We hit Barcelona last week. It was a culture shock after Helsinki–loud, huge, hot, a little disordered, and out all night. It smelled differently too: on the streets there was always a faint whiff of frying food, garbage, urine, hot dirt. A few months ago I posted that it took time for me to get adjusted to the smell of Helsinki when I arrived there in March–my nose was off-kilter for the first few weeks. In Barcelona I realized that, having grown up in a warm climate, it was the underlying smell of things baking in the heat–slightly off-putting but nonetheless familiar–that I was missing in Helsinki.
The Barcelona city museum is in the old city, in a complex of buildings that includes a medieval palace and church. The lower level has been excavated to reveal the remains of dyeing, fish processing, and wine-making businesses. You can walk around on platforms just above the excavations. I have seen this technique at two other museums: Pointe-à-Callière in Montreal and Aboa Vetus in Turku, Finland.
Most of the permanent exhibition at the Barcelona city museum is devoted to early history. The 20th century makes a brief (maybe 30 second) appearance in the introductory video. I saw no mention of Barcelona under Franco–still too raw after 35 years?
There was a temporary exhibition on the expansion of Barcelona and the influence of the urban planner Ildefons Cerdà. It was perhaps too academic for a general audience, but there were two meaningful moments that I liked very much. The first was El Cubo Atmosferico (the atmospheric cube). It was a transparent cube that you could walk into, based on the 19th-century urban planning notion that there was a certain volume of clean air every couple needed when they slept each night to renew themselves from the day and to protect themselves from disease. The idea was that every bedroom should be large enough to provide this volume of air. In the midst of such an academic exhibition, being able to inhabit the physical cube was a concrete teaching tool that worked.
The second was one of the best museum videos I’ve ever seen, “Barcelona, Visions de la Primera Metròpoli.” The museum commissioned this video from a production company called Nueve Ojos. Historic photos of Barcelona are animated so that they morph into one another and go from 2D to 3D, seamlessly. You can see a clip from the video on Nueve Ojos’s website. Make sure you watch the whole piece because the end is particularly spectacular. If you like this animation style, you should also check out their other project “The Beijing of Lao She.”
After four hot days we moved on to Paris, which turned out to be no cooler. More to come the next time I have internet access.