Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Art And History Museum 2008

I confess I feel I should have visited more museums more often for my blog. One of my favorites is the Art And History Museum on Front Street which carries the small town collections that illustrate this little town's particular history. Next year plans are afoot for extravagant celebrations of Flagler's railroad centenary and I expect we will see more of this place in http://TheKeyWestLocal.com when Chuck and I fire it up on January 1st. Bear in mind the exhibits have changed but the magnificent Customs House brick building is right there, down town, waiting for you and me to visit.

Small town America is loaded with repositories of local arcana and culture, and Key West has it's own Museum of Art and History too, and of course I think its the best small town museum around. Certainly its in a splendid building, an all-brick genuine US Custom House, designed with snowfall in mind and built to a standard specification.The Art and History Museum has several permanent exhibits on offer and rotates several of its rooms for visiting shows. Seward Johnson a sculptor backed by the Johnson and Johnson family fortune has been a favorite for some time. He likes to make mind bending sculptures rendering three dimensional that which we consider familiar in the world of Art. American Gothic, the grumpy farmer, his pitchfork and his daughter is an icon. So naturally the sculptor needs to mess with people's heads:They are enormous, the statues:But Johnson also has some more life sized statues for people to play with, possibly familiar from art class:The Art and History Museum has its own display chronicling its long era of neglect but the place has been brought back from near destruction and has become a lovely Victorian to wander around in, unusual in Key West, brick and wood and everything:
It's ten bucks to get in, with a whole ten percent discount for local ID, better than nothing I suppose, and there he is, at it again, Seward Johnson:It looks like nothing more than a copy of the Mona Lisa, the enigmatic smile and all, but walking along side the picture it becomes apparent this sculpture has its own story to tell. Playing on the obscure origin of this painting Johnson made a sculpture following the theory that La Gioconda (as she is known in Italy) was actually a version of the artist's male lover and "her" legs have been sculpted to reflect that notion:Elsewhere in the room we have women with pearl earrings and skirts flying, all familiar images rendered in three dimensions. Last year Johnson had an exhibit of impressionist art in similar style and it had quite an unexpected effect on me walking among the life sized diners I'd seen for years and taken for granted in two dimensions.The History part of the museum is preoccupied with one incident in particular, the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898. The battleship blew up in spectacular fashion and the US took this as a sign of Spanish hostile intentions and promptly went to the assistance of Cuban rebels, ending up in possession of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.Speculation is that possibly the coal in the Maine's bunkers got wet and produced explosive gases, as coal will, and the less gullible take it upon themselves to suggest the US may have been responsible for the explosion that took the lives of US sailors. Rather in the manner of people nowadays who suggest the US government was behind the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Be that as it may the killed and injured were transported to Key West, the dead buried in a plot of land famous in photographs of the city cemetery, the injured cared for at the Navy hospital. The museum got a bunch of artifacts after it was all over:The other big deal in Key West history was the arrival of Ernest Hemingway and there is a fair bit of him in here:Killing fish, slaying babes......drinking, traveling and killing more animals. Fighting in World War One, as well:He wrote a few books in Key West and one about Key West, he drank with Sloppy Joe Russell, at Captain Tony's, and was fairly miserable at home by all accounts. In the above photograph there are souvenirs of his time in Italy and a picture of his first and (they say) only love. All terribly romantic but from what I can figure he fled Key West when the highway arrived and spent many years at his favorite home which was in Cuba, Finca Vigia ("Lookout Farm") which from what I have heard has been perfectly preserved by the general fossilization that has taken place in Cuba over the past 50 years.

Nearer to our own times the museum honors the Cuban American artist Mario Sanchez who died a couple of years ago. Sanchez had time on his hands (he lived into his 90's) and he taught himself to whittle planks of wood. It is astonishing stuff, street scenes of Key West in his childhood:And he got his own portrait painted too, by Paul Collins:His intaglios are much prized these days and he made quite a name for himself. I happen to know reproductions are on sale on Duval and I think its about time my wife got me one for my birthday.The originals that are on show at the Museum tend to leap out at you:The Museum celebrates the history of wrecking and Porter's anti-piracy squadron, which cleared out all pirates in less than a decade after the city was founded (much to the discomfort I'm sure of all the irritating pirate lovers who want to make out the keys were all about pirates). Porter didn't think much of Key West and left as soon as the job was done. But wrecking was quite the business for decades:And it was legitimate too. It made fortunes for it's practitioners, and brought a level of sophistication to Key West which was decorated by ship's cargoes from all over the world. Then came the lighthouses and that put paid to much of that. The museum has a couple of large maps of 19th century Key West on display. This one show Fort Zachary Taylor as a separate island, before the harbor was filled in around it:
Alongside that is a rather corny but cool diorama for Key West's waterfront at the same period.Key West really was isolated back then, and its population of 12,000 stayed pretty steady over the years. Nowadays we have double the numbers but we also have double the area as the city has spread over the whole island. What was scrub lands is now New Town. History appeals to me because it gives depth and meaning to the present. It gives me perspective when people moan about modern day changes. And there are news paper reports about the arrival of the railroad that express the fears and reluctance of many about how the island would be irrevocably changed. I ask people now about the notion that perhaps we should cut the bridge link and they look horrified. Change isn't always good but sometimes it has its good points!

A case in point: the police department recently lost its chief to an unpleasant scandal. In the bad old days they apparently voted for chief, according to a reproduction of the old San Carlos Theater at the museum:

And it gets better. We have a row of photographs documenting past police chiefs on the wall outside the chief's office in the police station. And there he is, Cleveland Niles in 1926:"Your most honest..." ? No worse than today at least.

And to close the obligatory alligator photo:

There was a man who lived on Key Largo who collected junk and turned it into Art. Stanley Papio got into trouble with his neighbors for bringing down thequality of the neighborhood. Where they saw junkin front of his house, he saw Art. He has a few pieces now on display at this museum and also the East Martello Tower the other venue for art and history in Key West. Or he used to. I'll have to go to the Martello Tower and check. Luckily I like small town museums.