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After an intense three days spent thinking about museums, we went to the antique mall on Sunday. It did not disappoint, being stuffed with a variety of material goods.


We had not gone past the first round of booths when it occurred to me that what I was walking past a series of touchable period rooms or installations, a kind of non-judged science fair of historical displays, each one trying to convince me to literally buy its message.

This came home when I saw the booth on the left, arranged much the way a period room in a museum is arranged, with the desk suggesting that someone has just walked away from it.

I’d seen this at a house in Boston, and I’ve seen it at home: it’s not enough. At least at antique mall, you can touch everything. At the museum, unless that desk and room are jam-packed*, we are not going far enough.


In this vignette, you can step into a dinette and sit at the table. Feel the linens, touch the dishes (I’d avoid the glittery cupcakes, myself) and pretend you are home.

This kind of interactivity is reserved for children’s museums, with varying degrees of success, often oversimplified based on an assumption that children need streamlined displays to “get” the exhibit message. Sometimes I feel a similar lack of sophistication in the presentations at the Museum of Crap, a lack of deep consideration– it is, after all, just a booth at a mall.


There are also the booths that really capture the deathly “Sunday dinner with the stiff relatives” feeling of some historic house museums and bad summer vacation memories, or perhaps for you it’s “tense Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws,” or even “happy birthday tea with auntie,” and it’s a pleasant memory.

Antique malls clearly offer an array of display techniques, just as an major (large) museum with a variety of galleries.

Martha Stewart Living taught us about sorting things by color back in the 1990s, and it also taught us about the power of similarity: grouping like with like can create powerful visual displays and be quite attractive. Here’s the Gallery of Green. There was even an faux spongeware cat figurine, with a green sponge glaze. Details matter: difference stands out: that’s why the teddy bears pop in this booth.



Perhaps you prefer the natural history museum, or a medical museum? There are doll morgues for you folks. This proved quite popular with women of a certain age, thankfully still a little older than I.


There are displays for (almost) every taste. Couples go through these emporia, often at a similar pace (Mr S and I usually split up, and come together only occasionally to compare and share reactions) but not necessarily in unison.


Here’s an entire case that might come to life in an episode of Futurama, but it’s full of stuff for nostalgic guys: G.I. Joe in Crash Team suit, Planet of the Apes figures, Captain Kirk, and the Indian Scout Rifle and Bandolier. Cars, trucks, a flying circus: here’s a man’s past for him to admire without the responsibility of keeping it up. These are social experiences, where people wander through and talk about their objects, the things they owned, or coveted, the memories they have, the future they imagine.


We’re consumers: our lives are all about stuff these days (having it, getting it, curating it, getting rid of it– even minimalists are about stuff) and whether you think that’s sad or not, it’s true. We express ourselves through things. Antique malls give us access to the things of the past in immediate, tangible ways. We can talk, remember, and play in these compendia in ways that we cannot in museums.

There are some unlikely display techniques. This is not an arrangement I would have come up with, but I enjoy it. It caught my attention. I can imagine that I know some folks who would have come up with this display, and had they done so in a museum under my purview, I would have undone it. Maybe that wouldn’t be right. It certainly stopped me and Mr S, and we both made certain the other saw it.


The carriage, while heavy, had an amazingly smooth suspension system unlike any pram I’ve ever pushed at home or elsewhere. I couldn’t tell you what Mary and Jesus and a plush Persian cat were doing in a pram, but I do recognize the care with which they have been arranged, and the whiteness of the display, which speaks perhaps to the universal innocence of this trio. Someone chose this, deliberately. This isn’t art, or hipsterism, this is as genuine as the doo-wop songs on the 1950s radio station chosen by the antique mall.

It’s all so sincere: the nostalgia, the Everly Brothers crooning through the ceiling speakers in the converted mill, the soft, smoothing touches of consumers handling the goods. As sincere as we are in museums, we’re missing something by keeping all of our collections out of reach, and by cloistering all of our galleries in silence.

I’m a huge fan of silence, but what would happen if we did play music in galleries? Would removing the silence allow people to talk more, between their companions and even strangers? I get the marketing spin of doo-wop soundtrack, and I get how wrong it would sound in Nathan Hale’s homestead…but wouldn’t it be interesting to try it now and then? Exile on Main Street resounding in the halls of the period mansion is how the staff sometimes experience it, and we love the places where we work. Why not show the public how we see the houses sometimes, instead of insisting on a false, and silent, objectivity?

*Exceptions made for displays of minimalist architects’s homes, with documentation. What would Corbu’s house musuem look like?