BY Helen Murphy
Credit: Tate Modern
I’m not exactly sure how it happens, but somehow during the whirlwind three months of study abroad your host city becomes a home. Regardless of good days or bad days, the daily routines make the city feel more and more familiar: the same steps traced on the route to and from the grocery store, the public transit commute to campus, and, most importantly, the places we carve out in the city to make it our own.
Everyone adjusts to new places and crafts them into a home in different ways: some of my flatmates were all about trying out London cuisine (meat-covered eggs? That’s a no from me), while others focused on joining our school’s sports teams and attending football matches. I, unsurprisingly, found myself drifting towards art.
I carved out my place in London’s art museums, where I found solace and a home 4,000 miles away from my real home. From my first week to my last— I didn’t even make it to the Tate Britain until my final weekend in London— I made it a point to visit as many of the multitudes of art museums in London as I could.
I lived almost next door to the Tate Modern and I found myself walking over to the museum whenever life was seeming particularly stressful or lonely. I wrote many of my assigned essays for class sitting on the comfy leather couches in the main lobby of the Tate, watching people circle in and out of gallery spaces. Spending week after week memorizing my way around the museum and becoming an expert on the exhibitions on view helped me feel connected to the London arts and culture scene and allowed me to create a niche, my own personal home, in the city.
Even the art museums in cities I visited outside of England were instrumental to my sense of culture and community in each place I travelled to. I went to an art museum in every city I visited, even in cities I was only in for less than 24 hours (I’m looking at you, Vatican Museums— thanks for teaching me the entire history of Rome in just a few hours.) It helped me feel like I was exploring all of the arts and culture that the city had to offer, even though I was usually only visiting for a few days. Art museums convey so much about a city’s history, culture, and community; that’s why they are something that should be on every traveller’s to-do list, whether you identify as an art aficionado or not.
This wasn’t the first time I had used art museums to shape my conception of home and community: The Art Institute of Chicago became my personal home when I moved to Northwestern for college. I headed downtown nearly every Friday during my first quarter, enthralled by the museum and encouraged by the free shuttle ride and free admission. The Block Museum on campus, as well, has become a place that I know like the back of my hand. More recently, while living in New York City this summer, I felt myself beginning to memorize the seemingly endless possibilities of gallery spaces within the Met.
Upon returning to Evanston this winter, I was happy to find that my mental maps of both the Art Institute and the Block were still in excellent condition and I could wander the galleries with ease, even without having visited in six months. It was like being reunited with an old friend— the same feeling I have when I get together with my high school friends during breaks.
In the same way, I’m confident that when I return to London, stepping into the Tate Modern will remind me of the time spent hastily writing essays, touring the galleries on my off days, and, most of all, the sensation of being comfortably at home within London. For me, the Tate Modern will always represent that small sentiment of home that I carved out of the big city.
Though the past few years have involved perpetual movement— everything I own constantly packed up in boxes and suitcases, ready for the next adventure— the art museums in every place I have lived have helped me create my own definition of home, my own personal oasis, within each city.