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The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

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As I approach the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago I am struck my its austerity, a huge, grey monument in the northern part of downtown. Despite this, it’s also currently covered in a large octopus decal promoting an about to open Takashi Murakami show. The austerity of the outside however doesn’t prepare you for the sheer amount of activity that is going on inside. The MCA is undergoing some huge changes at the moment, a large part of which is under the auspices of the very excellent Susan Chun, Chief Content Officer who meets me in the foyer for a look around a chat. I’m always slightly confused by the titles given to many of the people I meet in the USA as Susan’s remit stretches far beyond content. Several exhibitions are being installed at the moment which Susan knows intimately as she tells me of the ins and outs of their installation. Susan is a brilliantly enthusiastic person and she takes me to several unexpected levels of the building for a look around after pushing multiple buttons in the elevator due to her distracted enthusiasm.

On the top floor is a Riot Grrrls show, not actually about the 90s feminist grunge movement its name would suggest but of ten pioneering contemporary female artists whose work has pushed the envelope and has influenced a new generation of artists. There’s something in the energy and hubris of these works though that does evoke the aesthetic of the exhibition’s namesake.

The Murakami exhibition is also being installed up here on the top floor and we stoop down to see one of the most challenging works to install – a huge papier mâché, unwieldy stalactite that has been roughly covered with aerosols graffiti by the artist up until the proviso day. It is this manic energy that seems to purvey the entire building and Susan herself.

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Looking up the fairly spectacular stairwell.

She takes me down into the bowels of the building to meet the digital team who by the look of the amount of work visualised on every spare space of wall in the office are very busy people indeed. Addressing what they have identified as a major problem in many punters not actually having any idea what the building they work in is, they are prototyping a huge neon-looking LED sign to adorn the front of the building. They have paper prototypes up  on the wall and a 1:1 functioning section of the display they proudly cart around the building. This is all part of a fairly significant upgrade that is happening to the building including a whole new entry foyer and restaurant called Marisol (after the Warhol protege Marisol Escobar who sadly died in 2016) headed up by rockstar Chicago chef Jason Hammel. It’s totally cool to see Susan’s team of people working on all of this stuff together at the same time from interior deign of the front desk, to the LED signage down to the way the menus will be printed and how it will all work online. Susan tells me how proud she is of the team and how unusual it is to be able to achieve all of this in house for what would otherwise require an external studio to do.

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The new foyer (under construction).

The team is also currently engaged in a project called Coyote which has the ambitious plan on creating quite lengthy alt text for every image that the museum has. This will finally create an accessible experience for vision impaired visitors to the website but is also data that could manifest in countless other forms.

After spending a couple of hours at the gallery we all head back to Susan’s apartment, right on Lake Michigan in a huge apartment complex that was pointed out to me on the previous day’s architectural tour. Apparently the City had instigated a law that meant no buildings could be erected on land east of Lake Shore drive, reserving the land for citizens. The developers of this building however identified the fact that it was reclaimed land fill, not land on its own – a sneaky legal Do-si-do which allowed this spectacular building to happen. The loophole apparently was closed immediately after its construction. Up in Susan’s apartment with incredible views of the city and the lake she does a speech which everyone settles down listen to in which she thanks three of us present for visiting form overseas. The sincerity with which this whole ritual occurs is not something that happens back home and that everyone takes seriously but with a lot of joy. More speeches back in Australia I say. Cheers!

Admission: Suggested admission – $12.

Digital engagement: Hands down the most clever, unusual and easy to use website I’ve experienced. Exhibitions speak for themselves and need little else.

Architectural Boat Tour

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On the recommendation of several friends and colleagues, I found my way down to the Chicago River and got my self on a boat tour that takes in the (largely modernist) architectural wonders of Chicago. Operator Wendella claims to be the original purveyor of such an experience so I look for their logo and jump on one of their boats. John, our illustrious tour guide initially informs us that the site where we are docked would have been completely desolate after the devastating Great Chicago Fire of 1871 – allegedly started in a barn on the outskirts of town belonging to one Catherine O’Leary whose cow seems to have kicked over a lamp. John also makes note of one of several cantilevered bascule bridges nearby that stretch the main branch of the Chicago River and its two main tributaries to the north and south.

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John – really going for it.

In fact, the City of Chicago’s Y shaped logo actually pays its homage to this north/south fork in the river that forms a Y shape in the centre of town. But this tour is less about the river and more about the buildings.

Chicago was once home to the master modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – affectionately abbreviated to Mies for those in the architectural know. Mies taught at the nearby University of Chicago and had several proteges who either continued his iconic, unadorned style or openly rebelled against it. This is no more evident than the nearby Seagram building, designed by Mies and easily identified by its clean lines and airy lobby which is right next to the Mies student Bertrand Goldberg designed Marina City whose curvy exterior expresses its architect’s insistence that architecture, like the natural world should not contain right angles. This building went up 5 years before Mies’ death and I’m sure would still have tim turning in his grave if not posthumously scowling.

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Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building.

We continue down the river for a good 70 minutes and John, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s buildings does not shut up for the entire trip. Impressive. Seriously, this is an incredibly informative and very fun thing to do with an afternoon and adds to some of my favourite experiences on this trip that were mediated by a real person sharing their knowledge in their own idiosyncratic way. I now know a lot more about the history of Chicago with the added bonus that my feet aren’t additionally sore.

By the way, as it turns out the cow never really started the fire and was exonerated by the City of Chicago many years after Catherine O’Leary’s death.

Admission: $35.50

Digital engagement: Was nearly running late so used the website to prebook my tickets. Didn’t give me a success screen and email took some time to come through which caused a bit of panic.

Jane Addams Hull House

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The Jane Addams Hull House is a historical building and museum on campus at the University of Chicago which was once home to the social reformer and first female American Nobel Prize laureate Jane Addams. Addams was sociologists and pioneer of womens and immigrants rights in early 20th century America and founded the house in 1889 as a community centre and social experiment for inclusion. By 1911 the complex had grown to eleven buildings which housed philosophers, artists and academics along with immigrants and the needy in a kind of commune promoting the social betterment of its inhabitants. Hull House is all that exists now amongst the 1970s University of Chicago campus but is a beautiful and historic piece of late 19th century American architecture. Now a museum it is charged with maintaining Addams’ legacy for social innovation and inclusivity. A permanent exhibition houses many artefacts and ephemera from the time of Addams and her colleagues as well as a series of commissioned artworks and revolving exhibitions.

Upstairs on my visit was an exhibition called States of Incarceration which is a travelling show that opened in 2016 in New York City that explores the thorny issue of the history and future of mass incarceration in the United States.

Also downstairs was a clever installation in a windowed, octagonal antechamber. The installation has sound recording sourced from the archives that illustrate the late 19th century atmosphere of Hull House’s surrounds. The installation artist had cleverly attached transducers to the windows and wooden frames of the room to bring to the sound to life. The effect was as if the sound was coming from nowhere and everywhere all at once without the point source that a small speaker would provide. Super nice.

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Antechamber with transducers.

Admission: Free

Digital engagement: Bits and pieces including a series of wall mounted iPads and iPod touches in kiosk mode for the AV content in the exhibition upstairs. Nothing permanent in the building.

Art Institute of Chicago

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Founded in 1879 the Art Institute of Chicago is a deceptively massive institution perched right in the thick of things right next to Lake Michigan. I say deceptive because the entry foyer is fairly small considering the epic scale of the collection including show-pony rockstar works like Whistler’s Mother and American Gothic. I also have to note here that of all the places I’ve visited, in terms of their digital tools, UX and VX they are getting it really right here and led to one of the most easily accessible, straightforward visitor experiences I’ve had on this trip. I got in the door just in time before a million other gallery goers came in behind me and got through the ticket line pretty quickly. Above our heads in the line were a series of flat screen that welcomed visitors and gave basic information. They also informed the crowds that American Gothic today, unfortunately was not at home and was on tour in Europe. Nice move as a piece of forewarning before I slightly pricey ticket is purchased. The screen also promoted the Art Institute of Chicago’s app which I downloaded via their speedy, free wifi which blessedly didn’t take me through an annoying captive portal process where I had to agree to unseen T&Cs. I obtained my ticket from yet another surly front of house person, checked my bag and skipped out on getting an audio tour device. The app, it seemed allowed me to punch in the same numbers that I would on one of these $7 devices.

Once in, I hung a right to have a quick look at the very lovely Ryerson and Burnham Libraries which are accessible and have a modest collection of books available to the public. Back in the foyer I once again opt for an audio tour led experience for my visit. The app itself has the most successful wayfinding I’ve experienced on this trip with maps it somehow fairly effectively managed to triangulate my position on, as well as what floor I had made my way to. Objects on the tour appear as large markers, greyed out if they are actually on another floor. This is a little tricky to get your head around but once you’re used to it makes plenty of sense.

Ryerson and Burnham Libraries – interior (click to explore)

The tour takes me past about 20 of the museum’s “best of” objects including a really impressive amount of antiquities from Ancient Rome, Greece and limited parts of Asia and the Islamic world. I’ve never seen this amount of Etruscan objects on display in one place whose mysterious culture I’m a bit of a nerdy fan of. The tour takes me past many more priceless objects with succinct audio from curators and staff and soundbites from the artist where available. This is all punctuated by really sparing use of music which helps massively with the immersion but without getting in the way of the interpretation of the objects. I only struggle at one point to figure out the map where it looks like I would have to fly out of a window and back in to get to my desired location. I ask for help from another young and surly member of staff who informs me that I’d be better of catching a Pokemon with the app rather than finding an artwork. I found this interesting as for me it was quite successful in what it sets out to achieve. Goes to show how problematic app driven experiences are, even when they’re doing the best job they can at it.

Art Institute of Chicago – interior (click to explore)

Interestingly, there is no desperate wanting of my email address from any of these tools and I leave actually really amped at the invisibility and effectiveness of the Art Institute of Chicago’s digital tools.

Admission: $35 – cheaper if you’re a Chicagoan.

Digital engagement: Lots of stuff – see above.

A note on Chicago

Coming from New York City Chicago feels like it has voluminous amounts of space. The streets are wide, the Airbnbs are big and they really want you to eat hot dogs. Museums are also a million miles apart, unlike the comparative museum jam that is the Upper East Side. Feet are literally bleeding now. Not kidding. I get on the subway, stroll past Anish Kapoor's 'Cloud Gate' and find myself at...

The Shedd Aquarium

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Perched right on Lake Michigan, the Shedd Aquarium is a 1930s gem of a building. This octagonal construction is, for the most part what a more modest early 20th century aquarium would have been – kind of like an alive, aquatic version of New York’s Natural History Museum, the aquarium displays various tanks complete with marine life and identifying labels showing you where the critters come from.

The Shedd Aquarium – interior (click to explore)

Each of these displays fan out from a central “Caribbean reef” which on my visit had the added delight of a real scuba diving cleaner!

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Scuba-cleaner!

Towards the back of the building is a 1991 built “Oceanarium” which contains the more dubiously held specimens including dolphins, otters, penguins and, in a tank that honestly didn’t feel nearly big enough, several beluga whales (I counted four). Although seeing these creatures in the flesh is exhilarating, particularly via the subterranean viewing windows I spent most of the morning trying to gauge where on the spectrum of intelligent marine life I draw the line when it comes to cruel captivity. The beluga exhibit, unfortunately strode over that line.

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Beluga exhibit.

Coming back up to the grand level I was struck by the chaos that had developed up here during my time below. What was probably way too many school groups had now invaded the aquarium with much shouting and banging on glass. I nearly came to the rescue of a jurassic looking snapping turtle who was being harangued by four teenage boys with a penchant for whacking glass surfaces. In the middle of all of this was a large, open topped, shallow pool where several creatures were available for petting. Standing in a gap in the middle of the tank was a man with a crackly microphone whose apparent vocation was to loudly chastise over-boisterous marine life petting. Couple this with the sheer enthusiasm that school children were flocking to the tank and the whole effect was one of utter chaos. My moral radar also in alert mode, I felt quite unsettled by the whole experience, despite it being vaguely hysterical.

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Microphone man trying to control chaos.

It was super lovely to see some of the small creatures including Puranas, moray eels, said snapping turtle and several puffer fish who always seemed to be hiding in the picture. I’ve certainly seen animals held in worse conditions before so if you’re the sort of person who can look past that this is a beautiful gem of an institution in a historic building that modern, large scale aquariums should be envious of.

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Puffer fish.

Admission: $30.95 for basic access (no show)

Digital engagement: Several military grade touch screens with content that didn’t further augment printed panels. Kiosk mode seems to have eluded aquarium staff at several stations unless they actually wanted us to see the Windows Vista controls.

The Field Museum of Natural History

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The Field Museum was founded in 1893 to display objects at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Originally funded by merchant Marshall Field, the sprawling neo Classical building sprung up in its current location in 1921.

The Field Museum – interior (click to explore)

I’d encountered a lot of talk about the Field Museum on this trip and was surprised to see how wanting it was for an update. That being said, it is known as being one of the world’s premier museums largely due to the scale of its collection, the scientific work it conducts and its education programs. Only problem is, as a visitor you don’t really get to see it. Part of the exorbitant ticket price included access to one of three exhibitions or a film. I opted for “Specimens”, an exhibition documenting the collecting process of the museum. At several points, this exhibition alluded to the millions of objects held in the collection which only made it more frustrating that I couldn’t see it all. A perspex model of the building tantalisingly displays a basement, spilling out of the bounds of the surface level building which hides all the treasures. The fact that the number of items in the collection is constantly mentioned exacerbates my frustration as I wander around this huge and, on the bottom floor at least, largely empty building.

There is a huge opportunity here for the museum to lean less on traditional museum interpretation and to find new ways to give visitors access to the scale of the collection and the research that is being undertaken. At various points in the building, science labs are exposed where you can see scientists busy at work with countless specimens. More of this, I say!

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Scientists at work.

On the ground level there is a very comprehensive collection of taxidermy however having been to the Natural History Museum in New York City recently, I had seen very artfully created dioramas and taxidermy. These, unfortunately don’t stack up which did, on the other hand make me treasure my experience in New York City even more.

Very impressive, though is “Sue” the T Rex in the main hall, a very rare specimen which is 90% authentic. She’s an excellent welcome and farewell to this grand old building.

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Sue.

Admission: $22 including only one exhibition. Can cost up to $36 for AAA.

Digital engagement: Basic app relies on QR codes attached to a sparse amount of exhibits.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

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In terms of the king of museum experiences, I’d kind of been saving the best for last. The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is one of New York City’s three Smithsonian and was initially charged with giving a space to the “Arts of Decoration”. It has been kicking around since 1896 but was handed over to the Smithsonian in 1967. Before that it had been established and run by the three granddaughters of wealthy industrialist Peter Cooper – I feel like I’ve typed the phrase “wealthy industrialist” a million times on this trip.

Housed in the Andrew Carnegie mansion on the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile (not far from the Guggenheim) these days it is home to 198,255 objects and has a remit that covers all areas of design, from the 2 dimensional to furniture, jewellery, models and even a Rolls Royce that once belonged to the Beatles. The mansion itself is a really serene getaway from the honking traffic of the Upper East Side. In terms of Cooper Hewitt’s place amongst other Smithsonians, it’s like the slightly cooler older sister. You can tell on approach, the old iron gate has the Cooper Hewitt’s cleanly designed logo boldly attached to it – even their treatment of the slightly dated Smithsonian logo is simplified to a more pleasing silhouette. Inside the gate and past the now ubiquitous security guard a huge courtyard reveals itself around a central green plus a terrace draped in wisteria. I do a sheepish lap around the building, unable to find the front door. This may actually be the only thing Cooper Hewitt struggles with. I head through the cafe, through the very well stocked gift shop and into the entry foyer. It’s here that I see the front door (of course, covered in scaffolding) but confusingly placed down a side street on the north side of the building, not incredibly obvious given the likely approach by tourists from the south. Okay, I’m splitting hairs slightly but I had to find something I could pick apart, right?

The Cooper Hewitt – interior (click to explore)

The whole visitor experience for the Cooper Hewitt is excellently thought out. Once you arrive at the front desk the noticeably non-museum-ie and more design-ie front of house people greet you and hand over The Pen. *Queue triumphal music* Developed by a team under the auspices of ACMI’s Seb Chan, The Pen facilitates one of the most awesome museum going experiences I’ve ever had. Probably five or six times bugger than a usual pen, the Cooper Hewitt’s device is a custom digital object that allows you to interact with with and save your experiences of the collection during your visit. As the front of house staff inform you, The Pen is a stylus that allows you to interact with various exhibits but also allows you to save particular objects that you are fond with. By inverting The Pen and tapping its stub to specially deigned icons on exhibits’ didactic panels, an NFC tag embedded in the panel register with the device. This functions a bit like a real world shopping cart where you collect your favourite objects.

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The Pen in action.

At various points in the museum you are confronted with a large touch table. Using the stylus end of The Pen you can scribble on the table. The table then calculates a vector from your scribble and presents an object from the collection that approximates it. Form there you can save the object to your account or move on to design your own. Using nodes and vectors you may then design your own three dimensional object which, again you may save. Also using the touch table you can take a look at all the objects you have already saved to your account.

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Touch table.

All of this adds up to a great visitor experience where you are not constantly gazing down at a screen and are rather wielding a screenless object that is at once unobtrusive but by the same token your magic key to access  the collection.

Post experience, you enter a unique ID printed on your tickets create an account and see your collection of objects of interest, gathered during your visit. On my visit, objects from the new exhibition “The Jazz Age” featured heavily with its physically bam!-chk!-bam!-looking objects. I also had several from sections from the collection by Ellen DeGeneres. Go figure.

This was a total treat and to date is winning by far for an overall brilliantly conceived visitor experience.

Admission: 18 clams. Bargain.

Digital engagement: See above.

American Museum of Natural History

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This is another beast of a museum and one that I’ve been really desperate to visit for years. Today, I finally got my chance. Set about half way up Central Park West, it is one of the biggest museums in the world – my feet are basically bleeding now. Its huge collection starts at the big bang and essentially describes the natural world from then on through a million different forms of communication, both old and new and encompassing an impressively comprehensive collection of damn cool stuff. The museum has a huge scientific staff and sponsors expeditions around the world (and into space) all year round to enhance the collection and its insatiable thirst for knowledge. One of the founders of the museum was Teddy Roosevelt and you still see his presence throughout this monumental gem of a building, if slightly labyrinthine/rabbit warren-y.

I start my wander in one of the newest parts of the building, the Rose Center for Earth and Space and the Helibrun Cosmic Pathway. Completed in 2000 the pathway encircles a huge, planet-like sphere in the centre of the annexe, vaguely resembling The Machine in ‘Contact’, for any Carl Sagan nerds out there.

The Rose Center for Earth and Space (click to explore)

Inside the sphere is a projected sound and light show describing the Big Bang and how the Earth got to be where it is. This is all projected into a concave disk that you look down into and is very impressive and vertigo-inducing. Despite this, the whole thing is narrated by my arch-enemy Liam Neeson – who for some ungodly reason always seems to be cast the in these all-knowing, sage-like roles. Heavens knows why. Back out on the path way, you travel forward in time from the big band and see the universe, galaxy, solar system and finally earth evolve.

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Starting the Helibrun Cosmic Pathway.

Down on the very lower floor there’s a jumble of cosmic phenomena including a short video presentation describing the on-going research the museum is collaborating on internationally in studying black holes and quasars.

The bulk of the rest of the museum is considerably older and containers probably what it is most famous for – the countless numbers of dioramas featuring meticulously taxidermied animals in reconstructed habitats, with extremely natural poses and beautifully quaint handpainted backdrops that give not only an incredible sense of depth but the obvious hand of a truly talented human being who assembled the thing. Which is one of the nicest things about the dioramas, they are impeccably built but still have a human, artisanal substance to them – unlike the machine constructed, “perfectly” made interpretative we are so used to seeing in museums.

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One of many dioramas.

The poses of the animals are quite astonishing too – a herd of Oryx stand wide eyed and erect as if they have just noticed us and are about to bolt into the undergrowth, several birds seem like they are captured mid-flight. This all points to a museum tradition of yesteryear which is so heartbreakingly lacking in the world today.

Just when I think I can’t take any more I remember that the fourth floor is dedicated to the American Museum of Natural History’s vast dinosaur fossil collection. Many of the early digs that uncovered these amazing treasures were pioneered but he museum itself and I don’t think I’ve seen this many on this kind of scale before.

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This chap welcomes you to the dino-level.

A lot of the reconstructed skeletons are accompanied by a tiny model of what the creature would have looked like with its skin on, sitting on the side.  A total treat for any dino-fan.

Admission: $22

Digital Engagement: A confounding amount of apps available for download. Most of them don’t work. The American Museum of Natural History Explorer App, though encompasses a lot of the functionality these dead apps promise and pulls it together into one well designed, clean experience. This is the first time I’ve had a successful bluetooth beacon experience. A little too successful. Even though I had confirmed that I had, in fact found the elephant herd, it kept excitedly alerting me to their proximity. A whole bunch of AR games are also embedded in the app although it seemed like I was really the only, slightly foolish looking person using it. Definitely use the app or the website to book tickets in advance and skip the queues.

New-York Historical Society

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Also on Central Park West the New-York Historical Society was founded as New York’s first museum way back in 1804. Charged with exploring the history and identity of New York and, more broadly the USA as a nation, it presents as slightly more bite sized experience that its neighbouring cousin. The collection focuses mainly on the development of Manhattan while leaving the outer boroughs to the Brooklyn Historical Society across the East River. The purpose built building was completed in 1902 and forms another piece of the jigsaw in New York’s collection of treasures.

On the ground floor you can attend the museum’s “multimedia film experience”, New York Story – a sound and light show that tells a compact but fairly comprehensive story of New York since colonisation. In this case “multimedia” means projection on a whole bunch of motorised blinds that fly in and out on a stage with additional automated lighting effects. It’s a fairly straightforward trick however the content is particularly good, especially the more contemporary shots of the city in a pretty sumptuous 3:1 ratio. It actually left me wishing I’d made this first stop on my clammer through New York as, despite it being 17.5% tacky actually gives a fairly energised intro to the city.

Up on subsequent floors the New-York Historical Society has a vast and eclectic collection of artefacts and ephemera that tell the story of this city from countless perspectives. Thomas Jefferson’s original designs for several of the nation’s buildings are fascinating original objects to peruse. The top level also uses the history and evolution of the Tiffany Lamp to tell part of the story.

The brand spanking new fourth floor promises “history has a whole new story”. Many of these new exhibits comprise touch screens and flat screens hidden behind mirrors to fairly interesting effect. Together, though the collection is a bit of a hodgepodge of stuff with no particular clear narrative linking it all together.

Admission: Bit steep given the scale at $20

Digital engagement: A fun touch table on the fourth floor asks you to act out the mannerisms of early 20th century New York society. The multimedia extravaganza downstairs is fairly fun. Non-responsive website except for the fourth floor exhibit which is obviously getting the big PR pusch.

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Fourth floor touch table.

Kicked off the day early today and managed to get my way all the way downtown, over the Brooklyn bridge to Pier One where Anish Kapoor’s ‘Descention’ has been installed since the start of May. This monumental work, tucked into Brooklyn Bridge Park is typical of Kapoor is than it cleverly plays with elemental ingredients in a way that is both mesmerising and contemplative but also a big hit with the tourists. Win-win. The object in question in a circular pool, flush with a grassy knoll containing dark murky water. An unseen mechanism creates a terrifying whirlpool, rotating so powerfully that there is a chasmic vortex produced in the centre. The result is really scary, particularly with the subsonic rumble that is produced on the approach. It looks and feels a lot like someone has pulled some deep, subterranean plug and the world is being sucked away. Truck loads of fun despite it being an apocalyptic doom sculpture.

The Museum of the Moving Image

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MOMI is out in Astoria, a fact that I ponder on the way out. Despite New York City becoming increasingly less Manhattan-centric, the fact that a museum of significance being relegated to the boondocks does raise a quarter of an eyebrow. In what was formerly the east coast home of Paramount Pictures, the museum has accepted visitors since the 1970s and was the only United States museum dedicated solely to motion picture arts and sciences at the time. The museum underwent a $67 million renovation in 2008 and reopened its doors in its current state in 2011. I enter through the missable mirrored doors into an expansive, clean, white foyer. It could be a relic of a set from 2001 A Space Odyssey. I purchase my ticket and am instructed to head upstairs to the galleries. Downstairs there is also a cinema but nothing screening anywhere near my time of arrival. I head up a dramatically angled white staircase and into the first cavernous room. Here, on loop they are screening Jim Henson’s ‘Time Piece’. Created by Henson in 1965 this experimental short film pays with rhythm and non-linear editing to present Henson himself as a kind of Everyman, stuck in the drudgery of the daily grind. It’s a darkly funny and quite bleak piece with the addition of Henson’s trademark sense of humour including, in this case a dancing chicken carcass/puppet. The position and space given to this exhibit is a beautifully warm welcome to MOMI’s galleries, particularly with the esteem that, I assume everyone holds Jim Henson in.

The rest of the museum is a fairly tired collection of ephemera from American movies and television including meticulously constructed set models (it was fascinating to see that drawings for The Silence of the Lambs), prosthesis, merchandise and costumes – all presented in a fairly traditional method with lengthy didactic panels. Further in, the ‘Tut’s Fever Movie Palace’ is a hastily painted, side show version of an Egyptian tomb incorporating a cinemaette that on my visit was full of school groups. Heading further upstairs a large room of arcade games from the 70s and 80s have been (for the most part) restored to the level of being functioning. Bafflingly, there is a change machine in the corner to convert your notes into coins – they’re so authentic you’ll still be paying, thank you very much. Pong was out of order.

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No Pong for you.

Further along and there’s a super cool room full of television sets from the ages, the sheer number and variety of cathode ray tubes in all their wacky forms is awesome. The rest of this level is largely dedicated to the process of film making with exhibits dedicated to the process of film making from editing, a foley studio, a fun stop motion animation station and a series of three touch screens with a huge index of roles on a film shoot which you can browse, tap and supposedly read the definition of. I selected ‘second assistant director’ which crashed my machine only to hand on a blank white screen.

MOMI – interior (click to explore)

The Henson film certainly made this trip worth while but you certainly get the feeling that there is work to do at this museum. With the Australian Centre for the Moving Image having such a broad remit when it comes to the definition of ‘Moving Image’ including all forms of new and emerging digital media, MOMI is halted at a very particular point in time in both its collection and it’s mode of exhibition.

Admission: $15

Digital engagement: Shamefully unresponsive website. Largely traditional exhibition displays however some stations, such as the stop motion animation desk allow digital tools to reveal the process of film making. Beyond the stop motion desk I would wager little has evolved here since the 2011 renovation.

The New Museum

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Founded in 1977 by curator and art critic Marcia Tucker, the New Museum moved into its current, airy digs in 2007. The Japanese designed refurb is an iconic landmark on its Bowery location. The New Museum has no collection of its own however is dedicated to presenting an ongoing cycle of contemporary international art. The museums presents artists who have not explicitly hit the mainstream in the careers and therefore exhibits works that are challenging and explicitly fresh. I visit on a Thursday “pay what you want” day and am instructed to head up to the fifth floor and work my way down, an idea I am slowly warming to on this trip. The lift is out so I brave the stairs which feel like they go on forever as the soaring ceilings on each floor basically equate to two levels. Working down from level 5 the New Museum presents wildly different works on a floors in both form and content from moody paintings from Lynette Yiadom-Boakye to mixed media and video work from Kaari Upson – one such video work involving a manic house inspection in Los Angeles is downright hilarious in the subject’s aggressively paranoid questioning to the vendor about whether a stucco wall is in fact made of asbestos.

The book shop rocks. You can’t find that stuff on Amazon.

New Museum – interior (click to explore)

Next door but very much part of the New Museum is NEW INC., an incubator and co-working space for individuals and small organisations working, largely commercially in the cultural sector. This is fascinating for me as it is a similar model to our home at ACMI X in Melbourne. NEW INC director Julia Kaganskiy spoke with me on the same panel in St Louis at the American Alliance of Museums conference. ACMI X has only just put its toe into the water in terms of incubating work rather than just providing a co-working space so I’m fascinated to the the diversity and apparent success in the many organisations and individuals who live here. What’s totally different is their more fast-churn, alumni model rather than lock terms tenancies such as ours. This trip has made a strong connection between NEW INC and ACMI X that we’ll continue to forge.

Admission: Usually $18, because it was Thursday evening I paid 2 bucks.

Digital engagement: Totally depends what’s showing.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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The Frank Lloyd Wright designed Guggenheim has been an enduring gift to the city from its namesake since 1952. Nestled overlooking Central Park on Fifth Avenue in the leafy and affluent Upper East Side, it is a draw card for New York as tourists and art lovers flock here daily to see its revolving collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern Art. The weather has finally turned for the better in New York City and I make my way across Central Park through the throngs of sun loving New Yorkers to my destination. This isn’t the first time I’ve been to the Guggenheim but seeing it emerge between the buildings as you make your way up Fifth Avenue gives you a sense of warmth and appreciation. The building itself is part of the reason any visitor comes here and is still a striking but perfectly a balance anomaly amongst the 19th century apartment buildings in this neck of the woods. I line up just before opening time at 10am with a noticeably older gallery-going crowd. A very cursory look through my backpack by security and I push through the revolving doors and into the Guggenheim’s iconic atrium. It still feels great to be here and I recall all the times I’ve seen this place in photos and film including Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3 (The Order) and imagine the artist himself scaling the walls. All of this being said, the building itself is feeling a little tired. Large portions of the once gleaming terrazzo floor our now cracked and weathered and paint builds up in uneven drops on the walls and bulkheads. A plastic tub betrays a gap in devil’s ivy in one of the many planter boxes. It’s not hard to look past this stuff though and experience the building for what it is.

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Erroneous plastic tub.

Today I opt to go completely out to what the audio tour has to offer. I jettison any sense of shame, exchange my license for an audio device, hang it from my neck, don the headphones and go where the thing tells me to. The device itself is an iPod Touch with a security case around it which is attached to a lanyard. Something malfunctions with my first device which is quickly replaced with a second by a staff member. The app running on the device is prepared in “Near Me” mode which appears to triangulate my position to display nearby artworks. Works with associated audio display a sound icon.  As I wander around the gallery these move and change based on what should be within my view. Sometimes this works well however sometimes I can’t see works I am standing nearby and sometimes the device shows me works I can’t immediately see. The result of this has me spending a lot of time staring down at my device. I constantly snap out of it and remind myself to enjoy the building I am in.

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The atrium.

The audio files themselves are a strange mix of curators who sound like they’re standing in front of the works, more produced audio files with music and sound effects and interviews with directors. They are clearly a collection of reused sound from previous exhibitions. Likewise there doesn’t seem to be any immediate strategy for which works have associated sound files and which don’t. Sometimes I encounter three or four works in quick succession that supply audio and sometimes I pass ten without a peep. All that being said, the audio is surprisingly engaging and informative – it’s worth forcing myself to listen to every single one. The curator’s notes on the Kandinskys (which form a large part of the collection’s backbone) truly shine a new light on these purely abstract works for me. Hearing stories of the formidable Peggy Guggenheim and her tireless efforts in establishing the early collection is also truly fascinating.

I make my way back down the iconic spiral ramp and its terrifyingly low hand rail and say goodbye to this compact building and collection that, despite its foibles puts a very big smile on my dial.

Admission: $25

Digital engagement: Said audio tour is also available to download as an app to use your own device. This is a pretty hefty download though and onsite wifi was fairly flaky so not brilliant for someone on international roaming. Tickets can be bought online in advance however the benefit of this was not immediately clear to me.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The Met is a monster. On the scale of the Louvre in Paris or the British Museum in London it’s one of the world’s monumental and highly prized cultural institutions. I arrive slightly early for a meeting with Program Manager for Content Partnerships in the Digital Department, Neal Stimler who has suggested we meet at the “large Egyptian statue in the foyer”. This, in itself is a wonderful thing to do on a Wednesday afternoon. Neal has been at the Met for some time and has lead the execution of large parts of the institution’s digital strategy including digitisation of the large parts of the collection. This is the first time on this trip I have really heard any cogent strategy behind the digitisation process. In this case, most fascinatingly the collection has been made accessible to all on Creative Commons. And this is something Neal feels extremely passionate about – that the collection itself may be made accessible to view and be repurposed by a much broader audience that those who can visit the bricks and mortar. This way, the collection can be owned by all in its truest sense, even if the repurposing is for commercial means. It’s actually incredibly inspiring hearing Neal talk about this and is a message I hope to carry home. We had a sprawling conversation in the wonderfully ugly staff cafeteria that strayed through a million different topics until it was time for him to head back to work. I’m struck once again how helpful New Yorkers are and willing to go out of their way to help. He asks me which part of the collection he’d like to drop me off at and I say “Mesopotamian!” without skipping a beat. I’m a stickler for the Fertile Crescent.

Suddenly finding myself up on the second floor of the building I continue my audio tour mission for the day, download the app and stick in my earphones. This goofy look is exacerbated by the fact that I have to wear my backpack on my front less I endure the wrath of security guards (I tried to jettison my bag earlier in the cloak room however it was rejected due to its contents of my laptop). Interestingly, although equally as informative as the Guggenheim’s audio content it is the same ramshackle collection of different voices and styles describing the artefacts I wander past. Some audio bites are clearly from an older device as it refers to buttons that are clearly not there on my own device. There is also no pattern as to whether the audio refers to specific objects, the room as a whole, the historical backdrop or a combination of these things. The effect is a slightly befuddling pastiche of information but is regardless really damn interesting.

I head downstairs to the Egyptian wing and spend some time wandering around the Temple of Dendur – a nearly complete Egyptian temple dating back to 10BC that has been shipped and miraculously reconstructed here in the middle of New York City. Here you can play back a portion of the Director’s Tour – a kind of best-of featuring the voice of the Met’s director Thomas P. Campbell whose clipped British accent lends a certain degree of implied museum-y expertise.

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The Temple of Dendur.

Just like all massive, juggernaut museums I love the Met and the treasures it houses.  If only I had another seventeen hours to see everything it has.

Admission: Amount is up to you. Suggested price – $25

Digital engagement: The app is really comprehensive and offers much more than the audio content. The wifi is particularly good so no stress for travellers. You must enter a unique ID printed next to objects if you’d like to hear about them which works really well given the scale of the collection amount and of content provided.

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.

With tired feet today I arrived in the big smoke of New York City. I haul myself out of bed in the morning and prepare for the beginning of the second half of my trip. My cruddy, toothpaste stained Aesop toiletries bag gives me my morning inspiration in fine print under the lid – “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” Carl Sagan. “Thanks, Carl.” I say out loud. I’m pretty sure the people in the room next to me think their neighbours are a young couple called Dan and Carl. So be it.

The Tenement Museum

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The Tenement Museum was one of the institutions practically every museum person I’ve encountered on my trip has said I should visit in New York City. And it definitely delivered. Knowing only that it tells the stories of migration and tenement living in a much older New York I go online several days earlier to pre-book (apparently this is a must). I sign up for the mysterious “Sweatshop Workers” tour but avoid finding out much more. I arrive just before my allocated 10:15am time to what is essentially mainly a gift shop in a modern building at the corner or Orchard St and Delancey in the Lower West Side. I check my backpack and browse the gift shop’s wares, waiting for something to happen. At 10:15 on the dot our tour guide Nina, dryly holds up a yellow wing reading “Sweatshop Workers” and we obediently gather around her. Nina, who I think is Russian is a strange combination of incredibly dry but extremely excited by her topic of expertise. She is instantly charismatic in her weirdness. She takes us outside and begins to paint the picture of pre-1905 Orchard St and the waves of Jewish immigrants, largely escaping the pogroms arriving in large boatloads in New York. This street, however was largely German Jews. She takes us up to 97 Orchard St and begins to explain how this building is a perfectly preserved tenement building of that era. The story goes that it was inhabited by immigrant families and sweatshops until 1935 when the City of New York introduced legislation requiring expensive fire safety precautions to be added to all buildings including the addition of the now ubiquitous fire escapes. The land lord of number 97, unable to afford such renovations evicted the entire inhabitants of the building and boarded it up. Again, this was back in 1935. Fast forward to 1989 and someone decides to remove the boards from the building to look inside. Somehow number 97 had avoided squatters for all of this period and was perfectly preserved in the same condition it was when the land lord stepped out and boarded up the front door in 1935. Amazing.

Nina takes us through several levels of the 5 story building telling the history of the tenants that lived there, verified by laminated census records that she hands around. Many cultural groups of immigrants were tenants however they were largely Jewish sweatshop workers or owners – the owners mostly having up to five employees coming into the cramped front room of the tiny apartments every day to provide clothing for the wealthy. Eventually as the sweatshops became bigger, the families went to the Garment District to work during the day and were able to enjoy their tiny dwellings to themselves. Nina talks us through the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 in which 146 workers were killed after being locked in their workroom. This tragic incident, however gave rise to unionism and a stronger focus on workers rights.

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The Tenement Museum's dark interior.

Amazingly, another visitor on the tour, an Israeli woman informs us all that her grandmother actually lived in this building. This moment of serendipity gives the whole place more life.

In the final room we visit, Nina tells us about an Italian woman who frequented number 97 they had worked with to uncover stories about the building. Using a key pad remote Nina activates hidden speakers where we can hear the woman’s voice telling the story about the bedroom window of the apartment we are standing in and how the elderly inhabitant would beckon her in, asking her to turn on the gas lights which she was prohibited from doing on the Sabbath. This is a beautiful story but is a slightly missed opportunity as we are standing in the lounge room, not the bedroom and are unable to see said window and imagine the woman beckoning from within.

This is a truly excellent museum experience to be had in New York City and we all fall out the back entrance smiling at the fact that we really felt like we all just stepped back in time.

Admission: $27.50

Digital engagement: Fairly smooth UX when booking on the website. The strange digital key pad to activate that speakers was nearly an awesome addition. Much richer experience being lead by a docent.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum

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As we all know, on September 11 2001 American Airlines flight 11 and United Airlines flight 175 crashed into both the North and South World Trade Center buildings in a coordinated terrorist attack bringing both buildings crashing down. The event obviously had huge ramifications globally and deeply scarred the population of the United States but most specifically the people of the City of New York. As I’ve mentioned several times, since this event security in the United States has been hugely beefed up, most obviously for me at the many cultural institutions I have visited on this trip. And The National September 11 Museum is certainly no exception. In fact, the security procedure here feels much more like I’m entering the country again rather than just a museum. In fact, saying just a museum doesn’t give this place the respect it deserves. It is a truly brilliantly conceived experience that is in part museum, but more interestingly part art-work-cum-place-for-introspection. The museum itself is positioned between where the two towers once stood, now large deep, reflection pools encircled with the names of the dead. The museum is in a subterranean area where the foundations of the buildings once were.

Visitors are first confronted with a very large photograph of a sunny morning in New York. The view is from the east river where the twin tours can be seen standing tall amongst the many other sky scrapers of downtown NYC. Extruded lettering next to the photograph reads “About 8:30 am, September 11, 2001, Lower Manhattan, view from Brooklyn”. This tranquil image easily sets the scene.

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The first image in the museum.

Another initial installation takes visitors past several ceiling-height panels with a series of projections on them showing a series of images of people staring up in horror, with shock and dismay on their faces. It was at this point that I realise that the very full museum is essentially completely silent.

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Slightly dark projection panels.

Moving on and down a large ramp it is revealed that you are standing in a cavernous space between the two memorial pools visible at surface level. Large sections of the original pylons are revealed as well as huge, tortured and twisted iron remnants of the original towers hanging from above. Artful use of minimal projection, often using just text subtly add to the progression down into the depths. And minimalism really is the key here. Everything is spaced out and positioned to dramaturgical aplomb. One pillar has a collage of slides projected on it revealing many of the desperate posters, screaming for loved ones after the event.

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Posters of the missing.

Further down the huge ramps and visitors can look down to a moving pair of artworks commissioned by the museum. ‘Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning’ by artist Spencer Finch is a series of 2,983 individual watercolours in a desperately sad attempt by the artist to recall the exact colour of the sky on the morning of 2001. Encased inside the watercolours, the second work ‘No Day Shall Erase You from the Memory of Time’ is a quote from Virgil in metal lettering by artist Tom Joyce. The letters themselves are created from smeltered down remnants of the Twin Towers.

The National September 11 Museum – interior (click to explore)

On the bottom floor visitors may visit more twisted, gnarled remnants of the disaster including a huge burnt out elevator motor and Ladder 3, a fire engine that was at the scene that is now sagged and partly melted. All of this continues the experience of airy space set up early in the museum. Visitors silently wander in what essentially is a space for quiet reflection and mourning. All that can really be heard is an audio recording from one exhibit that simply plays back relatives of the victims stating the names of the dead and their relationship to them.

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Ladder 3.

At the core of the museum though, is a more dense visitor experience that takes you through all aspects of 9/11 chronologically. This is more of a traditional museum experience with densely packed exhibits and AV material. Oddly the tears came for me as I placed an earpiece to my ear to hear a recording of a misunderstanding between air traffic controllers that United Airlines Flight 93 had not in fact landed but had “oh…come down, come down”. This experience takes you through the events of the day and, in an interesting inversion gives you the context towards the end. It is here that the museum clearly points to Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden and paints the USA as unwitting participants supplying assistance to to Saudi Arabia during the Iraqi invasion of Beirut at the request of the Saudi Royal family – this alone, it implies is what provoked Al Qaeda’s wrath.

This is an incredibly well executed museum experience whose artfulness provokes the emotional response it sets out to achieve. It genuinely affected me for a good many hours after the visit. Everything was done sparingly and incredibly tastefully. Except that on exit via the Oculus building (soon to be train station) the positioning of a Westfield shopping centre and, first up a very flashy Victoria’s Secret store is completely confounding.

Admission: $24

Digital engagement: All of this is brilliantly done and used to perfect effect. The website contains digital tours and loads of information on the collection and allows you to pre-purchase tickets to avoid queues (highly recommended). A touch screen allows visitors to leave their own message for the museum and geo tag their hometown.

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Leaving a message.

An audio tour can be accessed via devices on site or by downloading the app. The audio tour is split into three areas: one, hosted by Robert de Niro provides a broad overview. There is also a children’s tour and another focussed on architecture. These are great and really well done but don’t allow you to fully appreciate one of the museums most powerful attributes – silence. There is also a huge projection wall which aggregates 9/11 as a search term over time.

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Projection wall.

A note on Philadelphia

Central DC is a pristine place, populated with preppy 20 and 30 somethings operating the invisible levers of government. Arriving in Philly feels comparatively like a real town, dirty and loud. I’m getting fairly unimpressed looks when Philadelphians insist I try a “cheese steak” (whatever that is) and a decline due to my vegetarianism. It’s also very boozy. Eating breakfast at 10am I suddenly realise everyone else in the large restaurant in which I found myself had either a large beer or a full glass of wine. And who am I to resist? I punch down breakfast and head off to…

The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

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The Mütter is confronting as all hell to visit early on a Sunday morning, thank god for the mimosa. Founded in 1863 it is a collection of curiosities, medical equipment, bones, preserved body parts (including deformed foetuses) and lots of creepily realistic wax models. The collection was originally assembled by surgeon Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter to further surgical education but now largely sees throngs of tourists gasping at all the things in jars. The museum itself moved into its current digs in 1909 and provided the College of Physicians of Philadelphia a space to conduct meetings, advocate for their industry and keep the collection including a library. Access on my visit was granted via a surly Philadelphian chap on the front desk who grumpily informed me that I’d have to use a locker for my backpack. Inside the beautiful old building you’re confronted by a grand staircase and an antechamber with relics relevant to the time of founding this incarnation of the museum.

The Mütter Museum – interior (click to explore)

The collection itself is via a small doorway to the left of the staircase where you are immediately confronted by The Soap Lady – a naturally embalmed female corpse whose body had been preserved by basically turning into a brown, soapy substance due to the rare climactic conditions of her burial. Further in a few deformities in formaldehyde give a hint of what is tome come. Probably most impressive in the collection is a huge wall of human skulls collected by the Mütter over the years. Each is from a different, largely European location and are a combination of donated victims of illness (largely tuberculosis), hanged criminals or suicides. Small panels give the name of the individual, their location and type of death. Most are from the past two hundred years with rare exceptions including an ancient Egyptian skull from the Valley of the Kings – significantly more brown than the rest. One label that just pronounces “cretin” shows us how far we’ve come.

Further into the collection is a room full of preserved foetuses, skeletons of conjoined twins and other birth defects. These are pretty confronting even for me but the young kid who was freaking out, only to be reassured that it was “all okay” perhaps was a little young for such horrors? Following this was a temporary exhibition dedicated to medicine and surgery in the American Civil War and was surprisingly informative albeit quite graphic as is the house style.

Below is the Mütter Museum Giant, the skeleton of an unnamed chap from Kentucky whose identity was withdrawn on its donation to the collection. At seven feet and six inches it’s the second largest human giant skeleton on exhibit worldwide and is really cool. Right next to the giant is the megacolon, an indescribably huge human colon which was removed from a 20 year old known as “Balloon Man”. Today we know this condition as Hirschsprung’s disease – words can’t do it justice, just follow the link.

There are countless objects in this blessedly old-school museum and is an essential during a visit to Philly.

Admission: 18 clams.

Digital engagement: Blessedly zip for such a historical institution except a kind of cool demonstration in the American Civil War exhibition. A touch panel outside of a small room informs you when it’s your turn. Once someone exits, it asks you to enter you skin tone and height. Once inside you place your feet on two footprints on the ground which makes your right arm disappear behind a screen. In front of you is a mirror. Text appears in the top of the mirror telling you about the several awful stages one would have gone through after loosing an arm in the civil war. An animated arm appears where your right arm should be and takes you through all the stages of gangrene, amputation, healing and phantom limb. Works a treat.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art

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The PMA is a massive, neoclassical building opened to the public in 1876 and has a mind numbingly huge collection of architectural and sculptural objects and visual art from the Western and Asian world from the third millennium BCE right up to the present. The PMA was made famous in popular culture for the huge sandstone staircase leading to the gallery that Rocky jogged up and waved both fists in the air. It’s nice that the museum irreverently goes out to this with a large bronze statue of Sly Stalone at the base of the steps that had a huge queue of visitors for a photo opp. Even the PMA’s logo is a nod to this as the stairs feature heavily.

One of the biggest reason I wanted to come here was the very targeted collection of Marcel Duchamp works. To get there, you must first navigate the visitor queues and massive entry hallway then through the rabbit warren that is the northern wing of the gallery. This part of the building has an impressive collection of 20th century art including many Jasper Johns, Kandinsky, de Kooning, Miro and Duchamp works. The bulk of Duchamp’s work at the PMA takes over a large room including a 1950 “replica” of his infamous Fountain (I put replica in inverted commas as Duchamp’s reproductions were self made and as much art works as the originals).

The Duchamp exhibit (click to explore)

The collection also includes The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), a huge glazed panel that includes Duchamp’s signature machine/insect hybrids in oil, varnish and lead foil. The work was shattered by removalists after an exhibition in Brooklyn in 1926 then painstakingly pieced back together by Duchamp who revelled in this next chapter in the life of a living artwork. In a small room off of Duchamp’s main hall can be found his final piece Étant Donnés – a cunning trick involving a false wall with a peep hole. When you look through a naked woman is revealed, spread eagled in a natural setting and holding up a lamp. Duchamp created the work leading up to his death and supplied a manual for its installation at the PMA to occur only once he had kicked the bucket.

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Étant Donnés

Upstairs is room upon room of antiquities and reconstructed interiors of rooms purchased and literally transported to Philadelphia from the old world. This is genuinely massive and slightly hard going as opulent room leads into yet again another opulent room. What is truly spectacular in the PMA’s collection, though is their many reconstructed building interiors from Asia and the Middle East including a whole Japanese tea house complex and several Buddhist temples. The provenance of such items would have been fascinating given their audacity.

Interestingly, after gaining admission, front of house staff supply visitors with a small, wearable metal clip thingy, both at the PMA and the Mütter. The idea here is that you wear it on your person and it his hence evident that you have forked out the cash to get in. This worked fine at the Mütter however at the PMA mine refused to stay on which got me in trouble with security a couple of times. I suddenly realised, though that I was not the only one as I constantly heard the sound of tiny bits of metal falling on the marble floor for the duration of my visit.

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Said clippy thingies.

The whole site is undergoing a massive extension under the design auspices of Frank Gehry (because if you’re gonna do it, you’ve gotta get in Gehry). The whole thing will be terrifyingly huge after this is complete and will put vast amounts of the collection on permanent display.

Admission: $20 (I’m going broke). However, first Sunday of the month and every Wednesday after 5pm you can pay what you want. Damn.

Digital engagement: Extensive website that allows you to search the collection in earnest. Three apps available including one baffling “Philadelphia Museum of Art ID audio guide” (paid – goodness gracious!) which allegedly allows visitors to scan an artwork with their phone’s camera to reveal additional audio information. After crashing several times I eventually unsuccessfully scanned a couple of artworks. I then discovered scannable artworks are only from a particular list. Unfortunately these were not presented on a map but I perused the list and remembered a Van Gogh I had walked past then headed to to (slightly embarrassingly) scan it with my phone. Again, no dice. Not brilliant.