Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Monday, August 4, 2008

Some thoughts on musem exhibits

Say the word museum and I am guaranteed to get excited. I love museums and I'm not ashamed to say it, no matter how nerdy it makes me look. If they would let me, I would probably live inside of one. I have been a volunteer at the Milwaukee Public Museum for just over a year now, and my only regret is that I didn't sign up sooner. The MPM, like most other institutions of it's kind, are amazing places where you can learn just about anything you could imagine. In the middle of downtown Milwaukee, you can hike through a Costa Rican rain forest, you can walk amongst dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals, you can visit 19th century Europe or travel back in time the ancient Mediterranean. It's the latter part, of course, that brought me to the MPM in the first place. Unfortunately there permanent exhibit, Temples, Tells and Tombs, has been closed since last summer and just when it's going to reopen is any one's guess. It was, and hopefully again will be, an extremely well planned and researched exhibit spanning ancient cultures from the Egyptians through the Romans. The museum has a wonderful collection of artifacts, many of which are still on display throughout the museum, but it was the setting of these artifacts that really made the exhibit stand out. I love art museums, but they have always bothered me in the fact that they present artifacts for there sheer artistic importance as opposed to putting them in the context of their place in history. It is true that high quality artifacts from the ancient world are artistic masterpieces and should be treated as such, but something is lost in translation when a red-figure vase is looked at for it's beauty alone. That vase has a story; where it was found, who it was made by, what it was used for, what the story painted on it meant to it's owner. It is the details like these that tell the whole story of an artifact. Temples, Tells and Tombs had artifacts in cases just like any other museum, but it was the maps, diagrams, short history lessons and models that really brought the whole exhibit together. You didn't feel like you where merely looking at artifacts, you where transported back to the ancient world. The antithesis to Temples, Tells and Tombs is evident at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Now, it it's defense, I love the MAM and realize that ancient art is not it's focus. Milwaukee is lucky enough to have the outstanding ancient artifacts on display that we do, but I feel I must voice my opinion. The MAM room as it is, covers Egyptian through Roman art. The collection is small but diverse. The artifacts are displayed in the typical museum style, with placards describing where and when they came from and what they where used for. Unfortunately, that is all. A few maps, maybe a small tutorial on the differences between black-figure and red-figure pottery making would be nice. Something is needed to put the artifacts in their own time and place. They are beautiful for sure; the MAM has a wonderful Hydria by the Niobid painter which is exquisite. But, that Hydria is more than the sum of it's form and design. Now, I'm not saying that art museums should or need to be public history museums like the MPM, but a balance needs to be struck between the contextual and the aesthetic.

Here are some photos from the MPM and MAM exhibits for you to compare:


Leif said...

I believe the 'balance' you are in search of between contextual and aesthetic would be literature, specifically books.

Also, the Art Museum has that same amount, or lack thereof, of information to it's pieces everywhere in the museum. At one point, you can walk from O'Keefe's vagina paintings to Ellsworth Kelly's minimalistic paintings without rhyme or reason, but simply because they were created around the same time period. I'm not saying it's enough information, nor that they need more. I'm just saying at least they're consistent. Added with the fact that it is an Art Museum, not a Historical Museum or a school.

(BTW: I think that you and I can talk for hours on this topic!)

Primvs Pilvs said...

I see where you are coming from, but I disagree. Books definitely tell us more than any display information in a museum could, but art museums must assume that the people viewing their exhibits are all that learned. I'm not saying exhibits should be "dumbed down," but more information on artifacts would benefit the general public. Also, the MAM does have the same amount of information on it's pieces that other art museums have. I merely meant to use the MAM as an example in describing art museums in general. Finally, don't you think you can get a better experience out of art if you know more about it?
(Yes, we could talk about this for hours Leif...)

Leif said...

Bring on the hours. :) He He...

How much information are you expecting in an Art Museum venue? A paragraph? a few pages? A person there giving a lecture? The moment you start entering any of these into an environment with the art on the walls; it brings the argument to forefront of whether or not the background information conflicts with the visual influence of the art, which is what most likely the visitors are there for.

Also, if the viewer (even the dumbass ones) require more information or have a desire to learn more, the museum typically provides lectures, classes and docents to help them out. At the same time, what sort of responsibility does the museum have for those who can't read? Are the just left in the cold if more information is displayed? (That's just one example of how much a slippery slope it can be).

I guess I'm saying, I believe, that the majority Art Museums are doing a good-decent job of bringing Art to the mass populace. As far as taking on the responsibility of teaching them history and art theory, I don't believe that is entirely their responsibility. Maybe that's me being a bit of a conservative, but I hate it when we move the responsibility of learning to everyone else but those that should have the responsibility, the ones that need to learn.

Primvs Pilvs said...

I'm not saying I have all the answers, but here are a few suggestions for additional information art museums could present: Maps would be nice, if an artifact is described at being from Apulia or Boeotia, is the average visitor going to know where that is? Also, perhaps a timeline would be helpful. If that artifact from Apulia is from 300 B.C., the general public could benefit from knowing what was going on in 300 B.C. Covering the wall of art museums with map and historical descriptions would take the focus off the art, but I think there can be room for compromise. The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago is a good example of art and history living side by side and has a formula for displaying artifacts that is worth note.

As I said before, I don't want art museum to become history museums, I'm just saying that in my opinion, more information could be presented to enrich the experience. I agree with you that art museums are doing a wonderful job of presenting art to the public, but that doesn't mean that there isn't room for improvement.