Read Before You Go (May 2017)

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 five exhibitions and two museum openings (some opening this month, others ongoing) paired with the books to read ahead of time to get the most out of your museum experience…


California: Designing Freedom
Design Museum (London, UK)
Opens May 24

The design influence of California is a bit inescapable—iPhone in your pocket, succulents on the windowsill, artisan juice shops down the street, festival fashion, and much more—so it’s no wonder its getting its own museum exhibition. London’s Design Museum tackles the state’s influence through the lens of the myriad ways in which it espouses freedom: Frank Gehry’s architecture, Snapchat glasses, self-driving cars, pop art, rainbow flags, etc.

Read Before You Go: California is a big state, so it is difficult for one book to entirely capture its ethos, but Where I Was From by Joan Didion does an admirable job exploring the roots of the state’s drive for self-sufficiency. Emma Cline’s much buzzed about novel The Girls paints a picture of Manson-era Sonoma County, while Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore deals with some of the tech scene’s mentality.

The American Writers Museum (Chicago, IL)
Open Now

This museum dedicated to the craft of American writers has finally opened on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, but it is a far cry from the image of stuffy libraries or archives. With over 11,000 square feet of exhibition space, they have clearly tried to incorporate all the bells and whistles of a modern museum experience—pushing a plaque for Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking releases a waft of fresh baked cookies into the air—and overall gives off a populist rather than high-brow vibe.

Read Before You Go: Reread anything by your favorite American author, or perhaps a book about American writers like Hothouse, which explores the compelling history of publishing house Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Author biographies are another great choice: try Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford’s examination of Edna St. Vincent Millay, or Justin Martin’s Rebel Souls, which tackles Walt Whitman and American’s early bohemians.

The Western: An Epic in Art and Film
Denver Art Museum (Denver, CO)
Opens May 27

Through 160 works, this exhibition tries to take a deeper look at the Western genre, even discussing such issues as gender roles, race relations, and gun violence (sounds pretty relevant, huh?) that underlie our understanding of cowboys and the Wild West.

Read Before You Go: The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel goes behind the scenes of the famous John Wayne film, The Searchers.

Vikings: Beyond the Legend
Denver Museum of Nature and Science (Denver, CO)
Through August 13

Staying in Denver, check out the city’s science museum as they take on the one-dimensional image of the Vikings to get to know the rich culture and society that lay beyond the horned helmets.

Read Before You Go: Before you go “beyond the legend” with this exhibition, it might help to get to know the legend itself a little better. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman is an easily digestible intro to the myths of Odin, Loki, and, of course, Thor.

After the Bees
Manchester Museum (Manchester, UK)
Through July

If you don’t know about colony collapse yet, you should, and what better place to start than at this exhibition that showcases the consequences of a world without bees.

Read Before You Go: The Bees by Laline Paull is sold with the lure of being The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Hunger Games, but with bees! All hyperbole aside, it’s a taut little thriller set in a bee hive.

Museum of the American Revolution (Philadelphia, PA)
Now Open

As if you weren’t able to get your Revolutionary Era fix in Philadelphia before, you really have no excuse now with the opening of this museum right on Independence Mall.

Read Before You Go: There are more than enough good reads about the American Revolution, but perhaps you can use this as an excuse to finally getting around to reading Ron Chernow’s excellent biographies on Hamilton or Washington. If those are too daunting for you, consider Sarah Vowell’s humorous look at the Revolutionary Era with Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.

Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style
Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA)
Opens May 20

Because summer is approaching and summer means travel, why not look back to a time when getting from here to there was a little more glamorous than middle seats and long security lines.

Read Before You Go: Transatlantic by Stephen Fox is a nonfiction look at Cunard and the age of the great Atlantic steamship. If fiction is more your speed, try The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje, which explores a great ocean journey from the perspective of a young, lower-class passenger.


Links and More


Cover of Ben Gijsemans' graphic novel Hubert.

Cover of Ben Gijsemans’ graphic novel Hubert.

“Hubert lives alone in a flat in Belgium and watches his neighbors through the windows. He spends his days at an art museum, rarely interacting with others…” A little blurb in The Paris Review led me to this graphic novel about loneliness, love, and art.

All hail Gertrude Abercrombie, Queen of the Bohemians!

Speaking of forgotten artists, how about the women of the Bauhaus. Oh, and Fanny Mendelssohn too.

Just what you always needed: Hieronymus Bosch figurines.

A look at Philly’s new Museum of the American Revolution. And here too.

The age-old museum gift shop conundrum: when your best-sellers are embarassingly low-brow and barely relate to your mission.

Will that be cash, credit, or blood? New ways to pay at the museum.

Helpful visitor experience data or privacy invasion? On museums tracking visitors through the Wifi.

These scientists are trying to capture the essence of history through smell.









What I’m Reading: Jazz, Jimi, and Janitors Edition

Photo by Jimmy Baikovicius via Flickr.

Photo by Jimmy Baikovicius via Flickr.

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.


What I’m Reading: Lost and Found Edition

Napkin Rose. Photo by Tavins Origami via Flickr.

Napkin Rose. Photo by Tavins Origami via Flickr.

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.

5. Finally, it’s always fun to observe a museum through another person’s eyes. Go along for the ride when Abi King visits the Acropolis Museum or join Nana Tsay at New York’s Noguchi Museum.




What I’m Reading

Photo by CPG Grey.

Photo by CPG Grey.

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.”


What I’m Reading

Photo by Steve Browne and John Verkleir via Flickr.

Photo by Steve Browne and John Verkleir via Flickr.

1. After a while, I learned to choose the names of my fellow characters more carefully. Having looked up the symptoms for dysentery, it wasn’t something I would wish on most people. This was just one of many life-changing facts I learned while playing Oregon Trail as a child. Writer Emily Grosvenor decided to take her Oregon Trail education one step further: participating in a life-action, role-playing version of the beloved computer game. “I found myself pushing a 200 pound man on an ancient kiddie wagon with two missing wheels up a hill with about a 40 percent incline while he shouted out facts about how to preserve meat…”

2. While on the topic of childhood memories, I was initially saddened to discover that the Rosenbach Museum—a personal favorite—was losing its Maurice Sendak collection. The sadness was eventually replaced by excitement for two reasons: 1) There’s going to be an entire Sendak museum in the future; and 2) This means that instead of always featuring a Sendak exhibit, the Rosenbach now has more room to create exciting displays features other items in their extensive collection.

3. Lonesome George. That’s one hell of a moniker. But, if you happen to be the last of your kind, your nickname is bound to be a little depressing. This look at the afterlife of a famous extinct tortoise has some great bits, like the line “What posture should a tortoise have?” or the imagery evoked by the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing for Mammals and Their Extinct Relatives at the American Museum of Natural History.

4. Turns out Lonesome George has plenty of friend’s at New York’s Museum of Natural History if Hiroshi Sugimoto’s new book Dioramas is anything to go by. This short essay from the New York Review of Books not only marvels at the beauty of Sugimoto’s photography, but also captures the love of an old-fashioned museum experience when describing the darkened diorama halls: “That hushed public place is the private secret of every child in New York.”

5. If the opposite of an old-fashioned museum diorama is a completely immersive and interactive display, where the heck does Shia LaBoeuf’s latest performance piece fall on the spectrum? On September 25, the actor ran his own MetaMarathon around Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, adding to his growing portfolio of performance art.

6. Speaking of Dutch museums, turns out famous footballer Arjen Robben has plans to open one of his own one day. The future museum’s focus? Why Arjen Robben of course! I hope it has exhibits where you can attempt to duplicate his incredible crosses, or one where you can try the most dramatic flop you can come up with before sitting down at a fake press conference and saying “sorry-not-sorry” for flopping. I really want to go to this museum one day.



What I’m Reading

Photo by John Morgan via Flickr.

Photo by John Morgan via Flickr.

1. Many people squealed with delight over recent pop-up cat cafes, but the London Dungeon has put a spin on the concept with hopes of eliciting squeals of a different type. On June 24, the major tourist draw launched its very own pop-up Rat Cafe, featuring such menu items as Black Forest Rateau and Rattuccino. When the food is finished, the rats come out to play. Handwashing cumpulsory.

2. If rats don’t scare you, perhaps ventriloquism does? If so, you probably don’t want to add the Vent Haven Museum to your list of must-see cultural attractions. However, this Kentucky institution, which proudly states that it is the “only museum in the world dedicated to the art of ventriloquism,” might just be the weird and wonderful activity you’ve been waiting for.

3. One thing I haven’t been waiting for: Google Glass. And yesterday’s announcement that Google Glass Guides may soon be coming to a museum near you did little to change my opinion. Sure, sometimes you want to know more about a painting you’re seeing in a gallery or you would like to dig deeper into the history of a culture whose artifacts are on display before you, but those can be done later as part of continuing the museum experience long after you’ve left its walls. Or, while there may be an advantage to having a map directly attached to your eyeball, isn’t getting lost in a museum sometimes the point?

4. For those more interested in the external architecture of a museum than the collections within, Jersey City has just the thing. The Richard Meier Model Museum houses 400 works, including scale models of the renowned minimalist architect’s Getty Museum and the Arp Museum, that will please any museum architecture buff.

5. Have you ever looked at a painting and thought: “That looks beautiful, but I wonder how it tastes?” Well, 60 diners recently got a chance to sink their teeth into a Kandinsky, and they thought it was pretty tasty. Thankfully, no actually paintings were harmed as part of this University of Oxford study, which attempted to see whether the same ingredients would taste better if presented plainly or as a composition based on Kandinsky’s “Painting no. 201.”

6. And, finally, a more natural way of looking at the origins of World War One. Berlin-based Ian Orti tackles a botanical reenactment of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Botanical Reenactment



What I’m Reading

Photo by Starzyia via Flickr.

1. This past week, Anna Dhody, Curator at Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, did an Ask Me Anything on Reddit. Do you think this will catch on as a means of museum interaction? What question would you have asked?

2. Who’s watching who at the zoo? Who’s really on exhibit? Decide for yourself in this interesting, and brief, Dutch documentary filmed at an Amsterdam zoo in 1961.

3. Ah, and age-old question…Is Balthus the Crazy Cat Lady of of Modern Art?

4. As someone significantly more impressed with the outside of this church than the interior, I found this article a worthwhile exploration of whether or not Sagrada Familia should ever be completed.

5. Two stories came to my attention about loaning art to individuals and/or schools. The first: Britain launches a two-week experiment in art education by hanging an original masterwork in schools for a day. Second: Pittsburghians can now borrow art from the local library thanks to the Carnegie International and Transformazium.


Giveaway Winners Announced!

Photo by Princess Theater via Flickr.

First off, thank you to everyone who participated in this contest. It was great to read your comments. Not only were they a peek at some wide-ranging artistic styles, but they also addressed the many reasons that people love art.

Now for the bad news. There can only be three winners. And they are…

1. Meg. Flemish Primitives for the win indeed!

2. Stacy Ryan. Mannerism and the rise of Kate Moss was a great comparison.

3. Denise. Though unable to pinpoint just one movement—tsk, tsk—she did reflect on how the way we feel about art changes as we change.

So, congratulations to the winners, I will be emailing you for further details about sending the book to you. As for the rest of Museumist readers, stay tuned, we’ll hopefully be offering up some more giveaways in the near future.



Reader Giveaway: Art That Changed the World

Museum lovers are spoiled for choice when it comes to books: reference books, coffee table books, histories, mysteries, tales of forgeries, explorations of art, science, and so much more. But, even though you think your bookshelf is full, I recommend that you find room for one more. Published by Dorling Kindersley—the same folks that publish the informative Eyewitness guide books that I use for traveling—Art That Changed the World is a comprehensive overview of the significant artistic works and movements that have transformed the way we experience art over time. In addition to being historically gratifying—timelines, helpful explanations, and special segments that help shine a light on the context in which certain works were created—the photographs in this book are a joy to look at as well.

I really enjoyed reading Art That Changed the World, and now I want to give you guys an opportunity to enjoy it too. As part of the first ever Museumist reader giveaway, I have three copies of Art That Changed the World to send out. Interested in winning one of these copies? All you have to do is tell me what your favorite artistic movement is and why in the comments below. You have until September 30th to submit your response. I apologize in advance to my international readers, but I have to restrict this giveaway to U.S. residents only. I would still love to hear from you in the comments below though. So, with that, let the great giveaway begin!

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