A Lap Around The USA – Day 14 – New York City - Sandpit

A Lap Around The USA – Day 14 – New York City

Inspiration / 17 May 2017

by Dan Koerner

The Morgan Library & Museum

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The Morgan Library & Museum is a Madison Ave museum and research library founded in 1906 by financier and banker J.P. Morgan. It is an exquisitely beautiful building inside and out and holds an astonishing collection of rare books and manuscripts. In the collection are (deep breath) three Gutenberg Bibles, prints by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens and Picasso, original drawings by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry for the Little Prince, an early manuscript for A Christmas Carol, scraps of paper from Bob Dylan as he figured out Blowin’ in the Wind and It Ain’t Me Babe, original scores from Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Mahler and and Mozart in their own hand and a proof copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with corrections penned in by the author herself. Also heaps of other amazing stuff. This is my kinda place.

The entry is in a new, fairly pragmatic looking annexe to the right of the original old brownstone where visitors are given another one of those metal clothes clip thingies. I’m taken upstairs by Senior Manager of Digital Media, Dan Friedman who talks me through a bunch of the institution’s history including a recent Alice in Wonderland exhibition including letters to and from Lewis Carroll which are also part of the massive collection.

Most fascinating in my conversation with Dan, though is about their long process of digitising their collection. I’m finding at a lot of institutions that I visit, and in particular libraries, that there is no strategy in place for digitisation. There is an obvious desire to do this, obviously to make the collection more widely available however it is generally happening on a by-request basis. So, researcher in a remote location will need a particular page or set of pages from a particular text and will request a copy. The text is subsequently photographed or scanned and made available online. More often than not these days, the whole text is digitised however, as Dan tells me the original practice was to digitise a kind of “best of” – only selected pages that may be interesting to the library tourist, not necessarily the more comprehensive researcher. This has resulted in large gaps in the digital collection.

Dan takes me on a walk through of the building which is a heartbreakingly beautiful example of early 1900s New York interiors of the wealthy. He tells me that Morgan’s study, the first grand room we enter was once the scene of an economic intervention in early America. Apparently in the early 1900s the USA was headed towards financial stagnation and collapse. The story goes that Morgan locked every single industrialist in his study until they found a solution to save America. It seems they were successful. There is also a vault in the study which, Dan tells me still held their particularly rare book collection not 15 years ago.

The Morgan – the study (click to explore)

Further into the building is the library itself, complete with a towering fireplace and countless beautiful tomes in their shelves. It’s genuinely thrilling to see such an amazingly beautiful space which is still a functioning research facility with an incredible, if slightly unknown outside of New York, collection of priceless books and manuscripts.

The Morgan – the library (click to explore)

Admission: $20

Digital engagement: Incomplete yet readily available online collection.

Sleep No More

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Okay, this is technically not a museum or cultural institution however, it is so broadly referenced as an immersive experience, particularly by museum folk, that I had to jump in. In fact, it has come up so often when I explain the work we do at Sandpit that I did have some slight shame that I had not seen it.

For readers who don’t knowm UK immersive theatre company Punch Drunk’s Sleep No More is a participatory work at McKittrick Hotel, 530 West 27th Street that has been running continuously since 2011. It is essentially a piece of promenade theatre and is a kind of abstraction of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that takes participants through a Chelsea warehouse space that has been redesigned to look and feel like a kind of 1930s noir hotel, ‘The McKittrick’. The pricey tickets are booked in advance and participants line up excitedly at staged intervals to become lost inside.

Bags are cloaked, tickets are checked and the question “Have you been here before?” is asked. I reply no to which I have no response. I was given a playing card (the 2 of Clubs) and ushered to my right and into a hallway with several black, right angled turns, punctuated by a small LED powered “candle” placed on the floor. Although not completely disorienting, this process acts as a kind of threshold that one assumes is in place to seperate the participant from the outside world. Once fully inside I’m confronted with a 1930’s cabaret bar and encouraged to purchase one of the many pricey cocktails. I get involved but steer clear of the velvet rope that separates the higher paying guests from the prols like me. I wait my turn, awkwardly shoved up next to a velvet curtain until the 2 of Clubs is called. By this time my admittedly generously poured cocktail is starting to take its affect and I gladly receive my white mask, place it on and adjust the strap to my liking. All of us “2 of Clubs” are gleefully shoved into a tiny room and are told the rules – “No talking” apparently the most shocking to most. The first choice we must make, we are told by our host is either “up or down”. The door opens and everyone rushes in with surprising haste. The instruction was obviously clear and well understood by all as we appear to fairly evenly spread both upstairs and down. I opt for downstairs and immediately find myself in the first of many, many intricately designed environments. I rush though as many as I can as quickly as I can, having heard the detail that the design goes to from friends and colleagues who had been here before. I open drawers and attempt to open several unlocked doors. When I try to go somewhere that I am apparently not supposed to, I am gently blocked by figures in black masks. I run up and down several levels to see what’s there and find many rooms, empty of performers but full of very “haunting” and emotionally manipulative soundscapes. Come to think of it, despite its emotional manipulation the sound technically achieves a lot as merely moving from one space to another create a very seamless crossfade effect, transitioning you from one compositional mode to another.

Eventually some performers rock up.

Although seemingly self guided, the experience is sneakily quite guided as performers rapidly move from one room to the next, huge throngs of participants following them. The performance style is this neo-Weimar, kind of pseudo-Bausch physical theatre thing. On one level this is slightly ingenious as, with no words it alleviates the need for complex dialogue narratives to match the intricacies of the physical design. Groups, couples and single performers enter slightly acrobatic vignettes that participants jump, duck and run to avoid. The masks we are also wearing gives the vague impression that we are ghosts, the characters of the world completely unaware of us. Until you get in the way of one of them and they shove you out of the way. Or, confusingly whisper to you. Although clever in the smaller amount of dramaturgical work they needed to do to create the experience, the performance style actually feels incredibly light on despite the spectacle of performers pushing themselves off the ceiling and walls or throwing themselves at each other. The result is not so much a detailed immersion in the storyworld of Macbeth, rather a fairly shallow abstraction of some of the scenes. That said, if you find yourself in the right place at the right time you can construct some potentially touching narratives for yourself. The liquor helps.

Sleep No More is often celebrated by museum exhibition design people and despised by theatre people, at least the ones I know. I’m not going to let it polarise me to that level. Having done plenty of stuff that drops audiences into a world where they have a high level of agency, I appreciate the work that needs to make it possible. And, despite the slightly fluffy performance style, you can see the work – particularly in the meticulous physical and sound design (whether you appreciate the aesthetic or not). What I think is really fascinating, though is the public’s appetite for it and Sleep No More’s sheer longevity. I was genuinely stunned by the hubris of the participants I was there with – I was shoved to the point that I fell not once, not twice but three times during my time at McKittrick.

It may have been the cocktails talking but I created a mental thesis questioning why there was such a voracious public appetite for disappearing out of the real world in the most immersive way possible while still being “safe”. This is all caught up in a very post-2008 desire for authenticity in an increasingly commodified life lead by most which, ironically is creating the same deafeningly commodified “realness” for which the hipster movement is so ubiquitously and eye-rollingly culpable. But these people genuinely want to be somewhere else that feels more meaningful and more real. Underneath all of that is something genuinely alarming and says a lot more about what has become of the world than an anonymous participant in a mask would like to admit once their sore feet take them out of the McKittrick and into the gentrified Chelsea.

Admission: $97. Way too much.

Digital engagement: Not applicable. At all.

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