Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Museum of the Chinese in America and New York's Lower East Side

The day after Christmas, heavy rain came to wash away all the snow. In New York City, the streets and the air were fuzzy and gray and the people were wet and giddy. It was a perfect day for a visit to the newly re-opened Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA).

The Museum boasts a newly-constructed core exhibition and an equally new architectural layout to match. The exhibition is ambitious, but falls short of constructing a coherent narrative. Drawing from the collection of objects and oral histories amassed over thirty years by the Chinatown History Project, the museum's predecessor, the exhibition attempts to transcend its New York locale, embracing the theme of Chinese immigration to America across the country. The narrative voice adopted is first-person and yet non-specific. In my option, this is the weakest part of the exhibition although I admire the curators' willingness to go out on a limb and try something new. First person voice is always more compelling when it is specific. The role of the curator should be to choose a selection of representative voices and then not to shy away from voicing an overarching historical theme. In this exhibition, the history appears opaque in the form of a timeline that runs along the wall at waist-height. All the pieces are there for a great exhibition, but they are lacking the glue.

The architecture of the building, in contrast, is truly top-notch. Maya Lin should be commended for her simple-yet-elegant, urban/organic approach. The stories and objects contained within the museum are rooted by the building's adaptive reuse, spiraling around a skylit internal courtyard. Watch Maya Lin describe this project here.

Also of note is MoCA's Story Map, a web feature which is still under construction. The ability to locate history in both place and time has become a mainstay of good public history websites. MoCA's has a lot of potential, especially in its embrace of content production by self-identified Chinese Americans across the country.

In addition to MoCA, Chinatown in New York City is worth visiting for its embodiment of changing landscape and identity. Restaurants and shops cater to residents, tourists, nostalgia and New York all within a streetscape that has changed little in the past 200 years despite the flux of cultural boundaries.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Muppets, Abstraction and TKTS

The "Georgia O'Keefe: Abstraction" exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City elevates to the forefront the Georgia O'Keefe I fell in love with years ago while immersing myself in my father's comprehensive Georgia O'Keefe coffee-table catalog. At that time, at the age of 8 or 9, I knew little about O'Keefe's legacies as an iconic feminist southwestern hermit or as a painter of female sexuality. I knew only the gravity of the images she created, especially in the 19-teens and 20s. This gravity is, of course, magnified a thousand-fold by experiencing O'Keefe's paintings in proximity. Each linen or canvas, water-color or oil is a world with its own modality. O'Keefe's paintings get at the heart of abstraction, its ability to access the recesses of our metaphorical minds.

Even with an excellent audio guide, this exhibit was alive with conversation, with multi-generational sketchers and with people palpably experiencing art. Remarkably, around noon on a Saturday, it was not over-crowded. Beautifully curated, this exhibit focuses attention on the art itself, but also on the power of re-encounter and context. I think even Georgia would have enjoyed it.


A quick note on TKTS-- I had not waited in Broadway's signature cue since its makeover in the early 2000s. The new TKTS is well-managed and provides a mostly logical user-experience while advertising itself with a unique cascade of stadium seating in the heart of Times Square. The only kink that still needs straightening is egress from the line once a ticket is purchased. Luckily, crowd marshals are on hand to raise the velvet rope for those unable to duck beneath it.


My trip home from the fair state of Michigan was capped by a visit to the Michener Museum in Doylestown, PA to see the Smithsonian SITES and Jim Henson Legacy Foundation's traveling muppet exhibit, Jim Henson's Fantastic World. I was so excited to see Jim Henson's sketches and the genuine muppets (Rowlf, Kermit, Fraggles and more!) in cases that I was able to forgive the slightly chaotic organization of the exhibition. Roughly chronological, but also thematic, the exhibit explores Henson's career, focusing on Sessamee Street, Henson's film career, the Muppet Show and Henson's early work with commercials that led to many of his educational breakthroughs. The documents and artifacts in this exhibit are a real treasure and the exhibit text is written at a simple enough level for children of all ages. This exhibit is worth seeing just for the obvious joy felt by everyone encountering Jim Henson's legacy. I would be interested to see how the exhibit works in different spaces as it travels around the country.

The one thing I think the exhibit program could probably use is more extensive merchandising, especially if tee-shirts were available where proceeds would go to benefit educational charities... At least I was able to purchase a muppet for my husband-- Fizzgig from Henson's The Dark Crystal.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Michigan Capitol and Detroit Institute of the Arts

I can say now with conviction that there's no better time to visit the Michigan Capitol than on a rainy day with 25 parochial-school 4th-graders from ultra-rural Beal City. Accompanied by a good friend from California, I tagged along on a tour given by a retired special-education teacher who excellently maintained control and interest of both the students and the adults. Together, we learned that the current Michigan Capitol, a grand, neoclassical domed structure, completed in 1878, is the third capitol to house the Michigan legislature. The first capitol was located in Detroit. A new temporary capitol was built in Lansing when the state capital was moved to this spot, shielded by marshy woods from the dangers of a Canadian invasion. The permanent capitol, built to be fireproof, was started in 1872 and finished in 1878. This building was built of brick with a cosmetic Ohio sandstone facade. Incidentally, the temporary wooden capitol burned to the ground in 1882.

The Michigan Capitol successfully communicates the values I've perceived in Michigan and Michiganders: pride without pretension, open-ness with savvy. As a public space, the capitol welcomes visitors but then doesn't try over-hard to impress them. At the same time, the extraordinary attention to detail that went into the renovation of the building in the 1980s is apparent everywhere. The water-colored ceilings shine warmly and the textured paint on the walls and false-marble mouldings invite visitors to remain aware of their surroundings as they are gently urged by docents to get to know their legislators and their staffers, to think wisely about how the state's money is spent. In a building like this, I am reminded of the value of not always striving for that perfectly utilitarian image. Inspiration can be a tangible quality of a public space.

This same inspirational quality suffuses the Detroit Institute of the Arts, located in an accessible section of Detroit right off of I94. Detroit's grand boulevards do not glitter, especially in the driving autumn rain and the DIA, accessible now primarily via its limestone annex does not overwhelm the visitor with grandeur upon entry. The inspiration emerges through the process of discovery within the museum. Everywhere are internal courtyards filled with light that seem to invite the visitor to stumble upon them. The first we found was the Kresge court designed with 4 facades each meant to evoke a different period in the history of European art.

The most astonishing space we stumbled upon in the museum was the Rivera court. Perhaps, our experience serves as a testament to the unplanned, serendipitous museum visit. We literally ran into the Diego Rivera Detroit Industry murals as we wandered from early European art to modernism. Suddenly, we were surrounded by a magnifcent and disturbing allegory of industry: the delicate balance with the natural world and the ambiguous consequences for social systems. Each figure was rendered with a larger-than-life humanity. I've purchased the definitive book on the murals and look forward to returning to the museum for a more informed visit next time; perhaps I'll listen to the (free!) audio tour and mix my awe with guided interpretation.

In general, the DIA does an excellent job of offering educational interpretation within its galleries, moving beyond the conoisseur-model and toward a more informative approach. As my husband noted with approval, the DIA feels like a cultural history museum, not just like an art museum.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mackinac Island

It's the dawning of my second full day on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron where Michigan's mitten meets the upper peninsula, connected by the thin, but elegant filament of the Mackinac Bridge. Mackinac Island is Michigan's most popular tourist destination; it's been in the trade since the mid-19th century and has managed to maintain its niche through a unique mix of historical interpretation, natural beauty and family-oriented resort attractions.

Mackinac Island is small, only 9 miles in circumference, and expresses a unified self-awareness spanning over a century. In the 1890s, shortly after the construction of the Grand Hotel, the islanders glimpsed the likely trajectory of their home and source of livelihood when the wealthy summer folks from the burgeoning cities of Detroit and Chicago brought their newest playthings to the island: automobiles. Through a heated municipal debate which I am sure involved more controversy than made it into the island's genesis stories, the city on Mackinac voted to ban "horseless carriages" of all kinds. Shortly afterward, the state park that made up the majority of the island followed suit.

Today, Mackinac is fully electrified and its roads are paved, but it retains an 1890s look and feel. It is peaceful with streets where bicycles are the fastest means of transportation. Far from feeling like a quaint anachronism, Mackinac holds an interesting environmental potential: with enough bicycle parking, it is not at all ridiculous to believe that this balance could be achieved in other places.

Aside from the experience of the island itself, Fort Mackinac offers historical interpretation of both the fort itself, dating from the late 18th century and rising on a hill above the town, and of the arc of history for the entire island. To me, it seems clear that more curatorial and museological effort has been invested in the interpretive exhibits in the buildings and grounds of the fort than in the "museum" of Mackinac's history. The fort offers a self-guided experience painting a picture of a choice military post during most of the 19th century. This was a place where officers could bring their wives and families and enjoy social gatherings where "ducks and geese, oysters and fresh fruits and vegetables were served," prepared by cheerful Irish and African-American kitchen servants. This was a "healthy" post where the military doctor treated common diseases like consumption and was free to employ some of the new scientific techniques trickling across the pond from Europe. The medical exhibit is innovative, using projection technology to compare accounts from the post's doctor (played by a costumed actor) and a modern medical professional for comparison.

The "historical" overview in the fort's museum space left something to be desired. Sponsored by Ford (and lacking a publication date-- how I wish museum exhibits were forced to state their years of development and completion-- but my guess would be the 60s or 70s), this exhibit felt like a textbook rendered on the walls with occasional artifacts (and some reproductions) supplied for illustration. In typical grand-America-narrative style, it glossed over conflicts with Native Americans and obscured the circumstances of the various struggles with the British. At the same time, it was the kind of exhibit that is immensely fun to read between the lines. Sometimes, the very hokey, silly stuff can provide a more interesting challenge to the knowledgeable viewer than the painstakingly balanced, earnestly interactive attempts of contemporary historical interpreters.

All in all, Mackinac does not disappoint.

Monday, September 28, 2009

MSU Museum, Botanical Garden and Travellers' Club

My apologies for not posting sooner-- the past month has indeed been taken up with moving to my new home in Haslett, Michigan. Luckily, through the providence of visiting relatives, I have a had a chance to explore a few of the steadfast institutions in the area, although I have yet to experience the more turbulent and controversial Michigan Historical Center, currently undergoing reorganization.

The MSU Museum is your classic university natural and cultural history institution although uniquely a Smithsonian affiliate. Although the 1980s evolution timeline in the basement along with a rather strange anthropological amalgum is lack-luster and in need of an up-date, there were a few notable exhibits. I loved the Michigan Foodways exhibition and thought it made decent use of a small space without sacrificing artifact-density. Historical cooking implements are too fun to pass up! My favorite exhibit was probably the historical general store complete with docent in period-dress. My enjoyment of the full-surround experience contrasted with my desire to differentiate between original elements and reproductions. I found myself needing to step back and consider the purpose of the store environment. Would a child walking into a place like this for the first time care whether the cash register was a authentic to the original store or merely a period piece? More interesting to point-out would the the clear comparison between a place like this and the Target or Walmart of today. What have we gained or lost from our contemporary shopping experience?

The agricultural university boasts a unique approach to the botanical garden-- not ashamed to be more catalog than ornament. The layout and signage in the MSU botanical garden encourages visitors to emulate bees, buzzing from plant to plant as they spark our interest. Sometimes such a basic, lexicographical layout can be refreshing.

Finally, I need to mention a downtown Okemos staple-- the Travellers' Club International Restaurant and Tuba Museum. This eclectic institution merges the interests of its proprietors of the past 26 years, Jennifer Byrom and William White. William is the tuba player (tubist?) and delivers his collection of instruments that adorn the walls with a healthy side of ethnomusicology. A morning or evening at the Travellers' Club inevitably sparks the kind of questions asked in every excellent museum-encounter. Thus, I think the name of the institution is well-deserved.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The High Line

I made my inaugural trip up to the High Line on the west side of New York City last Saturday night. I'd like to return around sunset some time in early fall. This elevated-railroad-turned-urban-greenspace is a place like none other. Its creators thoughtfully populated the natural contours of the railroad bed with native flora and constructed spaces for casual relaxation beside the promenade using the remnant rails and slatted wood.

In addition to its artistic attention to detail, the High Line seems to embody the uniquely New York desire to occupy a place in a new way, to adjust perception in favor of something timely and almost obnoxiously chic. I have a feeling that over time, the high line may lose some of its trendy appeal, but it will likely continue to be a perfect "date spot," a catalyst for the spark of romance kindled in a public promenade where conversation bubbles up from the intersection between old and new, natural and artifical, maintenance and ruin...

I also realize that my comments only reflect the open Gansevort-to-Chelsea section. The rest of the High Line will feature a wildflower field as well as a view out to unaltered rail tracks, so I think that it might feel less like a landscaped construction and more like a landscape...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Woman of Letters at the Museum of Jewish Heritage

If you haven't gone yet, you should definitely check out Woman of Letters at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. If you go, though, I strongly recommend that you read Suite Francaise. The exhibit is more of a companion piece than a stand-alone experience. Plus, I think Nemirovsky's writings are in conversation with the curatorial voice of the exhibition in an interesting way...

The exhibition derives its power from the artifacts of everyday life-- salvaged letters, a water-logged valise and the bureaucratic documents that so brutally recorded the movement of prisoners from precincts to extermination camps. Looking at convoy rosters and death certificates, it sank in for me how little genocide has in common with chaos.

At the same time, I think that the way in which the exhibition attempts to claim Irene Nemirovsky as a purely Jewish casualty of the holocaust is an unfair oversimplification. The beauty of Nemirovsky's surviving correspondence, and her writing, is precisely the way in which it defies easy categorization. Nemirovsky's individuality and humanity transcends any categorization imposed by the French government, or by historical interpretation.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Memorial Exhibition in the News

Here is a shameless plug for the project I'm working on at the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Check out David Dunlap's article for the City Room blog at the New York Times.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Early June in Montreal

Spending the beginning of the east coast summer in chillier but springy Montreal on a 3 generation trip to visit my brother at McGill, I can't resist commenting on 2 exhibits at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and another fabulous institution, the Redpath Museum on McGill campus.

At the MMFA, we waited in a remarkably fast-moving line for our free admission to "Imagine: the Peace Ballad of John & Yoko." This was after stopping to sing "She's Got a Ticket to Ride" with some buskers on the museum's front steps. I was a little bit apprehensive at first, having read that the exhibit was basically curated by Yoko Ono. Like many people almost 2 generations behind, my only real associations with Yoko Ono centered on the break-up of the Beatles. But this exhibition completely changed my perceptions. It envelopes the visitor in the playful, iconoclastic and deeply loving world of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the 1960s. The exhibition does an excellent job both of providing context for the artistic and social politics embraced by John and Yoko and of providing a space for a genuine encounter with the works of art produced by the couple during their lives together. The exhibit culminates with two beautiful, non-digital interactive installations that get at the heart of John and Yoko's particular peace philosophy. The exhibit's only detriment was its extreme popularity, a mixed blessing to say the least. True to form, this exhibit brought a unique and today still cutting-edge artistic style to a truly popular audience.

And since that review was rather long, I'll only say that after seeing this exhibit, it is well-worth cooling the brain with the simple whimsy of the design and "Body in Glass" exhibitions on the other side of the street.

Finally, the Redpath museum is not to be missed on any trip to Montreal. A teaching and research museum in the best tradition of the natural history "cabinet of curiosities," the Redpath is not afraid to showcase it collection in old-fashioned wood and glass exhibit cases. Combining the best of this object-centered approach with updated text panels and a layout that takes full advantage of the 19th century building's light-soaked galleries, the Redpath is sure to delight every visitor from the nostalgic museum-lover to the child with attention-deficit-disorder.

Captured on Film (well at least Digital Video)

I had the opportunity to attend this year's AAM conference in Philadelphia earlier in May. In addition to some great sessions and lots of opportunities to partake of the fantastic culinary public space that is Reading Terminal Market, I enjoyed checking out the activities sponsored by the AAM Museum Futurists. On a whim, I agreed to participate in the Voices of the Future project, so here I am on the internet.

To view the rest of the videos in the series, click here .

Friday, March 06, 2009

Climate Change and Beyond Babylon

Two exhibits I've had the opportunity to review recently are "Climate Change" at the American Museum of Natural History and "Beyond Babylon" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Climate change is an excellent persuasive exhibit focusing on scientific evidence for human-caused climate change and evaluation of ways to ameliorate the effects in the future.

Beyond Babylon is a well-researched and artifact-rich exhibit that misses the mark slightly in terms of engaging the audience with the experiences of archeologists and art historians.

Both are worth checking out-- although I'd recommend seeing a lot more at the Met beyond "Beyond Babylon."

For a more detailed review of "Beyond Babylon," click here.
For a more detailed review of "Climate Change" click here.