Art Museum, Deconstructed
January 12, 2007 11:14 AM   Subscribe

The Luce Foundation Center in the recently renovated and reopened National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, is more like a smörgåsbord-cum-antique store, packed in an overflowing archive rather than a more traditional museum layout. The collection is comprised of varying American art styles and genres in intimate display cases, with little in the way of context or reference. (Though the same site in this link is available on computers scattered throughout the gallery for further detail.)
posted by Dave Faris (12 comments total)
There's also a Henry R. Luce Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that consists of a supermarket-style arrangement of dimly-lit plexiglass cases, each containing an interior metal wall with paintings, chairs, etc. bolted to it. When I'm there I like to pretend I'm in an IKEA for dead people.
posted by phooky at 11:31 AM on January 12, 2007

My daughter's 6th-grade class recently took a field trip to the Portrait Gallery, and the place was a big hit amongst the kids.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:38 AM on January 12, 2007

smörgåsbord-cum-antique store

Ewww. It's like when Grampa got all excited at the Old Country Buffet!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:39 AM on January 12, 2007

Hm. Was this 'decoy' created for the popular sport of, er, owl hunting? The object ID is questionable. If it was ever functional, it was more likely a scarecrow or gargoyle, to prevent small birds and mice from roosting or invading parts of a house. I can't imagine much use for an owl decoy - they're not often hunted, they're nobody's prey, and they don't move in flocks...

but anyway. It's a great site and I'd like to visit. (I just happened to catch Mr. Owl with his funny label 'cause I liked the carving).A lot of museums are moving in this direction. The organization of this site reminds me very much of PEM's, another of my favorites (both real and virtual). Giving people web terminals in galleries allows curators to present a lot more information than traditional labels ever did; but it also allows visitors to completely ignore them. There are advantages to either method, but it is a definite choice which affects visitor interaction and learning outcomes. Everything is cyclical, but this is a currently very popular trend.
posted by Miko at 12:00 PM on January 12, 2007

In my biased opinion I'd say yup, you're exactly right Dave Faris, the Luce foundation seems to specialise in badly displayed exhibitions with items just put together like a supermarket or like they just cleared out their huge attic and wanted a tax-write-off for some of the stuff they didn't want. Same kind of exhibit as the one phooky referenced is also at the New York Historical Society.
posted by nickyskye at 12:12 PM on January 12, 2007

This sounds a bit like the National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. Many of the objects there are displayed more for aesthetic impact than for educational value--spear points grouped like schools of fish, for example. If you want more information you can go to the computerized displays and scroll through several screens to find out which people made a given object, what it was used for, etc. Except that you can't, because there is a line of school kids at the display already.

That said, I still like the NMAI, it is a beautiful facility and the objects are stunning. Just don't expect to learn much about Indians there.
posted by LarryC at 12:42 PM on January 12, 2007

And of course now that I'm looking into this, it turns out that I was just at the Luce Center at the Brooklyn Museum. Unlike the Met's dimly-lit "shopping gothic" Luce, this one looks more like how a future galactic empire might display the few remaining paltry relics of human civilization. Some Flickr shots.
posted by phooky at 12:43 PM on January 12, 2007

Looks like a mausoleum of sorts; "visible storage". I think a decent exhibit in a museum can offer more than that.
posted by nickyskye at 1:08 PM on January 12, 2007

I don't think it's always necessary for a museum to provide more context. While I did feel a bit overwhelmed when I finished visiting the gallery, I don't think it was due to the presentation method. I thought it was novel and interesting, actually.
posted by Dave Faris at 4:42 PM on January 12, 2007

right now the portrait gallery is exhibiting the finalists from their portrait competition, and they're really really good - the little pictures on that page don't do them justice. highly recommended if you're in DC while it's still on.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 9:10 PM on January 12, 2007

like they just cleared out their huge attic
"visible storage"

You got it -- that's exactly the kind of language exhibit planners use when they develop the juztaposed, junk-store exhibit. Like I said -- it's a trendy idea. One of the earliest was the Smithsonian's collaborative exhibit, 'Treasures of the Smithsonian,' a traveling exhibit created in 1984. Its original intent was to mark the museum's 150th birthday and lift its overall profile worldwide, without overtaxing the exhibit development staff by mounting an enormous Smithsonian retrospective exhibit requiring new research. hInstead they just gathered powerful, iconic objects from the 14 museums of the Smithsonian, 'curator's-choice' fashion.

That resulted in some visitor research indicating that people liked the feel of a chaotic exhibit that they didn't have to learn from in the traditional sense, but could just appreciate, ponder, and muse through. Its success set off a trend in exhibit design that is still very much alive. Really, it has survived so well because it serves several purposes, not all of them positive or truly visitor-centered:

-the style plays in a friendly way to the aliteracy and light interest of much of a museum's visiting public, not creating an expectation that much information will be absorbed; the museum experience comes to resemble shopping, which is many people's highest-rated leisure activity;

- it allows a museum to mount a 'new' exhibit without acquiring new objects or doing new research or significant label writing (fantastic in these days of cash-strapped, understaffed museums);

-it rotates the collection, getting hard-to-classify objects out of mothballs for a while;

-it allows visitors to construct their experience based on individual interest. For instance, if you really like the ivory seal totem, you may go over to the terminal and patiently wait to look it up. You may look it up and find out who made it, when, and where. Then you may go home and read more about the region or culture, or have some real ideas to weigh and think about. I had this experience while visiting PEM . We found an object with an odd sort of Inuit writing on it, and the tiny label mentioned only the region where it came from. We wondered how the writing had evolved -- the letterforms were really unusual. The computer label and video gave a little more context after we waded through the watching and waiting process. Finally, the museum had provided tables of books about the Inuit -- children's books, photography books, travel guides, you name it -- and finally by looking hard through a bunch of them, we learned that the writing was developed with the Inuit by missionaries who brought writing to the culture by adapting Gregg shorthand to the spoken language. Now, this was interesting -- the odd writing on the object became a tale of the influence of religious missionary work on an indigenous culture. Major meaning. And a very, very satisfying learning experience. Who knew that story was there until we undertook the search, provoked by a mysterious object?

And that is really the ideal experience we have in our heads when we build exhibits this way -- that you will use a museum and its information to launch exploration and even build your identity.

The difficulty is this: that we run the risk of providing so little information that we cannot create curiosity. Only visitors who already know how to learn well -- how to identify a question and build an inquiry around it, how to enjoy that process -- will see such an exploration through to its conclusion. In the example I gave, I was with a group of museum geeks who were highly motivated to form questions and pursue knowledge. Most of the public's learning skills are really not that well honed; our entertainments are passive (we pay to sit back and have content delivered; it's often even pushed at us). Along with an obesity epidemic, we have flabby brains, too. Schools don't do a good job of teaching how to learn; and now museums are often giving up on it, too.
posted by Miko at 9:04 AM on January 13, 2007

Interesting comment Miko, thanks.

I just did some research on this new "visible storage" direction of museum exhibits and found some answers.

Basically museums store a lot of stuff and scholars, academics, patrons, donors, taxpayers, visitors don't know what's in storage.

So "visible storage" is a way to bring the stuff out of the back and, without spending a lot of time, energy, effort and money, put it on view. That way scholars and academics can at least make use of previously stuck in storage items and the public can express what is of interest to them.

"Visible Storage is not a complete exhibition; it is an accessible subset of our warehoused collection. The content presented here gives only a limited introduction to the objects."

Examples of this online: re computers/computing, art/artifacts.
posted by nickyskye at 3:51 PM on January 13, 2007

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