where the writers are
Museum Musings


 The statue was magical.  Staring at it, I forgot how ancient it was – it transcended time, it was a spirit, an elf, a monster.  


This striking ancient sculpture was just about the only memorable thing in what was supposed to be one of the greatest museums in the world.

My brother, his fiancée, and I had heard impressive things about the Naples Archaeological Museum. It’s THE place to go if you want to see, well, just about anything portable that was recovered from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  

It was our last day in Italy, and we were tempted to linger in the beautiful town of Sorrento, where we’d been staying while checking out the famous ruins of the region.  But we knew the museum would be amazing.  So we packed our bags, got onto the drab, sort-of sketchy Circumvesuviana train, and headed around the bay.

I’d heard that the Naples Archaeological Museum was always a bit of a surprise.  Every day, rooms or entire wings might be randomly closed off.  But the same thing happens often in the Louvre or the Met, I’d figured, and I’d never had a bad time there. Once we got through the arduous process of checking our bags (there weren't enough lockers), though, I realized there might be a problem.

On the map, the museum’s floors were white rectangles with just a few black or gray squares.  It looked like nothing was open.  Still, I thought, there’s supposed to be so much here.  Surely we’d see a lot.  That did not happen. Even some of the museum’s most famous works were away on loan.  After about an hour, we looked at each other, realizing our last day in Italy was a bust.

It wasn’t just the closed rooms and very limited amount of artifacts on display that made the Naples museum so disappointing.  I was actually surprised to find myself wanting more modern elements.  An enthusiastic but stuffy museum buff, I often find modern-day learning displays or reconstructions sort of jarring. But here, they would have been helpful.

About a year and a half ago, I’d gone to see a traveling exhibit on Pompeii and Herculaneum.  In the small Musée Maillol (which often has fantastic exhibits), the organizers had recreated rooms of a typical Roman villa. There were real artifacts everywhere, from large pieces of furniture, to kitchen utensils, to erotic paintings.  There were three bodies – a couple and a dog – that made us stop and stare in quiet, empathetic sorrow.  It was a powerful experience.  You felt moved when you left the exhibit, and you also felt that you’d learned something.  Your mind and soul were richer.  And now, here I was, at the museum all of this had come from, and I felt like I’d learned and seen so little.

Maybe it's because Naples is a troubled city. I thought it was intriguing when we were there: run-down but beautiful under the coatings of grime and neglect.  I wanted to stay longer and explore, yet at the same time, I was always nervously holding my purse across my chest, after having heard so much about the city’s ruthless pickpockets.  That night in our hotel room, I could feel the city pressing against the closed metal shutters. I wanted to open them and stare and let it be me and that strange place – but my brother and his fiancée were so exhausted and disappointed, that I knew it wasn’t the right time.


Now, more than a month later, we often joke about the museum and how disappointed we were.  My brother took a picture of this lion, saying the look on its face perfectly mirrors how he felt.  I keep hoping we were just there on a bad day –it was around Easter time, after all, so maybe a lot of employees were on vacation and they had to close the rooms.  

One good thing that did come of it, though, is that it’s made me think about what makes a good museum.  I’ve been to museums in just about every place I’ve travelled, and have seen a lot of different ways of displaying and explaining and preserving artifacts and art.  New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is my all-time favorite: I love the richness of the permanent collections, I love the feel of the place -- it’s so big, but it never seems overwhelming.  Here in Paris, my favorite museum is the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the city's history. It’s everything such a place should be, full of weird objects, reconstructed rooms, and relics like a model of the Bastille carved out of a stone that came from the actual Bastille, and a pair of Marie-Antoinette’s shoes.

These two museums don’t really have a lot of interactive learning displays and such; in fact, in many ways, they’re a bit outdated, you could almost say.   Then again, they don’t really need them: even the weirdest things, like an 18th century store display of taxedermied squirrels in miniature outfits, are still pretty easy to picture in their historical context.  When dealing with the ancient world, though, it’s not always so clear.  The Naples museum has an English audio guide, but only for the first floor. It was the other floors that made us ask questions, and want to see more.

The need for information in certain museums aside, maybe it's ambiance that counts.  Unlike the museums I've just mentioned, the Naples museum felt cavernous and empty.  Nothing welcomed you there. The small antique frescoes and glassware and fertility charms were mere specks within the towering white walls. 

What makes a good museum?  Is it something you can name, some features you can list, or is it really just about how you feel when you’re there?  All I know is, I’m still disappointed about the one in Naples.

glass portrait