by Erin McGuirl
Whose stories are told in museums? And how are they told? “The Keeper,” an ongoing show at the New Museum that is a tonic to the eye and the soul, addresses these questions and raises even more with brilliance, economy, and creativity not only through the choice of materials on display, but also in their presentation. It is essential viewing for all of us in the business of keeping – collecting and preserving stuff – and (hi)storytelling.
Devoting an exhibition to keepers provided the museum with a reason to show Ydessa Hendeles’ Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), a 2002 installation of over 3,000 photographs of people and their teddy bears. To those of you who are thinking, “Really? Teddy bears?” I confess that I didn’t have high expectations for this part of the show. I was excited about Hilma af Klint’s paintings, Ye Jinglu’s portraits, and Shinro Ohtake’s scrapbooks, the things that I thought would be the heavy hitters. These images, these objects, would make me think; so I thought. They did, but not as much as Partners.
In Partners, the teddy bear functions as an organizing principle: Helendes collected and preserved twentieth-century photographs of people and teddy bears, and because everybody loves to pose with a teddy bear, Partners presents astonishingly broad and intimate portrait of humanity. The photographs, which Hendeles collected on eBay, came from 25 countries, and show people of every age, race and ethnicity, creed, and class. There are, of course, tons of pictures of kids, but children do not dominate the collection. Elvis posed with teddy bears to promote his hit single “Teddy Bear”, and Ringo Starr talked to reporters clutching a teddy that someone gave him as he emerged from an airplane. There are teddy bears in band photographs (Tony’s Jazz Madcaps and the Stella Orchestre of Riga propped teddies on the bass drum before saying cheese), teddy bears in family greeting cards, teddies in snapshots exchanged between lovers or between parents and their grown children, teddies in class photos, teddy bears of all sizes on the beach and at parties, and there are even teddy bears in pornography. Adults often laugh or look silly with teddy bears, but they can also look painfully sincere. Many portraits of children show tremendous pride, especially candid photos like one of a young black girl on a porch with all her entire toy collection laid out on a blanket. They also show great disappointment: one memorable shot shows two young south-Asian children in formal dress looking rather depressed and put-upon in front of the Christmas tree. There are real teddy bears on display, too, with stories and photographs of their original owners. (The labels accompanying the real bears are the only text in the installation.) Sneezy, a tiny bear with a scrunched up face and a perky yellow vest belonged to Ted Able, an English Soldier in World War II. Able’s mother gave him the bear when he shipped off to serve. He survived, and Sneezy remained on his bedside table until the day he died in 1991, at 81 years old.
In her dissertation, Hendeles says that “the teddy bear was chosen for what it reveals about the complex partnership of culture and commerce.” (26) While one might pursue that thread to fascinating ends, I found that the teddy bear enriched these images because it emphasized the humanity of the people in the pictures. As Hendeles points out, the teddy bear is an object that comforts the many children and adults who own (and cuddle) their bears, (25) but the pictures show that human beings lived a tremendous range of emotions and experiences with their teddies. They inspire people to be silly, to play, to express their affection for loved ones, or to stand before a camera with confidence. As a result, the teddy bear shows us the vulnerability of the people that pose with it, and this is what makes this the collection so emotionally and intellectually stirring.
In 2012, the novelist Orhan Pamuk published “A Modest Manifesto for Museums” in The Innocence of Objects, a printed catalog for his Museum of Innocence, which he curated and opened in Istanbul as a museum of his novel of the same name. In his manifesto, he urges museums to prioritize the stories human lives over those of “society, community, team, nation, state, tribe, company, or species.” Partners, conceived a full decade before Pamuk’s museum and manifesto, is an example of just how this can work. Its success as a collection – and as a work of art – can be measured exactly as Pamuk suggests in point five:
The measure of a museum’s success should not be its ability to represent a state, a nation, or company, or a particular history. It should be its capacity to reveal the humanity of individuals.
Viewers looking into the faces of more than 3,000 people with their teddy bears are witnesses to the tenderest exposition of the humanity of individuals. For viewers, witnessing this is an intense experience. One of the first vitrines of photographs in the installation contains images of Nazi men and women with teddy bears. The stuffed animals in these pictures transform images of uniformed Nazis into gut-wrenching portraits of the human faces of fascism. (I’m still trying to figure out what these images can or should mean.) These are followed by more pictures of soldiers, like Ted Able, whose story is a bit more straight forward: a mother loves her son and sends him off to battle with conduit for that love. In other ways, however, Able and Sneezy challenge the normative view of the soldier ready for combat. In the back of the second room of the installation, photographs of child survivors of the Holocaust appear together in long vitrines, and the accompanying labels document the story of each individual’s survival. In this case, photographs of these children with their teddy bears gives Hendeles a context in which to share and preserve their personal histories alongside their photographs.
Partners exhibits the photographs and teddy bears in a display system borrowed from national museums and private galleries that Pamuk deemphasizes in his manifesto. Pictures cover the walls from floor to ceiling. A mezzanine gallery provides access to a second viewing level, and dark wooden vitrines display the original bears, sometimes with related ephemera like photographs, letters, or (in one case) a teddy bear genealogy. This lends the photographs and objects an air of seriousness and grandeur, and it’s a clever way to engage viewers who might dismiss the images because of their playful, innocent subject matter. This antiquated mode of display also emphasizes the historic nature of the photographs, which appear to cover the twentieth century only up to the mid-sixties. Most of the images date to the interwar period or the period of the second World War, which provides some critical distance between the viewer and the human subjects of these photographs. These images show us moments in the lives of people we will never know, but whose worlds we study and interpret as historians.
The traditional style display seen in Partners – which, walls, vitrines, and all were brought in as a whole from Canada – is in stark contrast to the rest of the show, which features photographs, model buildings, scrapbooks, paintings, sketches, and other works of art shown in the white-box style settings that one would expect in the New Museum. And perhaps as a result, the impact of Partners far exceeds that of the other works on display. Nevertheless, the rest of the show presents an enormous range of materials, from Joseph Cornell-like assemblages to collections of rare stones that play with and challenge ideas about the purpose of collecting and the meanings that collections take on in their afterlives. And while I commend the New Museum for showing admirable restraint in providing succinct, well edited, wall text, I found that some of the labels lacked information about collectors, focusing instead on critical analyses of the images or objects on display. For example, Tong Bingxue discovered the delightful series of photographs of Ye Jinglu, taken annually throughout his life. Tong Bingxue is a journalist and young collector of antique Chinese photographs, but I discovered this through a Google search rather than in the gallery. Given the show’s focus on collectors and collecting, the series would have been enriched by more information about Bingxue’s collecting and the discovery of this particular set of images.
There is a lot to see in “The Keeper.” Orhan Pamuk might say that there are a lot of people to meet. I believe that as people and as historians must meet them, and study their stories (and their teddy bears) in all of their silly, tender, tragic glory. Oliver Sacks explains why better than I ever could:
In 1992, I went with [Gerald Edelman] to a conference on consciousness at Jesus College in Cambridge. While Gerry’s books were often difficult to read, hearing him speak gave a feeling of revelation to many in the audience.
At the same meeting… Gerry said to me, “You’re no theoretician.”
“I know,” I said, “but I am a field-worker, and you need the sort of fieldwork I do for the sort of theory making you do.”
(from On the Move, page 366)
Visit “The Keeper,” and see for yourself what’s been collected in the field.
The Keeper is open through September 25 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York City.