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To the Mary-Kate and Ashley Museum We Go

A new exhibit in Williamsburg honors the Olsens

Does the world need a Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen museum? The Olsen twins are, after all, a rare breed — they’ve been a national institution since infancy, acting as a literal unit when they played toddler-turned-horse-amnesiac Michelle Tanner on Full House. Somehow, they’ve maintained that grasp for decades. But they shifted from near-ubiquitous visibility to invisibility once they crept into adulthood, and they created a galaxy of intrigue around that silence.

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I suppose you can extrapolate from this some hazy, vague thesis on the nature of the American celebrity, or the American pastime of thrusting the burden of fame upon mere kids. Perhaps, if you’ve got the time and energy and capital, you can stick these proto-academic observations in a museum.

"The Olsen Twins Hiding from the Paparazzi" is a pop-up stationed in an abandoned pediatrician’s office opposite a Key Food in Williamsburg. It’s Matt Harkins and Viviana Rosales Olen’s sequel to last year’s Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan museum. Housed in their apartment, the THNK1994 museum began as a joke and careened into something more: a full-fledged exhibition, backed by gracious strangers from Kickstarter. So they did it again. This year’s campaign yielded an astronomical $10,000, five times what they raised the last go-around.

Image: Mayukh Sen

I schlep over to the museum one Saturday afternoon. Harkins is standing outside on the phone. Olen’s saying goodbye to her mother, an eccentric woman wearing wide-brimmed hat that engulfs her head.

"Be careful in there," she warns Olen. "You’re my youngest child."

Olen is short and sloe-eyed. She’s overwhelmingly gregarious, something like a walking exclamation point. Harkins — a lanky, white gay guy — speaks in more stentorian tones. As they lead me inside, I’m greeted by two pallid cutouts of women wearing sunglasses, their busts emerging from jungle leaves made of construction paper. I amble through a narrow corridor lined with 20 or so paintings of the Olsens.

Image: Laura Collins/THNK 1994

The paintings, with frantic and hurried strokes, show the twins averting the paparazzi’s gaze, often with the aid of various objects, from Blackberry phones to elephantine sunglasses. They bear eery mimetic resemblance to the Olsens you saw in supermarket tabloids a decade ago. Olen and Harkins practically fall over themselves praising Laura Collins, the Chicago artist behind these.

"We aren’t worthy of her," Olen crows in a strained voice — think Jenny Slate as Liz in Publizity in Kroll Show. "These paintings are ah-mee-zing."

This museum has seven rooms. There’s one with "Kylie Jenner glitter aura paintings", its floors lined with battery-operated candles. Another has meticulously-arranged cigarette bowls, a nod to Mary-Kate’s surrealistic wedding from this past fall. There are Olsen dolls still sitting in their boxes, stuffed inside metal cabinets cordoned off by yellow caution tape. Binders of Olsen magazine clippings. A gigantic purse. A painting of Lisa Vanderpump from the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. A tree stump opposite an iPad where people can Snapchat their confessions.

"This is the room where we ran out of money," Olen demurs, taking me to a sparse ‘cafe’ where Party City decorations hang from the ceiling. She leads me to a storage closet in the back of the hallway where they’ve stashed a ton of medical wastebins for the time being.

We went with a jungle theme

A photo posted by Matt Harkins (@mattharkinz) on

The museum is running until May 1st, and Olen walks me through the schedule. On Wednesday, Harkins will read samplings of his fan-fiction involving Macklemore and Tom Hardy on a houseboat. Thursday will feature a screening of The Girl Most Likely To…, a 1973 ABC Movie of the Week starring Stockard Channing as a murderous high schooler. Olen flings phrases like "emojiscope" and "Siacycle" and "past life regression seminar" at me with casual fluency, as if I should totally understand what she’s saying.

It’s an exhaustive schedule, and if you can detect any topical throughline that links all of this to the Olsens, good on you. The connective tissue is tenuous. The Olsens start to feel like the foundational text for a syllabus that wades through Harkins and Olen’s wide-ranging cultural obsessions, which they’ve catalogued in the form of this pop-up.

As I wander through the corridor, Harkins steps outside and Olen acts as my docent. I come across a blood-red curtain hanging from a doorway with a sign — WHEN A STRANGER CALLS — affixed to it. I look down and see a landline telephone sitting atop a photograph of Candace Cameron Bure (Full House’s DJ Tanner) smiling slyly. The phone rings, and Olen encourages me to pick it up.

Image: Mayukh Sen

"Hey! This is Candace Cameron Bure," the voice says. It’s Harkins. "We’d like to offer you a role on Fuller House."

"Wow, thank you!" I try my best to play along.

"Actually, you’re not an Olsen. Nevermind! Sorry!"

Alarmed, I hang up.

"Yass," Olen drawls, unironically, with the tonal resemblance of a Lady Gaga stan — or a parody of one. She punctuates nearly everything I say with that dreaded phrase, clapping between beats.

"I got rejected!" I tell her, feigning disappointment.


She wails it again, this time a little louder, and I let out a shriek of nervous laughter in response. I start to wonder: where the hell did they summon the time and energy to do this? Do they have jobs? Who are these people?

The Saturday before their museum’s slated to open, I meet Harkins and Olen in their Williamsburg apartment. I’m greeted at the door by Olen, and I barrel past paintings of Harding and Kerrigan as she takes me into their bare-bones kitchen, populated with a non-functional stove and cardboard boxes.

Image: Laura Collins/THNK 1994

The idea for the Olsen museum blossomed, Olen explains, when the duo received a stray submission from Collins for their last museum. They loved her work so much that they decided to make Collins’ Olsen paintings the backbone of another, more expansive museum.

In some respects, last year’s press was good for Harkins and Olen; this apartment has seen a ton of foot traffic from all over the world. But they also became easy targets for a certain breed of ire, once reserved for Lena Dunham but now leveled against any twenty-something who lives off the L train. The absurdity of THNK1994’s very existence was followed with a groan: Of course something this dumb is in Williamsburg.

The criticism strikes me as more than a little unfair. Olen, 29, works as an administrator at Paint Nite. She was born and raised in Las Vegas until she was 17. She dropped out of high school and, after a brief stint at a Barnes & Noble Cafe, she studied acting at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts — Brendan Fraser’s alma mater. She dropped out, got married, and bounced between Vegas, Hawaii, and New York, where she got divorced. She’s survived relationship abuse. Talking to Olen, it’s clear that life’s been difficult in a way casual observers might not realize.

Harkins, 28, grew up in Bay Ridge and ventured to Virginia for college, returning here shortly after. He spent some years as a tour guide  — "not the fancy double-decker kind," he qualifies — but now temps at a real estate agent’s office.

2 years ago today we became best friends. And this is the exact moment. #THNK1994

A video posted by Viviana Rosales Olen (@vivianahhhh) on

The two of them came up through the Upright Citizens’ Brigade comedy school, and, two years back, met at a mutual friend’s party. A few months later, they moved in together.

Harkins and Olen have insane friendship chemistry. I find them easy to relate to, and I imagine they’re relatable to a chunk of the American — the kind who can name all of Meryl Streep’s nineteen-and-counting Oscar nominations at will, or recite Tyra Banks’ tirade against Tiffany on America’s Next Top Model with Shakespearean intensity. They guide me through their obsessions, mentioning the name ‘Jessica Savitch’ and getting giddy when I admit I haven’t heard of her.

Image: Vinnie Suffante/Getty

And so they take care to explain Jessica Savitch’s story to me. In Olen’s retelling, Savitch was an NBC Nightly News anchor back in the 1970s who, fueled on cocaine and ambition, torpedoed her own promising career. She achieved meteoric success fast, becoming one of the first women to anchor an evening news broadcast in a painfully sexist era, but druggily slurred her way through on-air segments before she died in a car crash in 1983. Perhaps Savitch — long dead, but immortalized by a 1995 Lifetime movie— will be the centerpiece of next year’s tragicomic museum. Harkins and Olen float the possibility as a joke; I agree that it’s slippery territory, but maybe there’s something there.

The pair came to the Olsens at different points in their lives. Harkins didn’t care for them much as a kid, but was fascinated by their relationship to the paparazzi as they reached adulthood. Olen grew up watching Full House, and got exposed to the Olsens’ ennui in her teens.

"I went to this theme park [to see them] and waited in line for three hours. The Olsens are both sitting like this," Olen remembers, pursing her lips and crossing her legs. "They’re tired and sad and then you’re like I’m so sorry for you, and then you’re handed fan club information. It’s jarring."

That news of the museum broke contemporaneously with the release of Fuller House was a matter of pure coincidence; they’d been planning it for months. Olen has binge-watched the show and loved it, confessing a particular affection for the Bollywood dance episode, an admission that makes me scream internally.

"Things don’t change! Same house, same people! It’s great!" Olen jokes, pawing at my sweater. Harkins balks at the suggestion. He hates Fuller House, and actively supports the twins’ decision not to star in it.

Image: Mayukh Sen

"This museum is all about being seen, not being seen, looking," Olen explains to me, pitching and yawing as she emphasizes each syllable. She says this not with the imagined sophistication of a college kid in Film Studies 101, but with the self-awareness of just how utterly vacuous these terms can be.

This sums up the museum’s delicate philosophy: Harkins and Olen are in on their own joke. People are rooting for them. They’ve assembled a constellation of workers —artists, paid college interns, performers — who lend precious time to executing this vision. They make friends in the unlikeliest of places, like the ‘official museum chef-slash-personal trainer’ Olen met on Groupon last year.

"It’s not our museum", Olen insists, turning to Harkins. "It’s everyone’s museum."

To the suggestion that the world doesn’t need this museum, I offer the following image: there’s an oft-GIFed moment in the premiere of Fuller House in which the cast breaks the fourth wall, bemoaning the Olsens’ absence.

"Michelle sends her love, but she’s busy in New York running her fashion empire," Danny Tanner (Bob Saget) explains, before the whole cast stares disapprovingly at the camera. The audience laughs as if they’ve got guns to their heads.

Image: Bob D'Amico/Getty

If Fuller House is nostalgia porn of the highest order — the pat, tidy moralism of the nineties teleported to a streaming service — the museum is something like its evil twin, exposing nostalgia’s dark underbelly. No one really needs Fuller House, but there’s a marketplace for it in 2016. The same goes for the museum. People love it. The patrons who weave through the hallways include a twenty-something woman wearing athleisure along with her self-proclaimed "gay best friend", and two affable blonde women in their forties who bring their shaggy, jumbo-sized dog with them. For those few minutes, these people are happier than anyone I’ve ever seen in my years in New York.

There’s tragedy sewn into the story of the Olsens. Kid celebrities are a tragic bunch in America — think Tatum O’Neal, Dana Plato, Amanda Bynes — ones who achieve premature fame and then collapse underneath it. The Olsens weren’t exactly immune to this nasty pattern; Mary-Kate battled an eating disorder under the scrutiny of the public eye.

The museum dances around this tragedy. This exhibit is predicated on the fact that the twins have craved normalcy and struggled to achieve it, but it’s circumspect about addressing this subtext.

Is this a problem? My mind returns to Jessica Savitch. I imagine that a story like hers is rich with possibility, but could get ugly fast: mining one woman’s pain for exhibitionist laughs. Harkins and Olen skirt imagined boundaries of taste, and they’ve got a certain propensity for taking embryonic, half-serious ideas and seeing them to fruition.

#THNK1994 #olsentwins

A photo posted by Matt Harkins (@mattharkinz) on

I’ll go a step further. It’s entirely too easy to look at Harkins and Olen and believe that they’re playing a game of point-and-laugh at someone else’s life — or, worse, exercising some misogynistic muscle of snickering at women’s pain. Life’s been unreasonably difficult for Olen. Perhaps this gives her license to laugh at other people’s pain, considering she’s had to laugh in order to deal with pain of her own. She doesn’t make this explicit connection; she breezes through the retelling of her hardships’ rough outlines and moves onto the present day quickly. But I wonder about the number of comedians who carry these silent miseries without broadcasting them — tragedies that have become part of the narratives they dryly convey to people who ask and don’t talk about otherwise. Maybe Harkins has his own share of pain, too, that I just don’t know about. Perhaps some mutation of this pain seeps into their art. Of course, it’s another question entirely whether the resultant art is worth anything; there’s a lot of bad art made by people who suffer. Yet I wince at the suggestion that Harkins and Olen are motivated by malice.

I bring up the topic of next year’s museum just before I leave. Harkins tells me he’s warmed up to the idea of a Jessica Savitch museum since we last spoke. He knows the subject matter is invariably morose.

"It’s tricky," he tells me. "But I think we could pull it off." For some reason, I believe him.

Mayukh Sen is the Editorial Director at This.

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