Saturday, April 5, 2008

The fine art of curating

I just spent the last two days attending lectures at the ROM. The benefits of membership. They just opened another new gallery, nicknamed the Triple-AP (Africa, Americas, and Asia-Pacific), whose theme is the arts and crafts of indigenous peoples of those areas. The lecture series on April 4 and 5 was in honour of the four new galleries that have opened since January, including the Triple-AP (and another gallery that will open next week).

I picked three lectures to attend: Of God, Art, Technology, and War: Wirth Gallery of the Middle East; An Introduction to Darwin: The Evolution Revolution, and Islam in the Wirth Gallery of the Middle East. I visited the Wirth gallery twice after hearing the lectures on that gallery, and also visited the Darwin exhibit before and after the Darwin lecture. So a fairly intense round of museum stuff!

I mentioned a while ago my "ROM rant", a whatever-happened-to-the-old-ROM-that-I-used-to-know kind of rant, and the lecture on Islam in the Wirth Gallery answered that question for me. The lecturer, curator emerita Lisa Golombek, described the history of the Islamic collection from 1965 when she first started working with it until today. She said that the museum went through several philosophical approaches to displaying artifacts, starting with a kind of esthetic approach in which artifacts were arranged in symmetrically pleasing arrays. "Interactivity" meant having cases with drawers full of artifacts that visitors could pull out to view. She said that was very popular.

Then there was the phase in which artifacts had to be displayed contextually, there had to be a kind of storyline or narrative that explained the context for displayed artifacts. A lot of energy went into designing contextual displays, and this inevitably meant that there was not room to display the entire collection, much had to be put away in storage. Not even in drawers to pull out "interactively", just completely out of view. For decades.

How this translated for the Islamic collection was that they designed a three-part gallery depicting a mosque, a bazaar and a home to display religious, domestic and cultural or commercial objects. Artifacts related to each of these settings were arranged as naturalistically as possible. She said that for the most part visitors loved it, they said they came away with the experience of having visited a real Middle Eastern city. Never mind that time periods and regional styles were all mixed up together. However, she said that the one group who did not appreciate this approach was Moslem students. They felt it demeaned Middle Eastern culture and Islam to be depicted in this way, they felt like they were being portrayed as dirty and backward.

After the Michael Lee Chin Crystal was constructed they completely redesigned the Islamic collection to fit into the unusual space of the Wirth gallery in the Crystal. The gallery is odd-shaped and has no vertical walls. They could not hang anything on the walls nor were they allowed to have any display cases touching walls. Everything had to be freestanding. And, they had moved away from the contextual philosophy to yet another new approach. This new approach is in effect the opposite to contextual; provide no story, no context, just put the artifacts out and let the visitors bring their own stories and contexts to the gallery.

Personally I like this approach. I am in favour of having all of the "stuff" out on view rather than being patronized with the Museum's decision on how I should view and interpret it. But, when one walks into the gallery, there does not appear to be any right direction to go, any thematic arrangement. It is chaotic and overwhelming, so much stuff! My own feeling about that is childish delight. So much to see, so much to explore! But I overheard a lot of comments from other visitors about the chaos and lack of thematic direction. This is definitely not everyone's cup of tea.

After the lecture I went to the gallery and searched for particular items that the curator had mentioned. I guess she had given me a context to work with and I went looking for the items that were part of that storyline. But that was only one small part of what was there; after the other lecture related to this gallery I went back again and looked for some of the items mentioned in that lecture. Another context, another story, all in the same place.

I have more to say about the lecture series, but I'll save it for later. This was an intellectual feast for me, and I enjoyed it immensely. My 60th birthday present to myself.

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