First Impressions on “Second Lives”

Being way off-based about what I was in for, I only recently experienced Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary at the Museum of Arts and Design and I’m so glad I did (as I was not aware that this inaugural exhibit at the museum’s new building, conveniently located in Columbus Circle, ended a few days ago). While this post will not be useful in exciting you to check-out this exhibit for yourself, at the very least I’m hoping the following tidbits and take-aways from my experience will benefit you in some capacity.

Second Lives, The Big Idea: The exhibit featured a handful (50) of internationally established and emerging artists who transformed commonly-found, ordinary materials (most likely made for another purpose, we’re talking magazines, buttons, tin, artificial hair, spools of thread and so on) into objects and installations carefully constructed (or deconstructed), reflecting personal significance and publicly-charged influences.

What Works & Why: The variety of materials used as  an art medium is something people of all ages, from a variety of backgrounds and experiences can relate to. While this may not always be possible, it was evident that the the objects and manner in which they were exhibited provided great opportunities for all to observe, experience, and discuss. As a result, these materials are forever transformed in the visitor’s mind into something beyond it’s utilitarian purpose, i.e. I will never look at another phone book or shirt button the same way again. On a personal note, I really enjoyed the labels (approximately 100 words in length) which highlighted the materials used and included the intentions/ influences/ statements/ reasoning of the artist.

Portrait of a Textile Worker by Terese Agnew (2005), from MAD website. Clothing labels, thread, fabric backing.Photo Credit: Peter DiAntoni. From Museum of Art and Design collection (2006.42).

Portrait of a Textile Worker by Terese Agnew (2005), from MAD website. Clothing labels, thread, fabric backing.Photo Credit: Peter DiAntoni. From Museum of Art and Design collection (2006.42).

Above: Extremely impressive in person, the thousands of designer clothing labels intricately stitched by the artist form a mosaic representative of all textile workers. It’s size is quite impressive and was a personal fave of mine.

For Our Techie Friends: A cell phone audio tour accompanied some of the objects. While I didn’t take advantage of this during my experience at the museum, interested folks can dial-in from their homes. Such virtual experiences may be enhanced by the one-click-away option to learn more about a selection of objects from the exhibit.

Additionally, on-site, flat-screen monitors provided opportunities for visitor engagement, self-guided interaction with exhibits, and a resource for general information. As I’ve seen elsewhere, I’m excited about the possibilities and forthcoming uses related to interacting with collections via a tap n’ teach format (tapping on the image of an object to learn about it). However one must know how to interface with these screens or at the very least know they exist in order to benefit from them. While I was at the museum, no one went near these screens. Even I fell susceptible to walking right by one of these 40+ inch monitors until I saw a security guard (by chance) interacting with it. I only spent about 5 seconds tapping on different objects before people started to surround me, wanting to try it out for themselves. My suggestion to MAD is to include some sort of cue to inform visitors of this interactive tool.  Including signage near the touch screens is an easy (although, possibly costly) solution. Alternatively, staff on the museum floor could encourage others and/or periodically interact with these screens as a means to inform visitors of its existence and uses. Such tactics may also be useful in preventing visitors from touching monitors that may not be interactive (as was the case when I got my fingerprints all over a static screen with general museum information. I will spare myself further embarrassment by sparing you the details).

In short, here are some take-aways to….. take-away:

  • Capitalize on any opportunities to connect with visitors. With Second Lives the artists’ materials provided numerous entry points for visitors to engage, interact and converse about. I couldn’t help but overhear two visitors talking about a friend who makes bowls from vinyl records while near Paul Villinski’s, My Back Pages.
  • The power of words, use them wisely. Whether through a cell-phone audio tour or text label, insight, context and clarity comes from the understanding the artists’ point of view. This concept can be applied more broadly (and to different types of museums) by keeping in mind the benefits in collaborating with subject-matter experts and individuals who have a personal and direct connection to the exhibit material or content.
  • Technology = good. Encourage usage by informing users. Creative, interactive opportunities part of an exhibit may greatly enhance an experience if/when the visitor is aware of these opportunities. The types of programs and interactions appropriate and suitable to complement a particular exhibit is a whole conversation in and of itself, so for now I’ll leave it at that.
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