Following on from our ‘Widescreen’ feature on New York’s Museum of Moving Image in issue 14, we spoke to Chief Curator David Schwartz about the nature of a film museum, how the redesigned building has transformed their exhibition space and what the future holds for MOMI.
Big Picture: How do you face the challenge of focussing on such a rapidly evolving medium in the setting of the traditional museum?
David Schwartz: A moving image museum needs to be as versatile, lively, and engaging as its subject, yet it also needs to create a space for meditation and reflection. The museum needs to be forward-looking but rooted in history, and it needs to be able to show the moving image in many different forms, from small monitors to big screens, from theatrical exhibition to interactive installations. All of these values are reflected in the architecture of the new building, and in the eclectic array of programs and exhibitions.
BP: The museum has an impressive education programme: how do you use film as a learning tool and can it apply to any student, regardless of age of background?
DS: We take advantage of the fact that nearly all students enjoy our subject matter. Of course, they’re inclined to want to have fun at our museum, and they’re enthusiastic about the tours, screenings, and workshops that we offer.
What they usually take away that they may not have anticipated coming in is an appreciation for old movies and TV shows, whether it’s their first experience watching a Charlie Chaplin movie with live music, or seeing an episode of I Love Lucy and comparing it to the sitcoms they watch today.
BP: How important is the work of the archivist when the moving image, thanks to internet video and the like, has now become so easily disposable?
DS: We actually don’t collect films at the Museum; our collection consists of objects, such as technical apparatus, costumes, production design drawings, etc. We do borrow films from the world’s leading archives; in fact, the first series in our new space was called “Recovered Treasures: Great Films from World Archives,” and it is essential to us to show the best possible prints and copies of films, in a beautiful theatrical setting, often with personal appearances by the creators.
We are fully equipped to show digital cinema, including the new Digital 3-D formats, but we show most of our films in the original 35mm format. As film becomes widely available on the internet and in other forms, it is important to preserve the original experience. It’s true for most movies that you’re not really seeing them properly if you’re not seeing them on the big screen. And even though there is this notion that everything is available on the internet, there are still many thousands of movies that are not on DVD, and simply not available except in archival prints.
BP: How has the museums geographical location influenced its evolution?
DS: It’s been helpful for us, in an interesting way, to be off the beaten track a bit. Even though we’re close to midtown Manhattan, we’re one of the only museums in our part of Queens. What I find is that we have a very motivated audience. For the most part, our visitors have really decided to make a long outing at the Museum, and spend at least two or three hours, maybe more. More fundamentally, the very existence of the Museum is tied to both the history of the historic Astoria studio site, and also to the availability of affordable space in our neighborhood.
BP: I gather the building itself has recently been renovated… could you give some examples of exhibitions that have used the museum space with particular innovation?
DS: The video screening spaces are quite innovative—in the lobby, and in a landing gallery at the top of our grand staircase, visitors encounter interesting video art. Our opening exhibition, Real Virtuality, simply wouldn’t have been possible in our old space—we didn’t have a big gallery for changing exhibitions, and we weren’t equipped technologically to present the cutting edge installations that comprised the show. And there’s innovation in every corner of the building. Yes, we were able to show films in the past, but never in a space as magnificent and unique as our new main theater.
BP: What is coming up at the museum over the next year?
DS: Some fun exhibitions that should be extremely popular; one exploring Jim Henson and his creative legacy, and an exhibition on the early history of video games. There will also be a very wide range of film programs, including David Cronenberg and Gus Van Sant retrospectives, and a wide range of avant-garde, silent, and classic Hollywood films.
For more information, visit www.movingimage.us