A Museum to Compete With Starbucks

Posted inThe Daily Heller
Thumbnail for A Museum to Compete With Starbucks

I call it the biggest little museum in America. Alex Kalman, its founder, prefers just to focus on the largeness of his scope rather than the limitations of its space. Nonetheless, Mmuseumm is a phenomenon that’s been continuously providing the public with new and fascinating exhibits in an old retrofitted freight elevator. You have to see it to appreciate it. I asked Kalman to discuss how he’s maintained it—and how he’s expanding it, too. If you’re going to visit NYC, stop by 3 Courtlandt Alley in lower Manhattan. Mmuseumm is open Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.

The 2017 season of Mmuseumm’s doors are open.

Interior of the 2017 Mmuseumm.

Did you foresee Mmuseumm lasting more than one season?I envisioned it as a permanent place in the city. I like to think about museums in the traditional sense, in that they take over a space in a city or community and that they will be there forever for the people. That no matter what is going on in your life or in the world, you can escape into a museum to find meaning and inspiration. I know that there are other approaches, transient and pop-up. But I think it is important that museums work hard to take up space and expand—to compete with ATM machines and Starbucks. I know that’s a bit delusional, but I think that should be the attitude. There needs to be a level of aggression in claiming territory for art and culture that benefits the public. And holding onto it. And expanding.

Gluten Free communion wafers from the 2017 exhibition.

What do you believe you’ve accomplished with Mmuseumm that was what you set out to achieve—and what are some unintended consequences?To introduce a new model for how a museum can exist in a city’s landscape and a new language and method of curation. At first the question was, can you introduce something that is this unconventional, and will people accept it as a museum? What rules of the museum can I break, and what rules should I follow? And then once that was accomplished, for me it was about strengthening the language of the curation. What is Mmuseumm showing, and why? Can it be humorous and serious at the same time? Yes. Can it be hopeful and devastating? Yes. Can it focus on meaning rather than value? Can it serve as a form of journalism to help the public? Can it speak to children and adults? Can it be fun and informative? Can the institution be trustworthy as well as humanized? Which means honest and sincere and complicated and warm and contradictory.

You don’t do thematic exhibits per se, but how would you characterize this season’s collection of artifacts?There is not a specific theme in the traditional sense, except for the notion of asking, Who are we now? And does the exhibition or collection reveal an important element of who we are now? Once all the collections are gathered and laid out in the museum, it is the first time we see all the eclectic pieces from around the world in one space. It is like having collected a bunch of notes—and then finally hearing what they sound like all together as a chord. And then in that moment the theme or themes reveal themselves. The tone is heard. I think this one has an apocalyptic hint to it. But the state of humanity is always a complicated one—so there is not one theme, tone, note or feeling that captures it. It’s the range that is important.

The nearby Mmuseumm Annex allows you to focus on one idea. Explain this notion of transparency on view now.The idea of the Transparent Object is that the way it is made is not hidden. In this sense—by looking at the object—you can learn to make it and make it yourself. These particular transparent objects were born out of the crisis in Cuba in the early 1990s, where its citizens suffered an extreme lack of resources. Out of a lack of resources is always born an intense creativity. Rather than mass production and consumerism, the people were able to make and sell to each other. Capitalist objects try to hide how they are made to force people to buy them. The transparent objects allow people to reproduce themselves or reinvent themselves without having to purchase.

The Mmuseumm Annex: The Transparent Object.

The Transparent Object.

You began the project with a high goal: to make a museum that was a kind of journalism seen through the lens of objects. What in this season’s batch most fulfills that standard?I think it’s the collection of the 19 exhibits that fulfill the standard. Each on its own speaks to a different aspect of who we are, how we feel, and what is going on in the world. But when they come together, they tell the bigger story. Like the newspaper—it is not about a single story. It is about the collation of stories that provides the portrait.

Has it gotten easier or harder to reach your standard?Harder to reach the standard—but easier to know what the standard is and the why of a collection. Why something is in vs. not in.

The voice of the Mmuseumm this year is the man who so ubiquitously says, “Beware of the Closing Doors” on the subway. What a wonderful idea and tribute. How’d that come about?I think it was my girlfriend’s idea. Mmuseumm’s focus in curation is rooted in the vernacular of cultures. It looks at the details that are ubiquitous with a society. There is an intimacy and an honesty and a strength and an accessibility in the vernacular. When designing an experience, or product, or platform or whatever you want to call it—you must consider its values and then insert those values into all elements of the space, big and small. Mmuseumm 1 and 2 exist in NYC. So when thinking about the audio guide and the vernacular equivalent to an audio guide in the city, Charlie Pellett, the voice of the NYC subway system, makes sense. Last year was his first year doing it.

Any plans for a shift in direction?An expansion of direction. Not a shift.

For a virtual visit to Mmuseumm, go here.

Alepo of the future on the cover of Süddeutsche Zeitung, from last year’s Mmuseumm Annex.

Support PRINT. Subscribe!

At PRINT, we don’t believe in paywalls. But we still need support from our readers. Consider subscribing to PRINT today, and get in on the conversation of what the brightest minds in the field are talking about right now.

Treat yourself and your team to a year of PRINT for $40—which includes the massive Regional Design Awards issue ($30 on newsstands).

RELATED POSTSA Memorial For Slain JournalistsA Closet Like No OtherNo Pushing There’s Plenty of MmuseummWeekend Heller: It’s Mmuseumm Time AgainMuseum With a Tiny Footprint and Big Swagger

About Steven HellerSteven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Design / Designer as Entrepreneur program, and writes frequently for EYE and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 190 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal, is in the Art Directors Hall of Fame and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →