World's Smallest Museum Finds the Wonder in Everyday Objects

June 12th, 2013

Tucked away in a lower Manhattan back alley, the freight-elevator-sized, generically named Museum is one of New York City’s newest curiosities. While it’s only open 16 hours a week, during the day on Saturdays and Sundays, the museum’s contents are viewable 24/7, lit and sealed by glass doors.

Passers-by are encouraged to call a toll-free number to learn about the 15 collections, comprising 200 objects, inside, including a series of Disney-themed bulletproof backpacks; U.S. paper money and coins so mutilated the Fed has deemed them unfit for currency, gathered by artist and writer Harley Spiller, a.k.a. Inspector Collector; a selection of objects from a fake Mars excavation; and personal items fabricated by prisoners, such as dice made out of bread, collected by multimedia artist Baron Von Fancy. Museum also offers several unique ways to experience the world: You can compare industrial designer Tucker Viemeister’s collection of toothpaste tubes from all over the map, or potato chip bags from various countries (collected by an eighth-grade class), as well as a globetrotting fake vomit collection. And that’s just the beginning.

“People say to us, ‘Oh, my gosh, you have to meet this person. They have a collection of potato chips that look like presidents!’”

Individually, many of these objects seem suited to a landfill, but taken together, they serve as a testament to the collecting spirit. At least, that’s how Museum co-founder Alex Kalman explains it, as he waxes poetic about the lessons everyday items can teach us. Kalman, along with brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, run the film production company Red Bucket Films upstairs from Museum, at 368 Broadway in TriBeCa. When the building owners offered them a defunct freight-elevator shaft on Cordlandt Alley out back, the filmmakers knew they had a place to showcase the weird cultural detritus they’d gathered over the years—such as a shoe rumored to be the one thrown at George W. Bush in 2008.

The three partners opened the free, nonprofit Museum to much fanfare in May 2012, with financial backing from the Spade Family, including Andy and Kate Spade (yes, of the purse company Kate Spade). Kalman spoke to us about what you’ll find in the current season of Museum, and how anyone can put his or her quirky collection into the spotlight.

Top: You'd never guess a tiny museum was behind these wrought-iron doors in a New York City alley. Click the image for a closer look. Photo by Naho Kubota. Above: A tube of Teelak teeth-whitening gel—sold in Spain starting around 1960 as a remedy for nicotine stains—from Tucker Viemiester's collection. Via mmuseumm.com

Top: You’d never guess a tiny museum was behind these wrought-iron doors in a New York City alley. Click the image for a closer look. Photo by Naho Kubota. Above: A tube of Teelak teeth-whitening gel—sold in Spain starting around 1960 as a remedy for nicotine stains—from Tucker Viemiester’s collection. Via mmuseumm.com

Collectors Weekly: Could you tell me about the concept behind Museum?

Alex Kalman: We find amazing stories—as well as beauty and absurdity and inspiration—in what many would consider the vernacular. Our backgrounds are in filmmaking, and in many of our films, the stories are very much about the details of everyday life. We look at small, intimate moments and try to draw the poetry, or the universal meaning, out of them. These are moments we can all feel a certain level of familiarity with, much like a tube of toothpaste.

For us, Museum was about creating an institution that celebrates the extraordinariness of the seemingly ordinary. You can obviously learn a lot about the world by reading the newspaper every day, watching movies, or studying political science. But you can also learn a lot about the world by looking at the smallest things that cultures create and seeing the similarities and differences between them.

Mutilated-money collector Harley Spiller, a.k.a. Inspector Collector, says this graffiti-covered dollar was given as change. Via mmuseumm.com

Mutilated-money collector Harley Spiller, a.k.a. Inspector Collector, says this graffiti-covered dollar was given as change. Via mmuseumm.com

Honestly, there wasn’t as much of an articulated philosophy when we were starting out. It was something we naturally did. When we were filming movies, we were always collecting what we call “modern-day artifacts,” which we would bring back to the studio and share with each other. It was always about having the eye to find the absurd detail in something that others might pass over because it appears to be just another bag of potato chips, or another shoe. But in fact, there’s something insightful or crazy, funny or sad, ugly or beautiful about it. As we were collecting these artifacts, we thought to ourselves that we wanted to open an institution for these things. We wanted to put them on display in the way that we saw them. And that would be, of course, in the form of a museum.

Collectors Weekly: And your museum is in an old freight-elevator shaft?

Kalman: Yes, the owners of the building our film studio is in approached us, having no idea that we were upstairs conceptualizing the Museum. They said they had to remove the freight elevator because it was defunct and so they had turned the shaft into a storage unit. Then, they took us back into the alley behind the building, and they opened these two big wrought-iron doors on the sidewalk. It was like a surreal “Being John Malkovich” experience where there was this tiny, little space the size of an elevator. And that, of course, was the perfect first home for Museum.

Museum, viewed through the glass doors, gives everyday items a spotlight on Cortlandt Alley, between Franklin and White streets, in Manhattan. Photo by Naho Kubota

Museum, viewed through the glass doors, gives everyday items a spotlight on Cortlandt Alley, between Franklin and White streets, in Manhattan. Photo by Naho Kubota

After we took the space, we approached a friend of ours who’s a fantastic designer and architect named Michael Caputo. He single-handedly completely renovated the space, the walls, and the ceilings. He installed shelves lined with red velvet and lighting. He transformed the space so you walk down this alley and, in the last place you’d expect it, suddenly, there’s this little museum. We put viewing windows in the interior doors, and we keep the space lit at night.

That way, when you’re making your way through the alley, going to and from somewhere in the middle of the night, you can see this light emanating from a window, peer into it, and enjoy the magic of the Museum. It was important to us that the Museum to be viewable 24/7, because one of the beautiful things about New York is that it doesn’t stop, and people are always out and about. Sometimes when we leave the studio late at night, we walk through the alley and see a group of people huddled outside the window, with their cell phones up to their ears, listening to the audio guide.

Collectors Weekly: Where did you find the collections you’re currently featuring?

Kalman: The first season was mostly our own collections—everything we had found. Then, after we opened the space, it became a Pandora’s box for meeting people and discovering all sorts of collectors. So this season is about other people’s collections. Having Museum in New York gives people a chance to say to us, “Oh, my gosh, you have to meet this person. They have a collection of potato chips that look like presidents!” It’s great fun to have this reason to meet collectors and then give them an opportunity to put their collections on display. It might be that they have their collection in their sock drawers, and their things don’t normally get the chance to be important.

Collectors Weekly: What is in your personal collections?

Alex Kalman and his friends marveled at the origin of this sign, found in a motel bathroom in the Midwest. Courtesy of Museum

Alex Kalman and his friends marveled at the origin of this sign, found in a motel bathroom in the Midwest. Courtesy of Museum

Kalman: I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It’s very much about the unexpected. They’re hard to describe without also seeing them because I could say, “a stick of butter” and it’s like, “Well, what’s special about a stick of butter?” But there might be elements about packaging or the narrative that’s behind it, a story that took place around that butter or where it’s from, which makes it more relevant and interesting. Museum is also about recontextualizing things.

“It’s fun to look beyond the object to the creation story behind it. What does that say about the culture’s psyche?”

One of my favorite objects from our collection is a little placard that was found on a bathroom counter in a motel in the Midwest. It says something along the lines of, “Due to the popularity of our guest room amenities, we now offer the following items for sale,” and then it goes on to list every single item that’s in the motel room, with an absurd price next to each. I love that; this product that has been created by this motel chain en masse, so that the firm can put one in every room. It’s an effortful response to a problem with theft. There was some conversation that went like, “OK, we have a problem with the people stealing things from the hotel rooms. How are we going to deal with it? Are we going to put security cameras up? Are we going to lock everything to the table?” Then somebody had this bright idea to take the classy approach and leave this absurd plastic little sign in the bathroom. That mundane object that sits on a motel bathroom counter has so much psychology behind it, and I admire that.

This toothbrush was improvised by an inmate from Saran Wrap and his canteen order form; from a collection of objects made by prisoners for prisoners gathered by multimedia artist Baron Von Fancy. Via mmuseumm.com

This toothbrush was improvised by an inmate from Saran Wrap and his canteen order form; from a collection of objects made by prisoners for prisoners gathered by multimedia artist Baron Von Fancy. Via mmuseumm.com

We’re attracted to objects that show the creativity that people approach problems with. It might be made by somebody who overcomes a lack of resources in a material way. For example, in the current season, there is a collection of objects made for or by inmates in the U.S. prison system. And there’s this incredible toothbrush that an inmate made, because in prison, you’re not issued a regular toothbrush; you’re issued a fingertip piece of plastic that has bristles on it. This inmate wanted a regular toothbrush, not to turn into a shank, not to use for any other reason than to have what was familiar to him when he wasn’t in prison. So he took his canteen order form and some Saran Wrap that he found and modified the fingertip toothbrush into what is then this incredible toothbrush. Not only is it beautiful, but it also has that human story behind it. These sorts of stories come both from individuals as well as big companies. It’s fun to look beyond the object to the creation story behind it. What does that say about our cultural or societal psyche?

Collectors Weekly: So you’re not looking for high-end antiques or things considered rare or high-quality?

This five-dollar bill was deemed evidence by the New York City Police Department. Via mmuseumm.com

This five-dollar bill was deemed evidence by the New York City Police Department. Via mmuseumm.com

Kalman: There’s not a rule like that, but we have other types of rules, and one is ‘no art’. There’s almost nothing in Museum that has been created for the sake of being considered art. There are no paintings and no sculptures. It’s mostly things that have been created to serve other purposes and, in that process, have something beautiful about them. Also, we don’t approach our own collection or other people’s collections with sentimentality. It’s not about “This was my first baseball card.” It has to be bigger than that. It has to be about what the object represents in the cultural landscape.

“Is toothpaste sexy? Is toothpaste responsible? Is toothpaste cool?”

While we aren’t focusing on collections that are incredible antiques or the more traditional values of a collection, we’re not against that either. We wouldn’t automatically rule out something that is perhaps already traditionally considered a collection. In fact, juxtaposing that with the more vernacular items could create a nice balance in Museum. But so far, you wouldn’t find anything in Museum that you would expect when you think of a collection.

In the current season, there’s a collection of toothpaste tubes from around the world. There’s a collection of mutilated U.S. currencies, money that’s counterfeit or real money that’s been scrawled on. There’s a collection from Alvin Goldstein, who was the founder and editor of Screw magazine, who shared with us personal belongings that have stayed with him throughout the narrative of his life. There’s a collection of Disney-themed children’s bulletproof backpacks. They’re things that touch upon something that’s happening in society, things that comment on where we’re at and how we’re thinking and what we’re doing.

Collectors Weekly: With some of this stuff, people might say, “That’s junk. Why don’t you throw it away?”

A bulletproof children's backpack has a Winne the Pooh theme. Courtesy of Museum

A bulletproof children’s backpack has a Winne the Pooh theme. Courtesy of Museum

Kalman: Of course, there’s that fine line between collecting and hoarding. It’s important to understanding where you stand on that and to make sure to limit yourself as well as others. But most of these collections don’t come from an endless desire to have. The Museum comes from a desire to create narratives through the collections. Definitely, when you think about the items individually, you can say, “Oh, this is junk.” But if you take a step back and view the collection as a whole, then suddenly it becomes easy to find meaning. Once you start looking at the packaging of Japanese toothpaste versus Italian toothpaste versus Russian toothpaste, it becomes very interesting quickly.

Dice made out of bread by a prison inmate. Courtesy of Museum

Dice made out of bread by a prison inmate. Courtesy of Museum

Another point is the way the collections are presented, the way we display them. Right now, we have 15 collections in the Museum, making up a total of about 200 objects. Each one has a story posted on the wall behind it. When the museum is closed, you can access the story via the audio guide. And when you enter the space, even though it’s in an unexpected place and at an unexpected scale, it feels like a museum. It feels as though you’re walking in the Louvre, expecting to see the “Mona Lisa,” but instead you’re presented with this toothpaste collection. And that’s to impose the clear value that we see in these objects, and that we treat them as seriously as one might a historical piece of art.

We’re trying to remind people to see the inspiration or the absurdity or the beauty in the everyday, and to be able to see it when you walk to work. Or when you go to the deli, the way someone has displayed sodas in the refrigerator can be meaningful and beautiful. After all, somebody spent time and energy to think of a considerate way to display those sodas, the same way somebody thought about, “How do we display the Queen’s jewels?”

It’s something that has often been said before, but it’s the little moments that make up most of our emotions and most of our feelings. And every now and then, a big thing—like a new job, a marriage proposal, a death, or a national disaster—punctuates our lives, but most of our days are spent dealing with the small stuff, like getting to work in the morning, deciding which toothpaste to buy, or figuring out what to eat for dinner. I think it’s important to have fun with the adventure of the little things.

Collectors Weekly: So what can you learn about a toothpaste from around the world?

When Darkie toothpaste was first manufactured in Shanghai in 1933, it featured a racist caricature of a black man on the label. Eventually, the English name was changed to Darlie.

When Darkie toothpaste was first manufactured in Shanghai in 1933, it featured a racist caricature of a black man on the label. Eventually, the English name was changed to Darlie.

Kalman: We say to each his or her own, in terms of the way they want to interpret it. The collector points out that the toothpaste industry is shrinking but the varieties of toothpaste continue to expand. You can look at the styles of fonts, the color choices, and the slogans of toothpastes from different countries and see how the product was marketed to those cultures. Is toothpaste sexy? Is toothpaste responsible? Is toothpaste cool? You can see that different cultures approach an idea as banal as brushing your teeth in different ways.

You can also see the evolution of branding. A Chinese toothpaste, called Darkie, once had this caricature of a black man on the front. At a certain moment in history, they said, “Oh my God, we’re told we can’t do this anymore. What are we going to do?” And they changed the name to Darlie toothpaste. Looking at these objects, you can imagine the moment a company says, “Okay, there’s something completely wrong here, but we’re still a functioning company. So how can we do as little as possible to fix the problem?” Changing the “K” to an “L” to absolve the issue that the toothpaste maker had run into is such an amazing and absurd thing.

Collectors Weekly: To me, the toothpaste collection seems similar to the potato-chip-bag collection.

“There’s that fine line between collecting and hoarding.”

Kalman: They’re definitely similar, but they were collected by two different people who were completely unaware of each other. We noticed that the chips one company was marketing to Mexicans versus Italians versus Spanish people had three different flavors. But the brand used the same multinational-looking model on each of the different packages, dressed in a completely different stereotypical outfit. That is something you would never notice, really, if you were just buying one random bag of potato chips in a supermarket.

The collector is a teacher, and it was actually a class assignment, where he encouraged his students to find a strange flavor of potato chips whenever they would travel. They came back with chips flavored like hot dog, lamb, seafood, and mayonnaise—they’re all absurd. But then when you bring them together to create the collection, that’s when a narrative can come into play. One potato-flavor flavor is like, “Oh, that’s weird.” Two are like, “Oh, there are a couple weird flavors.” With three, now I’m studying the similarities and differences. It’s a fun way to collect, choosing one thing and looking at how it’s manifested, depending on where you are in the world.

Collectors Weekly: Let’s talk about Al Goldstein. From what I read in your website, he accumulated all these belongings and ended up homeless?

Kalman: Al Goldstein created an empire mostly through pornography, and he accumulated this absurd level of wealth. Then his empire imploded through various bankruptcies and divorces. He was homeless, and then he moved into an assisted-care home. He’s still alive today, and he gave the opening remarks at the opening of the new season at Museum.

The last pair of Al Goldstein's gold lamé Nike Air Jordan sneakers. Via mmuseumm.com

The last pair of Al Goldstein’s gold lamé Nike Air Jordan sneakers. Via mmuseumm.com

At one point, he was living next to Bill Cosby on the Upper East Side and had a house in Miami. He had 200 pairs of gold lamé Nike sneakers. Besides Screw, he started a magazine called Gadget and a television show called “Midnight Blue,” because he was obsessed with reviewing the latest gadgets. He claimed the Ziploc bag was the greatest invention of all time, more powerful than the Gutenberg Press, more powerful than the portable camera, because the Ziploc bag really lived up to its promise. He was a collector not so much for the beauty or the meaning of a collection, but for the personal satisfaction of just having stuff. That speaks to certain ideas about the American dream and materialism in this country.

“When you go to the deli, the way that they display sodas can be meaningful and beautiful.

The objects that are in the Museum came from his last storage unit in Queens, which was packed when he was moved out of his last home into this assisted-care living facility. In the past, he presumably had 20 storage units that were filled with the riches of his collection, like Rolex watches and shark-fin fanny packs—all this absurd materialism from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. But now, there’s only one storage unit left, and with his approval, we were given access to go and sift through it.

It was like walking into King Tut’s tomb; we had no idea what we would find. Here’s what he had held onto through this arc of his life—the last pair of gold lamé sneakers, just one pair. A trilogy book set on the fall of the Roman Empire, which was unopened, still boxed and sealed. And his girl contact cards, which he would have his assistant or his secretary update each year. These are little laminated index cards with a column for name, a column for city, and a column for phone number. He would carry them around with him whenever he would travel. Perhaps the most enlightening things are the transcribed Dictaphone notes that he would record for his assistant, who would write them up the next morning. That’s the most intimate view into his brain because they’re his middle-of-the-night ranting and ravings.

Collectors Weekly: What about the man who put “Stolen From Alex Walter Hastreiter” on his things?

Kalman: That’s the father of Kim Hastreiter, a co-founder and one of the editors of Paper magazine. He was a jeweler, a sweet and eccentric man. But he was so utterly concerned that something might get stolen or lost that he had engraved on all of his everyday items—his pen, his loupe, his jewel measuring tool—“Stolen From Alex Walter Hastreiter.” Again, this collection captures how a passion or a concern drives a person to handle it and how that solution materializes in the real world. It’s not that he wrote his name on things like people often do, “Property of Alex Walter Hastreiter.” He went to the extent that it had already been stolen, and if it were stolen, it would say that. The label wasn’t something that could be rubbed or peeled off; it was engraved. The effort he put into that concern is remarkable.

Collectors Weekly: What exactly is Hastreiter’s “ass pad” in the collection?

The jewelry loupe engraved with "Stolen From Alex Hastreiter." Courtesy of Museum

The jewelry loupe engraved with “Stolen From Alex Hastreiter.” Courtesy of Museum

Kalman: He had some back pain, and his doctor said, “If you put a magazine under your left butt cheek, the pain should go away. It’s caused by something in the way that you’re sitting.” Then, of course, that became the quest, to find the magazine with perfect number of pages to alleviate the pain. Then once he found that, the quest was to gather many as he could, so that he would never run out or lose them. Then he would cut them down to size so that they could fit in his back pocket of his pants, tape up the edges. Again, it’s that idea of personally turning something into a product. He could grab a magazine and slip it under his butt and sit down on it, but that wasn’t formal enough. That didn’t feel an ass pad. He was driven to create a product for his condition.

Collectors Weekly: And then there’s also the “ghost paper” collection. Is that the same as the joss paper you can purchase in Chinatown?

Kalman: Yes, it’s one of the rare collections that was mostly purchased new, from a small store in Chinatown. The sheets of joss paper and the papier-mâché objects are meant for Chinese funerals, where these things traditionally are burned as offerings to send the dearly departed treasures for the afterlife. What we love about that is not only the tradition of it, but also how it comes to being in 2013. These are incredibly modern materialistic items: An iPhone. A Louis Vuitton handbag. A plate of sushi. A gold track suit. All made out of paper in an incredibly beautiful way. For instance, a black wallet we noticed was made out of an old designer shopping bag that had the logos printed all over it, like a paper Bloomingdale’s bag. It’s this amazing clash of ancient tradition and the world of a person’s treasured belongings in 2013.

This "computer" is made completely out of paper. It is also designed to be burned at a Chinese funeral. Via mmuseumm.com

This “computer” is made completely out of paper. It is also designed to be burned at a Chinese funeral. Via mmuseumm.com

And I’m sure that this goes without saying, but even though there’s bit of humor in things that would sometimes be considered serious, for us, there’s never a sense of irony. The Museum is not ever to mock the culture. We created it to celebrate and explore and be moved by or enlightened by these collections. I think it’s a true sensitivity to a cultural artifact to be able to appreciate it on another level than what it was originally intended.

Collectors Weekly: Do you have a collection lined up for Season 3?

Kalman: We’re considering a number of submissions from collectors, and it’s always an exciting part of the process. But if you’re interested in submitting your collection, there should be no shyness or hesitancy. We love when people tell us about a collection, no matter what it may be. People can snap a photograph or write a description and send it to submissions@museum.com.

(Learn more about Museum, its collection, and its events at its web site, as well as on its Twitter and Instagram pages. The stories of the objects can be reached by calling 1-888-763-8839. More on Museum’s founders can found at Red Bucket Films.)


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