two ovular galleries in the Musee L’Orangerie in Paris. And I was giddy with excitement seeing Van Gogh’s Starry Night in person at the MoMA.

The best experience I had, though, was a thirty-minute jaunt through the Louvre on a Friday evening with my friend Hilary. Admission was free for those under 26 on Friday evenings, and we’d meant to get there earlier but had dallied. This also happened to be a night where musicians were scattered around the vast palaces. Hilary and I raced past a jazz trio playing in front of an Egyptian pyramid, a violinist in the Great Hall, a brass quartet by the Venus de Milo. It was this beautiful phantasmagoria of color and sound made more exciting by the fact that we were actually, literally, running through the Louvre to take it all in.

What I can’t fathom is how incredible it would be to work in these buildings, to patrol the corridors where incredible art hangs, to have meetings down the hall from John Singer Sargent or El Greco or Caravaggio. Does a curator become complacent about the scenery? It seems doubtful. I imagine that being in that setting day after day would be like a perpetual dream…flamenco guitar or not.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

Diseases in history

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John Snow's map of cholera cases

I had a fabulous pair of books as a kid, Earthsearch and Explorabook, that introduced me to magnetism, light rays, bacteria, optical illusions, and all sorts of other cool stuff. One of the most memorable sections was about John Snow, a nineteen-century British physician. During the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, Snow mapped out the occurrences of infections and found they all centered around a water pump, leading him to believe contaminated water was the cause of the disease. He convinced officials to break off the handle of the pump, which effectively ended the outbreak. Now snow is regarded as one of the fathers of epidemiology.

In a 2008 book, Irwin Sherman names cholera as one of the twelve diseases that have changed the course of human history. Some of the diseases he picks are important not only for the devastation they’ve caused, but also for the innovations that have led to their treatment. For instance, the fight against tuberculosis promoted the use of pasteurization and the search for antibiotics. Likewise, the science of vaccination was developed to combat smallpox.

Mad King George

Other diseases are important for their sociopolitical effects, such as the genetic blood disorders of hemophilia and porphyria. Due to incestuous bloodlines, the Russian Romanov dynasty and Spanish royal families were overcome by hemophilia and died out. The Bolsheviks rose in Russia, and Francisco Franco took over Spain. Meanwhile, many British monarchs suffered from Porphyria, also known as the Vampire Disease, which can have neurological complications as well as the physical symptoms that gave rise to vampiric stereotypes (pronounced teeth, skin sensitivity to sunlight, an aversion to garlic). King George III was retroactively diagnosed with porphyria, which may explain his mental illness and the reason why he lost control over the New World.

Epidemics are often caused by the movement of people and introduction of foreign flora and fauna to new environments. Thus, there is cause for concern with the ever increasing globalization of trade and the ease of foreign travel in the present day. However, we have also become ever more adept at treating outbreaks, at least in the developed world. Epidemics now seem to highlight the divide between first and third world countries. After the hurricane in Haiti, almost 5,000 people died from cholera due to poor sanitation–a problem that is both preventable and treatable. Though the sociopolitical implications change over time, disease will continue to shape our history and future.

Artisanal cheeses

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Let’s play a game. I’ll give you the adjective, you tell me the first noun that pops into your head: unrequited; scarlet; artisanal. You are correct if you answered: love; letter; cheese. (Yes, there are correct answers in this game and yes, this post will be my love letter to cheese).

The author, at left, in a Wisconsin cheese hat (much to the chagrin of her Minnesota Vikings brethren)

I’ve had meals the world over consisting of not much more than cheese. I flew to meet a friend in Milwaukee, where we found an incredible beer-and-cheese restaurant. Wisconsin specializes in dairy products and beer (I could make fun of the fact that they’ve also topped the nation’s obesity list, but now that I’m dating a Wisconsinite I’ll refrain…oops, too late) so we delighted over our Milwaukee microbrews and local cheddars. It was a perfect dinner.

While visiting a friend in Paris, we dined at many fine French restaurants before deciding that all we really needed was cheese and wine. We bought a baguette, a bottle of red, and several packages of cheese so fine they’re illegal to import into the US. We took our picnic to a pedestrian bridge right by the Louvre that is inhabited every night by Parisian hipsters, all with their own 40s and guitars and dreadlocks and roller skates.

Eating cheese on a Parisian bridge like a true hipster

And, when spending a week with a British family in London, I was thrilled to find that dessert every night was a board of select cheeses and bowls of fruit sprinkled liberally with sugar. (Picture an elderly British gentleman sitting back in his chair and exclaiming, “Well, dear, shall we bring out the cheese board, then?”)

There is an art to cheese making, which you know if you’ve ever read any of Brian Jacque’s Redwall series, and which I had the unexpected pleasure of learning just before college graduation. I was sitting on my front porch on a beautiful Saturday when a friend emerged from our house and asked me to bike to Dartmouth’s organic farm with her. The fact that I had never been there in my four years was a source of shame to me, so I immediately agreed (and then begged around the house to borrow a bike).

We chose an excellent time to arrive, as student workers were just about to start a mozzarella demonstration. We were given milk, rennet, citric acid, and a pot to heat it all up. After letting it set, we cut the curds up, strained out the whey with a cheesecloth, and added salt. We were all amazed at how tiny a ball of mozzarella emerged from two gallons of milk. I was also amazed at how good our cheese tasted. We ate our cheese that afternoon with bread baked fresh at the farm and water from our Nalgenes. And you know what? It was perfect.

Excuse me for a minute, I’m going to go refill my wine glass and slice some cheese…