My Inner Museum

Today, I am Chinese. I road the MUNI bus along Stockton through Chinatown. The Shanghai and Tokyo subways have nothing on that bus. The bus makes 3-ish stops through Chinatown, and at each, an army of Chinese grocery-shoppers waits with bags and canes ready to remove any (likely living) obstacle between them and the bus. Our stop was the kicker to the previous one. On the third bus that passed, I finally got close enough to the door and mustered enough courage to push my way onto the bus. The first step of the bus, actually. At least in the busy subways, they can squish everyone in on one go.

If you were wondering, I was back in Chinatown and San Francisco this weekend again to do some grocery shopping. But not just for the grocery shopping. Family friends came in this weekend to visit Stanford and the Bay Area, and I tried to spend as much time with them as possible. That meant museum-hopping.

Which is something I wanted to do this summer. On Friday, we went to the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose and the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Both were individually interesting, but visiting both in a day showed the range of a spectrum of museum styles. The Tech Museum covered many elementary topics in an elementary manner, with exhibits explaining how integrated circuits work, how genetics influence individuals, how the internet and worlds such as “Second Life” work, and more. Many of them had a link-up to online resources and activities one could access from home, and while the topics have great depth, the museum was largely targeted towards children. The examples and activities worked at a high level, but being simplified representations of complex systems, more knowledgable visitors wouldn’t have much to see.

Onto the Computer History Museum, where the primary focus is on a warehouse-ish room filled with actual computing artifacts, including part of the ENIAC, an Apple I, and once functional core memory. The museum, still very new, has only two other constructed exhibits, both relatively small. Julie and I chose to dodge the tour and explore ourselves, catching bits of familiar lore in a timeline of mostly modern computing. Unlike the show of the Tech Museum, this museum was all tell. I looked at machines behind metal railings and trinkets inside of glass cases. Which I understand, considering the uniqueness of the items. The content was absolutely fascinating, but everything had a geek trivia feel to it. Highly recommended if you enjoy that sort of thing.

The following day, we went to the SF MOMA. I recently visited–and wrote about–it, but fortunately, out of three main floors of exhibits, only one holds a standing collection. Walking through the Matisse and Stills works again, it was interesting to get a second opportunity at interpreting the works, though I feel no more enlightened. The new exhibits included the photography of Lee Miller, primarily known as a “Vogue” WWII correspondant, and contemporary Chinese art. And on the last day, we went to the Exploratorium, a more successful hands-on museum. All explanations came on the far side of an example, such as a host of optical illusions and crankable engines.

It was interesting to see the different types of museums side-by-side, but what I found more interesting was doing museums in SF. I had known that the area had many well-acclaimed (and many more smaller) museums, but only once in the trips to the surrounding area have I gone to a museum. When I think about taking a day trip around here, about getting the real look at the Bay Area, I think about crowded buses, meandering in the Marina District, walking from Market up through Chinatown and North Beach to the Fisherman’s Wharf, peeking into chocolate shops. But I admit that I’ve become attracted to educational vacation with tours and museum visits.

To say that museums are all the same is certainly a lie. Some aren’t as good as others, but each has its own take, and it’s certainly a point of exploration on a trip. There’s so much more, though, to what really composes a city. Museums are the territory of academics, often with a district of its own. The real feel and culture of a city is in the streets, the lives, the spontaneous, the routine. But I think I still might be hard-pressed to convince the next visitor to take the Stockton Street MUNI.

Expanding Horizons

Yesterday, several of my dormmates and I took a trip to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts (SF MOMA) as part of a grant. People often look at modern art and say, “I could’ve done that,” and our experience was a way of challenging that.

San Francisco is a city with a lot of culture, and it’s always been a good experience going up there. At the SF MOMA, we spent part of the time with a docent, who led us around to look at a variety of works, including a wall painting from Sol LeWitt, one of Marcel DuChamp’s “Fountain“s, Henri Matisse’s “Femme au Chapeau,” and a bunch of Clyfford Still paintings. To be honest, I still think some of it is of questionable worth, but I now know a little more about the actual importance and meaning of pieces. For example, the “Fountain” wasn’t originally meant to necessarily be “art,” but was a challenge to a group who claimed that they would accept any submission (for only a fee) into their exhibition.

We had some time to walk around the rest of the museum by ourselves, and I saw more works, including photography and new media pieces using video cameras. It was very interesting, but I was definitely only there to look. I would hope that some people actually understand this work, though it would be a minority for sure. I remember on a trip to the Houston Fine Arts Museum a long time ago, my sister’s boyfriend said something like, “You’re not supposed to understand it; you just see it.” And now, I’m still only at that point.

Which seems to encompass a lot of experiences I’ve had over my time here in college. There are so many experiences and opportunities around, from cultural festivals to guest speakers, and it seems a waste to miss any of them. Granted, I have no idea what’s going on in a lot of them. Terry Sejnowski, a leading figure in Computational Neuroscience, is currently a visiting fellow here, and I went to a talk entitled “Google Brain.” I don’t think I understood any of it. But I went, and I feel like I can see a little more.

College is a time of tipping points. For many, it’s a time to finally get out of generalized education from required classes in high school, and actually focus on useful classes towards getting a major. It’s a time to become more discerning and set upon a life career. Education and society push us from boundless opportunities towards a singular goal that we can call a life and become a productive person.

Well, after we came back from the museum, we completed the rest of the grant by painting. We had a bunch of real canvases and acrylic paints, and we would actually try to make our own pieces of modern art. In most other circumstances, I probably would’ve skedaddled as quickly as possible, but I tried it out and have now created something that is sitting in the dorm lounge right now. It was surprisingly difficult, partially because of how intimidating a blank canvas looks. But I realize now that I also had many inhibitions that made it particularly difficult to get through the work. And looking at it, what I created honestly looks like a bad version of what I might have drawn in Kindergarten. At least back then, I knew what I was trying for.

Our docent had mentioned while looking at the Still painting that it’s often much more difficult for adults to express what they see than for kids to. I can agree with that. When I was a kid, I wasn’t conditioned or molded in many ways that I am now to have certain blocks that hinder what I do and see. And maybe that’s something that I can partially recover, because it’s definitely something that college can offer, if I can avoid getting locked into a single path.