Museo Casa Estudio (Mexico City)

Mexico City. El Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo is just one of the many museums related to these two artists. Here, the first encounter is a living fence of cactus that appears to be the only security surrounding the buildings. I wonder if they have guards on constant duty?

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There is squeezable space between the plants. But perhaps a living barrier naturally gets more respect.

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The cactus defines the small step down entry,

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and divides the two main parts of the property, directing the visitor flow.

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Everything surrounding this famous couple has a mystique, including this pair of side by side home/studios, connected by a bridge. But the functionalist architecture of Juan O’Gorman (1931) is so important here that most of the buildings are actually empty. Starting with a model at the entry, the visitor’s attention is focused on the historical significance of the architecture.

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A portrait of the architect is used to block a no-entry room.

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One of many characteristics of Gorman’s acrhitecture is his helical stairway.

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Architectural interpretation is provided as pull out, bilingual cards.

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Panels cover the windows of this empty upper room, presumably to make it a usable exhibition space, currently unused.

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Diego’s studio is the only “inhabited” area of the compound.

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Seeing an artist’s work in the artist’s studio is like seeing an animal roaming free in it’s native habitat. The art, collected objects, inspirations, art supplies, furniture and the space itself add up to an integral whole.

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The studio gives the art a natural context, taking the pressure off labels, which are minimal.

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Visitors are captivated by the feeling of a personal sanctuary. In that respect an artist’s studio becomes the perfect museum for their work.

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In this tiny bedroom, Diego kept his pistol next to his bed. The floor symbol for “stand here” is a startling way to mark the artist’s death. Visitors are mostly reluctant to stand in the footprints, which seemed to be replicas of Diego’s actual shoes.

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The small museum maintenance area is fully exposed, adding another, accidental tribute to the idea of “workspace.”

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Likewise, open storage of exhibition furniture becomes noticable, as if it should have special meaning.

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Interactive Economics (Mexico City)

Mexico City. MIDE is an interactive science museum about economics. Although it was founded by the Banco de Mexico, MIDE prides itself on objectivity, valuing “relevance, inclusion, teamwork, information based on evidence and innovation.”

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I heard about MIDE because May is Museum month.

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Convent buildings (like this Convent of the Betlemites) make beautiful museums. Courtyard architecture enhances any building.

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Such a beautiful space to gather in. Simply honoring the original architecture without dressing it up. Tasteful seating is all you need.

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MIDE’s mission is to “encourage critical and creative thinking and the ability to learn to improve the well-being of all.” True to interactive science museums, their vision is to use economics, finance and sustainability “as a lens through which people can discover how the world works.” The entry message is that we’re all part of the economy. The museum’s target audience is 15-25 year olds.

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My insufficient Spanish was problematic, but I managed to glean that there were various opportunities to customize your visit, your ticket with a photo, even design your own credit card. They are also focusing on future forms of payment, to enhance their history of money section.

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There’s something awkward and redundant about ticket takers at a turnstile. They are like greeters but there’s no time to have a real conversation with them.

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The donation box, and the store seems less self conscious in the context of an economics museum.

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The first floor focuses on welfare, or well being, based on whether we are healthy, have a good diet, a roof, clothing and education. Peter Menzel’s photo series of families with their food is powerful here, introducing both culture and the aspect of choice, early on in the museum.

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The second floor is about finances in society; all the activities that people, companies and governments perform to obtain, manage and save money in order to satisfy wants and need. Exhibits are in Spanish only.

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I’m chronically uncomfortable with the bright, noisy aesthetic of many interactive exhibits. I’m rarely convinced that it’s neccessary to “force” the excitement on visitors as if they couldn’t find it for themselves. It reinforces an expectation that things that don’t look childish can’t be understandable.

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The “Market Simulator” room was empty when I passed by but usually it accommodates a group of 30 or so for a half hour buying/selling experience, using cel phones.

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Here the products circulate around the room on a conveyer belt.

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The third floor is about how economists study human behavior. People, families and society in general must decide how to use resources to meet our needs and desires. I liked the way each person in this story grid turns to face the one speaking.

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They remain animated and seem to be actually engaged with the one speaking (center)

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The fourth floor is about sustainable development, seeking a balance between economic decisions, welfare of society and care of the planet. All our activities have their beginning and end in nature. 

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An architectural mistake, a squeezable opportunity that visitors can’t resist.

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It was harder to find truly interactive exhibits on this floor. But I found some bilingual elements, like this garbage podium that explains “The Story of Stuff” in English.

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One example is the tire.

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A very successful interactive was this table top adaptation of the “tragedy of the commons” concept using fishing. These three played (and discussed) for about 15 minutes!

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Museum as Lecture Venue (Mexico City)

Mexico City. Museo Casa del Risco. This was a stumbled upon surprise in San Angel. The covered central courtyard protects the lovely Fuente del Risco, constructed of plates and bowls and shells…

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The alter-like fountain is the centerpiece of the museum.

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While I was walking through the upper galleries, a projector, screen and seating were set up for a lecture…

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Museum lectures have a reverent purpose and atmosphere. But museum venue design needs to be practical, typically using modular, generic elements that have no relationship to the place. The physical set up of the event space often seems like an awkward collision between the thing itself, and talking about the thing.

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Museum Window Shopping (Mexico City)

Mexico City. El Borcegui Museo del Calzado. Founded in 1865, the Borcegui shoe store has retained it’s old time ambiance.

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Like many shoe stores, the entry passes between outside vitrines, where visitors can leisurely window shop before they enter the store.

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Next to the store is an (almost) unmarked door that leads up a narrow stairway to the museum of footwear.

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How appropriate that the most prominent indication of the entry is the scuffed up doormat.

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The museum fills a single large room, enclosed by a partial balcony. The exhibition design, like the entry to the shoe store, consists of corridors of vitrine displays. But scaled to kaleidoscopic infinity.

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As sculptural and functional objects we wear on our feet, shoes are infinately variable and fascinating. But like most large collections of a single object, the consistency of scale is monotonous. Presented like the shoes in the store entry but with less interesting angles, the overall environment is tedious and overwhelming.

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Over exposure. Visitors are swimming in a sea of shoes, and some of them dart around nervously, scanning for highlights. Choosing which museum objects to focus on is like choosing what they might want to purchase in a store. “Browsing” to filter attention and save time is a shopping behavior that applies to exhibition visitor flow.

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The breadth of the collection is truly amazing, although the curatorial sections are almost indiscernible, in the swirl of floating footwear. It’s an invitation to explore shoes from multiple angles; anthropological historical, scientific and artistic.

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Regardless of the exhibition design (or lack of), everyday objects become extraordinary through the simple act of being placed on formal display. There is magical power in this, because everyone can relate to (in this case) shoes. An altered reality is created where visitors can marvel at common objects as if they were aliens who just landed on planet earth.

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When the “owner” appears it adds a welcome dimension; shoes customized for the specialized feats of famous humans.

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Messages written on the soul.

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At last the balcony is a parade of baffling miniatures.

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Beyond humans, the museum has made a connection to the famous rescue dog Frida, an earthquake heroine who wears blue booties. Fresh, locally relevant meaning-making.

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Lobby Huichol (Mexico City)

Mexico City. Hotel Lobby. There’s a slippery gray slope between art exhibitions and commercial art endeavors. I have always had an aversion and deep mistrust of exhibitions in places like hotel lobbies. I went out of my way to see this excellent Huichol Arte Bienale, but I still felt uncomfortable about the context. An intricate Huichol watchdog stood guard as travelers socialized in the lounge area…

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An elaborate coffin was lined up parallel to the check-in desk.

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A vibrant Huichol torso faced the entry where the taxis pulled up…

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And bell boys circled around an impossibly huge skull in the middle of the lobby space…

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It was a current exhibition representing a serious regional art form. And I sensed that it was also on sale. There was a table manned by Huichol representatives. They were there to answer deeper questions about the symbolism of the art… and yes, there was a price list… I suddenly felt sympathetic to their dilemma; after all a hotel lobby is an obvious place to solicit financial support for an important artistic tradition.

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On the way out I passed this panel telling visitors WHAT NOT TO THINK! Make no mistake, this negative text is meant to correct visitors (and shame them for their misconceptions)

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Very Personal Collection (Mexico City)

Mexico City, Mexico. Anahuacalli. The “museum” concept began when “private” collections were first opened to the public. The collector was the original curator and his estate was the building. Private collections are often an impersonal experience, a show case of riches for the poor to admire. What makes a private collection “personal'‘ to a visitor? Beyond quirky eccentricities, a thoughtful private collection is an invitation to enter into someone’s intimate meaning-making. I first discovered this at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. I saw it in a whole new way at Diego Rivera’s Anahuacalli.

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Anahuacalli is Rivera’s temple to his “idolaje,” 2,000 pieces of Pre-Columbian art from his personal collection of 45,000. It was envisioned as a “Ciudad de Artes” including a plaza for traditional celebrations and small side buildings, focused on ancient and contemporary arts.

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Located near the erruption of Xitle volcano, it is built of black crusty volcanic rock. Rivera designed every aspect of the experience to reflect his own devotion to pre-columbian cosmology and his vision of it’s relationship to modern art. The architecture is a journey from the underworld upwards toward the light. The darkness of the narrow entry is reverent. The heavy lowest floor is the darkest, with dim sunlight filtering through translucent stone windows.

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Rivera’s ceiling mosaics appear first in black & white images in the underworld, as major deities in each corner.

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Narrow stairways lead up to a spacious central room flooded with natural light on one side.

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On this level stone disappears from the window slits and color begins to appear in the ceiling mosaics

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Up through smaller galleries, the narrow stairways eventually lead to the open sky and landscape.

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Boxy vitrines are built into the walls

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Many objects are exposed (and dusty), on thick stone shelves, sills, rocks, or the floor. Lighting is either there, or not at all, leaving many pieces in the dark.

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Rivera’s choices and arrangements are based on his passions and aesthetics, not on archeological principles. His love for each piece is palpable in the space. There are no labels. The groupings, transitions and themes seem to emerge intuitively for the visitors to understand in their own way. A few dark area signs seem to be an addition, and because there are so few, they seem obligatory to read, a distraction that takes away from the mysterious intention of the museum.

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Use of empty space.

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The energy of uneven placement and negative space.

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Other arrangements feel like homey, affectionate displays you might create in your own house.

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A surprise

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These are not the best museum conditions, but the figurines seem happy to be here, agitated with a strange freedom.

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Today, museums that are the sole vision of a private collector may be considered “renogade.” Museum protocol and best practices are ignored in intriguing ways. Sometimes there’s a deep organic connection between space, content, and personal meaning. A complex narrative, or a unique mood impossible to achieve by committee.

Si Yo Fuera... (Guadalajara)

Guadalajara, Mexico. At the Instituto Cultural Cabanas museum you can see some of the incredible murals of Orozco. Wayfinding is on the floor, probably to keep the building visually pristine and minimize distraction. But it forces the eyes to the floor, again and again. In this elegant building the floor graphics are a sloppy element. Simple color would be useful here, without the busy visuals that are forced into each arrow. The right/left columns suggest a right/left organization, but the arrows are pointing in mixed directions.

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Orozco's astounding murals in the central chapel are the main reason to visit Cabanas. Multi lingual guides lead groups of students and tourists, all craning their necks in the echoey space.

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After seeing the murals, there are other offerings. I chose to look for the exhibit "If I were Orozco"

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My time was limited, as was my Spanish comprehension, so I wasn't able to understand all the content and components. The narrow space included a timeline along one wall.

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The exhibition seemed to engage all ages equally,

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but the interactives seemed to be tailored to children only. Like the responses here to "Si yo fuera Orozco..." 

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The long narrow space was tight and busy.

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An interactive exploration of composition

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Movable magnetic symbolic elements are one way to consider Orozco's iconography.

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Drawing prompts.

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Rhyming title for these rotating panels.

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Painter's materials

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Mis campaneros, Orozco's colleagues.

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Most interesting to me was a step up plank that allows visitors (children only?) to stand on a “scaffold” plank, as Orozco would have, in the dome of the central chapel looking down. It makes a strong visceral connection, especially considering the Orozco painted with only one hand.

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Street Art (Guadalajara)

Guadalajara, Mexico. Street art has a different mood under streetlight, late at night.

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My heart belongs to the mountain.

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This calligraphy style is remarkably similar to one I saw in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

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The (pasted paper) treatment on this door appears to be done by the same artist currently featured in a local art museum exhibition.

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The Unbearable Whiteness (Guadalajara)

Guadalajara, Mexico. Museo de Las Artes (MUSA). White is a universal symbol of neutrality and objectivity. It creates the purified container and official "void" that surrounds contemporary art. It gives it authority.

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Nothingness competes with nothing.

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No matter how controversial the color choice or how custom-mixed the paint, white still changes in every aspect of light.

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The purpose of white is to take away context. It's a cognitive rest that can be hypnotic, and numbing. 

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White is used to "set off" the art. And the world outside. 

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And architectural details. And like a graphic extension of the art itself, it sets off the museum's exhibition posters.

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Art museum graphic design uses "white space" like art & photography books, to create elegant spacious margins of emptiness. MUSA's identity plays with white in the negative shape of their building. It creates a neutral space that intrudes a bit into the art, to point at it.

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White, taken outside, becomes a typographic object used to set off the red "a" of art.

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Art museum stores use white to extend the gallery experience, to "elevate" objects and make them precious.

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I saw two interesting exhibitions here, but I found myself noticing other visitors a lot. If white allows us to see modern art without context, then the visitors also float around without context. Like the art, they are objects that stand out.

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There is no real sense of privacy.

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Visitor's behavior feels like a casually watched performance.

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Visiotors contemplate the art

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and also contemplate each other, peripherally.

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Like kinetic figurative sculptures, moving, posing, moving, posing.

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Nierika (Guadalajara)

Guadalajara, Mexico. With a few hours of free time, I took an Uber to see Nierika, a 2017 Street Art project by Boa Mistura. I was curious because I had seen an astonishing aerial photo of it. It's a super graphic filling the central courtyard of a housing project, in honor of the Wixaritari (Huichol) people who come from the Sierra Madre region of Mexico. The Nierika is a type of mandala used to bring order to daily life. 

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One side represents the peyote cactus with it's pink flower, and its psychotropic powers, the ability "to see".

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Typography fills the other three sides, defined by negative space. The word FUI (I was) represents the richness of their culture's past.

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The word SOY (I am) represents the strength to keep their culture alive in the present.

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The word SERE (I will be) represents the knowledge to keep their identity in the future.

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Narrow walkways pass through brilliantly painted apartment blocks.

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Painted on the central pavement is the Tsi + kri, a Nierika of creation and a source of protection. This is the powerful image visible from an airplane. The year old painting was not pristine but the space had a real energetic feeling. The typography seemed to be in fractured motion on the undulating facade of the buildings. The effect of the space is a kaleidoscope in a box of time.

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Petrographics (CA)

Rodgecrest, CA. Tours of the ancient petroglyphs in the nearby Coso mountains depart from the Maturango Museum in Indian Wells Valley. Sadly, I arrived too early in the season to take a trip. So I just wandered around the museum, where I experienced the petroglyphs in a different way.

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As pictorial representations of a "character", glyphs are a precursor to letter design. Were these glyphs meant to to be pictorial art or to communicate as a language? They may have been expressions of hunting/gathering rituals. But I prefer the theory that they were the "perpetuation of the cosmic order of the universe."

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At Maturango they jump from the rocks to become dimensional cut out graphics. I'm assuming they're taking liberties with scale to get to these human size figurative sculptures.

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Smaller vinyl figures stick to the windows like guardians.

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More glyphs surround the playground at the nearby Petroglyph Park. 

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They're described as "artistic representations of the work created by indigenous natives" using the same techniques and "to appear much as what you would see"...

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How do we experience reproductions differently than originals? 

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As reproductions become more common, are we becoming more accepting of them as a substitute experience?

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They take on a life of their own.

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Are we becoming less and less critical of variations, artistic or design liberties in reproductions? 

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Without their original context and meaning, "representations" become more visually decorative, gratuitous.

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Cultural Survival (CA)

Pine Grove, CA. Once a year, the Miwok tribe holds their Chaw'se Day gathering in their Hun'ge (Long House) in the Sierra foothills. Near the longhouse is the ancient Chaw'se, (grinding rock) with petrogylphs.

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This sacred place is also the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, with a museum as well as camping facilities. As a visitor, I entered the hushed longhouse accompanied by a docent, after observing the Miwok tradition of turning three times. Visitors are not allowed to enter the central chamber, or take photos. In our invasive and photo crazed society, these rules are a simple and powerful way to cut through visitor materialism, to respect the protocols of a living culture.

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There's a problematic link between museums and the threatened existence of the cultures they display. It's universal. But when it comes to cultural survival, there's also an opportunity to change this dynamic, incrementally. Grinding Rock is a cooperative effort between the Park and local Native Americans to create a "cultural and intellectual bridge between the past, present and future of Native Sierra people."

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Traditionally history museums take either the aesthetic, or the scientific approach, and then struggle to make a holistic connection to the cultural context. When objects are presented as works of "primitive art" or "artifacts of ethnographic research" it's like two extremes with nothing in between. Worst of all, when objects are presented as cultural "momentos," it implies that the culture is dead. The powerful magic is gone.

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Demonstration area.

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If collecting is an act of "taking" possession, physically and symbolically, what happens to the deeper essence? I worry about this, in every kind of exhibition, and suffer from collective guilt when I visit Native American exhibitions in particular. But I noticed that simply knowing that this sacred site is active gives the museum a current and hopeful perspective.

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Miwok bathroom signs

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I left wishing that this place could change it's name from "museum" to something uniquely Miwok. That it could give it all back and dissolve, as the Miwoks absorb it into their thriving and evolving culture.

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Propped Up (Nevada)

Beatty, Nevada. I enjoy visiting small town museums. Their sincere home-grown nature is appealing. But the visitor experience is often muddled by a randomly "found" approach, like visiting a thrift store.

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In Beatty, the sheriff is the only divider between the little museum store area in the front and the museum behind him.

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These little museums are clearly a labor of love. They are often quirky, without any self awareness about it. Beatty's display furniture and seating were probably scavenged from the garages of generous neighbors. It would be interesting to recognized this and find a way to make it a meaningful part of their narrative.

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The small museum office in the back corner is exposed to the same open museum space. Anything revealed creates curiosity. Especially with a knight holding a temporarily closed sign. It's another lost narrative and opportunity to engage with community, staff and museum process. 

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Objects look as if they're in storage. As if they were delivered in a rush, unloaded off a truck over the weekend. The jumble promotes browsing behavior, not reflection. White rope stanchions and labels are the primary indicator that this is a museum, not a vintage barn.

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Small town museums are usually isolated, with very limited resources. "Propping" is a cheap and easy label approach. Beatty's label design vocabulary includes picture frames and 3 ring binders, propped on ledges, 

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on the objects themselves,

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and on various little tables and stools.

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The labels could be re-designed for consistency with less text, no CAPS!, and more artfully propped. Tables and stools could even be part of a thoughtful and integrated redesign. But the propping is really a casual symptom of a deeper problem; a lack of clear intention. The narrative at Beatty feels as randomly "found" as everything else.

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Many labels feel hybrid, as if they were edited adding information to someone's verbal account. This dilutes both the information and what might have been a rich personal anecdote.

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Some of the short identifying labels are hand written, suggesting individual memories but without sharing them. Some labels are credited and some are anonymous.

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The content and writing style varies, as if each donor dropped off their own label and went home again. The eclectic aspect is not honored or enhanced. Who is Beatty? Most small town museums can't afford major design work. But exploring the potential of narrative doesn't have to be expensive. It does require time for self reflection, to uncover unique voices and meaningful narrative(s).

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My favorite aspect of small town home-grown museums, is the occasional surprise like this. To me, this strange display is an unintentional artpiece.

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