Canberra National Gallery of Australia

We asked our hosts to see an Aboriginal exhibit. We’ve enjoyed our stay in Australia, but we wanted to give a nod to the native Australia culture. Off to the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) we went.

Bonus: museum is free. There was a traveling exhibit from the Tate (London) which required tickets but the rest is open to all. Knowing my history with art museums, we skipped the tickets.

NGA has two Australian exhibits of note: collections of Australian art. The collections varied from Victorian era Impressionist paintings to modern sculptures and photography.

Indigenous art. The pieces are also wide ranging in time period. NGA holds the largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art so I can imagine how much rotation they had. Interestingly, they had a warning at the entrance to their earlier pieces:

Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people are advised that they may see images and names of recently deceased Indigenous people. All such references have been reproduced with the permission of the appropriate representative family members, where possible. 

Definitely a cultural sensitivity.

NGA does not explain the differences between Indigenous groups. Their focus is exhibiting art, and giving necessary description of the artist and artwork. If one wishes to understand Aboriginal culture and tribes, this is not the place to come.

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Honeycombed Art in the Walls

The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha had some gorgeous displays, some just jaw dropping like a fully restored suit of armor for both the Ottoman soldier and the horse.

I barely noticed. I was completely riveted by the architecture, probably the largest and subtly incorporated Islamic art, in the name of architecture.

The Met explains geometry in Islamic art better than I ever can. Using a play on geometric shapes and patterns yields some stunning architecture as the UAE and Qatar are beginning to demonstrate. The mix of old, new, and structure as a medium was so wonderfully exhibited here and I kept sprinting through the many galleries so that I could emerge out of the dark corners to explore a different perspective of the main hall.

Brussels: Museum of Musical Instruments

I had just checked into my hotel in Brussels, at the tail end of my summer abroad. The last time I was in Brussels was over five years ago, on a day tour with my aunt. I remember the peeing statue, mussels, rain, and chocolate.

The owner of the hotel didn’t even wait for any questions to highly recommend I stop by the Museum of Musical Instruments.

I ended up spending the entire afternoon there until closing time. Given the relatively narrow streets, from the ground level, I wouldn’t have noticed the museum building. It was embedded in a row of old buildings, the dark glass walls making me think it was a corporate building.

It was just an year old when I went. And what an amazing place. A lot of exhibits were crammed into a relatively small space. The halls were dimly lit, giving a sense of endlessness. The lights were well placed to literally put a spotlight on the instruments. I did not encounter any other visitors.. and as I entered each segment of a hallways, the music correlated to the instruments features started playing. Talk about fantastic interior design and integration of modern technology into exhibitions.

Perhaps my having learnt to play musical instruments made me nerdy enough to enjoy the museum. I certainly spent a long time in the string section, seeing all the historical evolutions of the modern string instruments. Yet, I don’t believe one has to have musical background to appreciate the museum. What appealed to me when I heard about it besides a sincere rave report from a local was the fact that it was different. And the excellent design was a bonus.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Through

We literally had to crawl our way through a tunnel used by the Viet Cong at the Cu Chi Tunnels, for exhibit for visitors. The one we entered was widened for visitors, both the entrance and the tunnel itself. I may not have fit through the originals. Here, you can see a little dust on my slacks.. by the time I re-emerged to sea level, my daypack, the unfortunate sweater stuffed on top, my hair, shirt, face was completely coated by dust.

War is hell

I was reluctant to go to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh. I like museums in general; I don’t like venturing into the more somber ones in my free time. It took me five years of living in DC and an imminent move abroad before I girdled my loins to go into the Holocaust Museum.

While I was warned about it, the distinctly anti-American slant made me squirm. A lot. In the very first exhibit, the introduction was a quote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..” directly from the American Declaration of Independence. Throughout the exhibits, they managed to pull out many quotes from Westerners, largely Americans, to enhance their case. Quotes from American politicians campaigning against the Vietnam War during elections. Human Rights committees. The museum planners clearly had some professional help on top of the usual Asian slap-old-artifacts-in-a-building museum methodology.

Exhibits featured the Agent Orange and its long-lasting effects, casualty number comparisons between the Viet Cong and the Western troops (with rather low number of the South Vietnamese), range of weapons used by the Americans, and the atrocities of My Lai and other locations. Also featured was a mock building of the prison used by the South against the Viet Cong POWs.

I am, today, still ambivalent about my reception of the museum. I know very bluntly: I did not like it. I just can’t decide if my reaction is an emotional or a fair response. I love the Vietnam Memorial in DC. It is my favourite landmark on the Mall. Every time I visit, it makes me sad and grieve, as a memorial should. It’s not a happy reaction but heartfelt one. For this museum, though, I just don’t know.

In my years living abroad, I’ve learned to take in and acknowledge foreigners’ criticism of Americans, especially American foreign policy, in stride. This museum evoked a different reaction, though.  The logical part of me can’t deny all these terrible things that happened in Vietnam. A lot of people died. Some Americans acted terribly. Some tactics were brutal. I don’t know how or if one can draw the line between right or wrong in war. In retrospect, some tactics were clearly morally and humanely controversial. But was it clear at the moment?

The one-sidedness definitely raised my defensive hackles, perhaps more so because I am an American, and a very patriotic one at that. While I am of the post-Vietnam generation, I still find the history too recent to take it objectively. The war took a heavy toll on America, in mortality, morality, and ideology. Our veterans, young men then, came back with scars that time can’t always heal. So many never even made it back. We may not be blameless, but we were not antagonists in the simplest sense.

I’ve seen war-torn countries up close. I never leave with any clearer moral compass. More often than not, I leave more emotionally and psychologically torn. Sherman is right. War is hell. Pure hell for all involved.

Don’t do it: Karen Hill tribes

Many of you probably remember the National Geographic featuring the long-necked tribe in Sortheast Asia. Once I correlated the tribe with the region I am in, I was so excited to be able to go see them. The concept that we have tribes still practicing such exotic traditions in the world of global market and influence was so fascinating.

A bit of background: The Karen tribe is originally from within Myanmar borders. The women wear brass rings around their neck.. and add rings throughout their adolescence. It like the neck has been elongated, but in reality the collarbone and the ribs are being pushed down to a point that they need to keep the rings on to live.

As soon as we went to Chiang Rai, I booked a tour to see the hilltribes the next day. We then walked to the Hilltribe Museum (Which is a do, by the way) to get some background perspective. The museum was like a home-run shop. The exhibits were laid out in corked bulletin boards, laid out along the wall, like someone’s packrat attic room. No glass enclosures. Descriptions were printed in regular home printers and glued onto construction paper backing, taped into the wall. Yet, the museum was one of the best I’ve been to in Southeast Asia. Informative, factual, and narrative. Including a lot of warnings about the tours offered to see the hilltribes. None of the proceeds in the typical tours go towards the villages that the people ask to go gawk at. And more often than not, the villages were notified that they would become the subject of that gawking.

The Karen tribes were worse. The notion that the Karens migrated to Thailand to flee the Burmese.. If it ever was true, it was a long enough time ago. The current “tribes” people see are imported. Businessmen bring in the women, not the men since they look normal, into Thailand, knowing that they are subjects of great tourist curiosity. The “villages” aren’t real. They are just artificial sites of tourist traps. In reality the neck ring tradition has been dying out.

We walked out of the museum highly enlightened but feeling like scum encouraging the black human market. The actual visit the next day validated that and clarified what articles meant by calling it a “human zoo”. The women were placed in a windy path of huts. The huts were three-walled bamboo structures with a loom on one side for the women to weave, in full view of visitors. The other half had the woven scarves hung up  and a area for the women to sit prettily to be seen. Supposedly the only means the women earn are from the scarves they sell, so we bought them up by the bunch. They were different from the usual mass produced “handmade Thai silk” in the markets, and truly interesting, but admittedly we did it out of our guilt as well.

My curiosity got the worst of me. To future visitors, I warn: don’t do it. Not only does is encourage the human trade and cruel marketing of women, it wasn’t even a good visit. A strong sense of artificiality, fakeness permeated the whole place.