Where the Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

New York's quirky, tiny museum, housed in a 50-square-foot elevator shaft. (Seema Somshekar/ New York City Lens)

New York’s quirky, tiny museum, housed in a 50-square-foot elevator shaft. (Seema Somshekar/ New York City Lens)

A group of people looked intently at a row of plastic spoons of different colors, shapes and sizes displayed under a glass casing. These were not customers shopping for the newest kind of plastic utensil, but museum visitors. The spoons are one of the many brow-raising exhibits at New York’s Mmuseumm, a quirky, tiny museum with an unusually spelled name that pays homage to the ordinary.

Tucked away in an obscure alley in downtown Manhattan, the Mmuseumm is housed in a 50-square-foot elevator shaft. Its displays elevate everyday objects into art showcases. The intended mission in the view of its founder, Alex Kalman, is to make people re-evaluate their purpose of these objects in society and better understand the world around us through them. And the plastic spoons, said Kalman, are a perfect example of that.

Standing in the center of the elevator shaft’s carpeted floor, Kalman, 29, explained the novelty of this everyday object, the common spoon to a group of visitors. In isolation, it is hard to imagine their variety, but when compared to a dozen or so spoons, you see how each one is different from the other and is meant to serve a different purpose, said Kalman.

Visitors gaze at the displays in the museum. (Seema Somshekar/ NY City Lens)

Visitors gaze at the displays in the museum. (Seema Somshekar/ NY City Lens)

The museum is also home to numerous other interesting inhabitants, including 200 dead mosquitoes killed in mid-bite and brought all the way from New Delhi, censored Saudi Arabian pool toys, a collection of fake id’s, prison inventions and a single shoe, the infamous shoe that is widely touted to be the one thrown at former president George W. Bush in Baghdad. Its authenticity, by the way, is controversial.

“[The museum] is really different because it deals more with the vernacular, and less with the preciousness of certain objects and collections,” said Susan Merritt, a former graphic design professor at San Diego State University, who is now back to school as a student at the School of Visual Arts. “In a way, it makes us think, and look, and appreciate the everyday things.”

In a city that is home to some of the world’s most iconic and famous museums, one might wonder, what purpose does a quirky museum such as this serve? Kalman has an answer.

“Museums are like temples of humanity,” said Kalman. “They are the most incredible spaces for us to reflect, but there wasn’t a museum that was looking at the contemporary world through the vernacular, through design, through the materials that we create and what they reveal to us or illustrate about today’s world.”

The controversial shoe thrown at President Bush. Its authenticity is questionable, said Kalman. (Seema Somshekar/ NY City Lens)

The controversial shoe thrown at President Bush. Its authenticity is questionable, said Kalman. (Seema Somshekar/ NY City Lens)

Kalman started the museum in 2012, along with the Josh and Benny Safdie. The idea was to try to understand different societies through simple, accessible and mundane objects like toothpaste tubes, pool toys or dead bugs. Because, as Kalman explains it, nothing tells us about a society, culture and way of life quite like everyday objects.

Neither the location, nor the exhibits are incidental or random. They are all part of a well-thought-out design to complement the institution’s ideology.

The museum is funded by a combination of individual benefactors, corporate sponsors and visitor’s donations. Designer duo Andy and Kate Spade were the initial sponsors, who helped establish the space for the museum. The Spades could not be reached for comment.

The museum, which is open on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m., attracts hundreds of visitors, sometimes causing a line to form outside. Only three people are allowed inside the museum at a time, and a docent is on hand to guide visitors and answer their questions.

“Some people come and spend five minutes and say ‘Wow, this is crazy,’ and some come and spend two hours in here and say ‘This says everything to me’,” said Kalman.

Rows of mosquitoes killed in mid-bite. (Seema Somshekar/ NY City Lens)

Rows of mosquitoes killed in mid-bite. (Seema Somshekar/ NY City Lens)

Kalman admits that the founders haven’t excessively marketed the museum. And that, too, is part of the design. “We wanted it to be discreet, not shouting out for attention, and that people had to use their curiosity to really come and find it,” said Kalman. And it seems to have worked.

To maintain variety, the museum follows a season cycle for most of its exhibits. The museum has a set of permanent collections, while some others are on loan, or donated by collectors. “We are talking with people and reading and looking and always hunting,” said Kalman.

The museum also has an open call online for new ideas as part of their curatorial process, where people can submit their thoughts or collections for review. It’s not every object that can claim a spot in this precious little space, after all.

A lot of deliberation goes in to the selection process, Kalman said, citing two main criteria for choosing the exhibits. First, no traditional art is admitted here. “Nothing that was created merely to be appreciated as beautiful or for aesthetic value,” explains Kalman. Second, things exhibited must have a functional connection to real life. “We’re really only dealing in the space of the vernacular, things that were created to serve some sort of “purpose” in society,” he said.

This would include the intriguing objects from North Korea, such as the hangover chaser tea and local music CDs. The collection donated by National Geographic photographer David Guttenfelder provides a rare glimpse into one of the most secretive societies in the world. Or, the inflatable pools and inner tubes from Saudi Arabia that were censored—keeping in line with strict Islamic dress codes and the separation of sexes—because they are believed to promote sexual immorality.

“Some people call them ordinary objects, and I understand what they mean. But, at the same time, I don’t believe that they are ordinary,” said Kalman. I believe that they are extraordinary and it’s a matter of our own curiosity and our ability to see those layers in objects that can provide that value to them.”

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Censored pool tubes from Saudi Arabia. (Seema Somshekar/ NY City Lens)

Visitors’ reactions to the exhibits vary. Some think they’re fun and funny; others are moved on a deep and existential level, depending on their outlooks.

One visitor, Brittany Dickinson, 29, was especially intrigued with the museum’s styrofoam rock collection. “Those are really fascinating. For one thing, they look like they could be real rocks, but then it also brings up questions of all the Styrofoam that’s not biodegradable, and dumped in the ocean,” said Dickinson. “It says a lot about how wasteful we are, it gives you a lot to think about.”

Encouraged by the response, the museum is planning an expansion within the alley. The annex next door to the museum will display a collection that belonged to his grandmother, titled Sara Berman’s Closet, while another elevator shaft, a few doors away, will provide space for the opening of season 4, its Spring 2015 exhibition.

“The museum represents a way of looking at and digesting the modern world and we are excited to continue to explore ways of expanding that idea,” said Kalman. “Whether it’s in other locations, or other formats, or with other materials, that’s what we are on the course to do.”

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