Archive for the ‘Cabinets of Wonder’ Category

No Shoes

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Cabinets of Wonder: Manifesto

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Through art and science, we aim to stimulate, inspire and make curious the viewer. This is a place to imagine and experience, ponder and wonder. Both reverie and deep contemplation are welcome as are furtive glances and downright stares.

The goal is to illuminate and edify by limiting the amount of accompanying text and instead to engage and spark the senses. Our aim is to open and highlight shifting perspectives and perceptions instead of generating fixed or highly (in)formed ones. Facts and background info are secondary to the questions generated. The more there are, the better.

Is this beautiful or ugly? Why?
Is this interesting or boring?
How are you seeing?
What are you seeing?
What does it remind you of?
What does it make you think about?
Is it real or imagined?

Whether shallow or deep, hopefully something here will manage to resonate in you well beyond our walls and beyond your time in our moment.


Freud Museum

Legacy Project

Sleeping and Dreaming Exhibit

The Museum of Man (Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden)

Cabinets of Wonder: Old vs New: Tenement Musuem, Cooper-Hewitt

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Tenement Museum

The Tenement Museum lobby is also their gift shop and admissions desk. You can only view the tenement museum through their guided tours which are scheduled, limited to a certain number and specific to a theme. The person who was behind the admissions register was also the person announcing when the next tours would be meeting outside. Once you meet outside, you’re greeted by your tour guide – who call themselves the “Educators” and you find that the actual museum is a tenement building across the street.

The first thing I noticed about my group was that I was the only non-white looking person as well as the only one possibly younger than 55 years of age. I had also found that I was the only visibly non-white person in the lobby/admissions/gift shop upon entering, though the age range seemed to be greater in there. The reason for the guided tour is to lead you through the actual tenement. The exhibits are not behind glass or roped off. You’re in the exhibits themselves. I really liked this idea.

Even before we made it to the building, the guide carried a folder with laminated papers and photos. She would pull one out telling the story behind each item and subsequently linking it to the space we were inhabiting at that moment. Following her facts and some Q&A, she’d give us a few seconds and whoosh us into the next room. The detailing and intricacy of the homes really made me want to stay longer and peer into everything and I wished we had more time in the room beyond the guide’s presentation.

The three different tours overlap in schedule, so as you walk up some stairs or down a hall, another group can sometimes squeeze through yours (or vice versa). Definitely a good illustration of how small and crowded tenements would get back in the day.

The end of the tour brings you out a back outdoor stairwell that was built specifically for the museum. The stairwell is metal, modern and sturdy – unlike the tenement itself. When you round the corner to head back to the gift shop/admissions/museum bathroom – you pass a corner building that has a sign saying it will be another part of the tenement museum.

I enjoyed the experience, even though I did have itchings to wander about myself. But the stories, history and insights the guide/educator gave enriched the museum going experience in a different way than if I was to go off on my own and stare at every last thing throughout each room.

I found the Cooper-Hewitt a little lackluster. I went through a bit of the Design USA – Contemporary Innovation show on the first floor before I decided try out the iTouch they were making available for free to accompany that particular exhibit. Because so many of the pieces were products and displayed on open shelves, it did feel a bit like shopping. The iTouch had recordings of most of the designers featured. I was excited at first to hear them, but found that even though it was interesting to hear their voices and see some additional photos (really small – iPod screen-size), it still wasn’t much of an enhanced experience. In retrospect, I felt like I was spending too much time flipping through the list and trying to look at the small photos than I was looking at the actual exhibit pieces in front of me.

Midway through was the lounge room with surrounding windows and pillows that looked like push buttons. It was nice to be in a room where you could actually touch and relax near something that may have been a part of the exhibit. I think they were, but not entirely sure.

The Design for a Living World exhibit upstairs did not utilize the iTouch. Each exhibit had a video with the commissioned designer being interviewed about their discovery and process. The materials they had worked with and iterations of their transformation were displayed in glass covered cases. A map and some info about the region of the origin of the chosen raw materials were printed out onto metal sheets and hung on the walls.

I have to say – for a design museum, their art of display was lacking. I suppose being housed in a rather old landmarked building can impose some restrictions to design & exhibit construction, but still – doesn’t provide a platform for interesting exhibit design innovations?

Cabinets of Wonder: NY Hall of Science, Children’s Museum of the Arts

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

New York Hall of Science

As the 7 train pulled into the 111th street station in Queens, I could see space rockets in the distance. Even though the NY Hall of Science is relatively deep into Queens, it’s distinctly easy to spot from the train station. If you lose sight of the tops of the rocket ships, you just walk towards the large NY Hall of Science sign (also visible from the street level of the train station) that points you in the right direction.

The first exhibit I encountered was this interactive kiosk set up in a hallway. It had miniature metal versions of the rockets outside. Moving along, I found the bathrooms – which were clearly marked and in between the entrance and main exhibitions.

Before I could go any further – I heard the sound of children. It was loud and sounded like they were playing. Even though the word “children” is not in the museum title, it definitely felt like a place for kids. It is also the first museum I go to this year that has a “Pre-school Place”, an enclosed area for the little little ones.

As I made my way through the Connections exhibit, I saw three children (who all looked around 9 or 10 years of age), laughing hysterically and jumping around one particular exhibit. I also heard what sounded like a phone call being made over some speakers. They were at a networked arm wrestling exhibit. It had 2 stations and they were at one. I went to the other station and they asked if they could arm wrestle me. One girl immediately went to the screen to start the game. She informed me that you could arm wrestle people in other places and that they had been doing just that this whole time, but you could also wrestle someone in the other station (in this case me). So that was what the phone ringing was doing – calling other players in other cities. I had a lot of fun and won the 2 times they challenged me. I used both arms only after I realized all three of them were using both arms too (that’s 6 arms!).

I really appreciated that many of the exhibits posted the names of the artists who designed them. It made me realize that even though it is a science museum, they still had art (though a different kind of art from most museums) on display. I also appreciated that there were people who worked at the museum that would come up to me and show or tell me about an exhibit when I seemed to be curious or unsure of how something worked. This was true in the Connections exhibit as well as in the rotunda area where I encountered a refrigerator with a video display and some molding food inside.

For all the wonder, technology and interaction the museum managed, what impressed me the least was  their black and white photocopied map that was given to me at admissions. It’s almost as if they figured you didn’t really need one and could manage your way around or find someone to better help you. I also found the website considerably lacking. The section labeled “Explore” was really just nested paragraphs and bullet points and hardly even any photos. The photos that were on the site were of children engaged in different activities. This further emphasized that this museum is for kids. However, I feel like it doesn’t have to be, nor does the entire museum feel that way. The NY Hall of Science has plenty of exhibits that I feel are just as interesting and compelling to adults as they are to children and the website to me does not convey this at all. While I understand that their museum attendees are largely children, I don’t see why they cannot represent themselves as a museum for all ages.

Children’s Museum of the Arts

Cabinets of Wonder: AMNH

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

American Museum of Natural History

I came into AMNH through the Central Park West entrance. Naturally, the first exhibit I entered was the one with the large elephants and old school dioramas of animals from various regions.

The room is dark and the dioramas are lit window displays of stuffed animals in artfully recreated original habitats. Looking around the room, I noticed a few groups of adults, some couples, and many children – ranging from grade school age to teenage years. I didn’t really see any security guards. I saw some young children hopping around on the benches under the elephants and one boy attempting to climb one of the giant tusks near the doorway until his father gently pulled him off.

That room manages a strange mix of playful, creepy and inexplicable. I think the playful element comes through the constant influx of children bouncing around the room. The creepiness comes from the idea that you are looking at real stuffed animals in the dark which is also akin to the creepiness experienced in a wax museum. And the inexplicable is the odd 3 dimensional capture of actions frozen in time, in some ways more real than a photograph, but also quite frankly – more dead.

Like the Metropolitan Museum, Natural History is relatively massive. One could spend several hours visiting just a few of the exhibits. What’s interesting is the contrasting feel of exhibits as well as the random places some “exhibits” seem to be placed. For example – I walked through a hallway between two main exhibitions where there were displays of different kinds of rodents, from a field mouse to a beaver. It seemed like their display was created as an afterthought. The rodents were simply tacked up in size order, their bellies against the wall, limbs spread out flat. It was the opposite of the dioramas where the animals were displayed in more natural poses.

The Hall of Human Origins was more dynamic with a mix of displays – from diorama to video, but I couldn’t help but think of Planet of the Apes. By contrast, the Fossil Halls were bright and had exposed windows to the outside. There were a handful of interactive kiosks, all made the same. One was turned off and another wasn’t working properly. The ones that did work had two screens, an interactive one inside the kiosk and a video display one outside. However, their placements (off to the sides and in corners) as well as the little interest they garnered from the museum goers in the room at that moment – made me think they weren’t that central to the exhibit. They did however seem to make good hiding places which is what some children were using them for.

I found the website well organized considering the large amount of info available on there. I was impressed that it took me only one click to find the address, hours and admission price all in one page. My previous experiences with other museum websites has been that this is not always the case.

It’s hard to give an overall critique of the museum simply because it’s so huge. What comes across to me is that it is a large old museum that is in the process of finding new and innovative ways to exhibit and the transitions are visible. For example, even though creating dioramas seem to be a lost art and to some, a rather archaic way of displaying “artifacts”, I feel they still garner a perspective not gained through other means. And essentially that is what I feel is possibly the most important aspect of a museum’s physical publicly accessible existence. It gives an experience that is not completely translatable through a book or just a video or only navigating through a website. I believe the information you’re fed, the background, all the words that may surround an exhibit, are all there to help generate a feeling in you. Whether or not it educates you by informing you in the traditional sense or attaching those words to your memory is secondary and if successful, simply a by-product.

Cabinets of Wonder: Ethnic Galleries & Museums

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

The National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian has a conveyor belt x-ray at the entrance that’s usually found in airports and courthouses. It’s the first time I’ve encountered one in a museum. My first thought when I saw it was “Really, they need that for this place?” But, security guards at the entryway were laid back and friendly and there was no line, so that made coming in easy enough.

The first room I entered was huge and spacious and seemed devoid of anything American Indian. A recording of a narrator’s voice reverberated in the large hall, but there didn’t seem to be much else going on. A large rotunda was in the center with a carpeted interior and some chairs haphazardly clustered off to the side. The chairs were set up in front of a video kiosk that was the source of the echoing voice. Around the rim of the rotunda was info about the history of the building as a U.S. Custom House as well as the history of the vicinity and waters nearby. Even with this info and ceiling of murals, the whole space felt empty and lacking. The stained carpet and chair upholstery just added an additional feeling of neglect, like someone overlooked or simply forgot about the room.

Once you get past this strange introduction and into the other rooms, the vibe shifts. It’s in the other galleries that one can start to see where all the care and time went in – and essentially where the National Museum of the American Indian actually starts. I was impressed to find two people working as part of the exhibits they were in. One room was evidently educational and interactive. There was a man seated and sorting some things on a table. Aside from sorting, he was there to answer questions and show people how to do some of the activities set-up for those who came in. In the room with the women’s dresses, a woman was seated at a table to the side and beading in the tradition that was associated with the dresses in the displays.

I have to say that I was more impressed after having gone through the various galleries than when I first walked into the museum. The exhibits ranged from contemporary to historical as well as interactive. I found out that the rotunda is occasionally used for events and performances and so is the more modern exhibition space downstairs. As the guard put it, “lots of parties”. It made me wonder if the rotunda was left rather unkempt because it’s used more for events. I still found it a stark contrast to the other galleries and feel that something more can be done to the space as a gallery without inhibiting it from performances or or other events. The building is large and though there are a handful of galleries, a research library, free lockers (instead of a coat check), and video room – all available to the public, this sense of lacking or neglect still looms.

Asia Society

The Asia Society building is visible from a few blocks away, its banner – tall and bright. In the lobby is the info/admissions area, shop and café and the museum is located upstairs. The museum exhibition space encompasses the foyer of the second floor and the enclosed rooms around it. The smaller of the rooms had loud and somewhat disturbing audio coming from a curtained area that looped over and over again. It was a kind of sinister laugh that made me curious, but at the same time was somewhat repelling. I wondered if the security guard stationed there had learned to ignore it or if he cringed every single time it played. Personally, I think it would drive me crazy and even looking at the piece it was a part of didn’t help any because I wasn’t able to perceive an obvious connection.

While the gift shop does its best in representing the grand diversity of Asia, the museum, given its relative size seems to only be able to focus on one main theme at a time. In this case, it’s (some) contemporary art from Pakistan. This makes sense, even though the concept of a museum for me usually encompasses more. My understanding of one main difference between a “gallery” and a “museum” – is that a gallery generally is looking to move through and sell art, whereas a museum houses a collection or collections that are not necessarily sold or traded so easily. From a relatively superficial perspective, the Asia Society Museum seems to me more like a gallery than an actual museum.

The Scandinavia House

Before I even went all the way in, the first thing I noticed when I walked into the Scandinavia House is the bare tree inside the lobby. It sits smack in the middle of the cafe, brightly lit with branches stretched out over the cafe. Before that, at the entrance is a small desk area with some info around it. To the left are some retail items, but a sign reveals the gift shop is towards the back. The cafe seems to be the main attraction on the first floor, the smell of food wafting throughout. To get to the gallery, you have to pass the cafe and gift shop and take the elevator upstairs to the third floor.

When you arrive at the gallery, it’s quite contrasting to the lobby. The space is minimal and spread out, whereas the lobby is very full with only one main walkway. In the elevator area is a mantel with printed material and a bathroom off to the side. The first and main gallery space was large, dark and bare. There were two rows of slanted glass tabletop displays. The exhibition featured the drawings of one artist whose works were in the glass displays, on two walls of the main gallery, on the hallway wall and in one of two gallery rooms further in. The smaller gallery with work was more brightly lit and the other room had a window, table with art books and some chairs.

Overall the gallery felt lonely, but that may have been because I was the only person there besides the security guard. The space didn’t quite retain a sense of neglect, but it did make me wonder how many people actually go to that gallery. The gallery is free whereas other features of the Scandinavia House are not. And even though “Exhibition” is the first listing in their printed guide of events, their films, concerts and café seem to be greater attractions.

Cabinets of Wonder: Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Walking into the Brooklyn Botanic Garden initially feels like walking into a wealthy private residential community, complete with a fancy gate and security guard station. One of the first things I noticed upon entering was a small sign that read “Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a museum of living plants.” Before that moment I had never considered that a garden could be a museum, though I knew that a museum could have a garden. The second thing I noticed was a long and narrow expanse of grass that looked like a giant lawn. My impulse was to walk straight through it, but because there were people on it’s perimeter and not actually on the grass, I hesitated. I looked down for a “Keep Off Grass” sign, but didn’t find one. Surely if they didn’t want you touching something, it would be clear. I still wasn’t convinced and decided to explore that later and go through a paved pathway. That was the moment I had a sense of museum-ness; the feeling that I could look, but not touch.

Overall I felt like I was in a public park; being outdoors in a landscaped area, the benches, the fountains, the statues, and the people wandering or lounging about. The distinguishing difference was that this park had lots of labeled flora, gates around it, and an admission fee. And unlike most museums, there weren’t many lengthy descriptions, not many security guards, nor did it have a way to get to or find a bathroom easily. However, it did have subtly dynamic displays, lots of natural light, awesome smells, freely roaming wild things (or creatures rather), plenty of things you could touch, and a great view of the sky.

After an hour of wandering around, I found the visitor center, which had a bathroom. Centered was a kiosk of printed info, similar to the security kiosk at the Eastern Parkway entrance. The lone attendant had left her post as I was entering and was gone the entire time I was there. On the walls surrounding the kiosk were a series of uninteresting glass displays filled with what looked almost like magazine or brochure tear sheets. Behind the kiosk was a diorama of the garden that was unlit and difficult to view and read. The visitor center felt like it was deliberately designed to compel you back outside, so you could experience the garden as it was intended,.

Navigating through the website, it’s revealed that the visitor center is being redesigned and scheduled to open in 2011. I appreciated that the Garden Hours are posted on the home page of the website and is one of the first things I saw. And it took only two clicks to get to the detailed directions. I personally found the website easy, informative and clear compared to my experience with the Met Museum’s site.


If I were someone in a wheelchair, I don’t know that it would be worth my dollars to pay admission to the garden. I could get around easily on the paved paths, but that would limit what I could see. There are narrow dirt paths, inclines and steps that definitely not wheelchair friendly. Experiencing some nature is great, but I could just as easily go to Prospect Park nearby, which has more paved paths and is completely free.

As someone who speaks no English, I think I would still enjoy the Garden. I don’t really need detailed descriptions of the plants and trees. Even though they’re labeled, they’re just names anyway and most don’t say much more. Unlike a typical natural history museum, I can enjoy the exhibits because they are alive and somewhat natural (because they’re artificially arranged) and not necessarily recreated versions of the real thing. They are the real thing.

Observing the toddlers that were in the garden, it seemed they were enjoying themselves way more than being in any other kind of adult-centric museum. It’s basically a park to them, but with more visual effect. Walking through the rose garden, this little girl of about two years was “Oohing” and “Ohhing” with great exclamation at every other rose. The displays are colorful and interesting and there are smells and crawling creatures along with them, making it all the more interesting.

I loved the garden. I loved finding curious nooks, winding paths, and places where I could stretch out and lay down. What other kind of museum would you find people sitting on the ground or doing yoga undisturbed?

Cabinets of Wonder: Assignment 1

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Frick Museum

A Teenager’s Perspective:

This place isn’t so huge, not like the Met or Natural History, but it does seem just as old. And kinda smells like it too. I wonder when all this stuff was made. Hey cool! Sweet – that old guy walking around with that lady seems to know a lot about everything here. Wait a minute. This was some dude’s house? This place is GINORMOUS! What are those bell sounds? Those old-school clocks work? Hmm… time is wrong, but oh snap! they still work! Stuff in museums never work! Awesome!

Metropolitan Museum

Stadium sized stoop to sit and have a bite
The building’s massive, but not too bright
Inside spaces with outside places
Recreated from the now devastated

A maze that lays out history
To uncover some mystery
Juxtaposed incongruity
An expo for you and me

We’re supposed to experience
Cultural significance
Through fragments and ornaments
And temperature controlled environments

But the roof is the room with the real view
A sky blue, or gray, or whatever that day
There’s something I can definitely touch and feel
Trees and buildings in a scene more surreal
Than surrealism

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