Museums and eccentricity: crafting a future

Earlier this week, the New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussof reported that the relocation of the Barnes Foundation—an eccentric suburban museum about to be moved to Philadelphia—signaled “the end of an era in American cultural history.” He mentions the Getty Villa and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as also undergoing changes meant to “modernize” and monetize.

The title of the article “Eccentricity Gives Way to Uniformity in Museums,” is disheartening. Eccentricity, he suggests, is no longer valued in American culture. Uniformity is the status quo. The American art world no longer embraces the “ideal of stubborn individualism.” “That spirit,” writes Ouroussof, “is now mostly gone, a victim of institutional conventions and corporate boards, and by a desire for mainstream acceptance that has displaced a willingness to break rules.”

As a lover of eccentric museums, I hope this is not true.

The front of McKissock's home-turned artistic attraction. (Photo by Author)

On an unassuming residential street in Houston, Texas, The Orange Show stands as one successful affront to the death of stubborn individualism. During the 1970s, Jeff McKissock labored alone, without blueprints, on the sculptural-architectural structure made of cement, stone, tile mosaic, and found objects.

Inside McKissock's museum. (Photo by Author)

In addition to a small book describing in detail the health benefits of oranges, as he saw them, McKissock displayed his ideas in his “museum.” The museum includes a line of mannequins, including a clown, a man in a Santa suit (claiming he is Santa’s son), and a wooden cigar store Indian, all who attest to the power of oranges.

McKissock’s home-turned sculpture is now preserved by a foundation, The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art. Their mission reveals the enduring enchantment of places like The Orange Show that were created out of unique and individualistic expressions: “The Center preserves, promotes and documents visionary art environments, provides opportunities for the expression of personal artistic vision and creates a community where that expression is valued.”

McKissock did not care about donors or audience. He had a vision. Perhaps, an obsession. I’ve visited many “roadside attractions,” as such places are often called, relegating them to the wide margins of the artistic map. But The Orange Show is different. It is more carefully crafted. Here is more than novelty. Here is vision.

McKissock’s devil-may-care creation and exhibition have earned a following in the twenty-first century, proving our desire for eccentricity is not dead.

Categories: Culture, Museums | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Great snake escape: imagining the Bronx Zoo’s cobra

I have never like the World of Reptiles. Compared to the brighter world of animals outside, it was always too dark, cold, and creepy. As a kid, its corners seemed to harbor imaginary slithery critters waiting to pounce. It didn’t help that my older brother stood behind me, tickling my arm, and screaming, “Snake!”

The Bronx Zoo's World of Reptiles is temporarily closed to root out an escaped cobra. (Wikicommons)

So when I heard an Egyptian cobra had escaped its enclosure in the Bronx Zoo’s reptile house, chills shot up my spine despite the nearly two thousand miles between us. The Egyptian cobra’s moment of escape was apparently unobserved. Zookeepers noticed her gone on Friday, secured the building, and are now trying to lure her out of hiding assuming when she is hungry and thirsty, she will emerge.

The Bronx Zoo is deftly trying to ward off panic. Their website announces only that the World of Reptiles is temporarily closed. They are “confident,” says zoo director Jim Breheny, the snake did not get out of the building. “Right now, it’s the snake’s game,” he states, telling us not to expect daily updates.

Damer's depiction of Cleopatra's death with a cobra wrapped around her wrist at the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, London. (Wikicommons)

Egyptian cobras are known for killing Cleopatra and inspiring fear in the otherwise heroic Indiana Jones. My childhood visions of escapee snakes seems to be shared by writer J.K. Rowling, though her scene is not one of silent spine-tingling creepiness. Rather, her title character Harry Potter, leans on a bar peering into a glass-fronted enclosure listening to a snake’s (a boa constrictor in Rowling’s book, but a python in the film) desire for freedom. Unwittingly, Harry frees the reptile that slithers off lisping, “Thank you.”

In the non-magical world, we must communicate with snakes through Twitter. Because of course, when a cobra escapes the zoo, its first act of freedom is to acquire an iPhone and join the social media sphere. The clever creator of @BronxZoosCobra reported the snake’s adventures in New York City, from trying to catch a cab to cozying up inside an apartment for the night. She thanked the animals from Madagascar (for inspiration) and said she supported the revolution in her native Egypt. “Obviously,” she wrote wryly, “I’m a big fan of freedom!”

When I first discovered the cobra’s Twitter feed, she had just announced hilariously: “Leaving Wall Street. These guys make my skin crawl.” I went out to dinner and, when I came home, her following had nearly doubled from 8700 to 16,290. This morning it was nearly 20,000. Shortly after 9 am, Twitter suspended the account. Now, all you see when you click on @BronxZoosCobra is: “This user does not exist.” (An archive of cobra tweets is preserved in the NY Times City Room.) [UPDATE: @BronxZoosCobra is back online as of this afternoon and has 87,500 followers.]

Well, of course she doesn’t exist…not as a feasible Twitter-user, anyway. When the inevitable children’s book on the event is pitched, will publishers reject it because the cobra did not herself tell the story? Is Twitter making a stand against anthropomorphism? Or are animals (and the humans who would put words in their mouths) simply not welcome on the site whose icon, ironically, is an animal?

Fears of the repercussions of the venomous cobra’s escape can be read in the deletion of @BronxZoosCobra and in the Bronx Zoo’s silence (they have not tweeted in 19 hours). If the reptile is indeed slithering through the streets of New York City, humorous tweets become fodder for panic. If the zoo finds the animal dead (or must kill it in the process of recapture) the incident becomes another rallying point for the anti-zoo crowd who have already railed against Knut’s recent death at the Berlin Zoo.

And what if they never find it?

Categories: Animals, Culture | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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