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A ‘serious museum’ in a tourist playground

Walking northward along Washington Ave., you might pass a few Sunsations beach stores, a falafel shop, and a tattoo parlor. But tucked between a late night diner and a pizza place sits a peculiar museum, one that houses the country’s largest collection of modernist materials. The objects in the museum range from rare books, to furniture, to decorative art. The library has an especially robust collection of objects from international exhibitions like the world’s fairs, propaganda materials, and design and art.

Micky Wolfson Jr
Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson, Jr. (Courtesy of E. Louis Jay)

And they were all collected by one man — Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson, Jr.

The Wolfsonian’s location compliments its quirky interior, according to director Tim Rodgers. “I think it works for us,” he said. “It keeps up with Micky Wolfson’s larger vision. Looking at all the objects [on display], you’ll find the odd juxtaposition of things — because that’s what will inspire imagination, creativity, and thought. So when you juxtapose this ‘serious’ museum against a tourist playground, I think it creates the right friction.”

Wolfson, who was born in Miami, has lived all around the world. He began his collection with hotel keys, because he realized that “they were objects of identity … so they were kind of opening the doors to new identities,” Wolfson said in a phone interview from Genoa, Italy, where he lives for part of the year.

Over the course of his lifetime, Wolfson’s curiosity about the identity of objects has driven him to amass more than 180,000 objects, ranging in time from the 1850s to 1950s. “Together, they tell a story. It’s the language of objects, and each one is like the alphabet. When you put them all together it’s like a mosaic — they tell the story of the human condition,” Wolfson said.

Wolfson collected objects ranging from buttons at the World’s Fair to paintings on display at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The museum features objects that represent the breadth and depth of society, from the poorest to the top 1%.

In focusing intently on a select slice of history, objects in The Wolfsonian represent a much larger range of society than is typically displayed in museums, according to Rodgers. The museum digs deep into a century of time, representing people from the poorest pauper to the richest moguls. “I think there are couple of unusual things about The Wolfsonian — we hone in and look mostly at objects of North American and European origin during the period from 1850 to 1950, so we’re not involved with all of mankind and are not so specialized that we only do contemporary art like some other museums,” Rodgers said.

While Wolfson’s collection currently lives in The Wolfsonian Museum on Miami Beach, this wasn’t always his intention when he began collecting. It started out of pure impulse and curiosity about the world around him. When he filled up his own home with materials, he “would con anyone into housing the collection,” Wolfson recalls. “I even asked the Washington Storage Company on Miami Beach to store my collection, and finally it got so large and took up so much space that the owner told me I would either have to buy the building or move my items because there was no space for anything else.”

So, he bought the building, and turned it into a study and research center. Eventually the public got curious, and by 1986, the center became the The Wolfsonian Museum, with the goal of preserving, studying and showcasing Mitchell Wolfson Jr.’s collection. Through the course of seven years, objects were unpacked, catalogued, and researched at a rate of 300 items per month. By 1992, the building was enlarged and renovated into the 56,000 square foot facility that exists today.

But even still, the museum is not quite big enough to house Wolfson’s entire collection, so some of the objects are stored in a historic 28,000-square-foot warehouse now known as the Wolfsonian Annex on Miami Beach.

By 1997, Wolfson had donated his entire collection and its historic building to the State of Florida, and the museum became a part of Florida International University. “I didn’t have a sense of possession [of the objects], I was just curious, like an archeologist. I’m interested in the identity of the object, not exactly the object itself, “ Wolfson said. “I never had the urge to own any of it, that’s why I gave it all away.”

The museum’s inaugural exhibition at its Miami Beach location was entitled The Arts of Reform and Persuasion, 1885–1945, and featured more than 256 objects from the museum’s collection — illuminating how leaders throughout Europe and America used design to shape public opinion and forge national identities.

In 1996, The Wolfsonian opened its permanent collection, Art and Design in the Modern Age, while continuing to curate temporary exhibitions every year. The museum’s current exhibitions are Philodendron and Margin of Error.

“Both exhibits draw heavily on the permanent collection as well as borrow items from other institutions to help complete the story we are trying to tell,” Rodgers said. Philodendron features a pop-up jungle installation in the museum’s lobby, demonstrating the cross-cultural influence of Latin American plant life on U.S. and European design. Meanwhile, Margin of Error explores cultural responses to man’s engineering mastery. It traces technological ambition, sometimes from great triumph to grave perils.

The museum also features programming and events for the public, hoping to engage both tourists and locals alike as they stroll through the heart of South Beach, and find themselves captivated by the unexpected museum on their way to the beach.

When asked why Wolfson decided to donate this massive collection to Florida, and specifically host it in Miami Beach, he said “it was a gesture of loyalty to where I came from, and it was an attempt to change the perception of Miami Beach from a playground to a participating world class community.”

Whether visitors come from across the world, or just across the street, the Wolfsonian will have something for them. “The world is made up of multiple identities … these objects the reflect those many identities,” Wolfson said.

And where’s home for Wolfson now?

“Home is where I am right now, where I hang my clothes,” he said with a playful smile that could be heard in his voice across the Atlantic Ocean.