It’s common to want to know more about an artist or object on display after you’ve already seen them, but why not take a page out of the Boy Scouts’ playbook and be prepared.
Here are four exhibitions (some opening this month, others ongoing) and the books to read ahead of time to get the most out of your museum experience…
Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear
Victoria & Albert Museum—Through March 12, 2017
With over 200 undergarments from the 18th century to the present on display, a lot of sartorial ground is covered in this exhibition. However, beyond the fashion of it all, it is the societal implications of underwear that really fascinates.
Read Before You Go: Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners by Therese Oneill is a humorous look at womanhood in the Victorian Age, and yes, that includes underwear.
Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant
Museum of Food and Drink—Through April 2, 2017
Celebrating the 170-year history of the Chinese American restaurant, this exhibition not only showcases artifacts like a timeline of menus dating back to 1910, but also features tastings from some of the country’s best Chinese American chefs. Also, given the current climate in America, this exhibition couldn’t be a more timely look at immigration and all that it contributes to the fabric of our lives.
Read Before You Go: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8 Lee is a perfect complement to MOFAD’s exhibition.
Merce Cunningham: Common Time
Walker Art Center—Through July 30, 2017MCA Chicago—Through April 30, 2017
Back in 1963, renowned choreographer Merce Cunningham and collaborators like Robert Rauschenberg (who had designed the sets) arrived at the Walker Art Center to stage a performance. Now, the Walker Art Center (and Chicago’s MCA) is showcasing this and other artistic collaborations in a noteworthy retrospective.
Read Before You Go: Chance and Circumstance is a memoir by Carolyn Brown, a founding member of Cunningham’s dance company, and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the man, his vision, and the artistic world of dance in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.
Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flanerie
Barnes Foundation—February 25, 2017 through May 22, 2017
This exhibition brings together old and new works by more than 50 international artists who have found their inspiration by hitting the streets. And, since the art of flanerie could never be confined to a single gallery, you’ll find programs and performances spilling out onto the streets of Philadelphia.
Read Before You Go: Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London by Lauren Elkin flips the predominantly male image of the flaneur on its head.
“You don’t really like beach reads, do you?”
My boyfriend nods at the book I’m reading: a compilation of William Shirer’s radio broadcasts from WWII Berlin.
I shrug, “We’re not at the beach.”
“Might as well be.”
And he’s right. It’s 106 degrees outside and our 1920s-era apartment on L.A.’s East Side is not coping well with the heat. So, we do what any sane, sweltering Angelino would do: head towards the water.
I didn’t bring my beach read though, because we’re not visiting the beach itself, but just beside it, where the Getty Villa lies nestled in the hills of Malibu/Pacific Palisades.
It has been a year since I last visited a museum, but the cool marble-lined villa, gurgling water features, and sea breeze off the Pacific were the perfect excuse to rejoin the ranks of museum visitors. I had no agenda: no must-see items, no massive crowds to fight my way through, no planning of any sort. And it was lovely. Just walked around, snapped some pictures (no flash!), and was completely relaxed. I haven’t enjoyed a museum visit this much in a very long time.
Nordic countries have been on my mind a lot lately between wanting to stay in Norway’s Juvet Hotel, reading classic groundbreaking mysteries from Swedish duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and noting the impending closure of Copenhagen’s Noma. Then there’s Finland, who I have mainly known for their focus on the future, revolutionary educational theories, and saunas. But it wasn’t until reading about Helsinki in a recent issue of the British version of Conde Nast Traveller that I thought much about Helsinki’s museum offerings. Here are just a few of the cultural institutions I’ve been missing out on…
A contemporary art museum associated with the Finnish National Gallery, Kiasma is appealing as much for its architectural assets as for its artistic collection. When designing the museum, architect Steven Holl was particularly focused on how the building’s shapes and spaces would interact with light, and I particularly like how there seems to be a general surfeit of straight lines. Their collection has about 8500 works, but there is a constant rotation of exhibitions to keep things fresh.
Even though it’s over 140 years old, Helsinki’s Design Museum manages to showcase why Finnish design (industrial, fashion, graphic, etc.) still makes such an impact today.
Fun fact: when the Ateneum acquired Street in Auvers-sur-Oise in 1903, it became the first museum to own a Van Gogh. And that’s not the only jewel in their collecting crown. For nearly 130 years, this outpost of the Finnish National Gallery has built up a solid collection of roughly 4400 works of art, which, in addition to an extensive catalog of Finnish art, includes appearances by Modigliani, Cezanne, Munch, and Goya.
Finnish Museum of Natural History
This place seems to have more personality than most natural history museums I have seen or read about. I mean, just look at those giraffes having tea on the museum’s balcony.
Coming Soon…Guggenheim Helsinki
Back in June 2015, Paris-based firm Moreau Kusnoki was announced as the winner of the Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition. Over 1700 entries were submitted for the creation of the latest outpost of the Guggenheim art empire. There’s no set opening date yet, but when the series of “darkly clad pavilions” does make its debut you will definitely hear about it.
Bonus Mention…Museum Cafes
These do not look those fast-casual places or bland cafeterias I have found in many U.S. museums. Kiasma’s cafe focuses on local Nordic produce and serves up cava, while the Design Museum cafe looks like an artisan coffee shop. Out at the Suomenlinna Fortress they have a brewery, a pizzeria, and at least ten other dining options.
Seeing Them All
The Helsinki Card gets you free access to 28 of Helsinki’s museums and dozens of other discounts and deals across the city for between 39-59 euros.
1) Museumist has written about art museum Super Bowl bets in the past, and even tweeted about the book-based trash talking that Kansas City and Toronto public libraries were engaged in just this week. Now, the world of museums and sports are colliding in a jazzy way. Kansas City’s American Jazz Museum and the Louis Armstrong House Museum based in New York City have put their gift shops on the line over the outcome of the Royals-Mets World Series.
2) Speaking of musical mashups, did you know George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix were neighbors? Though over 200 years apart, they lived next door to each other on Brook Street in London’s Mayfair neighborhood. This February, you can experience this musical odd couple’s co-existence with the opening of Handel & Hendrix in London.
3) Halloween is nigh, and no one is geeking out over the holiday quite like museums. Pictorial examines the Halloween-inspired nerd fest that museums are engaging in on Instagram.
4) My heart goes out to the cleaning lady at the Museion Bozen-Bolzano, a contemporary art museum in South Tyrol, who threw an entire art installation in the trash thinking it was detritus from a party the night before. If she just threw it away because she thought it was bad art, then I might think she’s a bit of a bad ass.
5) Someone else who is having a bad week is the Museum of the Bible, and they haven’t even opened yet. They are under investigation for violating the 8th Commandment—that one about bearing false witness— over 200-300 illegally imported artifacts seized by customs.
This past August, Mother Jones ran an article exploring the wonderfully amusing world of one-star reviews that people award the United States’ National Parks. Of course, sometimes natural beauty is not enough and people may have legitimate grievances about their visit—rude staff, dirty bathrooms, etc.—but sometimes people are just being irrational and write reviews complaining about how the desert is “too hot.” As a result, I was inspired to explore some of the bad reviews that people post about some of the world’s more well-known museums, and, wouldn’t you know it, our cultural institutions’ overall ratings are constantly being dragged down by confounding and humorous posts from the discontented. Here’s a brief look at some visitors’ complaints…
On the Insufficient Benefits of Using a Corporate Card
In a review of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anthro Food E. noted: “…I did come in later though just out of curiosity, but with my corporate discount (free) card of course (since i refuse to pay any amount of money to see antiques collecting dust)…and after 10 minutes, i already had ADD…i wasnt interested in any of the fake rembrandts they had to show at this museum nor any other pieces of art here either…” Quite frankly, I’m surprised they made it 10 minutes.
On Being Lured in By the Swirly Things
Now, I am among those that think cramming a trip to the Louvre into your Parisian itinerary is a bit of a waste. Apparently, Franq F. of Los Angeles agrees with me, but for different reasons. Here’s his one-star review on Yelp:
So, like, we were so excited to go to this museum because it was on so many websites. Well, we were absolutely disgusted and felt so ripped off. They totally fool you with all the new stuff outside, like all the cool glass stuff and swirly things and new, clean stuff. THEN when you go inside, IT IS DISGUSTING. There is literally like all old things, it is dark and so, so old. All of the paintings are so old, they are cracked; SICK! Who cares, none of it even looks real or anything. What a joke. It’s like, “Hey, France, way to trick us into thinking it was going to be a new, clean museum but then we get inside and it is ‘tow up.!” They obviously lure you in with the good stuff and then you are in this musty piece of junk. Like, you’re FRANCE…a country; why did you do it on the cheap, why not knock the junky crap building down and start over. It was such a rip. Fail.
On How to Deal with Being the Cause of Environmental End Times
A few Yelp commenters remarked that the California Academy of Sciences was a little too on-message with the whole global warming thing, but Rob S. had a suggestion for how visitors can cope: “…the lesson that man is killing off just about everything and diligently working toward environmental end times is woven into just about every exhibit. If you wanted to create a drinking game geared toward alcohol poisoning, just take a shot every time you see a reference to global warming, a species or area being threatened by man or the fragility of our planet.”
On Staff Recommendations
Having worked in and around museums for nearly a decade, I’m not immune to the fact that museum security guards are not universally loved. One commenter, particularly displeased with the guards at the Met, offered this suggestion: “The security staff here can DIAF, please.” That’s Die In A Fire for those of you playing along at home. At least he said please.
On Backhanded Compliments
Clearly not a fan of how the Creation Museum can play a little fast and loose with the facts, Daniel T. from Denver offered up an exhibit review: “But by far, the best exhibit they have is a dinosaur with a saddle on its back. That’s right, a dinosaur wearing a fucking saddle…”
On Knowing Your Demographics
Museums spend plenty of time and money dealing with demographics research, figuring out who comes to the museum and why. Unfortunately, it seems that museum goers don’t spend nearly enough time considering whether or not their interests match with the institution they’re about to visit. One Yelp commenter has stepped into the void to provide truly useful information for those considering visiting the Vatican Museum: “…unless you’re religious or into art, it’s lame and uncomfortable.” Did you get that? If you’re not religious, not into art, and not into religious art, it might be best to avoid visiting a massive art museum attached to a massive religious institution that is chock full of religious art. Now you know.
On Truth in Advertising
When I first read this review of the San Diego Zoo, I felt compelled to find out if they were joking. Then I realized I didn’t care.
After an exhaustive journey I sat down for lunch at the Jungle Terrace and ordered what they called an ‘Elephant Burger.’ It was then that I learned the secret they don’t want anybody to know about: they don’t actually serve the animals that they keep at the zoo in the restaurants! There was no freakin’ elephant in my burger at all. Can you believe that!? What a ripoff!
On Existential Questions
Finally, back at the Met, Nathaniel L. poses this age-old question: “If you’re not allowed to touch the paintings, what’s the point in even going?”
Do you have any wonderful negative museum reviews, written or overheard? Share them in the comments below.
It got too hot, which was an odd thing to say for November, especially only two days removed from the white-out snowy conditions of high desert New Mexico. This was a different desert, though. This was drought-be-damned-I’m-growing-a-golf-course Palm Springs. Almost six months into a still-incomplete road trip, pausing in the California oasis town to celebrate Thanksgiving, I suggested a walk down to the Botanical Gardens to check things out. I didn’t make it. It got too hot, and the gardens became just one more place I didn’t visit.
Over the course of my travels, I attended a pre-wedding cocktail party on the roof of the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Wisconsin, but didn’t see any of the collection contained within; and it was too near closing time at Hearst Castle when the coast road of Big Sur beckoned. No one shared my enthusiasm—including a three-year-old big rig devotee—for a trip to the Iowa 80 Truck Stop Trucking Museum, and, in an effort to catch the last half of the Women’s World Cup final, I ran past the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art to snag a bar stool at a student bar nearby. And, when my car nearly broke down in Bend, Oregon, I began to wonder if it was because it was against a trip to the High Desert Museum.
Excuses, reasons, and explanations aside, sometimes a trip is better off for all the places you were supposed to visit, but didn’t. For instance, I harbor no regrets for missing the Vacuum Cleaner Museum in St. James, Missouri, because further down the road one of the more awesome thunderstorms of my life rolled up as the landscape gave way to the open plains of Oklahoma. The Shell Museum in Sanibel, Florida, surely forgave me for passing up an annual visit in favor of tossing Cat Paws into the Gulf of Mexico with my niece instead. A bowl of artichoke soup at Duarte’s in Pescadero, California, was worth missing out on any of San Francisco’s myriad cultural institutions.
It hasn’t always been this way. I have long assumed the role of tour guide in my family, and my early itineraries were jam-packed with must see sites of cultural and historical import. One day in Rome? You have to see the Vatican Museum. Right? Well, no, it turns out. I’ve learned that being lured away from a planned museum visit for something unexpected is not nearly as disappointing as once believed. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed the few museum visits I’ve managed to make over the past year and a half—a walk through the spaghetti-like strands of Penetrabile at LACMA is oddly soothing—but I no longer have that fear of missing out that used to follow a missed museum connection.
Perhaps one day I’ll make it back to Nashville and visit the Johnny Cash Museum, and on a repeat visit to Buffalo I will most likely choose the Albright-Knox instead of Niagara Falls. It’s possible I may stop into the Valley Forge Visitor’s Center instead of walking a six-mile loop around the park for exercise, and it seems unlikely, but I may even make it to the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings somewhere down the line. But, for now, they’ll just remain some of the many places I didn’t go.
1. “The life of a folded napkin is extremely short.” Over at NPR, they delve into the rediscovered art of napkin folding.
2. Speaking of rediscoveries, while the archaeological world was in a tizzy about the possible location of Queen Nefertiti’s tomb, National Geographic felt it wise to remind us that this ancient beauty has been “found” before. One quote following an earlier alleged discovery claimed: “…the identification of the mummy in question as Nefertiti is balderdash (good manners prevent me from using a stronger term.)”
3. Earlier this month, the British Library appealed to the public to help them solve a mystery: what is the indecipherable inscription on this 800-year-old sword? While the message board for speculation has been officially closed, the mystery has not.
4. If you were looking for a good time to get reacquainted with the works of great Irish authors, there is no time like the present. Ireland is in the middle of Yeats2015, a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of W.B. Yeats’ birth. Exhibitions, dance performances, plays, concerts, and more reflect the writer’s multidisciplinary approach to the arts.
My name is Meredith Whitfield, and I’m a Museum Person.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a D.C. transplant, originally from Tennessee. My “real job” is in internet marketing, but I spend a lot of time volunteering at the Folger Shakespeare Library here in D.C. (and cheerleading for it on Twitter). I fell in love with museums while at the Folger, and I’m in the midst of applying to museology graduate programs.
Why do museums matter to you?
Museums serve so many purposes, especially when they’re accessible, community-friendly spaces. They create supplemental and nontraditional learning experiences, they’re an alternative to consumption-based activities, they start conversations, and they connect us to others through objects and stories. I especially love museums that offer many different types of engagement opportunities. When you choose among art, films, artifacts, activities, social events, an online presence, and whatever other assets the institution has created, the more likely you are to find something that resonates with you.
What is your dream museum job?
For a while, I was convinced that I wanted to be Emily Graslie when I grew up, but I think instead I would love to one day invent the position of Chief Access Officer at a historical collection. Wouldn’t it be cool to pile an exhibition into a food truck/bus/trailer/caravan and tour around the area with stops at community events, like The Uni Project does for libraries? The Folger’s First Folio tour program is so inspiring in this way; our folios are visiting all 50 states, dramatically increasing the ability for Shakespeare lovers to visit a folio AND encouraging more people to discover Shakespeare.
When you think of the perfect exhibition, what is in it?
I don’t care what’s in it, as long as there’s a great story informing it. The Voynich Manuscript visited the Folger recently, and getting to tell a mystery story about an indecipherable code really got people into the object. I also love exhibitions that incorporate an interactive element. It provides a concrete outlet for interpretation and can start interesting conversations among visitors.
What is the most bizarre museum you’ve ever visited?
The National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, MD. It is so worth the trip from D.C. to learn about military history, see how disease affects the human body, and see a row of fetal skeletons. It’s about a mile walk from the metro.
What frustrates you about the way museums operate today? On the flip side, what gives you hope for the future about the way museums operate today?
I’m so thrilled that museums seem to be moving past their more rigid, institutional pasts and are challenging industry standards in creative and interesting ways. It’s been so exciting, as a docent, to help contribute to the way the Folger is thinking about its visitor experience.
I hope one day that all museums will embrace the potential of technology like Cooper-Hewitt has done. Wouldn’t it be great if, for example, your Wikipedia or Google search let you know what artifacts related to your search live at institutions near you? If you could get, for free, the plans to 3D print your own mini Giacometti sculpture at the library? If your public library hosted a book club culminating in a tour of an exhibition curated as a companion to the book?
It’s so rewarding to live in a place where museum are mostly free, and I hope the future sees museums prioritized enough in other cities for this to become a trend. I want to see increased accessibility, exhibitions curated with underserved communities in mind, exhibitions that reflect and inform community trends and sentiments, greater responsiveness, and more FUN.
Thanks to Meredith for sharing her museum experiences with us. If you, or someone you know, is interested in participating in the “I’m a Museum Person” series, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Unarguably one of the world’s stranger museums, Iceland’s Phallological Museum is dedicated to dicks. Over at McSweeney’s, Eliese Colette Goldbach has penned an open letter to this niche institution, which includes such lines as “One minute some guy gives you a whale penis, the next you’re the proud owner of a dick museum,” and “The way I see it, you’re only achieving half of your genital potential.”
2. When Alex Marshall sought out the Museum of Mud while in Asuncion, Paraguay, he found that the Museo del Barro was actually a celebration of mud’s prettier, dryer cousin—clay—and a variety of other cultural artworks.
3. Having been on the road myself for the last three months, I was eager to read Andrew Dansby’s “Road Trip Essay: Stumbling Upon Snake Institutions” in the Houston Chronicle. But, it’s behind a pay wall, so it remains unread by me.
4. Not content with Internet Cat Video Film Festivals? Feline film fans can now visit the first ever mainstream museum exhibition dedicated to the phenomenon when “How Cats Took Over the Internet” opens at the Museum of the Moving Image this weekend. Reading about this exhibition, I was made aware of the existence of Meowchat, “where people swapped role-playing messages posing as their cats, talking in a sort of baby talk,” which was illuminating to say the least.
5. This week’s reading roundup ends—rather appropriately, I think—with death. Specifically with Lee Matalone’s trip to the Museum of Death in New Orleans. It’s a poignant visit, because, as the author notes, “the character you are celebrating is Death itself.”
In honor of the 125th anniversary of Vincent van Gogh’s death (July 29, 1890), artist Daan Roosegaarde has created a Starry Night inspired bike path in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Learn more about the project here.