Learning Big Things From Small Stuff (in an elevator): An Interview with “Museum” Co-founder Alex Kalman

On the fringe of Chinatown, I followed the flow off Broadway into an empty tributary, stepping on questionable street trash as I crossed to enter the alleyway containing the unusual and unexpected Museum, located in an abandoned elevator shaft. The single-named Museum is all about doing more with less, about learning big things from small objects. That is both a focus of their exhibits as well as a description of their two year history. In December, as part of a pre-Holiday museum crawl, some colleagues and I came to learn more from co-creator Alex Kalman about bullet-proof Disney back-packs, how those and 14 more exhibits ended up in an elevator shaft, and how technology is used to bring interpretation to its visitors. 

Hi, Alex. Can you please describe where we are?

Alex:  Sure, we are outside a museum, which is a museum of modern day artifacts in New York City. It’s standing in Cortlandt Alley, which is one of the few kinds of magical back alleys of Lower Manhattan. The freight elevator has been removed and in replacement of the freight elevator is now museum.

How did you select this as the location?

When we were thinking about opening a museum we knew that we wanted to be in a strange place, in a strange building, that was kind of a mystery to come and find, very much like the objects that it was presenting. And just as we were doing this, the building that our studio is in came to us and said we have a storage unit now available in the alley, are you interested in it?

They opened up these two middle doors and it was this tiny 60 square foot space. So we knew that this was perfect for museum and we said that we wanted it as a storage space, but we wanted to store things very meticulously. We want to invite people to come and see what we are storing, which is essentially our kind of way of say we want to open a museum.

So what inspired you guys to do that?
 
To open the museum?

Yeah.

We are always interested in the world around us and in the stories around us. Our background is in filmmaking and a lot of our films capture what we see as details of humanity. So we were capturing these moments and, over the course of our work and always travelling and looking, we started collecting artifacts as proof, as proof of stories, as proof of existence of things that say something about this world.

So we are collecting these objects and thought they had great meaning and so we said we should open an institution for this language. There didn’t seem to be a museum for exploring the contemporary world through artifacts and looking at learning big things from the small stuff.  That’s kind of how we looked at it.

Where do you look to as traditions you are drawing from?

I mean, I think that places like – even though as crazy as this may sound – for us it’s, you know, the Museum of Natural History, or places that are exploring not ideas of the greatest artistic achievements ever, but what makes up the basics of society and those basic kind of ingredients of the natural world around us.

And now in 2013 the natural world is kind of made up of fake vomit and bulletproof backpacks, you know, and stuff of this nature, so that’s what we are looking at.

So let’s go into some of your favorites from the collections current and past.

Sure.

What have been some of the highlights for you? How do they represent what this museum is all about?

What excites me most about museum, first of all, the basic rules that we have in curating at museum are: a) no art, nothing that was created merely to be, to be appreciated as a piece of art. It must have some sort of purpose in society.

The second thing is that nothing that is merely sentimental, you know: this is the baseball glove that my grandfather gave me on my 12th birthday and that’s why it’s important. It has to say something about the way we think and what we want and what we are doing as a society.

So the two spectrums that we are looking at are mostly there things that are mass produced, that there is a market in the economy around, and [we can pay attention to] how interesting that is. On the other end of the spectrum are things that individuals are creating when they don’t have… what is it that, when we have a lack of resources, we are making?

What’s being mass produced is kind of very informative about our psychology right now, like the Disney themed children’s bulletproof backpacks.  So at first sight they just seem like backpacks covered in princesses but they are actually modified to be bulletproof because of school gun violence. This is a new market and sales have gone to 500% and, you know, what does it say that the materials of the classrooms are now changing in the way that they are changing? How does that give us insight into the narrative of America? So that’s on one side of the spectrum.

On the other side of the spectrum there is the collection of the objects that have been made for prisoners or by prisoners in the US prison system. Within that question there is a toothbrush. There is the prison issued toothbrush, which is basically a little piece of plastic that fits over your fingertip with bristles on it that you can brush your teeth. They don’t want you to have an actual toothbrush because they think that you might turn into a shank or a weapon of some sort, so instead they are giving you this modified toothbrush. One inmate wanted just a basic toothbrush for whatever reason – perhaps it was for a sense of familiarity, to remind him of his life before prison, perhaps it was for a certain sense of being, having a civilized life style and not feeling like a deconstructed human – so he made from what he had around him an incredible toothbrush. He modified the issued toothbrush to fit on top and use those bristles, and then wrapped in saran wrap and it’s incredibly, masterfully done and it’s incredible, a beautiful object. And it’s just a toothbrush.

But there is so much kind of history and cause that went into the creation of that toothbrush and that toothbrush is such a unique and beautiful toothbrush because it was made by an individual that, suddenly, it’s a lot more than just a toothbrush. Those are the things that we are really interested in.

So when I go in I can look at either one of those two objects, either the backpacks or the toothbrush, but all I am seeing are objects. How are visitors to the museum getting to learn and understand that kind of deep interpretation that you are explaining to us now?

Right, so essentially there are about 15 shows in museum right now.  Each shelf –

There are 15 shows in this tiny little elevator?

There are 15 different exhibitions.  There is fake vomit from around the world, there are silicone body parts, there is a permanent collection, there is the backpacks, there is the prisoner objects. So there are 15 collections.

And you can either just look around, you are kind of taking the objects at face value and a lot of people have fun that way. Each exhibition has an introduction, which you can find on the left of the entrance of museum and it has a card that gives the basic introduction. Then if you want the story about the particular object and the significance of it, you can call into our audio guide.

The audio guide is a toll free number.   The phone number is on the outside of the door as well as inside of the museum. You can call in and enter in the reference number to any object and listen to the story behind that object.  There are about a 150 or so objects within this space and so there are about 150 stories to listen to. Some people come and spend hours here listening to all the stories and taking in all the objects.

The way you have constructed  something you can experience directly but also through the  augmented layer of an audio tour is of interest to me. 

I think that a lot of creativity comes from when you have a lack of resources. We don’t have a budget or the resources of some of the larger institutions, so that causes us to have to come up with creative solutions to the experiences  we want to provide.

We didn’t seek out to create the tiniest museum in New York City; that’s all we could afford. The same goes with elements of the museum like the audio guide. The services we found were incredibly expensive to install. It was beyond, it was – that alone was larger than our entire budget.

But what we did find was voicemail services for companies.

We could ask people to call in, to different peoples’ lines, and instead of somebody answering it we would just set up the voicemail and the voicemail would be the story of the object. That was kind of our workaround. Often times, creativity kind of creates something.  It’s a little bit more magical.

So is this just a museum or is it also a meta-museum, a museum about museums, and, if so, what do you want people to take away from that?
 
You know, I think in our eyes it’s very sincerely a museum. We weren’t trying to comment on the idea of a museum.  I think that it’s just the way that we are able to create a museum. It’s a museum for a very particular type of language.   But, you know, some people have said that it both challenges as well as reinforces what a museum can be. It’s not so much at a conceptual level – “Let’s have a satire on a museum” or “That’s ironic” or “Let’s kind of comment on museums.”

It’s saying: Let’s create our own museum that explores the world through this language and see how people respond to that.

And how do people respond?

It’s been fantastic because I think that there is a mix of high and low. There is a sense of accessibility. It’s unexpected in a way, and it’s unique, so that generally attracts a certain kind of volume of people. It attracts a real mix of people, a serious art-going crowd as well as just passers-by who happen to be on Canal Street. There is something that draws them into it and then, once they come in, they start to experience it a lot of seriousness as well as a lot of humor. There is a lot of sadness and beauty and ugly. It’s this whole mix. That really gives people a chance to kind of reflect on the world around them in a very kind of consumable way. So the response has been strong and we love that.

There is a group of kids in the neighborhood that come here every weekend. Some people spend ten minutes in here and some people spend four hours in here. Some people have a layover on their flight from Tokyo and this is their one stop that they want to have. It’s this great mix and that’s really meaningful to us.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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