By Richard White, April 10, 2014
One of the things we love to do when exploring a new city is to check out its university or college, especially if it is adjacent to downtown. Experience has shown us that in most cases, you will find lots of urban vitality (pedestrians, cafes, galleries, shops, pubs, live music, etc) in and around urban post-secondary schools.
The University of Arizona in Tucson did not disappoint. In fact, it exceeded our expectations. What we thought might be a 3-hour morning flaneur turned out to be an all-day walkabout.
As we entered the campus, we saw the Visitor Center (yes, they have their own visitor center) and decided to drop in and see if they had a map and some suggestions for lesser known places to explore. Yes, I know flaneurs are supposed to just wander with no particular place to go.
The front desk person was very helpful - at first, she pointed out all the obvious things to see and do - they even have a brochure "Things to Do at the U!" However, when we asked for some hidden gems, she suggested the School of Pharmacy which has a museum of sorts spread out over two buildings and on various floors.
Brenda, having read the College of Optical Sciences is the world's premier institute of its kind, asked if there were any displays of artifacts there. We were told there might be, but a good place to check out was the Flandrau Science Centre and Planetarium with its great mineral collection. We had also read that the Creative Photography Center had the largest collection of photographs in the world, so thought this might be a place to check out.
We ended up leaving the Visitor Center with a map with 12 places to check out. The Museum of Art turned out to be a bit of a dud as there was an installation in progress and the gallery attendant wasn't clear what exhibitions were open to visitors.
Across the street was the Photography Centre which was very interesting and free. It was too bad that we were the only people there. Next, we headed to the Architecture and Landscape Architecture building next door. It was a bit more animated with students coming and going, as well as an exhibition of drawings and sculptures in the lobby. Exiting the building, we happened upon a wonderful garden oasis that is a serene setting to study or chat with a friend.
Schaefer Poetry Center
Aiming for what I thought was the Pottery Centre, turned out to the the Poetry Center (a case of middle-age eyes). Glad for the misread. It is one of only three such centers in North America, the others being in New York City and Chicago.
The building has a wonderful soft light that makes for a great place to read, write and reflect. In fact, they have a residence as part of the center for visiting writers or special guests. Though it is a non-circulating library, the public is invited to read the books on site in the lovely indoor and outdoor reading areas. In addition to the 70,000 poetry-related items in their collection, the Center also has an engaging exhibition of handmade artist's books by Alice Vinson. They even have a charming children's section with a huge blackboard inviting the kids to create their own poetry.
This the kind of stuff we love to sniff out - art, architecture and ambience. The Poetry Centre is definitely a hidden gem.
Moving on, we quickly found the College of Pharmacy, but there were two buildings so we were unsure which one had the museum. Luckily, there was an outdoor lunch event and we were able ask a staff member who told us there were lithographs on the second floor of one building and the museum in the other. She tried to find us a self-guided tour booklet, but they didn't have any in the first building.
With a couple of false turns and sneaking into a keyed door, we found the lithographs nicely displayed in a hallway. It turns out there was 40 lithos depicting the "Great Moments in Pharmacy." For more details, see photo below.
We then wandered over to the other building and asked about the self-guided tour booklet. They didn't have any, but they kindly photocopied an electronic copy and off we went (persistence pays off). There were major displays on all four floors, as well as lots of glass cabinet vignettes with themed artifacts in the hallways. The highlight was the 102-drawer wood pharmacy cabinet used in the '50s to store natural medicines (see photos below).
Depending on your interest, you could easily spend an hour or more at this museum. We can't believe it isn't in the "Things to Do at the U" brochure.
The Resort Campus
Then it was off for some lunch at the Student Union Building to hang out with the students. It was abuzz with students, dressed and acting like they were at the beach - tank tops, short shorts and flip flops (it was +30 Celsius). The campus is full of outdoor patio seating with shade umbrellas that enhance the resort ambience. The only thing missing was the beach and pool. The campus has a huge pedestrian mall with thousands of students walking, biking and hanging out. The animation reminded us Frankfurt's green beach and Calgary's downtown Stephen Avenue Walk on a hot day.
It had the best campus buzz I have every experienced. I would also have to say it has the most active bike culture I have seen to date including Portland, Oregon.
Museum of Optics (MOO)
Founded in 1964, The College of Optical Sciences (OSC) located in the Meinel Optical Sciences building is the world's premier institute of optics - three faculty members have won a Nobel Prize. The MOO was established in 2011 but the college started the collection in 2003. Today, it holds more than 700 antique and historic instruments, some built as long ago as the 1700s.
MOO also has a self-guided handout. Fortunately, they aren't too hard to find; just look for the display rack on the ground level lobby. The tour starts here, directing you to go up to the eighth floor and work your way down.
The building not only has a cache of optical instruments that includes telescopes, microscopes, binoculars, sextants, eyewear and opera glasses, but a penthouse lounge with the best view of the campus (see photo above.)
Pretty much every major city has a history museum, a science centre, a museum of art and a garden of some sort, but how many have a Poetry Centre, Museum of Pharmacy or Museum of Optics?
In hindsight, I wish we had spent 30 minutes reading and trying to write some poetry as I felt the Poetry Center had an inspirational vibe. The same could be said for the Architecture & Landscape Architecture garden.
I have toured a lot of post-secondary campuses over the years and would have to say the University of Arizona's campus was one of the most interesting with its animated, resort-like student areas contrasting with its quiet, contemplative research spaces. A perfect concoction!
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