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Museums - Putting art out of context
by Trol
2006-09-29 10:29:08
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I was reading in a Greek newspaper about a museum in Athens that decided to open its doors to the public on a few selected nights. The exhibitions would be open until 2 a.m. with additional events planned for the late-night visitors, offering a brand new and alternative option to our evening plans altogether.

I have often been ironic and bitter on the state of the museums in the ‘land of culture’ and I have also often been very critical of museums as institutions, so for one more time these feelings resurged as I continued reading the article. Not that the particular initiative cannot be a nice beginning, but it is indeed a late beginning.

ovi_museum01_400The journalist of the article was utterly impressed with the initiative and made sure to highlight the originality of this idea. It made me wonder if he realizes that ‘open museum’ nights have already become a tradition for many years in cities throughout Europe. And even smaller cities, having realized the importance of ‘culture’ to their city, have established those events and organized them on a much larger scale, including all the museums, all the galleries, all the local workshops, plus free transport connecting all the sites on that evening.

These events cater to every age, every taste. Sometimes, they even serve drinks. For free. That alone, attracted many friends. All this organized by the municipality in collaboration with the museum, not one single museum alone, and, of course, heavily counting on the social appeal of the event, not of interest in art. I fully accept the social appeal of museums and exhibits. I believe it can be used to the benefit of art education and reaching out to the local community. However, phrases like ‘an alternative option for our evening plans’ is pure, cold-cut, branding, kitsch marketing for me.

I continued reading the newspaper. In a totally different spot, something like a quick commentary, there was a short, tiny mention of MoMA starting a new project for visitors that suffer from the Alzheimer disease. Just that! There was nothing that gave more detail, or even the journalist exclaiming over the originality the idea. However, that two-line commentary left me eager for more detail, intrigued and made me curious.

To be honest, so far, I never had a close or even distant relative suffering from the awful disease, but I guess the project did not directly appeal to a personal sensitivity, which fortunately is limited on the issue. It appealed to my social sensitivity and my perception of museums and art. It made me stop and wonder, what possibly could be done technically to appeal to the particular needs of this group, what is this group, why do they go to the museum, what is art, who we are, what we do in this life? Yes, I am exaggerating. The point is that I stopped to think. I found the museum’s project interesting.

A funny detail is that I used to work in an art museum, giving guided tours. More than often, as I was describing a painting, a visitor or two would ask something relevant, but - given away by my accent - all of them would like to ask where I am from. I really did not mind, no matter how much I love, admire and dwell in art. Many of those people had come to the museum just because it was another social activity, maybe they had nothing better to do, maybe they wanted to be around other people and on the occasion see some art, too.

A couple had been in Greece on their honeymoon, some others stopped by when touring Europe, some had been to Italy only, but they also wanted to visit Greece one day. Yes, they were impressed with the country’s history and did not mind waiting in long lines in the mid of a heat wave to enter a museum where there was often no guide. They were all happier to narrate about beautiful beaches, amazing food and their lack of interest in museums or uninteresting museums? What was I supposed to do when these conversations would pop up in the middle of a tour? Hush them into quietness because we were in a museum? In a paradox, I felt that this would be exactly so inappropriate.
I was then thinking about myself that if I ever go to Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum is at the top of the list of things to see. To be more exact, I will go to Bilbao only for that. I mean the building. As far as its exhibition is concerned, I am almost in the dark. I guess I will check it out once I get there, likewise happened with the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The building and the set up of the exhibition was a unique experience, however, the artifacts exhibited were just that, artifacts.

I do not mean to insult history. I just believe that the architect conveyed it better to me, than the artifacts on their own. A very post-modern interpretation of history, I know. Museum architecture has already been acquiring a very post-modern meaning for a while now. What is the art? Is it the museum or the art inside? If the museum alone can become an art landmark for a city, as in Bilbao, then does the museum really need the art exhibited in it?

One thing for sure is that museums are great institutions, despite being extremely pretentious and dogmatic in defining what art is. They can be great gathering places for educational purposes, for parties and cocktails, for almost any activity that is seeking a nice place for a meeting. They are also very stylish and elegant. What better place for a late-night party at the Metropolitan of New York, in the big room where an ancient Egyptian temple is reconstructed and one of the walls is pure glass overlooking Central Park and the skyline of Manhattan in the background? A museum can contribute to economic development. How was the Guggenheim committee convinced to invest in a depressed city that was also known for its strong support to extremist Basque organizations affiliated with causing trouble (saying ‘terrorism’ opens new discussions)?

And art? What about art? Where is the discussion on the art that these museums are hosting?

Let’s go back in time, before we had art museums, around the time natural history museums were being established. Rich European explorers brought back artifacts from the places they had visited that they found interesting or weird, including humans of other races, and put them on public display, next to artifacts of their cultures and exotic birds, all closed in a cage. These were the first museums, sad as it sounds, inhumane and atrocious as it is.

Museums have since developed and diversified, currently having art museums that include masterpieces, average artwork or any irrelevant meaningless or ugly work that someone decided is relevant. They have become institutions that are authorized in our conscious to define what art is. Even if that art is a portrait of a serial killer made by handprints of small children exhibited in the center of New York. That was a great piece, I have to say. Shocking! Yes, we like that in our times. That exhibition even caused a scandal. Yes, we also like that. Museums try to appeal to their times, then and now.

As art itself, it is an ever-changing, redefining, living thing that has become difficult to discern from the fashionable, the trendy and the ‘catchy’, especially at times of heavy information flow. Museums follow that. They will preserve old art, they will redefine it, but they will also exclaim the ‘temporary’ and the ‘medium’ in new art. Often they will fail to track down new art movements, until they have become more commercialised. However, art is born outside museums, then acclaimed, then put on an exhibition. In a world with a million possibilities, you have to live in it and not just observe it to understand. Museums, by nature, are observers and keepers of the culture. They have still failed to produce it. Only in some cases maybe they have reconciled creativity and its interpretation. That’s all.

Art history was my favorite class in university and I believe it should be taught even earlier and taken very seriously into the curriculum of every high school. We should try to keep some perspective though. Museums, beyond amazing buildings and institutions, are a concept that is still open and it is upon our judgment to interpret it. As far as art is concerned, it is indeed very often displayed in museums, carefully preserved, properly curated and integrated into different visiting activities under diverse forms of presentation: educational, historic, semiotic, didactic, conservative, and so on.

'OUT OF CONTEXT' would be the name of an exhibition I would love to organize one day: MUSEUMS - PUTTING ART OUT OF CONTEXT. But if the exhibition is displayed in a museum, then it annuls itself because this exhibition already exists. However, it wouldn’t defy its purpose, no?

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Get it off your chest
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Asa2006-09-28 13:32:32
If you want to see art in context, you should go to see the amazing Elgin's Marbels in the London Museum ;)

trol2006-09-28 13:56:24
Lol! Yes, also the room where they are on display is very popular for coctails.

Robert2006-09-28 15:05:45
Very good article

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