Art Everywhere, All the Time


Image courtesy of Elena Chapman. Licensed under CC BY SA 2.0.

I spent the past week and some change in London, my first visit there. It was, as you might imagine, an excellent trip for my flavor of nerd. So many museums! Free museums! With type specimens! So many type specimens.

I mean really. Y’all, on a whim, I visited the British Library. In their “treasures room,” I saw—in no particular order—the notated manuscript draft for Jane Eyre, a Gutenberg Bible, Austen’s hand-written draft of Persuasion, a letter by Darwin, a hand-written Sylvia Plath poem, and two (two!) of the original copies of the Magna Carta. This was in a single room, and doesn’t even include the section of books that were included just as art objects (they were, as you might imagine, covered in gilt and beautiful). In the room downstairs, I got to see one of Neil Gaiman’s original Sandman scripts.

I wandered into the Natural History Museum and saw mounts of Darwin’s pigeons and the type specimen for archaeopteryx. (That building, by the way, has dinosaurs and monkeys and beetles carved into the walls.) Halfway down the block I popped in the science museum and, after seeing a display of the sculpture that James Watt apparently took up after inventing steam engines, wandered upstairs, where I promptly lost my shit in front of Babbage’s reconstructed difference engine.

(Such a nerd am I that not only was I aware of Babbage’s part of things, but I had actually read a book about building that particular reconstruction of the difference engine, written by one of the people who spearheaded the project. Did you know that Babbage intentionally put half of the parts backwards in his plans, to confuse would-be copyright infringers?)

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I Went to Crystal Bridges (and I Didn’t Totally Hate It)

A picture of Walmart


I spend a week each winter in the Ozarks. Along with moving me back into Pepsi country, my family’s location near Fayetteville, Arkansas gives me front row seats to the strangeness that is Walmart money. Though the company is sort of fundamentally evil (and, unlike Coke, doesn’t fund my university*), the Waltons are present in some legitimately cool places in town. It’s hard to throw a stone and find a building that doesn’t have the Walton name painted somewhere on the front. Their money built the Fayetteville arts center, for example, and it’s hard for me to hate an arts center.

More recently, Alice Walton (daughter of Sam, the Walmart founder) decided to build an arts museum in Bentonville**. It’s entirely an American art museum, it’s funded seemingly entirely by companies that my hippie self is obligated to hate***, and it has the somewhat revolting name of Crystal Bridges. This year, my family got together and visited.

As much as I wanted to dislike the museum, I found it difficult to. It’s funded entirely by awful companies, but it’s also a completely free museum in the midwest. And—in part because of who made the museum—the collection is large and interesting. And when my family went, we didn’t just see the same folks you see at the High Museum here in Atlanta, who—in part due to the fact that it is really expensive—tend to share an outward class demeanor.

Based on the conversations I overheard, the people who were around us came from a variety of economic backgrounds. Most of them were not comparing the collection to other museums, leading me to assume that for reasons of money or distance this is probably the first reasonably accessible major museum most of them have been to in some time (or they’re just less judgey than the people I know, which is always an option).

I want to be annoyed by a museum that has Walton money all over it and a stupid name, but it is also so cool to me that they are using their money to at least make people recognize the midwest as a feasible destination for arts tourism—particularly when the American focus of the museum also encourages a consideration of Native American history and culture (albeit as portrayed by Euro-Americans, primarily) as a valid focus of cultural activity. The anthropologist in me approves of that.

The museum isn’t without its share of worrisome income streams. But, it also doesn’t suck. For those who are in Arkansas for one reason or another, the collection is definitely worth a look. If nothing else, there are two portraits of George Washington, and that’s pretty darn Ameri-tastic.

* Go Eagles!

** A town previously distinguished by having a neat toy shop and being the home of Walmart.

*** Goldman Sachs, Walmart, Tyson, and GE all feature prominently on an entryway wall.