Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What Is a Museum?

This past week, several news pieces brought my attention to several museums that are, to put it gently, are out of the mainstream--but still very much worth thinking about.

Above, the director's "office" at the Homeless Museum of Art," an installation set up by artist Filip Noterdaeme. What did he do? The New York Times describes his museum,

In the course of an afternoon, bankers, artists, teenagers, poets and homeless men and women sat on the chair he provided, talking to him during what he called one-on-one “encounters” and “confessionals.” Many spoke about their experiences inside the contemporary art museum, as well as its proximity to the Bowery Mission, which has provided shelter, food and spiritual guidance to the needy since 1879.

“It’s a performance,” Mr. Noterdaeme said of his project, explaining that through it “we are made more aware of who we are and why we are there. I am the strange character opening minds and eyes to these complete separate realities.”

Mr. Noterdaeme’s sidewalk museum, which he dismantled over the weekend, was open every Sunday for five weeks. He spent the time talking to passers-by and handing out signed copies of his tongue-in-cheek “official” letters on the nature and purpose of art, addressed to, among others, a neighborhood resident; Jesus Christ; and Amy Mackie, 34, an associate curator at the New Museum.

In Munich, according to Canadian news sources, a museum opened in a former public toilet, drawing more than 800 visitors its first night. It featured mostly graffiti work, and from reading the article, perhaps more a gallery than a museum--but what made Mathias Koehler, the originator of the project, call it a museum? Did it give it a more serious tone?

More compelling is the newly redone Mind's Museum in Rome (as described in the New York Times) The renewed exhibits were done by an artists' studio that specializes in high tech and immersive environments. “The idea was to make it extremely participatory, a museum that can register and note the impressions of the visitor,” said Paolo Rosa, one of the artists. The museum is now targeted towards students and includes experiences such as one where visitors put their hands over their ears and hear voices; another where visitors sit for a photograph that is then projected next to images and stories of former residents of the former pyschiatric hospital turned museum.

One visitor shared her perspective, "The point the museum makes is that mental illness is a disease," she said. "It doesn't give a moral or a political judgment." But I can imagine the many, many conversations that take place at this museum. It reminds me of a long ago conversation with my daughter and two friends--they were probably ten or twelve, and engaged in a long, thoughtful, exploratory conversation about what made something normal. I think young people long for these kinds of conversations and love the idea of a museum that encourages them.

What all three of these museums say to me is that the idea of a museum still holds real power. But perhaps the power is beginning to shift away from the power of authority to a different kind of power--the power of being a convener, a place for discussion, a place for exploration.

Read more about both the Homeless Museum and the Mind's Museum in the New York Times.

Top: A visitor listening at the interactive sound table of the Mind's Museum in Rome. (Fabio Cirifino/Studio Azzurro Produzioni) Center: Filip Noterdaeme at the Homeless Museum, Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

No comments: