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Story 02: Education of a Dropout

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Sidebar: Hanging Out in New York Museums

Written by Mike Spock

Every few seconds I watched another steel ball pop out of a hole in the wall of a small exhibit case. With exquisite precision the ball arced onto a polished metal plate, then caromed off its plate twin on the other side of the case and disappeared into a second tiny hole in the wall. The ball bearings made a satisfying "tap, tap, tap." They never missed: precision in an imprecise world.

It was the early '40s and I was a kid with dyslexia in grade school growing up in New York City. In the spirit of the 1939 World's Fair, the Museum of Science and Industry at Rockefeller Center was an art moderne reflection of the optimism felt about science and technology. From the entrance a sweeping staircase descended into a grand hall that did a Busby Berkeley steamship nightclub set proud. Banks of operating models—pistons, connecting rods, gears (one pair actually square)—hypnotically danced the translation of one strange form of motion into another. During the "Good War" they had military training simulators with which a boy, who despaired at the war passing him by, could shoot down a Zero or Stuka.

Living in Yorkville on the Upper East Side, the Metropolitan was my neighborhood museum. They displayed real mummies and several chapel rooms from Egyptian mastabas that stimulated long thoughts about death. (I was sure it would happen to me sooner rather than later.) Why would they build an immovable stone false door to let the spirit of the mummy pass through? Was the mummy entombed behind the door? Is it still there?

On a flat plaza south of the Metropolitan there was a great place to roller skate, and beyond that, the best sledding, body-rolling, and lying-in-the-grass hill in Central Park.

My friend, Bob Levine, lived across the park. His neighbor was the American Museum of Natural History, a vast, dark, suffocating place. Bob and I played Monopoly, visited the museum and hung out. Animal dioramas, giant insect models that seemed a lot creepier than the dinosaurs, Peruvian mummies, a ceiling-mounted orrery, planetarium and meteorites, each had their appeal.

My most vivid encounter was with a small diorama in a hall of animal behavior. It showed an old-fashion checkerboard-floored kitchen with a small dog sitting in the foreground, his back to the viewer. At the push of a button the scene dissolved into the transformed perspective of the dog. The converging lines of the linoleum, table, stove, sink dropped to a dog's-eye level. The room was now rendered entirely in blacks, grays and whites. Dogs are colorblind!

Surprisingly, my favorite haunt was the Museum of Modern Art. With its old movies in the basement, accompanied by a piano and the rumble of the passing subway. There were, however, two landmark special exhibitions.

Indian Art of the United States treated everyday, ceremonial and decorative crafts as an art form. (Something of a new notion then.) Accompanying cased artifacts, real Indians cast and hammered silver; coiled and shaped clay; card, spun and wove wool; painted with colored sand. Hours melted away watching real grownups engaged in serious, beautiful work. I still have the catalogue.

The other exhibit was an exhaustive exploration of the aesthetics, science and politics of maps. Everyone followed the course of the war through newspaper and magazine maps. The exhibit was experiential. I could make 3-D landscape images pop out of two slightly different photographs with a stereoscope. I could fly over a city by walking across a bridge suspended across a room-sized aerial photo. I could stretch a string across a globe between New York and London to discover, counter-intuitively, that the shortest route was a curved line over Newfoundland on a Mercator Projection. I learned that conic and cylindrical projections were literally the projection of spherical images onto plane surfaces by slipping translucent plastic cones and cylinders over small, internally lit globes.

There were other illustrative models that showed how you could peel and flatten out the skins of oranges to get other, more or less distorted, map forms; and there was an enormous version of Bucky Fuller's brand new Dymaxion Globe on display that could be bought as a kit to cut out and assemble at home. But the most elegant exhibit was a transparent outlined globe that had a pin head suspended at its middle so that you could see, by lining the pin head up with New York, whether you would come out in China if you dug a hole down through the center of the Earth.

I had to become a member (actually MoMA's first junior member) because my allowance couldn't keep pace with the 25-cent cost of admission to one of the few New York museums that charged.

Not only were the fascinating museums of my dyslexic childhood pivotal experiences in my informal education, but they became the seedbed of my life's professional preoccupation with the museum world.

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