Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Good, the Bad, the So-So: A Few Smithsonian Museums

This past week I spent an afternoon visiting three Smithsonian museums in Washington, ones that are less-visited than the big crowd pleasers like the Air and Space and Natural History museums.  In each museum I found both exhibit elements to like and also some exhibit elements that were puzzling to me.  A quick review:

The National Museum of African Art had the best opening text to a label (above).   It read " Paul Tishman was often asked why he decided to collect African Art.  He replied, "How does one fall in love?"  It instantly made me want to see what he had fallen in love with and this bright citrus green made all the objects look terrific.   Simple (and inexpensive) introductory label--just a printed banner--but very large in scale.

The exhibit, Grass Roots:  African Origins of an American Art was a very large exhibition that explored the connections between basketmaking in the American South and its African origins.  Beautifully designed and chock-full of objects and images, it had a great opening design and an intriguing layout.  The bad news is that although you could photography from an overlooking balcony (below), photos were not allowed in the exhibition itself--a puzzling--and annoying inconsistency.

I particularly liked the way that the exhibit used not only the baskets themselves, but prints, photographs, and other documentary materials to explore not just the baskets, but the makers, the culture and  the landscape around them.  There were a number of video installations, but I dearly would have loved to handle and smell sweetgrass.  The most tactile of subjects was always walled off behind plexiglass.

And finally at this museum, a wonderful sign for the coatroom--an absolutely engaging introduction to the museum!

At the Freer and Sackler galleries, I was happy to re-visit Whistler's Peacock Room.  It's an amazing respite from hot and steamy Washington and a complete immersion in an artistic vision.  But I found the exhibits there a bit inconsistent.  First, the so-so.  A small exhibit on blue and white porcelain featured a very long, text-heavy label as the opening.   Although the topic was interesting and the works beautifully exhibited, this panel made me give the exhibit only a cursory look.   This says, "book on the wall" to me.

But then an exhibit, Taking Shape,  on ceramics in Southeast Asia had a much more engaging approach.  Using large photos, maps, and video installations combined with objects, I was, as a casual visitor, much more interested in learning about the work--and the creators.  Like the basketmaking exhibit, this one placed the objects in context.

I particularly liked that the label for the video began with questions and then let you know what you would learn by watching (and tell you that you only needed 3 minutes and 23 seconds to learn something!)

And in this exhibit, like in every installation here, objects were beautifully displayed and lit.  The lighting and casework provided the visitor with the chance to be drawn in and closely explore works.

Immediately above, an exhibit of bronzes from Cambodia.  You can read more about this exhibit in the NY Times review.  In all of these exhibits, it wasn't the cost of the installation that made it good, bad or so-so,  it was the thought and care that went into it.  Not surprisingly, the exhibits I liked the best were the ones where the thought and care was directed outward to the visitor rather than inward.

Finally, two lovely surprises.  The first was in the gardens outside the Smithsonian Castle, where enlargements of hand-tinted glass slides were installed.   It both put you in the place and transported you somewhere else.  The second, at the Hirshhorn, the surprise of someone wearing the perfect dress to visit this particular gallery space. 


Donna said...

This post engaged me so and I hope to see the exhibits you described. The young woman in the dress? Did you REALLY happen upon that? Fun in the most unexpected places. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks--glad you enjoyed--and yes, the woman in the dress was totally random! but all of us in that space at the time made her keep posing after her husband took a picture...