The third-most-popular visitor destination in Philadelphia is a ruined prison: the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP). Based on the concept of the Panopticon, in which all inmates are housed in a circular building and under the surveillance of guards in a central tower, ESP opened in 1829 and closed in 1971. At the time of its completion, the fourteen-acre complex was the largest construction in the country. Its wagon-wheel design enabled all of the cellblocks to be monitored centrally. Previous prisons were mere storehouses where chaos prevailed. Quakers attempted to bring order and inspire repentance (hence the name “penitentiary”) by placing individual prisoners in meditative, monkish cells, which amounted to a permanent state of solitary confinement. The cruelty of this system revealed itself early on, and reforms gradually ensued.
Today, like the U.S. National Park Service’s Alcatraz Island, the ESP offers the frisson of criminality, suffering, and punishment to tourists living in a supposedly more enlightened age. Walking through this massive complex is a living Ozymandias experience, but from a museological perspective, the current caretakers have made several nice choices. One is an active artist-in-residence program, in which artists install works around the grounds of the prison and in the crumbling cells. Currently on view is a project by Philadelphia artist Cindy Stockton Moore. She researched the stories of fifty murder victims killed by inmates held at ESP and hung small banners with drawings of their portraits. She noted that most of the images she could locate were of policemen killed in the line of duty; images of working-class victims and victims of color were almost impossible to find. A second example is a re-created synagogue, which in its first incarnation served the small percentage of Jewish inmates during the 20th century. One can’t help but be moved by these occasional instances of kindness and community that brought solace to some of the prisoners amid the immense, crumbling, stone-cold power of the state.
Picking up another thread of Jewish life in Philadelphia, I visited the National Museum of American Jewish History. Founded in 1976, the museum opened its current facility, an impressive, polished, and somewhat corporate-inspired four-story building, in 2012. Permanent exhibitions document three centuries of the Jewish presence in America on the first three floors, and on the top floor are temporary exhibitions. Currently on view is Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American, which explores the history of Jewish participation in America’s pastime. Media documents, such as Sandy Koufax’s 1966 farewell press conference, supplement baseball artifacts and accompany attractive, colorful, unpredictable design elements in state-of-the-art presentations. Baseball has a way of elevating its history to mythic levels; seeing the very human and yet still admirable traits of the soft-spoken, ethically thoughtful Koufax is the kind of museum experience that helps us see the world anew for a moment. This is not an art museum, but it gathers together material culture of a visual nature and offers insight into the way that the present is inhabited by aesthetic choices made in the past.
Which brings me to the Barnes Foundation. The institution’s current home also opened in 2012, ninety years after opening at the original museum in Merion, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. The collection amassed by Dr. Albert Barnes includes a substantial number of Post-Impressionist and early Modernist paintings alongside Old Masters, African sculpture, and decorative objects, including ceramics, textiles, jewelry, and furniture, from all over the world. There is a legal phrase, “the hand from the grave,” which refers to the ability to control matters after death through the terms of one’s will. Barnes explicitly required that his collection not be moved and that the hanging—which he personally supervised—should never be changed in even the slightest way. After years of financial irregularities, contentious battles among board members, and restrictions imposed by local neighbors, a court decision allowed the collection to move to its current, gorgeous new building in the city of Philadelphia.
The new building was designed to faithfully re-create the original’s galleries. Everything was rehung salon-style according to the original decisions of Barnes, mixing genres and eras, nationalities and geographic origins. Barnes had cleverly created ensembles that cross-referenced both morphology—the color and shape found in juxtaposed works—and their content. Throughout the galleries, one finds decorative and industrial metal fragments peppering the walls with tacit commentary and jokes. It is not unlike how noted artist–curators like Nayland Blake and Robert Gober operate, as opposed to the academic approach most art historians take.
My experience as a first-time visitor was overwhelming. There are two floors, each containing at least a dozen mostly small galleries. Without wall labels to reference, we had to consult laminated pages to learn exactly what we were looking at, adding to the enervating nature of the experience. However, it was a rare thrill and an overwhelming gift to the unwary aesthete who might think a quick stroll through the spaces would suffice. I spent three solid hours of rapt attention just looking at the paintings—no time for the sculpture and furniture—and I certainly missed a lot. There are far too many Renoirs, which become a blur of pink goo very quickly, and Barnes had an inexplicable attraction for some minor American Modernists and early European works of dubious attribution. But fifteen minutes alone with Van Gogh’s The Postman (Joseph-Étienne Roulin) (1889) or Manet’s Young Woman in a Garden (1879) were a gift; the cumulative effect of encountering so many first-rate Cézannes, Matisses, and excellent Degas, Monets, Van Goghs, Demuths, et al, created one of the great museum experiences I ever expect to have.
Renny Pritikin is the Chief Curator of San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.