Building a museum, brick by brick

A confession: I’m an AFOL—that’s internet shorthand for “Adult Fan of LEGO.”

As a kid, I spent many hours playing with my Classic Space sets. I’ve kept the bricks in an old green dishpan, occasionally getting them out for friends’ kids to play with or to cobble together something of my own. A few years back, my friend H. invited me on a trip to the LEGO store, where I built a couple of custom minifigs. I happened to pack one of those minifigs with me on a 2014 choir trip to Scotland. Along the way I started snapping pics of the minifig in various sites, resulting in the “The Adventures of Barry and Fitch.” (Tumblr displays the series in reverse chronological order, so you have to scroll down a ways to start at the beginning.)

Barry (a LEGO minifig) and Fitch (a mini cow) view a sweeping vista of the Scottish Highlands
Barry and Fitch take in the splendor of the Scottish Highlands

Later that year I came across a review of the LEGO “Museum Break-In” set by the head of security at the Getty Museum. I couldn’t resist going out and buying it as a Christmas present to myself—my first adult LEGO set purchase. It sits on a bookshelf in my museum office, with LEGO Bob Ross alongside painting a scholar stone.

LEGO Museum and Bob Ross
Bob Ross paints in plein air, oblivious to the shenanigans ensuing at the LEGO Museum.

More recently, I purchased a box of assorted LEGOs at IKEA to keep on my office desk (the lack of inscrutable building directions in the box seems like a missed branding opportunity). When I need a moment of decompression or creative spark, I pull out some bricks and start building. One of my first LEGO “doodles” was something that could pass for MOCRA’s building. Intrigued, I took my little model home and supplemented it with some of my dishpan bricks: LEGO MOCRA Mark I.


Before long I thought, surely I can improve the proportions. So, I went back to my trusty dishpan and cobbled together a patchwork LEGO MOCRA Mark II prototype. With the help of Bricklink, and some spare bricks from H., I procured the pieces to realize Mark II—only to discover that I still hadn’t quite got the proportions I was aiming for. Once again it was back to the dishpan and then Bricklink to arrive at LEGO MOCRA Mark III.

The essentials, the lines, the structure, were all there. Now I could focus on tweaking aspects of the build to achieve finer details. One more trip to Bricklink and finally: MOCRA Mark IV. You’ll note a certain Director welcoming visitors to the museum; the cat hairs on the slacks are an added element of verisimilitude.

For comparison, here are some shots of the actual building.

Maybe it’s fitting that I had the impulse to craft a LEGO MOCRA, as I’ve been involved with MOCRA almost since its inception, and thus had many opportunities to help shape a respected and vibrant small academic museum. Since creative play can provide inspiration and insights into the “real world,” here are some reflections on LEGO MOCRA and the actual museum.

The big picture and the details

Just as a good metaphor draws out the essence of the object of comparison, a model can help us see the clear outlines of a scenario by omitting extraneous detail. Models make projects or problems more manageable through generalization, or by focusing on one dimension in isolation. 

Building LEGO MOCRA provided an opportunity to visualize the museum’s physical plant in a new way, as I closely considered the proportions and interrelationships of the elements of the building. Working at microscale, I knew that there were certain details I could only allude to, like the narrow upper clerestory windows. LEGO MOCRA expresses the essence of the building.

Planning exhibitions and programming often begins with a degree of generalization, sketching ideas in broad strokes, followed by a period of refinement, of sharpening details and trimming away what is unnecessary. Hopefully the result is clear alignment with the museum’s mission, a focus on what is essential, and an efficient use of resources. On a larger scale, scenario planning uses narrative models to imagine possible futures, consider their implications for the museum, and explore possible paths forward to meet those futures.

Going back to the dishpan

As I developed LEGO MOCRA, I tried out a variety of approaches to modeling different features of the museum. Some worked, some didn’t. The process was akin to musical improvisation, where an underlying chordal structure or other rubric grounds a musician’s spontaneous expression. LEGO bricks have a certain logic and established ways of using them. But sometimes you turn a “headlight” around and suddenly you have a stained-glass window.

I bought a number of bricks I ended up not using. I had to be willing to recognize that what I thought would work, didn’t, and return to the drawing board. Yet my ventures to Bricklink weren’t wasted: going through the catalog of parts, I discovered bricks and colors that opened new possibilities.

This process reminds me of design thinking.  This methodology has gained traction in the museum field, with its process of identifying a problem, ideating and exploring possible solutions, iteratively prototyping and testing possible solutions, and implementing the final solution. Design thinking benefits from patience, humility, and a good sense of humor, and it entails a degree of risk by encouraging the involvement of end users (i.e., giving up a measure of control) and embracing failure.

Keeping up on inventory

I got some ribbing from friends whom I was updating on the progress of LEGO MOCRA, because I was drawing up parts lists and documenting each stage of the build.

And to be sure, it was sometimes a hassle, especially when I realized mid-build I could do something in a better way. I would disassemble back to a prior step, and start again, taking fresh pictures and updating the parts lists. 

My artist friend Con has sold me on the value of documentation and reflection when working on a project, especially a collaborative one. Arriving at the end of one problem-solving process is often the start of the next one, and it’s helpful when you can review where you’ve been, and why, before figuring out where you’re headed next. Documentation takes time and it’s tempting to gloss over it. But it’s invaluable for continuity at a museum from one generation of employees to the next, or even for long-time employees to pause and ask, why are we doing it this way again? What was the original reason for doing this, and do those conditions still exist, or is it time to reassess?

At MOCRA, this happened a couple of years ago when we changed our public schedule to add some evening hours. After twenty-some years with the same public hours, we realized that MOCRA wasn’t open at times students were likely able to visit. The public hours initially had been set to reflect a typical office work week, and weren’t that different from those offered at other area museums—and we had never re-examined them to see if they were working for the visiting public.

Reflection, revision and rebuilding are critical in the bigger picture. As was highlighted at the recent conferences of the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, COVID-19 has disrupted museum financial and operating models and exposed inequities and unexamined biases in staffing, collecting, and interpretation. It has brought to the fore questions about who is welcome at museums and the barriers that museums raise. (You can find some of my musings on this topic here.)

Scraping the bottom of the dishpan

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” it’s said, and scarcity can inspire creativity. To prototype LEGO MOCRA, I rummaged scuffed, faded bricks from my bin to combine with fresh bricks and even some off-brand ones (shhh). The result was charming, in a scruffy kind of way, but far from polished. As a “small-but-scrappy” museum, MOCRA operates on a modest budget with a minimal staff complement. As at many small museums, it’s sometimes a hand-to-mouth existence. But we’re adept at making the most of our resources and finding creative solutions with frugal means.

With both LEGOS and life, economic realities sometimes help clarify what is essential. I thought I’d try out the “headlight” piece in a few different colors to see what would best simulate the lower gallery windows . . until I discovered that one of those colors was extremely rare, and the only supplier who had the dozen I would need was charging $10.50 apiece for the part. $130 was not in the budget for an option I might or might not use. I only ordered the clear transparent version—and it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.

Similarly, economics can sometimes rule out a course of action, freeing a museum to let go of an untenable option and invest resources in better ways. For instance, a members program could be a great way to build an engaged audience and raise financial support . . . until you realize the high upfront and sustained investment of staff time and budget needed for a successful program would compromise the museum’s primary work. And so you seek other ways to raise funds and to engage audiences.

However, sometimes the better choice is to invest the money and staff resources to accomplish the goal at hand. While the parti-colored LEGO MOCRA prototypes achieved the right dimensions and shapes, I needed to custom order parts in the correct colors to achieve the desired finish. The prototyping process allowed me to accurately determine what I actually needed, rather than spend in a scattershot way. This leads to a final observation.

Minding the gap

In any project or endeavor, there will be a gap between our intention and the realization, between the plan and the execution of the plan. Sometimes those gaps spur us to revisit and refine our plans, to make LEGO MOCRA Mark II and Mark III and Mark IV. And sometimes we realize that there’s no sense in letting perfect be the enemy of good. Or, as Seth Godin says pithily, “If it doesn’t ship, it doesn’t count.” 

The gap can be uncomfortable, especially for those of us with perfectionist tendencies. It might feed a lurking impostor syndrome, or stoke envy of museums with more robust staff rosters and budgets. But it’s also a helpful reality check, an opportunity to inventory your resources and prioritize what you’re going to do with them. And the gap leaves space to move, to adjust, rework, and improve. If there’s no gap, there’s no more to be done than maintain, and creative energy dissipates.

I’m pretty happy with LEGO MOCRA at the moment. This round of ideation, prototyping, and implementation is complete. Still, I’m sure eventually there will a Mark V (and perhaps the Director will get a pair of slacks without cat hair on them). Or maybe I should grab some bricks out of the box on my desk and start dreaming up an expansion to the museum with an experimental gallery and community gathering spaces . . . 

David Brinker
Director, MOCRA

Reflecting on “Good Friday”

It is gratifying to report that an article I wrote appeared in the Fall/Winter 2009 issue of Aquinas Institute of Theology‘s Signatures magazine. (In the interest of full disclosure I must note that I am presently in graduate studies at AI.) You can find the article online here (it begins on page 9 of the PDF file).

I was invited to write on the intersection of art and religion, drawing on my experiences working at MOCRA. Had I been asked a year prior, I would probably have written generally about the museum’s mission and the ground we’ve covered in our exhibitions. But coming on the heels of MOCRA’s Good Friday exhibition, I knew just where I wanted to go with the article.

“The Presence of God in Art” describes the power that Good Friday held for several groups who engaged with the art as a form of theological reflection and prayer. Over the course of almost 15 years I have given presentations to dozens of groups of all ages and from all walks of life. Often the observations made, and the discussion they spark, can be quite revelatory, both about the work of art at hand and about the people making the remarks. However, there was a marked difference with the group discussions that took place with Good Friday.

An explicit invitation to approach the art in an attitude of meditation or prayer seemed to unlock a door for a number of our visitors who, even in a group setting, were willing to make themselves quite vulnerable in sharing their reflections about the art. These discussions also left me feeling more exposed than usual in my role as docent/moderator, both in receiving the visitors’ observations, and in leaving my accustomed “neutral” stance regarding the work to express more openly some of my personal responses.

I invite you to read the article and share your responses. For instance,

  • If you saw the Good Friday exhibition, did you experience responses similar to those I describe in the article?
  • Does the idea of approaching art this way leave you feeling ambivalent or even opposed?
  • Could (or should) something like this take place in a “public” art museum?
  • Or do MOCRA’s particular mission and setting on a university campus give us latitude to do things other institutions can’t safely attempt?
  • Given that Good Friday has a clearly Christian point of departure, and that the groups I described were coming from a standpoint of Christian faith, is this sort of exhibition and approach to art transferable to art from other faith traditions?

You might reply to this post, or you can e-mail me through MOCRA’s website. If I receive enough interesting responses, I’ll incorporate them into a future post.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

The not-so-big dig

When your museum is part of a university, you occasionally encounter matters beyond your control that nonetheless have an impact on your life. Consider, for example, the case of MOCRA’s front lawn, a courtyard shared with the rest of the Fusz Memorial building. Several weeks ago, we noticed that a section of the lawn was not draining as well as usual. In fact, it was coming to look alarmingly like a wetlands, and was becoming quite popular with the campus bird and squirrel population.

After some intramural attempts at remedying the situation failed to dry things out, our facilities crew called in some reinforcements. I looked out MOCRA’s lobby doors on Monday morning to see …

Backhoe at MOCRA's door.
... a backhoe at MOCRA's door.

I popped outside, camera in hand, to document the proceedings.

No, MOCRA is not under renovation.
No, MOCRA is not under renovation.

The suspected culprit was a water line feeding from a city main that runs down the campus mall. First, a precautionary shut-off of the water to the building.

Don't you hate it when you drop your keys?
Don't you hate it when you drop your keys?

Then the digging began. Early estimates were that they might have to go down as far as 18 feet to find the pipe, which would result in a terraced series of cuts into the lawn.

The first cut, contrary to popular song, is not the deepest.
The first cut, contrary to popular song, is not the deepest.

It was starting to act like quick-mud. I watched a worker from the grounds crew sink in up to his knee a few days prior to the dig.
It was starting to act like quick-mud. I watched a worker from the grounds crew sink in up to his knee a few days prior to the dig.

Still haven't found those keys.
Still haven't found those keys.

Fortunately for all concerned, the pipe was encountered less than 7 feet down. Even at that depth, the crew had already had to cut through some stubborn Missouri clay.

Wait, there they are!
Wait, there they are!

The pipe indeed had a break in it. In short order they replaced that section and filled everything back in.

Almost as if they were never there ... almost.
Almost as if they were never there ... almost.

Now we wait to see if the problem is solved or if there are additional cracks in the pipe. Our thanks to the grounds and facilities crews, and to the contractors, for their efforts to rectify the situation. Although we’ll miss the spectacle of squirrels floating in the puddles with their water wings, we’ll be glad to look out our door onto good solid (and dry) ground.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

Farewell to the Frigidaire

An essential element of MOCRA’s personality as a museum is the building itself. It began its existence in 1954 as a chapel, part of the Fusz Memorial complex  that included dormitories and dining facilities for Jesuits studying philosophy at Saint Louis University.

By 1990, the Jesuits had relocated to a different building nearby, and the University acquired the Fusz Memorial. The dorms and dining hall were quickly repurposed for student housing, but the chapel remained vacant until University President Rev. Lawrence Biondi, S.J., accepted Rev. Terrence Dempsey, S.J.’s  proposal to use the space for a museum of contemporary interfaith art.  The transformation of Fusz Chapel into MOCRA was soon underway.

Fusz Chapel prior to the MOCRA renovation.
Fusz Chapel prior to the MOCRA renovation.

Installation view, Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art, at MOCRA, 1993.
Installation view, Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art, at MOCRA, 1993.

Much about the chapel has changed over the years, but for MOCRA’s first fifteen years there has been one constant anchor to the building’s history:

The venerable Fusz Chapel Frigidaire refrigerator.
The venerable Fusz Chapel Frigidaire refrigerator

We don’t know exactly when this General Motors Frigidaire was installed in the chapel sacristy. It’s quite likely that is was chugging away for over fifty years without complaint. (Although, we might have neglected to defrost the freezer compartment as frequently as we should have — the frost free models apparently did not show up until 1958).

The GM Frigidaire crest
The GM Frigidaire crest

A cursory glance at the history of the Frigidaire refrigerator is enough to set one thinking about the way that technological innovation and the forces of consumerism carry us from a product that meets a basic need (preventing food spoilage) in a rudimentary fashion, to the sleek, convenience-encrusted appliances of today.

Recently we gave in to the inexorable press of progress. Last week the venerable GM Frigidaire was defrosted for the last time and its plug pulled (likely the first time that has happened since it was first put into service). Its place has been taken by a new Frigidaire, one that is more energy and space efficient and several decibels quieter — yet rather generic in its lines.

The new Frigidaire
The new Frigidaire

The new Frigidaire crest, though it strives to evoke a retro space-age feel, loses any panache when expressed in plastic.

The new Frigidaire crest
The new Frigidaire crest

So we bid a fond farewell to our old Frigidaire as we begin stocking the new one (and enjoying the luxury of frost-free living). It’s another little mile marker as we continue into our sixteenth year at MOCRA. It’s also a prompt to pause and remember all who, like that old refrigerator, have labored reliably and consistently, often underappreciated, over the years.

For all who work to fulfill society’s basic needs, and do so with quiet determination, we say thank you. And to all who live with uncertainty in this patch of economic quicksand, we offer support and hope.

Happy Labor Day. May you and yours have a restful holiday. We hope to see you on September 13 for Michael Byron: Cosmic Tears.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

Updated MOCRA website

Several of our summer projects at MOCRA have focused on internal improvements — behind-the-scenes tweaks and improvements that visitors won’t ever see directly, but hopefully will result in better exhibitions and better service to our visitors.

One of our projects, however, is one that we hope many visitors will experience directly. We’ve launched an updated and expanded MOCRA website.


Among the notable features are improved navigation (including a left-hand menu bar and cookie trails); more robust visitor information; and an expanded selection of related links and resources.

It won’t win any Webbys, to be sure, but we hope visitors will find it to be a welcoming and useful site. It is a work in progress, so please send us your feedback…do you have suggestions on the organization and layout of the site? Any broken links we need to fix? Related links to recommend? Let us know!

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

Good Friday on Good Friday

It seems that every time I post I’m explaining the infrequency of our updates. But I’m pleased to say it’s just because we have been so busy.

The “Art and the Religious Imagination” conference was well received. Pamela Ambrose and Gerald Bolas gave distinct but complementary reflections on the way art museums can present the religious art in their collections in innovative ways. Charles Bouchard used the works in Good Friday to examine theological thought on the question of human suffering. (Sadly, Kevin Burke had to cancel due to a family emergency, but we anticipate inviting him back next spring.) A dynamic question-and-answer session followed, with some excellent insights from audience members.

A few pictures are included below, and we’ll try to have summaries of the talks available soon.

In the meantime, we are preparing for Good Friday on Good Friday. MOCRA’s Easter weekend hours are:

Friday, April 10, 2009 (Good Friday) 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Saturday, April 11, 2009 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m
Sunday, April 12, 2009 (Easter) closed

To our readers observing Pesach or Holy Week, we wish you a season of peace and holiness.

More about that wall

The wall that is now in the middle of the main gallery didn’t materialize out of thin air. It’s actually been hanging around MOCRA since it was built for the Fred Brown exhibition in 1996. Since then it has split in two, wandered up onto the sanctuary platform, come back together for the Latin American photography show, supported curtains for the Andy Warhol Silver Clouds exhibitions and a rear projection screen for Miao Xiaochun’s Last Judgment in Cyberspace, and most recently doing what it was originally made for: holding Fred Brown’s “Madonna and Child” and “Descent into Hell.”

The walls don’t move themselves, of course. Relocation involves a careful coordination of muscle, carpet scraps, shims, and (of course) at least a couple of staff members to supervise and offer helpful comments.

Once the wall was in place this time, it certainly shook up the typical MOCRA floor plan. Though the giant nave is now split, I can’t say it feels fractured. It serves a great function by creating a line between stages of the Passion of Christ.

— Bob Sullivan, Museum Assistant

Preconceived Notions

Roughly two years ago, I decided to do a solo gallery walk around Grand Center and other areas of St. Louis. I compiled a list of galleries and museums through a Google search. There was one venue that stood out amongst names such as The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, The Sheldon Art Galleries, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Saint Louis University Museum of Art and Bruno David Gallery. That venue was MOCRA, the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art.

Outward Movement, 1948. Oil on canvas.
Oskar Fischinger, "Outward Movement," 1948. Oil on canvas. © and Collection of Fischinger Trust.

I was worried about what I would see in a museum of strictly contemporary religious art. Visions of Werner Sallman’s Head of Christ almost prevented me from walking through those doors, but, as a student of art, I decided it was in my best interest to venture into uncomfortable territory.

The exhibition on display was Oskar Fischinger: Movement and Spirit. As I made my way through the side chapels turned galleries, a calmness took over. The museum had low light levels and was quiet… it sounded like an empty church (MOCRA is housed in a building that was once a chapel). There was a meditative presence in Fischinger’s technique… you could see that each line was painted one at a time with a steady hand. It was clear to me the man who painted these works was patient and deliberate.

In particular, the painting Outward Movement struck me as a tremendous example of Fischinger’s technique. There must be hundreds of gridded squares made with thousands of individual lines. They are placed one on top of the other and give a true illusion of outward movement from the center of the canvas. Fischinger used no stamps or silkscreen techniques when creating this work. He placed each line in position with a brush… one at a time… carefully spaced… producing a painting that captures your attention.

The connection of that exhibit to MOCRA’s mission was not obvious, but it was there. The act of creating paintings for Oskar Fischinger was a form of meditation, which is a common practice in most religions. And, because the religious connection was not “in my face,” I walked away with a better understanding of the spiritual as MOCRA presents it to its visitors. It is not sentimental. It is not aggressive. It is not obvious. It is something else entirely.

–Bob Sullivan, Museum Assistant

[According to the Fischinger Trust, Fischinger’s original title for Outward Movement was Manhattan.]


Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art, at MOCRA, 1993.
Installation view, "Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art," at MOCRA, 1993.

MOCRA’s inaugural exhibition opened Sunday, February 14, 1993. Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art featured more than 100 works from an wide-ranging roster of artists, including

Seyed Alavi Steven Heilmer Jim Morphesis
Lita Albuquerque Tobi Kahn Daniel Ramirez
Craig Antrim Paul Kos James Rosen
Nick Boskovich Frank LaPeña Susan Schwalb
Frederick Brown Charlotte Lichtblau Thomas Skomski
Michael David Stephen Luecking Kazuaki Tanahashi
Stephen De Staebler Bernard Maisner Michael Tracy
Eleanor Dickinson Ann McCoy Brian Tripp
Donald Grant

MOCRA’s Founding Director, Terrence Dempsey, S.J., noted at the time that

Sanctuaries offers an overview of a movement that gained momentum in the 1980s and has grown in strength in the early 1990s. A generation of artists have begun to renew their interest in the religious and spiritual dimensions of art, and within the last dozen years or so they have achieved recognition in the mainstream art world for the spiritual concerns which form the substance of their work.

Fr. Dempsey had assembled an extensive list of such artists in the course of writing his doctoral dissertation. These artists were generally in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. They tended to be disillusioned with the celebrity mentality of the 1980s and in response were seeking the “spiritual.” Their faith or religious practices were not always particularly orthodox, and in fact many would draw from various beliefs and philosophies.

Fr. Dempsey had concluded from his research that this artistic concern with the religious and spiritual dimensions was pervasive and yet not an organized movement, having no group manifesto. For the artists, this pursuit was risky. One artist, warned that his work would not sell, replied that the ideas were too important to ignore, whether or not the art was salable. Fr. Dempsey reflected,

For some of them, having faith is tough. They have to struggle. These are not commissioned works-they are the work of an artist pursuing personal vision or questions. … These artists have often been met with indifference and sometimes suspicion by religious and cultural institutions. Yet they have pursed this exploration even when it was financially unwise. They have done so because they perceived something was in danger of being lost: a sense of mystery, ritual, tradition-a sense that a major dimension of being human was being ignored.

The title Recovering the Holy in part alludes to the rediscovery by many contemporary artists of the power of art with a spiritual dimension to engage the viewer affectively. Indeed, said Fr. Dempsey, their art is compelling precisely because of the struggle.

Recovering the Holy In Contemporary Art, at MOCRA, 1993.
Installation view, "Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy In Contemporary Art," at MOCRA, 1993. From left: Steven Heilmer, "Nativity Stone: Mother's Milk"; Don Grant, "Rope and Candle"; Craig Antrim, "Icon Wall."

And so, for this inaugural exhibition of what was believed to be the first museum of its kind in the world, Fr. Dempsey assembled 100 works by 25 contemporary American artists reflecting the country’s religious and ethnic diversity. Artists came from Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and Native American backgrounds, and their styles ranged from traditional Western figuration to minimalist and geometric abstraction.

Continue reading “Sanctuaries”