The Grand Rapids Public Museum has a hoarding problem.
For 160 years and counting, the GRPM has steadily accumulated artifacts with great enthusiasm: Historical or contemporary? Local, regional, or national? Art, natural history, technology? The answer is always YES. To keep pace with this burgeoning collection, the GRPM has maintained another collection: a multitude of sites across Kent County that store and display these artifacts. Similar to its collection of artifacts, the only things linking these sites is their importance to Grand Rapids, and the fact that they belong to the GRPM (though many people don’t know that these sites exist, or are part of the GRPM network). As an avid collector, the GRPM has amassed an enviable amalgamation of sites and artifacts, but is the sum more than the parts?
This proposal embraces the heterogenous ecosystem of sites and programs that comprise the Grand Rapids Public Musem, while creating a unifying institutional identity and logic within which they can flourish. This institutional identity would be founded upon the interconnectedness of history and contemporaneity; art and science; and shared knowledge and individual discovery. 54 Jefferson could serve as the nexus of this institutional identity, serving as a gateway and orientation to the GRPM network.
At the heart of this problem lies the GRPM’s struggle between storage and display—historically, storage seems to have consumed as much or more of the museum’s resources than display—it continually invests land, buildings, staff, and energy in something it doesn’t want the public to see. This is a losing battle for an institution with well over one million artifacts in storage. Where to hide the majority of its artifacts for an undetermined length of time until they are deemed valuable or relevant enough to include in an exhibition? Is the GRPM a museum or an archive? Can it be both? What if storage becomes its own form of display, a celebration of abundance and diversity and interconnectedness and change? Can we let go of the idea of the “museum piece” as a precious isolated object, and embrace the idea of the collection as an evolving ecosystem?
The “cabinets of curiosities” belonging to John Ball and his colleagues, which established the beginnings of GRPM’s collection, provide a way forward. These finely crafted cases grouped seemingly discordant artifacts, both natural and manmade, arranged and rearranged following changing systems of categorization. The fluid juxtaposition of artifacts constantly encouraged new interpretations of interconnectedness across time, geography, and discipline. In this proposal, 54 Jeff would simultaneously serve as storage and exhibition; lobby and warehouse in one. By embracing the act of storage, this facility would be imbued with an attitude of interconnected abundance, rather than the isolated scarcity commonly found in museum design. A hyperdensity of artifacts, inventively juxtaposed, would encourage visitors to make previously unseen connections across history and fields of study, while orienting them to the breadth of the GRPM’s collections. By embedding each storage cabinet with a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag, the GRPM collection can be curated by a network of users, rather than by museum administrators.
Collaboration with Cal Poly students Mariana Diaz and My-Linh Pham (B.ARCH '16)