For the 1970 exhibition Raid the Icebox at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Andy Warhol pulled hidden treasures from storage. He included everyday objects not regularly on view. Parasols, chairs in bulk, and closets worth of worn footwear. Looking at what appeared to be a group of similar shoes, the initially disoriented museum director Daniel Robbins gradually appreciated minor differences among them. In the exhibition catalogue he noted, “Each object is obliged to carry its full set of associations, and a weird poetry results.” The move poses a rewiring of expectations, equally subtle and subversive. The scuffed and worn shoes suggest a history of shuffling, trudging, and stumbling. They also await new use.
Artist and curator Joseph del Pesco’s 2017 book The Museum Took a Few Minutes to Collect Itself works in similar terrain. It playfully engages museums on their own conceptual turf and generates a “weird poetry” to question current museology. The slim seventy-three-page paperback is the result of joint residencies on Fogo and Toronto islands, and published with Art Metropole. Del Pesco describes nine fantasies, each forming its own quick chapter. Smart and wry, what results is a spacious architecture of unexpected imaginaries, thought experiments, and portals to strange and elaborate experiences. Think Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, or Borgesian labyrinths puzzled together from dysfunctional museum parts.
Official figures estimate that there are 35,000 active museums in the United States alone. Some of these institutions undoubtedly succeed at preservation, education, and inspiration, but their model is far from perfect. Their rooms can feel like the galleries of despots, offering transparently self-serving attempts at definitive histories. While they might reward careful looking, museums can be austere, arbitrary, imperious, biased, and underhanded. At worst, they colonize, steal, hoard, sanitize, essentialize, and flatten. Compulsively courting spectacle, they blithely affirm existing power structures. Prominent museums now make “visitor experience” a top priority, turning their platforms into playgrounds. Despite their flaws, however, del Pesco’s project insists on the value and vitality of their reimagining.
Del Pesco’s deliberately heterogeneous museums defy their slick real-world counterparts. They don’t seek to enlighten or save us; they don’t catalyze change outside their purview or even strive for wholly inclusive stories. Some foreground their own practical usefulness and niche agendas (one, for example, doubles as a hospital that specializes in treating a rare sexually-transmitted disease). Others involve simultaneous narratives which challenge the neat summaries of brisk wall text, guides, and catalogue entries. They privilege sustained inquiry and activity, not the unique historical or aesthetic value of superior objects and extraordinary individuals.
One chapter about a towering museum called Alphabet City alludes to Frank Lloyd Wright’s never-realized mile-high skyscraper Illinois Sky-City. At the height of Wright’s planned offices sit twenty-six experiential rooms, one per floor. In the “Gastrophonic Room,” visitors perform live for an audience by eating food that makes their stomachs rumble and gurgle. In these kinds of eccentric activities and utopian spaces, no one is sexually abusive, and no one feels pressured to bend to the whims of the market. No one posts demands, protests exclusion, or endures low pay for long hours. This utopia is magnificent but also frustratingly removed.
Del Pesco’s phantasms carry more weight when they address human excess and failure. Perhaps the museums we build are the ones we deserve, and their faults are also ours. Del Pesco suggests as much with his Museum of Nations which hosts proud, visionary leaders but also petty bickering about scheduling and who’s in charge. In moments like this, The Museum Took a Few Minutes to Collect Itself brightly illuminates the ways that our institutions represent us, fail, and instead offer opportunities for self-reflection.
A particularly telling chapter describes a community museum designed as a sort of repatriation center and a halfway point for dispersed objects of varying significance. Del Pesco writes, “They asked for things stored in the darkest corners of collections; things that had been borrowed and never returned, things that had been stolen.” The museum accepts and exhibits the objects, then puts them back into regular use – spoons in soup, blankets wrapped around babies. Bravely, the exhibition empties itself of institutional flourish, and evokes instead the continuity of history and the fabric of daily life. No need for theatrical audience engagement or mediated thematic play. Imagine crates, display cases, wall labels, track lights, and white gloves as unnecessary – as, themselves, now the relics. What is usually presented as abstracted history can instead meld completely with the present. The museum collects itself, and then clears itself out.