Tokens of Regard

New York

23 June 2017

For about four decades now, on occasion, members of the design community have been receiving a slim black volume tucked into their morning post.

This is Pentagram Papers, distributed free and unasked-for by the eponymous graphic design firm, which describes the series as “curious, entertaining, stimulating, provocative, and occasionally controversial.” That leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre, and the volumes – now 47 in number – vary widely in their content, if not their format. The latest is a masterpiece.

Designed by Pentagram partner Luke Hayman, it is a study in simplicity. The cover bears an enigmatic embossed white shape, impressed with the number 1. Turn the cover and the shape is seen again, this time from the back, with a handwritten label: “Geffen 1/9/11.” Opposite, a title page reads simply “Museum Collection.” A further page on, the shape repeats again, this time with the legend: “The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA / Los Angeles California USA.” The coin drops: this is a coat check token. Facing is a locker key, bearing the number 2, from the Blanton Museum in Austin, Texas.

The rest of the book goes quickly. Every page has a different claim token or locker key from a different museum. They are sequential, initially numerical, 3, 4, 5, then leaping erratically, 27, 37, 38, B49. By the last page, depicting a paper Office Depot ticket numbered 311242, the reader has taken a journey round the world that is both typographic and typological. Certain keys repeat. A short orange-handled model emerges as a hidden correspondence between the Skidmore’s Tang Museum, the Portland Museum of Art, MASS MoCA, and the New Bedford Whaling Museum. A few items, like the New Museum’s slender black token, seem purposefully chosen. But most are random, and some surprisingly shoddy, like the V&A’s broken plastic tag, or the Pompidou’s hand-scrawled paper slip.

The book ends with an attribution page, to the artist Brent Birnbaum; and finally, a foldout poster, with a map of all the museums on one side, and a grid of the book’s 48 items on the other. It turns out that Birnbaum collected these objects – another way to put it would be that he stole them – over the course of five years. Though many of his other projects also involve accumulations of everyday things, from mini-fridges to treadmills, Birnbaum says of building the Museum Collection, “I actually hated the process. I think it’s my Texas gentleman upbringing.” Each item represents a small transgression, a betrayal of the institutional honour system. Start thinking about it, and you begin thinking about the implications: the many coats and bags he left behind, the lockers suspiciously abandoned, each one a probe into the raw nervous system of our security-obsessed times.

On the other hand, Birnbaum’s collection also bespeaks a deep dedication to museums. While essentially worthless, it could not be remade without extraordinary expense and effort, given its international reach. Like a trail of breadcrumbs, it traces a cultural pilgrimage. The tokens memorialise serial encounters with museums and their staff, transactions that hover below the institution’s typical level of regard. I asked Birnbaum if what he’d left behind was also part of the project. He said no, it wasn’t. But on one occasion, at the Geffen, as it happens, he did have a sudden whim. Before checking in his bag, he put in a six-pack and a little note: “this one’s on me.”