Design Museums and Firearms: It’s Time We Had “The Talk”

Barbara Eldredge from D-Crit on Vimeo.

Come to Eventually Everything: The 2012 D-Crit Conference on Wednesday, May 2nd and watch me talk about guns, design museums, and morality.

Brilliant Poster Exhibition in Philadelphia

Man as Industrial Palace, 1926. Credit: William H. Helfand Collection/Philadelphia Museum of Art, via the NYT

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has recently opened Health for Sale: Posters From the William H. Helfand Collection, featuring frankly amusing patent medicine advertisements from bygone eras.

From Abigail Zuger’s excellent review in The New York Times:

Any immersion in medical history is likely to produce a stereotyped set of reflections on the remarkably short lifespan of most good medical advice and the remarkably enduring nature of the motivations behind it. Altruism and the hard sell have always been intertwined. In fact, William H. Helfand, a retired Merck executive and collector of medical memorabilia whose many donations to the museum include the 50-odd items in the show, goes on record in the catalog ruefully acknowledging patent medicine salesmen as his “figurative ancestors.”

The bold images on display here prompt one more reflection. As our technical understanding of health becomes ever more pixilated in dull shades of gray, muted by risk and benefit and by statistical slicing and dicing, the giant assertions splashed over these gallery walls are more appealing than ever.

Just tell me what to do, they say. Give me something that will work. No doctor today can do either one, not without a lot of disclaimers, but that doesn’t mean anyone has stopped asking.

If you are one of those people that loves graphics or old posters, then you really must check out this slideshow or better yet, see the exhibition!

Sparklet Nasal - Completely Cures Head Colds, c. 1900-05. Credit: William H. Helfand Collection/Philadelphia Museum of Art, via the NYT

Savage Beauty has everyone freaking out!

If I see one more gushing post about The Met’s exhibition on Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty, I think I will scream. Without a fancy press pass like all the other journalists, Museummonger is feeling just a smidgen left out. Especially after reading things like:

From Culturegrrl:

I was wowed by the coup de théâtre that is Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum (May 4-July 31). The installation was more inventive and inspired than almost anything I’ve seen pulled off at this venerable institution.

From Racked:

The exhibition’s breathtakingly brilliant designs and its thoughtful curation make for the most impressive museum fashion exhibition we’ve ever seen. The show is so dramatic that at the press preview, we overheard a jaded, burly, macho cameraman say, “Wow.”
“I miss him terribly, not only as a person but as a designer,” said a visibly emotional Madonna, who was wearing an icy blue gown by Stella McCartney.

Via CBS News:

“I think the fashion business is a little bit dull without him and I loved his provocative punk rock attitude. I think his designs were brilliant. I think he was brilliant. And I hope he’s having fun wherever he is right now,” she said.


Thanks for this, Erin!

Armory Quilt Show

Today I popped over to the American Folk Art Museum‘s presentation of Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts and was BLOWN AWAY. This stellar exhibition displayed 650 red and white quilts from the private collection of Joanna S. Rose.

Walking into The Armory’s 55,000-square-foot drill hall was on par with entering a gothic cathedral but instead of stained glass punctuating an inky void, hundreds of graphically patterned quilts hung throughout the space in an awe-insiring visual cacophony. The geometrical variation was stunning. The exhibition design was stunning. The space itself was stunning.

Hundreds of people meandered through the collection of quilts, pointing out details to friends or using the exhibition’s iPad ap to learn about the history or design of a particular work. The lack of labels or informative pamphlets would normally annoy me but in this case, the dearth of labels allowed for an aesthetic immersion rarely experienced. There was a moment standing at the rear of the gallery that I felt viscerally overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of it all, an experience bordering on Stendhal Syndrome. So I sat down, the bright quilts above me swaying as though breathing and all I could think about was how extraordinary it all looked.

If you want to know more about the exhibition, Simon Schama with The Financial Times wrote this very informative article.

Brooklyn Museum responds to negative NYT review

The Brooklyn Museum‘s exhibition Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains which opened mid-February “focuses on the tipi as the center of Plains culture and social, religious, and creative traditions from the early nineteenth century to the present.” Museum staff collaborated with a team of Native and non-Native curators, scholars, and artists to develop the exhibition. There were some great pictures of museum staff erecting tipis in the museum’s Great Hall.

But Tipis got a decidedly critical review from the New York Times’ Ken Johnson. Johnson writes:

Beyond some basic historical context, the exhibition offers no revelatory perspective on its contents. That might be partly because, as the organizers, Nancy B. Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller (both Brooklyn Museum curators) point out in their catalog preface, part of the planning process involved focus groups and visitor surveys “to determine the level of visitor interest in and knowledge of the tepee and Plains culture.” They also invited a team of American Indian scholars, artists and tribal members to vet their plans. The result is an exhibition that speaks down to its audience, assuming a low level of sophistication, and that does as little as possible to offend or stir controversy.


Last week, Brooklyn Museum curator Nancy Rosoff responded:

In the wake of prevalent popular misconceptions and stereotypes, Native American participation was central to our goals in organizing the exhibition. The perspectives of our Native consultants—who have firsthand experience of tipi traditions and protocols, of languages and stories that belong to oral traditions, and of tipi arts and designs that have been passed down over generations—enriched the project immeasurably and were crucial to giving an accurate and sensitive presentation of Plains objects. Native involvement in the exhibition was a privilege for our Museum not an obligation.

But Wall Street Journal museum critic Lee Rosenbaum wrote in her recent examination of American Indian exhibitions:

Because tribal authorities consulted by Brooklyn Museum curators Nancy Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller strongly objected to public exposure of artifacts imbued with a warrior’s power, you won’t find any historic shields displayed in that museum’s deeply informative, child-friendly temporary exhibition, “Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains” (to May 15). By contrast, one of the stars in the permanent collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. (reviewed here last year), is a rawhide Arikara shield from North Dakota (c. 1850) bearing the image of a buffalo bull.

Brooklyn had to settle for a contemporary “shield”—a brightly colored glass circle by Marcus Amerman, Choctaw, decorated with images inspired by Lakota warrior Rain-in-the-Face’s magisterial buffalo-hide shield, shown in the large photomural on the opposite wall.


When a museum is displaying the art and artifacts of a particular culture, I think it is crucial to involve members of that culture in the planning and interpretation of the exhibits. But is there such a thing as being too sensitive to their wishes? Does entertainment and education ever trump socio-cultural appropriateness?

Feminism lost in translation?

In a recent post on Imprint, the blog of Print Magazine, Steve Heller tipped me off to an interesting museum in the Netherlands, dedicated to visual design. The Graphic Design Museum has several exhibitions on display including their permanent exhibition 100 Years of Dutch Graphic Design, Connecting the Past and the Future, and UnCOVERing Women, an exhibition on women’s magazines with an blurb that makes me feel… suspicious:

The exhibition demonstrates selected images from women’s magazines within a timeline, showing the evolution of women. These images illustrate events from present and past, from the women’s’ right to vote to the first frozen dinner. This is the thread that runs through the exhibition. From a collection of 50.000 Dutch and international magazines, guest curator Margriet van der Linden, chief editor of Opzij, a large monthly magazine in the Netherlands, selected the designs together with the Graphic Design Museum.

Think about Chanel’s little black dress, the first lipsticks and the start of Libelle, a large weekly magazine in the Netherlands. See a lot of familiar, old and new advertising campaigns. Amaze yourself with skinny and plus size models who decorated the magazine covers through the years.

Excuse me?! I understand that these are important artifacts that reveal cultural biases and conventional notions of beauty but I do not get the sense that this exhibition covers those issues. I have not been to this museum nor seen this exhibit but I hate to think that the extent of female evolution or feminine visual culture is found within women’s magazines. Don’t these publications perpetuate a distorted view of what it means to be a woman? Does glorifying women’s magazines in a museum put them to good use?

Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

At first, passers-by thought they were seeing bundles of cloth being tossed into the street. It took them a few minutes to realize they were seeing women, their voluminous skirts billowing out as they leaped from eighth- and ninth-story windows, desperately trying to escape the fire behind them.
Within 18 minutes, 146 people, most of them young women and girls, lay dead or dying on the paving stones of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village.

Kevin Baker, New York Times, 1999

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire occurred on this day exactly 100 years ago and remains one of the greatest workplace tragedies in history. The building, located at 29 Washington Place, is now owned by NYU and contains (among other things) the school’s Grey Art Gallery. Museum studies students and gallery curators teamed up to create a small yet moving exhibition commemorating the fire’s centennial.

The gallery has four major sections: the fire, legislative aftermath, 50th anniversary, and contemporary memorial activities. Doing my best to ignore a gaggle of giggling NYU undergrads assigned to visit the exhibition, my eyes drifted over mounted photographs and newspaper articles of the day. It is remarkable that such a spare collection of images with few historical artifacts was so very moving. But the gallery is really at its best when illustrating the tremendous improvements to workplace safety and union power that followed the Triangle Fire.

The best way to honor the memory of the dead is to build up a strong and powerful organization that will prevent such disasters…and serve as a monument to the dead. lest we forget!”

–Garment worker union organizer Pauline Newman

Besides discussion of current commemorative events there was little mentioned about the contemporary plight of garment workers in sweatshops in New York City and abroad. But standing there in the middle of the gallery, I realized that I have no idea who made the clothes I am wearing and under what conditions they were manufactured. As far as the US has come in workplace safety and regulation, it is still all too easy to acquire goods made by ill-treated individuals in unsafe conditions.

If only all exhibitions were as provoking…

Last weekend’s visit to The Nutropolitan Museum of Art

Lame! I trekked all the way down to SoHo last Sunday to see the much hyped Nutropolitan Museum of Art and spent all of five minutes looking at calendar-like pictures of PB&J sandwiches. Seriously, people, you couldn’t get more creative than oversized photographs?

Like the pun-y name but wished there had been more follow-through. And I didn’t even get my promised free jar of peanut butter. :(

Visiting the Planetarium

Planetariums are amazing places. There is nothing as glorious as being a kid on a field trip to a planetarium and seeing that uncannily beautiful recreation of the night sky for the first time.

In honor of a friend’s birthday this past Sunday, a few friends and I visited the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. We dutifully purchased our planetarium tickets (separate from admission price) and rode the elevator up to its darkened antechamber to watch swirling stars on TV monitors of as we waited. There was some discussion as to the best place to sit—near the middle or near one side?— but upon entering the seating area we struck a compromise and sat neither too close to the center nor near the back.

The lights dimmed, went out, and then the god-like disembodied voice of Whoopi Goldberg guided us on a visually stunning tour of the cosmos. The planetarium show titled Journey to the Stars was beautifully animated, particularly images of the sun’s solar wind and also the gaseous clouds that cradle newborn stars. But no matter how stunning the show, no planetarium display can duplicate the sense of wonder and joy that I experienced at my first planetarium watching a show based on Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten. I clearly recall the moment we moved from the furthest reaches of the universe into a droplet of water and watched atoms whizzing around. Ooo! Thinking about it is giving me chills.

But on Sunday, I exited the Hayden Planetarium impressed by the majesty of the universe but without any additional scientific knowledge. It wasn’t that the movie was uninformative, just that I was so busy being amazed I didn’t retain any of the more complex concepts. But Whoopi Goldberg was great. We could all use more Whoopi in our lives.


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