There’s a ceramic bulldog in a constable’s cap. There are two basset hounds, painted mid-hunt. At the AKC (American Kennel Club) Museum of the Dog, back in New York City after a 32-year-long run in St. Louis, there are simulations, sculptures, and skeletons—all of dogs.
The museum, which opens to the public on Feb. 8, is at AKC headquarters, 101 Park Avenue, a building steps from Grand Central Station. Its goal, roughly, is the preservation and interpretation of art of the dog to “enhance the human/canine relationship.”
A projection of a dog paced the lobby’s ceiling. Alan Fausel, the Executive Director of AKC cultural resources, was my guide; he is an art historian specializing in dog portraiture (what else?) and a contributor to PBS’ Antiques Roadshow.
The first floor is largely a display of paintings dating from the 1800s: snarling mastiffs, aristocratic canines in gilded frames; dogs who had clearly traveled in posher circles than I could dream. One notable piece is by Queen Victoria’s favorite painter, the famed Sir Edwin Landseer. My favorite was Christine Merrill’s portrait of Millie, First Pet of the Bushes. Beside the frame hangs a letter signed by Barbara Bush (“Best wishes for a wonderful opening!”).
“Reimagine” is the foremost effort here, though. Figurines from disparate cultures–Asian, Mexican, English–are showcased in a multi-floor glass display. We stopped for a moment at a 2,000-year-old paw print and a 30 million-year-old dog fossil (its name: hesperocyon).
Similar institutions attempt the same goal, Fausel said, but “only the American Kennel Club has the collection to pull it off.”
With enthusiasm, he demonstrated each interactive element of the museum. There’s a “Find Your Match" kiosk which matches your image to an AKC-registered dog breed. I got a Maltese: Charming, Playful, Gentle (a mostly inaccurate description of me). There is a “Meet the Breeds” touch screen board where visitors can explore different breed’s histories and traits. Visitors can even train a virtual Labrador, reminding you of your long-dead Nintendog.
The Museum of the Dog is yet another niche museum, like the pop-up Museum of Ice Cream launched here in 2016, where visitors wade through pools of rainbow sprinkles in a pastel room. Sugar Factory’s Candy Museum is coming soon and promises the world’s largest gummy bear. The entrance fee is steep, the crowds dense and young. (Does that thought make you anxious too?)
Such venues, as Sam Eichner argued in The Daily Beast, tend to prize the taking of good Instagram pictures above much else. Like them, the Museum of the Dog undeniably has strands of “Big Fun” in its DNA. Dogs are, traditionally, slam dunk crowd-pleasers. The interactive elements have the option to “share” the experience on social media.
And yet. The space isn’t consciously engineered for selfies. The walls are a clean white and the layout is fairly conventional. I can’t imagine its Insta feed will be up for any Webby Awards (The Museum of Ice Cream snagged one in 2018). More important, there’s the impression that the visitor can, and y'know, should learn something.
And I did. For example: 19th-century dog collars were spiked to protect the canine’s neck while boar hunting. Victorian children were led in wooden carriages by mastiffs for a delightful if not problematic jaunt.
The place is not lacking in whimsy. There are Chihuahuas holding Frisbees and dogs doing taxes. But a history of dogs is a history of owners. How was the pet a product of the era? When, I wonder, did they become something that demanded memorializing. These are not just snapshots of dogs, but snapshots of moments in time.
A painting of a pug looked particularly odd, all long legs and pointed snout. “This is a pug from around the 1800’s who doesn’t look like any alive today,” said Fausel. “Preserving this [painting] is preserving a historical record.”