Sunday, May 24, 2015

Amsterdam - Quirky Museums - Part 2

There were so many wacky museums in Amsterdam that we just couldn’t get to them all.  We mainly chose the ones that we could get into for free using our Museumkaart, but did buckle down and pay to see a few others, like the Cat museum.  For the rest, we settled for taking a photo of the building or front lobby, as we did for the Tulip, Vintage Eye Glasses, Piano, and the Chess Museums.

We considered going to the Hash Marijuana and Hemp Museum and got as far as the front lobby but balked when it wasn’t covered by our Museumkaart.  We had already been so exposed to cannabis-related sights, smells, ingredients and paraphernalia just from walking around the streets that visiting a museum on this topic seemed redundant.  We found shops offering cannabis in many of its forms including weed, seeds, oils and mushrooms.

On our walking tour, we learned the difference between a café where you can get a coffee or latté, as opposed to a “Coffee Shop”, which is the code name for establishments where pot is sold and smoked.  Once you know what to look for, you start to spot these places everywhere, even near our quiet residential area outside of the downtown core.  In the heart of the Canal area, De Dampkring seems to be the place to go.  From afar, it looks like a beautifully decorated Indian restaurant, but as you approach, one whiff gives away its true purpose.  We also could have guessed if we understood Dutch, since dampkring means smoke ring or vapour.  Peeking into De Dampkring reveals a brightly decorated, psychedelic décor.  I guess they want to give you a visual head start before the drugs kick in.  Other coffee shops are more obviously named, such as CoffeeShop Reefer or The Busy Doctor.

In order not to be shut down, coffee shops follow strict “House Rules” that are prominently posted in the window.  The rules vary from place to place but a few sacrosanct rules are that you must be at least 18 years old to partake, identification must be shown and no more than 5 grams can be sold per person .  In order to further enforce this, De Dampkring has the extra rule of no hats or sunglasses to hide your identity.  Ironically, tobacco smoking is illegal in coffee shops.  Another establishment’s rules indicate that it is a “takeout” shop only, and limits how much you can buy and how far away from the shop you must be before you can smoke your stash.  Before we left for Amsterdam, we were asked multiple times whether we planned to try the “special brownies”.  We decided that we were getting enough highs from the secondary marijuana smoke and did not need any extra stimulation.  We did eat a brownie in Amsterdam, but chocolate is our drug of choice.

We decided that if we were not going to learn about drugs while in Amsterdam, then at very least we should learn about sex!  But let me put off describing the Sex Museum until the end of this blog, in order to give any prudish people who might take offense a chance to stop reading before getting to that part!  Instead I will talk about the Florescent Light Museum next, which probably ties in better with the Marijuana Museum anyways.

When we first chose to visit the Electric Lady, touted as the “First Museum of Fluorescent Art”, we envisioned large, flashy neon signs like the El Mocambo sign in Toronto, or ones that you find in Vegas.  Accordingly, we were looking for a large building that could store these works.  Imagine our surprise when we arrived at a tiny little house covered in plants and flowers that contained an art gallery on the top floor and a small museum in the basement.  The shop/museum is run by a greying, long-haired hippie named Nick Padalino, who looked like he spent some time at Woodstock and had just come back from an Ashram.  I quite expected him to offer us a joint before the visit was through.  Looking at the gallery, we got a better sense of what he meant by “Fluorescent Art”, which including paintings and sculptures covered with vibrant, glowing paint.

Then it was quite the rigmarole preparing to visit the museum.  Our host explained that we were about to enter a large room-sized "Fluorescent Environment" that we could experience and “become part of the art”.  But first we had to take precautions in order not to damage the art, which included painted floors that we could walk on and surfaces that we could touch.  Huge signs in bright red letters warned us that we should not be wearing sunscreen on our hands or anything that might come in contact with the art surfaces, since the UV in the sunscreen would damage the paint.  We also had to take off our shoes and put on little sock slippers in order to protect the floors.  Finally, we had to gingerly navigate down the steepest set of stairs to reach the museum, being careful not to bang our heads on the “No Suntan Lotion” sign while I struggled to keep my feet in the socks that were way too big for me.

When we landed at the bottom, our first view was a spectacular piece of art covering the entire back of the room.  Painted in bright colours with fluorescent materials, the work was pretty to see in daylight, but really came alive when Nick turned off the lights.  He encouraged us to wander into the work, peaking in the windows and crevices to find hidden surprises.  When we took photos of ourselves while immersed in the piece, our fingers and teeth flowed and our skin colour appeared to change to match the background.  This is what was meant by “participatory art”–we literally became part of the art.

That was a really fascinating experience, but looking around the rest of the room, we were disappointed to see only drab looking displays containing grey and beige rocks and sandstone art.  Was there just one piece of art in the entire museum?  Little did we realize that we were still in for a quite the tour.  Nick turned off the rest of the lights and shone long and shortwave UV lights as well as black light against the previously dull looking minerals and crystals.  Under these special lights, the rocks sprang to life and glowed in brilliant hues.  He explained how each type of light brought out different colours in the rocks.  He did a similar demonstration with the sandstone art, explaining that they were created by taking different particles of fluorescent minerals and laying them down to produce mosaic-like works.

Nick then showed us some practical uses of fluorescent materials that only showed up under UV or black lights.  This is used in various identity cards, money and stamps for protection against counterfeiting.  He showed us a foreign credit card where the face of Albert Einstein suddenly appeared under the right types of lights.  This prompted us to all pull out our own cards to see what would happen.  We found out that our Ontario driver’s licenses display a bright red trillium under the lights.  During the demonstrations, Nick had Jimmy Hendrix music playing in the background, and the very last thing he showed us was a Jimmy Hendrix poster drawn in fluorescent ink that again illuminated under UV lights.  Hendrix was obviously a great inspiration for the museum since its name Electric Lady is derived from the name of his album "Electric Ladyland".  All in all, this turned out to be an excellent tour that was well worth the price of admission.

The Cheese Museum made our list of places to visit because of three factors–We were passing right by the area, it was free, and we got to taste cheese.  Is it too groan-inducing to say that the Cheese Museum was rather “cheesy” (pun intended)?  It was quite a small display in the basement below the cheese shop, but there was an old 19th century cheese press, a giant weighing scale, and an udder milking contraption. Plaques that described the history of cheese and the cheese making process.

Cheese is made using pasteurized (heated) or unpasteurized milk that is turned to solid by adding rennet, causing the milk to curdle.  The mixture is then cut to separate the curds from the whey (excess liquid).  The curds are pressed in a cheese mold, then soaked in salt water.  The cheese is then left to age for a minimum of 4 weeks.  Based on the photographs, in the past before automation, cheese making was a woman's job and done by hand.
OK, it’s finally time to talk about the Sex Museum (Venustempel), so here is your last chance to bail … proceed at your own risk!  As you can imagine, the Sex Museum features 4 floors full of innumerable images of breasts, male and female genitalia, and depictions in paintings, drawings and sculptures of couples copulating in every way imaginable.  But it isn’t all just about showing smut and porn and sensationalism.  Beneath the veneer of titillation lies some thoughtful information about how sex was portrayed through the years and from the perspective of different ethnic cultures.

Let’s start with a few relatively tame photos to get you started and whet your appetite.  In light of prostitution being legal in Amsterdam, it seemed fitting to find wax representations of the sex trade industry through history, from the 19th Century Paris brothel madame to the current day sex workers who try to lure clients into their one room stalls in the De Wallen Red Light district (so named due to the red light above the door).  We actually walked through this area during the day and witnessed the women at work.  They would peep out from drawn curtains, gyrate and gesture suggestively in a quick peek show and then duck back behind the coverings.  We found it especially ironic to find a string of these stalls situated directly across from the historic Oude Kerk (Old Church).  It’s like walking down the street with the little angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other… which way to turn?  Taking pictures of the prostitutes is strictly prohibited, but that made it difficult to try to photograph the church without raising their suspicions towards our intentions.

In representing the history of sex, the museum has accumulated a fine collection of art and objects depicting sex and eroticism through the ages, including artifacts referring from classic Greek and Roman times up to current times, and representing different cultures from all the continents including Asia, Europe and the Americas.

I was particularly amused by a set of drawings from the 1940-50s depicting various sadomasochistic acts since the style of drawing from that era usually depicts more wholesome images and themes (think June Cleaver or Father Knows Best).  A set of faded 19th Century photos that I thought of as “vintage porn” were interesting as well, especially the ones that I called “naughty priests porn”.

It seems like no object is off limits for the inclusion of salacious or erotic imagery.  On display were binoculars, tobacco pipes, beer bottles, watches, playing cards, gun powder kegs and more.  There was a strange phallically-shaped object with a face and arms that was labelled as a “modern day rice-pounding stick?”  One of the more interesting items was the 19th Century wooden music box that played the tune Edelweiss while the two naked figures on top thrust and bumped in rhythm to the music.  Captain Von Trapp must be rolling over in his grave!

As we first entered the building, we were greeted with live-sized motion-sensor controlled animatronics that sprang into action to perform some perverse act as we passed by, accompanied by realistic sound effects.  There was the woman who was actively masturbating her partner, the flasher who popped out of the dark to expose himself, and a grotesque naked woman who suddenly appeared with outstretched arms to grab you.  Above her was the label “Fanny Hill Street” referring to what is considered to be the first pornographic novel.  On a stairwell wall of plastic torsos and butts, one of them with large eyes winked and then made a farting sound and wind effects.  And finally in a room with absurdly giantic penises, the chairs made a humping motion and a "squeaking bed springs" sound when you sat on them.

 My favourite part of the museum was actually the toilet area.  The toilets, urinals and sinks were all shaped like female sex organs including a flowering labia.  But the best part was the mirror which acted like a normal reflective surface until you turned on the water in the sink.  This triggered a little short animation to appear on the mirror showing a woman sitting in a garden dressed in a long robe with flowers in her hair.  A man approaches and she rises to meet him, dropping her robe to expose her naked body, before walking off with him hand in hand.
There were so many artifacts to look at that what I have described is just the tip of the iceberg (lewd imagery intended).  After leaving the Sex Museum, I’m not sure if it was just the power of suggestion but suddenly everything we looked suspiciously like sexual organs!  Sex is such a mainstream thing in Amsterdam that there are sex toys and paraphernalia available for sale in the local tourist shops next to the t-shirts, tulips and Dutch clog slippers.  I liked the Willy Warmer and the Pecker Bowling Pins and had to stop Rich from buying the copulating bears to add to our collection of salt and pepper shakers.

I wish we could have experienced more quirky museums but we wanted to devote some time to the serious museums within Amsterdam as well.  More about that in the next blog.

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