Brown paper packages tied up with string

Today a brown paper package tied up with string arrived in our mailbox from Lisbon.  In it was my favorite new book of 2011.  The title is _06_msr_08 fotografia* and then *…remodelação / ampliação do Museu de São Roque.  Our colleague, Sophie Barbasch, kindly translated the cover letter for us, which describes an exciting collaboration between 2 institutions [Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa and Museu de São Roque] and 5 photographers Domingos Caldeira, Luis Carvalhal, Luisa de Sousa, and Miguel Saavedra] that went into a whopping book that documents museum remodeling in a particularly thoughtful and aesthetic way.

The book is beautifully printed, square, and has ultra-modern graphic design.

The chapters are the phases of the renovation: vacate, start, build, restore, finish, and populate.  The images are not stock museum images at all – they are quiet, often abstract scenes and at oblique angles.  Depicted are interstitial places and perspectives in low-key available light, and, despite the implication of the chapter headed “populate,” that only means with works, not viewers.  This is the quiet museum without its audience.

Perhaps that is what I love about the book.  More than half my life has been spent working in museums, so these are the sights I know well, but depicted by really thoughtful photographers who made no picture that could ever be found in the postcard shop of any museum.

Although some variable view of the art museum is setting and subject of a number of eminent photographers, including Tim Davis, Thomas Struth, Vic Muniz and Philippe Gronon, it is great that these museums brought artists in for the transitional process and had them create work about the museum inside the museum – not generally seen by the public.

Last Saturday at the College Art Association Annual Conference up the street, Richard Klein, Director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum extolled the virtues of turning the museum inside out, and described a recent program to offer tours during the installation of exhibitions.  This thoughtful book seems to have sprung from the same impulse.  In the same session, Holly Block, the Director of the Bronx Museum described how she aims to make the often-overlooked places in the museum, or “free zones,” between public and private space, “programmable.”  They include the facades, entrances, lobbies, coat rooms, exterior windows, passages, etc.  Again, these are the kind of spaces the photographers of this book made images of, particularly ones that showed the traces of their museum-goers over time.  For me, this commission’s resulting book is a portable tangible meditative museum-inside-out tour, and I was one of its delighted tourists.

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