“A curator of an art gallery has to take in account what the audience in all its variety wants to see.” These were Ms Motture’s words at the beginning of our class. Of course, if you think about it the whole point of curating and designing a gallery is to make it appealing to the public, to present it as well as you can so that the flow of people will increase as the good word about the gallery spreads. Perhaps the curator of the Enlightenment Gallery at the BM ( by the way, her name is Kim Sloan ) did not pay much attention to all the issues addressed by Peta, but I believe that there is much more than we, as ordinary visitors, can see and observe. It is probably so subtle that we cannot even perceive it. For instance, the name of the gallery is The Enlightenment Gallery. I noticed, perhaps erroneously, but maybe not, that the whole room is bright: the wide windows at located high on the walls of the gallery allow sunlight to flood the room, hence making the Enlightenment section Bright. Back to Ms Motture’s statement, I believe that the amount and the heterogeneity of the items that were (and had to be) displayed did not permit the curator to take in account the variety of the visitors. It was either the visitors or the exhibition. Fine, perhaps the disposition and the clarity of the objects could be improved, but what’s the whole purpose of a gallery if not identifying yourself with an individual from the age on display and seeing it actually with the eye of someone living 2 and a half centuries ago? It was probably a mess back then. Items crammed together on shelves. Then, as I was reading the labels on the cases, I suddenly remembered the issue (apparently big) brought up during our discussion in class: Ms Motture was very concerned about the length of the descriptions for each object, whereas I noticed that the ones in the Enlightenment Gallery exceeded the “50-word-criterion” that Peta told us about. But after all, different objects have different needs, and some have to be explained more thoroughly than others, also given the historical context to which they belong. But they mostly did not concern the history of the object or its use, rather they focused on their acquisition by famous collectors and the journey that brought them to the BM. Listening to Peta Motture’s speech, each and every segment of a gallery is designed to entertain, engage and transform the visitor and her knowledge. The Enlightenment Gallery, despite its formal partition, has to be taken as a one ( like this post, one chunk ), and the visitor should engage with it as a whole. But after all, there is always space for improvement.
I have spent a lot of time in museums and galleries this semester. I mean a lot. That’s what happens when you sign up for British Art in London. But I’ve also spent time in the same galleries we visit in class–The National Gallery and the V&A immediately come to mind–on my own, whether for an assignment or just for my own personal enjoyment. I have been many kinds of visitor on these trips. I have been part of a student group, looking at a specific object being lectured on by my professor; I have been a student looking at an entire gallery (BM’s Enlightenment Gallery) or single painting (Thomas Gainsborough’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly) on my own for an assignment; I have been a wanderer through the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the V&A. I have long been aware of the different ways one can enter and view a gallery, but I never really considered the fact that curators have to take into consideration the wide variety of people who visit their work and the even wider variety of purposes a person might have in doing so when planning these galleries.
That’s what I found so fascinating about Peta Motture’s lecture. Every single part of any given gallery has been seriously thought out and planned to both communicate knowledge and (hopefully) keep visitors engaged–even down to the size, color, and type of font on gallery texts. The whole process of figuring out the right balance between communicating information to someone who is an expert (or at least adept) in a given field without being dull or reductive and without alienating the visitor with little to no prior knowledge of the topic on display seems, frankly, mind boggling. It cannot be assumed that every single person will go through the gallery the way the curator has planned, nor that they will examine each and every object. The question then becomes one of how to get enough of a sense of the gallery’s topic through any given object and text so that every person comes away with at least some increase in understanding on the topic. As I said, mind boggling. My respect for curators has been raised even higher, and I think that hearing about everything that goes into creating an effective gallery or exhibit has made me appreciate all of the great ones I have been to even more.
I found Peta Motture’s lecture absolutely fascinating. One of my favorite things to do whenever I have free time is go to a museum. I usually take some homework and head over to the British Museum or National Gallery. I can spend hours alternating between reading and wandering the museums, balancing schoolwork with the personal joy of walking through exhibits that have now become familiar. Yet, even though I spend so much time in museums, I don’t think I fully thought about all the work that went into creating these exhibits before Peta Motture’s talk. I can easily acknowledge when I think I gallery or exhibit works well- the Hollywood Costume exhibit at the V and A over the fall was stunning, and The Enlightenment Gallery and the Parthenon Gallery, both at the British Museum, are stunning. Despite this acknowledgement, I barely thought about why I found these displays so interesting. Yet know, as I wander through the museums, I have a better appreciation for how they are set up.
I think the clearest example is my experience with the Enlightenment Gallery. I can distinctly recall a sense of awe the first time I accidentally stumbled into the room. It was one of my first weeks in London and my old cultural foundations class went to the Museum. We had some free time to explore (technically it was a chance to see the mummies…. but I am sort of scared of dead things….). I was walking with one of my friends when all of a sudden we found the Enlightenment Gallery. Both of us stopped and stared, amazed by the aesthetics of the room. I have been to the gallery many times since then. I read Machiavelli’s The Prince sitting on one of the benches in the gallery and even brought my family to see the room on our quick tour through the museum (and I was dealing with my rather cranky teenage brother who claimed he didn’t want to go any museums in the first place). After the talk, I went back to the Gallery with Courtney to do some research for my essay. This time, I saw the room in a completely different light. Suddenly I could look beyond the beauty and attempt to understand why I found this room so pleasing. I could appreciate how the room appeals to different audiences and the superb organization (along with the excitement of finding secret doors… though Courtney seemed to think it was unnecessary to walk around the entire room looking to see if there were more after we saw a couple of guards walk into one…). It is easy to understand when you like something. Yet know I feel as though I can better understand the question of why and the extraordinary amount of work that goes into making a gallery appealing.
I found the Enlightenment Gallery in the British Museum full of rather interesting artefacts but I found it lacked a certain appeal that prevented me from being fully engaged with the pieces displayed in front of me. I found this was exacerbated after listening to Peta Motture’s lecture because of her lengthy explanation on all the thought that goes into curating a museum. I found various key points displayed in the Enlightenment Gallery, points that Peta had spoken about. For example, I noticed the seating areas within the Gallery and I remembered Ms. Motture saying “We really do think of everything,” but I felt like the benches in the Gallery were a bit oddly placed as one could only glance at a few pieces from where they were positioned. I also found some of the glass cabinets a bit lacking because of the placement of the items in the bottom shelves where one has to really bend to be able to see them (maybe this was just because I’m tall?).
Either way, I found that this did not cater to a full range of audiences the way Peta had mentioned and I even saw some old people talking about the pieces and how they couldn’t bend down to see them closely. I found the layout of the Gallery quite interesting however and spent a long time finding the congruence on either side of Section 4. I found it really interesting how Peta mentioned the absolute detail that goes into producing a gallery or an exhibit in a museum; it reminded me of the quote- “God is in the details.” I think the Gallery in the British Museum is an excellent one and it is probably silly of me to find faults with it, but I feel like after listening to Peta’s lecture and gaining a “behind the scenes” perspective, I find it hard to not analyse the Gallery.
From Ms. Motture’s presentation last week, two things struck me in particular: the idea of narration through collection and the curator’s relationship with visitors to the gallery. For me, the line between curator and art historian comes down to their relationship with the objects themselves. Both the curator and the art historian can study an object and its significance in a greater context, but there is something about the creation of a gallery that seems like an art form in itself. Like a historian, a curator may only utilize objects from a certain time period–for example, Renaissance art in the case of Ms. Motture–but the curator has the advantage of utilizing space, as well as the objects themselves. A trip to a museum becomes a very different experience from reading an history book about the subject. When I visited the Academia in Florence, for example, witnessing the actual statue of Michaelangelo’s David in the flesh gave me a certain connection that I had not felt seeing countless pictures of the same statue before. When I was in the gallery, I felt in a sense placed in history. A history book or image is confined in the sense that the object can only be experienced in the mind–one cannot get a true sense of an object’s grandeur from a small photograph. When I read about the works or look at images of them, I feel that there exists some kind of barrier between me and my full experience of it-some part of me inside acknowledges that no matter how hard I try, I know that what I look at or read about is not real. When I looked upon the sculptures in the gallery, the piece came alive for me: I think its impact became validated through its relationship of space with me. Standing next to the centuries-old David and looking at the piece chiseled by Michelangelo himself, I could relate to it directly. Such is the power that the curator holds over the historian, I believe.
I am not saying that history books are inferior to galleries. In many ways, a history book can explore the themes and context surrounding an object to far greater detail than a small plaque next to the work itself. However, the one advantage that narration in galleries holds is that sense of spacial relationship with an object, or the “physical connection” that Motture writes about in her piece. It is for this reason that the placement and choice of objects to present becomes a work of art in itself – in one way, the pieces are works, but the way the curator displays them can influence how we relive how they might have been experienced – for example, the way the Italian dowry boxes had been presented off the ground at a height where they might have been carried for the viewers to see.
Lastly, the idea of the viewer’s influence also got me thinking. What would be viewer’s preconceptions of an object going into it? How much does a museum have to cater to what the viewer wants to know and see? Such questions leave me torn: I know that Motture referred to the context of a viewer’s academic background when choosing how to display objects, but, taken to an extreme, I get the sense a museum may find itself pressured to just put on display what people want to see. Such an idea really makes the concept of making a particular facet of history interesting for an otherwise indifferent audience hit home.
Overall, particularly after listening to Peta Motture’s lecture on how much detail and consideration goes in to curating an exhibition, I was fairly unimpressed with the Enlightenment Gallery. I found it unimpactful and lacking consideration for audience response. I find in general with the British Museum, that there tends to be a lot of focus on acquisition which I find interesting personally, but is not greatly helpful to me in terms of learning about a period. This was no exception. I feel as though I just did not have enough background knowledge to make this gallery particularly worth while to visit. It was a different story for example, when looking at the Egyptian area in conjunction with studying Egypt last term in Cultural Foundations. I felt like that was an excellent supplementary visit. But this was too disjointed from my knowledge base for me to gain much from it.
Peta spoke about great works being “thrown away” when they are used in order to merely explain or show something rather than as standalone art, which led me to question- what is the purpose of a museum anyway? Is it to show? To educate? To aesthetically please us? I don’t think the Enlightenment Gallery particularly achieved a lot although they did have some very interesting objects.
Visually, the Enlightenment Gallery is very much an imitation of how I imagined a study during the Enlightenment to look. It was filled to the brim with both artifacts from all over the world and also the tool and innovations that allowed these discoveries. When I first walked in, I entered into a room lined with telescopes, astrolabes, globes, and maps– the tools being stored. There were many along the walls but the key tools were in cases in the center, not quite “stand alones” but I guess “collection stand alones”. These were the introduction to the exhibit. It was an introduction literally to the enlightenment. They needed the tools before they could do the exploration. The two wings on either side were rife with artifacts: books, encyclopedias, manuscripts, drawings, fossils, pots, vases, figurines, statues, brooches, pins, etc, overfilling the shelves that weren’t occupied by the tools.But it wasn’t unorganized. There was a rhythm, a classification of all of the artifacts. They were from all corners of the world and from many times but they were arranged thematically, like a library catalogue, classified by subject: art, religion, writing, language– all aspects of culture were covered. The Enlightenment was the beginning of the study of other cultures. All of these objects were insights into the art, the religions of these newly discovered places and newly discovered pasts. It was the beginning of anthropological studies.