Keeping Up With the Bones

“To learn more about Disease and Trauma, please dial the following number.” So reads one of exhibit panels at Philadelphia’s legendary Mutter Museum. Another asks visitors: “Why would you want a dried hand?” Why indeed? The answer provided didn’t seem entirely satisfactory. But, these textual offerings are all in line with the sign that greets you at the museum entrance…

The Mutter Museum, at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, is one of the world’s most fascinating medical history museums. Its purpose is to educate, to shine a light on not only the history of medicine, but also explain diagnosis, treatment, and the mysterious wonders of the human body. Its collection of anatomical specimens, medical instruments, and models are all displayed intimately in a traditional cabinet of curiosities arrangement. Highlights include a super-human-sized colon, shrunken heads, a model of a horn-like growth from a woman’s forehead, and tales of a 10-pound hairball removed from the stomach of someone with a prodigious follicular-appetite. All in all, the Mutter is disturbing, it is informative, it is morbidly fascinating, it is stomach turning, it is provocative, it is hideous, and it is beautiful. It certainly stands out among the other members of the museum world.

Photo by istolethetv via Flickr.

However, despite its uniqueness, the Mutter does have one thing in common with other museums: it needs to raise money for the upkeep of the collection. And, given the extreme competition for donation dollars in the non-profit world, that means it needs to get creative in its fundraising efforts. So, the museum decided to adopt. If zoo patrons can adopt a polar bear, and Art Institute of Chicago fans can adopt a dot from Seurat’s Sunday on La Grande Jatte, why can’t visitors to the Mutter Museum adopt something too? Enter the Hyrtl Skull Collection.

Photo by He Shoots He Scores via Flickr.

The Hyrtl Skull Collection consists of 139 skulls, which are over 150 years old and, as such, are in need of special care. They are an iconic component of the Mutter’s extensive collection, and, let’s face it, more likely to be adopted by a museum lover than a nausea-inducing jar of skin. Now through December 31—if you’re looking for a unique Christmas or Hanukkah gift, here you go—each skull is available for adoption for an annual subscription fee of $200. This money goes toward the conservation, research, and exhibition costs of each skull, and adopters will be identified as the proud patron of their skull in the Mutter Museum. A catalog of the Hyrtl Collection is available so that you can choose the skull that suits you best. Perhaps that is an unknown male from Amsterdam with turned up nasal bones, or the young fruit vendor Georg Prasnig who died in Vienna, or perhaps Orazio Trani—whose cause of death is unknown but his idiocy is apparently well established—is more your speed. Intrigued? Visit here for more information about adopting one of the Mutter Museum’s skulls.

Development, Guest Posts

Guest Post: Hope for the American Folk Art Museum?

Photo by S. Diddy via Flickr.

By Erin Wurzel

The American Folk Art Museum originally opened in 1963 in a rented floor of a townhouse at 49 W. 53rd Street. Nearly 40 years later, after calling several other spots home, the museum would settle just a few doors down from its birth place, at 45 W. 53rd. This move would set off 10 fraught years of declining admissions and reluctant donations before culminating in a stand-off with one of the ‘Big Five’ museums over its own fate.

While ambitious, the new building—designed by architecture duo Tod Williams and Billie Tsein—has attracted varied opinions since it opened in December of 2001. Many complained the seemingly ample 30,000 square feet were laid out too vertically, and that the space was confusing, full of narrow halls and stairwells, with galleries too small to adequately display art. A single skylight on the top floor allowed for light through each of the floors. The rooms were cramped, some said. Others claimed it allowed for a more intimate experience with the art, in direct contrast to the stark, large rooms common in most museums. The space allowed for 500 of the some 5,000 objects in its collection to be displayed. And then there was the façade, a striking and angular 85-foot-high bronze arrangement that seemed better suited for a corporate office building, a long slit up the middle of the Tombasil—a white bronze alloy which required assembly in a foundry, and that when poured directly onto concrete caused “tiny explosions”—but curiously lacking any signage. The building was interesting and certainly even beautiful, winning Williams and Tsein multiple awards, including the 2003 New York City American Institute of Architects Design Award, and the 2001 Municipal Art Society Masterwork Award; it just wasn’t an effective art museum.

Photo by Lauren Manning via Flickr.

Its proximity to the Museum of Modern Art—the buildings sit next to one another—was initially expected to produce an increased level of attendance. In fact, before opening, there were estimates the museum at its new site would attract upwards of 250,00 visitors a year within four years; by 2011 it was averaging just 160,000. No small sum, but still far from what was needed to keep the museum solvent. During renovations to MoMA between 2002 and 2004, most of West 53rd street was closed off, limiting attendance to the American Folk Art Museum.

Meanwhile, the museum stopped publishing Folk Art Magazine, cut its staff from 50 to 12, and shrunk its budget to just $7 million, down from $10 million in 2009. Then came the recession, when generous donations to cultural institutions were not exactly a priority. Further personnel issues arose when AFAM’s contemporary curator, Brooke Davis Anderson, left in 2010 to become the Deputy Director of Curatorial Planning at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Then, in 2011, the museum’s former chairman and board president from 1977 and 1999, Ralph O. Esmerian, was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to six years in jail. Though he had originally promised his personal collection of folk art to the museum, in 2008 his most famous piece—a version of Edward Hicks’s painting “A Peaceable Kingdom”—was sold at auction; Esmerian had used the painting as collateral against a debt he owed.

In 2000, the museum had raised $6 million to help finance the new building; after 10 years and a $4 million deficit, it brought in a little over half that amount. Defaulting on the $32 million loan owed to the city’s Trust for Cultural Resources two years prior, the museum closed its doors in July of 2011 and moved operations back to the lobby space opposite Lincoln Center, a space just one sixth the size of its home on West 53rd. There were talks of absorbing the collection into the Smithsonian Institution and having part of the collection displayed at the Brooklyn Museum. AMAF’s senior curator, Stacy C. Hollander, has said, “Neither [institution] would fulfill the function of a stand-alone folk art museum.” Regardless, the dissolution of the collection in its current state would require dual approval from both the New York State attorney general’s office and the State Department of Education.

Following the AFAM’s closure in 2011, New York Magazine writer Jerry Saltz wrote almost clairvoyantly, “Really, [they] should just sell its building to MoMA. MoMA could then either tear it down and build something new, or transform it into offices.” And that’s precisely what happened. Although the building might have had its critics, there was no shortage of backlash following MoMA’s announcement of its plans to raze the Folk Art Museum in April. Where would the art go? How would it fit into the greater catalog of MoMAs existing collections? Why would one museum want to demolish another? An outsider establishment, sure. But a fellow museum?

Photo by Bruce Berrien via Flickr.

In an open letter from the Architectural League of New York, 35 architects co-signed the following statement:

“The Architectural League calls on the Museum of Modern Art to reconsider its decision to demolish the American Folk Art Museum. The Museum of Modern Art…should provide more information about why it considers it necessary to tear down this significant work of contemporary architecture. The public has a substantial and legitimate interest in this decision, and the Museum of Modern Art has not yet offered a compelling justification for the cultural and environmental waste of destroying this much-admired, highly distinctive twelve-year-old building.”

In May of this year, MoMA backed off—at least for now. Many expect MoMA to move forward with a plan to expand and incorporate either some or all of the original building, much the same way the Met did with its American Wing, by building around it and connecting an open side of the AMAF to the existing floors of MoMA. But, construction headaches such as the floors not matching up correctly, and the bleak interior of the AMAF could deter the ‘museum within a museum’ concept.

With the bulldozers on hold for the time being, MoMA has hired New York design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro to help find a path forward. Last week, the American Folk Art Museum received a $1.6 million grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, for a traveling exhibition across five cities in the U.S. over three years beginning with New York in 2014. The exhibit, titled “Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum” will include paintings, quilts, and other pieces from the museum’s masterworks collection.

There’s hope for the Folk Art Museum yet.


Erin Wurzel is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia, with dreams of picking up and moving to Paris. She has a B.A. in Journalism from Temple University. She loves Impressionism, gin cocktails, and the city of Brotherly Love. You can find her blogging about almost everything at like / want / need.


Mother Dearest

Mother’s Day is fast approaching. That’s right procrastinating children everywhere, mark May 9 on your calendars. As you pick out the perfect card and put in your order for festive bouquet at the florist, consider giving Mommy dearest something a little different. That’s right, just in time for the most maternal of holidays, just what Mom always wanted…a dot.


A dot, you say? Yes, a dot. But this is no ordinary dot. This is a dot from Georges Seurat’s famous A Sunday on La Grande Jatte 1884, which is 125 years old this year. You can choose from six colors (three of which are limited edition): like sun-catching Light Green, understated Orange, wind in the sails White, sky is the limit Light Blue, burst of brightness Red, or blushing beauty Pink. The cost for adopting these color swatches? 1 for $10, 3 for $25, or all six shades for $50. What does your Mom get out of this adoption? Well, an awesome commemorative button of her beloved dot as well as a description of the role it plays in the painting as a whole. Oh, and you get that warm fuzzy feeling of having helped fund the conservation of one of the great art masterpieces.


Adopt your dot online at the Art Institute of Chicago. And if you’re too late to get one for Mother’s Day, don’t worry, Father’s Day is just around the corner.


Someone Forgot to Pay the Water Bill


Judging by some of the laws on the books, I can’t say that I have complete faith in the governing abilities of Chicago’s City Council. Some of these laws include: 1) It’s illegal to protest naked unless you are under 17 years of age, 2) Eating at a place that is on fire is – you guessed it – illegal, and 3) fishing while riding on a giraffe is also a no-no (would love to know the story behind that one). Needless to say, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, and the City Council has found theirs.

Last week, I was one of several bloggers who wrote about the proposed admissions hike at the Art Institute of Chicago. Apparently the City Council agrees that this sudden and significant leap in entry fees is more than a little unwarranted. In response to the AIC’s actions, Alderman Ed Burke of the fighting 14th and Ald. Ginger Rugai(19th) have proposed an interesting condition:   any museum that charges city residents more than $10 for admission “shall be ineligible for any public subsidy.” According to the Chicago Sun-Times:  “For decades, churches, museums, hospitals and other non-profits have received free water from the city. They also get free building permits and waivers of license and inspection fees.” Essentially, if a museum charges Chicagoans – whose tax dollars provided the Art Institute with a $6.6 million Park District subsidy last year – more than $10 to peruse their cultural offerings, then the water gets shut off.

On the whole this seems like a rather reasonable compromise. Here’s why:

  • If residents of the city are already contributing millions of dollars to the museum through tax dollars, it only seems fair that the financial burdens of a museum should not fall squarely on their shoulders.
  • Museums should reward their core audience, which frequently consists of the residents of the city or town that the museum calls home, and a reduced city resident admission price is a logical and easy way to provide loyal visitors with a benefit.
  • The Art Institute is a public institution and thereby a participant in an unspoken give-and-take with Chicago and its residents. For example,  the city will provide free water to a museum that offers a significant cultural outlet for residents. Or, a museum will receive Park District subsidies if it provide x number of free days each year. Or, the city will waive certain fees and permit requirements if a museum serves as a beacon in the city’s tourism appeal. Essentially, by introducing such an extreme hike in admissions fees, the Art Institute has violated that unspoken agreement.
  • This proposition introduces some accountability into the decision-making process of museums. This is not to say that every decision a museum makes should be approved by the city council/governing body, nothing would get done. However, museums need to know that when they make a decision that drastically impacts the residents and visitors who make the institution relevant that they will have to answer to someone. A museum holds items in a public trust. What good is that if the public can’t afford to come see, appreciate, and learn from those items?

One question I have to raise is how did Ald. Burke and Rugai come to the $10 mark? I would be interested to know why $10 is any less arbitrary than the $18 set by the Art Institute? Without any details to flesh out either number, I will have to take comfort in Burke’s statement that he’s willing to compromise with the museum (now there is the City Council I remember).

So, the City Council just might be in the right on this one. My advice to the Art Institute would be to reconsider raising their admission prices. Then again, maybe the museum could charge their visitors another $2 to use the port-a-potties they brought in when the water was shut off.


You want me to pay what?


The Chicago Sun Times ran an article today about the proposed admission price hike at the Art Institute of Chicago. With regular admission going up by 50% (from $12 to $18) and student and senior pricing seeing a whopping 71% increase (from $7 to $12), the AIC is clearly not taking the gradual approach to these changes.

Museums are feeling the pinch in these tough economic times. Furthermore, the Art Institute is just about to open their new Modern Wing, which means they have even more costs to cover than they did in the past. Since deaccessioning is out of the question (for an art museum, keeping the collection together is a top priority), they have to find ways to increase their earned revenue. Obviously, if it is down to raise prices or shut down, then by all means raise the prices. However, in saying that, one wonders if the Art Institute has undergone other changes that would require a less steep price increase. Have they made appropriate staff cuts? (I know, being a museum employee I am just as scared of losing my job as everyone else, but institutions in trouble need to trim the fat sometimes. Museums are just as guilty of carrying around superfluous staff as other organizations.) Have they explored other ideas for bringing in revenue? (i.e. specialized memberships, new partnerships, all those other out-of-the-box ideas people are throwing around these days). Have they expanded their donor base by looking at and trying to cultivate new audiences? I would feel more comfortable, and I imagine other Chicagoans would as well, if we knew that the Art Institute had taken these steps before putting a sudden and hefty price burden on the visitor (because visitors are feeling the pinch as well.)

In the end though, the Art Institute does offer free times every week and are required to continue providing a certain amount of free days each year thanks to their membership in Museums in the Park. So, there are plenty of chances to see the art at no cost. Furthermore, a one-time membership purchase means free admission all year, and with the raised prices memberships become an even greater value to both the frequent and semi-frequent visitor. So, while the increases are steep and sudden, it doesn’t mean the end of art appreciation here in Chicago.

In the long run, I think it is important to note that visitors will continue to come if they feel the museum is thinking about us just as much as they are thinking of themselves.