Today kicked off a mad-dash tour of the United States that will see me taking in museums and cultural institutions both large and small, sometimes as a visitor and sometimes as a guest. I’ll be speaking to their custodians and trying to understand how they engage technology in their visitor experiences but also get an understanding of what they’re like to visit from an entirely analogue perspective. It will be part travelogue, part museum review blog and part dissemination of information.
A note of scaffolding
A note to the reader – I am jinxed. I have an incredible knack for visiting an attraction just when either a. disaster has struck or b. large renovations are taking place. Like a kind of failed travel diary I have endless photographs of scaffolding covering the Brandenburg Gate, the Louvre, Westminster and the Guggenheim. You can expect plenty more of it on this trip. Case in point, dear reader – this morning the very first location on my itinerary was the Broad – a brand new contemporary art gallery in Downtown LA (on the advice of many esteemed colleagues). I was greeted at the door by a chipper gallery attendant who informed me that a burst water main in the basement had resulted in the gallery being closed for the day. My consolation prize was a VIP ticket for a later visit.
I suggested maybe an alternative consolation prize might be a photo of her with said VIP ticket looking disappointed. She informed that while it was an excellent idea she would regretfully decline. C’est la vie.
Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)
MOCA Grand Avenue (click to explore)
MOCA is split into three campuses across greater Los Angeles with its two Downtown locales on my itinerary today. The Grand Avenue Gallery opposite the Walt Disney Concert Hall was first stop. This Arata Isozaki designed subterranean venue presents an unsurprising contemporary art gallery experience. There's the added quirk of the whole experience being essentially linear as you traverse what was essentially configured into three sequential exhibitions. These include a sprawling retrospective from Kerry James Marshall, a harsh video piece “Weed Killer” from Patrick Staff (complete with a gloss black floor that nicely doubled the video projection) and finally selections from the permanent collection focussed on pop art. This is the kind of bog standard experience you’d expect from such a venue that had me wondering how much more foot traffic they were receiving due to their illustrious neighbour’s said burst water main.
Next was a 1 mile downhill walk to MOCA’s more casual offering – the Geffen. Set in the industrial, hip Little Tokyo and made possible by music producer David Geffen (probably better known for handing Marky Mark over to Calvin Klein than being a benefactor to the art world) this venue is a huge, cavernous ex-warehouse and is noticeably less formal in its offering – even handing over my back pack felt less procedural. An austere Carl Andre sculptural show had gallery staff awkwardly encouraging visitors to walk on the art to little effect. Catherine Opie and Sterling Ruby works from the permanent collection reflected the fun vibe of the Geffen but had me wondering how the hell they’re all stored. A video work from Arthur Jafa had a large amount of visitors sitting on the floor with palpable comradery. Happy I made the walk to understand how this major LA institution does formal and informal settings.
Catherine Opie and Sterling Ruby (click to explore)
Admission: Perhaps a little steep at 15 clams.
Digital engagement: Perfunctory website, printed didactic panels only and the promise of free wifi. All of this is kind of refreshing in a way, without a dubious app being foisted upon visitors.
The Museum of Death
This is B grade American museum trash at its very best. Set on touristy Hollywood Boulevard, this slightly ageing venue celebrates death and the macabre in a collection which en masse has the effect of a very blood thirsty human race. Starting with a huge collection of ephemera from serial killers in a single room and passing through themed environments on embalming, suicide, a large section dedicated to the Heavens Gate cult and the aptly named ‘corridor of carnage’ the museum initially gave me the weird disassociating effect where my brain refused to directly engage with the content. I was looking but not processing any of the material including, most startlingly real photographs of a woman disembowelling an ex lover with poses you’d expect from someone showing off their new car. Photography is strictly banned – and with security cameras prominent in every room I certainly felt like I couldn’t misstep. There was also one of those strange odours in the air of heavy air freshener used to mask an underlying smell. I always find this particularly unsettling as it always makes you wonder what the real smell is lurking underneath – and with real shrunken heads from New Guinea and jarred human genitals in the building the mind boggles. The dissociative effect I was feeling wore off towards the end and I back tracked through the building for a proper look. Not for the fainthearted. I had a weird night’s sleep last night.
Admission: USD$15 of hard earned tourist dollars.
Digital engagement: Printed material only with a couple of videos on loop including the creepy leader of the Heavens Gate cult. Website is relic from the early noughties. Flash could be involved. Hard to tell.
Psychiatry: An Industry of Death
A front for Scientologists this museum on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood presents a grim exterior which gives way to a gleaming white foyer which claims to be the headquarters of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights – courageous defenders of the people from the violent world of psychiatry. Visitors have to sign in before entering the exhibit. Using the pseudonym Simon Wilcox, I entered my profession as “vet” which was lost in translation on the Americans who asked me what war I had fought in. This awkward start to the experience was followed by an equally awkward four minute video on the evils of psychiatry complete with eye witness encounters and violent, ‘slam’ sound effects which accompanied shocking statistics. This was all housed in a replica padded cell all with the effect of feeling like one well known scene in A Clockwork Orange. The museum itself held interesting but admittedly alarmist content. While the pharmaceutical industry’s advertising material for drugs like prozac is genuinely disturbing, a copy of Mein Kampf linking psychiatry to Nazism and another display forging links to September 11 were dubious to say the least. I was ready to go but reached a road block where a representative from the Citizens Commission on Human Rights lectured a group of us like trapped rats for a good fifteen minutes. Needless to say I didn’t sign the petition on exit.
Admission: Thankfully free.
Digital engagement: Various flat screen displays that trigger internal lighting changes are nice, mock American-high-school-entrance-metal-detector gives a convincing beep as you walk through. Gleaming website looks and feels much like the actual building’s foyer. No app.
One gleaming foyer