Private Lives Public Spaces: Finding A Hidden Gem at the Museum of Modern Art

Hillary Hubley

MoMA reopened in fall 2019 with an onslaught of new exhibits and programming. Visitors leapt at the opportunity to see more art in new places, crowding many of the new galleries and admiring the accompanying curatorial choices. However, one exhibit was consistently left unvisited. Over the handful of visits I paid to the museum since its reopening, I was always guaranteed solace in the subterranean “Private Lives, Public Spaces” exhibit.

The galleries are nestled underground on the museum’s B1 and B2 floors. The exhibit consists of scores of monitors, all different sizes, enveloping four walls. On B1 one can see “amateur video” footage from the archives of celebrated artists such as Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol. This part of the exhibit is more reminiscent of a conventional video art curation, with equally sized monitors accompanied by headsets to hear a corresponding audio track. Visitors are still in the line of natural light emanating from the floor-to-ceiling windows on ground level. 

Descending further into the museum’s abyss rewards visitors with an unconventional and unprecedented visual experience. Monitors of different sizes adorn the walls, lighting up the darkened gallery space. They are roughly divided by topic – an “ethnography” wall displays amateur footage of social movements and important events, as well as documentations of urban life more generally. Another wall is dedicated to family. This wall was intended to replicate a wall of family photos, with each monitor projecting a reel of homemade footage. Although it appears modest and unassuming, this wall is perhaps the most private of all. Viewers can spend hours observing how these families lived, and what they elected to document.

The reels selected for the exhibit range in time and place. Some of them belong to public figures in the film industry – such as the Pathé family, Russ Meyer, and Douglas Fairbanks. Others belong to the families of MoMA employees. All were inherited at various stages of preservation, and underwent some level of restoration by the museum.

This exhibit is of some personal significance to me. My grandparents were independent animated filmmakers who used a 16mm camera to document their family life. They had four children including my father, and amassed hours of footage over a 20-year period. This footage has been curated and restored by MoMA and is one of the many home movie collections on view.

It has been a special experience to have 90+ minutes of family history at my fingertips in such a public space. Although times have changed, I often used to find myself ending up at MoMA, giving in to a gravitational pull that takes me to B2. For better or for worse, the gallery is often empty. I’ve had the opportunity to experience it with family and some friends, but never have I encountered a stranger deeply engrossed in my family’s story.

It is interesting to contemplate what museum closures will mean for this exhibit in particular. It would be fairly easy to render my family’s movies – and others – accessible digitally, but a lot may be lost. Although the films were displayed in a public gallery, the experience viewing them was an intimate one. Streaming home movie collections renders the curated experience indistinguishable from that of YouTube or any other video-sharing platform. However, as we move toward lifestyles predicated upon isolating, the thought of watching families living their lives is a comforting one. Migrating this exhibit to another “private space” – the home – would muddle the curatorial message of a collective narrative. But it could also provide an outlet for community in a time of isolation, a proxy for family memory to those who need it.