Cabinets of Wonder: Museum Websites

I did a quick survey of two museum websites for Cabinets of Wonder. My goal was to figure out how easy it is to access basic info on the museum (directions, hours of operation, address), and also to find additional parts of the website that I found surprising/interesting.

The Jewish Museum

Address on homepage, 1 click for hours, 2 clicks for directions.

The Jewish Museum website features an online exhibitions section of some of the Museum’s previous exhibitions. Some of the online exhibitions have interactive features. There is an interactive Flash game in the William Steig online exhibition inspired by a game called “Five Lines” that William Steig’s daughter Maggie recalled playing with her father. Five Lines provides users with five random black lines on a white background and invites them to make the lines into a face by adding their own lines. In another online exhibition, there’s Curious George timeline that visitors can virtually cycle on by pushing a bike along the timeline. Users can click items along the timeline to access works from that exhibition.

I also learned that the Jewish Museum has a international travel program that offers members “unique opportunities to learn about art and Jewish culture in communities around the world.”


Address on homepage, 2 clicks for hours, 2 clicks for directions.

MoMA’s site focuses on accessibility for everyone. One of the first things I came across was the Museum’s MeetMe program, dedicated to making art accessible to people with Alzheimers/dementia.

MoMA’s focus on education and research only became apparent to me on the website. In the Learn section, I learned that MoMA offers lecture courses and studio art courses. There are daytime and evening courses, in addition to online courses that can be completed on the user’s own time. There’s a research section on the MoMA site with information on accessing the museum library, a circulating video library, and several study centers, open by appointment, that offer access to specialized research materials.

Museum Manifesto

I’ve visited one or two museums per week for two months. Based on these experiences, here’s the “museum manifesto” I wrote up detailing what I think makes for a powerful, interactive learning experience in a public setting.

  1. A museum should immerse visitors and encourage them to explore and discover for themselves. Visitors should feel like they are wandering and finding their own path through the exhibits.
  2. Didactics should be easy to find and present information clearly and in bite-size chunks so that information isn’t overwhelming. The American Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo do this well.
  3. Museum employees should be informed and friendly.
  4. Exhibits should be beautifully designed and well-maintained.
  5. A museum must provide visitors with access to something they wouldn’t ordinarily have access to, or provide them with information and content in a new way. They should feel as if they have gained exclusive access to the content. If something isn’t normally seen up close, bring them closer to it.
  6. You are the center of your world. A museum should enable visitors to see themselves, personally relate to the exhibit or provide opportunity to change the exhibit in some way as a result of their interaction with it. The solar panel at Cooper-Hewitt that looked like a series of mirrors had me transfixed for a while, and the didactics in the Bronx Zoo made me aware of the issues facing animals in their lives, and how certain animal features relate to things in our daily lives, e.g. “a beak is better than a Swiss Army Knife.”
  7. Technology should be seamlessly integrated into exhibits so it doesn’t look like the museum is using technology for technology’s sake. The technology should be well-maintained.
  8. Memories, personal stories and emotions play vital roles in how people experience a museum. Some museums should try to trigger these emotions to provide a richer, more memorable visitor experience.
  9. A visitor should leave the museum with some understanding that they’ve personally gained something – knowledge, memories, or a feeling of accomplishment.
  10. Exhibits should be designed with photo opportunities in mind. Parents love to take pictures of their kids in front of dinosaurs, tigers and huge pieces of art. Teens and young adults may be seeking interesting Facebook profile picture opportunities. For example, there are always two queues of tourists on Wall Street waiting to have their picture taken with the bull. In my experience, the queue at the back of the bull waiting to have their picture taken with his backside is always much longer than the queue waiting to have their picture taken at the front.
  11. There should be “breather” spaces between exhibits or sections of the museum, with natural light and seating, that enable visitors to take a short rest if needed, catch up and talk after the exhibits.

Looking at Pictures

I pondered this huge bale of hay at MoMA for quite a while, wondering how exactly a cattle herd’s dinner had found its way to midtown Manhattan. The hay smelled good and tapped into childhood memories of my family’s neighbors in Ireland making hay in the summertime.

Here’s what went through my head: A bale of hay in MoMA! Sweet! I prefer loose hay though. Once hay goes through the baler, I can no longer toss the cut, dried grass up in the air with my feet as I run in the field. Still, square bales are better than round bales. Round bales are usually covered with plastic and tend to smell like rotting grass after a while.

Why is this bale so large, I wondered? Why is it at MoMA? And why are all these people walking by instead of stopping to look at it?

After sketching the hay, I found a plaque on the wall with the artist’s name and statement – Brazilian artist Cielo Miereles created the piece, Thread (1990-95). Rather than a single bale of hay, this sculpture is actually comprised of “forty-eight bales of hay, one 18-carat gold needle, and fifty-eight meters of gold thread.”

Thus, I was looking at a needle (albeit a gold one) in a haystack.

According to the statement on the wall, Thread evokes the “geometric rationality of Minimalist art” in a medium normally associated with agriculture, and the gold needle is connected to the wire. The piece “suggests the precariousness of economic relationships…and the place of the individual within a larger social system.”

Cabinets of Wonder: Tenement Museum

Prior to visiting the Tenement Museum, I expected that it would make me think about my grandparents’ immigration from Ireland to the United States and imagine what it was like for them. It did, but unexpectedly only after I left the place – because while in the museum, we were busy imagining ourselves in the situation in which they put us.

Fourteen-year-old Victoria Confino welcomed the Cabinets of Wonder class (playing the role of a Russian Jewish family of twelve, who had just disembarked the ship after a 3-week journey across the Atlantic) into her apartment. The more questions we asked, the more we learned about Victoria. It was an effective way to learn. All tours are guided, so we couldn’t wander around by ourselves – but we were encouraged to let our minds wander within the context. It helped us to learn through imagination – through putting ourselves in someone else’s place. That Victoria was a professional actress, rather than a museum guide or curator, made the tour all the more interesting.

It was fun getting into the character of a 9-year-old Russian who had just disembarked from a transatlantic voyage in steerage. It was challenging not to giggle at first while in character. As time went on, we played around a bit more – my 10-year-old sister Patricia asked for a doctor to look at my right foot, which I’d injured on the boat, which in turn got Victoria telling us about how we’d need to fix our own medical problems while living in the tenement.

The Tenement Museum felt nothing like the museums we’ve been to, because it put us in the position of real people who lived at 97 Orchard Street almost a hundred years ago, as opposed to people who are viewing objects in a museum. It brought us closer to the past, putting nothing between history and ourselves – unlike many other places we’ve seen, where we can’t touch most things or have to settle for observing things through windows.

Through the kinds of questions we asked, we were reminded us that people in those days were like us – just ordinary people. Also, this museum made me want to go back – we just saw one story yesterday, but there are more stories in there.

From 'Fresh Kills' to 'Freshkills'

On Sunday, October 3 I visited the Freshkills Park site on Staten Island. It took 2.5 hours of transit to get there from the East Village, including subway, Staten Island Ferry, the S62 bus and, finally, a shuttle bus provided by the park. Kind of a pain to get there, but by the time the park opens I’m sure that part will be figured out.

Freshkills is an NYC park, but feels worlds away from Prospect Park or Central Park – and with good cause, because Freshkills Park was once the Fresh Kills Landfill. Once complete, Freshkills will cover 2,200 acres and will be the largest of New York City’s parks, almost three times the size of Central Park.

There’s lots of history beneath your feet in Freshkills Park. Beneath the park’s four hills are 150 million tons of garbage, much of which was collected from New York residences between 1948 and 2001. There’s a good chance that my grandparents’ trash is in there somewhere, alongside the trash of all the other New Yorkers (and those who visited) between those years. To add to the park’s history, materials from the World Trade Center site were also disposed of at the Fresh Kills Landfill.

One of the park planners led our tour up the North Hill and discussed the plans for the park’s development, as well as how the landfill gas and leachate emitted by the decomposing trash are being recovered and processed.

I loved hearing about the place’s past, and really look forward to seeing how it comes together in the next 20 years or so – by which point we’ll hopefully be able to teleport ourselves there from Manhattan.

Below are some pictures from the open day at Freshkills Park. Click on the thumbnails for a larger image.


Cabinets of Wonder: The Bronx Zoo

My first exhibition trip for Cabinets of Wonder was the Bronx Zoo.

I walked into the Bronx Zoo through the Asia Gate, the closest zoo entrance to the subway. That entrance, I later discovered, is nowhere near as grand as the main zoo entrance by the parking lots. Families with young kids accounted for most of the visitors that day – so assuming that most of these travel via car, the hierarchy of entrances seemed to make sense.

Entering via the main entrance feels like one is approaching the largest metropolitan zoo in the United States; entering through the tree-lined, slightly disheveled Asia Gate feels more like one is meandering through a national park.

The Zoo is basically two huge loops, one long loop around the outside and a shorter one within that for visitors to walk around (or shuttle or monorail ride, if you pay extra – and I’m sure a lot of families do). While there’s lots to see along the way, designated stops occur along the trails by way of benches, clearings, different types of fences and all kinds of media. These stops provide a gathering place for visitors to relax, read, interact and learn in their groups, and create opportunities for catch-ups. Unlike what I observed in the museums, visitors tend not to leave these spots until everyone has arrived.

Each stop at the Bronx Zoo is a different experience, and this works really well. I felt a sense of information overload by the end of many exhibits, but I was never bored in the next exhibit as a result.The tigers exhibit was awesome, and people stayed in there for a long time. Here’s why:

  • It enabled visitors to get super-close to a real tiger. A tiger was sleeping right up against the hip-level glass, not two inches away from our fingertips, and a toddler’s dad plonked her on a ledge at the visitor side of the glass where she “stroked” the tiger as it slept.
  • It encouraged interaction. Once you get close to the tigers as the toddler did, there’s a ton of education to be had via a number of interactive exhibits – jump on the poacher’s truck and explore; watch a video of prominent public figures (Bill Clinton, Mayor Bloomberg, Jerry Orbach, Glenn Close), along with kids, discuss why they love tigers and why they must be saved; a donation area where you can donate a coin and hear a tiger growl, or donate a bill and hear a tiger ROAR!

For most, I think, the Bronx Zoo is a full day out. That’s good, because it’s kind of expensive – $16 per adult for general admission, and $27 for the “full experience,” which includes the monorail and entrance to attractions like the gorillas and Dora the Explorer’s 4D (?!) experience. There are numerous cafes, restrooms, seats and stops along the way for tired families to relax, chat and be educated.

Once upon a time, I lived on the Upper East Side…

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.