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Posts Tagged ‘museums’

Making the Mummies Dance

February 20, 2015 | by

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Photo: Ralph Hockens, via Flickr

In honor of the Metropolitan Museum’s birthday, I’d like to suggest a fun weekend read: Thomas Hoving’s Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of ArtHoving, who died in 2009, became the Met’s director in 1967, and in his decade-long tenure he made the museum the world-class institution (and moneymaker) it is today, influencing the whole industry in the process. It was Hoving who created the Fifth Avenue plaza, the set of shallow steps that lead up to the museum’s doors, and the big banners that announce exhibitions. He added gift shops and splashy special exhibitions, courted donors like crazy, and expanded the physical space into Central Park—facing opposition all the way.

Hoving’s biggest innovation, though, was his approach to acquisition: rather than build up a deep, conservative collection of small pieces, he decided to splurge on big-ticket masterpieces from all over the world. As a result, the Met is now home to such pieces as Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja and the Temple of Dendur, and since his time, directors have followed this model. Read More »

Readers Demand More Grandparents, and Other News

February 11, 2015 | by

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Fiction: A grandparent-free zone?

  • Museums around the world are motioning to ban selfie sticks, those, sleek, obtrusive icons of narcissism. “While its elongated form might have some structural merits and it inspires a devoted gaze just from standing below it, it simply detracts from other pieces in the collection in a rather pedestrian fashion. So, like groundbreaking art forms before it, the selfie stick will just have to patiently wait for times to change before it receives its artistic due.”
  • On Tom McCarthy’s new novel, Satin Island, as a rewiring of avant-garde fiction: “Convergences, nodes and relays, interstices: This is precisely the lexicon of the midcentury avant-garde McCarthy once found so useful and influential. But where this abstract-concrete thinking … once seemed urgent and perhaps even politically salient, now it just seems like cliché. Actually, worse than cliché: commercial and pernicious. The avant-garde’s work has been inherited by the corporation.”
  • This is not your beautiful house. This is not your beautiful wife. This is not your beautiful art: “A retired odd job man and electrician and his wife stand trial on Tuesday, accused of illegally possessing 271 works by Pablo Picasso … Mr. Le Guennec claims that he was given the collection by the artist and his second wife Jacqueline when he carried out odd jobs for them more than forty years ago.”
  • Contemporary fiction is cool and all, but why aren’t there more grandparents in it? Grandparents are cool, too, you know. “Look around current adult fiction and there’s little writing about grandparents as grandparents. You can find forever-young baby boomer grandmas falling in love at sixty and novels about spirited older women finding self-fulfillment, but novels about grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren seem in short supply.”
  • Philip K. Dick’s work reveals its prescience yet again: in his 1969 novel Ubik, “characters have to negotiate the way they move and how they communicate with inanimate objects that monitor them, lock them out, and force payments.” Meanwhile, in the reality of 2015, Samsung invents a television that captures “personal or other sensitive” information for transmission to a third party …

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Rimbaud Inspires Bank Robbery, and Other News

January 13, 2015 | by

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“You should get out there and rob a bank,” Rimbaud apparently urges his readers. Illustration by Paterne Berrichon, ca. 1890s.

  • Inspired by Rimbaud—“who essentially believed a poet had to descend into the depths of all that was bad and report back”—an MIT visual arts and film professor held up a bank in Chinatown. “I stood outside the bank talking into the camera for quite a while … going over the different reasons to do it and not to do it.”
  • In the mid-nineteenth century, on the other hand, women were scarcely allowed to visit the post office, which was “frequently made rendezvous for interdirected communication and illicit pleasures.”
  • But today, in the age of big data, everyone is welcome in museums—especially if you bring your smartphone. “From the minute you enter the building—before, if you bought tickets online—you are also contributing personal information to the museum’s newly minted ‘engagement’ department. Don’t be surprised if, while you linger in front of a Caravaggio, a coupon for a cappuccino in the museum café pops up on your phone … When data mining turns a museum into a frequent-flier program, the result is commerce, not culture.”
  • In 1966, a British magazine illustrator went on the set of 2001 and drew what he saw. “Kubrick [wanted] illustrated production stills of what happened on his set, rather than having a photographer take noisy and distracting photographs. The illustrations … would then be sent out in press kits to publications and other media outlets that could promote the film.” None of his images were published at the time, but now you can see them here.
  • Don’t just judge a book by its cover—judge it by two. Compare U.S. and UK editions of last year’s books.

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Cabinet of Wonder

November 10, 2014 | by

Mmuseumm revitalizes the tradition of the Wunderkammer.

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Courtesy of Mmuseumm

On a recent weekend, Manhattan’s smallest museum was bustling. A man and a woman in matching red sweaters examined a display of North Korean household products and then rows of watches emblazoned with the face of Saddam Hussein. A child squinted at a row of pool toys from Saudi Arabia in censored packaging; she frowned at the strange black shapes that had replaced the women in bathing suits. Nearby, a man was having a caricature done of himself as a Halloween zombie while a small crowd spilled out onto Cortland Alley to watch. Later, though, on a Monday afternoon, the space was quiet, closed to the public. It was just me and the Down Syndrome dolls, the display of mounted moss samples, a soft babble of speech from a little video screen on one of the higher shelves, and a question: How ought we to think of this?

The “this” in question is Mmuseumm, a single-story space converted from an old elevator shaft on the edge of Chinatown, about four paces wide and four paces deep. Each of its three walls has four rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with a red, velvety material and brightly lit: at night, the whole place shines, an island of light in the alley’s murk. On my second daytime visit, I found Alex Kalman, one of Mmuseumm’s cofounders, down on his knees lint-rolling dust from the velvet of the lowest shelf, just beside a bizarre chip-and-snack tray under glass. Over the next hour, we sat outside in two folding chairs while Kalman told me about Mmuseumm’s genesis, purpose, and current form. Then he left me, generously, to wonder at the place on my own. Read More »

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Another Bartleby, and Other News

October 23, 2014 | by

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Constantin Meunier, Pays noire (Black Country—Borinage), ca. 1893, oil on canvas.

  • “On a winter’s day in 1482 a scholar had an embarrassing disaster, leaving a blood-red blot of ink on the pristine page of a valuable book. He then compounded his crime by confessing, adding a note in the same red ink still legible after 532 years. On the desecrated page of the Historiae Romanae Decades, printed in Venice in 1470, he wrote: ‘Ita macula’—this stain—‘I stupidly made on the first of December 1482.’ ”
  • On George Whitman, the eccentric founder of Shakespeare and Company: “He could be welcoming. He could be gruff. He could be charismatic. He could be aloof … This was, after all, a man who on occasion expressed himself by throwing books at people, sometimes affectionately, sometimes less so—a love-hate gesture, or so it sounds, not unlike Ignatz Mouse hurling bricks at an eternally besotted Krazy Kat.”
  • Novelists, here is your picaresque, contemporary Bartleby: an Italian coal miner who shirked work for thirty-five years and is now collecting his pension. “I invented everything—amnesia, pains, hemorrhoids, I used to lurch around as if I was drunk. I bumped my thumb on a wall and obviously you can’t work with a swollen thumb … Other times I would rub coal dust into my eyes. I just didn’t like the work—being a miner was not the job for me.”
  • Let’s trade fossil casts: “In the first part of the twentieth century, casts of fossil specimens were key to paleo sciences. Because actual fossils were too valuable and rare to ship to international researchers, casts of fossils circulated in their stead … Paleoanthropologists would offer to trade casts of ‘their’ fossils to other researchers in different areas of the world, who had different looking specimens—the casts became a social currency.”
  • In praise of reading plays: “A great published script makes you understand what the play is, at its heart. Not just what a certain production was like, though it also ought to do a good job of that. It makes you understand how the play feels as a living work of art—how it sounds and behaves inside your head, a mental effort that matters more in reading a play than in reading any other kind of literature.”

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A Profound Experience of Art, and Other News

July 29, 2014 | by

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What the Mona Lisa sees all day—cue a quotation from the “Most Photographed Barn in America” section of White Noise. Photo: Susan Lesch

  • Museums have a real, if enviable, problem on their hands—they’re too popular. “Seeing masterpieces may be a soul-nourishing cultural rite of passage, but soaring attendance has turned many museums into crowded, sauna-like spaces, forcing institutions to debate how to balance accessibility with art preservation.”
  • A proposed virtual-reality edition of Ulysses sounds about as abstruse as the novel itself: “As a user of In Ulysses walks along a virtual Sandymount Strand, the book will be read to them—they will hear Stephen’s thoughts as they are written—but these thoughts will then be illustrated around the user in real-time using textual annotations, images, and links.”
  • Fewer people are giving books as gifts—the number of gift-book sales fell by nine million in a year. (If you’d like to reduce the deficit and you need an excuse to give, today is International Tiger Day.)
  • Trend alert: there’s never been a finer moment to be a deceased performer. “Two thousand fourteen is only half over, yet the year in culture has already been dominated by people who are dead … I mean people like Michael Jackson, who, five years in the grave, performed at the Billboard Music Awards in May. And Rick James, who’s been dead for a decade and who has a new memoir this year. And the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died in February and has a new movie out.”
  • From Disobedient Objects, a book about design’s effect on social change, a look at the storied history of defacing currency.

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