April 04, 2011

Idiosyncrasy in museum design, an endangered species?

Finally, a NY Times museum article that even a progressive can love. Architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff sees the Barnes Foundation’s move to a new building on Philadelphia’s museum mile as the last nail in the coffin of eccentricity in the American art museum. To which I would add: it ain’t just the art museums.

It makes sense that the piece wasn’t written by one of the Times’s art critics or by is everything-but-art museums reviewer Ed Rothstein. As I’ve complained before here, they’re a traditionalist lot. They tend to see exhibitions as a kind of illustrated scholarly argument — a catalog essay with the objects in 3D.

Albert Barnes, whose patent-medicine company went big and who became a voracious collector of Reniors, Picassos, and the like, was no scholar. But he did think deeply (and eccentrically) about aesthetics and developed a pedagogy for looking at art that’s still being taught at the Barnes Foundation. (Barnes died in a car crash in 1951.)

A Cezanne-centric gallery at the Barnes Foundation, as Albert Barnes installed it. Photo: Barnes Foundation.

As Ouroussoff notes, Barnes saw himself as an outsider to, and a critic of, elite Philadelphia society, especially the art collectors and benefactors. Like J. Paul Getty and Isabella Stewart Gardner, he created a museum that bucked convention and showed visitors alternatives to the mainstream, increasingly professionalized and institutionalized art museum culture. The Barnes Foundation, the Getty Villa in Malibu, and the Gardner Museum in Boston were ways for the founders “to thumb their noses at cultural insiders — Barnes at Philadelphia’s insular community of art patrons, Getty at what he called the ‘doctrinaire and elitist views’ of the art world.”

In all three cases, writes Ouroussoff, the result was

a museum experience that felt deeply private. Walking into one of these galleries could seem like poking around in someone’s bedroom. The winking references, the quirky combinations of acknowledged masterpieces and minor oddities, the mix of personal and public missions — these served to narrow the gap between art and viewer. Instead of feeling lectured to from above, you felt as if you had been invited to share in a private joy.

But now the Gardner and the Barnes are both being modernized, as the Getty Villa was in the early 2000s, transforming (says Ouroussoff) once-magical experiences into “pedantic” statements of cultural consensus, “gorgeously crafted” but now “polite and well behaved” in ways that betray their founding spirit. ...

I’ve made the same point myself, writing about the Barnes [pdf] back in 2004 in Curator: The Museum Journal, and so have art historians like Anne Higonnet and journalists like Lee Rosenbaum (a.k.a. Culturegrrl on Artsjournal.com). “Unlike large museums,” Higonnet wrote in 2003, “or any museum more professional in its origins, private museums display personality.” And it’s that personality, that idiosyncratic passion and humor you can feel in such museums, that helps visitors have their own personal, passionate response to the art. The collector-curator’s unabashed self-presentation (along with his or her art presentation) gives a kind of license and inspiration to the rest of us.

Ouroussoff is worried that those days are gone, or will be when the corporatized, art-on-a-pedestal version of the Barnes opens on the Parkway next year. I share his concern, and I’ve accused science museums and history museums of the same sins: homogeneity in the service of professionalism, and fear of their own subjectivity. Like art museums, science centers and natural history museums are building distinctive buildings (like Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences). But what you’ll find inside one of them is more or less what you’ll find in any other.

A rendering of the new, downtown Barnes by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, from the Barnes project website.

Yet I’m hopeful, because in recent years there’s been a slow but steady wellspring of personal, idiosyncratic museum projects in the US and elsewhere.
Some of these come from creative people at established, mainstream institutions. Some come from new entrants and “indie” players who don’t think of themselves as museum professionals. So far, none has the ambition and scale of a Barnes or a Gardner. And many of them are thinking more about their visitors’ personalities than about their own. But they’re keeping quirky alive, and reminding us that museum experiences are supposed to reveal something not just about art or science or history, but about what it means to be me, or her, or him.

See anything personal in a museum lately?

Amanda Krantz — April 20, 2011

Peter, I really enjoyed your reflection. I too am very sad to see the Barnes go--or move. While I understand the argument that moving the Barnes to the Parkway will make the museum a bit more accessible than they are in Merion, I really think that the museum community will lose something very special. Even when I have taken non-artsy/museum people to the Barnes, they appreciate the personality and vibrancy of the place. Maybe hanging a painting Salon-style isn’t ideal for viewing, but I am always amazed with how the arrangement helps you see connections among works that you might not have seen. Plus, in my opinion, it is just visceral and stimulating. It reminds me that there really is no one “right” way--no formula for exhibiting art.

Melissa Stafford — May 05, 2011

From what I've read so far, the new Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Tasmania is an excellent example of a personal, original and magical museum experience on a grand scale (I only wish they weren't so far away from me [I'm in NY] so I could visit!).

I found it very inspiring to read about Mona - we need more institutions/individuals willing to take risks and try something new.

Peter Linett — May 05, 2011

Melissa, this looks like the hippest, sexiest, post-modernest museum in the world (http://www.mona.net.au). They've got a pool, overnight suites, a wine bar, wine tours, a cabinet of curiosities, all ultra designed. And a total disregard for the dusty conventions of museum practice:

"WHAT IS THE O? We don’t have labels on the wall. We have the O. Use it to read about the art on display and to listen to interviews with the artists. It’s free. Get one from the information desk as you enter the museum and return it as you leave."

And this is in an island state of Australia not known for its modernity or good taste. Wow. Makes me want to get on a very long plane ride...

Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

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