Thursday, November 19, 2009

Two Reasons To Like Big Art Museums

I often find that, if I have free time in a city, I don't seek out a history museum, the kind of place where I spend most of my time, but look for the biggest art museum I can find. As I was wandering the National Gallery in Washington last week, I wondered why that was and realized has to do the ways I like to design my own visitor experience. So what are those two reasons?

First, a big art museum provides a chance to really just wander and surrender yourself in the permanent collections. In history or science exhibits, it's about the path of the exhibit and the material presented in interesting ways. At art museums, I feel freer to wander, just stopping at what interests me. I'd never thought much about Lucas Cranach (the Older, I think) but the portrait above stopped me in my tracks--so beautiful--that vibrant green that doesn't quite reproduce here, the red of her belt and hair, the shadows and the black, and her pale, intense face. Art museums are places of transcendence, and I particularly like them best on weekdays, when the crowds are smaller. I like the chance to surrender to works that interest me, and often, aren't interested in learning much more than having the visual experience.

Second, I'm always happy to discover those small exhibitions that represent a curator's passion. So I do like to learn a little after all. Also at the National Gallery, The Darker Side of Light: The Arts of Privacy 1850-1900, about 19th century print-making, showed works illustrating 8 themes: possession, nature, the city, creatures, reverie, obsession, abjection, violence, and death. In dark purple rooms, these small black and white etchings and engravings were transporting in a different kind of way, and the exhibit's organization and the works themselves led me to read long labels as I immersed myself in what felt like a secret world. I think of this kind of exhibit as pulling back the curtain on the works in a museum (and the work we do in museums as well).

What does this mean for the exhibits I work on? It makes more convinced that ever that the editing part of our work is as important as anything we do. We don't need to use five historic photos when one great one would do. Spaces, even at community history museums, can provide repose. And every museum should provide a little surprise to the visitor--but understand, that to each visitor, the surprise may be different. I might have been the only visitor that day to really stop and look at the Cranach, but it's an experience I'll remember a long time. And lastly, I wonder if those of us who work mostly in history spend too much time thinking about parts of the exhibit process that don't matter that much to visitors and not enough about how to provide those quiet "aha" moments.

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