Friday, June 29, 2012

Please Touch Everything!

Museum of Typhlology / Museo Tiflológico
06/28/12 – Calle la Coru
ña, 18

The Museum of Typhlology calls itself “a museum to see and touch,” making it a perfect destination for families with small children. Typhlology refers to the scientific study of blindness.  But rather than science, this museum seduces through art and architecture. I brought a newly-minted teenager, somewhat against his will.  I can say that he did not complain during the visit, and even let himself be photographed. 

Museum of Typhlology
The lady at reception actually smiled and emerged from her desk to describe the museum to us (in Spanish), a welcome quite different from most art museums.  Our favorite section contained sturdy, detailed models of famous cities, monuments and structures.  From the Eiffel Tower to the aqueduct of Segovia, all were available to explore with eyes and hands.  On a random Thursday, there were two blind visitors—an older gentleman and his guide dog, and an adolescent girl with her family—and about two dozen sighted people in the museum. 

Models included the city of Jerusalem, the Taj Mahal, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and the Alhambra.  Many of Spain’s most interesting buildings can be found here: El Escorial, the Royal Palace, the Mezquita of Toledo, and Gaudi’s famous Cathedral in Barcelona, to name a few.    

The Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
The  Royal Palace, Madrid
To my disappointment, Madrid’s Museum of Archaeology has been closed all year for renovations.  So I was excited to find in the Museum of Typhlology a full-scale reproduction of the stunning “Lady of Elche,” an Iberian funerary bust believed to date from the fourth or fifth century BCE.  

Dama de Elche.  Found near Alicante, Spain in 1897.

"Autumn" (1989) by blind artist Rosa Garriga

After pondering a collection of photos, sculptures, and paintings created by blind or visually impaired artists, we descended a staircase to the lower level of the museum.

There one can learn about the development of the Braille reading system, and machines that were invented to make life easier for the visually impaired: special typewriters, calculators, drawing boards, puzzles and voice recorders.

Machine for typing Braille as well as musical notation

The Museum of Typhlology is perhaps the only place in the world that hangs a frieze from the Parthenon at eye-level, and then invites you closer.

Hours: Tues –Fri, 10 am– 2 pm, & 5 pm – 8; Sat. 10-2.  Address: Calle la Coruña, 18. Metro: Estrecho.  Located on the third floor of the ONCE building.  ONCE is a non-profit corporation devoted to improving the quality of life of blind and visually-impaired persons in Spain. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

School's Out, and a New Museum Opens

Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions / Museo de Artes y Tradiciones Populares
06/21/12 – Calle Carlos Arniches 3-5

As June winds down, only a month remains of our year in Spain. S1 and S2 finished Madrid public school this week.  S2, in seventh grade, took part in an English bilingual program—the result of a new campaign to encourage English at a time when many young Spaniards will have to seek jobs abroad.  The school’s American teaching assistant, a recent college grad from Maryland, introduced his charges to lacrosse.  He brought all the equipment to Madrid.  Though lacrosse is a Native American sport, my son had never seen it.  On the last day of school, rival classes faced off in an epic match.

On the other hand, after only one month of language study, S1 plunged into tenth grade last fall: an all-Spanish curriculum of math, Latin, music, history, literature, computers, ethics, gym, and classical culture.  For two weeks he didn’t say a word, and teachers just thought he was slow—no one told them about the foreigner in their midst.  Now at year’s end S1 has passed his classes, and is fluent in Spanish. On a recent medical visit, I strained to understand the doctor while my son chatted away.  Later, he coolly informed me that the doctor's accent marked him as a northerner, from Basque territory.

My kids will tell you school is different here.  Some stories they bring home have raised my eyebrows.  A sampling:
A child received a "Fail" on a color-contrast exam, even though the teacher knew he was color blind.
Gym students were graded on whether or not they won. (Victors in a badminton match received 10 points, the losers: 0).
A boy was harshly admonished and sent to the principal’s office for the offense of involuntary flatulence.
Teachers told vulgar jokes.
During a biology lesson in English on the dung beetle, the struggling teacher used the word “shit” over and over, for lack of a more scientific term. 

They will never forget their year in Spanish public school.  We also saved sixty thousand dollars, the cost of educating two children for one year at the private American School of Madrid, not even including materials, lunch or transportation (I think I hear you gasp).

Meanwhile . . . a new museum quietly opened this month in El Rastro, Madrid’s old market neighborhood.  The free Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions occupies a true nineteenth-century corrala, typical housing for the masses in centuries past. The first corralas were built in the sixteenth century.

Museum blends into the surroundings on Calle Carlos Aniches, 3-5

Museum patio: the renovated 19th c. "corrala"

Footnote: La Quinta motel, USA, 1973

A corrala is characterized by several floors of open galleries surrounding a common patio. The ground floor would house workshops and stores, with dwellings above. I’m tempted to reference a two-story La Quinta motel from the 1970s, without the parking.  What the heck: for all I know, motel architecture owes everything to the corrala.

The museum draws on a collection of folk art, both rural and urban, of the Autonomous University of Madrid. Currently, an exhibit of the yearly festival cycle has been mounted: “El Ciclo Festivo del Año.”   

Carnival costumes from various regions of Spain

Giant papier mache heads, paraded during the celebration of Corpus Christi

Afterwards, a stroll through the hilly streets of El Rastro will lead you past dozens of vintage furniture and antique stores, as well as photographs, waiting to be shot and framed.   

Across the street: impromptu exhibit

The Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions is open Mon. - Fri. 10-2 & 5-8; Sat. 10-2.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Baroque and Beautiful

Museum of the History of Madrid / Museo de Historia de Madrid
06/12/12 – Calle de Fuencarral, 78

When the current renovation is finished, the Museum of History--originally the eighteenth-century Royal Hospice of San Fernando--will cover four centuries of life in Madrid. Until then, we can still enjoy the most head-swiveling doorway in the city.

Pedro de Ribera's Baroque doorway (1726): Alms-house extraordinaire.

A guard told me that part of the permanent collection re-opens at the end of 2012, but the museum won't be fully operational until 2013.  In the meantime it will continue to host temporary, free exhibits on the ground floor. The National Library of Spain has organized Otras Miradas (Other Views, until July 8), with maps of old Madrid, oil paintings, and 3-D topographic models. 

3-D model of Madrid by Leon Gil de Palacio (1830)

The permanent collection will re-open in phases, starting in late 2012

It boggles the mind that this building faced destruction in 1922.  We can thank the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the Spanish Society of Art-Lovers for intervening.  Muchas gracias.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shopping, Then Stopping: What to See in the Skyscraper

Espacio Fundación Telefónica : History of Telecommunications Museum
06/05/12 - Fuencarral 3

Fan with case, from Salvador Bachiller, 9 euros
I love the way Spanish ladies still use fans to whip up a breeze.  A few weeks ago, my seventh-grader performed in his school play to an audience packed with parents.  As he looked out at the crowd, he noticed that every mother in the room was using a fan, and all the fans waved in unison.  (The play was ambitious for a public school whose only outside activities are chess and boys’ basketball: an adaptation of a novel by Torcuato Luca de Tena, set in a mental institution.  Think King of Hearts meets Nancy Drew, with mod lighting and video clips. My son, the only foreigner, was given a walk-on role as one of the inmates).  I've started to carry a fan wherever I go.  In fact, I’m using one now to deflect the heat rising from my laptop.  Cute and utilitarian—it is the perfect souvenir.  

Telefonica Building
Trendy stores with names like Skunkfunk and Desigual attract all sorts to the shopping street of Fuencarral. I’ve seen the gamut: pierced, tottering, and cutting-edge; school groups in matching t-shirts; transvestites; a ballerina in street-clothes; and yesterday, a French bulldog in a ruffled skirt. After a spell of window- and people-gazing, you might dash into the stunning new cultural space that opened this year in the building that calls itself “Europe’s First Skyscraper.”    

When it was finished in 1929, the American-inspired art deco Telefónica Building was the tallest in Madrid.  It recently added three new (free) exhibit spaces and a gift store, with an entrance on Fuencarral Street number 3.  A sculptural staircase and a glass elevator set the tone for the renovation. 

Lobby and staircase, Fuencarral entrance

On one of the levels, you’ll find a museum of sorts: an exhibit called The History of Telecommunications.  It traces the evolution of remote communication since the nineteenth century.  

1920s linesman bicycle

1925 telephone used by King Alfonso XIII to inaugurate new service in Madrid (1926)  and to place the first transatlantic call (1928)

For art lovers, the top level displays the Telefónica Cubist Collection, which revolves around the work of Madrid-born painter Juan Gris (1887-1927).  I couldn’t help peering at the rooftop patio next door.  The views of Gran Via are pretty good as well.

Terraza envy

Gran Via, viewed from fourth level of Telefonica

The middle level currently houses a most intriguing exhibit called “Art and Artificial Life 1999-2012.”  

Philip Beesley, Rob Gorbet (2007, Canada). These "plants" have sensors to detect your presence and move their tendrils.

Robotic blob by Paula Gaetano Adi (2006, Argentina). It sweats when you touch it.

"Head." Ken Feingold (1999, USA)
I found myself all alone in the dark with this lifelike “Head” by American artist Ken Feingold, when it started to talk.  Its eyes blinked and its mouth moved, and it spoke to me in English. “When did you get here?” the Head asked.  I muttered something in response.  

Head continued. “I don’t care about you in the least. Ask me a question.”

I asked about the Wisconsin Governor recall election taking place in my home state today.

“Sorry,” Head said.  “I only understand when I am in another mood.” Silence. Head abhorred a vacuum.  He added, “I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll make an exception.”

The notes said this art work will raise doubts about the coherence of our dialogue with others. And it does.

Hours: Tues - Sun 10:00 - 20:00 (closed M)