Before taking this class, I always thought exhibitions were based around objects and never thought of the larger story they were used to tell. Once Tim mentioned that exhibitions always started out as stories and that objects were just one means of telling it, I began to view exhibitions in a different light. I became more critical of the importance and inclusion of certain objects. Why was this vase included, and not a different one?… What role did it play in the narrative?… What was it trying to tell me?… All these questions constantly circle in my mind and honestly, have made my exhibition viewing process much more enjoyable. On that note, I stumbled on a review of the new permanent exhibition at the Museum of the American Indian in NYC called “Infinity of Nations“. The review stresses the same idea of objects as characters in an exhibition. I recommend reading it, it’s very interesting to see how much larger and lively issues are addressed through the use of inanimate things.
I actually meant to post this a while ago after attending a glass conference at CMoG in mid October and talking about that in class today reminded me. I went in knowing the renovations were done by RAA in 2001, and was pretty curious to see what kind of innovations would await. One of the sections of the exhibition space is actually called the ” glass innovation center” if I recall correctly. Anyway, the architecture and exhibition designs for the educational areas and the glass studio were striking, as expected, especially given the level of audience participation in the glass making shows (which are really cool!)
I had to spend pretty much all of my time in lectures and in the glass galleries though, and was really intrigued by the layout of the exposed study collection. The vitrine case-exhibition style is essentially the same as the regular gallery, just more packed (and sometimes equally packed!) with objects. Sure, there are only accession numbers for this segment of the museum (with unfortunately no visible console or book for looking them up), but other than that there was sometimes very little difference between the study collection and the displayed collection. The shelves for the display collection itself often went up over my head in the 20th century modern section (and I’m not really short, so this was a weird problem to be having). I had to resort to taking wobbly pictures, arms fully outstretched over my head and just hope it would get the right angle since I couldn’t see it. This is kind of a disaster when your formal analysis topic is on the top shelf, but I imagine it’s not the best for the casual visitor either.
All that aside, Corning has an impressive, large collection, and even with the presence of the study collection, most of their objects are still stored in an offsite facility near the airport. I’m not sure if the study collection rotates different objects, but given the breadth of the collection (and it grows every year!), it makes me wonder: how feasible is it for large and growing institutions like the Corning Museum to incorporate these aspects of back of house fully into the front of house?
After last week’s class discussion hearing the mixed sentiments about the move toward interactive displays and less objects in the Museum, I remembered my experience of visiting the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown a year and a half ago and my great disappointment in the renovations, “modernization” and restructuring of all their exhibition halls. I first visited the Hall of Fame in high school, about 10 or 11 years ago and remember walking in and feeling like I was in my grandparents’ attic, seeing old relics and photos displayed with pride, but also crowded and cluttered. It felt as if I was discovering something, as you tend to feel when going through old family photo albums or clothes and jewelry boxes of past relatives. Old lockers, some actual and some re-fabricated, were stuffed with the jerseys, gloves, cleats, baseball cards, and correspondence of famous players. The museum really captured the essence of baseball and how it became “America’s Pastime.”
When I went to the Hall of Fame most recently, I was with a friend who had never visited and gushed over how personal and intimate the Hall of Fame was, the warm lighting, the display boxes made to feel like lockers and dug outs really indulged a baseball fan’s nostalgia. Upon entry, everything was re-done, what used to be rows of cluttered lockers were now modern display cases with gallery lighting. Objects, much fewer and isolated, seemed detached and inaccessible behind glass panes framed by dry wall painted in deep solid hues. The warmth, accessibility, and feeling of discovery were gone and I felt that kids passing through the halls were really missing out on a connection that I made when I first had visited.
I’m curious to know why the Hall of Fame made the move from the dusty charm of its old displays to the sterile and impersonal. I was surprised to see that even the Statistics Room, which used to have old score board-style listings of players’ names and stat numbers on removable hand painted wooden planks was replaced with boring white Arial font on a black background.
As I had mentioned in class, I don’t think technology and streamlining the display of objects is necessarily the right move for all Museums. Careful attention needs to be paid to the visitor experience. Some mediums don’t necessarily benefit from a minimalist and/or technological approach.
Do we really need objects in a gallery or museum now that we have and use the Internet in our everyday lives? What’s the point of physically going somewhere to look at something or learn about something when we can just use google. Yes it’s definitely not the same, and some pictures don’t do the real object justice, however a lot people these days take things for granted because of technology. I feel that there’s no more appreciation for the world through human eyes anymore, but only through technology.
I personally prefer museums based on objects and objects alone. No participation needed or technology to worry about. Just me, the object, and my interpretation. Such simplicity says way more to me and is way more interesting.
Say what you will about Yoko Ono (I happen to love her).
The more I think about how there are more museums than ever, and less objects in these museums than ever; I begin to do a run through in my head of exhibitions with very few objects and how, subjectively, successful I find them. Probably the most recent [basically] non-object piece/exhibit I’ve seen is Ono’s “Voice Piece for Soprano” at MoMA. The piece is made of a large empty room, very little directional wall text, a microphone on a stand in the center of the room which is flanked by two speakers, and you–the participant. I spent almost two hours on a Saturday sitting in front of the piece; watching countless elderly women hobble up to the mic and scream at the top of their lungs. It was really intense. I keep thinking about this piece in relation to the reading from last week, which explained the various reasons people choose to participate or not to participate. My thought is that Ono’s piece offers an ideal model for a participatory piece because it is straightforward. “Scream“. It is easy to do, and not screaming makes you look like a weirdo. Everyone is doing it (perhaps participatory museums should rely more on peer pressure). Also, it feels amazing to get to scream at the top of your lungs.
It seems there is a very real danger of losing touch with the real objects and artefacts that are the essence of the museum. With the rise of digital media and the increasing investment in the online and interactive presence of museums, people becoming less inclined to interact with the real objects. As referred to in the ‘Themes and Threads’ of this course the status of the object is under threat. I would suggest that we need to reconnect with the objects around us whether in a museum or not in order to develop an awareness of their value and meaning. The book How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum by Keri Smith presents a playful way to do this. It contains a series of ‘explorations’ or assignments that challenge the reader to interact with and collect the objects in their environment and create personal museum.
The answer to Stephen Conn’s book title and provocative question: Do Museums Still Need Objects? has to be YES, right?
Illustration: Brett Affrunti
I don’t know how many people saw this Tino Seghal exhibition last spring at the Guggenheim. I think it’s a good example (based on my humble understanding) of where [Art] museums and exhibitions are/could be headed. I was able to attend, and able to be a part of the performance, but what was most funny was the look on tourists’ faces as they entered the museum looking around for art objects. It was pretty clear they had little to no idea that they were a part of the exhibition.