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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.

Last day in Washington DC and I couldn’t resist the urge to do a swift run around the sites. I started at the White House and navigated the large puddle build up due to the crappy weather down to the Washington Monument and all the way down the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial. Which was packed. I think I’ve said this before but it’s impossible not to get swept up in the rhetoric and patriotism of it all. Regardless of weather national project was successful or not, what Lincoln and his predecessors set out to achieve is genuinely moving. I couldn’t help but think, though that they may have based the new Star Wars film The Force Awakens’ arch villain Snoke on the Lincoln memorial itself. In the basement of the Lincoln memorial is a tiny, unimpressive “museum” of a few small, meagre displays, blessedly free of security clearance.

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The Lincoln Memorial.

Pondering all of this I continued over the Arlington Memorial Bridge, into Virginia and the Arlington Cemetery. Purpose built to commemorate the war dead and return service people of the United States, this is literally sign posted as hallowed ground. A sombre mood hangs over the throngs of pilgrims – they take this stuff pretty seriously. And for a country that has participated wholeheartedly in all of the major wars for the past 100 years that makes sense. I walk past the iconic identical white tomb stones and up the hill to the the grave of JFK and Jackie Kennedy Onassis, including their two of their short lived babies which is a touching memorial to the closest thing the United States has come to a Royal Family.

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The JFK Memorial.

Navigating out of Arlington Cemetery is a little tricky, compounded by the fact that I didn’t want to do the wrong thing due to the very present and scary security measures.

Feet tired, I jump in an Uber to…

The International Spy Museum

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This was on the recommendation of Elizabeth Merritt from the Center for the Future of Museums. Completed in 2002, the International Spy Museum is a big tourist draw card (I had to line up for ages) and is dedicated to the history of espionage. The huge, multi-storey building houses around 750 artefacts on the topic of espionage that, although they focus heavily on American spy activity, date back to the Greco Roman period. It was established by ex-spy Milton Maltz who was a code breaker during the Korean War. Elizabeth informed me that, unlike a lot of not-for-profit DC museums, it was established as a for-profit LLC – not because Maltz particularly wanted to make squillions of dollars, but because as an ex-spy, he didn’t want to have board oversight and a public register revealing secrets to the world. Cool.

I opted for the immersive experience “Operation Spy”. Meeting at the bottom of the stairs, a laconic International Spy Museum staff member took a group of us upstairs to start our mission. Half of the group were, I’d say 10 year old kids including Toby (whose birthday it was, we sang happy birthday) and the other half were drunk women, I assume on a hen’s night/afternoon. Nonetheless, our guide tastefully managed our unruly group and led us into the fictional nation of Khandar – a kind of mash up of South America, the middle east (including various areas of Arabic graffiti) and South East Asia. All of this lead to a general pastiche of the “Enemy of the USA”. Our goal was to capture a nuclear detonation device in the hands of Khandar’s shady Director of Energy via a mole we had supposedly planted, code named Topaz. Speaking of code names, we all had to nominate one for ourselves at the start of the experience, I opted for “Boomerang” which our illustrious guide, misinterpreting my accent yelled out “Bee-Ham!” in response.

The experience itself consisted of several adjoining rooms that took us from faux ops centre, through to lift shaft, through to basement, through to enemy office, through to hydraulically activated back-of-van until finally reaching a helipad, complete with industrial strength fan, sound effects and spotlight. The office itself was killer fun as we had to ransack the whole place to find a way to access a safe and box containing said nuclear detonation device. I was excited to find the keys hidden on a hook underneath a desk.

Unfortunately, due to both the age of participants and drunkenness, we sucked as a team and scored quite poorly. That said this was a truck load of fun (even though I was a essentially on my own) and a pretty good crack at a museum doing a slightly theatrical immersive experience without it going too far down the tacky path. A little more enthusiasm from our obviously over it tour guide and I would have given it 5 stars.

Admission: $14.95 for the Operation Spy experience or $28.85 for additional admission into the museum. No photographs allowed.

Digital engagement: Useful website that I really should have visited earlier to pre book my tickets and session time. A second experience, “Spy in the City” leads would be agents with a supplied device on a tour around DC using GPS and AR.

Back in St Louis, Missouri I spoke on a panel at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual conference about the work I’ve done with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. The panel was convened by Elizabeth Merritt who is the founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, part of AAM. Elizabeth, who has encyclopaedic knowledge of museums around the US was kind enough to offer me a drive around DC and Maryland to take in a couple of her favourite institutions. She picked me up in the morning in her tiny car and we jumped on the freeway and back to Baltimore to visit…

The American Visionary Art Museum

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This dazzlingly mosaiced multi-story building in the redeveloped, previously industrial area of Federal Hill opened its bejewelled doors in 1995. Sanctioned by congress, it is the offical home of American “visionary” art, probably known better in Australia as outsider art. Basically it is a home and legitimising institution for self-taught artists whose unbridled passion and emotion has added to this institution’s over 4000 collected items. The items in the collection vary wildly between painting, sculpture, video and unnamable hybrid forms.

The American Visionary Art Museum – interior (click to explore)

The reception to the museum’s opening its doors, apparently was a little frosty from the art establishment however gallery director and founder Rebecca Hoffberger has made it abundantly clear that the intention of the museum is not to declare war on “academic or institutionalised learning” rather than to celebrate the rare and raw sparks of brilliance that emerge from self-taught artists globally. Elizabeth informs me that Hoffberger’s role as founder and director, in a addition to her self-selected board affords her an unusual level of control over the museum which is evident in its fun, irreverent style. The building itself, however is highly traditional and leads visitors up three levels of adjunct galleries via a spiral staircase. A current exhibition on food is proclaimed in the entry foyer with a self curated bunch of foodie contributions by PostSecret founder Frank Warren. Further in, a cornucopia of outsider art works veer wildly from the downright hilarious, ponderous to the powerfully political. A bunch of wood carved sculptures by Sulton Rogers catches my eye on the bottom floor.

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Sulton Rogers – Untitled {3 heads}

Born in Mississipi, Rogers was taught by his father to carve wood and eventually came to be a worker in a chemical plant in New York state. It was at this time that he began carving the strange figures that came to him in dreams. Rogers referred to these figures as ‘haints’ and often were strange, human like creatures with oversized features or animal parts. He eventually moved on to creating ‘paint houses’ for his creations to populate. He returned to Mississippi in later life where he died in 2003.

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A 'haint'.

Upstairs in the food-themed exhibition I spend time with some works by Ruby Williams. Originally from Florida, Williams grew up poor and although her parents recognised her creativity, they didn’t have the means to send her to art school. Williams eventually became a minister and eventually also married one who apparently inevitably betrayed her for her best friend. Destitute, she eventually returned to Florida where she made ends meet by selling fruit roadside on the interstate. She created bright, loud wooden signs to advertise her fruit and eventually customers started buying her art in addition to her produce. Her work has now been exhibited worldwide however she continues to grow and sell fruit in Florida.

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Fruits signs by Ruby Williams.

Much like any gallery, when visiting the American Visionary Art Museum you are drawn to particular artworks more than others. For me the works that feel like they’re edging on the side of being exhibited in regular galleries are the less interesting.

One of the big events in the jam packed community calendar for the American Visionary Art Museum is an annual “kinetic sculpture race” where large parts of the community get together to create bedazzled cars and different forms of road transportation and parade around Baltimore. This is evident with the disco ball of a school bus that is parked right out the front of the main entrance.

Another cool thing about this museum is the gift shop where you can actually buy the works of the artists who are on exhibit. That in combination with a whole bunch of weird crap.

Admission: $15.95 but feels like a good cause

Digital engagement: Outsider designed, crap-tastic, unresponsive website feels totally apt. A digital layer could really help the thesis-length didactic panels visitors are supposed to read through the museum.

National Cryptologic Museum

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Elizabeth and I jump back in the tiny car and head back towards DC. Just off the highway is the National Security Agency’s infamous headquarters. This is the well publicised, gleaming dark pair of cubes where phones are tapped, computers are hacked and Edward Snowden spent a lot of his time when not in exile. It’s a scary looking building in real life, surrounded by razor wire and unmarked vans. They also happen to have a super cute museum onsite! The National Cryptologic Museum celebrates the history of cryptology in the USA, largely focussed on code breaking and eavesdropping during a series of wars. On this day it also doubles as a military graduation ceremony which we dodge on the way in the front door of this fairly unattractive building.

The entry area discusses code more generally along with a miniature village and train set which introduces the ‘hobo code’ – a series of pictograms used by hobos since the 1920s in America to inform other vagrants of the properties of specific locations. Symbols meaning “religious talk gets free meal” or “kind woman, tell pitiful story” are placed surreptitiously near landmarks to help hobos make ends meet. The code allegedly exists today and many are still indecipherable by the regular Joe.

The National Cryptologic Museum – interior (click to explore)

We jump on the back of a tour led by a docent who formerly worked for the NSA. He take introduces us to the US military’s code breaking success with a telegram from the then foreign minister in Germany before the beginning of WW2 to the president of Mexico. Recognising the encoded message as being suspect, the military cracked the it to reveal a memo suggesting that if Mexico chose to invade the southern United States, Germany would happily grant them the states of California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, half of New Mexico, a quarter of Colorado and a small section of Wyoming – all lost to the USA in the Mexican-American war. Mexico thankfully politely declined. Germany was held to account however Japan denied any knowledge until the subsequent bombing of Pearl Harbour.

There was also a fairly large room dedicated to the Enigma Machine, once an adapted typewriter used for encoding commercial communications and bank transactions, it became the favoured cipher machine of Nazi Germany during the war. The device itself was said to be uncrackable yet, thanks to that good ol’ American ingenuity again was masterfully solved by a replica machine that was produced in the USA without ever seeing the original. In fact, a genuine Enigma Machine was only seen by US forces at the end of the war once Germany had been invaded.

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The Enigma Machine.

The kitchy Cold War exhibit, replete with machines that buzz and whizz also contains a small exhibit on Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, an American Jewish couple who were sent to the chair my divulging secrets to the Soviet Union. The Venona project was a counter-intelligence pusch by the then US Army’s Signal Intelligence Service (which later became the NSA) which helped to prosecute the Rosenbergs. It was later revealed that their prosecution was likely a result of Soviet paranoia and that Ethel herself had little knowledge of the charges put before her. All of this was largely due to lawyer Roy Cohn, in life a good pal of the current President of the United States of America. So it goes.

Admission: Free, although our calls may have been tapped. This may be the price you have to pay.

Digital engagement: Website is piggy-backed off the NSA’s official site and is appropriately bureaucratic. There’s a kinda cool rotating globe thingy in the contemporary cryptology exhibit that responds to a touch screen with different crypto-content with a global focus.

National Air and Space Museum – Smithsonian Institution

Visiting the National Air and Space museum was always going to be a bit of a life highlight for this little space enthusiast. Opened in 1976, this massive building houses all things flight related. It’s one of those places I’ve always wanted to go to. I arrived at nine and bypassed the waiting crowds to enter via the staff entrance where I met web manager from digital experiences Vicki Portway who thought it would be a good idea to show me around the museum before the crowds came in so it could just be the two of us. Of course I obliged. Straight away I was faced with the V-2 rocket, parts of the Hubble telescope that had been removed, the Hubble’s flight-ready twin (they always make two!) and the Apollo Lunar Module. Just seeing all of this stuff in one place is damn incredible and also, for the most part literally there for you to reach out and touch.

Smithsonian entry foyer – south (click to explore)

Also touchable was a piece of the moon that had returned from an Apollo mission which I, of course embarrassingly lunged for. It was weirdly smooth I’m sure due to the millions of grubby fingers that have touched it since it was enshrined in the Smithsonian.

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Touching the moon.

Also in the corner of the entry hall are two nuclear warheads (unarmed, I was told). One is American and the other Russian and were placed in there as part of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Vicki told me that there were a lot of conversations about the awkward place they were in. Conversation which were, however fruitless as both warheads have high resolution GPS tracking attached to them and, as part of the arrangement with the Russians set off big international alarms if they are moved more than a centimetre.

Smithsonian entry foyer – north (click to explore)

Vicki is a total space nerd too and relishes telling me much of this bonus information. We head into an Apollo mission exhibit filled with all manner of paraphernalia from the missions including space suits, uniforms, a rocket engine, urine bags and, disturbingly Able the monkey, originally sent into space now taxidermied in the Smithsonian with a slightly shocked look on his face. Fair enough.

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Able.

This exhibit, I am in formed is about to undergo a huge refurbishment. There is some tragedy in this. All built with NASA’s late 60s, early 70s kitchy but boldly confident aesthetic with all that blue, the exhibit itself belongs in a museum. The Lunar Module itself will do a national tour (which is a great opportunity for crowd sourcing content) before returning back to DC and the refurbished exhibition.

Just around the corner is an exhibit dedicated to brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright including their 1903 Wright Flyer, the first successful powered airplane. I note to Vicki that it looks in damn good nick. The story goes that the Wright Brothers originally donated it to the British Museum who had it on display for many years. Prior to that, however, and not seeing the immediate value in the object, it had been in the Wright’s basement where flooding had caused damage to the canvas coverings on the wings. During its British Museum tenure the contemporary director of the Smithsonian actually had a rival claim that he, in fact had been the first airborne human. Once he moved on, however the Smithsonian suggested the Wright Flyer might want to come home. At this point the new coverings were placed on and the old, disintegrating pieces given away.

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The Wright Flyer.

Once the crowds came in a spent another couple of hours wandering around this awesome place where you can’t help but get swept up in the patriotism of it all.

Admission: Free (and not just if you’re pushy enough for someone to give you a private tour)

Digital Engagement: Some of the old exhibits have a number next to them which you can enter once you’ve dialled a special Smithsonian hotline to hear additional content. Vicki also mentioned that they did have a messaging service as well where people could contribute their own thoughts. There is the relatively new GO FLIGHT app for iOS and Android that fingerprints your location using wifi (which is freely available onsite). You can use the app to personalise your own interests in a special feed, find your location, favourite particular exhibits and a kind of cool feature where you can match any 2 objects from a list from the collection and find out the connection between them. What’s super cool though is a monolithic new touch screen wall the Smithsonian built right in front of you when you enter the main entrance and which Vicki was partly responsible for. Massive still images from the collection rotate above a series of dots which clearly invite visitors to come over and touch. Some represent particular parts of the museum and some represent a tour to be chosen.

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Said very large screen.

If you select a tour you have the option of adding it to your app by copying a short numerical code into your phone, thereby syncing your app to the wall. Despite a few problems keeping it clean this is a really nice, useful and beautiful addition to your arrival at the museum.

The Folger Shakespeare Library & The Library of Congress

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The Folger Shakespeare Library is a strange little oddity up the Hill next door to the Library of Congress. Opened in 1932 and built by wealthy industrialist from New York Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily, the library houses manuscripts, books and objects that contribute to an extremely broad contextual understanding of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan world. Using some connections from the State Library of Victoria I met curatorial assistants Heather Wolfe and Beth DeBold who proudly showed me around their digs. There’s a pretty amazing entry hall however the reading room is a thing to behold, all built in the Elizabethan style, somehow managing that with a bit of class. Large parts of the catalogue are still not digitised so access to the collection is largely still given by old catalogue cards.

The Folger Reading Room (click to explore)

They take me deep into the vaults of the building where they have all manner of Shakespearalia. I initially asked about what stage they were at with digitising the collection which led to a conversation with Heather about the materiality of this objects and how much of that digital mediums can’t transfer. To actually hold some of the 16th century objects in your hands and, in some cases see handwriting, redactions and personal notes gives a whole other layer of meaning to the objects.

Next I ducked across the road to the Library of Congress, a place that I’ve been fascinated with for years. I did my darnedest to set up someone to talk to there but unfortunately they didn’t take the bait. Apparently they get constantly swamped with requests and mine obviously didn’t cut the mustard. This building has an absolutely incredible golden interior which poses itself as a kind of temple to knowledge.

The Library of Congress (click to explore)

It is largely accessible only by members of congress and researchers with appointments. Slightly frustratingly I could only look down what looked like a completely beautiful reading room behind glass from a balcony upstairs.

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The Library of Congress Reading Room.

I did get a close look, though at the Gutenberg Bible which was the first major book mass produced with a printing press. Only when I saw the Rosetta Stone at the British Library did I elbow tourists out the way the same way for a happy snap. Cross that off the bucket list.

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Hastily snapped Gutenberg Bible (tourists well clear).

Admission: Free for general entry but by appointment for the reading room for the Library of Congress. Same with the Folger.

Digital engagement: Fairly shameful website on the Folger’s end but after the talk we had about the importance of the real, physical objects I hardly care. Perfunctory, responsive app from the Library of Congress including a visit planner and “contact a librarian” feature which in my case was a no-go. They also do a series of apps including a guide for the National Book Festival, and analysis tool for the US Constitition, The Congressional Record, a tool for the blind and physically handicapped and, weirdly an interactive book of Aesop’s Fables for kids.

A note on Washington DC

I arrived in the nation’s capital on a sunny day and got the stupid tourist’s rush when I saw the Capitol Building for the first time. DC is like Canberra but with more to do. The metro whizzes you around really easily and getting out of DC to Arlington or Baltimore is super easy. It is also home to a truck load of museums, half of which I won’t see. There are also about a million apoplectic journalists filing reports, particularly around Capitol Hill due to the recent sacking of FBI director James Comey.

I’ve made the decision to stay just out of town in Maryland. There’s a Metro station right next door so getting into the middle of things only takes 15 minutes on the Orange line. I was, however regretting this decision given how awesome DC itself is. That fell away, however as I had one of those “perfect moments” walking home past a deer, stopped to drink from a stream in the middle of the forrest that I’m staying next to. So it goes.

The Museum of the American Indian

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The Smithsonian Institution is an organisation charged with the “diffusion of knowledge” and has 19 museums in its collection across the country. I’ll be seeing a few of these but today’s offering was the Museum of the American Indian whose remit covers the cultures and histories of Native Americans of the Western Hemisphere. It was established in 2004 and has three other facilities including the beautiful Douglas Cardinal designed DC building, another in New York City and a research facility way out in Maryland. The building itself takes pride of place on the National Mall, wedged between the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the United States Botanic Garden. I am now becoming accustomed to the omnipresent security screenings.

Once inside the building, however you finally get a sense of its breathtaking scale. The limestone clad, wavy exterior gives way to an airy, cavernous interior. A Guggenheim-esque stepped, circular windowed ceiling caps the vast main hall replete with huge banners stating the themes of the museum: Living Earth, Community, Encounter and Expression.

The Museum of the American Indian – lower floor (click to explore)

Confusingly, a large sign on top of the ground floor elevators informs you that it would be a good idea to “Start Your Visit in Lelawi Theatre, 4th Level”. I obey and proceed to the fourth level only to find said Lelawi Theatre in the middle of the introductory documentary which will not begin its loop again for another half an hour. Unperturbed in enter the first exhibit that encompasses a brief overview of several Native American nations in labyrinthine enclaves surrounded a central axis representing the cosmos. Most exhibits give a pictorial diagram of how each nation envisages the universe and their place within in followed by a central chamber which overviews their culture, traditional dress and architecture. The pathway is quite ingenious and gives a sliver of an understanding as to the diversity of Native American nations and their cultures.

A following exhibit gives a historical background to the many treaties forged between Native Americans and the early colonists post-Independence. Many of these treaties were subsequently ignored as the many thousands of colonists arrived from Europe and were hungry for resources as the they veraciously spread west. Interestingly, each didactic panel gives a dual viewpoint – that of the Native nation and that of the European nation. This binary gives some insight into the complexity of the historical viewpoint the United States finds itself in in the present day.

One floor down there’s a space dedicated to revolving exhibitions which today houses a really cool retrospective of Native American photographer Horace Poolaw whose photos spanning 50s years from the 1920s reveal the incongruous and often objectified nature of Native American culture in what has been seen as quintessential images of middle America during times of huge cultural upheaval.

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Horace Poolaw exhibition

The food court downstairs was lacking diners on the day of my visit but boasts Native American inspired food and beverages from the Northwest Coast and Meso America.

The huge, celebratory nature of this building and institution for me begs the question, why is there no physical institution solely dedicated to the history and present day culture of first Australians? While the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander exhibit at the National Museum of Australia and, in particular the First Peoples exhibit at Museum Victoria are great it’s surely time that a dedicated museum celebrating the diversity of Aboriginal Australia should exist in Canberra as a monument in the same way the Museum of the American Indian is as a state-run entity in Washington DC.

Admission: Free!

Digital engagement: A few tired touch displays give fascinating additional content plus the "Infinity of Nations" app which uses old iOS standard UI, is not optimised for devices post iPhone 5 so cuts off in some places. Great hi-res images, though and plenty of additional content.

The Peale Center

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A short train ride away in Baltimore is the Peale Center, originally the Peale Museum and was originally the first building in the Western Hemisphere to be built solely for the purpose of being a museum. It was founded by naturalist Charles Peale with his son Rembrandt Peale. Other ostentatiously named children of Peale include Titian, Raphaelle, Rubens and Sophonisba. Titian actually went on to become an incredibly accomplished naturalist in his own right and created beautifully coloured etchings of insects amongst other things. The museum contained Peale’s vast collection including the “Feejee Mermaid”, purportedly a real mermaid but in reality an amalgamation of a monkey corpse with a fish tail.

I had actually already heard about Peale from the introductory exhibit at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles whose similar collection of curiosities harks back to an earlier time in the museum movement. The collection was eventually sold off and a spread around the world and the building laid bare. It has been through several incarnations since and is now under the directorship of Nancy Proctor who I met in St Louis. She had me along on this particular evening for a kind of show and tell for some of the planned programming for the building into the future. Under Nancy, and after some pretty serious renovations, the Peale Center will become a cultural institution celebrating the culture, history and neighbourhoods of Baltimore. Part of this particular evening involved a showing of a large scale project that takes over the building with immersive installations on all 3 levels and brings some of its earlier inhabitants back to life, creates a few fictions and speculates on the role of the museum both in the past and into the future. There is a lot of this interpretive strategy going on in the US at the moment – using immersive environments to skew truth and history. Partly, I’m sure this has been spurred on by Punch Drunk’s ‘Sleep No More’ which everyone is still raging on about. I’m sure there is an essay about truth, speculations, fake news and lies I could write that is encompassing American culture right now but that perhaps is for another time.

Admission: TBC

Digital Engagement: TBC however Nancy is also executive director of MuseWeb so watch this space...

Missouri Botanical Garden

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A short walk from the leafy suburban streets of my digs in St Louis is the Missouri Botanical Gardens. Well, it looked like a short walk. I trudged through the massive Tower Grove park which, complete with fountains, follies and the kinds of shady rotunda you would expect from Missouri, could be a botanic garden of its own accord. A 200 year old wall leading up the eastern edge creates an excellent preview for what is to come as small, iron fenced sections reveal the secret garden that lies within. Entrance is via a huge 1970s disaster of a welcome centre complete with easy listening sax. Once inside the gardens, though you realise this is a particularly special place. The warm, wet Missouri weather in addition to the boundless supply of water afforded by the Mississippi makes this quite honestly one of the most spectacular parks I have visited before.

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The Japanese Garden

Founded in 1959 by philanthropist Henry Shaw, the gardens are still a functioning botanical research facility. And are massive. There are several really stunning Victorian buildings on the grounds including what was originally Shaw’s house. The inside is divided into two sections, one grand wing befitting the social status of its master and the other very straightforward servant’s quarters. Also in the grounds is a Japanese garden that, largely due to its scale really makes you gasp. There’s also the “Climatron” – a huge greenhouse structure for exotic and tropical plants. It’s like the botanical gardens of the future. Actually, make anything a geodesic dome and add “tron” to the end of its name and you’ve basically got the Jetsons.

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The Climatron

As beautiful as the gardens are though, I’m not really the type to be happy with your usual, run of the mill front of house experience. I had heard from one of the rare books librarians at the State Library of Victoria that the Missouri Botanical Gardens has its own library with a really impressive rare books collection as well. The chipper attendant at front desk of the gardens, however informed me that it was not open to the public and that I might prefer to visit the gardens’ education centre instead. I don’t think so. A quick phone call and a bit of digging around to find the right person and off I went to the Peter H. Raven Library. A heavily fortified gate was downstairs and after buzzing several times, rare books librarian Linda Oestry came down to meet me with a suspicious look on her face. After I told her the reason for my trip around the USA, however she was happy to show me the incredible collection of extremely rare botanical books the library holds. First port of call was a first edition copy of Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of the Species’ purchased at a steal for 50 pounds in the early 20th century, according to a hand written note on the inside of the cover.

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Said rare book.

Also in the collection is a first American edition of the same book which was donated by a wealthy friend of the gardens some ten years ago – apparently this was just his “desk copy”. The collection itself houses several thousand rare books and manuscripts, far too many to mention here. In fact, as Linda told me they are still discovering amazing rarities they didn’t realise they had. The collection itself dates back to the original founding of the Botanical Gardens – some of the books belonged to Henry Shaw himself. Most touching is a large tome with plates from the English naturalist Mark Catesby which contain exquisitely hand drawn images of birds from the New World, many of which are now extinct.

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The Parrot of Paradise of Cuba (now extinct) from Mark Catesby's 'Natural History'

Most of these were etched and hand coloured around 1730 and are such beautiful treasures – although Linda finds his style slightly amateurish and “folk arty”. Having bothered Linda enough for one afternoon, I went my own way happy that I got to see something really special few visitors get to see or even know that they exist.

Admission: $12 - bit pricey

Digital Engagement: Wayfinding is limited to a printed leaflet and physical signage. Relic of a website. The Library itself has its own nightmare of a website but is currently engaged in a digitisation project of these priceless works. Scans provided from any of the works on request for free so long as it is for research.

American Alliance of Museums Day 2

I continued attending a bunch of seminars at the American Alliance of Museums annual conference which was my main reason for visiting St Louis. Such an excellent bunch of very clever people to have in one location. One thing that struck me, though from many of the talks was a desire for activism from many of the museums’ workers given the current political climate in the USA. Granted, these people are largely left leaning liberal Democrats however the desperation to make change is palpable. The last session I attended – “Designing Outrage – Inviting Disruption into Museums” was focussed squarely on this issue. Two of the presenters had actually been pulled up by their board and attendees for acting outside the perceived remit of the museum. All of this hit a fairly sombre tone, except for Jennifer Scott, director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago who literally gave a megaphone to those in her community who are unable to vote whose thoughts on the electoral process in America were then blasted from a second story window.

A note on strange solitude

To be completely honest, my job has me doing some pretty weird things – often on my own. I’m often in dusty basements of old buildings leafing through archives, I’ve coaxed John Safran into being a telephone operator, I’ve had pyrotechnics explode from the top of my head (deliberately), I’ve walked up and down the rows of Reykjavik cemetery making a laser scan and made Tim Rogers jump on a trampoline. I once scrubbed an elephant – not for entertainment, literally to clean it. These things usually take place in a strange solitude where I can’t really look up at someone and have a giggle. Which kind of makes it stranger. And so yesterday in the grand tradition of doing strange things on my lonesome did I find myself at…

The City Museum!

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Holy moly this was a whole lot of fun! Opened in 1997 and built by eccentric local artists Bob Cassilly, this is a slightly mad conglomeration of metal works, mosaics, slides, rides, swings, ball crawls, themed rooms and incongruous museum objects all in a huge former shoelace factory in St Louis’ loft district on Washington Avenue. On the approach from the largely commercial Washington Avenue a giant, metal preying mantis, a ferris wheel and a precariously placed yellow school bus jostle for space on the roof of this 11 storey building. Upon arrival, the entrance isn’t immediately obvious (which is nice) however a skip down a back lane reveals an iron fence with stone dragons guarding an open gate. The ticket line was thankfully empty at my 2pm visit and I marched right up to the booth to obtain my $12 wristband. This allowed me to come and go for the day as I pleased. The cloak room was behind a silver wall and combined with a “candy store” serviced by a particularly surly looking chap who took my bag as if I had just handed over a sack of cow shit. I passed back around the wall to really take the whole thing in.

The City Museum is a crazy hodgepodge of different construction styles and techniques all with a whimsical, odditorium bent to it. I instinctively headed up through an iron covered staircase onto a second level where crazed children, high on sugar and too much visual stimulus nearly knocked me down. To my right were a series of skate ramps and to my left access to the outside where a huge jumble of haphazard metal construction going up, down and every which-way could be seen. I took a punt and headed outside. Whoah. Metal platforms paths, tubes and railings go everywhere with adults and kids alike crawling all over them suspended some levels up in the air. For anyone from South Australia and was active as a kid pre-1990 it’s like a massive version of Monash Playground, but on LSD. Two donated Sabreliner 40 aircraft are literally shoved into the construction which you are free to access should you have the guts to crawl up there. I did. The whole thing is literally quite dangerous, largely unsupervised and ridiculous fun.

MonstroCity (click to explore)

I had completely inappropriate footwear on to move around quickly but had no trouble elbowing 7 year olds out of the way so that I may access another precarious tunnel or walkway first. I gained access to one of the planes whose cockpit still had all manner of exposed wires and sharp edges. How are they getting away with this? This part of the museum has the slightly unclear title of MonstroCity.

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A dangerous cockpit.

Back inside the building a series of apertures and windows reveal other visitors climbing and crawling through different levels and cavities. The idea is to look through these and think “I want to be there!”. Which I did. On the advice of a ten year old I headed off through one crawl space only to find myself back down on the ground floor. Damn. I tried again and ended up tumbling down a slide right back down to the bottom again. Double damn. One of the noticeably few attendants clocked the goofy smile on my face however this was obviously not an unusual phenomenon for a man my age at the City Museum so he didn’t reciprocate. The whole thing smelt very vaguely of curry, but I chose not to be baffled by that fact and got on with the fun.

Eventually I found myself on the third floor where the City Museum seems to be making a strange attempt to be an actual museum, with a a hall housing an architectural museum (closed for today, naturally but allegedly housing “the cross from the Exorcist”). Several vitrine cases also had a smattering of taxidermy and curious objects however the candy bars obviously took precedence for management.

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Here I also encountered a hole in the floor which in normal circumstances I would find off putting but in this case enthusiastically jumped down where a group of us including a small tribe of teenagers and a young family crawled in procession to find ourselves on the second floor and an original shoelace machine with which visitors can make their own custom laces.

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A hole.

Back down on the ground floor a series of aquarium and forest-like tunnels make for a more calm experience without the chaos upstairs or the number of kids running around.

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The City Museum - ground floor

In the back of my mind throughout this experience, though was the question of whether a 36 year old man on his own would be met with similar ambivalence in Australia.

The City Museum plays an important part in the community of St Louis and is loved by locals and tourists alike. It’s stupid fun and definitely exists as a for-profit entertainment venue, despite the slightly light-on “proper” museum displays. The American Alliance of Museums staff had told me that the City Museum had refused to participate in the conference here in St Louis and I supposed rightly so. A few objects in a vitrine a museum it doth not make.

Anyway, this place rocks. I bought a T shirt.

Admission: 13 clams

Digital engagement: Surprisingly nifty, responsive website has