Bob Eckstein has the perfect museum for you
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Bob Eckstein has the perfect museum for you
A born New Yorker who lives not far from the Met Cloisters in upper Manhattan, Eckstein started with a hit list of 150 museums that was eventually whittled to the 75 that appear in the book.

by Amy Virshup

NEW YORK, NY.- “When they first go to museums, the first two things people want to know is, where’s the gift shop, and where’s the bathroom?” said writer and illustrator Bob Eckstein, 61, whose new book, “Footnotes From the Most Fascinating Museums,” is an illustrated field guide to North America’s cultural and historical repositories.

He envisions families using it as their “summer vacation bucket list” to discover the riches available at institutions as various as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Hollywood Cars Museum in Las Vegas (home of a General Lee from “The Dukes of Hazzard”) and the Wenham Museum in Massachusetts, where the collection includes 1,000 dolls and more than 600 mechanical toys dating to 1780.

A born New Yorker who lives not far from the Met Cloisters in upper Manhattan, Eckstein started with a hit list of 150 museums that was eventually whittled to the 75 that appear in the book. He spent a little over a year visiting the institutions to photograph and sketch them and collect stories from curators, guides and visitors.

His illustrations capture the feeling of walking through galleries or pausing to consider an artwork like “Watson and the Shark,” by John Singleton Copley, from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (his wife, artist Tamar Stone, is the woman reading the wall label to the painting’s right). While working on the book, Eckstein said, “I would take photographs, I would do a little bit of sketching, and then I would do the illustrations back in my studio and try to make the museum as sexy, as exciting as could be.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: “Sexy” and “exciting” might not be everyone’s first descriptions of museums.

A: I get so exhilarated going to museums, and I was not a museum person, let’s say, 20 years ago. I went to museums, but now I’m obsessed with museums. I get so excited to see what I’m going to see. I saw more artwork in the last two years than most people see in a lifetime. My head is filled with inspiration.

Q: As a traveler, when you go to a city, do you always go to museums?

A: It is one of the things I’ll do, yes. One of the first things I’ll check out is what’s going on in the way of exhibits and shows to make sure that there’s nothing I’m going to miss.

Q: Have you ever discovered a museum that you really fell in love with?

A: For the book, I went to Los Angeles with a list of museums that I wanted to check out, unaware that there was this one museum called the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and that became my favorite museum. I can’t say much about it except to say that it’s a total mystery and if I share any more it might ruin the experience for someone else. It’s one of the most mind-boggling museums I went to. I like to say it’s like the Andy Kaufman of museums.

Q: There’s certainly a wide variety of museums in the book, from the Museum of Bad Art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How did those get on the list?

A: There were many factors that made a museum make the cut. One of them would be simply entertainment value: making sure that there was a museum for everyone and understanding that not everyone’s going to have a taste for fine art. I wanted to have everyone see that there’s a museum out there for them.

Q: Your own encounters with museums did not start well.

A: As a kid, I think everyone who was brought to their first museum has some of that resistance where they kind of go kicking and screaming. In my case, my mom took me to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and it was kind of dry, and there was a lot of reading, and it wasn’t exactly exciting.

Q: What can make a kid go from a museum hater to a museum lover?

A: I think their first exciting museum experience in most cases is the American Museum of Natural History. There’s less reading. It’s too dark to read. I think museums like that quickly turn around a child’s perspective of what’s fun. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing the stuffed grizzly bear just 12 feet away from you.

Q: For most of the museums, you provide a story about someone’s personal connection to it, like the woman whose autoworker father took her to a van Gogh show at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

A: The stories were very important to the whole book because they make it come alive. The artwork in museums, that’s what people expect, but what people don’t expect is that there’s all this drama happening in museums, different things that could happen with people and their relationships.

Q: How did you select these stories?

A: It was a hard decision to say what are the best stories, but of course some were similar. You can only have so many stories of people proposing in a museum.

Q: Is proposing in a museum a popular thing to do?

A: It is. At MASS MoCA there’s this one room that’s an installation of light. And it’s lit up in a way that makes the horizon line disappear like you’re floating on a cloud.

Q: The James Turrell?

A: Yes. And everyone who goes into that room is asked to please put on protective shoewear to go over their shoes, because the whole room is one piece of art. The people who give out the protection know that someone’s ready to propose when they ask for a third piece to put on one of their knees.

The Frick Collection explained that their rug was worn out in certain spots, and that’s how they could tell which were the most popular pieces of artwork, from the wear and tear.

Q: You include the Mütter medical museum in Philadelphia, and I was a little frightened by your description of the “jars of wet specimens.” I assume those are organs and things like that.

A: Well, you should be petrified. It’s like a “Fear Factor” museum. If you’re into medical history though, it’s a must-go-to. And it is a museum, for the obvious reasons, that kids enjoy going to.

Being grossed out and scared?

Exactly. For most kids. For me, I’d rather go to the automobile museum, but that’s because I’m a wuss.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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