Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Private Hands - Sensible Hands?

This American Public Media Marketplace report by Andrea Gardner caught my attention. It's about the LA County Museum of Art and its main benefactor, Eli Broad's plans to hold onto his collection, rather than donating it to the museum.
As they discuss in the report, this strategy might actually help museums because they don't have to pay to insure the art, and it makes it more likely that smaller, less well known institutions will have a chance to exhibit the collections through rotating exhibits.

Friday, February 15, 2008

What is a collection? - by Maureen

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The concept of a collection calls for scrutiny.

For centuries in South Africa, disenfranchised people, such as the Khomani San depicted in this photo, were nomadic desert dwellers. They didn’t construct great monuments and most of their tools, clothing, accessories, arts were made of degradable materials. Their traditional relationship to the world was such that an individual human (insofar as I know as an outsider to their culture) did not own any parts of the natural world (such as land or trees). Which means apart from rock paintings, it is difficult to speak of San sites or artifacts.

Furthermore, the Khomani San people’s recent history is long on horrific stories (of displacement, deprivation, abuse, genocide) and short on a lifestyle that would lend itself to the collections of objects. Even now, the people living on the Khomani San’s designated land have not yet been able to determine where they will found their principal town. It has been 7-year long process involving various agencies of the national government and the San people themselves who up till now have not been able to reach a decision.

Now the Khomani San working with the South African San Institute based in Upington would like to found their own heritage center. One of the first questions is with what collection?

Given the traditional and historic relationship of the San to the material world, the situation poses an interesting challenge: How do you represent a culture (not your own) which does not own things and (at least historically) does not embrace the dominant concept of ownership?

In the case of the Khomani San, there is a rich array of possibilities, ranging from indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) and desert tracking information to the San language (which is dying out) to traditional tools and crafts. The plan for the venue, like all heritage venues, will have to follow from this basic first decision about what constitutes the collection.

Out of Africa - by Maureen


Here's a photo of Ian Player, a distinguished South African ecology activist, contemplating what fate has served up to him. Look closely at the cream. What do you see? I saw it only after Ian exclaimed, "Why, it's Africa!"

This pudding was the punctuation of our meal together at Phuzamoya ("Wind Spirit" in Zulu) the farm Ian and his wife Ann have lived on for decades. Along with my Heritance ( Jean, Sheila and Claire) I was invited to spend the weekend with them as part of an initiative to preserve, share and promote Ian's life work. The Player house which is filled with a rich and extensive personal library, photos and awards, as well as papers, recorded interviews with Zulu trackers and films is a testimony to Ian's productive career. And Ann's undaunted support for her husband's controversial, at times adversarial, stance vis-a-vis the South African government and society.

Ian, renowned for being a remarkable person, is credited: with the creation of the national park in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa, the founding of the Wilderness School in Durban, the successful initiative to save the white rhino, and the preservation of the Zulu Indigenous Knowlege System transmitted to him by his friend Magqubu Ntombela.

Unfortunately wikipedia doesn't yet have any information about Magqubu, an oversight which I am sure that Ian would want to see corrected. At a pivotal moment in his life, he recognized Magqubu as "the better man" and dedicated the rest of his life to learning what Magqubu could teach him about the ecosytem and the good life and fighting to preserve and promote both.

It seems to me that wikipedia could provide a useful tool and departure point for the Heritance Player project and for that matter for many other museums projects in which there are documents to archive.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Newy Newness

New York City is kind of like a giant curio cabinet, many little cubbies of visual distractions. Even the brand new, modern-till-it-hurts, New Museum of Contemporary Art is hard to pick out from the surroundings. It's not easy to identify it as a special destination, a draw, as a place you'd slap down $12 to tour. There's a lot to compete with. It was designed by architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA with Gensler, New York, and was completed in December, 2007.

My friend Ash and I, dressed in many warm layers, walked to the new New Museum a cold Thursday night to take advantage of the free hours night. We waited in the coat-check drop-off line in the lobby, a glassy floor-to-ceiling area that includes a gift and book shop, a café with uncomfortable chairs and a narrow exhibition area, then with our plastic coat check chips in hand, we took the green elevators upstairs.

The galleries felt a little like a suburban basement where the guests sleep on the pull-out couch: cement floors, clean, but closed off, with only high, narrow windows. It was flatly lit, kind of like a racket ball court. Designing simple, flexible gallery space is a challenge – there is nothing like white to exaggerate corners, edges, shadows, doorways and floors. The New Museum made me appreciate the re-design of the MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, by architect Yoshio Taniguchi that was completed in 2006. This is maybe an unfair comparison considering the MOMA, on 53rd street, reigns over 630,000 square feet (58,529 sq meters) and the New Museum tends a narrow 60,000 sq feet (5,574 sq meters). At the MOMA, moving around the museum there's enough variation that you feel like you're continually discovering, moving between the closed in and the open, down passageways, around corners and up stairways. Navigating around, there are opportunities to overlook other parts of the museum, the courtyard or the surrounding streets. A slice of window will show you a floor of the museum where you were just standing minutes ago and you ou can look across the atrium on the second floor and watch people shuttering by the cut-outs up and down the building, or standing at their own perches looking at you.

Outside at night, the New Museum is a woolly tower of squares that rises over the Bowery, a busy avenue in lower Manhattan. The surface of the building is pinned with a lacey network of industrial steel weaving and tacked onto the façade is a glowing rainbow sign with the words "Hell Yes!" I could probably look this up and find the artist, or the idea behind the sign, but ..yeah, it's a big rainbow glowing sign with the words "Hell Yes!" on an otherwise gray building. "Hell Yes!" is much more noticeable than the museum's own self-ID, a street-level digital sign which glows on a large monitor hoisted up in the lobby.

Museums in New York City use many techniques - flags, signage, outdoor lighting and new architecture - to draw attention to themselves, with varying success. Museums that stand out from their neighbors architecturally probably need less exuberant signs (photos courtesy of Flickr):

MOMA gets by with not-so noticeable vertical flag (I can't tell you how many tourists I've directed to the MOMA from down the block from it)

and its next-door neighbor, the American Folk Art Museum, follows a similar tactic

the MET, has flags to promote special exhibitions, but a main flag, which they might put up at times, I'm not sure, would in any case be sort of like a celebrity wearing nametag

The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, with an addition and renovation by Renzo Piano, has a sign fixed into the ground.

the Rubin Museum of Art (art of the Himalayas) employs all its windows to promote its exhibits, as well as flags, but its main sign is flat against its front, and subtle.

The American Museum of Natural History

The Whitney has a version of vertical signing, also relatively small

MORE about the New Museum of Contemporary Art:

Main website : http://www.newmuseum.org/

You can read about the branding of the New Museum of Contemporary art on the Under Consideration blog, Brand New.

Check out this extraordinary time-lapse video of the construction of the New Museum, lapsing a time period of over a year.