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MUSEUM TOWN (2020) review

December 28, 2020

written by: Noah Bashevkin, Pola Rapaport, and Jennifer Trainer

produced by: Noah Bashevkin, Robert Gould, Ivy Meeropol, Anders Schroeder, Yukiko Schroeder, and Jennifer Trainer
directed by: Jennifer Trainer
rated: not rated
runtime: 76 min.
U.S. release date: December 18, 2020 (virtual cinema)


Former journalist Jennifer Trainer makes her directorial debut with the documentary “Museum Town”, focusing on a specific location and an intriguing study that lies somewhere between architectural appropriation and anthropological change. It tells the story of how a contemporary art museum arrived in New Adams, a post-industrial town in northwest rural Massachusetts. It’s an informative and beautifully lensed look at how MASS MoCA came to be the museum of its kind in the world and how the location changed with the times in its more than two hundred years of existence.

To provide perspective, the documentary recounts the history of this location from the memories of residents who’ve lived there, some of whom even worked in the buildings that now house this labyrinthian museum. Such a tour through the town’s past offers an eye-opening look at how history in this specific location impacted the area, providing the viewer with another way to take in one’s environment.



Like many American small towns, New Adams used to be a thriving place of commerce with most of the residents working at Sprague Electric Company as World War II started. Sprague took over the enormous complex of 19th century mill buildings that encompassed the location’s 16 acres, a site with interlocking courtyards and passageways complete with bridges, viaducts, elevated walkways and brick facades, all of which left a historic impact in the area and distinctive architectural stamp. At the company’s height, it was hired by the U.S. government to design and manufacture crucial parts for advanced weaponry, one of which was the atomic bomb.

Operating like a town within a town, Sprague continued to produce electrical components, housing physicists, chemists, engineers and technicians, primarily employing women and becoming a community in and of itself. It thrived from the post-war years up until it closed in 1985 due to a booming consumer electronics market and declining sale.

A year later, the business owners and politicians of New Adams were trying to figure out ways to utilize the space. Enter Thomas Krens, who was at the time the director of Williams College Museum of Art and would eventually become the director of the Guggenheim Museum, who was at the time looking for a place to exhibit large works of contemporary art that were too big for typical museum galleries. John Barrett III was the North Adams Mayor at the time and he suggested Krens consider the expansive Marshall Street complex for an exhibition site, which is around the time the notion of repurposing the factory as a contemporary arts center began to formulate.

A colleague of Krens, Joseph C. Thompson, got involved and became a founding director of MASS MoCA, and managed the effort’s launch after Krens left work at the Guggenheim in 1988. This is around the time the Massachusetts legislature voted its support for the project and “Museum Town” includes footage of former Massachusetts governor (and former presidential nominee back in 1988), George Dukakis, supporting the effort. The community and investors from the private sector helped in keeping the project alive and Trainer covers how it took many years and multiple efforts to keep the idea of the museum afloat during the early days.



“Museum Town” gives viewers an idea what many of the local townspeople or businesses thought of a contemporary art museum coming to their town. Many couldn’t quite understand or conceive how it could be a boost to the area’s cultural significance as well as an economic boon. Some simply remember the campus as a place where they used to work at long ago and where they now deceased relatives used to work. Seeing old photos and footage of a functional Sprague and even what the buildings were used for prior to Sprague is one the more interesting aspects of the documentary.

It almost feels like a bit more material could’ve been tacked on about that history, possibly something similar to Bill Morrison’s “Dawson City: Frozen Time”, but it’s obvious the goal here is to bring awareness to viewers who may not have known about MASS MoCA. Count me as on such viewer. I’ll admit, after watching “Museum Town”, I’m already looking into a road trip to the area with a stop at the museum, maybe revolving around a concert in the future.

The marketing for “Museum Town” mentions Meryl Streep as the documentary’s narrator. That’s not a lie, but her voice cannot be heard throughout, just in certain parts. The voices heard, mostly Trainer, Thompson, and Barrett III are sufficient in offering accounts of what transpired and how the buildings and layout transformed to what is now a thriving arts multiplex.



Trainer, who worked at the museum for 28 years and was one of many involved in developing MASS MoCA, focuses on Chicago artist Nick Cave and an upcoming installation, “Until”, he was preparing for at the time of filming. We’re introduced to the different MASS MoCa employees who are involved in assisting Cave as he builds this giant reflection on gun violence, race, and the American Dream. Seeing some of the end result and how people respond to it, serves to remind how vital contemporary art can be in helping people figure out what art can be.

Another interesting inclusion in the film is how MASS MoCA has drawn other artists, ones who aren’t solely known for their visual work. Yes, performance artist Laurie Anderson and musician David Byrne may be known for their songs, but how they adapt certain themes to a specific exhibit they commit to at the museum is fascinating. The film also shows how the museum campus has been utilized for live concert events, featuring the likes of the Chicago band Wilco and music festivals where food & drinks are served (there’s even a coffee house and a brewery on the premise). Speaking of Wilco, the soundtrack for “Museum Town” is supplied by band member John Stirratt, while also featuring songs by the likes of Talking Heads, Sharon Jones, Big Thief, Wilco, and Moses Sumney. The film closed with “Lost in The Dream” by War on Drugs (and the full soundtrack can be found here).



At just over an hour, “Museum Town” could’ve easily benefited from a bit more for viewers to engage with. The “Museum” side of things is great and quite immersive as Trainer and her trio of talented cinematographers, Daniel B. Gold,
Wolfgang Held, and Kirsten Johnson (“Dick Johnson is Dead”) takes us throughout and above the fascinating campus. When it was all over though, I wouldn’t have minded knowing a little more about the history behind New Adams, specifically how a place and a people become a town.

Let’s be honest, we don’t really walk through museums and wonder to ourselves how such a place came to be…what its history is or what changes occurred over the years. This documentary made me rethink the places I step into – that is, if and when I step into such a place again. While “Museum Town” ultimately feels like the kind of content you’d find in a DVD souvenir from a museum gift shop, it nevertheless piques my interest and I’m certain it will do the same for others as well.





This film was released on December 18 in virtual cinemas. Click here to find a Kino Marquee virtual cinema supporting a theater near you.

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