November 23, 2010

Reinstalling familiar assumptions (and audiences) in Boston

New York Times critic Holland Cotter praises the new American wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and it sure looks lovely in the pictures accompanying his review. But those images also suggest that the new installation affirms rather than reinvents the orthodox art museum experience, and that it will do little to broaden the institution's audience.

In his article, Cotter calls the MFA Boston’s new Art of the Americas wing “startling,” along with other admiring adjectives. His sense of revelation has to do mostly with what’s on display — some 5,000 objects, twice what was shown in the museum’s old American galleries — and how the curators have juxtaposed objects and arranged them into provocative historical narratives.

Photo by Boston Photographer Erik Jacobs

Cotter also clearly likes the aesthetic choices the curators and their designers made. He’s no stick-in-the mud about installation approaches, either: he mentions the “salon-style” hang of a room of 19th-century painting and sculpture (above) without comment, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. (Which it used to be.)

But the pictures that ran with his piece in the Times (and as a slide show online) tell another, parallel story. I’m struck by two aspects of them: first, how familiar the installations look (that salon gallery notwithstanding); and second, how familiar the visitors look, from demographics to behaviors and even posture.

The artworks may be different, but otherwise pictures like the ones below could have been taken at any major art museum built or renovated in the last ten years. These are spaces designed with an unquestioning faith in the ideal of “disinterested contemplation” (the phrase is Kant’s, so it goes back to the 18th century, but the museum practices it spawned date mostly from the late 19th and early 20th centuries).

Photo by Boston Photographer Erik Jacobs

In that ideal, artworks should be viewed as discrete, almost free-floating objects, separated from each other and even, to the extent possible, from the contingent, messy environments in which they’re seen. In fact, they should be separated from us: we must stand at a critical distance from them, without wanting or needing anything from them and without responding at a bodily (and therefore primitive) level.

So above all these are museum spaces: environments carefully designed to foster a particular kind of aesthetic experience by closing off the rest of the world (which can only be a distraction) and focusing us on the contemplative, inward — many think of it as sacred — work of encountering art. ...

Photo by Boston Photographer Erik Jacobs

Of course, even if we encounter artworks one at a time, in a museum they make up a sequence. So on top of this ideal of disinterested contemplation we’ve layered other Enlightenment imperatives, such as the rational organization of knowledge into typologies and narratives, and the illustration of those types and stories by a range of specimens. (In this sense, an art museum isn’t so different from a natural history collection.)

Given these layers of historical value embedded museum installations like the Americas wing, it’s not surprising that the people in these photographs seem so typical, museum visitors straight out of central casting. (Actually, I’m guessing they’re MFA Boston members or donors attending a preview of the new wing.) In their body language, dress, and class, they’re enacting the roles prescribed by the space. And they’re the kind of people who, by education and experience, find those roles comfortable.

Notice the man in the red shirt looking at Copley’s Paul Revere (1768), above, unconsciously imitating Revere’s philosophical hand on the chin as he reads the wall text. Or the older visitor below with his hands behind his back as he reads the labels beneath the ship models. (You may not expect this kind of gallery in an art museum, but it looks almost identical to rooms in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, just north of Boston, which re-opened seven years ago.)

Photo by Boston Photographer Erik Jacobs

It’s not just that these aren’t natural poses in today's society, except perhaps to a small segment of the population. It’s that they obey and embody the museum’s traditional sense of itself as a cerebral, subdued experience of cultural authority. (These people are literally in postures of respect, subtly “one down” to the institution and circumspect about their spatial relationships to it.)

Photo by Boston Photographer Erik Jacobs

Admittedly, it may not be fair to do this kind of close reading of pictures from an invitational, pre-opening event (assuming that’s what it was). And what we see in these pictures may tell us more about the New York Times than about the MFA Boston.

But during an average weekday, will the scene be much different? The installation of the new Americas wing was an opportunity to re-examine some of those venerable, all-but-invisible assumptions, and perhaps experiment with new ones derived from, or at least organically aligned with, contemporary life. By reifying them instead, the MFA lost an opportunity to make the museum experience more comfortable and relevant to a broader swath of the Americans whose heritage this collection represents.

Of course, I have no idea if that was the goal, as it was at the Detroit Institute of Arts in their 2007 reinstallation (whose galleries the MFA’s appear to resemble, at least in these photos). Nor do I know to what extent the MFA’s design and interpretation were informed by audience research and evaluation, as Detroit’s were. If you know more about it, or better yet if you’ve seen it first hand, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Ditto if you just have a different take than mine. How do you see these photos?


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