The Museum Is …

The museum is no longer simply the “place of the Muses,” as the word’s origins in Greek and Latin would have it. Interpretations of the museum as an institution liken it to a variety of spaces and concepts, including the laboratory, the artist’s studio, the flea market, and even the morgue! In On Exhibit: Victorians and Their Museums, Barbara J. Black gestures toward the range of these understandings: “the museum is a whorehouse is a mausoleum is a department store is a secular cathedral is a disease is a glory …” (19). Each of these formulations, in turn, recasts both art objects and viewers.

Art historian Dianne Sachko Macleod argues for art collecting as play and the spaces of display as playrooms.

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Gertrude and Murray Warner in China, c. 1904-1909.

In her book Enchanted Lives, Enchanted Objects: American Women Collectors and the Making of Culture, 1800-1940, a number of women use the language of play to describe their activities. Here is Gertrude Bass Warner, a collector of Asian art, in 1924: “In my house … I had what I called my play room, where I had many of my treasures and where I invited my friends who were interested in Chinese art to come and play with me” (14).

For Macleod, these associations with play are positive. In her psychoanalytic interpretation, play fosters imagination and creativity that lead to empowerment and a greater sense of self. Decorative art objects (ceramics, lace, furniture) are most conducive to play because they can be handled and rearranged. In 1885, it was said that collector Mary Morgan “lived with her precious toys as if they were her most beloved companions. Every day the pieces on her table were changed” (49).

Another of Macleod’s examples is Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who repurposed her grown children’s playroom to showcase her collection of modern art and folk art. She hired Donald Deskey to rework the space after seeing his window designs for Saks Fifth Avenue. Deskey also designed Radio City Music Hall, as well as some familiar lampposts. For Rockefeller, he installed Bakelite (plastic) walls and gray carpet. In the print room, pictured here in Vogue, a system of metal tracks ensured that works on paper could be easily swapped out.

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Helen Appelton Read, “Modern Art: The Collection of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Junior.” Vogue, April 1931.

The artworks visible in these images are part of a striking collection of German Expressionist prints that curator William Valentiner helped Rockefeller to secure: Emil Nolde’s Rich FarmersOtto Mueller’s Two Girls in the Dunes at SyltMax Kaus’s, Landscape at BodenseeKarl Hofer’s Milliner No. IVMoissey Kogan’s, Woman and Doe, Jussuff Abbo’s Head and Shoulders of a Girl, and George Grosz’s Gypsy Music. Writing about this space in the accompanying article, critic Helen Appleton Read makes an interesting case for showing sculpture with prints: “Sculpture shown in conjunction with painting and decorative backgrounds tends to be submerged. Black and whites, on the other hand, emphasize its plasticity without in turn losing their own effectiveness.”

Given the adventurous artwork, the expense (at least $33,000) and length (one year) of the redesign, and the number of experts consulted, Rockefeller’s private gallery would seem to surpass the playroom. In this light, her husband’s correspondence reads as dismissive: “I can imagine how much you are enjoying playing with your picture gallery again and only wish I could really share with you sincerely the interest which you take in it” (156). Collecting-as-play isn’t always convincing, or always positive. But it is hard to ignore the compelling number of instances Macleod puts forth in which women’s art collecting is construed as play.

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