Sure, there are lessons to be learned at the Museum of the Dog: About the symbolism of dogs in art history, and the ways that artists humanize them, and their role as a worker and companion. But if you are a Dog Person – and if you’re here, you’re probably a Dog Person – they won’t even register, because your brain will remain stuck in “good dog” mode.
As in, “Look at that good dog.”
“Look at that other good dog.”
“What a good boy he is.”
To paraphrase a popular meme: They’re all good dogs. And they’re all here, in this two-story museum at the bottom of an office tower near Grand Central Terminal in New York, where the American Kennel Club has moved its collection of dog art and artifacts from the museum’s prior home in St. Louis. The Museum of the Dog opened in February during the Westminster Dog Show, and it will be a draw for dog-lovers curious about the contents of a museum dedicated to man’s (and meme’s) best friend.
Enter, and right away, you’ll stand before a large screen that invites you to find out what breed of dog you, a human, are – like a BuzzFeed quiz in real life. The screen will take your picture, analyze it and show you the dog you most resemble. A woman with long, red, curly hair was naturally deemed an Irish setter. A handsomely dressed man was revealed to be a miniature pinscher. I am not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t to be told that I am a Norwegian lundehund, a “loyal, energetic, alert” dog that looks like an anxious Chihuahua crossed with a wolf. “I can see it. It’s in the eyes,” a friend later proclaimed, examining the photo as if it were of my grandmother.
A museum devoted to dogs seems like it could be vapid Instagram candy, like the Museum of Ice Cream. But the Museum of the Dog is serious, and its initial exhibition of collection highlights is composed of dignified paintings of dignified dogs, whether they appear as companions for the wealthy, masters of the hunt, or in proud portraits of champions. A great deal of the work is from the late 1800s (the AKC was founded in 1884) and the early 20th century, with little abstract or contemporary art. Wall text with each work identifies the breed of dog it depicts, whenever possible. This being the AKC, the museum is devoted to purebreds. There are a few celebrity dogs, such as a portrait of Caesar, “King Edward’s Favorite Terrier,” and of Millie, President George H.W. Bush’s English springer spaniel, accompanied by a framed letter from first lady Barbara Bush.
Perhaps initially you’ll admire the brushstrokes that capture the wispiness of a terrier’s fur, or the regal majesty of a hound on the hunt. But, at some point, your inner monologue will devolve into more familiar and banal observations:
“That looks like my Milou!”
“What a derpy face.”
Because here’s the thing about portraits of dogs: As an art history lesson, they can get a bit repetitive. As a goofy, sentimental attraction, they’re a delight. Dog People are tribal, so owners of purebreds will gravitate toward portraits that most resemble their own dogs. (The hound and terrier groups are well represented in art.)
Maybe that’s why the experience starts with learning what breed you are: You’ll look for yourself in the portraits of dog lovers and identify with the various breeds.
“Me in 40 years,” I texted some friends, sending a picture of John Henry Frederick Bacon’s portrait of “Maud, Daughter of Colonel Temple,” an elderly bespectacled woman holding two portly schipperkes. “Bitches who brunch,” I Instagram-captioned a painting of four champion Afghan hounds.
The Museum of the Dog plans to rotate its exhibitions, but this Norwegian lundehund suspects they will get a similar reception no matter what’s on the walls or in the display cases.
“Who’s a good boy?” a woman asked of a bronze sculpture of a hound rolling on its back.
“I’m a good boy,” said her friend, in the dog’s voice.