Friday, April 8, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Notes from a Museum Nut

Leighton Gage writes a series of crime novels featuring Chief Inspector Mario Silva of the Brazilian Federal Police. The New York Times has referred to his books as “top notch… controversial and entirely absorbing” and called the new one, Every Bitter Thing, “irresistible.” Readers can access a video of him at, and read his weekly contributions on the blog he shares with seven other writers of international mysteries at He lives and works in Brazil.
I’m a museum nut. Maybe it has something to do with being museum-starved here in São Paulo, where we have so very few.

Although, if you ever come here, you really shouldn’t miss our MASP. It’s got the finest collection of Western Art in all of the Southern Hemisphere. And a very attractive building as well, under which a flea market is held every Sunday.

I have made it my goal to visit all of the great art museums of the world and I’ve been pretty successful at achieving it, but there remain two glaring exceptions in my museum knowledge.

The Hermitage...

...and the National Palace Museum in Taiwan.

I’ve never been to either place.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the former, but you may not be familiar with the latter, which has the most precious collection of Chinese Art in the world – and is one of the reasons why mainland China is so anxious to annex the country. You can read about the history of the museum here: And, while there, I suggest you click on the “Collection” tab at the top of the page and sample of few of the museum’s delights. Chinese art isn’t everyone’s cup of chai, certainly not mine, but the place is still on my bucket list.

As to the Hermitage, did you know how close it is to Helsinki?

I’ve been in Finland many times, but have yet to make it to St. Petersburg, despite many promises to my wife to do so. The two cities are separated by little more than 180 miles – and there’s a train. But I’ll be in Helsinki again, in September, for the launch of another Finnish version of one of my books – and, this time, I’ve resolved to go.

The thing about museums and me is that, no matter how much I love them, if I’m in one for more than about three hours at a stretch, my level of appreciation drops. And, since I don’t see myself ever spending more than a few days in Taipei, I fear that my visit to the National Palace Museum is going to be an incomplete experience. That’s why I prefer to make extended stays in those cities that have lots to offer in the museum department.

And, being both a writer and a guy whose kids are no longer at home, my wife and I can often get away with it.

In 2009, for example, we spent the time between March and October in Paris. Enough time to see all of the museums, right?

Wrong! Paris has more than 140 of them. Some of them are so small you can do them in a morning.

One such, is the splendid little Museum of Romantic Life:

Another is the Museum of Eroticism: Warning: that one is “X” rated. They project classic pornographic films in black and white and have a myriad of interesting...objects. Don’t bring the kids.

The Mother of All Paris Museums is, of course, the Louvre.

If you’re living in Paris, as we were, one of the first things you should buy for yourself is a membership in the Société des Amis du Louvre:

They have a little shop in one of the galleries you’ll pass on your way from the Metro to the ticket booths. Drop in, and for a mere ninety Euros, you can buy a family membership, valid for two, for a year. And, with one of those, you get to bypass the long lines at the ticket windows and visit for as long as you like, whenever you like. The normal entry fee to the Louvre is 14 Euros a person, so you and your spouse, if you have one, are going to spend 28 Euros a visit. Do the math. In four visits, the membership pays for itself. But with your membership card you can drop by for an hour or so without it seeming like an indulgence. Which is what we did, several times a week between March and October of 2009. I can honestly say that I now know the Louvre better than any other great museum in the world.

Finally, folks, a suggestion. If you haven’t yet visited Paris’s Jacquemart-André, you really should check it out:

They have a truly splendid collection of paintings by Italian and Flemish masters housed in what used to be a private mansion back in the Belle Époque. The art is fantastic, but the place is well worth-seeing for the building alone.


  1. Thanks for blogging with us today, Leighton. I'm like you where museums are concerned. Love them, but my eyes glaze over after a while. Why do you think there are so few museums in Sao Paulo?

  2. Great post, Leighton! So I'm curious, if you had to choose, which is your favorite museum? Mine would be the Natural History one at the Smithsonian. But that might because after so many repeat visits, the staff recognizes me...

  3. Hi Heidi,
    Good question. Here's the answer:
    At the dawn of the twentieth century, SP was a backwater of less than 200,000 inhabitants.
    Back then, Rio de Janeiro was the largest city in the country. It was also the political capital of the nation.
    Pedro II, deposed in 1889, had ruled there for almost sixty years, and he was a great patron of the arts.
    In his day, painters, musicians, sculptors and such folk flocked there in search of work.
    And the wealthy people of the city copied their emperor by giving it to them.
    Those same wealthy "Cariocas" also bought a lot of art from abroad and supported the establishment of places to display it.
    And that's why, until today, Rio has many more museums than SP does.
    But SP has long since become the financial capital of the nation, the place where most of the wealth is now concentrated, and "Paulistas" hate being outdone.
    Many new museums have opened their doors in SP during the last half-century or so, but they have come too late to be able to acquire much great art because so little of it is coming on the market.
    And only the MASP has managed to build up a truly respectable collection.

    Hi Supriya,
    I have a weakness for the Dutch and Flemish masters, so I tend to prefer places that own such pieces.
    The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection in New York, the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery in Washington, DC to name a few.
    I really couldn't give you just one.

  4. It's not European but here's one you might have to add to your list, Leighton. The recently renovated National Museum of China:

    Interesting history of museums in Brazil.

  5. I can easily spend a day in a museum, from the moment it opens and until they throw me out the door. I spent all day in the Vienna museum. I spent all day in V&A in London. In my memory, the Hermitage is bigger than Louvre, although I can be wrong - after all it's been over 20 years since I visited it last. It took me more than a day to get through it, I had to come back, and I still didn't get to see all of it.
    thank you for your post, I love knowing there are museum nuts out there, just like me!