Mass MoCA

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Kish and I were blown away by our visit today to Mass MoCA — the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — in North Adams, Massachusetts. It is an awesome powerhouse of a museum with a fine selection of contemporary art and, most importantly, the space to display the pieces properly, with plenty of room and light.

In20140808-125502-46502950.jpg fact, the Mass MoCA buildings are as jaw-dropping as the art. The museum occupies a sprawling set of brick industrial buildings with plenty of windows and ceilings that are sky-high. The space allows for display of the most titanic pieces imaginable — like Teresita Fernandez’s Black Sun, shown in the photo at the top of this post — and allows ample, crowd-free room from which to admire them.  Mass MoCA has so much space it will be featuring a huge exhibition of the wall drawing conceptions of Sol Lewitt for 25 years.  25 years!

Adding to the adventure are the many nooks and crannies and passageways and bridges that reflect the buildings’ industrial past, and the canal that cuts through the property. Be sure not to miss the rusting boiler room building, which has been converted into a kind of musical art experience, and the Hall Art Foundation building, an aircraft hangar-sized structure that features gigantic pieces by Anselm Kiefer.

During our visit we particularly enjoyed the display of the very evocative art of Darren Waterston, with paintings that are deep, layered, and mysterious, and his full-sized, carefully constructed decomposing room called Filthy Lucre that riffs on James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room and reimagines it as a crumbling ruin.  We also appreciated a huge exhibition of the work of Izhar Patkin that demonstrated, in particular, what the Mass MoCA space permits. In one huge wing, shown in the photograph below, the curators built separate rooms to display Patkin’s beautiful and haunting painted fabric creations. How many museums have the space to permit that?

If you are an art lover, Mass MoCA is simply not to be missed.

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MONA, MONA

Museums tend to be pretty stodgy places.  Now there’s a museum in Hobart, Australia that is shaking up the dusty museum world.

The Museum of Old and New Art, or MONA, breaks just about every rule we associate with museums.  Instead of an imposing marble structure, it’s housed in a curious building.  Rather than ascending broad steps, you descend several flights of stairs to get to the exhibit floors.  There are no labels or informational signs prepared by curators on the walls of the museum; visitors get an iPod crammed with information about the exhibits and are asked whether they “love” or “hate” each piece.  And the museum has an on-site brewery and vineyard, too.

MONA features eclectic pieces, such as “living” art consisting of fermenting fruit and agar and a piece that replicates a digestive tract and produces, at 2 p.m. daily, a stinky piece of artistic fecal matter.

I’m not sure why anyone would want to see a turd, no matter how artistically it was produced or presented — we get to see them often enough.  But the idea of shaking up the museum world, and presenting art in different settings, is a good one.  I don’t think I’d travel to Hobart, Australia to see MONA, but I’m still kind of glad it’s there.

The National World War II Museum

New Orleans is home to the National World War II Museum. It’s an effort to remember and recognize the significance of a war that increasingly is being forgotten, with the passage of time and the passing of those who fought in history’s greatest conflict.

The annual meeting I’m attending had a dinner at the Museum.  Although the hour and the occasion didn’t allow a visit to the exhibits, I did have the chance to walk around a hall where planes hang from the ceiling and PT boats and tanks and jeeps are available to be examined.  One of the devices was a Higgins boat, the famed amphibious landing craft with the plop-down bow that ferried our invading troops from ships to shore and made the invasion of Normandy and the island-hopping strategy in the Pacific possible.

We also watched Beyond All Boundaries, a film about the war narrated by Tom Hanks.  The movie, and a short introductory film that set the stage for the conflict, are powerful reminders of how many millions of people were killed across the globe, the awful horrors of the war, and how dramatically the war changed society and the world.

The film is designed to make the audience feel like part of the story, as lights flash around the theater, seats rumble, snow falls, smoke fills that air, and objects drop from the ceiling and rise from the floor.  However, the words of the soldiers and some of the pictures in the film — the starving Holocaust survivors in their ragged concentration camp uniforms, frozen bodies of dead soldiers loaded onto trucks, a dead Japanese child floating in the surf off one of the Pacific islands where the fighting was so intense — pack far more of a punch than the gadgetry ever could.

After watching the devastation, and the death, and the carnage, I wasn’t exactly in the mood for a dinner party.  We should all thank the Americans who fought in that bloody conflict that helped to restore freedom to the world.

The World’s Oldest Museum

The world is a very old place.  Human civilizations have been around for a long time, too — we just tend not to think about it unless something reminds us.

One reminder is the story of the world’s oldest museum, which was established in the city of Ur 2,500 years ago.  It was discovered in 1925, when an archaeologist was excavating a Babylonian palace and found some neatly arranged objects from many different times and places.  The archaeologist thought he might have discovered a museum, and he confirmed that conclusion when he uncovered the world’s oldest known label for a museum exhibit, in the form of a clay cylinder, pictured at right, with text written in three different languages.  The museum was established by a Princess named Ennigaldi, at a time when the Babylonians — whose civilization stretched back thousands of years — were obsessed with their past.

At first blush, it seems strange to think that people living in 500 B.C. would be interested in studying history — but there is no reason why they wouldn’t find the story of humanity as compelling as modern people do.  The story of the Babylonian museum reminds me of a passage I read in The Story of Civilization series of books by Will and Ariel Durant.  In the book about ancient Egypt, they quoted a passage from a world-weary Egyptian writer who lamented that the world was old and that everything worth writing had been written already.  His lament was written about 2500 years before Shakespeare.