Monday, July 26, 2010

Museum Review: The Met and the MOMA

Metropolitan Museum of Art (
Museum of Modern Art (
New York, New York
Recommendation: 4 stars (out of 5)

Rather than focus on the exhibitions at the museums, what’s worthy of note is not the size of their buildings or collections, but the sizes of the crowds visiting them and their gift shops.

I arrived at the Met about 40 minutes after it opened, and was surprised that I still had to wait in line 10 to 15 minutes to “purchase” my ticket. (Technically, I didn’t purchase tickets; I made a suggested donation. But let’s face it; when they said that they did not offer a complimentary ticket to when I showed them my membership card for the Museums Association, I knew that the transaction was no different than had I purchased a ticket to a movie.

Signage in the Met was almost as confusing as in the LACMA. However, as the Met has reinstalled most of its galleries, the signage should be more complete now. In particular, directional signs to the new American wing were a bit difficult to follow outside of the lobby, as were signs to the temporary exhibit on Afghanistan.

What was easy to find, however, were the countless gift shops . One in the lobby, with several entrances (probably one per department) in the main hall as well as upstairs. (With more to come—the gift shop is being expanded.)

Satellite stores existed at the end of each major temporary exhibit, next to the cafeteria, and at a couple of natural rest areas on the second floor.

I didn’t know whether I was at a mall or a museum. And just in case I forgot to purchase something, the museum has annexes in the Newark Airport, Rockefeller Center, and Macy’s Herald Square Store.

By those standards, the MOMA almost looks like a shopping-free zone. Rest assured, it’s not. A gift shop greets in both the lobby and as one exits the elevator on the 6th floor. There’s a bookstore on the second floor and a design shop across the street (which carries the same merchandise as in the main museum store, plus a collection from Japan’s Muji store).

Spending time in the MOMA Design Store across the street was one way to avoid a half-block lineup for the museum, a line-up that persists for several hours after the museum’s opening.

Both museums were chockablock with visitors. As a researcher of, and consultant to, museums, I’m delighted that so many people are showing interest in museums. But as a visitor, all of those other visitors limited my options. Studying labels closely becomes a challenge when some other studious visitor is in front of you and an impatient one anxiously awaits behind.

But I still managed to catch a few interesting exhibits. The Afghanistan exhibit at the Met shows 2,000- to 3,000-year-old artifacts of different Afghani communities, including one that was an outpost of Alexander the Great’s Greece, another that was a trading post that was heavily influenced by Roman culture, and the grave of a high-ranking nomadic tribe leader and his entourage. The craftsmanship was superb, the artistic influences were startling for their breadth, and the stories told by these objects were captivating.

Although not likely to happen, this exhibit should travel to Canada, so Canadians who are supporting military and civilian efforts there can learn more about the people and their history.

Two exhibits impressed me most at the MOMA. One was a display created by a Chinese artist of all of his mother’s worldly possessions. He grouped like things together, like nearly a dozen tubes of nearly used tooth paste and scores of empty beverage bottles. He laid the objects in an orderly, organized fashion across the entire gallery, and it surprisingly (to me) packs an emotional whallop.

The other exhibit was one on what made good design, a retrospective look at objects that were exhibited in a series of exhibits on good design at the MOMA in the mid-twentieth century. These exhibits not only introduced concepts of design to the general public, but benefitted retailers who carried the products. The exhibit explored, in part, the inherent elitisim underlying such approaches. But I have to be honest; my design sensibilities were shaped by these elitists and walking through this exhibit was like walking through the aisles of a design store looking at my favorite objects, wondering which ones I would buy.

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