In 2012, artist, curator, and visual journalist Alex Kalman worked with two friends to transform a defunct elevator shaft in Chinatown into a sort of modern natural history museum they called Mmuseumm. Now entering its fifth season, Mmuseumm continues to defy categorization as either a recognized cultural institution or a nonconformist outsider art project. In effect, it’s both.
“I really see [this] as a form of journalism, but rather than through text or video or photo, it’s through objects,” Kalman tells the Cut. A text-heavy invitation riddled with vague platitudes like “Life is full of contradiction” and “You are alive, the world is round, time is finite” announces the new season’s opening event. This rare dispatch of promotional materials is at once cheerfully optimistic and tongue-in-cheek, aligned with Mmuseumm’s poppy, cherry-red-and-white aesthetic.
Mmuseummgoers can find the address on Google Maps, but it can still be challenging to locate in the wild. (It’s tucked away in on Cortlandt Alley, between White Street and Franklin Street — two blocks south of Canal Street, one block from Broadway.) Peer inside Mmuseumm 1 and you’ll find red-velvet-lined shelves teeming with everyday objects that are treated like rare artifacts: cornflakes arranged like rare specimens, tacky Trump merchandise from the early 2000s, cookies that memorialize events in 2015, packaging from an Iranian fast-food franchise that mimics familiar American chains, and lost possessions caked in dirt from the U.S.’s Arizona border.
Among the items is Sally Thurer’s collection of 20 perfume bottles shaped like female torsos, titled Lineage of the Body Bottle. An Elsa Schiaparelli model from the ‘30s is displayed alongside a gold-faced Nicki Minaj bottle, a Betsey Johnson edition, and Jean Paul Gaultier’s “Homage” bottle. Thurer tells the Cut that her collection challenges a value system that decides which versions are seen as “legitimate.” “I really think that the knockoffs have their own artistry and I don’t think they are any less beautiful,” she explains.
The installation deploys familiar forms of pedagogy — explanatory museum plaques and a self-directed audio guide, narrated by voice of the M.T.A. Charlie Pellett — but with an undercurrent of parodic humor. (Some labels employ academic language, and then end, quizzically, with “Keep looking.”) Kalman wonders if, instead of cold and sterile, maybe “the institution itself can come to life and be humanistic.”
Mmuseumm celebrates quotidian modern life, finding delight and amazement in the most banal objects. “We’re thinking about narratives and ideas that connect us as humans and then [we] illustrate those with objects,” Kalman explains.
Mmuseumm is open Thursdays and Fridays from 6–9 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from noon–6 p.m., but viewing windows are open 24/7. Click ahead to take a virtual peek inside.