I’ve finally realized that I am addicted to traveling. Perhaps because I embrace the opportunity to be a fleeting resident in a new place where I am willingly sucked into someone else’s world. A world where – for the time being – there is no laundry waiting, no dishes to be done, and no bills to be paid.
I want to pretend that this new and exotic world is mine, if only for a few days. I want it all, actually, because somehow I also want to figure out how to transform my visit from something fleeting and touristy into a long-term, measurable connection. But how? Because honestly, as much as we strive to know about these places we visit, how much do we really know?
I find myself wandering tiny streets, optimistically searching for that café or restaurant where only the locals go so I can somehow meet them and understand their spirit. And let’s face it – this is not an easy task. These places are not on google maps. Or on tripadvisor.
So after many fruitless attempts at this technique, I have gladly settled for the next best thing. Which is actually not settling at all really. It has become my favorite activity in every city I go.
The places I go to instead of the elusive “locals only” spots are on google maps. And they are probably in your travel books too. I guess it sounds too good to be true. And maybe it is, because maybe you aren’t going to like my answer. The place that I go in every new city I visit in order to understand and connect with the city, is the local art museum.
Yes, I get it. At face value museums can seem uptight, cold, and uninteresting. Boring perhaps is the best word. But I beg to differ. Far from being a victim of bad lighting and boring docent lectures, my museum visits over the last year have often been the highlight of my travels. Favorites range from Baltimore’s provoking American Visionary Art Museum, to Winslow Homer’s rugged New England beach landscapes at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, to the overwhelming Monet exhibit at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, and the passionate permanent collection at the El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem.
What is most fascinating about these museums, and what subsequently prompted me to write this blog post, is each of them are about as different as you and me. Why? Because within their walls rest objects created by people. These objects each have an individual story to be told. But the true fascination comes from seeing them grouped together in permanent or temporary exhibits, as the collective story they tell reflects the personality of the city and the individuals that make up the city you are visiting. Seriously.
On my current tour of the US, I’ve spent my evenings hanging out with friends and loved ones, and my days wandering the halls of my favorite art museums. I know, I can’t complain. My trip thus far has included New York, Washington DC, and Chicago. I return to the museums here over and over again. They are amazing. But each one is very different, and their differences are related to the cities they call home. Understanding their differences is about getting to know what makes each of these cities tick. Here’s why I love each of them.
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
The American Spirit
Chicago is one of my favorite cities in the world, and its museums haven’t let me down. It is a city that embodies the resilience and graciousness of the American spirit like no other city in America, and these qualities are skillfully mirrored in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago through combinations of masterpieces like Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, and Mary Cassatt’s The Child’s Bath, among many others. All of this amazingness on the backdrop of a beautiful building steps away from fabulous Millennium Park. It is really no wonder why this museum is one of my favorite museums in the world.
Subsequently, it was quite àpropos that in this museum, wandering the endless maze of Roy Lichtenstein‘s work last Thursday, I had one of those light bulb moments where I finally came to understand a museum’s unique ability to poignantly capture the essence of the city it calls home. Seeing the Lichtenstein exhibit taught me the importance of comics and comic art in the cultural heritage of Chicago in a way that I never would have understood otherwise. Hurry up because the exhibit closes soon.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Diversity and Humanity
When I realized that Harry and Sally spent an afternoon here in a scene of one of my favorite movies of all time, When Harry Met Sally, it confirmed that I was not alone in my love for this place. But how could I ever think I would be? Like the Art Institute of Chicago, a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an experience both in and out of the building. There is nothing like approaching the Metropolitan Museum of Art and witnessing hundreds of people treating the steps of this magnificent building like their own front porch. Sitting outside in the sun, dancing and painting on the sidewalk, entering and exiting the museum in a flurry of positive activity. People of all shapes and sizes happily co-habiting and epitomizing the je ne sais quoi of New York, where constant wonder shocks you in the realization of the diversity of humanity. All this on the backdrop of the sheer awe of the scale of the museum building and its collection representing in perfect form the grandeur of New York City. The museum’s permanent collection of art and artifacts is just as diverse and grand as the outside. So much so, there is little my words can do to convey the experience. There is truly something for everybody here – from fashion to Egyptian architecture. Just like New York City, you can literally find the world in this museum. You just have to go.
The National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum, Washington DC
Stately and democratic
I have never met more new people in one day on vacation than during a day spent at the National Portrait Gallery. No matter how much I love a museum, no appreciation I have can ever compare to what I feel for this place. This is, hands down, my favorite museum.
Believe me, the first time I visited this place I was just as surprised by my reaction as you might be. But the reason is very clear – while the connotation of the word “portrait” might call up ancient images of boring rich people who you have no interest in, this place proves that everything you expected to feel about a portrait is unfounded. This is a museum whose purpose is understanding people through art. A docent here once told me that the museum is half art and half history, as understanding each portrait is to enjoy the artistic quality as well as absorb the story behind each of people in the paintings and to understand our own history more succinctly. Mirroring the role of the city it calls home, this museum truly represents not just the nation’s capital but the United States as a whole. In a true exercise of cultural democracy, the Portrait Gallery proudly displays portraits from the most stately politicians to your next door neighbor. Here and only here is it possibly for a person like me to meet everyone from George Washington to George Bush to the founder of the Girl Scouts, and finish my visit by strolling through 180 portraits of residents from the Iowa hometown of portrait artist Rose Frantzen.
And it gets better. The National Portrait Gallery shares space with the American Art Museum. As you wander the halls of the Portrait Gallery you will find yourself mistakenly wandering into a hallway belonging to the American Art Museum. Wait, did I say mistake? I wish I made mistakes like this more often. After seeing Norman Rockwell at his finest two years ago, I began wondering if I needed to reserve two spots on my number one favorite museums list. Last week my delight with this museum surpassed everything I’ve ever seen here, with the best collection of photography I have enjoyed in years as part of the African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond exhibit. My suspicions are officially confirmed, and I now have two number one faves.
But my favorite afternoons in Washington, DC are actually spent both inside and outside the museum on its dramatic steps in the center of Chinatown. Coincidentally – or maybe not so coincidentally – this museum joins the ranks of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art with its urban proximity to the spirit of the city.
Gee, what more could I ask for? Hope you too can find your favorite places in the next city you visit. 🙂