notes on things: politically incorrect maps

This week’s Ethicist column (“Map or Menace?” by Chuck Klosterman, New York Times, July 5, 2013) offers an interesting opportunity to consider the neutrality of objects, via a vintage map of Germany in 1937 for possible display in a living room.

I would argue that the artifact itself should be neutral, yet its display is freighted with associations that are not. How much meaning is imparted by the artifact, and how much by its display?

Consider the paradox:

There’s no ethical responsibility to avoid offending people who manufacture personal meanings.

I appreciate that Klosterman acknowledges that meanings are superimposed by viewers upon objects here, echoing artist Haim Steinbach’s The Object Lesson course centered on show-and-tells of the same objects every week (The Artist’s Institute describes how students learned that “analysis hinged on their own projections and desires”).


If you deliberately present an image that is prone to misinterpretation, you have to accept the consequences.

…perhaps presenting an opportunity to map an overlap between the home’s “symbolic ecology” (as described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and group social relations. The symbolic ecology reminds residents of who they are, what they’ve accomplished, and what they aspire to do, yet it also conveys these identities to visitors. What we own and display tells others about who we are, even from within the safety of our own domestic museums of the self.


nyc art itinerary: Museum of the City of New York

It’s been over a month since I wrote a list of NYC art places I aim to visit in 2013. Today I ticked off my first of seven sites when I visited the Museum of the City of New York for the Designing Tomorrow exhibition on the 1939 World’s Fair.

The exhibition was a good overview for the World’s Fairs in the 1930s, spanning San Francisco, San Diego, Cleveland, Chicago, and of course, Queens. I came away with some interesting info:

  • Robert Moses’ initiative to convert the area that is now Flushing-Corona Meadows Park from marsh and dumping ground into a World’s Fair site and park was the largest reclamation project ever undertaken.
  •  The Panorama, now housed at the Queens Museum of Art, is over 9,000 square feet, and is the result of the labor of 100 people working for three years.
  • ConEdison commissioned a diorama that showed the lights of NYC going on and off in a 12-minute cycle. It was three stories high and a block long.

But, overall, I was a little let down. The artifacts seemed outnumbered by tiled photos and didactic texts. I missed the awe,  excitement, and interactivity that all these inert things were trying so hard to convey. Further, many photos were reproduced, either as part of the signage, or in digital slideshows. For example, rare color photos were projected on a standard-definition projector in a too-bright hallway, while photos of illuminated pavilions were shown on a monitor with annoyingly long crossfade transitions. While the graphic designers made chronologically consistent typographic choices, the photos were presented in 21st century means, and the precision and luminosity of the original prints or slides were lost. The exhibition also seemed soft on social history; I would have loved to hear more about how Depression-era audiences, NYC’s disparate communities or the US’ progressive movement engaged the Fairs.

The main things I enjoyed were:

1. Loads of examples of lovely typography—off-set printed on brochures, as well as hand-painted in proposal drawings.

2. Some of the original proposal drawings were truly stunning. This one, in particular, is fantastic in real life:

Micromegas proprosal drawing by Frank Paul.
Micromegas proprosal drawing by Frank Paul.