Viewing: museums

Stedelijk Museum bookshop & ABC3D

For me, no museum visit is complete without a stop at the bookshop. Amsterdam’s museums have terrific ones, and the ever business-savvy Dutch have cleverly ensured that at the major museums (the Van Gogh, Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk), visitors can access the bookshops without having to buy a ticket to the museum itself.

Our family trip to the Stedelijk ended, naturally, with a visit to the museum’s stunning shop.

Stedelijk Museum bookshop

Not only does it look like a really nice place to just sit and browse art books…

Stedelijk bookshop

but it also has a great little selection of design gifts and goodies. I had my “mommy glasses” on (the parental equivalent of beer goggles) and zeroed in immediately on the children’s section, which has design-y books in English, Dutch and—my personal favorite—children’s books that can be read in any language.

This is how I found Tala’s first alphabet: a pop-up book called ABC3D by Parisian graphic designer Marion Bataille.

Marion Bataille ABC3D

The holographic cover alone promises something different. This isn’t your ordinary alphabet!

Marion Bataille ABC3D holographic cover

I love pop-up books for the sense of fun and surprise they bring to reading, and ABC3D combines those elements with some seriously cool type design. I looked for our family’s initials and took a few shots to show you.

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Stedelijk Museum

My visit to the Berlinische Galerie with Tala last June gave me the confidence to try something a bit bigger, closer to home. One weekend, Marlon and I took the baby to the Stedelijk Museum, the Netherlands’ largest museum of contemporary art and design.

The Stedelijk reopened in September of 2012 after an eight-year renovation, with a new visual identity and somewhat controversial new architecture. Personally, I can’t help but think “bathtub” or “kitchen sink” every time I pass by, and I know I’m not the only one!

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

But once inside, it’s easy to appreciate the rethinking of the entire space.

Stedelijk Museum lobby2

Parts of the old brick building from the 1890s are still visible in the lobby, successfully merging the past and future.

Stedelijk Museum lobby1

Shall we step inside?

Stedelijk Museum ticket

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Berlinische Galerie

After Tala’s birth, I find myself approaching things that I used to do pre-baby almost as if I was doing them for the first time. Whether it’s going out on a date to traveling, part of me is now more cautious and curious—can I still do this or that thing that I loved to do? How will that experience change for me now that I have a baby?

So I really wanted to visit a museum while in Berlin. Marlon and I love museums—as boyfriend and girlfriend, we used to have sketching dates at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, and we always try to include a museum in every city trip that we do.

We love art museums in particular. An art museum seems like a quiet and contemplative temple, where silence is required for the thoughtful consideration of art. You never want to be the mom with the screaming baby anywhere, much less in a cavernous space that’s prone to echoes. But, inspired by Jenni Fuchs’ awesome post on kids in museums, I decided I had to try.

Berlinische Galerie

For my starter museum-with-baby visit, I chose the Berlinische Galerie, a museum of modern art, photography and architecture in Kreuzberg.

Berlinische Galerie-foyer

It’s a beautiful space, all cool, white concrete, definitely a good one to be in on a sweltering summer day. With just two floors, it’s a small and manageable museum, perfect for a few free hours in Kreuzberg.

Berlinische Galerie architecture stairs

Some of my favorite works from the museum’s collection included Emilio Vedova’s Absurd Berlin Diary, which was like walking in a landscape of paintings that had been freed from walls.

Absurd Berlin Diary by Emilio Vedova

At the time of my visit, the collection showed 100 years of art in Berlin, from 1880 to 1980. Turn-of-the-century Berlin was almost innocent in its art…

Lying Nude (1889) by Lesser Ury

Lying Nude (1889), Lesser Ury

… but the two World Wars changed all that.

Berlinische Galerie The Conformist-Mourning Mothers

The Conformist Turned Wild (1920), George Grosz & John Heartfield;
Mourning Mothers (1948), Fritz Cremer

The belle epoque of languid, glowing nudes disappeared, and the broken soldiers and mourning mothers of wartime took its place. I was struck by how politically charged the art became, and what a dark and complex history Berlin’s artists had to wrestle with. Another layer of this amazing city, peeled back and revealed for me to ponder.

I savored a couple of good, contemplative hours in the Berlinische Galerie—and when Tala started to cry, I didn’t get any dirty looks from anyone! I just sat facing a wall without any art, facing away from people, and nursed her in that cool, white space. It was pretty relaxing, actually. On my way out, one of the museum staff even helpfully pointed out the changing room for me to use.

So, museum with baby: check! I think I have the confidence to attempt a bigger one next time. The newly renovated Rijksmuseum, perhaps?

Maritime Museum

A visit to Het Scheepvaart Museum, or the National Maritime Museum, was something Marlon and I have had on our Amsterdam must-do list for some time. Since it was just a few minutes’ walk from our date night restaurant, we decided to go before dinner.

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The museum is housed in a gorgeous building called the Arsenal, a massive warehouse built in the 1600s, when Amsterdam was the world’s largest, wealthiest and busiest port. It was closed for extensive renovations in 2007, and reopened just this year. Inside, it still maintains the look and feel of a 17th-century warehouse…

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… with the exception of the stunning glass ceiling over the Open Courtyard, inspired by the stars that old-time sailors used to navigate the seas.

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True to form, Marlon and I were late and only had one hour to explore before closing time at 5pm. So if your trip or stopover in Amsterdam is a short one, and you find yourself with only one hour to spare for this museum (which is just one bus stop from Centraal Station, by the way), this is what you should do:

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Essential Florence: 6 Sights You Shouldn’t Miss

Florence is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited. The entire city is a work of art, and completely brought the Renaissance to life for me. We stayed in a great Airbnb flat a short walk from the Centro Storico, where most of Florence’s cultural jewels are concentrated.

After just four days, I feel like I barely scratched the surface of this amazing city and wish I could’ve done more off the tourist trail. Having said that, the “tourist circuit” is deluged with visitors for a reason, and is truly worth every bit of time and money. Here’s my list of must-sees in Florence:

The Uffizi Gallery. Home to one of the largest and oldest private art collections in the Western word, the Uffizi Gallery contains masterpieces amassed by the powerful and wealthy (understatement of the century) Medici clan.

Uffizi Gallery1

Works by the who’s who of Italian art, such as Titian, Caravaggio, Giotto and yes, all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all reside here. The true revelation for me here was Botticelli; though I felt as if I’d seen The Birth of Venus a hundred times in pop culture, nothing prepared me for the impact of the real thing. (Plus: you can get a lot closer to Venus than you can to Mona Lisa.)

Uffizi Gallery2

Top tips: book tickets ahead at the Musei Firenze website to skip the queue, which can stretch for hours. The site is slow, but totally worth it. Allot at least three hours to soak up the full wealth and wonder of the Renaissance. Be prepared for Stendhal syndrome (as I experienced at the Vatican Museum); it’s best not to schedule anything visually heavy before or after. You’ll need your eyeballs rested for this one.

Also, the Uffizi Gallery has the best, biggest museum bookshop I’ve been in—not just for art and architecture, but also a great selection of kids’ literature, fiction and nonfiction.

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Pergamon Museum: marble & man-bags in Berlin

Sometimes, stupidity can result in happy accidents. It’s rare, but it happens… and it happened to me in Berlin.

Focused entirely on the warm weekend to come, I was completely, stupidly underdressed for the first two days of my trip. I knew I should be out seeing the city, but was grumpy at the thought of being cold. “Let’s go to a museum,” suggested my clever husband, who is always highly invested in preventing my grumpiness.

So we chose to visit the Pergamon Museum, which stands at the tip of Museuminsel, an island on the river Spree that houses five museums and is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Berlin Pergamon Museum

The Pergamon Museum is probably not a top-of-mind name like the Louvre in Paris or the Met in New York. It houses no famous masterpieces or household names in art. That doesn’t make it any less breathtaking. In fact, I’d say it was of the most awe-inspiring museum experiences I’ve had.

What the Pergamon Museum does have are monumental reconstructions of ancient buildings—such as its showpiece, the Pergamon Altar. The little rectangle on the map marked simply “Altar Room” could not have prepared me for this.

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Mucha on my mind

How was your Easter weekend? Mine was quiet and laid-back, made all the better by the company of a wonderful guest from home.
Just one last Prague post before I move on. I couldn’t leave Prague without having paid a visit to the Mucha Museum, which houses the major works of one of my favorite artists, Alphonse Mucha.
One of my favorite coloring books when I was a kid was my Art Nouveau stained glass coloring book from Goodwill Bookstore. To this day, I love Art Nouveau, and Mucha is Art Nouveau.
When I started working at GMA, I considered it destiny that I ended up in an office where the glass walls of the pantry were plastered with a huge mural of Mucha’s Dance (above). I managed to transmit my Mucha fixation to my work partner Charlie, an insanely talented art director who also tended to obsession. Mucha’s Dance became the jump-off point for a slew of Art Nouveau-inspired outdoor and print materials for a big account that took over our lives. I wish I kept copies of Charlie’s work, it was all so gorgeous.

Mucha’s work is not high art, but it is beautiful. Though he painted, most of his work was fairly commercial: from theater posters to advertisements for champagne and milk to biscuit tins. Many examples of his work, like Spring, Grapes, the poster for Lorenzaccio, and The Slav Epic (all of which I saw at the museum) today are in the public domain.

It was amazing to come face to face with works that I had only seen as small pictures in books, and realize that they are actually HUGE. Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed inside the Mucha Museum. So I had to settle for taking photos outside. That day, I was in “simple girl” mode with the Longchamp bag and ponytail, although I would hope the Marni for H&M top elevates it somewhat.
I took home a few postcards of my favorite works.

My favorite souvenir, though, was this handmade notebook. I love notebooks, so this was perfect for me. But it was also very unusual in that it harbored a few hidden treasures. Click on through to peek inside…


Details from Mucha pieces are stencilled and printed inside.

Random quotes are stamped inside. This one about writing called to me, naturally.

What I really loved, though were the pages from old Czech books, together with vintage Czech photos, that were bound with the blank pages. And at the very end, snail mail from the sixties.

It was the perfect purchase: Mucha’s art and a trip to a Prague flea market all bound up in one neat, locally handmade package. If only more museum shop souvenirs were this creative!

Antwerp by day, Antwerp by night

Marlon and I recently had a weekend visit from his cousin Yeho, who lives in Heidelberg, Germany. At her behest (and with her car), we drove down to Antwerp for the day. I’ve always wanted to go, and the car was the catalyst for me to finally overcome my inertia. Clocking in at just 2.5 hours, it’s a really easy drive. Yes, Belgium is the new Batangas.

We left at around noon and arrived in the center of town in time for a late lunch, and started the drive back a little after dinnertime. Having two meals in Antwerp was of paramount importance, since Belgium smacks the Netherlands to the ground in terms of cuisine.

For me, a visit to Belgium is not complete without a large pot of mussels, a Belgian beer, and a fantastic dessert—usually a dame blanche (“white lady”), a childhood favorite of mine and the Belgian equivalent of a hot fudge sundae. Some say it’s a Catholic vs Protestant thing, while others ascribe it to proximity to France, but whatever the reason is, I am gobsmacked by how meals can be so radically different just across the border!

In between meals, we strolled, shopped and saw a few sights. With only a few hours at our disposal, we barely scratched the surface. Luckily, we were parked right in the center of town, so leaving the car in the afternoon and returning to it at in the evening gave us the opportunity to see some of Antwerp’s iconic buildings in two distinct lights.

The Cathedral of Our Lady was closed, so we missed out on some of Peter Paul Rubens’ most famous works housed within. We did get nice day vs night views of this impressive Gothic structure…

… as well Grote Markt, or Old Market Square. It was a smaller-scale version of Brussels’ Grand Place, with similar gabled guild houses. A big difference is in what it’s called; I didn’t see any signs pointing to a Grand Place here. Being so close to the Netherlands, Dutch is more widely spoken in Antwerp than French; our smattering of Nederlands actually helped us get around and read menus. Here’s the Grote Markt by day… 
… and by night. If the perpetual rain is good for anything, it’s for making cobblestones gleam. 
On one side of the Grote Markt is the Stadhuis, or City Hall. Again, by day… 
… and by night. 
Driving into the city, our curiosities were piqued by this stunning building. It turned out to be the Museum aan de Stroom, or MAS, a museum about the city of Antwerp “and its relationship with the world.”  (Iiiiiinteresting.) Built by famous Belgian architects Neutelings Riedijk, Antwerp’s history as an important port city inspired this design of shipping containers stacked in a spiral. We returned in the evening, but the museum was already closed; this definitely warrants a return trip! 

Fortunately, the surrounding quayside, Het Eilandje (“The Islet”), was also a good area to end up in, being a former port area with interesting bars and restaurants. It was hard to get into a restaurant without a reservation, but we managed to find a table at a great bar called Het Duvels Genot (literally, “The Duvel Enjoyment”… kind of like the Heineken Experience, I guess). 
I’ve learned to expect crappy food when I walk into a bar in Amsterdam, but Belgium thoroughly has a leg up in this area. We had an awesome meal cooked with a variety of beers from the Duvel brewery, with hearty portions and reasonable prices. It was another one of those times where I was so involved with my food, I totally forgot to take pictures. Definitely a good reason (of many!) to make a return trip.

From Borghese to Trevi

From a superturbocharged first day, our level of activity slowed down with each passing day we spent in Rome. We became less ambitious with each day’s itinerary, hitting the snooze button more times and dawdling longer and longer in our blessedly cool, thick-walled, marble-tiled apartment. 
So by the time our fourth day rolled around, it was nearly lunchtime by the time we set off for Villa Borghese, the sprawling gardens-turned-public park that once belonged to the powerful and wealthy Borghese family. We stopped for lunch at the Piazza del Popolo.

The Galleria Borghese was the “party house” of Scipione Borghese, a nephew of Pope Paul V. Borghese used his wealth and influence to amass a truly stunning collection of art. I was excited to finally see the works of artists I had only seen in books, such as Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael and Rubens.

Tickets for the museum need to be reserved well in advance over the phone. An Italian colleague of Marlon’s had helped us call the Galleria Borghese to reserve tickets for that day’s 1 to 3pm time slot. The administration is strict and will shoo everyone out after the allotted 2 hours are over.

The Galleria Borghese is simply jawdropping from the first step in. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden—but if it wasn’t, I’d be all over it with my camera.

Scipione Borghese was one of the earliest patrons of master sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini, whose signature is all over Rome. It was in Galleria Borghese that I came face to face with the true genius of Bernini. His Apollo and Daphne is, without exaggeration, the most beautifully sculpted piece of art I’ve ever seen in my life. I must have spent half an hour just looking at it, and could have easily stayed longer. 
His Pluto and Proserpina in the next room is completely different, but just as captivating.

Photos from the Galleria Borghese website—they simply don’t do them justice!
After our museum visit, Marlon and I decided to just take it easy and cool off under the shade of the trees around the Villa Borghese. 

Our curiosity was piqued by the small, funny “tandem bike” buggies that rattled by us every now and then. “That looks like fun!” Marlon said. So we had to give it a try.

The buggies turned out to be electric riscios (rickshaws), that, along with regular bikes, can be rented on an hourly basis. 

Marlon and I rattled around the park for a good 45 minutes or so until we spotted something so tempting, we just had to park our riscio, get down and enjoy it.

A public fountain! After four days of broiling heat and constant walking, I can’t tell you what a treat it was to perch on the lip of this fountain and dip my poor footsies into this clear, ice-cold water. It is a miracle of Rome that the water in its fountains is always shockingly cold no matter how hot it gets.

I was obviously not the only one who felt this way. But I just couldn’t bring myself to take it to the next level!

Refreshed and rejuvenated, we returned the riscio and headed to the Piazza Spagna, or the famous Spanish Steps, starting all the way at the top for a sweeping view…

… stopping for a photo op, naturally…

… until we ended up all the way at the bottom, with the rest of the 48,000 tourists and their mothers who were there. #mobbed

Everyone was taking photos of this fountain just because it was there, so I did too. #sheep

Just a few streets away was the great granddaddy of all fountains, the Trevi. I didn’t expect it to be so… BIG!

The Trevi Fountain was completely mobbed, too. The crowd was overwhelming, so I just found an empty spot to sit down for a while before even taking a single picture. I may have lost count of how many people did the “tossing a coin into the fountain” pose, but I give all them an O for Originality!

Night at the Musei

Just for peak season this year (Easter till early fall), the Vatican Museums opened their doors to the public on Friday nights. What used to be a very expensive privilege became a brilliant way for Marlon and I to beat the debilitating daytime heat and experience the Museums in an unusual way.
So I signed us up for a two-hour night tour of the highlights with an official Musei Vaticani guide. At €24, tickets from the Musei Vaticani website itself were the cheapest ones around. We were lucky to nab tickets only days before our visit.

Our official Vatican guide, Alexandra, was not only extremely knowledgeable and thorough, she also had amazing voluminous hair despite looking rather dead on her feet at 10pm. 

The Musei Vaticani house the vast art collection of the Catholic Church, a treasure trove that’s been amassed over centuries.

The magnitude of the collection is mind-boggling in itself. The Museum’s various galleries (only some of which are open at night) hold everything from ancient sculptures and priceless paintings, to more unusual things like maps and tapestries. 
Not all the art was centuries old. We only just breezed through the contemporary section, but I glimpsed large-scale works by the likes of Dali and Matisse, among many others. 
If you think the art is overwhelming, the decoration and ornamentation of the galleries themselves will make your head spin. By the end of the evening, I literally felt like my eyeballs were going to pop out (it’s a very… interesting feeling). There is art in every possible nook and cranny, masterpieces everywhere from floor…
… to ceiling.

My friend Jec asked, “Is it more mind-boggling than Versailles?” I snorted. The Vatican Museums make Versailles look positively minimalist.
And yes, I had to wrestle with that a bit. After my very emotional afternoon at St. Peter’s, thinking about the value of the art and—oh, you know this one—how much good it can do for the suffering of the world brought me crashing down. 
I know any of us in such a position to amass all these these treasures would keep them for as long as we possibly could. But this is an all too human instinct from a Church that professes to be divine. I wonder if a Musei Vaticani auction is something we will ever see in our lifetime. 
Since they are not exactly easy to sell, the masterpieces that are fixed to the buildings themselves are somewhat easier to think about. 
These are some of the Vatican Museums’ greatest treasures: ceilings and walls adorned with frescoes by Raphael.
I was glad to have my wide-angle lens, but these pictures cannot even come close to doing these ceilings justice.
How Raphael brought theology, history and even mathematics and philosophy together in his art was simply genius.

At the point where my eyeballs were about to fall out of their sockets, we entered the world’s most famous chapel with the world’s most famous ceiling. I managed to snap this photo before I saw the sign forbidding photography. 
It’s just as well that photography is not allowed; sometimes we forget to experience things with our own eyes, and not through a viewfinder or lens.

So I just threw my head back and stayed that way, eyes glued to the ceiling, for about 20 whole minutes. I tried to drink in as many details as I could. I simply didn’t want to forget. And I don’t think I ever will.