Between the Covers with Gary Vikan

posted by: November 30, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Sacred and StolenCrooked dealers. Forgeries. Thefts. Looted antiquities. Readers will find it all in Gary Vikan’s highly readable and entertaining new memoir, Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director. The distinguished medieval scholar and former director of the Walters Art Museum recently answered questions for Between the Covers in advance of his book talk at the Hereford Branch on December 4 at 2 p.m.

 

Between the Covers: Your new memoir, Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director, provides an insightful, often humorous look behind the scenes of the art world. What prompted you to share these stories with the public?

 

Gary Vikan: Over the years I became increasingly interested, as I gave tours of the Walters, in telling the stories behind the works of art — stories that are distinct from their art-historical narrative. Most works have a story, many are very interesting — and some straight-out scandalous.

 

BTC: Shady dealings, sketchy characters, stolen art — you cover it all. Did you worry you were saying too much?

 

GV: Not at all. Maybe not enough. My lectures on the book can go into that other territory.

 

BTC: Museums have to connect with people. How has the art experience for the public changed since you got into the business?

 

GV: I initially thought my job was to educate my audience. Now I think my job is to listen to my audience, and to meet them where they are. Ideally, I can create for them a setting in which works of art of the past can do their magic.

 

BTC: From 1994 to 2013, you were the director of the Walters Art Museum. What accomplishments are you most proud?

 

GV: We went free in 2006. That is what museums should be: FREE.

 

BTC: Of all the exhibitions you’ve curated during your career, do you have a favorite?

 

GV: Yes, Holy Image, Holy Space: Icons and Frescoes from Greece in 1988. It was the first major icon show in the U.S., and it was the first time I was able to empower the works fully in my installation.. People kissed the Plexiglas of the cases containing the icons.

 

BTC: You speak about the “Wild West” days of collecting when not a lot of questions were asked about the provenance of pieces. Where are we today with the trail of looted antiquities and threat to the world’s cultural heritage?

 

GV: We’re in what I call the “Post-Loot” age. I can tell that by what is NOT coming out of Syria and Iraq. Like our tobacco culture, our loot culture has changed profoundly over the last 30 years.

 

BTC: What do you see as the next challenges for museums?

 

GV: Being meaningful for audiences, and playing a meaningful role in addressing social justice and social ills. To be a player in healing.

 

BTC: You have a knack for telling an engaging story. Are there any plans to write a fictional whodunit set in the art world?

 

GV: Nope, because my reality is stranger than fiction. My next book is titled: The Shroud: Case Closed. And guess what, I prove the Shroud of Turin is a FAKE!


 
 

American Cake

posted by: November 29, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for American CakeI have always fancied myself a baker, so I couldn’t wait to dig my teeth into Anne Byrn’s American Cake: From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer, the Stories and Recipes Behind More Than 125 of Our Best-loved Cakes from Past to Present. In her latest, Byrn, the best-selling author of Cake Mix Doctor (which has one of my favorite, go to cake recipes — Chocolate Kahlua Cake), not only gives you delicious recipes, but the history behind some of your favorite cakes as well.

 

The book starts with baking in America in the mid-1600s and continues through the present. Home bakers did not always have modern day appliances, but they still baked wonderful cakes. There were times when some of the ingredients were scarce and people had to improvise, which, according to Byrn, is the mark of a good baker. We learn that early cake baking was done by the wealthy because the ingredients were expensive. Each recipe comes with a brief history. Maryland’s own Smith Island Cake has an entry. There were  “war cakes” and “Depression cakes,” which were  made without eggs, sugar or butter due to unavailability or rationing. Post-World War II, fictional character Betty Crocker had a large influence on women with her cake mixes and cookbooks.

 

American Cake tells the story of our nation’s history through my favorite treat, cake. Don’t worry, you don’t have to cook over an open fire — Byrn has updated the recipes for our modern bakers. Many of these recipes will be in my baking rotation. Happy baking and more importantly, happy eating.

 


 
 

Victoria

posted by: November 22, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Victoria the QueenIn Julia Baird’s biography, Victoria The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire, she does not shy away from telling both the good and the bad, but being that I am a fan of the queen, I shall not speak ill of her. At the time of her death, Queen Victoria was the longest reigning English monarch. She reigned for just over 63 years — this time has become known to us as the Victorian Era.

 

When Victoria was born, she was fifth in line to the throne, but her father, the Duke of Kent, stated: “Look at her well, for she will be Queen of England.” Victoria became queen at the age of 18, at a time when most women had no power, and first British monarch to live in Buckingham Palace.

 

Queen Victoria was popular at the beginning of her reign but went in and out of favor with her people during her time on the throne. She overcame numerous attempts on her life and was key in constructing the British Empire. With her nine children and 42 great grandchildren, Queen Victoria has been dubbed “the grandmother of Europe.” Once you start this book, you will not be able to put it down as it is filled with all the hallmarks of a blockbuster — drama, intrigue and scandal. This book is a great pairing with Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria.


 
 

Trials of the Earth

posted by: November 8, 2016 - 6:00am

Cover art for Trials of the EarthMary Mann Hamilton lived through it all on the frontier of the Mississippi Delta. Later in life, with the encouragement of a family friend, she wrote her story down in Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman and entered it into a contest for publication. Thankfully, despite losing the contest the transcript eventually made its way to publication.

 

American history is presented undiluted by the lens of the modern historian or reimagined into a more relatable tale, where disease strikes once, neighbors aren’t constantly trying to swindle and cheat each other and children don’t make sport of shooting at escaped convicts. Hamilton presents her life in a very manner of fact fashion, to the point where her arduous daily tasks almost seem manageable. Whether it is cooking breakfast for an entire tree-felling labor camp, tending to infirm family members, keeping her head and that of her children above the rising flood waters or convincing her husband to indulge in his vice only in the privacy of their home, Mary Hamilton details an intense tale of another time.

 

Her direct style is a clear result of the frontier life that left no time for woolgathering or money to indulge in extravagances. It makes for a fascinating, unrelenting read you won't be able to put down. If you enjoyed either of the novels One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus or The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, you should consider checking out this memoir.

 


 
 

The Wicked Boy

posted by: November 7, 2016 - 6:00am

The Wicked BoyAs the turn of the 20th century neared, many London newspapers hawked the frenetic belief madness, criminality and disease plagued the lower classes more so than at any other time in history, thus endangering not only the future of the Kingdom but of the human race. When young Robert Coombes stabbed his sleeping mother to death and hired an addled-minded adult to help pawn the family’s belongings, no newspaper missed the opportunity to horrify the nation. Compounding the natural repulsion of matricide, Robert, his younger brother and their self-selected guardian enjoyed games of Cowboys and Indians in the backyard while Emily Coombes’ corpse rotted away in the upstairs bedroom. Kate Summerscale unwinds the facts and lies twisted into the half-truths printed at the time in The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer.

 

Throughout the trial, much was made about how the lowbrow “penny dreadfuls” Robert read had influenced him, and the possibility that the shape of his head or the size of his brain might have affected his emotional state. Little attention was paid to the home environment or family unit. The science of the day deemed Robert to be insane at the time he committed the act. Summerscale follows Robert out of the Holloway Jail to the aptly named Murder’s Paradise at the Broadmoor Asylum, through his release and emigration to Australia, into the trenches of War World I and to an almost cosmic final purpose.

 

Bereaved fans of Ann Rule and anyone not so patiently waiting for the perpetually in development theatrical version of The Devil in the White City will enjoy this page-turner.


 
 

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