Thursday, March 20, 2008

On encountering your fifth grade class trip in the Moore archive

I don't know whether it is still the case that fifth-graders in Newport News routinely visit the Mariners' Museum. I admit that when I was a fifth-grader I was bored to tears by most of the exhibits, coming as I did from a family that was emphatically not the boat-owning type. I was interested in the exhibits of figureheads and in the rooms full of miniatures -- the handcrafts -- but found the large room full of watercrafts merely dull.

I'm reading a fascinating book on early twentieth century museums, Catherine Paul's Poetry in the Museums of Modernism (U of Michigan P, 2002). Theoretically, it's not overwhelming, but it's full of great archival finds, including an account of an unpublished review that Marianne Moore wrote about a 1937 exhibit on surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, titled "Concerning the Marvelous."

In an early draft of this essay, according to Paul, Moore compares the exhibit to the Mariners' Museum, using what my fifth-grade self considered essentially a big building full of boring crap to explain the curatorial rage for order.

"The objects that Moore finds together in the Mariner's Museum talk to each other, creating an impression of sea-faring life: collected shells combine with tattooers' apparatus; painted Portuguese boats, mastheads, whale skeletons, and walking sticks show what sailors brought with them on voyages as well as what they found. From these objects visitors are expected to piece together the big picture to which each object -- marvelous in its own right -- contributes; both the exhibitor's processes of selection and display and the visitor's interpretive ability shape that big picture." (146).

I must say that it's pretty much 100% certain that in fifth grade, I would have liked to see surrealism at the MoMA much better than the collection of small watercraft at the obligatory local maritime museum. But then, it's probably the podunk nature of that particular museum that suits it to Moore's purpose.

1 comment:

mhc said...

unfortunately for our worldview, the mariners museum is apparently considered one of the premier maritime museums in the world