Category Archives: aesthetics

Narrative Remains

Narrative Remains by Artist Karen Ingham

Reading about and discussing the Hunterian Museum reminded me of my many visits there while living in London last year. Although the museum seems to have  lost much of its glory if I see the images of the building before it was partly destroyed in 1941, the collection is still an inspiring one. The museum was never busy and I found it a wonderful environment to ponder the many strangely beautiful and extremely visceral specimens, both human and animal. I particularly enjoyed the installation by Karen Ingham titled ‘Narrative Remains’ which revealed the human stories behind some of the displayed specimens. These very personal stories enabled the visitor to interact with the display on a level beyond the anatomical and encouraged the viewer to reflect on their own mortality. Through initiating an interaction between the display and the past, Ingham was able to enrich the interaction between the same display and the visitor and so emphasized the relevance of the specimens in a contemporary context. The Hunterian Museum continues to invite artists working in a variety of media to reinterpret and react on their collections which is a valuable tool to make their collections more relevant and accessible to visitors today. If you are interested you can read about these exhibitions and collaborations here.

RH

Simplicity is Key

After Monday’s lecture on technology within the museum, I saw this on a walk and it made me stop and think about the simplicity I seek within museum walls.  Everyday I walk (as I know everyone else in the class does too) past the light store- Filaments.  The store, located near Parson’s on 13th Street, is filled to capacity with light bulbs, stands, and shades. I know this is a stretch, but every time I walk past the store, I always think of the Hall of Biodiversity located in the American Museum of Natural History.  The Hall of Biodiversity is laid out in a similar manner, it is crowded, colorful, and completely attention-grabbing.  There is a very small presence of technology, making the visitor rely almost solely on the presentation of the plants and animals.

If I said I adored this area of the museum, it would be an understatement.  Every visit I am pleasantly overwhelmed by the information and models presented, and I always learn something new.  I really appreciate the simplicity of this Hall, and I find it refreshing that I find myself thinking of the museum when I see things as simple as a store front.

This is something museums must strive for-  a seamless transition between spaces.  Museum learning cannot stop once a visitor leaves the confines of the institution.  I applaud the Hall for it’s simplicity.  If it was only technological displays, instead of the appropriate combination that it does have, I doubt it would make as strong as impact on its viewers.

Ryan Massey

Pop(up) Art Museum on the Mall

Hirshhorn Museum Transformation by Diller Scofidio + Renfro Architects

This is a truly great project, a spectacular transformation of an already iconic museum building, bring it new life, it is conceptually clear, technically genius, brilliant that it can be performed annually like a circus coming to town. Washington D.C. needs more of this. Bring it on.

Ouroussoff’s review here.

The Latest Word: Spaces of Experience

Charlotte Klonk's "Spaces of Experience"

The latest word in display theory was just released by Yale University Press. As in two weeks ago. Charlotte Klonk’s Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000 locates the development of art gallery interiors in the broader history of experience and perception. It looks like an interesting read, and may be helpful in guessing what comes next!

Jenny F.

Locating Masterpieces

I went to the Met yesterday and I had two experiences that so well illustrated the post by Ryan concerning object reproduction as discussed in the Lippman article. It also pairs well with the concept of putting objects on display in context.

Part I: The Vermeer Exhibit

assetimage.jspAs many of you are likely aware, The Milkmaid , an iconic painting by the Dutch artist Vermeer, is now on exhibit at the Met along with the 5 Vermeers in the Met’s collection. The Milkmaid has not left its home, the Rijksmueum in Amsterdam, in 70 years! Talk about having to travel the world to see all of the greatest hits in the history of art…

When I arrived at the exhibit, The Milkmaid was surrounded by many more spectatorsthan those Vermeers owned by the Met. And who could blame us? I have no idea when will be the next time I’ll be in Amsterdam. And the painting is exquisite. So were the other 5 Vermeers in the Met’s collection which were displayed alongside it.

The funny thing was, I HAD seen The Milkmaid before. (At the Rijksmuseum obviously; I am not over 70 years old.) But I hadn’t really remembered it was the Milkmaid I saw there anymore than Love Letter or Woman Reading a Letter which are also in Amsterdam. But that didn’t really matter to me. I’m not an encyclopedia but I still enjoy seeing great paintings. Reproductions are never replacements when it comes to enjoying the technique of masterly painting.

But this is where it gets interesting; there are only 36 paintings attributed to Vermeer (plus another 30 that MIGHT be by him…)

The Met had an entire wall with reproductions of these 36 painting in a grid. Because so many of Vermeer’s paintings are recognizable (if not iconic), it was incredibly interesting to study which of these painting were located in which museums around the world! I was endlessly amused to see a reproduction and think to myself “oh, I’ve definitely seen this one, it must be at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam” – and then check the legend to discover it was owned by a museum I had never visited!

In summary:

1: Because of the proliferation of reproductions in books and online, it can be incredibly challenging to remember which things we actually have seen years ago on vacations. The question is whether this makes going to museums meaningful at all. (I think so: it is all about the entire experience of visiting one which I will get to later. And in the case of painting at least – being able to examine painting technique in person)

2. Museums’ collections are no doubt assets, but they may also devise their own assets by making the experience of seeing their objects a meaningful and educational experience.
I thought the grid of Vermeer reproductions was such a simple, but incredibly effective tool to communicate just how limited in scope Vermeer’s work is, and it was so fascinating to compare the similarities between all of his paintings, while highlighting those that did not conform to his standard compositions.

Part II: The Quest for Madame X

Sargent_MadameXMadame X by John Singer Sargent, certainly an iconic, memorable painting, was recently located in the European painting and sculpture galleries. This was somewhat problematic as Sargent is an American artist. On the other hand, it was displayed along other American and European full-length portraits in a similar, soft brushy technique. In my opinion, it was an absolutely amazing pairing of paintings – my favorite part of the entire museum at the time!

The Met has recently remodeled their American Wing (we discussed this earlier in reference to the new interactive screens in the Period Rooms.) Though their Period Rooms are “up and running” for the most part, the installation for many American paintings and decorative arts is not completed. As a compromise, these objects are labeled and displayed in a (for lack of a better word) cramped storage room that is open to the public.

They moved (as far as I could tell) all of their American paintings that were formerly in the European wing to their temporary “open to the public storage.” My friend and I were determined to see Madame X and were not convinced the Met would deign to keep her in this storage room, but a couple guards insisted she was there.

We looked and looked all over this storage room and were about to give up, when we noticed a couple in the corner closely examining a painting. There she was! Unframed, with maybe 3 or 4 feet of room to stand away from her. And of course a lovely glare on the display case. To think that this painting was recently displayed so prominently, between Manet paintings even. She could be seen maybe 60-80 feet away, through two arched doorways! Insane to think about…

In Summary:

1: Seeing an object in context is obviously one of the most important things a museum can execute. It is a complicated issue. Now Madame X is placed alongside other American objects. Does this do the painting justice when she is displayed so poorly? Obviously she will be much easier to see when the rest of the American Wing is remodeled.

But even so – the question is really should she be paired alongside other full-length portraits, regardless of nationality? Or only along fellow American full-length portraits?

2: In is so interesting when realizing that The Milkmaid is certainly as prolific an image as Madame X. Yet right now, as I type, they are both under the same roof. One is having people huddled around it, and the other is lost to the world.

The Modern Museum

The modern public museum was invented to meet the needs of an emergent democratized society. Without the rule of law overseen by a dominating sovereign power, newly minted governmental powers needed a way to control the masses. Michel Foucault calls this the “disciplinary society” where penitentiaries, schools, libraries, department stores and museums were invented as “instruments of the state” to control and shape the behavior of the public. These were the new public spaces and were governed by ideas of transparency and surveillance. The modern museum was considered crucial to the notion of progress of the individual and served as a therapeutic space where he could learn to aspire to higher ideals.

Modern Stage.xlsx

Exhibitions in modern museums were performative environments in which newly forms of conduct and behavior could be scripted and enforced. The space of the modern museum was highly ordered, rational, collections and displays were serial in nature, expressing an encyclopeadic completeness. The rare and unique was replaced with the serial where an implied system of relationships between things became more important than the individual objects themselves. They were described as “educative spectacles”. As Edward Grey, a mid-19th Century curator of the British Museum, put it “the subject should be able to visually comprehend the greatest amount of information in a moderate space, that could be obtained in a single glance”. In other words, you did not need to read in the museum. You learned by looking. William Henry Flower late 19th Century director of the London Natural History Museum outlined the method  by which modern curator creates an exhibition “…Hire a curator, define the objective of the museum, determine a subject, divide the subject, plan a space, create a hierarchy of labels, develop a concise language, select illustrative specimens,… that then fall into appropriate places.” Note how much of this process is about determining the message and ordering space. The emphasis is not on the uniqueness of the object but on its ability to serve a script. These museums were most often organized around departments that reflected the professionalized disciplines and sub-disciplines of social history, art history and the natural sciences. These disciplines and the rigorous scholarship that defined them gave rise to the curator – or subject matter expert – who presided over the functions of collecting, preserving, studying and interpreting (writing the script) and exhibiting.

Tim Ventimiglia

The Cabinet, Studiolo, Wunderkammer

Throughout human history museums have had to adjust in form, structure and technique relative to a changes in societal structures and needs. The next series of posts will explore three stages of transformation of the museum (and perhaps an emergent stage). I will admit it is a bit bold to try write a historiography of the museum on a weblog post. So I will choose to diagram it instead. Of course these are gross simplifications of very complex issues that deserve a historians’ proper attention but the words contained in these diagrams do in fact owe a debt to the writings of social historians Elean-Hooper Greenhill and Tony Bennet, who’s influential works have shaped my sense of how contemporary museums came to be.

Museum Stages.xlsxThese proto-museums were centers of power, focused expressions of the sovereign’s dominion over the world and his subjects. Cabinets of Curiosity, Wunderkammern, the Studiolo were owned and made by noble European families living in the early Renaissance and lasting through the Baroque. The Cabinet was characterized by its symbolic and representational power, an effective theatrical demonstration of the soveriegn’s knowledge and control of his empire, and a symbolic dominion over the earthly world. A good picture here. Combining artifacts and specimens chosen for their rarity and uniqueness. Their script was coded and known only to their owner. They were certainly not accessible to the public and were viewed only by a privileged audience in the service of the sovereign. Many of these private collections formed the basis of early public and university museums.

Tim Ventimiglia