A place to publish notes on exhibitions and museums. More discussion of this kind of work seems useful. Let me know if you find this of value, or if you'd like to contribute.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Salem, Massachusetts: Peabody Essex Museum

Salem, Massachusetts: Peabody Essex Museum

The PEM is a remarkable place. It has all the attributes of a world-class museum: a spectacular new building by a famous architect; a collection with great depth and breadth; and thoughtful, beautifully designed and constructed exhibitions.

It’s also an odd museum. It bends categories, remixing art and natural history, old and new, and more. It’s an art museum with a vast range of superb artworks, yet without (this is a bit of an exaggeration) any work by an artist that 99 percent of its visitors might know. Its collection represents every continent—except Europe. It has a natural history collection and a collection of maritime apparatus.

The PEM is eccentric, eclectic, and electrifying. I’m not sure if it is the first 21st-century art museum, but its new way of combining art and culture suggests a new way of building a global museum for a global society.

History explains some of this. PEM is, its web site claims, America’s oldest continuously operating museum. It was founded by New England sea captains, leaders of the global economy of the 18th and 19th century. They collected art and artifacts from around the world.

A few years back, an infusion of new money reshaped the place. The old collections had new meaning for a new global world, and a new leadership took bold steps to invent a new kind of museum. The new PEM is—again from the web site-- a “place of meeting and global dialog,” a place of “art and culture,” a place that provides “a new set of tools and opportunities to focus more intently on the art, to see beyond objects to their makers, the culture, and the creative process.”

A daring and provocative idea. Does it work?

One way of answering this is by looking at the changes from the old PEM. Beyond the vast improvements in design, beyond the gorgeous installations: are there new ideas as well? Yes, but only in the details. Labels are better-written, addressing bigger and more interesting questions. The collections, especially the South Asian collections and Native American collections, have been expanded so that these cultures that were once only “history” are now vibrant and alive, their contemporary cultural traditions celebrated as much as their historic ones. This is an essential step in any new art museum, I believe.

But: The changes are, for the most part, within the old categories. Art is organized by country, or by culture. Boundaries and borders are respected in a way that art and culture did not, and does not, respect them. While there is some shaking up of the old categories, the PEM misses an opportunity that an adventurous museum with its range of collections could accomplish. It misses the chance to show the flow of ideas around the globe, to capture the currents of culture as it flows across national and cultural boundaries.

The Peabody Essex Museum is, as it claims, a global museum. It does not yet live up to its claim of being a museum of global dialog. But it has set its sights high, and in exactly the right place, to redefine the museum of art and culture for the new century.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Philadelphia: Atwater Kent Museum: The Real Thing and Why it Matters.

If ever there was an exhibition by museum people for museum people, this is it. It’s an interesting question whether the reflexive turn in museums is a sign of strength or weakness. Are we doing exhibits that explain why we do exhibits because we think we know, or because we’re not sure. Are we telling visitors that museums are important because we are sure that they are, or because we are in a moment of uncertainty?

And do museums raise questions about voice and selection in this same moment because they are sure of the answers, or because we are not? It’s fashionable to say, “what do you think?” or “what would you have us collect?”. Are we doing this because we want our visitors’ opinions, or because we just want them to care about ours.

Are we at a moment where we’re secure enough to ask for help? Or are museums asking for input because we’re not sure of our standing to answer these questions?

The Atwater Kent Museum’s “Real Thing” is a beautifully-designed place to consider these issues. It redefines the “treasures” exhibition, displaying twenty-five interesting, important, provocative and challenging artifacts from Philadelphia’s history. Each of them is nicely displayed, flanked by a short label and some longer thoughts about the object from city notables, or from others with a point of view. The presentation is terrific: it’s clean, clear, some gorgeous colors, easily read.

And here’s what makes it a museum display for museum people, and especially for students of museums: behind many of the artifacts are quotations from a virtual syllabus of museum studies texts about why these artifacts are worth considering.

We’ve got David Lowenthal: “History in isolation is barren and lifeless; relics mean only what history and memory convey.” Page Putnam Miller: “Historic resources physically link us to our past, stimulating our imagination and assisting us in better understanding and appreciating the past.” James Traub: “It is, at bottom, a question of belief. Museums must start with the premise that visitors treasure the experience of seeing unique objects in a setting that deepens our understanding of them.” And a half-dozen more, all the good bits from the best museum-studies curriculum on the wall.

It worked for me, and I think museum students would get it. But I wonder if the juxtaposition of grand, often theoretical, words and sometimes unrelated objects makes the point to the general public. Gerda Lerner on selective memory (“Selective memory and the distorion of history have long been the powerful tool of oppressive regimes. It is worth noting that when subordinate groups have come to power they have tried to define and recover their history. This oft-repeated process testifies in its own way to the deeply felt need for a history of formerly oppressed peoples.”) makes sense next to objects relating to racial oppression, but some of the others seem less direct.

Still, the exhibit works. There are powerful objects next to thoughtful words. There’s space to move through the hall, to get some perspective. The design—and maybe it’s the large and elegantly-displayed text from those books—balances nicely the openness of the “let people other than curators talk” philosophy. The show doesn’t quite work as an introduction to Philadelphia history; it’s too episodic, with no narrative holding it together. That’s something that’s lost with the many-voices approach. But, for museum people, and for visitors who want to step back and consider what museums do, this show is a must-see.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Dearborn: Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford

Greenfield Village is an interesting problem. It’s a mismash of interesting buildings pretending to be a village. Henry Ford collected buildings he thought important and used them to recreate a fantasy village. An odd fantasy—a good part of it is pre-industrial, which is what one would think he would do; but there are also some serious industrial buildings, as well as the Edison “invention factories”. New buildings have been added, too, over the years, reflecting the layers of ideas of generations of curators.

Yet another new layer has been added. There’s a phrase in the business: FDGs—“former Disney guys.” And while I don’t know who redid the Village, it has all the earmarks of FDG work. That’s good and bad—for the most part, good. The Village is much livelier than the last time I was there, much more interesting. On the other hand, some elements are way too Disneyesque.

The good first. You can do things now. This makes an enormous difference. For $3 you can ride in a Model T. (I paid the $3, and got more than my money’s worth—not only a good lesson in how the pedals work, but a great story about Ford’s centennial Model T replicas. For more money, you can take driving lessons. I’d sign up for that, too.) You can ride on the train or a bus, too.

You can also run some of the machines. For another three bucks you can run a turret lathe. I didn’t do this—kids were waiting in line—but it turns out to be much more educational to watch someone learn how to do it than to watch a bored docent do it for the hundredth time. Definitely something for other museums to learn from.

They’ve gone a bit far with the crafts in some areas. What should be industrial processes have been turned into crafts. I can see why—it’s fun, they can sell lessons and sell products—but it makes for a distorted message about historical production.

The FDGs have also cleaned the place up a bit too much. Some beautiful plantings around the machine shop. The lake has some fine water plants. Now, it was never accurate before, and it’s never pretended to be an industrial town... but the mixed signals are louder and more confusing than before.

The one part of the FDG work that I found objectionable was the parade. Anyone who’s been to Disneyworld knows about the parades—the whole place is set up around them. Well, Greenfield Village now has a Disney parade. The entertainers, the cars, the bicycles, singing and dancing their way through the streets.... I didn’t get there to see the beginning, so I’m not sure how they introduced it—but it seems quite out of place...

Overall, though: the place looks better than it ever has. There’s more to do, there’s more depth. The balance still needs work, but it’s headed in the right direction.