Interviews

Off the Beaten Path with the Mysterious @MuseumNerd

by An Xiao on March 26, 2010

@MuseumNerd’s avatar, which An describes as, “…a quirky icon that looked a little like Groucho glasses and a strange wig.”

One of the most popular art feeds on Twitter right now doesn’t have a name or a face or a gender. It doesn’t represent an established arts institution or magazine, nor does it have any kind of credentials. And yet, less than a year since it started, it now boasts 10,000 followers (as of yesterday), a feat helped along by making Twitter’s staff picks.

The first time I’d heard of @museumnerd, I had just given a talk about social media art at the Brooklyn Museum. Shelley Bernstein, who manages the Brooklyn Museum’s Twitter feed, sent me a direct message: “Did you see that @museumnerd was there?”

“Who?” I asked. I clicked over to the feed to find a nice note about my talk but also a quirky icon that looked a little like Groucho glasses and a strange wig.

It seemed a little odd to me. Why hide behind the cloak of anonymity? No matter — all I knew is that he or she had interesting things to say about art and museums, so I started following.

What arrived in my feed was a treasure trove of tweets celebrating museums around the world, with a focus on New York. The notes are simple and unpretentious, but surprisingly insightful and personal. A recent one from DC declared:

Art brings tears to my eyes for the second time today. Whew. This time it was Velazquez at National Gallery of Art. Nice show, NGA London!

But far more than just museums, the tweets also point to issues in contemporary art, street art, and postage stamps, and sometimes they’re even in Spanish.

“I love that @museumnerd is everywhere all the time,” said San Francisco-based artist Alexis K. Manheim, an avid @MuseumNerd follower. “He/she is not tweeting from any one museum’s perspective but about all of them, or as many as he/she can get to in a day.”

“Which is a lot,” she added.

A Trip Down Museum Lane

To learn more about how this smooth operator operates, I contacted @Museumnerd and arranged a meeting. “Wear comfortable shoes,” was the message I received, and I soon find myself standing on the corner of Broadway and Grand with my most walkable pair of boots. A mysterious figure in smart jeans and a sweater approaches, juggling a Droid smartphone, a Canon G10 camera and a nerdy but friendly smile. I know who it is immediately.

The map @MuseumNerd carried around while we toured SoHo arts institutions.

Taking a trip with @MuseumNerd around SoHo and the Village is as much a physical exercise as it was an aesthetic one. We make at least ten official stops in the course of a few hours, checking in so many times on Foursquare that we both earn an “Overshare badge.”

Our first stop is Walter De Maria’s “The Broken Kilometer” (1979), which is located on a block on West Broadway I must have passed a dozen times before.

“This is such a cool piece,” @MuseumNerd says in a half-whisper, even though we were the only ones there besides the desk attendant. “This is my first time seeing it. I’m glad, because I get depressed when I feel like I’ve been everywhere.”

Before acquiring a smartphone, @MuseumNerd used to keep a list of all the museums in New York City, complete with cross street information, so that it was possible to drop by a museum at a moments notice regardless of the neighborhood. Except for the Intrepid Museum and the Museum of Sex, @MuseumNerd claims to have visited all of them.

“If I had to have a goal, it would be to champion little-known museums,” @MuseumNerd explains as we dart past a coffee shop. “The community has to celebrate those places to get people psyched about going.”

@MuseumNerd’s view from Walter De Maria’s “Earth Room” (1977) (click to enlarge)

Indeed, each stop we make puts me in a space I’ve passed countless times before but had never heard of — the Merchant’s House Museum, the Earth Room, Mercer Street Books — and with each stop @MuseumNerd reveals how “nerd” has become an essential part of the Twitter handle.

“Where’s the dirt from?” @MuseumNerd asks the gallery attendant in Earth Room, which is a piece by Walter de Maria and is, well, a room filled with moist earth.

“There’s a guy who had to drive around for the perfect color and texture,” the attendant replies.

“I bet. There’s much more clay content here in Brooklyn. It’s more like peat.”

@MuseumNerd returns to the piece and leans against the wall while tapping away on a Droid. It’s quite a sight: a concentrated look on their face, thumbs moving furiously, the camera casually around the neck, and then a tweet:

You can actually feel it here (& smell it). Walter de Maria’s Earth Room doesn’t allow pictures. They wouldn’t be worth it anything anyway.

The tweet is sent and off we go.

Feed for Thought

Stopping for a quick snack at the taqueria near The Storefront of Art and Architecture, I ask @MuseumNerd, “What’s the drive to tweet?”

“I love museums. It’s so exciting to see so much stuff,” @MuseumNerd says between helpings of a pork taco. “And I learn the most from teaching. It sticks more when I tell people what I think, because then I get a reaction from them that makes me think about the work a little more.”

And it’s easy to ask questions. As approachable in person as online, @MuseumNerd’s natural curiosity and enthusiasm made me want to learn more too.

“It’s not just pure critical artspeak,” suggested Michigan-based artist Michael Mayer about @MuseumNerd’s Twitterfeed. “It’s a person writing about the experience of art and asking questions that can reveal a certain vulnerability that I think everyone feels at some point in the artistic experience.”

@MuseumNerd's famous Droid in the backyard of the Merchant's House Museum.

The feed began in April of 2009 like most people start Twitterfeeds: to keep in touch. But one day, on a trip through the Brooklyn Museum, @MuseumNerd noticed that iPod Touches featuring video of the artists had been mistakenly placed under the wrong artists. Tweeting about this error caught the attention of the always online attentive Brooklyn Museum staff and a conversation began.

“I was like, oh my gosh, the museum talked back to me,” @MuseumNerd remembers. “It was an incredible new way to communicate with an institution that seems so big.”

In many ways, @MuseumNerd helps personalize arts institutions that not only seem remote but actually are remote, geographically speaking. The ubiquity of the Internet means that many Twitter followers are based not only around the US but the world, and @MuseumNerd has found a way to make museums accessible to anyone.

“What @MuseumNerd is doing is fabulous,” said Francesca Merlino (@idealee), marketing manager and half of the team behind @Guggenheim. Merlino played a critical role in encouraging @MuseumNerd when the feed had just started and the follower count still numbered in the triple digits. “[The account has] created awareness and advocates for other events and exhibitions in New York and internationally that people don’t know about.”

I asked her why she thinks the feed has seen so much success: “MuseumNerd gets people excited and involved about arts and culture in the city. The feed is very specific. It doesn’t really stray off course in terms of the topic of conversation.”

A True Museum Nerd

Indeed, @MuseumNerd in person is as engaging as @MuseumNerd online. Perhaps because of the freedom granted by anonymity, @MuseumNerd can explore a visceral passion for museums and art openly and honestly. There’s no brand to maintain, no institution to represent, no academic credentials, no tenuous relationships to uphold: just a truly energizing love of art.

We pause at the gift shop and lobby of Merchant’s House Museum, which is Manhattan’s only perfectly preserved home from the 19th century. After touring the house and its nooks and crannies, @MuseumNerd strikes up a conversation with the woman collecting the entrance fee.

“I love this place,” @Museumnerd says, “You totally have to be a museum nerd to enjoy it.”

“Well, here I am,” she responds. “A true museum nerd.”

“Yeah,” says the anonymous and famous Twitterist, “so am I.”

I asked @MuseumNerd to compile a short list of recommended cultural institutions around the world.  Here’s what @MuseumNerd had to say:

As a true Museum Nerd, I have dozens of favorite museums in all genres, but I was asked to come up with 10, so I got out my lists and a dart board and here is a fairly random list of 10 art museums that are a bit off the beaten path or don’t get as much attention as they should. In no particular order:

City Reliquary (Williamsburg, Brooklyn) — A great favorite little museum that shows the community’s collections. The first time I went to the place they had a community member’s giant souvenir pencil collection in the front window! Quirky is an understatement when it comes to this neat little place. “Be civic!” If the Queens Museum of Art wasn’t so famous, they might have been my outer borough pick for their amazing panorama alone!

Barnes Foundation (Merion, PA) — This is a place you have to see to believe and you have to get there ASAP before it moves into Philadelphia. The bizarre Van Gogh nude alone makes it worth the trip, let alone the hundred of works you’ve seen before in art books. It looks like it’s too late to prevent the move, but it would be great if we could still “Save the Barnes!” Don’t forget to make an appointment.

Isabella Stewart Gardner (Boston, MA) — One of my all-time favorites and a quirky wonderful collection of an art-obsessed woman of means who was also a very smart art scholar. This is one of the world’s best collections in one of the most beautiful museums I’ve ever been to. The central courtyard is gorgeous. Don’t miss John Singer Sargent’s huge painting of a Spanish dancer, “El Jaleo.”

Museo Amparo (Puebla, Mexico) — I was surprised to find this amazing little contemporary art museum on a recent trip to Mexico. Mexico City has fantastic museums which could fill a list like this easily, but who knew Puebla, known for churches and Spanish colonial history, would have this awesome little gem.

Frye Art Museum (Seattle, WA) — This was a toss up between the Frye and the wonderful Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington which has James Turrell’s amazing and punnily titled sky space, “Light Reign.” Ultimately I went with the Frye because it’s FREE and has wonderful contemporary art exhibitions and the best tiny gift & book shop.

Sir John Soane’s Museum (London, England) — As you can tell, I’m a fan of museums put together by one obsessed collector. This is probably my favorite museum in London. A fabulous collection including art, architecture and sculpture all in a gorgeous house. It has officially been a museum since 1837!

Baltimore Museum of Art (Baltimore, MD) — Another toss up here. I wanted to go with the Walters Museum whose fabulous semi-encyclopedic permanent collection can be seen for FREE, but in the end, the Cone Sisters Collection of Modern Art, including 500 works by Matisse, overpowered me.

Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende (Santiago, Chile) — This is an eclectic collection of contemporary art donated by the artists in solidarity to the former Marxist president of Chile, Salvador Allende. The building is fantastic too and includes a great outdoor sculpture garden. If you are in Chile and make it to Viña del Mar do not miss the Museo Fonck!

Hispanic Society of America (New York, NY) — Yes, I know this is technically the same city as Brooklyn, but only technically. The HSA has a world class collection in Manhattan that very few New Yorkers even know about. They have Goya’s “Duchess of Alba” and Velazquez’s “Portrait of a Little Girl” for crying out loud! Go immediately!!! Well, actually wait until they re-open after renovations on May 8th.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco, CA) — Excellent contemporary art exhibits and just a really fun place. Its close proximity to one of my absolute favorite (but not obscure at all) museums, SFMoMA, means I almost always go to both in succession.

Now get off the computer and go to a museum!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Zachary-Adam-Cohen/761572845 Zachary Adam Cohen

    FAN FUCKING TASTIC!

  • http://www.twitter.com/museumnerd Museum Nerd

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful bio, An. I was so pleased to be able to shout out a few of my favorite museums there at the end too. Sorry about my typos folks!

    • http://www.anxiaostudio.com/ An Xiao

      Thanks for taking the time. It was great. I really enjoyed your list – definitely going to keep as reference when I visit a new city. I can make any edits you need to make, by the way! Feel free to send me a note.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nick-Fortunato/587766031 Nick Fortunato

    Funny An, I was at that 1stfan meet at the Brooklyn Museum and saw @museumnerd post that night and said, man! I was in the same room and I missed him/her!

    • http://www.anxiaostudio.com/ An Xiao

      Very sneaky, that Museumnerd!

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  • http://www.hahamag.com HAHAMAG

    I’m so late reading this. But I had to say, this is going down as one of my favorite pieces on Hyper. “A mysterious figure in smart jeans and a sweater approaches, juggling a Droid smartphone, a Canon G10 camera and a nerdy but friendly smile. I know who it is immediately.” Xiao I’m jealous… I want to know too.

    • http://www.twitter.com/museumnerd Museum Nerd

      Let me know when you’re in town. On rare occasion, I like to say hello. :)

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