The Vatican

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The thing I most enjoyed about the Vatican was the mind boggling array of amazing art, let alone its ludicrously ornate surroundings. One of my favourite pieces, odly enough was Arnaldo Pomodoro’s “Sfera con Sfera” (Sphere within a sphere). Normally I’m much more a fan of classical art, but I thought it provided a really striking and thought provoking contrast. When I asked the tour guide what it was meant to represent, it became apparent she only knew the script she’d learnt – “it means what you want it to mean” being her cop out answer.” A sly bit of google research suggests the fractured surface of the outer sphere reveals a very complex inner sphere that represents the harsh difficulties that the modern world finds itself in at the end of the second millennium (it was created in 1990).

361. The Palatine and Forum

IMG_6095 (640x480) StitchThe ruins on the Palatine Hill (which included the old Roman Forum) were a really great “outdoor museum.” It was so much fun to walk around and imagine what life was like in Roman times, and everything that had occurred there. It definitely struck me as a bit of a shame that it all looks so dilapidated. Obviously, being ruins, it is not the most aesthetically please area to have in the city centre, but mostly i felt they could have done quite a lot with it to really help fuel the imagination (illustrations of what it used to be like, information to read), rather than looking like they’ve only begrudgingly left it there because it is a World Heritage Site.

I really enjoyed walking around in the late afternoon (once the heat became bearable), taking it all in. It was like walking through a beautiful park, only with a ridiculous amount of fascinating history! Sadly late afternoon meant they came along and kicked me out fairly promptly.

360. The Colosseum

colosseum RomeIn some ways the Colusseum was completely what I expected, in others it was really the opposite. Overall, I think it was less exciting than I imagined, largely because it had the Paris factor – you’ve seen so many pictures of it everywhere that it doesn’t feel particularly new, different, magnificent or surprisng. It was once again like looking at a giant postcard. The thing that did surprise me, though, was that it was smack bang in the centre of the city. You literally turn a corner and there it is, right in front of you. It was like any other building in an inner city block, without any kind of entrance or parking and barely space around it like you’d expect with an enormous landmark like that. It felt all very “Get in, get out, you’ve seen what you came here for.”

Although from another perspective, that is part of what makes the Colosseum so special – ever since the times when it was actually in use it has been there in the centre of the city, with Roman life going on around it. At various points, it was so normal that it practically became a quarry, as people begun to tear it down so as to use the materials it was made of. However, it is nice to know that from when it was completed in 80AD to today it has always been seen as a magnificent building and worth keeping around.

When I showed up I had already read online that a ticket for the Colosseum is also a ticket for the Palatine and Forum, and you can buy them at either entrance. So I headed to the Palatine and Forum entrance where there was no line, and then shot back over to the Colosseum where it seemed like there were thousands of people lining up in sweltering heat. It felt very good to breeze past all the suckers straight to the entrance!

310. The Louvre

Just the building itself was a magnificent piece of art, but all of the other famous works were also a fantastic experience. My favourite part was actually the sculpture gardens – refreshingly spread out compared to all the other parts which were jammed in.

The sheer volume of security (including armed soldiers and sniffer dogs) was astounding and felt a little over the top, as was the Nintendo “audio guide” complete with 3D simulations. Not sure why that was necessary when you were actually atthe museum, but the different options of how to get around (e.g. the “highlights” for a tighter schedule) was helpful.

I felt like I barely scratched the surface, and there were entire wings I didn’t get to see in the enormous behemoth of a building, but it was amazing, especially ever time I stopped and reminded myself to look up and see even more great art on the roof. Even looking out the windows at the grounds felt like admiring a painting!

264. Van Gogh Museum

The Van Gogh Museum was probably one of my favourite art museums. Not only did the audioguide (definitely recommended) walk me through his life via his paintings, but the curators also had a wonderful collection of art that influenced him, among other special collections.

My favourite of Van Gogh’s works was Sunflowers, possibly because its vibrant colours really stood out compared to the opposite wall, which housed paintings from nearer to his death, as his mental illness was affecting him more and more (hint: they are kind of gloomy).

It was also interesting to note that he would never have been as famous as he is today, if it weren’t for his brother’s wife, who inherited his collection and boosted it to fame.

Another highlight of the museum was a collection of advertising prints from France in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as art featured on programmes from stage shows and the covers of sheet music.

All in all a great way to learn about Van Gogh’s life, as it was narrated through his art, as well as his influences and the art that was incorporated in to daily life at the time. Well worth a visit!

263. Anne Frank House

Having studied Anne Frank’s diary quite intently at school (read the book, done the play watched the movie) I was really looking forward to the opportunity to see the actual house.

In what was actually quite a moving story, Anne Frank’s father, Otto, was the only one to survive after the family was eventually found and taken to the concentration camp. When he finally tracked down what had happened to each of his family members, rather than sell or destroy the house, he decided to preserve it as a reminder to all of what happened and what should never happen again, as well as publishing Anne’s diaries, one of the few true, detailed and personal accounts of just how much the war affected the individual.

I actually found Anne Frank House to be a great deal more emotional and moving than any other WWII memorial, even visiting a concentration camp, and I think the difference is how incredibly detailed and personal the story is, told as you move through the various levels and rooms in the house, and including both the lead up to the families deciding to hide in the annex, and what became of them afterwards. There were also a number of displays of what life was like in Amsterdam at the time, and just why it was a better option for them to spend so long trapped in a small space, unable to move or even use the toilet during the day.

The book case hiding the entrance

There was one particular moment which really struck a chord for me. When looking at an original yellow star in a display cabinet, next to a sign saying “No Jews Allowed,” I realised that for most people, the intended response is “gosh that kind of treatment was so awful.” Unfortunately, for many, “was” is not the correct word. That very morning I had logged in to my Facebook page and seen an update from a friend of mine who the night before had been told “No Niggers Allowed” at the door of a bar in Aarhus. It made me so angry that some people still don’t seem to have learned any lessons, but the kind of people that would say something like that to him are probably the same people who would nod and agree that the holocaust was terrible and how could they treat people like that. Further to the problem, it seemed to overwhelming response from Danish friends in this scenario was “don’t worry about it, let it go.” I would like to chalk that response up to the fact that Danish culture is a lot less confrontational, rather than that our Danish friends don’t seem to think that it was really wrong for him to be treated that way. Thankfully though, the Mayor of Aarhus invited him round to apologise, and a lawyer in Copenhagen got wind of it and is pursing the matter pro bono. It still makes me sick that people continue to treat eachother that way for no good reason though.

Back to the original post, despite my mind being elsewhere on that particular day, I thought Anne Frank House was one of the greatest museums I have been to, and think that anyone who has the opportunity should definitely go there. As well as the house itself the museum afterwards was really goo. At the end there was a display of original records all of the Frank family’s attempts to immigrate to other countries, including a very harsh rejection letter from the USA, which basically said no you can’t come and don’t try and apply again.

This lead to Claire and I getting into a pretty in depth debate about immigration policies both at the time and today. Why wouldn’t the US just let people in? They could have saved so many people! I had hoped there was a good reason, for example, Hitler declaring the USA couldn’t take any immigrants or XYZ would happen, but after doing a bit of research there doesn’t seem to be any reason that I would say remotely justifies such harsh immigration policies at the time. One site even says they only let 21,000 refugees in from Europe (as in, the whole continent) in the lead up to WWII. It seems that quotas were actually reduced in the United States, and the best excuse they could come up with was that they were worried about harbouring German spies.

A.D. Morse wrote:

“In 1938 the Nazis burned every synagogue in the nation, shattered the windows of every Jewish establishment, hauled twenty-five thousand innocent people to concentration camps, and forced the Jews to pay 1,000,000,000 marks for the damage.”… “Five days later, at a White House press conference, a reporter asked the President ‘Would you recommend a relaxation of our immigration restrictions so that the Jewish refugees could be received in this country?’ ‘This is not in contemplation,’ replied the President. ‘We have the quota system’.”

Of course there were other countries who could have helped but didn’t, the US is just one example. It really makes you question why countries who had so much power to help, didn’t. And why countries today who have so much power to help others, still don’t. The UNHCR reported that the number of people forcibly displaced worldwide has reached 43.7m (June 2011). Surely there must be a way to relax immigration laws without hiding behind excuses like “we’ll lose our culture” and “they’ll take our jobs,” especially when you consider all of the industries in places throughout the world reporting shortages of workers. I would argue there must be a possibility for countries to cooperate and be able to match people who need a better life to industries that need more people, thereby boosting economies, rather than every country creating a million and one administrative hoops to jump through.

Claire and I striking a pose outside before entering into a giant political debate about immigration laws!

Once again going back to the museum itself, most definitely deserving of mention was an interactive display “Free2Choose” (presumably made for school groups, but we loved it) that played short clips/interviews and presented political-ethical dilemmas, which visitors could submit their views/vote yes or no to questions at the end, the results of which were collated to present which way the majority of visitors voted etc. Topics included banning the Burqa and raids on Hip Hop concerts to find illegal immigrants. I thought it was a really great way to bring the lessons you were learning and the sympathy generated through Anne Frank’s story, and give people real life examples of current human right’s issues – not every visitor was watching an a 2012 version of 1940’s behaviour affecting their friends.

213. Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp is just outside of Berlin. What sets it apart from the others is that after the war it continued to be used to house Soviet Prisoners of War. It is now open as a memorial/museum.

Only a few of the buildings remained, but the size of the place was quite astounding – it was absolutely massive. When we arrived we all got audio guides, which were quite essential as most of the sites are simply an outline on the ground of what used to be there. There was so much information on the guide – you could spend all day listening to it. There was a lot to learn about what life was like, how many people were crammed in, and some of the horrible things that went on. For instance, I learned that there was a specially created running track, where prisoners who were being punished above and beyond the norm were sent to test the durability of shoes for the military by running around and around in circles and over different types of terrain until the shoes were worn out.Roll call area. Prisoners had to attend for the roll call three times daily, often standing for hours in the snow, and doing the "Sachsenhausen Salute"

The camp was primarily a work camp, with gas chambers only added later. They manufactured a great deal of furniture there, which lead me to wonder how far/wide the products of concentration camps spread around Germany and the rest of Europe, You would have to be so careful if you were buying antique furniture, for example, because it would be hard to know just how many lives were lost in the production of your chest of drawers.

There was also a quite horrific account of some young Polish boys who were infected with hepatitis, and subject to a number of test to determine the symptoms, including having a liver biopsy taken with no painkillers or anesthetic.Preserved Barracks

The audioguides were great, and quite necessary in a place like that, though I did feel that the information overload (it was all very factual) depersonalised the experience a bit, compared to a later visit to Anne Frank House, where you got a real sense of just how much the war affected the individual.

On learning about prisoner’s arrivals to the camp, and the ordeal they went through (including the “Sachsenhausen Salute” whereby prisoners were forced to squat on their knees with their arms outstretched for hours on end. If they faltered slightly they would be beaten), the thing that got me the most was that so many of the soldiers in the lower ranks seemed to take such delight in abusing the prisoners. It is easy to accept that Hitler, Goebbels et al were horrible and absolutely crazy for orchestrating such atrocities, but a concentration camp of that size requires such a huge amount of administration, and so many staff/soldiers to run it. Given the accounts of their behaviour I don’t think it is at all possible to say they were (all) just following orders or that they had their own consequences to be fearful of. Site of the gas chambers

In contrast, however, there were a few touches of hope and humanity throughout, particularly in the basement of the kitchen were prisoners had to prepare vegetables. The walls had some amazing murals painted on them, so I assume there was a bit more down time for them there, and a bit less supervision.Original mural in the cellar

211. Topography of Terror

Categorized as an “outdoor museum,” the Topography of Terror is a visual display on the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters. It is also immediately below a chunk of the Berlin Wall, that people were starting to destroy (they wanted it all gone) until they discovered it was above some underground torture chambers used by the Gestapo, and thus was a protected site.

It is also the largest remaining chunk of the outer wall (i.e. visible from West Berlin), as the East Side Gallery was one of the inner walls.

The display was really interesting, especially with the Gestapo torture chambers as an immediate backdrop. It attempts to explain how all of the atrocities of the war came to be, but to be honest I still don’t really understand how it got to such a ridiculous state…

207. The Pergamon Museum

With such a huge amount of war history in Berlin, we almost forgot to explore the non war related museums. There is, in fact, a whole Island of museums. The Pergamon was the most highly recommended one, so off we went. Buying tickets online beforehand would have been a wise choice, but a takeaway coffee from over the road made the line pass a lot quicker.

The Pergamon is a huge recreation of monumental buildings including the Pergamon Alter and the Market Gate of Miletus, poached directly from Turkey. The reconstructed buildings are impressive in size and detail, but at the same time it is a bit depressing that so much Turkish history has been stolen, to have permanently on show and making money for another. The sheer audacity of it is quite mind boggling, as is learning how they got it all to Berlin and ensured it lasted through the war.

There are quite a few exhibits with various archealogical finds, but my favourite was learning about how the museum itself was established and the competition between Europe’s largest museums to have the best exhibits. It seems so offensive now, but you can see how in the early 1900s that was the only way people could learn about such things.