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Spain in the Age of Exploration: Seattle Art Museum

November 22nd, 2004 · No Comments

On Friday the girls and I went to the Seattle Art Museum’s exhibit: Spain in the Age of Exploration. Going through the tour guided by the children’s audioclips took us about one hour. I think that two or more hours could easily be spent enjoying the display.

The girls favorite pieces were the armor. I think the knight suit and the horse’s suit were pieces that were easy for them to understand, shiny and three-dimensional. In retrospect, I was probably being too ambitious by taking three young ones to the museum with me. The security guard’s insistence that we all hold hands indicated that it was not a place children were welcomed.

Spain in the Age of Exploration encompassed many aspects of the empire as well as many years: from 1492 to 1819. I was impressed by the maps the Spanish had of the world in the sixteenth century, and the map of Spanish domination and empire. To think that such a small nation could have a large impact on the rest of the world.

One piece that intrigued me was a nativity scene, painted in Spain, on a sheet of obsidian which had once been a sacred mirror in a native culture of South America. Examples of the mix of cultures as well as syncretism in the church abounded through the exhibit. I held the girls up to see the centuries-old missionary books, one which consisted of pictographs, colored stick figures to tell bible stories.

The Northwest connection to Spanish exploration intrigued me and was a fitting inclusion to this exhibit. It was exciting to see the drawings made on Spanish ships of natives in Neah Bay, not too far from where we live now. Despite the legacy of names left behind such as Strait of Juan de Fuca, I don’t remember learning about Spanish explorers in the area. On a related note, the series of art work depicting various social classes and mixed-race families in Mexico was enlightening. One of the last pieces in the exhibit is the signed document where Spain yielded its interest in the Northwest, the wax seals large and red, like bright blood.

Also as a microbiologist and mother, I was curious and horrified to learn about the Spanish smallpox vaccination program. Young orphans were used to incubate the vaccine and put on a ship for the New World where their lymphatic systems were utilized as resources for immunization. I was impressed that the Spanish had the scientific knowledge for vaccinations and used their power to vaccinate people in their empire.

I wish I could return to the exhibit by myself and explore more. I also wish that the museum had handed out charts of royal geneology and a time line. Without a solid background in European history (and with three small children!), it was difficult for me to follow the family lines and keep track of the portraits and monarchs. I was fascinated by the mix of religion and exploration, of science and faith, of the conquered and the conqueror. What it means to be an empire.

Note: I think I will be sure to return to SAM for the exhibit this spring Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China, probably without the kids, if I can, but maybe with my husband…

Tags: culture

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