• Tag Archives museums
  • Inverting the Pyramid of the Museum

    Beltane                                                                                          Waxing Garlic Moon

    A museum is an odd organization since it has a bifurcated purpose, one dealing with things and another dealing with people.

    As to things, it has a responsibility to the art works in its custody, a responsibility to not only exhibit them, but to care for them in such fashion that they will survive, as many already have, for centuries, even millennia.  This work of the museum is in the hands of curators, guardians or trustees from the original Latin, who both establish rules and procedures for keeping art safe, and purchase more art to enhance the museum’s collection goals.  Some see curators as taste-setting or taste-makers and they can serve that role by choosing what the public will see at any one time of a museum’s collections.  Others see them as conservators.  Others as connoisseurs.  They have all these roles and more.

    Most of the time the work of the curator and the work of the museum going public line up.  That is, the curator wants to have the best examples of particular kinds of art and wants to display it to advantage.  The public comes to see the art and wants to see in a way that makes viewing both easy and informative.  Occasionally the curator may loan out certain works or remove certain works either for conservation or on a rotation with other, similar objects.  In those instances the curators work might frustrate the public.

    As to people, though, the museum exists for its public.  Its public has certainly been defined and refined over the years.  In their origins museums served and often still do serve an educated elite who feel a particular bond with the arts and artists.  As long as museums serve this group primarily, the museum usually functions without controversy.

    If, however, as is now the case, museums seek to measure their worth by attendance numbers and also by the diversity of the audience, the museum has a new position in relation to its visitors.  Groups who have not traditionally been seen as museum visitors, school children, financially disadvantaged persons, members of any community, really, neither moneyed nor educated at the college level and beyond, require some assistance, some guidance, some initial tutoring.

    This has, traditionally, been the role of the docent whether paid or volunteer.

    As more and more first time visitors come to the museum, such things as museum etiquette must be taught.  Stay one foot away from everything.  Use inside voices.  Don’t make telephone calls in the galleries.  Visitors must also be encouraged in that most basic art museum act, the encounter with individual works.  This  requires small groups, maybe 10-15 at best, of new visitors and a specially trained guide, most often a docent though there are now many different types of guide programs.

    The vast majority of museum visitors will never see a curator, never talk to a development officer or an education staffer.  They will not even know there is a department of registration and will know the board and director only as far away figures, if at all.

    They will encounter the art in one fashion or another.  A large number, perhaps most, will, at one point or another, however, meet a guide.  Most will meet docents.  Some will meet guides from other, specialized programs that focus only on school children or that provide tours of specific museum collections.

    The docents and guides are hardly indispensable, but the museum does have two categories without which a museum does not make sense:  art and visitors.  The art needs curators, certainly, and visitors, many visitors, benefit from a guided experience, an engagement with the art designed to elicit careful looking, provide some information and enhance the possibility the art will do its radical job of confronting a visitor’s perceptions and preconceived notions.

    Seen in this light, an inverted pyramid of the organization shines its light on art and visitors, then on those who work most closely with them, the guides.

    The museum seen from this inverted perspective suggests a high degree of importance for a well-trained and continuously updated guide corps.  It also suggests a higher level of appreciation for this volunteer group that serves the most critical aspect of the museum’s mission, making art available to all.

  • A Paradox

    Beltane                                                                                       Waning Last Frost Moon

    Groceries.  Bees.  Check in for cruise.  That’s my day today.  Well, I might watch a bit of the 500, just see how it goes.

    It Broke From Within (see post below) is based on a quote from a p.r. piece for an early Walker project that read:  Remember France?  It broke from within.  That can happen here.

    It goes on:  We can only protect our own country within by making more of us more understanding of each other’s freedom and each other’s work and possessions.  We must learn to place a high value on the things that we have created and built and which we would inevitably lose through disunity and social revolution.  Nothing is more important to us than those civic institutions, of which the art center is one, that create a broader appreciation of our common bonds–our homes, our work, and our personal expressions.

    At first I read this as an artist’s statement by Goshka Macuga and wrestled with its obviously conservative tone, especially in the sentence:  We must learn to place a high value on the things we have created and built and which we would inevitably lose through disunity and social revolution.  The first we here seems to encompass all, all Minneapolis, all Twin Cities, all Minnesota, all USA while the second we encompasses those who build and create, mostly the upper classes, who then, the third we, stand to lose things during a period of disunity and social revolution.

    Then I realized that, no, it was not an artist’s statement, but a statement from the Walker Art Center fund drive brochure in 1941.  Oh.  Well, it makes sense then. However, in that time between first reading it and realizing it was a fund drive brochure quote, I did consider a conundrum, a paradox that dogs my thinking and my working life.

    It is this.  Since the mid-60’s I have considered myself a political radical, willing to act outside the law if necessary to protest and resist unjust laws and unjust governmental or corporate actions.  I’ve not only considered myself a radical, but have, on many occasions, been a direct action activist.  What I’m saying here is that my political sympathies and my political work lie considerably left of center and left of liberal.

    Here’s the rub.  I love art.  I love being around art and talking to other folks about art.  Especially in the context of a museum.  I love the outdoors and mother earth.  I love being outside and talking with others about being outside. I love the garden and growing things, working with bees.  I love my family, keeping them close and supporting them.  I love the classics in literature and music, too.  I love them enough to learn Latin and translate a 2000 year old Latin text.  These are all conservative impulses.

    Art in museums and the purpose of a docent lies in admiring and sharing the work of artists over thousands of years and vast spans of geography.  This requires, quite literally, conservation and an appreciation for the past.  Working on behalf of mother earth and our great outdoors, even gardening and beekeeping, are, by definition, conservative.  That is, they act to conserve our natural world through good stewardship.  Loving family is a time honored conservative theme, because it too, quite literally, preserves and conserves our  species.  Even religion, which has been an important part of my life for a long time, entails conforming ones life to an often ancient code and deposit of tradition.

    So.  There it is.  Radical leftist in politics.  Conservative in many of the areas about which I’m most passionate.  What’s that?  They’re categorically different uses of the word?  Well, maybe, but I think the underlying theme suggested in the Walker Brochure tries to argue for a universal conservative impulse, one oriented toward stability and fear of social chaos, yes, but also toward preserving the best of what we have learned, of what we have come to believe important.

    Here is my current thought.  While I love art, nature, and family and will and do act to protect and nourish them, conservative intuitions, I also recognize that not all folks have equal access to art, to the natural world, even to stable families.  Those of us who have “created and built” must understand that all wish to do so.  That the culture and the families we love must see to it that others have that privilege, too.

    We also must recognize that while we cherish certain institutions and achievements, others have them, too, often ones we have not recognized.  Jazz is a good example.  So is the native american’s delicate dialogue with the natural world.  So is the rich extended family life of the Latino culture.  They wish to conserve the things they have created and built just as much as we of the middle-upper and upper classes want to conserve ours.

    It is this tension between what could be and what it is that drives the difference between the radical and the conservative.  And ever will.

  • Imagine a Line

    Beltane                                                               Waning Last Frost Moon

    A very interesting conversation among fellow docents over lunch.  When I reflect on it, it seems like we’re asking a potentially troublesome, certainly challenging question.  What is the role of the docent?  The museum?  Art in a museum?  What kind of experience do we want our visitors to have when on a tour?  Should it be entertaining and fun?  Should it be informative?  Should the experience include wrestling with difficult topics like rape, violence, feminism, racism, colonialism, homosexuality or are those kind of topics best left alone?

    Art, any art, whether in a museum or gallery or private collection or still resident in an artist’s studio, represents a dialogue between an individual and their interior life on the one hand and between an individual and the context of influence in which they swim, on the other.

    Museums represent a democratizing of arts role in the culture in that they preserve works over time and exhibit them to anyone willing to come and, if necessary, pay an entrance fee.  Otherwise art remains locked away behind walls of privilege, secreted in private rooms or hung in institutions of wealth and power  corporate, governmental or religious.

    Art’s intimate dialogue, a dance really, within the artist’s person expressed in the artist’s world, does not end with the finished work, rather, in one sense, it is only then that it truly begin.  Arts life, its voice, emerges only in those one-to-one moments when another individual stops, looks, wonders, connects, feels.  Imagine, if you will, the great stream of people who have seen Michelangelo’s Pieta since he finished it in 1499.  Imagine them as one long queue, standing patiently, moving slowly, each person stopping.

    As I take my time before it, I’m moved by the tenderness to pity (pieta) both Mary and the crucified Jesus.  The humanness of a mother with her dead son cradled in her lap suggests heartbreak, anguish, maybe even despair.  In my case I may reverse it, remembering my mother, dying from a stroke at the age of 46.  The emotions, the experience comparable.

    The smooth finish of the marble, the folds in Mary’s garments, the limp body pressing into her lap not as a long piece of stone, but as dead weight.  Her downcast eyes, her upturned left palm, her apparent youth.  All of these create in me a response not dictated by the material, marble, but by the marble’s transformation at the hands of a 15th century Italian, a rugged, intelligent, sensitive man.

    Michelangelo speaks directly to me, soul to soul.  The conversation is lively, profound, memorable.  Yet he’s dead, just like Jesus.

    The line moves on.  Who knows what the next person will experience?  What will their dialogue with Michelangelo be?  There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, probably millions in that line.  The Pieta is only one work of art.  Imagine the lines that have formed before Botticelli’s Primavera?  Rodin’s Burghers of Calais.  The Sphinx.  The Churning of the Sea of Milk in Angkor.   In each instance we offer ourselves up to another, at best we become vulnerable, the conversation is two way.

    Then, there is the more complex phenomena of groups encountering art.  That is, of course, the essence of touring.  How can we make that experience, that encounter with a work, intimate?  What extra do we add to the experience that makes us worthwhile?  Answering that question, it seems to me, is the journey on which this small group of docents has begun.  Sounds significant to me.

  • Vita brevis, ars longa

    Imbolc                                       Waning Wild Moon

    Sheepshead tonight.  We seem to pass around the points, playing as if each person should get a turn at the head of the list and everyone a turn in the barrel.  Always a good time.

    Tomorrow a public tour.  Stuff I enjoy.  Historical.  Highlights.  I’m still seeking a way to understand this world into which I emerged, a swimmer on the path to become a walker.  Objects, material objects, created by people with skilled hands, wild hearts and a need to create tell a part of the story.  They tell it from the inside out, the human experience filleted and boned, served up for others.  As I learn more, the ancientrail of the creator lays itself more and more open to me, oracle bones crackling in the fire, fish hooks made from bone, statues of bronze and brass, people molded from clay, ornaments from gold.  How do we wrap ourselves in the terrible passage of time, time that has seen the creators dead, dead long ago, gone, often, usually, nameless, yet the stuff they shaped continues on their journey, small capsules from the ancient past.

    We see it and walk past it, looking for the next best thing, passing by the cycladic figures, the woman of LaMouthe, the Greek vases, the section of wall from Ashur-bur-nipals splendid palace, walking on past them to see the show, the Louvre show or the modern galleries, some of the objects in those places made by people still alive, still breathing, their hands still working while the sculptor who shaped the rock into the plump representation of a woman does not.

    Museums are strange, often scary places if we look for the ghost, the hand behind the object, the living person with five fingers and a mother, creating with no thought that 15,000 years later–yes, 15,000 years later–we would pass by, maybe glance down, maybe not.  And what of 15,000 years from now?  17, 010 a.c.e.  Will someone walk past, glance down, wonder about who cared for this object, these objects, all those many years ago?