Something I love

It’s an art piece at MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But not by an artist on display. Instead it’s by someone on the museum’s staff, the Senior Library Assistant, Rachael Morrison. 

The piece is called “Smelling the Books.” Morrison has been working her way through all the books in MoMA’s library, smelling every one, and recording the smells in a handwritten journal, which we can read on the web. “Used bookstore, faint smokey smell.” “Late summer rain, old paper.” “Dusty attic, under the couch.” These descriptions are precise and evocative, and irresistible (at least for me). 

And how did I hear about this? From MoMA’s official Twitter feed, which sent me to more on their website. The museum, in other words, happily promotes this piece. 

Links: about “Smelling the Books”; two pages from the journal; Morrison’s personal website.

Maybe some people think smelling books is, well, weird. But I smell them myself. And many other people do. One of my pleasures, when I was a kid, and bought used science fiction books (in the many used bookstores that then were on Fourth Avenue, in Manhattan), was how they smelled: crunchy, well-seasoned. 

I can’t help thinking that no orchestra (or none that I know of) would have promoted this work, if one of their staff members did it. First, while installation art and performance art are perfectly mainstream these days in the art world, they (and their musical equivalents) just aren’t known in classical music. If we were an art museum, we’d only be showing painting and sculpture. So on an orchestra’s website, “Smelling the Books” would seem out to lunch. 

But, more profoundly, orchestras don’t normally think of their staff members doing creative work. They’re hierarchical instituions, and in their artistic hierarchy, nobody has any place except the musicians, the music director, and the very few people who make up the artistic administration. As a rule, you just wouldn’t talk about music with the development people (the fundraisers), or with the telemarketers. 

Which is a shame. I’m glad MoMA doesn’t seem to think that way. (Though once someone who worked on film there told me he felt marginalized by the people from higher-ranking visual arts.) If orchestras valued and fostered creativity in all of their staff, I think they’d play better, too. 

art of this kind just isn’t well known in the classical music world, 

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  1. Yvonne says

    I agree that what you’re talking about is rare in orchestras. But since you’ve set the challenge…

    There are plenty of instances in Australia of the “few who make up artistic administration” maintaining active lives as singers, harpists, etc., even a principal cellist in a symphony orchestra. Tony Fogg (now AA at the Boston Symphony Orchestra) was active as a pianist while programming for all six of the Australian symphony orchestras.

    Looking outside artistic administration…

    There was the clerical assistant at Symphony Australia who would work in the office for 6 months and then take 6 months off to practise her art (large-scale drawings and prints) – SymAus and the SSO commissioned her on at least three occasions to create illustrations in response to music for our program books.

    Or, even better: just last year, one of my orchestra’s – wait for it! – telemarketers, Nic McConaghy, won first place in the Jeu de temps/Times Play (JTTP), a competition for emerging composers run by the Canadian Electroacoustic Community. And while we didn’t post or link to his work on our website (I’ll concede this idea didn’t occur to anyone), we did proudly announce the news to our subscribers, and it made it into our social media.

    So yes, I certainly talk with my orchestra’s telemarketers and box office staff about music (the composer isn’t the only musical soul in that group); I talk about music with the fundraisers (the Head of Philanthropy is a pianist). I won’t say the organisation is free of artistically aligned hierarchies, but there’s definitely recognition of the level of musical knowledge and general creativity within our ranks.

    And you’re right, there’s something to be said for celebrating that creativity, and encouraging it too.

  2. richard says


    There are a whole lot of good musicians working “back office” jobs for symphonies, opera companies etc. I know some who do a fair amoumt of freelance work. Maybe their employers could sponsor “Concerts by the Help”. (Not likely)

  3. says

    I’ve never worked in a large music organization, but have certainly known a fair number of staffers and to a person they have all been in those jobs because of their own musical interests as enthusiasts or amateur performers. So the picture you paint of a hierarchical organization where the passionate engagement of the staff is discounted doesn’t ring entirely true with me. But again, I haven’t worked in one.

    I think the main reason that your example would seem out of place is more interesting: symphonies/orchestras/opera houses/etc. are not interdisciplinary cultural institutions the way art museums are. When these institutions have offerings that don’t involve their primary assets, they usually get no further than panel discussions about specific programs that have close to zero independent appeal. Yet art museums routinely offer films, concerts, social events, readings, etc. and the public sees them as sites for a rich variety of cultural experiences, rather than a hall designed to deliver one thing only. Compared to the art museum, which seems to have all of your cultural appetites in mind (though never in doubt about its primary mission), the symphony seems blissfully unaware of your other needs.

    Naturally, this is an easy sell for museums, since their primary product doesn’t move around a lot and they have massive facilities open all day, begging to be filled. And then there’s the not-insignificant question of investing in something other than your very resource heavy raison d’etre. But still, one wonders at whether these institutions would be able to build “stickier” relationships with new audiences if they tried to cultivate a more well-rounded profile…

  4. john pippen says

    @Alex: Isn’t Greg’s point that it isn’t natural for orchestras to consider doing this, that they aren’t interdisciplinary institutions? I think, as Greg has pointed out, that’s part of the problem.

    Having said that, I have seen some orchestras do really cool stuff, but seeing them celebrate the work of all their employees is rare. In my experience, the majority of people working for an orchestra have at least some, and often rather extensive musical training. It seems entirely likely that you could find some cool in house work in many professional orchestras.