Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt |
Michael Bettencourt

Museum of Air           


November 2014

Michael Sorkin, the architecture writer for The Nation, had a wonderful idea for museums, in an essay he wrote in the September 22, 2014, issue.  And his idea for this museum is also a good idea for the soul.


His riff came off a memory of a small museum he once visited in Bandera, Texas, whose collection consisted of "stuff" — material excerpted by the townspeople from the flow between manufacture and disposal, items like "a two-headed calf in formaldehyde…, miscellaneous LBJ campaign posters, high-school football trophies and the first professional hair-dryer to be used in the town."  He called it the museum of "whatever," with a collection based on "what the town’s inhabitants found fascinating, consequential, weird or simply ready for the trash."


This memory comes in the midst of a musing on what he dubs New York's 64-oz. sugar drink approach to building in the city: large-scale confections full of architectural empty calories.  This leads him, by way of Bandera, Texas, to the Guggenheim Museum, "enamored," as he says, "by its own multiplicity," determined to create a "Bilbao Effect" wherever it plants itself (Abu Dhabi, Helsinki), an effect based on image, not the contents within the walls:


    Nobody much cares what’s actually in the building—what’s important is that the “collection” is externalized in the form of new restaurants and bars, hotels and souvenir shops, and the sonorous ka-ching of cash registers and hushed swoop of credit cards. The efficient thing would be to dispense entirely with the internal collections, which are generally interchangeable and without any particular relevance to the idea of the local. Not to be a philistine, but if you’ve seen one balloon dog or Jenny Holzer, you’ve pretty much seen them all.


This is when he proposes a museum concept that conflates steroidal buildings, the vapidity of art, the dispensability of "stuff," and the sociable quaintness of Bandera, Texas, into something that both tickles my sarcastic side but also satisfies my puritan side.


He recommends that museums be built on the wildest schemes possible — "the crazier the architecture, the better" — with only one requirement: that they be fireproof.  Dispense with collections, curators, guards, gift shops and cafés, parking, and all the other irritations of running a place of culture.   Have a truly open admissions policy and encourage people to bring in…whatever.  Whatever they find (in)consequential, memorable (whether of the moment or forever), delightful — with no credentialed gatekeepers around to guard the gates, the sky's the limit (or at least the roof of the building).


Once things have reached the rafters, or, as Sorkin puts it, "once the collection becomes impossibly dense," torch it (thus, the need for fireproofing).  After it's all reduced to ash and the ash is swept away, and we've enjoyed our dancing around the bonfire and the sharing of food and the drumming and chanting and those consummations that come with a good cleansing, then the collecting begins again. 


The place fills with whatever is the taste of the moment until that moment passes, and then once again, and once more, and so on. 


The "art" in the building, of the building, comes from the coming-together, from the local, the shared, the active choosing, the non-attachment to things, the untutored "likes" and the fuck-you of whimsy.  That art will never be found in "art" or the artistic enterprise or market value or the academy or critics and their appraisals or any of that parasitic infrastructure.


I like this notion of an institution of joyful cleansing, of sinless indulgence and relaxed ambitions and painless renovation.  Like activating the nuclear option on the email inbox one day — just hit delete and not care.  Or the Goodwill winnowing of the clothes closet.  More letting go means better things to hold onto.    

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column for Scene4.
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©2014 Michael Bettencourt
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Scene4 Magazine: Perspectives - Audio | Theatre Thoughts  | Michael Bettencourt September 2014 |




November 2014


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