Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts

Edification value 2/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 34 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
Salt-n-Pepa

This 1987 Janette Beckman photograph of Salt-n-Pepa, because it’s awesome and because I’d kind of forgotten about them and was happy to be reminded.

The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, inevitably acronymed into “MoCADA,” occupies a very small exhibition space on the ground floor of the James E. Davis Arts Building in downtown Brooklyn. Not Mmuseumm small, but still, quite small. Perhaps 1,500 square feet of interior, ground-floor space with no natural light, MoCADA has a makeshift, improvised feel to it.

The institution is twenty years old in 2019, and started out of its founder’s NYU graduate thesis.  So, happy birthday, MoCADA! Its location is critical to its raison d’etre, for Laurie Angela Cumbo’s thesis held that a museum of its type in Central Brooklyn could help the community economically, socially, and aesthetically.

Fashion and Resistance

The exhibition I saw at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts was called “Styles of Resistance: From the Corner to the Catwalk,” and looked at African American street fashion from the 1980s until roughly today. Given the tiny space, the show was necessarily a very, very, very broad overview of hip hop fashion, along with associated art, personalities, and protest. Very multimedia, it went beyond clothes to include video, paintings, photographs, a couple of sculptures or assemblages, and t-shirts.

One thing that puzzled me about the show was the mannequins, many of which were beat-up and decidedly the wrong color. I suppose it was a curatorial nod to a makeshift, repurposing ethos. 

Words on a Wall

In reviewing nearly 200 museums for this project I honestly thought I’d seen it all in museums, But I don’t believe I’ve been to another museum that features hand-written wall texts.  It was surprising how personal I found it. Given how much I have thought about wall texts in the course of my museum adventure, it was refreshing to see a different approach.

On the other hand, the handwritten texts meant there weren’t many texts at all, which left me lost.  On the positive side, I’m open to an exhibition that errs on the side of showing not telling. But as someone who doesn’t know much about hip hop fashion or its role in African American political and cultural discourse I felt lost.

Other good stuff

I really appreciated the exhibition soundtrack – a compilation of hip hop and news broadcasts that ranged from agita over hoodies to 9/11 to the election of Barack Obama.  It effectively established a mood and contextualized the works on display.

I did not see a single “do not touch” sign in the whole space. Not that I think touching was encouraged. But, as with the handwritten signage, it reinforced the sort of intimacy MoCADA encourages with the subject it covers and the objects it displays.

And I liked some aspects of the makeshift space. Wall panels mounted on wheels and hinges could swing out from the walls of the room to flexibly define or redefine the space as needed–a clever touch.

The Reach and the Grasp

Alas, Styles of Resistance had a reach that far exceeded its grasp.  The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts’s small space severely limits what it can—or should—do.  It might have pulled off a show on the origins of hip hop fashion.  Trying to cover from the 1980s to the present required that it ignore and omit much.  I saw some sample outfits, and some good fashion photography, but I don’t know much more than I did before my visit.  It made me long for a place like the thoughtful, super-comprehensive Museum at FIT to cover this topic.

The museum’s limited space and resources also meant it ducked some of the things that this topic needs to address. For example, it’s hard to think about African American fashion or culture without talking about influences or appropriation. 

There was a kimono by Studio 189 included among the garments on display.  Why a kimono?  And is that okay?  The exhibit made me think about that, but it certainly didn’t give me context or information or a point of view. Similarly, it had nothing to say about white designers borrowing from street fashion — nor street fashion’s love of high-end designer logos and labels.

I left wanting more.

Should you visit the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts? 

MoCADA has a distinct voice to it, but at the moment a very small space. It also feels like it has a shoestring budget.  If you are completest visiting all the African-American-focused museums in the City, by all means go.  If you like your museums scrappy then it should also be on your list.

But I’m not sure.  It’s scrappy, but possibly too scrappy? 

Of the African-American-focused museums of New York City, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Louis Armstrong House, Lewis Lattimer House, the Schomburg Center, Weeksville Heritage Center, and the somber African Burial Ground are all more must-visit institutions than this.

That may change. MoCADA is set to move to a fancy new space in a fancy new building in the near future. Gentrification silver lining or a co-opting of a community institution by wealthy real estate forces? You decide. This museum covers an important topic, though I don’t expect it will ever compete with better established institutions with similar mission statements. For now I wouldn’t recommend MoCADA unless you’ve got a very pressing reason to see the place or a specific show there.

For Reference:

Address 80 Hanson Place, Brooklyn
Website mocada.org
Cost  General Admission:  $8
Other Relevant Links
  • 300 Ashland, luxury rentals and future home of MoCADA.

 

Mmuseumm

Edification value 4/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 4/5
Time spent 23 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Occlupanids. That’s the word for those little plastic whatsits that keep the bags store-bought bread comes in closed. How many of those have you seen in your life? Used? Thrown out? Have you ever thought about them?  And yet, each got made somewhere, and each serves a purpose. Mmuseumm devoted an exhibition in its tiny space to making me see these quotidian things for the first time.

Of the institutions I’ve defined as “museums” for my purposes, New York’s largest (in area not breadth) is the 478-acre Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.  I’ve now, at the eleventh hour of my museum-visiting project, visited the smallest museum in New York, the simply named if imaginatively spelled Mmuseumm.  Located in a converted freight elevator down a narrow street just south of Canal Street in the non-neighborhood between Tribeca and Chinatown, I’ve seen walk-in closets larger than this quirky institution.

Mmuseumm. The whole shebang.

But what a density of eccentricity it achieves in its petite space!

Mmuseumm describes itself as devoted to now.  “Now,” reads the Mmuseumm brochure, “is always weird.” It goes on to claim that the Neanderthals probably found their “now” weird, as did people in the Middle Ages.  Mmuseumm dissects some of that weirdness, putting it on display in an analytical, humorous, thoughtful way.

Mmuseumm opens each spring with a new collection — of small exhibitions related to the weirdness of now. Last year was “season 7.” As it’s essentially outdoors, it makes sense that it shuts down over the colder months. 

The Collection

How do I describe the Mmuseumm’s collection philosophy?  I come back to my designated best thing: occlupanids.  As I mentioned before, occlupanid is the fancy name for the plastic clip that holds a bread bag closed.  Most of us, I wager, have never given them much thought, outside of checking if the rye on the shelf at Fairway is likely to still be good in a week. But occlupanids are a thing. You can organize them, analyze them, create a Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group (HORG) if you want to. It’s weird that these humble things are given a shelf in a museum. But no more weird than their existence in the first place.

Other exhibitions in the “Season 6, 2018” set included:

  • A study of standard consumer objects that were somehow deformed – the brochure description for “Nothing is Perfect” starts out “Humanity exists in a state of eror.”
  • Strange counterfeit brands that have sprung up in post-economic-collapse Venezuela.
  • Unexpected common items that have saved lives, and ones that were causes of death.
  • An array of devices people have deployed to fight snoring.
  • The security patterns that get printed inside envelopes so you can’t see the checks in them.

In sum, the fall 2018 roster included a mind-boggling fourteen exhibitions. On a thoughts-provoked-per-square-meter basis, Mmuseumm’s little space is quite possibly the densest of any museum in New York.

Among the 150-ish objects on view at the Mmuseumm during my visit was a small shelf space labelled “Nothing.” I appreciate an institution that defies the standard museum philosophy of being full of stuff, in favor of devoting a space (especially one in such a small space to begin with) to emptiness.

Should You Visit the Mmuseumm?

This place confounded me.  I was all set to be put off by its archness, its twee, self-satisfied cleverness. And to dismiss Mmuseumm as not really a museum. I did leave pondering whether I’d had a museum experience, or just seen a clever piece of conceptual art, a wry commentary on museum-ology, quite possibly the first meta-museum I’ve visited.

Meta- or not, though, Mmuseumm is a museum. It tries to edify and entertain, and whether it is actually earnest or not, it comes across as on the level.  In collecting ephemera, it reminds me of City Reliquery, though with a broader mandate and a much smaller space. I spoke a bit with the docent who was standing by to answer questions (there is also a phone-based audioguide and an awesome, exhaustive brochure), and she was super enthused about the place and its mission.

Also, two-or-so doors down the alley from the Mmuseumm is the even tinier Mmuseumm Rest Stop. I wouldn’t do my Christmas shopping there, but it featured funny and well-curated gifts, souvenirs, and snacks in counterpoint to the items on display.

I strongly recommend a visit to the Mmuseumm, particularly after you’ve been to many (like a couple hundred) more conventional museums. It encapsulates much of what I’ve come to think about what makes a good museum, and a meaningful museumgoing experience.

Mmuseumm Rest Stop/Gift Shop

For Reference:

Address 4 Cortlandt Alley, Manhattan
Website mmuseumm.com
Cost  General Admission:  $5 donation suggested
Other Relevant Links

 

Coney Island Museum

Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 4/5
Time spent 52 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned I liked three bumper cars on display, dating from (from left to right) the 1950s, the 1930s, and the 1980s. They demonstrate that if a technology is sufficiently perfect, it won’t change much over time.

Coney Island Museum, Brooklyn
Evolution of Bumper Cars
   
   

It often goes overlooked, but New York, like Venice, is a city of islands. And not just the obvious Manhattan, Staten, and Long.  This project has taken me to many of the city’s lesser islands, including City, Governor’sLiberty, and Ellis.  There’s no museum on Roosevelt Island, I note. But now, near the end of my journey, I’ve gone to Coney.

Coney Island Museum
The View From the Museum

Coney Island. Iconic playland for New York City, and thanks to twentieth century mass media, for the entire country.  Maybe the world.  Slightly tawdry, slightly tacky, entirely fun and open to one and all, the very name evokes the image of hot summer days, boardwalks, hot dogs, and a thousand and one sticky, sunburned delights. Continue reading “Coney Island Museum”

Enrico Caruso Museum

Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 3/5
Time spent 88 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned In 1997, Aldo Mancusi presided over a gala event honoring Enrico Caruso. In 2018, in the dining-room-turned-tiny-theater of the Caruso Museum, we watched selected bits on a (literal) videotape. It was downright weird to see then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani deliver a thoughtful, erudite, witty speech unveiling a proclamation in honor of Caruso and Aldo’s museum.

And it made me wonder, what made late ’90s Giuliani transform into today’s Giuliani?  They seem so different from one another.

Of all the random museums I’ve visited during this project, the Enrico Caruso Museum is surely, surely the randomest. Sorry, Mossman Lock Collection, you’re now #2. The Caruso Museum has been on my list from the very start, but I’ve kind of been saving it.  I understood that it was the project of an obsessive collector, an elderly Italian gent, who kept it in his apartment, which he opened to the public on Sundays by appointment.

That’s a little disconcerting, in the way that all obsessions–and obsessives–can be. “I’m gonna call you before I go in,” I joked to a friend. “If you don’t hear from me in an hour, alert the authorities!” Continue reading “Enrico Caruso Museum”

Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum

ran

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 32 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned In addition to the historic photos and artifacts the museum has a series of odd, delicate, contemporary wire sculptures hanging below the skylight.  

Kehila Kedosha Jenina Synagogue and Museum

I couldn’t find any explanation for who made them or why they were there.  Google solves the mini-mystery: they’re by Judy Moonelis.

Almost all Jewish people in the U.S. are either Ashkenazi or Sephardic.  Ashkenazi Jews trace their ancestry to central or eastern Europe, while Sephardic people lived in the Iberian peninsula, until they were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella.  However, they are not the only European Judaic traditions.  Tucked away on Broome Street in the Lower East Side is the only synagogue in the Western Hemisphere serving Romaniote Jews, a distinct, ancient, Greek community.

Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagoge and Museum, Lower East Side

The congregation of Kehila Kedosha Janina occupies a modest 1927 building, currently one of the last active synagogues on the Lower East Side.  And since 1997 the building has also housed a museum on its upstairs floor– open only on Sundays as of this review– presenting photographs and artifacts describing the community and its traditions. Continue reading “Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum”

National Track and Field Hall of Fame

encap

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 75 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Armory
The black and red bars near the ceiling are the world’s highest pole vaults…

The curators integrated visual depictions of track and field world records into the exhibition.  Bars mark heights of high jumps, lines on the floor show long jumps and shot puts and such.  It’s one thing to read a record, a much more viscerally impressive thing to see one in the flesh. 

This is my second hall of fame  (after the Hall of Fame for Great Americans), and the second museum in one of New York’s antique armory buildings (after the Park Avenue Armory).  However, it is my first museum devoted to a sport.  New York doesn’t have, say, a museum to baseball or football.  Or soccer.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Baseball cards at The Met

There are sports legends waxified at Madame Tussaud’s. The Jackie Robinson Museum hopefully exists in New York’s future.  And the Met has its baseball card collection, which I suspect it keeps mainly to show it’s even more encyclopedic than the Louvre.  But in general sports are an underserved museum topic in New York City.

The National Track and Field Hall of Fame resides in the 1909 22nd Core of Engineers Armory in Harlem.  The entire building is now a track-and-field complex, with a running track in the vast former drill hall.  Like most of New York’s armories the architecture is cool and castle-like.

National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Armory Continue reading “National Track and Field Hall of Fame”

Clemente Center

Edification value 2/5 
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 22 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Pat Lay’s cheery-creepy cyborg sculptures, particularly the punk-borg “Transhuman Personae #12”

Clemente Center

I’ve never been to an art gallery in 19th century school building that also housed an Escape the Room game before.  But there is a first time for everything, particularly when you’re determined to go to every museum in New York City.

Clemente Center

The Clemente Center occupies P.S. 160, a public school building dating to 1897, built in the grand institutional gothic style, all pointed arches and stone- and iron-Clemente Centerwork.  Abandoned as a school due to a fire in the pyromaniacal 1970s, the Clemente Soto Vélez Center was founded in 1993.  It operates a number of endeavors in the building, including four theaters, artist studios, rehearsal spaces, two art galleries, and the aforementioned Escape the Room game.

The vestibule features a plaque from its founding as P.S. 160, with the names of a slew of great and good late 19th C. Dead White Males who contributed.  Times have changed.  Continue reading “Clemente Center”

Museum of Sex

Edification value  
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 73 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A wall text in the animals exhibit about a Dutch biologist who wrote a paper on gay necrophilia in mallard ducks.  Those Dutch biologists, man…

Museum of Sex, New York

Museum of Sex, New YorkWhat can I say about the Museum of Sex?  It’s fun.  The gift shop is hysterical — if you’re at all prone to blushing, it will make you blush.  It’s immensely positive, and in a weird sort of way, innocent, maybe even willfully naive about its topic.

The Museum of Sex (MoSex for short) opened in 2002 and is, according to its website, “one of the most dynamic and innovative institutions in the world.”  Ok then. Its collection includes some 20,000 pieces, including both art and artifacts, only a small fraction of which are on display at any given time across the four floors of exhibitionist galleries in its space a few blocks south of the Empire State Building. Continue reading “Museum of Sex”

Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 64 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Wax classic movie monsters, most particularly Wax Béla Lugosi as Dracula. Now that’s what a wax museum should be all about!

Madame Tussaud's Times Square
Béla Lugosi’s Dead…

Madame Tussaud's Times SquareMadame Tussaud’s Wax Museum offers visitors to its Times Square location a thoughtful meditation on the transience of celebrity — and its sometimes hefty toll — in the contemporary media maelstrom.

OK.  It doesn’t do that.  Not quite.  Still, it wasn’t quite what I expected, either.

Fake Everything

Madame Tussaud's Times Square
Fake Everything!

Early in my visit to Madame Tussaud’s I decided to start counting the fake things surrounding me.  Fake brick walls.  Fake wooden floors.  I thought the elevator might be fake for a while, but it turned out it was just very slow.  Fake marble in the elevator, though.  Fake champagne at the several bars throughout the exhibits. Ersatz…I don’t even know what the first room I got to is supposed to be.  Roman piazza?  Maybe.  With fake lemon tree under fake candles in front of a fake window with fake cherubs.

It reminded me of Las Vegas.

Continue reading “Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum”

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

 

Edification value 4/5
Entertainment value
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 109 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned My favorite fun fact from the tour is that the Lower East Side got the moniker “Klein Deutschland” before there even was a unified “Deutschland.”

There are certain combinations of places and architecture that just go together.  Paris+garret; Newport+mansion; San Francisco+Victorian ; Brooklyn+brownstone.  And “Lower East Side+tenement.”  It’s almost redundant to call a place the “Lower East Side Tenement Museum.”  But New York has one of those, and redundant or not, it is a fantastic, unforgettable recreation of a slice of life in this city.

Tenement Museum

How the Other Half Lived

The word “tenement” originally referred to any multiple dwelling building, what we’d call an “apartment” today.  Very quickly, however, “tenement” came to mean a very particular type of multiple dwelling building.  One aimed at the working class and recent immigrants, crammed with people and with very limited light, ventilation, and amenities.

Like how non-New Yorkers imagine New Yorkers live today, only even worse. Continue reading “Lower East Side Tenement Museum”