Museum: A Collection of Modern Day Artifacts

by Echo Hopkins, September 2012

Tucked under scaffolding, down an unassuming alley in TriBeCa, the last thing one would expect to find is an art space. Museum is located in an eighty-square-foot freight elevator at the back of what was once a paper factory. The interior has been overhauled, receiving a fresh coat of white paint, recessed lighting and cascading shelves that neatly house the collection. But that is where the similarities between Museum and a more traditional New York gallery stop.

Museum’s display is a collection of found objects—“modern-day artifacts”—that have been brought together in an ode to the things that are most often overlooked in everyday life. Grouped together into categories, there are items ranging from toothpaste tubes and misspelled food container labels to refurbished Russian watches and homemade weapons of defense. Here they are honored and can be viewed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, through small glass windows at the front of the space. Appointments can be made to view the collection, but the experience of stumbling onto the space gives a better perspective on how the objects themselves are found: by chance. In lieu of wall text, each item is accompanied by a phone number that you can call to hear the history of each item. Through the effort required to gain more information about the pieces, the viewer gains a richer experience of each object. The narratives behind the pieces become almost as important as the items themselves, as well as the notion that the history of an item can often enhance its significance.

Museum also host temporary exhibits, such as The Golden Word by Van Neistat starting on September 19. Collectors will be able to schedule a consultation with the artist to produce a one of a kind object for a loved one. Engraved onto a red Swiss Army knife in eighteen-karat gold, the collector and the artist will decide on a unique “golden word” to be inscribed on the back of the knife, with the loved one’s name on the front. The exhibition re-imagines the idea of gift giving, and produces an object that can be carried around and interacted with, the way so many of the items displayed at Museum once were.

A week before The Golden Word exhibition began, we spoke with Josh Safdie, one of the three curators of Museum (along with Alex Kalman and Benny Safdie), to talk about how the space came about and what inspires him.

EH: How did the idea for Museum come about? Were you actively looking for somewhere to house this specific collection?
JS: About three years ago, the three of us were asked to take over a gallery in London. The gallery had three floors. For the second, as we called it, “intermediate” floor, we built one shelf and shipped some of our most prized collections to London. Above the wrap around shelf hung TVs that played Buttons, a free-form narrative, which is a collection of moments from around the world (all filmed by us). Every object had an accompanying story. This was the first incarnation of Museum.

Museum to us is a display of humanity. Proof, as we call it. Proof of absurdity, proof of existence. Some people collect multiples of things because they can’t believe in one of a kind. To us, each object is a film, it has a story, it’s visual, it has a feeling. Some of the objects were collected as “proof” of something happening. One of us would enter the Red Bucket Films studio and tell this wild story and produce evidence at the end of it, so that there was no doubt what we were speaking of was nonfiction.

We spent a few years with the sketches of Museum in our minds and drawers. We were looking for a small unassuming space, maybe on a fifth floor somewhere for a year or so and then our landlord at 368 Broadway told us about a [freight] elevator facility they were turning into storage and asked if we were interested. We immediately jumped on board with the idea that we’d be using the space as storage. We told him, “We’re going to be storing objects and private collections in a beautiful manner with much imposed prestige.”

Cortlandt Alley has a somewhat mythical quality about it, like you’ve stepped into a different era, how did you find the space?
To us the space, the location, is an artifact in its own right. There’s a narrative to it. Just as the MoMA sculpture garden produces narratives Museum does as well. Turning that left or right, stumbling through the smell of piss, finding Museum is part of its glory. It’s always great to discover something. We’re all archeologists on some level.

Are there any pieces specifically that are your favorite? Was it hard narrowing down what to put on display?
Editing down our private collection was difficult. Our first edit put us at over three hundred items. Then we had to cut that in third, as we were not interested in housing only our own collection. In fact, as the space evolves we look to include less of our own discoveries and collections and more of those we come across. In our next show we’ll have some very interesting collections on display.

Some of our favorites included: The “Theft-Deterrent” motel room price list, which lists the price of everything in the room, down to the toilet paper, in the event that you may wish to take anything with you. We also love the Weed Business Card, a handmade index card listing the price of different amounts of weed, complete with Star of David decorations. We’re also very fond of the How to Prevent Masturbation check list, a pamphlet found in a Xerox machine in NYC in the ’80s by artist Leah Singer. Of course Lance De Los Reyes’s weapons of intimidation always intrigue, or Surfer Mark Cunningham’s objects from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean… It’s all great to us.

The Golden Word
19 September–3 October, 2012
New York