If the Smithsonian is the nation’s attic, then the Open Depot at the Spertus museum can be thought of as Chicago’s cubbyhole. But make no mistake-- this is an extremely slick and well-appointed cubbyhole!
True to its name, Open Depot is open storage functioning as exhibition display that features 1,500 objects, themselves a mere 10% of the museums total collection. Rather than squirreling these items away in museum storage thereby taking them off view, Open Depot provides access to them for visitors. The Depot simultaneously foregrounds the frame of the museum as a depository and puns off that idea in name.
Within this storage unit display is a hodgepodge of objects, ranging from the ritual, represented here by oil lamps and Seder platters, to the domestic and commercial, such as shoes, rings, and sequenced dresses, to handbills, posters, and the exceptional translucent turquoise vinyl 45 record pressed in the shape of a six pointed star.
Rather then usher viewers through the display in the typical chronological and linear fashion, Spertus has leveraged the horseshoe shaped arrangement of display shelves to draw viewers in, surrounding them by both the useful and pretty things that comprise the mammoth display. Within the Depot tiered glass shelves are suspended, and ultimately partitioned by, vertical guide wires that segment the display into a series of bays.
Unlike the taxonomic, Enlightenment era mode of display that most museums employ --from art to natural science museums-- the Open Depot’s objects commingle with each other across shelves and even entire bays. The most visible example of this is also the smallest in size, as the carved wood animal pairs from a Noah’s ark toy set migrate throughout a number of the tiered glass shelves and across about a half dozen of the bays.
Exhibition view of Open Depot. Image courtesy of Spertus.
Open Depot’s transparency is punctuated by moments of private memorial as well, most acutely felt in bay twelve, whose slightly recessed orientation creates a barrier of empty space between the viewer and the objects. A handful of items in this display are obscured from full view, as in the case of burial shrouds hand sewn by Melanie Cahen-Levy, or photographs reportedly depicting naked prisoners of concentration camps, which are displayed face down, because, as stated in the didactic take away pamphlet that accompanies the display, “Naked bodies, dead and alive, are an emblem of dehumanization, and Spertus Museum did not feel ethically able to display them.”
Lest the myriad points of entry into and the navigation across the items in Open Depot seem daunting, Spertus provides its visitors with an ongoing series of Mini Depot Exhibitions, which occupy the first bay of the display and showcase new acquisitions and special highlights from their collection. The museum also offers lunchtime tours of the display.
Before leaving, make sure to check out the uniquely situated video installation by Ranbir Kaleka. The audio for the piece is affixed to the balcony ledge located just off to the side of the Open Depot and its projection and installation straddles the length of the museum space, re-appearing on the opposite balcony adjacent to the window wall façade.
--Thea Liberty Nichols