Looking for Van Gogh
in a Roomful of Clicks
You’re about to fulfill a lifelong dream: getting up close with your favorite masterpiece. This painting’s haunted your memories for years, and it’s now about to make living in this city all the worthier. But when you’re finally ready for its close up, your reverie suffers a low blow.
Between you and the frame, a phone-picture-taking crowd is busy, turning your dream into a blurry background to their selfies. Miffed, you swear never to come back again. Which brings us to today’s offering: museums are important, but don’t have to suck. Here’s why.
As depositories of humanity’s cultural and artistic achievements, museums have been incomparable. Often the sole local well of knowledge, they anchor communities around a shared past. No wonder they’re also useful for tyrants to stake a claim into the future.
Besides displaying disturbing mementos of our brutal heritage, and the vanquished civilizations we’ve helped destroy, these warehouses of memory and fractured narratives also face crushing competition of the present day’s increasing obsession with accessibility.
Round-the-clock knowledge at one’s fingertips is rendering irrelevant the need for an actual physical place to house art and the past. But the Internet has the potential to turn voyeurism into something intimate and personal, in ways that museums seem to be faltering at.
We’re not ready to give up on them just yet, though; just pointing to alternatives that may enhance their mission. Read and click on the illustrations to open up new possibilities. It may soothe your soul and give you a healthy reason to skip that rude crowd this weekend.
THE MOURNING ART COLLECTION
For a place displaying death-inspiring art objects in its galleries, and housed next to a cemetery, the possibility of sudden demise should be never too far. But since its 1990 inception, the Museum of Mourning Art has thrived, even if it had to auction some of its artifacts to survive.
It sits next to Arlington Cemetery (no, not that Arlington), Philadelphia, and it did have to close briefly, while it sold some items. But unlike its neighbors, it’s bound to come back to life, and in line with Americans’ peculiar taste for anything related to the departed.
Its art focus is distinct from similarly lugubrious institutions such as New Orleans’ Museum of Death, Houston-based National Museum of Funeral History, and New York’s Morbid Anatomy Museum. Step into these places for a glance of what’s literally coming next.
POP-UP FEELINGS & BROKEN HEARTS
For an unfortunately brief time, New York had its throbbing pulse measured by art. The pop-up Museum of Feelings mixed ‘social media and real-time data from local news, weather reports, flight delays’ and even the Stock Exchange, and translated them into colors.
It was the kind of tactile, refreshing experience traditional museums have to avoid these days, lest not give ideas to deranged minds. It’s now limited by the Web, but it still suggests an alternate reality (more)
* Scary Night
* Broken Hearts
where emotion-driven art is as common as public displays of grief.
Speaking of which, Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships is now a traveling exhibit, dragging around the world its odd array of leftovers of failed romance. As its collection grows, it also shows that parading your bleeding heart for all to see may be the best revenge, after all.
THE DISCARDED & THE SWALLOWED
Not many sanitation departments have their own Trash Museum, with over 50,000 objects collected from the streets of a megacity. But NYC has one for 30 years, and what the place lacks in high-end art, it has in character, and don’t dare say otherwise in front of the staff.
It opens a few days a year (what? do you have a problem with that?) to a discriminating public, thirsty for its oversized share of the kitsch and the mundane. Not socks but you may even find that long lost, supposedly Andy Warhol-owned, cracked cookie jar you’ve left behind years ago in an East Village studio. Got five bucks?
Now, for a bit more er organic experience, nothing beats the Mütter Museum’s Chevalier Jackson Collection, in PA. It consists of 2,374 inhaled or swallowed foreign bodies, extracted from humans just like yourself. No wonder: Dr. Jackson was an otolaryngologist (look it up!).
A FEW BRICK WALLS WITH FRAMES
No laughing matter either. Hundreds of buttons, nuts, coins, bones, screws, and small toys on display may be hard to take in. But they do tickle someone’s imagination: what exactly happened for those dentures to suddenly slide down someone’s digestive chute? Quite an exercise and we take it back: it’s actually funny.
But if you’re into foot fetishes, then Dug Gaines and his collection of used socks is your guy. Nothing wrong with that, but here’s where museums depart from mere collecting, or habit-forming obsessions, which tend to be more akin to psychological deviation than meditative introspection. Visited any hoarders lately?
This abbreviated trip, and the interactive links behind the illustrations, are but a few roadmaps to what may be in store for restless minds. As for the selfie-takers, they don’t own the Met yet, or the MoMA, or that corner of art and history that makes you love your city so much.
Just make a point to visit these places as soon as the quarantine ends. Do it for the sake of our spirit and for those whose access will still only be via the Internet. Lucky you, we’re not quite there yet.
(*) Originally published on Feb. 10, 2016.