Visiting Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (PMG) had been a trip I had been looking forward to from the start of the semester. This museum was in my neighborhood – I get to walk by Isaiah Zagar’s murals on my way to the grocery store. However, the visit has made me take a closer look at my new community. Within the past two weeks I have noticed at least three new murals!
Magic Gardens is a relatively new institution to Philadelphia as it only became a non-profit organization in 2004 and opened to public visits in 2008. It all started with an artist named Isaiah Zagar who has spent his life enriching the South Street community with murals on both private and public land. There are over 200 of Zagar’s murals in Philadelphia! He used murals as a creative outlet and went on to create an immersive creative space in the lot next to his then South Street home. The developers who owned that land tried to have the it dismantled but the community came together to save the work. In this case, Isaiah’s murals truly are public art because he is member of the community and the community in turn supports his work.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is a museum space that might feel unfamiliar to some visitors. While there are separate spaces like the indoor front gallery, the outside sculpture garden, and the inside back gallery space, it can be hard to distinguish separate pieces or objects within those galleries. The outside sculpture garden is an especially immersive space. There are no wall labels for visitors to reference during their visit, but the museum does offer gallery guides in the sculpture garden and a “Cabinet of Curiosities” in the inside front gallery.
This cabinet is a space that visitors have been interested in pre-transformation. Before it was a teaching tool, inquisitive museum goers would ask what was behind the doors only to be greeted by a storage closet. The folks at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens took a small space that was distracting visitors and turned it into an engaging learning space. The doors are painted with bright colors, fitting in with the surrounding mosaic work, and features the three-armed artist that Isaiah repeats throughout his work. If closed, the doors invite visitors to look inside with the word “open” and “find” painted on them. Once inside, the inside are shelves follow PMG spirit and are also brightly painted. Laminated pictures and flip books with information are available for visitors to explore as well as examples of some of Isaiah’s unique methods. Large wall panels explaining the history of the site are nearby and nicely complement the items in the cabinet. Visitors are able to explore the contents of the cabinet and then head directly outside to apply their new knowledge in the sculpture garden.
Because of the limitations of the space that PMG interprets, this cabinet is an important opportunity for visitors to explore their questions and learn new information in a semi self-directed way. The objects inside contain information about some of Isaiah’s methods and processes and the history of PMG. Visitors are invited to touch objects and look at photos of the site through its development. Visitors get to direct their own exploration of the materials by choosing what appeals to them in the cabinet, but the material has been chosen for them. Any further learning past what the pre-selected objects provide must be done by the visitor and initiated in a different way than the cabinet. This could be through searches on individual smartphones or even asking a gallery guide or other PMG staff member. If possible, the addition of a tablet inside the cabinet would allow all visitors the same chance to further or direct their exploration in their own ways. Perhaps visitors could leave feedback on what additional content they would like to see added to the cabinet to make a more collaborative experience between visitor and museum.
This cabinet is important because it allows visitors the chance to handle some of the items Isaiah uses in his murals in a non-destructive way. The Magic Gardens has had issues with vandalism in the past whether it’s breaking off pieces of folk art or trying to leave notes in the bottles incorporated into walls. Visitors are tempted by almost every aspect of the Magic Gardens to touch things and this cabinet gives them the chance to safely handle specific objects they may be curious about. The education department at PMG takes it a step further and has activities for visitors to create their own objects while there. Options include creating a doily tile following Isaiah’s methods, mosaic blob medallions, and a faux stained-glass hanging. I was so excited when we got to make our own doily tiles on our tour! For a small fee, these activities are available to youth and adult groups. The Philadelphia Magic Gardens takes the basic tactile-experience of the Cabinet of Curiosities and expands it to an even more engaging activity that allows visitors to get a real idea of what it takes to create the murals they are seeing all around them.
Walking along South Street, you are sure to spot at least a few of Isaiah Zagar’s murals. For some, spotting them has become a sort of game and Philadelphia Magic Gardens has even held scavenger hunt events to find them! I hope on your next visit to South Street you will be with a more observant eye and you get the chance to see Isaiah’s work around the neighborhood or at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens!