The Personal as Art- An Interview with Aaron Goldblatt
Aaron Goldblatt – designer of the First Person Museum– is a partner at Metcalfe Architecture and Design. After “just sort of falling into a job” at the Please Touch Museum here in Philly, Mr. Goldblatt became responsible for the collections, and eventually became the head of exhibits. He has since worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Wagner Free Institute of Science of Philadelphia. He has been a long-standing member of First Person Arts. His long-time friendship with our Executive Director, Vicki Solot won him an invitation to our brainstorming conversations that were held at the beginning of this project.
As he explained to me, the project was originally conceived as a reexamination of artistic explosion during economic upheaval. Mr. Goldblatt recalls that, while the original concept was much more amorphous, there was an initial interest in making it “have something to do with the economic melt down we were seeing around us, making connections between the explosion in the arts in the late 20s and early 30s with the great depression- and what was happening today- that was as far as their thinking had gone.”
When I heard this I thought about how people in hard economic times are often compelled by necessity to find new use for old things- to reinvent objects and the role they play in our lives. Taking an everyday item, or a personal possession and labeling it as an exhibited item is certainly an economical reinvention. This is definitely an identifiable theme in the new exhibit.
The formation process began by assembling historians and folklore types. Mr. Goldblatt recalls being the “only museum dork in the room.” He says that the idea of a ‘people’s museum’ was not on the table at the time but during the conversation he started talking about “the notion of value” and how the political right has been monopolizing the concept for a what seems like several generations. Appalled with our country’s penchant for equating value with money, Mr. Goldblatt labeled this tendency “bankrupt.” He sees this new museum as a chance to reestablish what is important to us as a people.
One source of inspiration was a project from the early 1980s called A People’s Museum.
“I’m told it had to do with gathering people together to exhibit “things of value to regular folks, not for artists or scholars, it was for the neighborhood.” It was this memory of an avant-garde museum that inspired First Person Arts to imagine their own people’s museum. Mr. Goldblatt recalls Vicki Solot calling him up after the meeting and asking if he objected to her using the idea, to which he responded “Of course not, its your project not mine.” To which she smartly replied, “It’s your project if you would like to work on it!”
One particularly interesting nugget is that we are not making a distinction between museum and exhibit in the project. As Mr. Goldblatt states: “It’s a museum in ideology, but practically it’s an exhibit. It’s an arcane distinction, who cares?” For most Philadelphians who have lived in a city over-flowing with art museums and galleries, this is fairly counter-intuitive leap. Mr. Goldblatt explained to me why this distinction is an important thing to consider and possible deconstruct, “Like most technical languages, its useful in that community, but outside that community it’s useless- it’s for the museum curators to make these walls- and they have reason to- but for most people technical languages are only useful within a very small sphere- and in some ways that’s one of the nice things about this project, its using some of the technical language of museology- i.e. objects in cases- and sabotaging it a little bit for the purpose of democracy– to democratize that formal language.”
I asked him later if he had ever worked on a project where the objects on display were of such a personal nature like they are in the new First Person Museum. His response perfectly illustrated how much we all overlook in most exhibits. When we peer through those thick glass panels, and read those little white placards illuminated by fluorescent bulbs- we only see one side of the story. He explained that all items are of a personal nature to someone. What is different here is that in this show “The fact of their personal nature is the point. Doing a project for Penn that has a collection of Native American objects- those are intensely personal objects- but that’s not the purpose of their being in the collection at that museum- that’s not the purpose of their study or display.” The First Person Museum is going to be directly addressing this common blindspot, pushing the boundaries of personal and public.
Assuming every project has a goal, and most project coordinators have their own particular idea of successfully achieving that goal, I asked our designer what success would look like to him regarding this project. He said he would consider the show a success when “a visitor looks at it and thinks about his or her stuff more than the stuff before them. The objects are less important than the relationship between a person’s story and the object.”
We talked about how the project has evolved, and how constraints have led to a new way of doing business. Mr. Goldblatt compared this museum to past projects, “Whats so different is how gorilla warfare like it is. Our time budget is way worse than our financial!” The rapidity of the project’s unfolding has fostered a frenzied environment of creation. He warns “Its going to be cool, but its a little bit of a risk.” Having not seen the objects puts this museum designer in new territory. He won’t be able to do the final graphics until the very last moment. “I love that, its a little scary, its a little higher risk than I’m used to working. It’s a prototype. Vicki has been saying that all along- what we have been working with as a prototype strategy works with the notion of democratizing the idea of a museum.”
– Morgan Berman