Saturday, September 21, 2013

Leonardo da Vinci's Codex on the Flight of Birds

Where: Air and Space Museum

When: through October 22, 2013

I was tempted to call this blog post "Why the Sackler is better than the Air and Space Museum, " but realized I could go on forever detailing the many reasons why a trip to see Asian art in a tranquil setting is preferable to fighting your way through an army of screaming youngsters. I was reminded of the Sackler on my latest trip to Air and Space, however, and the comparison was all on the side of the Sackler.

Air and Space is currently playing host to a Leonardo da Vinci artifact, a notebook full of his observations of bird flight.  It's a remarkable item: it's hundreds of years old, it's an object that belonged to one of history's great geniuses and offers you the opportunity to see his handwriting, and the contents show the basic foundations of flight, long before the first airplane.  The commentary on the glass case says it best, "He saw the modern world before it was realized."  I'm delighted that I got to see this object and can't recommend enough to others to go and see it before it returns to Italy.

So how does the Sackler fit into this, and what's my beef with Air and Space?  It's all about the display.  You will remember that several months ago the Sackler was exhibiting the Cyrus Cylinder.  I can't possibly compare these two objects and tell you which is more important or valuable, but I can certainly say they're both priceless and vital to an understanding of the development of civilization.  They are amazing objects, and I am deeply aware of my great good fortune in being able to see them both, for free.

The Sackler set up a room for the Cylinder, painted in a dark blue color.  I didn't realize it at the time, but as I think back, the color itself served to quiet the crowds (not that they really need any quieting in the Sackler) and set a tone of seriousness.  You knew when you walked in that you were seeing something important.  The lighting was fantastic; it illuminated the Cylinder, without being too stagey.  The whole thing was very well done.

Air and Space, on the other hand, has put the da Vinci Codex in a room devoted to a display of Wright Brothers memorabilia.  I understand the tie in - the codex is all about flight, and the Wright Brothers were the first to fly a plane.  The problem is that the codex is put at the end of the exhibit, and it looks like an afterthought.  You assume that they needed a place to put the codex, and the glass case which encloses it (which is quite large), and this just seemed like a place they had some extra room.  There's a guard standing next to the case, so you do have the sense that this is an important object, but they've surrounded it with a busy display about something else.  Plus, it's right by the exit, so it doesn't encourage lingering.  And it's against a wall, so you can't walk around to get another view.  Surely they must have had quite a bit of notice that the codex was coming, was this really the best they could do?

Note that tickets are required to enter the display.  Signs indicated that you could pick these up at the IMAX theater box office, but I just walked into the room and someone was distributing them at the entrance.  If you go on a weekend, things may be different.  It seemed as if they had overestimated the interest in the codex and were trying to exercise crowd control.  It wasn't necessary on the day I went, but it might be useful as the time for the codex to leave draws closer.

The codex is part of the Year of Italian Culture.  I remember that the display of David/Apollo was also part of this celebration to take place throughout 2013.

Verdict: Go to see this object, despite the poor display.

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