Half Days at the Museums

In Manhattan, I visited three museums: The Cloisters (built out of several European monastaries), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Museum of Natural History.
 
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Early Saturday morning I crossed into Manhattan for the first time using the George Washington Bridge, the second longest suspension bridge in the United States. Built in 1931 the bridge was originally to be clad in concrete and granite, but the Depression squeezed the project’s budget and the steelwork was left exposed, much to the delight of modernist architects.
 
The New Jersey shore along this stretch of the Hudson River is called the Palisades. The high cliffs of the Palisades have a unique spot in film history. The term cliffhanger was first used in reference to films because of these cliffs (Thomas Hardy first used a cliffhanger scene in one of his serial novels in 1873). Nearby Fort Lee was once the film center in the United States– the Hollywood of its time. Canadian actress Mary Pickford got her start by working in Fort Lee. The cliffs were used to great dramatic effect in the popular silent movie serial The Perils of Pauline.
 
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The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, located in the northern tip of Manhattan island (The Bronx is just across the nearby Harlem River). The Cloisters, and nearby Fort Tyron Park, are like an oasis in a dense urban landscape. This hilly area is consistent with the once hilly nature of all of Manhattan. The name “Manhattan” is derived from the Lenape or Delaware Indian word meaning “island of many hills”.
 
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Fort Tyron Park in upper Manhattan. The Cloisters museum and the park were created by an endowment grant from the industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. He even bought several hundred acres of the Palisades on the other side of the Hudson River to perserve the view. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. is noted for buying and donating the land for the United Nations building, as well as the land for many national parks and the sprawling Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan. He along with his good friend William Lyon Mackenzie King (who later became Prime Minister of Canada) started a new era of industrial relations and labour reform, including recognizing industrial relations as an academic discipline. This initiative came about because of a massacre of coal miners in Colorado who worked for companies owned by the Rockefeller family. As a response to this tragedy, with the help of Mackenzie King and Mother Jones, a union organizer and children’s rights activist (the Craig Kielburger of the time), new laws were enacted such as the 8-hour work day and a ban on child labour.
 
Inscribed on a tablet facing the Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan: I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.
 
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The apse, or rounded end of a church that usually faces east, is the church’s most sacred space. This apse comes from the church of San Martin in the Spanish village of Fuentiduena, ca. 1175-1200.
 
Much of this architecture is ultimately of Roman origin, and so this style is called Romanesque. The term “Romanesque” was coined in the 19th century because it was believed that the architecture of the 11th and 12th centuries was largely influenced by the Roman monuments and ruins nearby in southern France and Spain. However, the Romanesque style can also show the influence of northern European and Byzantine art. Romanesque architecture evolved into the Gothic style in the 12th century– the key distinguishing feature is the pointed arch replacing the rounded arch. The term “Gothic” was a pejorative term invented in the Renaissance to refer to the Church-focused culture of Medieval times.
 
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A wide view of the reconstructed remains of the Fuentiduena Chapel from north-central Spain. Many of the other pieces are from other Spanish churches.
 
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Saint-Guilhem Cloister, late 12th century, France. A variety of designs appear on the columns. The acanthus leaves (stylized leaves found on Corinthian columns) reveal classical influences.
 
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This cloister was built in the 12th century as part of the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, located at the foot of Mount Canigou in the Pyrenees. The stonework was dismantled in the 18th century, and about half of it has been restored here.
 
From the caption:
The Medieval Cloister
In a monastery, the cloister is a square or rectangular open-air courtyard surrounded by covered passageways. It is always situated next to the monastic church, and its use is limited to the monks. The surrounding covered passageways lead to rooms essential to the secluded and regimented monastic life, such as the chapter house (see the nearby Pontaut chapter house), the library, the dormitory, and the refectory. As in the nearby cloister from Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, a garden with a water source was often located in the center of the cloister.
 
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Stained glass with scenes of the infant Jesus. The Adoration of the Magi, and, The Circumcision.
 
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The Pieta (in German, Vesperbild), 1375-1400, German, made in the Rhine Valley. Not in the Gospels, this scene of Mary holding her crucified son Jesus was popular in private devotional practice during the late Middle Ages. Mary appears young, and the body of Jesus talks on the form of a child.
 
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The Death of the Virgin (The Dormition), late 15th century, Germany, Cologne. Saint Peter is holding a book as he officiates. Ten other apostles are present, with Saint Thomas, according to legend, being late and only convinced of the Assumption of Mary when an angel drops her belt into his hands.
 
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Reliquaries for the skulls of female saints.
 
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Picture taken in the Gothic Chapel which has the tombs of wealthy people bearing their effigies. These statues mounted on the wall look over the sarcophagi on the floor.
 
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I thought this statue captures my mood on some days.
 
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The Unicorn is Attacked (ca. 1495-1505), South Netherlandish. Part of the Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries, which are amongst the most beautiful and complex works of art to survive the Middle Ages. They eventually came into the possession of John D. Rockefeller, who in turn donated them to The Cloisters. A unicorn is hunted and killed, but comes back to life.
 
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The Unicorn Defends Itself (ca. 1495-1505), South Netherlandish. The mastery of the weavers is evident in the convincing representation of different materials and textures in the costumes, such as brocade, velvet, leather, and fur. Eighty-five species of plants have been identified in the tapestries.
 
The dye pigments used in the tapestry come from plants that have been incorporated in another cloister at the museum, one moved from Bonnefort-en-Comminges, a Cistercian abbey in France (late 13th or early 14th century). The medieval herb garden in that cloister is divided by usage (e.g., medicinal, culinary, magic, household, etc.). The colours of the Unicorn Tapestries come from these plants– weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue).
 
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The Unicorn in Captivity (ca. 1495-1505), South Netherlandish. The Unicorn in Captivity is actually the last in the series, and represents a return to life. A symbolic reading of the tapestries suggests the story of Christ becoming flesh, being betrayed and killed, and returning to life. However, there is also a symbolic reading that relates the capture of a bridegroom for a marriage.
 
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Eagle Lectern, Maastricht, South Netherlandish, ca. 1500. An eagle with a vanquished dragon in its claws sits on a monumental work of mingled architecture and knotty branches with statuettes of religious figures. A bookrack supports the wings of the eagle.
 
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Two scenes from the Legend of Saint Germain of Paris (1247-50). In the first panel, a servant girl is carrying wine flasks unaware that they contain poison. The wine is served to Germain and a companion who die instantly. In the second panel, Saint Germain himself reassures a sleeping monk that his relics will be safe during the imminent Norman invasion.
 
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Scenes from the life of Saint Nicholas, ca. 1200-1210, France, Picardy (Aisne). Saint Nicholas, who has transformed into our Santa Claus over time, was a bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (Turkey) in the fourth century. The first panel depicts knights, falsely accused of treason and condemned to death, pleading with Nicholas. In the second panel, Nicholas (the one in the middle) appears before the consul to plead for their release.
 
One story about Saint Nicholas’ generosity lies at the root of Santa’s gift-giving traditions. In the story, a poor man has three daughters but cannot pay the dowry for them and so they would remain unmarried. Nicholas, wanting to help but being shy, goes to the man’s house under cover of darkness and throws three bags of gold coins through the window. In one version of the story, Nicholas drops a bag down a chimney. After Nicholas died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to him.
 
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The Annunciation, ca. 1290-1300, German. The Annunciation is the revelation to Mary, the mother of Jesus, by the archangel Gabriel that she would conceive a child to be born the Son of God. In the first panel you can see the wings of Gabriel. In the second panel there’s a dove floating above Mary’s head.
 
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Saint Christopher, removed from the list of saints by the Vatican in 1969. The story depicted by this statue is that of a very tall man, originally named Reprobus (may have lived in third century), who ferries people across a swift river. One day a child asks to be carried across and Christopher is amazed at how heavy he is. The child is Christ who carries the sins of the world. The child baptizes Reprobus as Christopher (Christos pherein– to bear Christ). Christopher’s staff also miraculously turns into a fruit-bearing tree. A local king, enraged at these stories, has Christopher imprisoned and beheaded.
 
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Another style of stained glass– grisaille glass, which is colourless and translucent and was popular in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Decorations are painted directly on the glass. This style is a departure from the colour-saturated pot-metal glass which is glass mixed with metallic oxides while in a molten state to produce the various colours of stained glass windows. Pot-metal glass tended to let in less light though, which is why grisaille glass grew in popularity.
 
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Cloister from Trie-en-Bigorre, France (late 15th century). The coloured marble on some shafts and the white marble on the capitals indicate that this cloister was a prestigious commission. Coats of arms and scenes from the Bible decorate the capitals. [Capitals are carved stones at the top of the columns and below the arches.]
 
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The Trie Cafe– the most relaxing cafe I have ever experienced.
 
Down the road from The Cloisters in Fort Tyron Park is a newly opened restaurant called the New Leaf Cafe housed in a 1930s building. This restaurant is run by the New York Restoration Project, which was started by Bette Midler to clean up sites in New York City. My sister and I stopped there briefly to change for her colleague’s wedding in Englewood, New Jersey. The peace and serenity offered by these cafes are truly remarkable given the dense urban environment surrounding them.
 
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Our gallery talk lecturer describes a South Netherlandish beaker as part of her talk Chalices, Beakers, and Ritual Wine Consumption in Medieval Europe. This is a secular cup, made ca. 1425-1450 for the dukes of Burgundy, called the “Monkey Cup”, and it depicts monkeys robbing a sleeping peddler.
 
The gallery talk covered the use of wine in the sacred rituals. In the history of the celebrating the Eucharist (the taking of the consecrated bread and wine believed to be the body and blood of Christ), the size of the chalice has varied. In early Medieval times, the church community would share from a large cup, sipping from a straw to avoid spilling a drop. Later only the priest would drink the wine and so the chalice used became correspondingly smaller.
 
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Our gallery talk lecturer points out the chalice to her left. From Toledo, Spain, this late 15th century chalice is covered with rubies, sapphires, and diamonds, along with pointed Gothic arches and many figures of Mary, Christ, and the saints.
 


 
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Belvedere Castle in the middle of Central Park. Having dropped off our luggage and parked the car at our Manhattan hotel Sunday morning, my sister and I trekked across Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Belvedere Castle provides a good view of Central Park, and it is home to the Henry Luce Nature Observatory which has some displays providing information on how naturalists view and study the world.
 
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The Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the my main reasons to coming to New York was to see the newly reconstructed galleries of Greek and Roman art. The HBO mini-series Rome I found to be very useful in anchoring my sense of the timeline of Roman history, and I have since augmented that with various readings of Greek and Roman history, as well as the history of the Mediterranean, Spain, and the Middle East.
 
Recent books I’ve read:
 
Sea of Faith, by Stephen O’Shea.
 
Sailing to Byzantium, by Colin Wells.
 
A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment, by Chris Lowney
 
The Middle Sea, by John Julius Norwich
 
The Perfect Heresy, by Stephen O’Shea
 
Becoming Charlemagne, by Jeff Sypeck
 
The Classical World, by Robin Lane Fox
 
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Athena. Late 3rd-2nd century B.C. The tilted head and the open mouth, indicating an abrupt movement, are indicative of a time of confidence and energy in the Hellenistic period following the conquests of Alexander the Great. Earlier Greek statues of Athena were plain and symmetrical according to the gallery talk lecturer. Athena would have worn a helmet, had earrings, and was part of a statue, twice life-size, probably represented as striding forward. Athena is now a warrior goddess, protector of Athens, and not just a cult statue in a temple.
 
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Marble statue of a lion, Greek, ca. 400-390 B.C.
 
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Marble head of a Greek general, 1st-2nd century A.D., copied from a Greek bronze statue of mid-4th century B.C.
 
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Wounded Warrior Falling. Roman copy of a Greek bronze original of 460-450 B.C. Originally thought that the figure was in a position to attack, it was later discovered that the warrior has an injury and was in fact likely supporting himself with a staff.
 
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The Hope Dionysus (so named because the 18th century owner was called Thomas Hope), is a Roman replica of a Greek sculptural type of the 4th century B.C. Dionysus is the god of wine. Here he is wearing a panther skin. The woman is posed in an archaic Greek style– this shows the respect that the Romans had for Greek culture. There was a strong streak of anti-Greek sentiment in Roman times though, mostly because the Romans valued austerity over luxury, and Greek culture and thought was often associated with the intoxicating excesses of luxury.
 
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Marble statue of a youthful Hercules and the skin of the Nemean Lion. Roman, Flavian, A.D. 69-98. Killing the Nemean Lion was the first of Hercules’ many labours. Unable to kill the lion with his arrows, Hercules used his bare hands to kill the lion after trapping it in a cave.
 
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Statue of an aristocratic boy. Roman, Augustan, 27 B.C.-A.D. 14.
 
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A reconstructed room of wall panels from a villa in Boscoreale. This villa, a kilometre north of the doomed Pompeii, was also buried in the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. This is a nearly complete bedroom (cubiculum nocturnum) as it would have looked originally. The paintings have rustic scenes with complex architectural vistas that recall stage settings. The style is called the 2nd Pompeian style (80 B.C-20 B.C.), or architectonic style, with its focus on architectural features. The 1st Pompeiian style (150 B.C.-50 B.C.), or incrustation style, was very simple, consisting mainly of imitations of coloured stone.
 
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More wall panels from Boscoreale. The images are likely that of a very wealthy or a Macedonian royal family. The woman in the first panel is playing a kithara (lyre), so she would have been very educated. The gallery talk lecturer describes the pervasiveness of Hellenistic influences on Roman life.
 
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Landscape with Perseus and Andromeda, last decade of the 1st century B.C., also from a villa in Boscotrecase. This panel was from a villa owned by Agrippa Postumus, the grandson of Roman Emperor Augustus. This is an example of the 3rd Pompeian style (20 B.C. – A.D. 62), or ornamental style. Thin and wispy elements are set out in a “picture gallery” style, with a large central picture flanked by smaller ones. The 4th Pompeian style (A.D. 62-A.D. 79) returns to the forms of the 2nd Pompeian style with its sense of stage settings.
 
In the story of Perseus and Andromeda, Perseus is returning home after cutting off the head of Medusa. The beautiful woman Andromeda is chained to a rock in an effort to appease an angry Poseidon. She is to be offered in sacrfice to a serpent after her mother offended Poseidon. Perseus kills the serpent and takes Andromeda home to marry her. Unfortunately, Andromeda has already been promised to Phineus who subsequently shows up with an army. Perseus deals with the problem by pulling out the head of Medusa and turning Phineus and his army to stone.
 
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Mounted on a wall is a mosaic floor panel with garlanded woman and geometric pattern. Roman, Mid-Imperial, late 2nd century A.D., found in Daphne (Harbiye in modern Turkey), a holiday resort used by the wealthy citizens of Antioch in Roman times.
 
Out the window is the Upper East Side, across 5th Avenue, where the wealthy citizens of New York live.
 
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Colossal Head of Constantine, ca. A.D. 325, once part of a colossal statue. Roman portrait sculpture of this period tended to be less naturalistic and more blocklike in appearance. The eyes tend to gaze upwards in transcendental seriousness. The Roman Emperor Constantine is most famous for ending institutionalized persecution of Christians in the Empire, and for founding Constantinople as the capital of the Roman Empire (later of the Byzantine Empire, the surviving eastern half of the Roman Empire for a thousand years).
 
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Armor for man and horse made in Nuremberg in 1548 by master armourer Kunz Lochner.
 
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View of Toledo, painted by El Greco about 1597. A somewhat stylized and eerie view of the mountaintop city, which was once the capital of the Spanish Empire, as well as post-Roman Visigothic Spain. This painting caught my eye because of the role of Toledo in the history of libraries which was in part due to the confluence of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic cultures. In the 12th century a program of translations into Latin brought vast stores of knowledge to Europe from Hebrew and Arabic academic and philosophical works.
 
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The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, first exhibited in 1787 on the eve of the French Revolution as a tribute to the stoical self-sacrifice of Socrates. It was regarded as a protest against the injustices of the time, and it became a symbol of republican virtue and a manifesto of the Neoclassical style. The philosopher Socrates had been bitterly critical of Athenian society and its institutions. Accused by the Athenian government of denying the gods and corrupting the young through his teachings, he chose to die by his own hand rather than renounce his beliefs. In this painting he calmly reaches for the cup of poisonous hemlock while discoursing on the immortality of the soul.
 
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Perseus with the Head of Medusa, by Antonio Canova, completed around 1808. The goal of this statue was to perfect the Neoclassical style of the 1750s to early 1800s. The new republican governments of France and the United States turned to the Neoclassical style for their official art by virtue of the association with democratic Greece and republican Rome. The Neoclassical style is logical, solemn in tone, and moralizing in character. The Neoclassical artists sought to replace the curves, asymmetry, sensuality, and triviality of the Rococo style. In turn, the Neoclassical style fell away to the Romantic style of subjectivity, personal expression, and emotional intensity.
 
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Ugolino and His Sons, by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, made in 1865-1867. This is an intensely Romantic work derived from Canto XXXIII of Dante’s Inferno. This section of Dante’s work is about the Pisan traitor, Ugolino della Gherardesca, his sons, and his grandsons, who were imprisoned in 1288 and died of starvation.
 
There is a Guelph connection. Ugolino was a member of the Ghibelline faction which supported the German-based Holy Roman Empire in Italy. The opposing Guelph faction supported the Pope and the Papal States. Ugolino had switched to the Guelph faction, but he was later accused of treachery by making a deal with the Ghibellines. According to Dante, as they all starved in prison, Ugolino’s children begged him to eat their bodies. In this sculpture, Ugolino gnaws at this own fingers.
 
Our gallery talk lecturer said that this sculpture represented a major break with the Neoclassical style. Its highly charged Romantic style caused an intense reaction among some viewers.
 
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Picasso’s painting of Gertrude Stein (a modernist author and mentor of Ernest Hemingway), painted 1905-6. Picasso had difficulty painting Gertrude Stein’s head. After being influenced by African, Roman, and Iberian sculpture he produced this portrait of Stein with a masklike face and heavy-lidded eyes. In response to the observation that the face did not look like Stein, Picasso replied “She will.” The gallery talk lecturer said that Gertrude Stein did indeed look like the portrait in her later years. The simplified, emphatically hewn forms in this portrait paved the way for Picasso’s breakthrough next painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which shook the art world– a seminal work in the development of Cubism with faces constructed out of geometric shapes, wide staring eyes as found on Iberian sculptures, and some faces appearing like African tribal masks. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and has been recently restored.
 
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A painting with many sensual symbols — our gallery talk lecturer provides a detailed analysis.
 
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From Mali, West Africa, this sculpture of a seated couple was made by the Dogon people. While appearing nearly identical, the gender differences point to the male as progenitor, protector and provider and to the female as childbearer and nurturer.
 
The Dogon have been the subject of an intriguing astronomical mystery. When anthropologists investigated the Dogon in the 1930s and 1940s, the tribal leaders apparently laid out astronomical knowledge that was far too accurate and detailed for a primitive tribe to have. In particular, the Dogon knew that the star Sirius was a double star, that Jupiter had four moons, and that Saturn had rings. A book written in the 1970s claimed that the Dogon believed that their ancestors had made contact with amphibious aliens from Sirius who had given them detailed astronomical information. Much skepticism about these claims still exists today. Carl Sagan had weighed in and said the Dogon culture may have been contaminated by earlier missionaries in the area who could have relayed what was known about Sirius and other stars and planets to the Dogon. A plausible explanation is that the original anthropologists may have read too much into the Dogon stories since more recent anthropological analysis of the Dogon does not confirm the Sirius story.
 
What can be confirmed about the Dogon are their elaborate greeting rituals. Polite inquiries about many aspects of family and health are posed before any other matter can be discussed. Invariously, the answer to all the questions is sewa— everything is fine. There is no such thing as a quick “hello, how are you?” in the Dogon culture. Social harmony is important to the Dogon, and it is reflected in another ritual where the women praise the men, the men thank the women, the young express appreciation for the old, and the old recognize the contributions of the young.
 
venice_big I caught the last day of a special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that examined the relationship between Venice and the Islamic world over a thousand-year period. Islamic learning had a large influence on Venice, and works on medicine and technology were eagerly translated, and then distributed widely after printing presses were established in 1469. What I find particularly interesting is the history of those places where there has been a confluence of cultures in Europe– Moorish Spain, Norman Sicily, and in this case Venice and its relations with the Ottomans in Turkey, the Mamluks in Egypt, and the Safavids in Iran.
 
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From the rooftop sculpture garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art one can looks south and see the Midtown Manhattan skyline. On the left the row of buildings on Fifth Avenue intersects Midtown Manhattan. This stretch of Fifth Avenue is known as “Museum Mile”. The following museums are on the Museum Mile or close by:
 
El Museo del Barrio (Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and Latin American art and culture)
Museum of the City of New York presents the history of New York
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum (design history and contemporary design)
National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts (nineteenth and twentieth century American art)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (modernist art; the viewing gallery forms a gentle spiral from the ground level to the top of the building)
Neue Galerie (early twentieth century German and Austrian art)
Museum for African Art (opening in 2008)
Frick Collection (old master paintings housed in steel magnate’s Henry Clay Frick’s former residence)
Whitney Museum of American Art (20th century American art)
 


 
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American Museum of Natural History in the Upper West Side, on the other side of Central Park from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The statue in the front is of Theodore Roosevelt, American president and pioneer in the conservation movement. The original charter creating the American Museum of Natural History was signed in his family home in 1869.
 
Another claim to fame for Theodore Roosevelt is that the teddy bear is named after an incident in his life. Out hunting one day he had refused to kill a bear for sport. A political cartoonist picked up the story and drew a cartoon. The bear in the cartoon was repeated in other cartoons (becoming cuter as time went on). A shopkeeper at one point asked for permission from Roosevelt if he could call the toy bears he wanted to sell “Teddy’s bears”. Eventually the name “teddy bear” was picked up by other toymakers.
 
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Tyrannosaurus rex. Originally mounted in 1915 with its tail dragging on the ground, the correct way to depict the T. rex is in the stalking position, with head low and tail extended, and one foot slightly raised. Despite this posture and the apparent strength, the arms are of little use for hunting and too short to reach the mouth, and so it is uncertain whether T. rex was a hunter or a scavenger.
 
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Using the classification method of cladistics, one can tell this is a dinosaur by hole in the hip socket– a unique characteristic that is shared by all dinosaurs.
 
Cladistics are used to build evolutionary trees that can be set in a diagram called a cladogram. Each branch on a cladogram occurs with the introduction of a particular new feature which all the descendants inherit. For example, all mammals have in common the synapsid opening, a small hole behind the eye socket. Muscles that close the lower jaw attach to the skull around this opening.
 
The seminal work in cladistics:
 
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Dinosaur eggs. These dinosaurs are more closely related to chickens, pigeons, and gulls than to any other dinosaurs in the gallery.
 
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Birds and dinosaurs. While similarities between birds and dinosaurs were first noticed in the 1850s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that better methods were available to analyze the evidence. Birds are descended from theropods– carnivorous dinosaurs with strong hind legs and short front limbs.
 
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The markings of a horse were incised on this rock 25,000 years ago. The rock was found in southwestern France. The natural curves of the rock are used to create the illusion that the figure stands out in relief.
 
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Mammoth, found in southern Indiana where it lived 11 thousand years ago. Because it lived further south this mammoth would not have had the long coarse hair of its cousin to the north, the woolly mammoth. The large opening in the skull where the tusk would have been may have given rise to the myths of the Cyclopes, the one-eyed giants.
 
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Lestodon (ground sloth), extinct but may have survived to 1550 in Hispaniola and Cuba. This skeleton caught my eye because one day earlier, Sunday July 8, I was reading a New York Times article about the “mapinguary” or “mapinguari”, an Amazon monster that some believe may be a surviving ground sloth. There have been stories about a giant– two meters tall, smelly, red fur, backward feet, long claws, and a second mouth on its belly. The Megatharium, or giant ground sloth, was one of the largest mammals to walk the earth– as big as an elephant. Believed to be a herbivore, it nonetheless had sharp dagger-like claws.
 
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I checked out a special exhibit on gold at the American Museum of Natural History. The word for gold in Latin is aurum meaning “glowing dawn”. The exhibit began with a display of some of the largest nuggets ever found. Gold is very malleable: there was a room covered in 28 square metres of flattened gold leaf– all derived from 85 grams of 23-karat gold.
 
Because gold is so soft other metals are often added to create alloys that provide strength as well as variations in colour. A karat is a measurement of gold’s purity. A karat is 1/24 part, by weight, of the total amount so 24 karat gold is pure gold. Most gold jewelry is 14 karat gold.
 
Gold is brought to Earth’s surface by hot hydrothermal water. Gold precipitates out of the water into cracks in the rocks called veins or lodes. Gold that has been eroded from veins and has settled in streambeds becomes a placer deposit.
 
A cross-section from different cultures of gold jewelry, containers, ornaments, scultpures, and coins were on display. I noted the reference to the “gilded age”, an ironic term coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in 1873 that was intended to highlight the difference between a true golden age and the age of booming prosperity and a new class of the super-rich with its opulence and self-indulgence. This period also gave rise to philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller who had a tremendous influence on the development of public libraries and museums respectively.
 
Canadian lynx, painting by John James Audubon
 
No photography was allowed in a special exhibit showcasing illustrations by John James Audubon and his son, and so this illustration is from the museum’s web site for the exhibit. Audubon is most famous for his paintings of birds, but this exhibit was titled The Unknown Audubons: The Mammals of North America. The painting above (available on the museum’s web site) is of a Canadian lynx painted by John James Audubon in 1842 for his book Vivaparous Quadrupeds of North America, his last great work which had to be finished by his son.
 
The museum re-opened the Audubon Gallery on March 31, 2007 after being closed for decades. This is the description of the gallery from the museum’s web site:
Dark double doors open to an elegant salon-style hall, with high, white, coffered ceilings graced by eight inverted bowl lamps, trimmed with metal silhouettes of terns in flight. The warm wood inner doors, moldings, and wainscoting have been refinished and the walls covered in cream linen.
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The Hayden Planetarium attached to the American Museum of Natural History. Because of the light pollution, New Yorkers cannot see the stars at night. The planetarium becomes their substitute to gaze at the stars. The top half of the sphere is a state-of-the-art planetarium with a Zeiss Star Projector. The bottom half houses a multimedia display of the first moments of the universe.
 
 
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