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Museum Flopping

(Photo: Sometimes art can really pull your chain. Credit: Looper.)

If you aren’t anal retentive, you shouldn’t be curating art exhibits. If the idea of dropped apostrophes, mis-attributed dates, and dog-eared inscriptions doesn’t keep you up at night, you shouldn’t be responsible for the hanging of museum shows in major metropolitan areas. I cannot stress this point strongly enough.

As aforementioned, I am an afternoon museum whore (well, perhaps john is a better term, seeing as who’s actually doing the paying for me to visit). I love nothing more than to be swept away by a well-thought-out exhibit or smartly managed museum–which is why I find myself overly miffed whenever those expectations aren’t met by institutions that really should know better. Especially when you’re asking your patrons 12 bucks to get in, as in the case of the Chicago History Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art.

For me, these two museums always represent the best and the worst of times. I love the Historical Society, always have. (Can’t find it in me to love calling it the “history museum” yet, the term calls to mind too many images of glaciers and fossils and lakeshores covered in wild onions.) Now there’s a populist institution aimed at making average Chicagoans feel welcomed, at making itself accessible to them.

But being the self-proclaimed standard-bearer of the city’s past, it’s especially important for its exhibit inscriptions to be correct. Or at least up-to-date. The centerpiece of the museum’s newly re-opened exhibit halls: a vintage “L” car from the 1890s. Admirable enough. But inside the “L” car? Exhibit cards, complete with photos, explaining how the vintage car differs from the CTA’s most modern cars…the 2600s.

And if it were still 1981, the year when the 2600s first went into service, instead of 26 years later, the inscription would be accurate. Admittedly an error only a railfan like me would catch, but don’t you think, of all places, that the (I’ll say it) History Museum should have its facts straight before it glues them to the wall of an exhibit?

That’s just what I thought about the Museum of Contemporary Art, prior to a visit there last week. Unlike the History Museum, I’ve never been a huge fan of the MCA. Any museum purposely built too small to show its permanent collection is starting at a disadvantage, in my book. But the MCA always seems to try to make up for that liability by copping a cooler-than-thou attitude in its regular stream of temporary shows. (Although, hands up those who think five-to-ten feet of blank wall between every two artworks is the proper definition of art-world hip?)

But I was game enough to give the MCA the benefit of the doubt when I took in their much-ballyhooed retrospective of contemporary photography, MCA Exposed. Silly me. Imagine my surprise, as a native New Yorker, to encounter an inscription halfway through the exhibit attributing a photograph’s provenance to “Staten Island, New Jersey”.

Now I realize that although New York City and many elements associated with it live in the national consciousness–things such as NYC’s Staten Island Ferry, for one–seeing that the island sits on the border between New York and New Jersey, I could perhaps understand someone not knowing to which state it properly belonged.

Maybe, just maybe I could also forgive a curator for not double-checking such a fact that they might be not entirely sure of. However.


The place the photo was actually taken, “Staten Island, New York”, was…oh I really wish I had a drumroll for this…WRITTEN ON THE PHOTOGRAPH. Clearly. Plain as day. Big, cursive, artist-written inscription all the way across the bottom of the photo: “Staten Island, New York.”

I told museum staff about the error. Later in the week, I argued with Devyn over whether the artist maybe meant for there to be a disparity between what was written on the photo and what was written in the inscription. I was unconvinced.

I can understand why a museum, any museum, might blow a couple of descriptive facts here and there. Inscriptions are written by humans and we are not infallible. But when an inscription clearly shows that the curator of a self-aggrandized art “event” didn’t even bother to look at the artwork before hanging it, then there’s a big problem somewhere.

No wonder MCA head Robert Fitzpatrick wants out

Categories: Visual Arts

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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3 replies

  1. I’ve been to the MCA a few times, and again last night for the Vic Muniz talk, which was great. My experiences there have been consistent, and I have three words to describe the MCA: Stinky. Hostile. Tedious.

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