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Museum of the Modern Snowglobe

This Washington, D.C. globe doubles as a pen holder.

Even now, after the wrenched backs and salt-strewn floors and dump trucks vrooming to get rid of the gravel-covered grime, snow still looks beautiful as it falls, sparkly like glitter in moonlight.

You can have the pleasure without the pain at a new exhibit that keeps the snow where it belongs: under glass. You've seen Somerville's Museum of Bad Art; now try the city's Museum of the Modern Snowglobe.

The museum, established Nov. 6, 2010 and open by appointment, started in the summer of 1997, when Kris Bierfelt's college friends went to Europe. Stuck in Boston, she told them "You at least have to bring me a snowglobe." The cheaper the better, to improve her odds.

They complied. With a vengeance. Like your mom's friend who collects cow gifts, Bierfelt and Jeff Steward became that couple. They got snowglobes from all over. An Allentown amusement park. A York Beach lighthouse. Tampa.

The wave ebbed in 2004, when the couple moved to Cambridge and left the globes in boxes -- until this fall, when Steward and Bierfelt, now 35 and 33, decided to do something different for Vernon Street Open Studios.

tampa.jpgNow about 130 prime specimens line the studio's white walls. Though snowglobes began as hand-blown works of art, you won't see much that's highbrow. The Tampa globe is more the ticket: a bikini babe threatened by a crocodile and leered at by the sun.

Viewed in a group, the globes are somewhat lacking in rhyme and/or reason. Tampa's globe has snow; Perry's Nut House in Belfast, Maine, flamingos and palm trees. Metallic stars in lieu of snow make sense for a Washington, D.C. globe -- but musical notes and dolphins?

Some are beautiful, such as an undeniably cheap globe with a woman in red glitter flames writhing in front of Calvary, or the farthest-flung object, a gold-glitter pyramid from Egypt.

frog.jpg Naturally, the curators have favorites. "For some odd reason I'm very partial to this frog," said Steward. Eyes shut, it folds its hands contemplatively over its clear belly, which holds a San Francisco Chinatown scene. "It's sort of a Buddha frog."

In general, sculpture gets the nod over flat scenes. Gimmicks help: "The Reno one's great because it has floating dice," Steward said. Bierfelt flipped over the Seattle globe to demonstrate "the Space Needle ring toss," she said. "It's so impossible."

However, creativity can run too far amuck. A miniature boat from St. Thomas filled with tiny shells lacked that certain je ne snow quoi.

After only a brief perusal, weak points jump out as well. C'mon, Hersheypark. You could've done so much better than just a flat picture of chocolate bars. Bierfelt nodded: "It doesn't take long to become a connoisseur."

seattle.jpg Bringing the collection public has created an entirely new dimension of fun for the curators. Kids love the exhibit because it's hands-on. For adults, the globes become "total jumping-off points for unrelated stories," Bierfelt said. A recent visitor saw the Great Smoky Mountains globe and started reminiscing about his childhood in New Hampshire.

One visitor even brought her own globe to donate: Mary at the manger, with all the figures made of colorless glass. It lights up. (Donations are welcome, especially from abroad. Just not dollar-store Christmas globes or the Mall of America. The collection's full up on those.)

If they want to learn more, visitors can use a smartphone QR code that's on the exhibit wall, or read explanatory labels.

Labels? That's the trick. Bierfelt and Steward aren't ordinary kitsch-lovers: He works in the Harvard art museums and she's studying for a Tufts Museum Studies certificate.

"We're playing museum and also being serious museum people at the same time," said Bierfelt. "It's not just a goofy collection." It's a testing ground for their thinking about the ideal height of labels and other such obscure concerns.

They have embarked on conservation efforts, refilling part-evaporated globes with distilled water. The online catalog has extensive curatorial data, such as dimensions and donor's name. "The database started 10 years ago because Jeff wanted to teach himself Filemaker Pro," Bierfelt said. "It makes more sense now that it's a museum."

For the next Open Studios this spring, they're brainstorming tech-savvy museum add-ons, like maybe a surface that quivers to agitate the snowglobes, a handheld mobile tour or a computer kiosk that would show snowglobes from places it's actually currently snowing (tough luck, Tampa).

Not to put a rock in the snowball, but the museum might just be documenting a dying rather than a living tradition. Souvenir snowglobes are getting harder to find. The war on terror hurts as well: The Transportation Security Administration explicitly bars them from carry-on luggage. Several friends have gamely checked globes only to have them freeze and burst.

That's the cold for you - a temperature at least one of the curators dislikes, despite her avocation. Bierfelt's favorite globe was an artfully made one from Europe with "really nice snow. It really swirled. It wasn't tacky at all," she said. "If snow was like that it would be OK … beautiful white snow on a castle in Switzerland."

Not Somerville. Alas, that globe has been lost to the snows of time.

Contact Danielle at somervillescene@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter.

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