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

Monday, August 25, 2008

Some museum solutions

In a previous post of mine, I talked about some of the issues I have with art museums. My argument was that art museums, as opposed to history museums, present objects for their aesthetic value while glossing over the historical context in which they where made. Now I know that I may be generalizing and that many art museums do a good job of combining the aesthetic with with contextual, but I feel there is room for art museums to grow without compromising their mission. Let me outline some of my proposed improvements. Keep in mind that I do not want art museums to become history museums; I respect and encourage the idea of the art museum and some day hope to work in one.

Maps - You may think the addition of a map or two would be common sense, but you would be surprised to find out how many art museums don't employ such basic tools. I would place small maps in easy to find areas of galleries; a map of ancient Greece in the antiquities section and perhaps a map of Renaissance Europe in the appropriate gallery. These maps could be small enough and placed well enough so they wouldn't detract from the art on display, which is after all the main propose of the museum. Maps would help the lay person better understand where the objects they are viewing came from, which is of course an extremely important piece of the overall picture. The average person off the street probably doesn't know where Corinth is or isn't familiar with the borders of the Holy Roman Empire circa 1750. These maps shouldn't be a history lesson, but they would help the average museum patron.

Time line - In addition to maps, another important tool for understanding art would be a time line appropriate to the period. Again, these could be small and out of the way, but would help immensely with putting art in it's proper context. The same argument I make for maps applies for time lines, but here I'm talking about historical context as opposed to geographical context.

Diagrams - Again, some museums do this much better than others. A simple diagram goes a long way in telling a story. A step by step display of red-figure vase manufacturing or glass blowing would help translate a piece of art into a living, breathing artifact. I can't stress enough that these diagrams along with maps and time lines should not interfere with the presentation of art as an object; they should merely augment the object and help people better understand it and appreciate it.

For me , art is about more than viewing a beautiful object. Art is meant to be looked at for it's beauty, but that beauty goes beyond the surface. Knowing the story of an object makes the experience infinitely more enjoyable. Artifacts may be prized for their artistic qualities, but it is not until you place them with in the context of history that there true beauty comes through.


livius said...

Excellent suggestions all, and I'm not just saying that because I'm a sucker for maps and timelines.

The notion that art is purely a matter of "how it looks" is foreign to me. The context, the medium, the life story of the arist: all of these contribute to my appreciation of the piece.

It doesn't even have to be antiques and artifacts. I came to appreciate non-figurative art after years of scoffing by taking the trouble to actually learn about the artists and movements. Now I can (and often do) defend Malevich's "Black Square" with genuine passion against endless "my child could paint that" cliches.

Museums all seek to educate as well as enrapture. I don't think the two can even be separated.

Primvs Pilvs said...

Thanks for the comment. It seems that we definitely share the same philosophy when it comes to art and museums. Looking at a piece of art and knowing nothing about it is an empty experience in my opinion.

livius said...

I wouldn't say it's always an empty experience. Some pieces have a profound emotional impact even on first, superficial viewing.

The best example of that in my past is Picasso's Guernica. It stopped me cold in my tracks, gave me goosebumps, all that good stuff.

I didn't know anything about the Spanish Civil War at that point, and I was still naive and contemptuous about Cubist art. The power of the visuals broke through my ignorance and touched me deeply.

Still, generally speaking, we're in agreement that knowing the context makes the experience so much richer.

Primvs Pilvs said...

Good point! I'll agree to that.