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Bob Eckstein Has the Perfect Museum for You

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Bob Eckstein Has the Perfect Museum for You
Bob Eckstein Has the Perfect Museum for You

A born New Yorker who lives not far from the Met Cloisters in Upper Manhattan, Mr. 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, the artist Tamar Stone, is the woman reading the wall label to the painting’s right). While working on the book, Mr. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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


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