Two Museums in Minneapolis


Touching down at Minneapolis airport shortly before 19:00 last night, my wife and I were met by the charming Heather Flowers and Erin Emmerich from the Anthro Dept. They got us installed at our hotel and joined us for dinner at the food court of the monstrous Mall of America. (There's a theme park inside it.) Then to bed.

This morning we negotiated the ample, varied and sugar-rich breakfast buffet here at the Fairfield Inn, and then went to the light rail station. We're in the second-generation periphery of Minneapolis near the airport, outside the old industrial fringe. The roads are 6-lane highways here, the buildings huge hotels and malls, everything thinly spread like in the recently developed fringes of Chinese cities. And of course anything catering to pedestrians and cyclists is an afterthought: the railway station is under a multilevel parking garage and to get there on foot you either have to go through the mall or wander in via the automobile ramps. The train is a little clunky and rickety, but it speeds along fine, it's not expensive and it does have bike racks. We changed to a bus at Franklin Avenue and found that apparently only poor people ride buses here. But then, this was at 09:45, so I guess anybody who wasn't at work already was probably unemployed.

We spent 3½ hours at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and barely scratched the surface of what's on offer there. They have a bit of everything ancient and modern from around the world, in large numbers and top quality, with free admittance. A very impressive museum. But I was truly appalled to see how much recently looted archaeology they show. The Chinese collection, for instance, appears largely to have been acquired in the past 20 years, and there's no provenance on anything. "Figurines from an 8th century Imperial burial, probably in the Luoyang region" etc. This is in stark contrast to a temporary exhibition of exquisite 15th century French mortuary sculpture from Dijon, where the context of each piece has been painstakingly documented. It's the exact same kind of objects: sculpture from royal burials, but under very different circumstances.

The French aren't looting their heritage, they're curating it and lending bits of it to US museums. The main reason why the Chinese are looting theirs is demand from unscrupulous art collectors. Why is the art world still allowing this to happen? These are not just "works of art". At least half of everything in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is archaeological finds. We should demand a detailed excavation report before we even considered touching the stuff, let alone buying it. I don't want to see objects dug up "probably in the Luoyang region" and donated by an American collector. I want to see pieces excavated by Chinese archaeologists to modern standards of documentation and lent by a Chinese museum. I mean, look at me and my team, pinpointing fucking quartz chips with GPS in a muddy field in Södermanland, while at the same time looters are opening 8th century Imperial tombs in China and carting out T'ang sculpture by the wheel barrow, destroying its archaeological context. It's sad, so sad.

But as I said, the museum is wonderfully rich, and if you don't care about provenance or archaeological context you will be able to enjoy it far more than I did. We were intrigued and enlightened by a collection of 16th-17th century classicising bronze statuettes shown to us by a friendly and knowledgeable docent, and those 15th century Dijon Mourners were truly a treat.


We walked to the American Swedish Institute, which is housed in an early 20th century sandstone mansion built by a Swedish immigrant newspaper baron. Program officer Nina Clark welcomed us, fed us cardamom buns, conversed in idiomatic Swedish and showed us around. She remarked that the house is coeval with early modernism, Frank Lloyd Wright etc., yet is anchored firmly and lavishly in later 19th century bourgeois taste. It reminded me of what the Rettig family was doing with their town house in Stockholm at the same time, now home to the Royal Academy of Letters with one floor being a museum. I used to share a small office there with an extremely overdecorated pink, baby blue, gilded, eagle-topped tiled fireplace, and the ones at the American Swedish Institute are very similar. Above, myself and Nina are standing in front of one such fireplace decorated with Viking gnomes (!?), a relief plaque reproducing MÃ¥rten Eskil Winge's "Thor Battles the Giants" and odd Oscarian variations on late-1st millennium animal art.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the ASI is not some sleepy outfit commemorating a dying ethnicity and catering mainly to retirees. Quite the contrary: there's lots going on at the Institute, to the extent that they're extending the building substantially and in very good taste. The people of Minnesota may not speak Swedish any more, but they're interested in Sweden, and not just in what went on there in the 1800s. We met Swedish painter/cartoonist Jesper Löfvenborg who is there as resident artist, and best-selling hated-by-critics crime novelist Camilla Läckberg was visiting just as we were. Also, speaking more generally, all three of Stieg Larsson's crime novels are on the top-10 US sales list for the first quarter of 2011.

Walking east to the light rail though a somewhat run-down neighbourhood of two-story houses, we went back to the hotel for a nap. The idea was to go a barmeet with skeptics late in the evening. If you go to bed at 17:00 you expect to sleep maybe for an hour and a half, and jet lag made me too sleepy to think clearly. I forgot to set the alarm clock and woke at 23:30. Too late for the barmeet, which really disappointed me. And worse, it undid all the work I'd done on resetting my internal clock, and now I'm likely to be sleepy as hell for the boardgame night tomorrow.

So now it's 02:15 in the small hours and I'm awake. But I'm also sleepy, so maybe I can get in a few hours more towards the end of the night and get my clock reset after all.

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If donations to museums are a way to get tax deductions for the estimated value of the items, you have the answer for the demand right there. I saw an American TV documentary about precisely this problem back in the 1970s!!!

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 07 Apr 2011 #permalink

or wander in via the automobile ramps

Don't do that! It's practically suicidal.

I always feel overwhelmed and saddened by museum collections that lack provenance and archeological/cultural context. Local museums, as mundane and limited as their collections may seem to some, are more rewarding. I used to be vaguely embarrassed to take visitors to our Institute of Texan Cultures (yes, yes, some will say that's an oxymoron), but everyone has thoroughly enjoyed it. There is a lovingly curated exhibit of local Native American artifacts, complete with an informative display on archaeological excavations. The remainder of the objects in the museum are prosaic, but the contexts and connections to local people and immigrant history are carefully documented and described: Wendish wedding costumes, Swedish dairy equipment, Chinese festival items, household items in a reconstructed sharecropper's cabin, etc. Nothing that will make you gasp in awe or surprise, but at least none of it has been looted or displayed out of context.

Wish we could get you and your wife to visit Texas someday, Martin, but right now I wouldn't inflict the weather on anyone. Would be fun to have you deconstruct and critique the museums, malls, local culture, and sprawl ... and I think we could do a better job of feeding you, too.

I'd be very happy to speak in Texas too! Just find me some Viking nuts who aren't white supremacists and maybe we can get something together.

As for feeding, I've been to the South once (NC), and I could barely walk after their lunches. (-;

In Tucson we have the "International Wildlife Museum." Rich trophy hunters go on safari, kill a bunch of animals, and then donate some of the hides/bones/whatever to the museum and then get a huge tax deduction. Whenever I drive by I am particularly disgruntled because the signs claim the museum promotes wildlife conservation.

I'd never leave a visitor to the whims and sugaries of a typical US hotel breakfast buffet. Usually I take visiting seminar speakers to a funky local Texan or Mexican cafe for breakfast, so they can have huevos rancheros, breakfast tacos, chorizo gravy and biscuits, or whatever southwestern treats their heart desires. If a visitor is staying at my house, then I'll make these things, or somewhat healthier options (wholegrain pancakes, Scottish oatmeal, poached eggs) for them. We also have access to good produce from the Valley and from Mexico: oranges, grapefruits, melons, and at the moment, strawberries, blackberries, and mangoes. The mangoes are excellent this year, had one with my oatmeal for breakfast.

I can't eat like a typical Southerner - I'd be obese within no time.

I am sad to see your experiences of Minneapolis so negative! I agree with Barn Owl above - whoever left you to experience this awesome city through the nasty MOA food court and breakfast buffet has done you very very wrong. Seriously, if you want suggestions on how to experience Minneapolis email me.

Be sure to get to the Minneapolis Riverfront Stone Arch Bridge, Minnehaha Falls (the water over the falls right now is very high and breathtaking), and don't miss The Museum of Russian Art.

Minneapolis proper (not the suburban sprawl) is a thriving bike-friendly (#1 in nation), foodie, culture-rich city. Sure, if you take the bus during the day or walk the neighborhoods next to the highway you will glimpse the less-than-perfect side of a city. But Minneapolis has an extremely high percentage of the population that uses public transit (mostly during working commuting hours and into and out of the city for sporting events) and a housing stock that has been holding its value much better than the national average during this depression.

There's an interesting article in this month's Harper's magazine about how demand for artifacts is fuelling looting of Buddhist and Hindu religious icons in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. It's the free market at work!

Owl, my wife would be very interested in what you describe. She's a slender little Chinawoman who eats about twice what I do.

Ami, thank you for your suggestions! My experience of Minneapolis has certainly not been negative so far. Am I sounding cranky?

Greg, indeed. If the customers demand decorative stuff more than knowledge about the past, then the invisible hand will be very happy to oblige.

the MIA is one of my favorite diversions,i'll drop in for a hour or so several times a month.a meal at the cafe would have been a better bet than the of course need more than a quick look at our museums to really get a feel for the city and remember where you are,sort of in the middle of nowhere.45 minutes from the MIA in any direction and it's cows,corn or trees.a look out the window of the light rail as you were about to pull into the Mall and you would have seen sheep grazing.all in all we're happy to have as much as we do.

I went through the Swedish Institute several years ago with my mother (%100 Swedish) and found a great deal that surprised me about my heritage. It is a lovely place, even for those non-Swedes who are curious about where the phrase "uff da" comes from.

"But then, this was at 09:45, so I guess anybody who wasn't at work already was probably unemployed."

You know, not everybody gets to work a Monday through Friday 9 to 5 shift, especially people with jobs that pay so poorly they have to ride the bus. Lots of folks like that in America.

Woah, that's one sweeet fireplace. It would make a perfect ironic centerpiece for a postmodern living room - although ironic might be too weak a word...a perfect sarcastic centerpiece.

The pastel-colored relief of brutal carnage and heathen gods is particularly bizarre, but the gnomes are clearly the cherry on top. They do look remarkably similar to typical German garden gnomes (Gartenzwerge) - despite the fact that the iconography of those, to the best of my knowledge, has only very shallow roots in actual mythology. Perhaps the Swedish sculptor skimped on the research?

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 09 Apr 2011 #permalink

The Swedish Institute! That is a wonderful, wonderful place, and I'm so glad you got to enjoy it.

By the way, there is no requirement that you enter the light rail system via the Mall of America, and in fact, unless you are actually at the Mall or transferring via the bus stop there, I don't know why you would. There are several outdoor train platforms just a few blocks away. Bloomington had intended to build a rather stunning pedestrian-oriented complex around those stations, but then the housing bubble burst and took all the money with it. So it's indefinitely on hold.

The next time you are here, there are many other things you should see. If you like modern art, there's the Walker, if you like theater there's . . . oh, tons of stuff, but the most famous is the Guthrie. Fine classical music too, in both downtowns. The rivers (plural -- they call it the Three Rivers District) are gorgeous too, and if you want to feel a bit of history, go to Fort Snelling State Park to see the Mendota, the "meeting of waters" where the Mdewakanton Sioux believe life began, and imagine what it was like before Europeans came to the area. (It's fairly wild down there, considering.) Minnehaha Falls is truly spectacular, and well worth seeing, though if the weather is even mildly nice, parking will be a challenge. It is accessible from the light rail, though. The Minnesota Historical Society is good, and if you like old instruments, in the Landmark Center in St Paul is the Schubert Club Museum. It's mostly keyboard instruments, and they'll even let you play some of them. Then there's the Chain of Lakes. The Twin Cities are justly known for their beautiful parks; though there are too many lakes to protect them all, many of them are preserved for the community as sacrosanct jewels. Lake Harriet's my favorite, but Lake Calhoun, Lake of the Isles, Lake Nokomis, Lake Hiawatha, Lake Como . . . these are all beautiful. Como in St Paul is also home to the Como Zoo (which has made some good improvements lately, but is clearly in dire funding straits, and I worry about some of their animals) and the lovely Como Conservatory, a stunning early-20th-century glass structure that houses a tropical forest. During the summer, you may also visit their Japanese Garden. If you like gardens, also visit the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, half an hour west of Minneapolis, just past Chanhassen. Actually part of the University of Minnesota, the Arb does some serious cutting-edge stuff in horticulture (it's where the Honeycrisp apple was born, for instance), and it's beautiful to look at as well. One really nice thing is that the groundskeepers are always out and about and happy to answer questions and advice -- it looks like a garden, but they treat it more like a combination of museum and scientific research station.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 11 Apr 2011 #permalink

Thank you for excellent tips! Hope I'll get to try them out. We actually were to the Arboretum, which looks rather bald & grey this time of year but which will no doubt be paradisical in a few weeks time. The conference I spoke keynote for took place there.

The MoA light rail station was the one closest to our hotel, and it does not have easy access for pedestrians.