At the invitation of your usual archivist, I offer the following post which first appeared on an internal blogsite at The New York Public Library.

The summer 2007 exhibit at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (LPA) was entitled “Invention: Merce Cunningham and Collaborators.”As it was coming to a close, I was reminded of one of its planning meetings. The discussion centered on the explanatory texts that accompany any museum exhibition. Members of the Cunningham Foundation wanted to dispense with such texts. When told that the lack of explanatory notes might cause people to exit the exhibit hastily, they responded “That’s ok – people walk out of Merce’s performances all the time.” Rather, they wanted an experience unburdened with so much reading, so that when entering the exhibit, people would be visually and spacially immersed in the world of Merce Cunningham and his work.

It turned out to be one of the most memorable exhibits I’ve seen at LPA. Among the many unique aspects of the exhibit were the associated performances. They weren’t done in the auditorium, but were performed in the exhibit itself. One of them, a dance work Cunningham choreographed expressly for this exhibit, was performed several times the exhibit entrance.

Each of four performers did solos…

Then duos…

Finally all four peformed together.

Curtain calls (without a curtain).

In addition, pianist Nurit Tilles performed John Cage’s Sonatas
and Interludes on a prepared piano.

First, Nurit gave a brief talk.

Then she played the entire 70 minute work (with a short break in the middle).

The audience was held in rapture.

The lack of adequate seating (folding chairs) was hardly
a deterrent for those who wanted to be part of the experience.

People listened, as Jasper Johns’s costumes loomed on the south wall.

Meanwhile students took notes on music that might alienate some listeners.

I remember few exhibits that had performances done right in the exhibit. I thought it was great idea! It offered a particularly intimate way to connect with the subject and his materials, and the public could lounge on the floor (or on their knapsacks) so that they could make themselves comfortable as they take in the experience.

The success of this exhibit challenges us to think of archives in a pro-
active manner. That’s what an exhibit — and an archives — should be!