Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A "small, gentle disturbance" at the National Portrait Gallery

My Museum History and Theory class met today with Frank Goodyear, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, who talked to us about how the NPG works to recognize and rectify the gaps in its collection, and put on exhibits informed by feminism. Feminist involvement in museums has evolved over the past few decades, but it still has a really important role to play, as museums struggle to reinterpret Art History critically, acknowledge the holes and the flaws of the discipline, and build it into something stronger, more open, and more in line with the values of a diverse world.  

The National Portrait Gallery strattles the dividing line between art museum and history museum.  Its mission is to display paintings and sculpture and (since the late 1970s) photos and works on paper depicting people who have made a “transcending impact” on American History.  The exhibition design and labeling choices at NPG emphasize the social and historical impact of the people whose portraits are presented, an emphasis that highlights its role as a history museum.  However, as Goodyear explained to us in his talk, the museum is also interested in portraiture as an art form.  I found it particularly interesting that they acquire only portraits where the artist engaged at some point in time with the real person they represent in their artwork (as opposed to painting a historical figure a century after he died).  

Here is in essence the big challenge in curating at the National Portrait Gallery:  NPG wants to present exhibits that act (in Goodyear’s words) as a “mirror to the nation”.  Unfortunately, until recently, portraits of women were rare –even the acknowledgement of women who made ‘transcending impact’ on American society was rare.  Compounding matters, in the past, biases in collecting practices meant that curators did not have particular interest in accessioning portraits of women into the museum. Even if today the museum is keen to be inclusive and open in its definition of America, it is limited by the channels dug out by its collecting history.   The museum collects portraits of more modern and contemporary women, but it can do little to remedy its lack of women portraits from the earliest centuries of American History. 

The museum has chosen to try to tell a story of 18th century American women, and point out to the public of the challenge of doing this with its limited collection, by, what Goodyear called a “small, gentle disturbance” to American Origins, one of its permanent exhibits.  This “small, gentle disturbance” is certainly small; it consists of one alcove within the large, multi-room main exhibit, with four paintings, two prints, one clay cast, one book illustration, and the words “A Will of Their Own” printed on a sign over the archway.  That does not seem like very much to tell the story of American Women in the 18th century, tucked among the vast exhibition featuring men.  Yet, within the limits it had to work with, the NPG does a respectable job of putting together a thought-provoking display. 

The centerpiece of the group of works, a portrait by John Singleton Copley of Judith Sargent Murray, early activist for education for women, and first woman in America to publish a book, is not part of the collection, but on loan from a private foundation.  They have hung this beautiful work of art in one of the most prominent places of the entire museum; it is visible from the very first moment the visitor heads to the American Origins exhibit, acting as the focal point of the end of the long corridor, drawing the visitor in.  The museum is committing an important act of historic re-interpretation by placing Sargent Murray’s portrait here, and through this placement acknowledging her utmost importance to American history. 

I also think it was a wise choice for the museum, in this case, to group all these women together, even if it seems to further enforce their Otherness.  With only eight works of art, they would disappear if spread evenly among the portraits of men.  Grouped together, the museum can call attention to the problem of 18th century subordination of women, and lack of portraiture, and it does this explicitly in the wall text.

One of my classmates asked Goodyear why the display showed only women in public roles; wouldn’t they have more portraits to choose from if they showed women fulfilling roles as mothers or daughters or wives?  The curators had discussed this question, Goodyear answered, and decided that the NPG always displayed important, exceptional public figures, so mothers, daughters and wives were not roles they wanted to focus on.  His answer, to me, highlights another, lingering problem of values that needs a feminist re-interpretation: isn’t the insistence that private, domestic roles aren’t important to telling history another way that women have been marginalized?

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