PRINT November 2004



Throughout his career, Mark Dion has engaged classificatory systems in both the natural sciences and museological practices, underscoring not only how we order the messy boundaries between nature and culture, but also the more contested dynamics of control and exclusion manifested by acts of social policy and cultural preservation. He has collected plant, rock, and animal specimens in locales as diverse as the Amazon and New York’s Chinatown; rearranged the holdings of natural and cultural history museums in Switzerland and Spain; and conducted archaeological digs in New England and London. Now he turns his critical eye to the Museum of Modern Art. For a project commissioned to coincide with the opening of MoMA’s new building this month, Dion examined the construction site—and, more specifically, the architectural artifacts that were removed or destroyed to make way for the museum’s expansion.

Rescue Archaeology was first conceived as a dig in MoMA’s renowned sculpture garden, where Dion could focus on the remains of two town houses given to the museum by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and razed in 1939 to make space for MoMA at its present location. Ultimately, however, Dion widened his investigation to include the demolition of the neighboring Dorset Hotel and two brownstones, structures the museum purchased in the ’90s. In turn, Dion’s undertaking begins very provocatively to resemble Rockefeller’s creation of the Cloisters in New York in 1938, where the philanthropist attempted to reconstruct a past culture by collating material from heterogeneous sources into an apparently coherent entity. More important, Dion’s project becomes an active construction of a social and mnemonic space that stands in for larger processes of urban disappearance and renewal in New York’s cityscape and street life, of which MoMA is a part.

Christian Rattemeyer


This project really started in 2000, when MoMA first began excavating its sculpture garden, and the curators Roxana Marcoci and Paulo Herkenhoff contacted me with the idea of an archaeology-related work involving the site. Originally the entire dig would have focused on the garden, including remnants of a Bruce Nauman piece the artist buried there. But almost immediately the MoMA strike happened, and everything halted. By the time the strike ended, most of the excavation had already been done. We were left with the exposed foundation and basement of the Rockefeller town house. Instead of an archaeological site, I was confronted with an open ditch, and the stratification and context of any artifacts had been destroyed beyond recovery.

Fortunately, there’s a model for handling this kind of situation called rescue archaeology, in which archaeologists have more or less lost a battle with developers but are allowed to briefly access a site at the beginning of, or during, a demolition. They just take things, without always practicing analytical procedures on-site. That seemed to be the most appropriate way to think about this project: salvage. Unlike my other projects, I was forced to do the MoMA dig alone, using only buckets and a trowel. There had been no time to put together a team, and the dig itself was so unpredictable that Roxana would call and say, “I think we can get to the site today.” The entire endeavor was a bit amateur, more akin to a nerd with a metal detector than rigorous urban archaeology.

I became very interested in the slated demolition of the other nearby buildings: the massive Dorset Hotel and two brownstones on Fifty-third Street. I always had a fondness for the brownstones and was a little bit dismayed that they were just going to disappear. After negotiating with the contractors, I had one afternoon in the hotel to find and remove anything that would in some way embody this building, its history and purpose. In the brownstones, I found wallpaper scraps, bits of a fresco—remnants of the activities that had gone on there. A great deal had already been destroyed. I was conscious that this was all that would remain of each of these buildings. The Rockefeller town houses were gone, and the little I had been able to excavate was very degraded. In the Dorset, things were in the process of being demolished, but the artifacts were strictly contemporary; on the other hand, the brownstones were mostly abandoned, and though the wrecking ball hadn’t come close to them yet, they were really on the verge of oblivion. My project became a consideration of the process of disappearance, of something that was about to be erased; something in the middle of being erased; and something already gone that existed only as traces.

The installation of Rescue Archaeology, 2000–2004, has three major elements: a laboratory based on an existing archaeological lab in downtown Manhattan, a massive aluminum cabinet containing artifacts, and three fireplaces from the brownstones. Atop the mantels, I’ve arranged a variety of ephemera, including archival photographs and matchbooks from the Dorset, as well as artifacts from the dig. I think it’s necessary that viewers know there were three sites, but I have no interest in identifying the individual objects. The way I combine them makes it difficult in most cases for someone to tell what came from where. However, people still have memories of the sites. Artifacts from a restaurant that was in one of the brownstones, for example, should register with anyone who ate there. This recognition factor is important to me: I’m always trying to introduce subjectivity into the scientific structure, and all my archaeological projects hinge on the viewer’s being somehow included. Traditional archaeology is interested in time periods that are exclusive, of which we can’t possibly feel a part. Yet my project contains something very personally charged, and some people will feel a relationship to the Carlton cigarette package, the Fanta bottle top, or the pull-tab beer ring.

Of course, the whole premise of archaeology is that you can gain knowledge about a society based on its material culture. Obviously, that’s true to an extent, but inevitably there’s a lot missing, and a lot is conjecture. Archaeology is always about what lasts, and essentially what lasts is glass, ceramics, and building materials. So in some way there is an element of Thanatos in looking at your own culture with the kind of distance you’d have with a ruin. That’s clearly the conceit here, but these archaeological projects also represent continuity, an experience of history that goes before as well as beyond our era.