Mmuseumm revitalizes the tradition of the Wunderkammer.
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.
Now two years old and well into its third season, Mmuseumm contains an array of found and made objects, all of recent origin, taken from private collections. In Mmuseumm’s own language, they’re among the evidence that we exist—the stuff of a “modern natural history” or a “contemporary archaeology” museum. Those phrases are both deployed in Mmuseumm’s publicity materials; they’re equally applicable and insufficient. Roughly speaking, there are natural-looking things on the right side of the museum, unnatural-looking things on the left—on the right are squashed mosquitoes, for instance, and what would appear to be a display of rocks. But the distinction doesn’t quite hold, nor is it meant to. I learned first from Kalman and then from the crisp British tones of the interactive audio guide that the stones are Styrofoam, collected by the artist Maia Ruth Lee. Out walking, Lee picked up a surprisingly light stone. Instead of tossing it aside in embarrassment, as I would have done, she kept it. Then she started seeking out and keeping others.
Lee’s stones testify to the existence of a strange and lovely human; they’re also a vision of a kind of soft, impersonal apocalypse in which the natural world becomes an aggregate of artificial flotsam. Each of Mmuseumm’s artifacts and collections is like this: they blossom into stories with just the slightest interpretative pressure. The more you look, the more networks of analogy, of uncanny connection, emerge. In one display, on the right, is a toothbrush made in an American prison; in another, a disposable, chewable toothbrushing ball used by London businessmen on the go; in another, dozens of tubes of toothpaste from around the world. In yet another, dozens of disposable spoons suggest the biomechanics of the human mouth, not just teeth but tongue, soft palate, throat, the many muscles involved in swallowing. Everywhere one looks one sees a metaphor. It’s a playground for those who love to interpret. (For me, this was so true that when I came across a large, artificial cake whose icing read, PARANOIA MAN IN A CHEAP SHIT ROOM, I recognized myself.)
As Kalman tells it, Mmuseumm was founded after he and two creative partners, Benny and Joshua Safdie, were offered a storage unit by their landlord. (The trio’s studio, the headquarters of Red Bucket Films, is in the building above Mmuseumm.) They immediately advanced the notion of opening a museum, though they took up the landlord’s offer without quite mentioning their intentions: they told him they wanted “to store things nicely, and sometimes invite our friends to see.” They forbade art, they forbade sentimentality, they went about securing contributions. This season, there are twenty exhibitions from fifteen contributors: artists, designers, reporters, the president of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. Some collections, like the Down Syndrome dolls—four of them, knee-high figures with close-set eyes and, in one case, a protruding tongue—are unattributed.
Mmuseumm belongs to a long lineage of cabinets de curiosité and wunderkammern, collections without the institutional imprimatur of a learned society, a university, or some other cadre of experts. Wunderkammern flourished in the West in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but they’d begun to disappear by the eighteenth and nineteenth, when the West’s great collections were democratized into national institutions. Their contents were submitted to the disciplinary reorganizations that assigned ancient toothbrushes to one building and vanitas paintings of smiling skulls to another—clearing the ground, in some sense, for later curatorial gambits like Mmuseumm’s.
Visitors have interpreted the word Mmuseumm, Kalman told me, as a signal that the place is either delicious or insecure, a comment on its existence at the margins of official museumhood. (In one of its surprisingly lux cases—an homage to the displays at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre, according to Kalman—is a sucker that supposedly fell from the giant squid that hangs in the American Museum of Natural History.) It can bring to mind other, stranger contemporary museums—and cemeteries, and zoological gardens, and freak shows—such as the Columbarium in San Francisco or Sir John Soane’s Museum in London or the now-famous Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, with its displays of dogs who died in space. The MJT might be Mmuseumm’s most obvious relative, though when I asked Kalman what he thought of it, he responded, “It’s dark.” And that’s true: The MJT’s mood, unlike Mmuseumm’s, is elegiac. (The lighting is also literally dim.) While Mmuseumm shares the MJT’s subtle prankishness, its collections contain nothing too old to buy in a junk shop. Even its samples of dirt and water from graves are preserved, playfully, in Starbucks bottles.
But is this really the aesthetic that best suits our trashed world of information, power, capital, commodity? We can say that cabinets of wonder are now on trend, as are taxidermy, scale modeling, diorama, curation. Kalman admitted immediately that a person who is good at making Mmuseumms would also likely be extremely good at marketing. I asked him what it meant that I knew which of the Saddam watches I’d want to buy, and told him that I could easily imagine other people I knew wearing them. He readily admitted that collecting or sporting the emblems of political repression—even as an ironic denunciation of that repression—might not scan to someone who wasn’t one of the hypereducated global elite.
Equally true, however, is that Mmuseumm is inseparable from its alley—from the smell and presence of garbage, exhaust, and the clandestine marijuana dispensary a few feet away—and that for the hour or so we talked, an unpretentious, careful openness never left Kalman’s face. Toward the end of our conversation, a man in a white van marked ON POINT TRUCKING pulled up Cortland and asked what we were doing.
“This is a modern natural-history museum,” Kalman said. “It’s for looking at modern life.”
“Oh, so a future thing,” said the man.
Kalman explained a little more, then the two laughed and the man drove away—without, I think, either he or Kalman realizing that the man’s first statement was exactly right. In its call to thoughtfulness, Mmuseumm is a future thing, a subtle way of asking how we’ll continue to discover systems of meaning that push us toward a wiser, better integrated collective life. In an age of information and commodification, we don’t need more of either in order to best understand our existence. We need tools for determining significance, places where we can stop and think through the shared story of our world and our lives. To my mind, Mmuseumm fits the bill. How ought we to think of it? As a cheap shit room for the paranoid—and a beautiful rarity.
Annie Julia Wyman studies and teaches literature at Harvard.