Published: June 16th 2011June 16th 2011
As a museum professional, I am always interested in how cultural institutions handle their visitors. This post concerns two very different experiences we had at the Uffizi and Bargello art galleries here in Florence.
The Uffizi has many major art works on display in a medium-sized building. I mention the building size only because the museum crams hundreds of thousands of visitors into a fairly small space. The best way to see these art works is to book your tickets online well in advance. The tickets admit you for a specific time of day. You are required to stand in several lines--at the entrance gate, again at the security scanners, again at another doorway, and then walk up four flights of stairs to yet another entryway in which you must present your ticket. By that time, my ticket was stashed away in my purse and I held up the line by digging it out.
After finally entering the Uffizi galleries, you are forced to move around like cattle with the other visitors from one famous artwork to another. Most people skip the works in between; not only are they hard to get to due to the masses of people,
Brian and David
You can get this close to Donatello's David at the Bargello.
but you also assume they must not be important because no one else is looking at them. I found myself cursing the tour groups because they move en masse in front of the art, usually several groups at a time, thereby blocking everyone’s view. The Uffizi’s galleries are arranged in small room off large halls, and visitors typically snake between the smaller rooms before exiting into the large hall and beginning the process all over again with the next set of rooms. Guards are stationed at the exits into the large hall, preventing you from returning into the rooms you just exited, even though you paid to see those galleries. I discovered I only had to walk several doors back down the hall to return to the galleries I’d just vacated. This was useful, because sometimes the tour groups had moved on and I could have an unobstructed view of a major work, such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (very dirty, needs major conservation treatment). Even then, the closest I could get to the art was five or six feet away, because of a deep projecting plexiglass cover and an even deeper rope barrier. Now, one of the reasons
Ceiling frescoes by Giotto's workshop, at the Bargello in Florence.
I visit art museums is because seeing works in person is a very different experience than viewing them in books. This is not true at the Uffizi, where I couldn’t see the artists’ brushstrokes nor many details of the paintings. Frankly, it was disappointing. When we visited the Louvre in Paris, we had a museum pass allowing us to spread out our visit our two days, admiring and examining the works when the crowds had lessened. I have no desire to return to the Uffizi, ever. I learned almost nothing.
And finally, the Uffizi prohibited photography in all its galleries. There were signs posted everywhere to this effect. This did not prevent visitors from photographing the art; they just had to be more surreptitious about it. The most ironic thing was observing visitors exiting the gallery into a hallway with a magnificent view of the Arno River, where the guards prevent you from taking photographs of the view. So the Uffuzi believes it owns the view from its building. Well, now, that’s an interesting idea.
In contrast, we had a very different experience at the Bargello, the other art museum we visited the same day. There was almost no one there. Seriously. Like the Uffizi, the Bargello is located in a very old building and has incredible collections. Among them are Donatello’s bronze of David, a chapel containing Giotto frescoes, and an incredible collection of Della Robbias. There also were a great number of decorative objects such as enamelware and ivory religious figures, some dating back to the 5th century. The collections were jaw dropping, and yet hardly anyone was there to see them. From a visitor’s standpoint, it was wonderful. You could get right up to David and examine all the details. Amazing. I would recommend this museum highly to anyone who loves art and decorative art objects.
As we were strolling through the Bargello’s galleries, we kept wondering if photography was allowed. There was nothing in the handout, and no signs anywhere in the galleries. So I took some photos--of the Giotto frescoes, of Brian standing next to the Donatello, and a few other exhibits. During our visit, I saw several visitors sitting on some very old benches and chairs in the galleries. There was no roping preventing people from getting close to them. After one couple parked themselves on an ornately carved wooden bench, I searched hard and finally found a label indicating it dated from the 16th century. I didn’t have the courage to sit on anything after that, but I did continue to photograph in the galleries until suddenly a guard shouted at me, “Nooooooo photos!” So, one must assume that at the Bargello one can sit on the collections but not photograph them.
In summary, I must ask the museums of the world what harm it can do to allow visitors to take simple, ugly photographs of their collections. If I take a non-flash image of your collection and post it on my travel blog or Facebook, it will help you tell the world what you have and why it is important for others to see it. It will, in effect, promote your museum and its wonderful collections. It won’t end up on a magnet or a t-shirt taking money away from your gift shop. Think about it, museums of the world.
Of the two museums that are the subject of this post, I would recommend you skip the Uffizi unless you absolutely must have a mediocre experience of world masterpieces, and instead spend some quality time at the Bargello. Just don’t take any photos.