I’d been meaning to visit a museum or three for some some end-of-summer inspiration before returning to ITP. This semester, Cabinets of Wonder provides a second chance, along with a gentle, much-needed kick in the posterior, to do this.
On Monday, I headed to the Upper East Side to check out Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution and The Jewish Museum.
Cooper-Hewitt, housed in the grand mansion of Andrew Carnegie, is described on its website as “the only museum in the nation devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design.” At the museum gate, a sign announcing the National Design Triennial: Why Design Now? exhibition greeted me in Clearview Hwy typeface, along a circular steel NYC bike rack that I would soon see on display inside (which may or may not have been for show). The building’s exterior and interior details appear well-preserved, save for a conservatory area housing the museum’s cafe.
A guard said “good morning” as I walked into the building. The receptionist’s words were “ten dollars” and “no maps, there are only two floors.” In the first exhibition room, I was startled by a loud yawn from the guard in the doorway. The other guards were pleasant.
The information plaques at Cooper-Hewitt are placed about a foot above the floor, which made it super-easy for children to read. I was the youngest visitor I saw that day, though – the other visitors, groups of 2-6 people 60+ years of age, along with a few middle-aged women walking around by themselves, were hunching over to read the information pertaining to each piece. The pieces were accessible designs that I think made connections with people who might not ordinarily recognize design in daily life – Etsy, ClearView Hwy and NYT information graphics are all part of the current exhibition.
One piece stood out, perhaps because I could see my reflection in it: a huge solar panel made of mirrors. It was the largest item in the room, beautifully shiny and looked nothing like any solar panel I’ve ever seen. Granted, the thing isn’t supposed to be mounted on a wall indoors, but I was glad that it had been, and it made me want to stare at it. Big, shiny objects get me every time, especially if I can see my face in them.
There was an interesting interaction between a tour guide and a group of three visitors, an Australian woman around 30 and her parents who left the guided group and walked into the room where I was standing:
Guide: Come back! We’re discussing one of the items you just passed.
Visitor: I think we’ll just deviate for a little bit. (guide leaves the room)
Visitor (whispers to parents, who appear very happy to peruse without the guide): I feel like she has a very different take on some things.
The Jewish Museum was a block away. Upon entering, I underwent a bag check and walked through a metal detector – and received three warm welcomes. The receptionist chit-chatted for a few minutes, where are you from, what are you studying at NYU, have a great time, et cetera.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at the Jewish Museum – perhaps religious objects? Also, having been raised in a corner of Ireland, I figured I’d probably feel a little lost there. I was wrong.
The entire first floor of the museum housed South African Photographs by David Goldblatt. This place was busier than Cooper-Hewitt – several over-60′s milled around in small groups, along with a number of female individuals, some of who appeared to be students. Despite this, it seemed calmer than Cooper-Hewitt.
I was interested to see how the Holocaust would be presented. That area of the museum seemed still, and the lighting seemed dimmer. No-one spoke, and I forgot to take notes for a while. The only sound I remember hearing was that of an air-raid siren in a video depicting the 2-minute silence that takes place in Israel on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).
Onto the feminist painting exhibition, where I overheard a snippet of a couple’s conversation. The woman was sitting on a bench, looking at an oil painting. The man stood beside her, urging her to hurry on.
Man (pointing to the painting): That looks like what happens when I’m cleaning my brushes.
Woman: I don’t care. It’s pleasing to my eye.
Intrigued by a dark room with a few things glowing inside, I stumbled upon my favorite exhibition of the day: Fish Forms: Lamps by Frank Gehry. It’s a somewhat absurd exhibition of eight lamps, and I loved it. The darkness contrasted beautifully with the carefully moderated lighting in the other rooms, the glowing fish sculptures made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and I saw Gehry from a fresh angle that I’d never considered. The plaque on the left-hand-side near the doorway informed visitors how Gehry had come to design these lamps (Formica Corporation asked Gehry to make something with the company’s new laminate product, and he broke a piece and came up with the lamp design). We were then left to ourselves in the intimate, dark space. The visitors around me seemed content to stay a while, looking at each piece. On the way out of the room, a video showing Gehry’s buildings pointed out how fish forms, structure and movement have informed his architecture.
Visiting Cooper-Hewitt and the Jewish Museum was a great way to spend Monday afternoon. I learned a ton. I was surprised that I enjoyed the Jewish Museum as much as I did. I think that Cooper-Hewitt might be interesting for kids and people who know little about design, but I feel that they have some work to do in terms of engaging their visitors a little more, as it felt a little like reading a design magazine at times, flipping from one page to the next. By the end of this class, I hope to figure out a few ways in which museums can better engage and encourage visitor interaction.