Thursday, November 15, 2012

Three little things I’ve learned about museums and curating in these past few months

1. Most museums have shifted their philosophies from collections-centered to visitor-centered.  
            A focus on collections –protecting, archiving and researching about art works that museums own and acquire– will always be an essential part of what sets museums apart from other institutions of learning and public engagement.  The shift toward a visitor-centered philosophy however means that curators are not assuming that what they display will automatically engage their audience.  They are consulting with educators, reflecting deeply on who makes up their audience and on how they might expand it, how they might encourage new visitors, previously hesitant to come to museums.  Curators are experimenting with different participatory activities, tools and technologies.  Sometimes these attempts fall short, but that’s okay if we think of museums as places to experiment. 

The Luce Foundation Center, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is cutting-edge in its experimentation with new types of visitor engagement

2. Ideas for an exhibition might come from what the museum already has in its permanent collection, or they might come from an important story that the curator wants to tell.  Both of these exhibition types have their own challenges. 
            I learned a number of times about the complexity of the process when a curator brings together works from many places, hoping to tell a particular thematic story.  Each work has to be tracked down; then the curator has to convince the owner to lend, (hopefully without too many stipulations about how the work might be displayed that inhibit the curator’s creative vision).  Sometimes a conservator will assess that in fact, the artwork should not be moved, or the lender will change his mind, and the curator depending on that work of art will have to rearrange her whole exhibition.  On the other hand, with a collections based exhibit, curators have to figure out how they will overcome gaps in their collection. Collections are rarely even and smoothly built, they contain too much of some themes, and too little of others. 
3. Running a museum means balancing often conflicting priorities: the wants of visitors, museum staff, trustees, artists being displayed, and the museum founders.
            I have been particularly struck, in my learning these past few months, by how many curator choices are based on the original instructions of the founder.  When my class visited the Freer Gallery, the curator there talked to us of the challenge of keeping the Freer relevant and interesting while not breaking the stipulation Mr. Freer left in his will that none of the works in his original collection ever be lent out of the museum to other exhibitions, and that no new works of American art be purchased and added to his collection, ever.  At first, these struck me as eccentric and frustrating limitations.  As I thought about it, however, I realized that by honoring the instructions of a founder to the best of their abilities, curators preserve a link between a museum and its past that adds another layer to its meaning.  Each artwork in the museum is related to its own past –when, how, why, and by whom it was originally made–, and the museum as a whole is like a work of art connected to its founder and its history. 
The Freer Gallery

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