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As Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote in No Exit, “hell is other people.” This is especially true at museums, where no matter how hard you try, there’s no getting away from the selfie-takers and inane conversationalists. Wouldn’t it be great to have a museum all to yourself for a day? This is exactly the premise behind the Philbrook Museum of Art’s new #MeTimeMonday initiative in Tulsa, Oklahoma — except without the obvious misanthropy — which gives one different person each month a chance to wander the museum all by themselves for a whole Monday.
“Several years ago, I saw the Met was doing #emptymet, and I remember thinking that would be an amazing opportunity, to give a person a unique one-on-one moment in the museum,” Jeff Martin, the Philbrook Museum’s communications manager, told Hyperallergic in a phone interview. “We’re here working nine to five on Mondays [when the museum is officially closed] anyway, so why not turn the lights on and let someone in?”
The initiative started in January of this year, and Martin said they’re planning on letting a different person wander the museum one Monday each month through December, at which point they’ll decide whether or not to continue into 2019. The lucky person is chosen through a combination of social media and email. The museum puts out a public call for people interested in participating on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and museum staff reads through email submissions to decide. (They’ve already chosen someone for March, but watch out for the call for submissions early next month for a chance to participate in April.) “It’s based on who has the most compelling story and who wants to have the most fun in the museum,” Martin said. Their first call got about 85 serious inquiries.
For its inaugural #MeTimeMonday in January, the museum chose a woman named Valerie, a mother of eight adopted kids. “She never gets a moment to herself,” Martin said. “And she’s a classically trained pianist!” Her musical abilities came in handy, as the Philbrook has a couple of pianos; they usually keep “do not touch” signs on them, but Valerie got special permission to play them, even recording herself performing Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” (See her video below.)
As for the rest of the day, “I spent a considerable amount of time viewing art,” Valerie wrote in her recap to the museum — the only requirement in participating other than posting on social media throughout the day. “There was plenty of time to read each and every description and linger as long as I wanted in front of each piece. No one was around to bother me or get in the way of great selfies (nerd alert: I bought a selfie stick just for this). For lunch, a ‘table for one’ was easy to find on the patio … A friendly staff member introduced me to all three garden cats, and I enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the grounds, kitty in tow … I wasn’t about to waste a single minute.”
Earlier this month, #MeTimeMonday’s second participant, Lauren, dressed up in a sparkly silver dress especially for the occasion. “Wandering the museum without people to dodge, crowds to negotiate, I discovered many things I hadn’t noticed before,” she wrote in her recap. “I walked in and immediately, all of my attention went to what I consider to be the star of the show — ‘Phenomena Break Silk’ by Paul Jenkins. I spent the next hour or so reading all about Paul Jenkins, his influences, his mild eccentricities, and anything else I could find. I continued following link after link as I made my way downstairs and into the Museum Confidential exhibit, where a local bluegrass band was going to play a few songs for the Philbrook social media feeds.”
Martin said that as part of the Philbrook’s current exhibition, Museum Confidential, “an artist built a motel lobby, and we have local musicians playing inside it on Mondays, like NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts.” Both Valerie and Lauren got to listen to a live performance along with museum staff.
#MeTimeMonday participants aren’t necessarily by themselves the whole time, unless they want to be. “The last person got a behind-the-scenes tour,” Martin said. “So the staff is getting involved, too. It gives the staff such an interesting insight to see the museum in a fresh way.”
Martin mentioned that the guards aren’t around, but the security cameras are on, just in case. When participants arrive, he meets them and gives them a kind of orientation. There aren’t many rules, except no food or drink in certain areas, and, of course, “no cartwheels in front of the Monet,” Martin said. People can stay for an hour or a whole day; so far they’ve been making a day of it.
What would Martin like to see future #MeTimeMonday visitors do? “If they want to, they can roller skate or skateboard in the galleries, or take a nap in the middle of the floor, or fly a kite or do a slip-n-slide in the garden,” he said. “We have 25 acres of gardens, where people can have picnics or read or set up a hammock. We want people to make this place their place.”
Martin encourages other museums to take up this idea, especially small and mid-size institutions. “The Frick could do this really well,” he said. “Or the Cooper Hewitt, or the Jewish Museum, or even the Guggenheim. [The program] has such a big impact, but the output on our part is fairly minimal. All we need to do is turn on the lights and unlock the door.”