Monday, August 4, 2014

The Tale of Two House Museums

While we were in Trieste, I spent one day wandering through two house museums in the city center.  And my experiences couldn't have been more different.

The first was the Museo Revoltella, which advertises itself as a modern art museum, but started as a house that had a large wing attached to it in the early 1900's.  I spent most of my time in the house portion, obviously.

This place was amazing.  Everything looked brand new; there were no cords across chairs to prevent me from sitting on them; the banister of the three story staircase was covered in velvet--thick, plush, probably silk, velvet.  The whole time I was there I felt like the family was going to be home at any moment and ask why I was in their house.  And this feeling was amplified by two things.  First, I was the only one there.  And second, I don't just mean there were no other visitors.  I mean there were no docents or guards or employees of any sort.  Until I reached the third floor landing to find a guard, asleep in a chair(!), I saw no one.  I had an amazing house to myself for over an hour.  It was completely surreal and will probably never happen again!

Regarding that one guard, he woke up when his phone rang, he chatted loudly for a minute, and then left. And again I was alone.

The second museum was the Museo Sartorio, which simply advertises itself as a 19th century villa museum. So on the surface, pretty much exactly like the first one.  And once again, I was the only visitor.  But this time, I was stalked by docents.  And I mean stalked.

First let me say that I understand part of the job of a guard/docent (depending on the size of your museum you may have both with very different roles or just one) is to make sure visitors don't do stupid things like touching or sitting on things they shouldn't touch/sit on.  But whenever I'm stalked around a museum, it interferes with my experience.  I'm constantly aware of another person hovering, and am constantly wondering if my experience is good for them.  As in, 'Should I leave?  Are they just waiting for me to leave so they can get back to something they want to be doing?' or the opposite, 'Am I going too fast?  Maybe I'm going to be the only visitor they get today and I should slow down to give them a chance to do their job.' See the problem? A visit is supposed to be about my interaction with a space and its objects, and interaction with docents if I choose. Museum employees are supposed to facilitate that, while still keeping their objects safe. It is a balancing act, but the employees at the Sartorio were WAY off balance.

As I went from floor to floor, the docents walkie-talkie'd up to the next docent to tell them I was coming. As I wandered through a room one would pace in the next room, as I moved on, so did they.  On the 2nd floor there were two of them, and I was boxed in on either side.  It wasn't just annoying, it was kinda creepy. And the thing was, this museum had ropes telling you not to sit on the furniture.

Another difference from the first museum was that there was no impression the family would come home any moment.  The villa had been used as allied headquarters after WWII. Much of the original furnishings have been lost and walls painted sterile white. In some rooms it seems that restoration is in progress, but that process is always slow.

At the beginning of my visit, a woman who seemed like the head docent told me that the house was three floors and a basement.  By the time I was done with the three floors I was feeling done with house museums, and really ready for lunch.  (It was about 3pm at this point, so really really ready)  But as I was leaving, she stopped me with a hopeful, 'Don't you want to see the basement?'  And of course I said 'of course'.  She indicated a man who had been hovering in a doorway to come forward, and indicated I should follow him. He led me out of the house, through a covered courtyard, and into an elevator.  An exceedingly tiny elevator. Like two people, max.  And my irrational brain thought, 'And this is how I die.'  I really didn't know what to expect when the doors opened a floor below.  Certainly it wasn't that they'd open to reveal a wide, well lit corridor that had a glass floor, exposing Roman ruins discovered who knows when.  Or that amazing pottery would line the walls in perfect vitrines, making me feel like I was in a room in the British Museum and not underground in Trieste.  Or at the end of the corridor there'd be a case full of decorative cigarette cases that made me long for the early-mid 1900's where smoking accessories were more than a plastic 99c lighter. They were chic.

I didn't die in a basement in Trieste.  In fact, the basement was the most posh of the whole place, and probably shouldn't have been called a basement in the first place.  I really don't think it was under the house at all.

Two house museums, two interesting experiences, possibly neither to be repeated ever again. And that finishes my week in Trieste.

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