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 worker and companion. But if you are a dog person — and if you’re there, 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 most recent home in St. Louis.
The Museum of the Dog opened last month during the Westminster Kennel Club 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 kiosk with a screen that invites you to find out what breed of dog you, a human, are. 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 of the dog as though 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. This being the AKC, the museum is devoted to purebreds.
A great deal of the work is from the late 1800s — the AKC was founded in 1884 — and from the early 20th century, with little abstract or contemporary art. Wall text with each work whenever possible identifies the breed of dog it depicts.
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 Maud, Daughter of Colonel Temple, of an elderly bespectacled woman holding two portly schipperkes.
It’s not all paintings; a few small cases contain historical dog-related artifacts. There’s an entire display devoted to memorabilia including medals and a tiny parachute for Smoky, a Yorkie that served in World War II. What looks to be a wooden birdhouse is, upon closer inspection, an Edwardian-style doghouse for a very fancy, late 19th-century Chihuahua. There’s a fossil of a dog paw print, an ancient good boy from the second or third century A.D.
Sculpture is another highlight. A case of small ceramic dog sculptures spans both floors of the museum as you walk up the stairs. Some of them look like something you might find in your grandmother’s retirement home, and that’s not a criticism. It’s a dog museum. It should be kitschy.
The end of the exhibition will deposit you in the museum’s library, which is usually a cue to head straight for the gift shop. But it turns out to be more of a social gathering space, with seating and dog drawings for children to color, though mostly adults were using the colored pencils during my visit. The library is presided over by a spooky mascot: the 151-year-old bones of Belgrave Joe, a fox terrier whose descendants are among the greatest champions of the breed.
The space is a reference library for books on dog training and breeding and the standards for every AKC breed, no matter how obscure. Few people seemed able to resist books about their preferred breed. I saw a man sit down with four thick tomes about the English cocker spaniel. A woman walked in with her black-and-white papillon, pulled a papillon book off the shelf and sat down to read it with her dog in her lap. (Only service dogs are permitted in the museum.)
I didn’t mean to spend 30 minutes skimming a 400-page book on the Coton de Tulear, but time flies when you’re learning about the musculoskeletal structure of the royal dog of Madagascar.
The Museum of the Dog plans to rotate its exhibitions, but this Norwegian lundehund suspects it 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,” her friend said, speaking for the dog.