Why Digital Museums Need “Walls” Part 1: André Malraux

This is the first post in a 3-part series on reimaginging André Malraux’s Museum Without Walls and what it means for the future of digital exhibitions.

I’ve been trolling a number of online museums lately–The Louvre, Google Art Project, Gallery of Lost Art— and only just read André Malraux’s Museum Without Walls (1947). Museum writers and theorists interested in digital collections often reference Malraux and credit his conception of a a comprehensive collection of art reproductions (a museum– without walls!) as the forebear of today’s online museums and digital collections.

Malraux’s begins with the idea that, historically, taking an object out of its original context and placing it in a museum fundamentally changes the very nature of the object, changes its purpose from utilitarian to aesthetic. He writes, “the Art Museum brought about a drastic change, transforming the artist’s visions into pictures, as it transformed the gods into statues. … Though Caesar’s bust and the equestrian Charles V remain for us Caesar and Charles V, Duke Olivares has become pure Velasquez.”” (Museum Without Walls, pg 14). In this way, a table created for utilitarian purposes or a religious icon created to access the sublime are transformed into aesthetic objects, what Malraux calls style. Pre-historic cave painters did not believe they were creating art. They thought that drawing a buffalo on the cave wall would lend them greater strength in the hunt. These paintings are now revered as beautiful, powerful images rather than tools.

Malraux argues that his collection of reproductions performs the same transformative function but better. Photographs or art are not bound by the limitations of physical display. Exhibiting pictures of artworks is infinitely easier to access/transport/display/juxtapose than the artworks themselves. In an instant, one can place a picture of The Sphinx beside a picture of the Eiffel Tower.

True! However, what Malraux failed to anticipate and what his supporters fail to take into account is that our society has, in the decades since the book was written, fundamentally changed the way we interact with images. The great flattening of scale and texture and mobility that Malraux championed in his museum of photographic reproductions means, in the age of Facebook and Pinterest, that a picture of a Rubens painting has the same viewing impact as a picture of my neighbor’s cat.

The thing about walls is that they separate. They are a means of organization, a platform upon which objects cohere into greater meaning. Museums were able to transform objects into art by setting them apart from everyday life in a special place so that the viewer was physically, visually, mentally primed to experience the exhibition in a certain way. In the digital sphere, Malraux’s Museum Without Walls is a museum without the mental space for contemplation as art. Online, the aura of the object-transformed-into-art is lost in the infinite sea of images.

How to create an image-based online exhibition with “walls”– an exhibition that creates this mental environment? Stay tuned for Part 2!


Cotter <3's Exhibition of Pakistani Buddhas

"Vision of a Buddha Paradise" Credit: Peter Oszvald/Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany. Image Via the NYT

Holland Cotter’s NYT piece on The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara is probably my favorite exhibition review of the summer. From the start, it is obvious that Cotter is enjoying his subject and the controversy surrounding the exhibition. He also includes numerous delectable pop-culture references throughout the piece (he describes the above depiction of paradise as “a kind of flash-mob version of heaven”) and reading the whole thing was like being led on a cheery little adventure.

It is reviews like this that make me want to experience culture and write about it.

Thanks, Holland! Can I call you Holland?

The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara opened on Wednesday at The Asia Society. It closes on October 30th.

Bronx Children’s Museum: Out and About!

The Bronx Children Museum‘s mobile art gallery housed in a former school bus was rolled out this week. Elissa Gootman at the City Room blog gave an overall positive review but said the inaugural exhibit of works created by Bronx school children was “somewhat underwhelming.”

The BCM has plans for a stationary, building-based home.

Visiting the Museum of Biblical Art

courtesy of MoBiA

Every time I walk from Columbus Circle up to the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center I am intrigued by the curved glass facade of the Museum of Biblical Art. It juts out into the sidewalk at the corner of Broadway and 61st Street before bending uptown, enticing passers-by to the front door. Even though I adore religious art, my slightly irrational fear of religious institutions had kept me from venturing inside (The MoBiA is run by The American Bible Society). This week I finally succumbed to temptation.

Upon entering through the front doors, a security guard directed me to the left and up the glass-enclosed stair seen from the

from MoBiA

street. The second floor was not the proselytizing array of pamphlets I had imagined but a regular museum admissions desk with brochures on the current exhibition. I paid the suggested donation and handed my coat and bag to the attendant (you are required to check all coats and bags) and then moved through the double-height glass doors into the gallery.

It is a relatively small space when compared to behemoth institutions like the MoMA or the Met but I could tell immediately that exhibition values at the MoBiA were high. The walls were painted a muted umber color and the lighting was not too bright. Everything complemented the art. Which was exquisite.

The current exhibition, Passion in Venice, is focussed on artistic depictions of The Man of Sorrows, a recurring image of Christ rising out of the tomb that originated in Byzantium and became popular in Venetian art through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The museum borrowed art from collections all over the world and some of them are just jaw dropping.

There is a series of works– a painting, a drawing, and a print– by Renaissance master Paolo Veronese depicting two angels holding up a wounded, lifeless Christ. And also a beautifully carved memento mori pendant featuring Christ rising from the top of his own head. There were many paintings but also iluminated manuscripts, sculpture, and even a video work by contemporary artist Bill Viola. Much of the work shown was as emotionally evocative as it was aesthetically pleasing. I’m a total sucker for gold leaf.

And the exhibition was small enough that I felt I could take the time to real all of the labels and highly informative wall texts. It was a very rich meditative experience and one I would not mind repeating in future.

The Museum of Biblical Art
1865 Broadway at 61st Street
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm; Thursdays open till 8
Recommended admission fee: $7 for adults, $4 for students and seniors

This is a high-quality little museum great for meditation on religious symbolism and art. Bring a friend or go alone.

from MoBiA

Museum of the Moving Image

by Peter Aaron/Esto

OK. ok. So I know that I’m a little late jumping on the MoMI bandwagon. The museum re-opened in mid-January after a massive architectural renovation and exhibition re-design. Here’s what the NYT said about the Museum and the building. My instructor Justin Davidson also wrote an architecture review of the MoMI for New York Magazine.

But I finally managed to over there this weekend and boy was I impressed! Not only is the building exquisitely designed, but the exhibitions are fascinating and have a large interactive component.

Walking into the vast whiteness of the lobby is like walking onto a stage set of the future. Everything is white, angular, and subtly asymmetrical. The museum store is directly to the right upon entrance and beyond that is the admissions desk. I purchased my ticket and was told that the best way to see the museum is to begin on the third floor and work my way down.

My friend and I walked past the electric blue ramp leading to the main theater, past the white tables and chairs of the cafe and left down a short passage to the elevator. The third floor featured the temporary exhibition Real Virtuality: Experiments in Art and Technology which was a collection of 6 installations of interactive video games, art pieces, etc. The two games were meh. The best piece by far was Augmented Sculpture by Pablo Valbuena composed of projected light onto a large white geometrical structure. It was mesmerizing and beautiful. You can watch a similar work here.

The third floor also houses a portion of the permanent collection Behind the Screen, a combination of interactive projects and display of historical objects. IT IS AMAZING. My friend and I were able to record a silly movie of ourselves that was turned into a flip book in the museum store ($10). I made a stop motion animation movie and recorded my voice over Audrey Hepburn’s in a scene from My Fair Lady. In between, we learned about the history and development of motion pictures. It was marvelous!

Then we hurried back to the first floor to catch a 2:30pm screening of Forbidden Planet (ticket price included in admission). I had never seen the movie before and was very entertained by it. Then a quick snack in the cafe and up to the second floor. There is an amphitheater on the second floor near the main stair where one could sit and watch the film Dolls Vs Dictators but I  wasn’t quite in the right mood to watch a baby doll tear off the head of Kim Jong Il.

The second floor is mostly a continuation of the core exhibition focussed on actors, costumes, licensed merchandise, and video games. It too had interactive features throughout. At the end is Tut’s Fever, an art installation/movie house currently showing screenings of old Green Hornet serials.

This museum is one of the most accessible, most entertaining and informative museums I have had the pleasure of visiting. I left with a brochure on becoming a member.

Museum of the Moving Image
36-01 35 Avenue, Astoria, NY 11106
Tuesday–Thursdays: 10:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
Fridays: 10:30 a.m.–8:00 p.m.(Free admission: 4:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.)
Saturdays and Sundays: 10:30 a.m.–7 p.m.
$10 adults, $7.50 senior citizens and college students with valid ID, $5 children

Great museum for grown-ups and kids alike. Bring a friend and make some beautiful movies together. Also, check out their movie screenings and events, some pretty cool stuff!

Merchant’s House Museum

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day this week, I am visiting three museums with Irish ties: NYC Police Museum, Firefighter Museum, and Merchant’s House Museum.

I zipped out of work early today so I could get a peek at the top floor of the Merchant’s House Museum a.k.a. what Time Out New York called “arguably the oldest intact site of Irish habitation in Manhattan.”

Arriving at the house, I was slightly put off by the jerry-rigged gate fastener and having to ring a bell in order to be let in. Oddly, the orientation area/gift shop is at the back of the house so I walked past several other visitors before being approached by a matronly docent. I payed my fee and was handed a worn 3-ring binder. And heard those three terrible words: self. guided. tour.

Merg. Now, I love a good self guided tour but judging from the hefty binder I carried before me walking down the stairs to the ground floor, this one wasn’t going to meet expectations. Have I become a lazy museum-goer? No. It is just that when confronted with so much text I often end up with my eyes on the guidebook and not one the architecture and objects. I can read at home!

The guide book was written in a casual narrative style that makes me suspect it was initially a script for an audio tour that was too expensive to produce. Seriously, if historic homes do not wish to slap labels on everything then they either need to have a living tour guide walk visitors through the museum like the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace or they need push-button audio tours like The Frick.

That said, I did enjoy the Merchant’s House Museum although many of the rooms looked shabbier than I expected and several of the objects mentioned in the guide were not there. The ground floor has a family room and kitchen with access to a garden. The first floor has a front and back parlor and the tiny gift shop. The second floor has the master bedrooms.

The upper floors are typically closed off to the public but today, for the first time in the history of the museum/house, visitors were taken to the fourth floor to see the Irish servant’s quarters. A volunteer docent who was very nice (though a little light on historical facts) brought me to the fourth floor past offices and furniture storage to the tiny little servant’s bedroom. After reading the Time Out New York quote, the experience was a little anticlimactic. It was just a little room with peeling walls and a garret window. Two iron bedsteads were set up and a pair of pantaloons was draped over a drying rack near an old metal stove. Irish women slept here.

That is all.

The Merchant’s House Museum
9 East Fourth Street
Open Thurs-Mon, 12-5 pm
Guided Tours Every Friday at 2 p.m. & Monday at 1 p.m.
Admission $10, $5 Seniors & Students
Very nice old house but not particularly stunning. Might be more fun during a guided tour or with a friend who will take turns reading the guide book with you.

New York City Fire Museum

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day this week, I am visiting three museums with Irish ties: NYC Police Museum, Firefighter Museum, and Merchant’s House Museum.

Judging from the uninspiring New York City Fire Museum website, I felt fairly certain it would be inferior to the Police Museum I visited on Monday. But in the cops vs firefighters debate, firefighters just have better stuff.

The Museum is housed in a former fire house on Spring Street (although they’ve removed the pole which I consider to be a sin). A painted bull (?) greeted me in the entryway and was festively decked out in St. Patrick’s Day regalia. A young woman behind the desk asked me to put my $5 admission fee into a wooden drum and told me that most people like to begin on the first floor.

The main gallery is a hodgepodge of antiquated fire engines, miniatures, fire suits, amateurly framed prints with long captions, and a tool display still under construction. As I noted “crooked tool labels” in my notebook an unidentified museum official standing behind me said “we’re still working on that one.” Feeling guilty and uncharitable, I engaged him in really awkward conversation for a few minutes.

As mediocre as the display values were, I found the material more engaging than the police museum. There is just something intrinsically interesting about fire. And I realized that the old bridge I live near, High Bridge, is an awesome relic of the Croton aqueduct that was the main source of NYC water for years.

The Fire Museum’s 9/11 Memorial exhibition was tastefully executed and unexpectedly moving. Unfortunately, my reflections about the lives lost in that day were cut short when I noticed a wisp of smoke seeping out from a nearby closed door. Instinctively I stepped closer and could hear the screams of children inside. This put me in an awkward position. Should I tell someone or are screaming children in a smoke-filled room just part of the NYC Fire Museum? Then the door opened and museum guide with a Brooklyn accent and no-nonsense demeanor encouraged the kids to find their way to the light. As the children’s screaming grew louder, I hastily retreated to the upstairs gallery.

More neat fire engines. Helmets. Firefighter memorabilia. If a female police officer is technically a “policematron” then is a female firefighter a “firematron?”
Yeah. Firefighters totally win.

New York City Fire Museum (don’t be discouraged by the terrible website)
278 Spring Street between Varick and Hudson
Tuesday-Saturday: 10:00AM to 5:00PM
Sunday: 10:00AM to 4:00PM
Adults: $7, Children, Seniors, Students: $5
Very interesting lens for New York history. Bring a friend and share a green beer after.