THE MARVEL OF SMALL MUSEUMS

Back in the ’50s, American car companies introduced new models—radically different—every year. Advertisements touted that them as longer, lower, wider. Americans loved everything big. Many still do. Me? Take museums. I like small.

The best-known museums are—to use a term—yuge! In London this March, Carolyn and I again visited the British Museum. We’re members. I love lunch in the members dining room. Great soups! But the enormous crowds can make a visit a little—or a lot—less pleasurable. We’ve also seen the permanent exhibits—including the Rosetta Stone—many times.

I get worn out with the Louvres in Paris and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. We went to the Met a few weeks ago. We do every time we’re in the Big Town. My favorite part? Walking up and back through Central Park. The crowds and exhibit choices—too big.

Thankfully, we discovered the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) at Columbus Circle. The building rises nine stories but has a small footprint. The rotating exhibits feature contemporary (or relatively so) artists and are modest in size.

We had the galleries almost all to ourselves. I loved the work by Derrick Adams, presenting the challenges African Americans faced traveling the nation before passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. MAD also hosts artists in-studio. We chatted with Katya Grokhovsky, who came to the U.S. from Ukraine as a child and creates fabulous installations.

My favorite museum is small—and hardly typical. SFO Museum places exhibits—small and smaller—throughout San Francisco International Airport. Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, SFOM offers fabulous opportunities to see carefully curated, constantly changing collections of art, craft and design when you fly. And even if you don’t. Many can be accessed pre-security. The airport may be crowded, but with these exhibits, you can get up close and personal.

When Carolyn and I fly overseas, we take in the pre-security exhibits in Terminal A and Terminal G. Domestically, we usually fly out of Terminal 2 where we just saw an exhibit on Maneki Neko—Japanese cat statues bringing good luck to homes and businesses.

SFOM has hosted many exhibits since the concept’s inception in 1980. My favorites include radio bars from the 1940s (we have one that belonged to my parents), women’s shoes (over the top), typewriters, cocktail glasses, gambling devices, American folk art, Chinese porcelains and evolving flight attendant (nee stewardess) uniforms.

Small museums abound. We love London’s Pollock’s Toy Museum (oldtoys) and Florence Nightingale Museum. The Morgan in New York has offered wonderful exhibits (from Babylonian jewelry to Ernest Hemingway). Who but the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco would put on display Mahjong and its impact on American Jews? (My mother played; my sister still does.)

SFOM won’t achieve the fame of the Met, the Louvres or the British. And truly, you can visit many other wonderful large museums around the nation—the Chicago Art Institute, the Smithsonian complex—and the world. We love the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

But size doesn’tmatter. A single, carefully curated exhibit in a modest space—like an informal dinner with family or friends—can deliver big rewards. That’s no small feat.

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6 Comments


  1. Tracy
    Jun 01, 2018

    Thanks David. It seems like every time I’m in France, there are two or three new Monet museums. Most tend to be very small, with only a few works on exhibit. Nonetheless, I do feel like I can get “personal” with the exhibits in these places.


    • David
      Jun 01, 2018

      Thanks, Tracy. The experience—like going to Givenchy where Monet had his home—is so much richer. The train trip there is fun, too. Plus, we bought fabulous lamb baguettes before returning to the station. That’s a museum experience.


  2. Candiece Milford
    Jun 03, 2018

    Small is definitely better for me. My best attention to a show is an hour. Beyond that, I lose patience with crowds and get into overload mode. If I go to a large museum, I go for a specific show or gallery. Trying to take it ALL in at once dulls one’s senses over time. Guess I’m becoming more Zen as I get older. A little taste for me is more memorable and poignant than a whole plate.


    • David
      Jun 03, 2018

      Agreed. Focus is everything—and small crowds help to achieve focus.


  3. Ellen Newman
    Jun 05, 2018

    I love the exhibits at SFO. In typical SF fashion, I met the first curator of the SFO Museum. She was a friend of the curator of exhibits at the SF Zoo when I worked there. I believe she was on the board of SFMOMA at the time, and worked to bring the art to the airport. I’m so glad they’ve kept it up … so much better to look at the art on the way to a flight than endless corridors filled with ads, like at most airports.

    The most fun exhibit I saw at an airport was an origami “museum” at Narita in Tokyo. I was transfixed by all the amazing things they were able to do with paper. I wonder if it’s still there.

    I also love the Museum of Art and Design in NYC. We visit there on almost every trip. It used to be across the street from MOMA. We’ve seen some wonderful Japanese ceramics there and an exhibit all about borders that was quite thought-provoking.


    • David
      Jun 05, 2018

      Thanks, Ellen. The big museums with their big works provide lots of thrills. But many small museums and exhibits are jewels that can truly be enjoyed given their focused— often offbeat—content and more accommodating crowds that permit viewing at our own pace without exhausting ourselves.

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