What a World

05.29.14

New York’s Tiniest—and Weirdest—Museum

Wandering around Tribeca, you may stumble upon a decrepit elevator shaft that's full of curiosities. Welcome to the Mmuseumm, a very small space dedicated to very strange wonders.

Where does the shoe thrown at George W. Bush go after the scandal dies down to continue receiving the proper amount of gawking and attention?

A black leather dress shoe claiming that title has found its final resting place in a micro-museum housed in an 80-square-foot freight elevator in Manhattan. Opening off a back alley in the posh Tribeca neighborhood, the simply titled “Mmuseumm” features a rotating display of bizarre knickknacks that find a second life in a space where visitors can take in everything there is to see with a quick 360-degree rotation.

“When curating this season we agreed upon one simple rule,” Alex Kalman, a co-creator of the project, told The Atlantic. “If upon discovering a potential collection, it does not completely and utterly blow our minds, we don’t even consider it.”

And blow your mind it will. Now in its third season, which opened last week and will go through January, the Mmuseumm hosts an unpredictably oddball array of ephemera and tchotchkes. Everyday objects with a twist are displayed on three walls with six rows of velvet shelves. In the 20 new exhibitions—deftly squeezed into the small space—you can gawk at jars filled with “dirt, water, ash, stone, and glass” from great historic deaths, or wonder at “Censored Saudi Arabian Pool Toys.” There are 200 mosquitos from New Delhi caught and killed mid-bite, peep-show coins, and artifacts of daily life in North Korea.

Later this June, the museum will host a song factory, where Eternal Lips will customize and record songs for visitors in real time. “It’s like going to a really good salad bar, but for music,” the description promises.

The ethnographic display was created by Kalman, and brothers Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, who make up Red Bucket Films, the studio that created Mmuseumm. Along with eccentric mini-museums, they seem to have a hand in all forms of digital design, film, and artistic experiments. Their headquarters is right above the now-filled elevator shaft, which they acquired when their landlord asked if they wanted any extra storage space.

“The most exceptional Big Apple experiences can often be spotted down overlooked side streets, making the most of the space they’ve got.”

“We said, yes, we do need a storage space, but we want to store our things nicely, and we want to invite people to come see what we store,” Kalman explained to the Los Angeles Times during last year’s exhibit. “We wanted it to be that when you came here you felt as though you were going to see the queen’s jewels.”

The Mmuseumm’s grand opening featured entertainment by a Rudy Giuliani impersonator and bands jamming in cars in the alley. The initial collections displayed Cambodian menu photo rejects and paper found in copy machines. Some of the collections have had more gravitas—like rusty combs and ID cards found in the Pacific Ocean, or swastika-encrusted soaps carved by prisoners in California—while others have sent a political message, like the children’s backpacks outfitted to be bulletproof. A few objects, like the George Bush shoe—reverently displayed in a glass box—and seven other mundane, yet unusual, items, comprise the museum’s permanent collection.

“By examining the small things, the vernacular,” the website explains, “we are able to look at the big one, life itself, or at least start to see its edges.”

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The mini-museum is free, but only open on weekends between noon and 6 p.m. Three small viewing windows means you can “get lost in Mmuseumm at 3 a.m. if you like.” A dial-in audio guide (888-763-8839) gives you the backstory behind the bizarre displays. Punch an item’s code into the keypad and a formal British female voice hysterically expounds on each display. “The travel caviar tube is convenient for the person who is always on the move but wants to be reminded of the luxuries of home,” she deadpans. The next: “Portable toothbrush: 2003. In London, some business people are so ruthless and truly busy that they have done away with the ritual of toothbrushing. They chew this thing, a real thing, they do this until they foam at the mouth. Then they spit and spit.”

Living in a city known for its souring skyscrapers and sprawling museums, New Yorkers are squeezed, stacked, and compartmentalized, but they still manage to breed creativity. Perhaps it’s this mundane reality that ensures the most exceptional Big Apple experiences can often be spotted down overlooked side streets, making the most of the space they’ve got.