Has mass cultural tourism gone completely mad?

The cruise ship pulls into port. Everybody gets off and heads down to the designated museum or art gallery. They see the landmark painting or sculpture, take a selfie and tick it off the list. As they enter and leave – they completely ignore a host of other great works of art as they stampede towards that one well-known object.

I was at the Louvre in Paris last week and made a film – which you can see below – of the mass of people cramming in to see the Mona Lisa. Over the years, I’ve popped into the Louvre to see the enigmatic lady with her strange smile. In the old days, you could wander over to the Mona Lisa pretty quickly, have a look and then take in some other fine compositions.

But now – it’s the main event. You have to queue for ages to take your selfie. And there’s certainly no spiritual atmosphere or moment to linger and appreciate. This is a conveyor belt approach and you get your moment to admire the brushwork of Leonardo da Vinci and then move on.

Question I’d like to put is – does this matter or is it a problem? My only feeling is that for the museums and galleries, it’s a great money spinner. In effect, the Mona Lisa is subsidising everything else the museum is doing. But for the visitor – the tourist – it’s a very narrow view of a great institution like the Louvre.

Your views? And now – watch the film!

Notre Dame – seizing an opportunity from a tragedy

I’ve spent a lot of time in Paris this year and made two visits to Notre Dame in February and March. It made me sick to my stomach to see the cathedral in flames yesterday. But almost immediately, having immersed myself in the history of Notre Dame, I recognised an opportunity that could arise from this tragedy.

Getting rid of 19th century “improvements”

It may be too soon to say this, but I’ll stick my neck out and take the risk. Notre Dame has been subject to some major changes in its 800 year history.  In the 17th century, classical pillars were added to the nave and stained glass replaced by plain glass. But it was the 19th century and a revival of interest in the medieval Gothic that led some to some very controversial changes to buildings like Notre Dame.

Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) was an architect who set out to tart up medieval buildings in France that had either fallen into disrepair or been damaged during the French Revolution of 1789. He came under fire from critics at the time for removing the 17th century classical elements put up under Louis XIV, re-introducing (as he saw it) loads of grotesque gargoyles and re-building the central spire – removed as unsafe in the 18th century.

Eugene_viollet_le_duc

Viollet-le-Duc

It was this spire that collapsed during the fire yesterday. Also destroyed would have been stained glass put in by Viollet-le-Duc and other “restorations”.  The question that should now be reviewed again is whether his changes were in keeping with the original cathedral or a 19th century Romantic era idea of the Middle Ages.

The English Gothic revivalist architect Augustus Pugin seems to have despised Viollet-le-Duc calling him a “monster of architectural depravity”.  He has been rehabilitated to a degree in recent decades, particularly as his intervention stopped some medieval churches from literally toppling over.

But it’s worth considering whether everything he did to Notre Dame – some of which may now have been reduced to ashes – needs to be reconstructed as before. Might this be an opportunity to take the cathedral back to its real medieval appearance – and not Viollet-le-Duc’s imagining?

My visits to Notre Dame this year

I visited Notre Dame twice this year and here are some of my photos from inside the building – sad to look at them now. More interestingly, a digital mapping of Notre Dame was conducted recently and it revealed the need for major repairs. Wired magazine has just run a timely article on this you can read HERE.

 

Ancient Egyptian spoons – four thousand year old cutlery!

In recent years on visits to museums I’ve been more and more taken by everyday items used by our ancient ancestors. This week, I was at the Louvre in Paris looking at the treasures of Ancient Egypt. But it wasn’t the mummies or sarcophagi that caught my attention – but the spoons!

DISCOVER: The top Ancient Roman movies of all time!

Ancient Egyptian spoons are intriguing!

In one cabinet, behind glass, were some exquisite spoons. One shaped as a woman being pulled along by a bird, possibly a swan or a duck. Another depicted a servant carrying a large sack.

I think it’s objects like these that give us real insights into the lives of people in Egypt under the pharaohs. And the state of preservation of tableware going back millennia is surprising.

Some of the spoons had a rather modern look about them. I put this down to the influence Ancient Egypt had on the 1930s art deco movement. The lady and the bird spoon could easily have graced a fashionable table in 1932 AD when in fact it dates back to around 1500 or 2000 BC.

The emergence of knives, forks and spoons is fascinating – honest! There’s nothing that dictates we MUST use utensils like these. I studied Japanese for several years and went to live in that country to practice my linguistic skills. I also had to use chopsticks 24/7.

And once you use chopsticks for a while, it becomes obvious that there are different ways of eating that are perfectly fine. By the way, if a Japanese person says ‘you are skilful at chopsticks’ – then my teacher warned me they’re just humouring your terrible form at the table.

Back to the ancient Egyptian spoons! Apparently, no spoons have yet been found in pre-dynastic Egypt – that is before the pharaohs. But they do pop up afterwards. Now I’ve read one academic paper stating that they were not used at the dinner table. In fact, no cutlery at all. Food was served and you dipped in with your hands. Please correct me if I’ve been misinformed.

The filth and stench at Versailles

The opulence and splendour of the Palace of Versailles isn’t a place you’d immediately associate with rank filth. But the three hundred year old royal residence was smelly beyond belief at its height.

Built by the so-called “Sun King”, Louis XIV, it was intended to bring the whole aristocracy of France together in one place – where the king could keep a close eye on them. But with all their servants and retinue – plus no toilets – it was soon coated in filth.

DISCOVER: Maddest rulers in history

Nobles waiting to see the absolute monarch were forced to relieve themselves behind the curtains, in the corridors or along the staircase. Meanwhile, servants carried buckets round allowing dukes and duchesses to take a pee and continue to wait.

One visitor said they felt like retching as they approached the palace. “The squalor inside was unspeakable”. The pervading odour even permeated wigs, cloaks and undergarments.

The reason for all this filth at Versailles was that as a working palace in a very centralised kingdom – with power concentrated around the king – the palace was a magnet for politicians, petitioners and ordinary people.

They flocked to Versailles to raise their concerns and questions with the king. And they came from all classes. The palace was surprisingly open by our standards so serfs, workers, merchants, soldiers and nobles rubbed shoulders – and spread their filth.

They queued for hours on end to see King Louis and were terrified of losing their place. So when nature called, the visitor to Versailles held their place in the queue by dropping their load there and then!

You may have seen the BBC drama series Versailles about the scandal and decadence revolving around King Louis XIV and his court in the late 17th century.

He built a vast palace at Versailles into which the French aristocracy were forced to take up residence so the king could keep a beady eye on them.

On a UKTV programme Private Lives of the Monarchs I detail what a stinking hellhole Versailles was. People and their pets relieving themselves while they waited to see the king – behind curtains and in piss pots.