Why This New York City Museum Is in an Elevator Shaft
Inside a six-by-six-foot elevator shaft in a nondescript alley in downtown New York City, explorers will find a bunch of counterfeit products currently being sold in Venezuela sharing space with facsimiles of homemade gas masks created by, mostly, Middle Easterners, alongside gadgets seeking to modernize religion. (Think gluten-free Communion wafers, a mantra counter, a safe-for-the-Sabbath light switch, and LED incense sticks.)
Lest you be confused, let’s make one thing clear: The seemingly haphazard collection of objects is meant to be here. Also, the elevator shaft is actually a museum.
Founded by Alex Kalman and a few friends back in 2012, Mmuseumm displays between eight and 15 exhibitions simultaneously, collectively showcasing about 150 curated items annually. Each exhibit consists of a shelf parading a slew of at-first-glance random objects. Open every year from April through November, the space is “filled with vernacular objects that provide insight into the world that we’re living in,” says Kalman, who sees Mmuseumm as a purveyor of “object journalism.”
What, exactly, does he mean by that? “[I am] trying to look at who we are and the world that we’re living in through objects,” he explains, “believing they provide a very intimate, visceral, honest perspective.”
Part of that perspective is manifested through the curator’s chosen venue. “I think that, like the objects themselves, which are in some way kind of humble—[they] are things that don’t call out for our attention—I wanted the space to also be that,” says the 34-year-old, who has been the sole owner of Mmuseumm since 2014. “I wanted an unexpected location. I wanted you to have to kind of find it, and in doing so, you’d already get into the mindset of being curious.” In essence, nothing here is random—not even the museum’s fairly odd name.
“The first couple of seasons we were called Museum,” says Kate Athol, the current facilities manager. “We wanted to call the thing what it is.” Kalman eventually sought to highlight “the absurdity of what Mmuseumm is” and so added an “m” at the beginning of the name. For symmetry, he opted to add another one at the end of it. But, Kalman says, “I don’t correct other people and their various pronunciations.”
It’s a rare and incredible feat for form and function to coalesce so seamlessly. But here, the concept works—especially when analyzed against the backdrop of this year’s exhibitions. The 15 hot bun reproductions that appear to be placed at random on one of the shelves, for example, are actually a commentary on the current prison system, recounting the story of a man locked in solitary on Rikers Island and his decision to purchase the treats at the commissary as a way to commit suicide. Consuming them all at once, he went into a diabetic coma and passed. Hot buns are no longer sold at the commissary.
“Ultimately, there really does need to be substance,” Kalman says of his concept. He feels that the unusual space—which he found serendipitously; his office was upstairs, and the landlord offered him the shaft when no longer in use—only contributes to telling the stories he wishes to share, but isn’t the story itself. “It can’t just be style,” he says of the freight elevator. “The unconventionality of the whole thing in some ways refers to these very traditional museum elements within its aesthetic: the red velvet on the shelves, the white molding. We’re following some rules so we can break many others when it comes to what a museum experience can be.”
Clearly, Kalman believes his concept could resonate both outside Manhattan and outside a tiny elevator shaft. And he isn’t wrong: Two of the exhibits previously mounted at Mmuseumm are now traveling the world. “Sarah Berman’s Closet” (2015)—a reproduction of Kalman’s grandmother’s closet at the time of her passing, when she was 84—was on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017, moved to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles in 2018, and is currently a public monument to freedom and independence outside the National Museum of American Jewish History at Philadelphia’s Independence Mall. “My Aleppo,” which debuted at Mmuseumm in 2016, is a four-by-four-foot paper model of the Syrian city as imagined by Mohammed Qutaish, a 14-year-old boy, during the war. It traveled to the Skirball Cultural Center (2017), the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (2018), and is currently on display at ArkDes, in Stockholm.
“Mmuseumm is a place for me to experiment in this form of storytelling,” Kalman says. “After being exhibited here, we could tour the exhibitions.” Fees from these foreign shows, a suggested $4 contribution at Mmuseumm, and a series of donations from private individuals financially support the destination, which is run as a nonprofit. Also, just a few feet away from the shaft, visitors can purchase small bites, coffee, souvenirs, and limited-edition collectibles at Mmuseumm Alley, a tiny gift shop.
According to Athol, the tens of thousands of folks who visit Mmuseumm each year either live in the area, walk by on their way to work, read about it in the news or guidebooks, or are ardent fans that make an annual pilgrimage to check out the year’s exhibitions on a regular basis. Upon entering the premises, “people seem to be incredibly moved,” the curator says. “One person said that what they really love about it is, it doesn’t tell them what to think, but that thinking is what they should be doing.”
Of course, Kalman hopes to replicate that kind of reaction by expanding the scope of his project in—unsurprisingly—unexpected ways. “What attracts me most,” he says when queried about future plans, “is expanding not as one larger space but as this network of smaller locations. Kind of a decentralized museum that will include locations in other countries in the world.”
After all, he says, “regular really bores me.”
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