New Museums, Walls, Assumptions

by Yule Heibel on March 25, 2022

Every museum visit of late is at best a lecture…

Three years ago – pre-pandemic, pre-the-Great-Reset-that-changed-everything – Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum hosted a great little exhibition. I wrote about it at the time, privately, and now decided to publish my thoughts on my blog. So here goes, to repeat:

Every museum visit of late is at best a lecture, at worst an indoctrination.

After struggling through the umpteenth acre of stenciled wall text on The Importance and Meaning of the Art About to Be Revealed, a truism struck me: “The more wall text, the more ideology.” Also, “and sometimes, the harder to see the art.”  This was illustrated almost comically in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s beautiful exhibition, Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes.

A small exhibition in a small space, Heroines + Heroes was devoted to a special segment of Botticelli’s art: spalliera, paintings for domestic interiors intended to be viewed at shoulder (spalla) height. Displayed over dowry or marriage chests, they often depicted scenes of civic virtue. In 1894 Mrs. Gardner acquired The Story [Rape] of Lucretia, the first Botticelli to come to America. Heroines + Heroes pairs this Lucretia with The Story [Murder] of Virginia, on loan from Bergamo, Italy, along with four spalliera of the life of Saint Zenobius, Florence’s first native bishop.

The Gardner exhibition furthermore “pairs” Botticelli’s works with commissioned comics by New Yorker magazine cartoonist Karl Stevens. The reasoning was that Botticelli told stories with his images, and comic strips do the same. I’ll leave the reader to think his or her own thoughts about this assumption.

Before entering the small display space, visitors had to pass through a foyer dominated by the aforementioned wall texts, which then also continued in the exhibition itself.

The foyer’s introductory text, “Violence in the Renaissance,” begins by stating that Botticelli’s “images of violence against women in this exhibition resonated differently around 1500 than they do today.” It seems we need to be reminded that the 1500s were different from today (yet storytelling qualities, from Botticelli to comics, are the same?). It continues, “At the same time, these works ask us to confront problems that persist to the present. To consider them is not to condone their violence but to try to make sense of it for our own world.”

The wall text in the foyer reminded readers of the “brutality inflicted on women by men,” and concluded with a series of questions viewers might keep in mind while looking at the paintings: “Have images like these normalized scenes of violence in the history of Western art? Lucretia and Virginia function as symbols, but what about their humanity?” I had to wonder why institutions devoted to the visual have embraced words like a drowning man embracing a life ring. Word-creep has been afoot for years in museums, and, as in universities, it increasingly looks like a lockstep march in one direction only.

As we stood around the small, people-packed space, a docent entered to announce that she would give a talk.

It began with a brief history of Mrs. Gardner’s intentions with her Boston house museum. Gardner, we learned, disliked the wall plaques that could already be found (in much truncated form compared to today’s wall texts) in 19th century museums. She preferred instead that viewers should wander through a collection undisturbed, and then come to rest on something that attracted the eye. At this point, she expected, true contemplation could begin. Mrs. Gardner clearly never considered that museums have to have mass appeal.

There’s an overlap here with the ideological saturation we find in universities, but at the same time museums have unique, singular aspects.

Before museums became institutions with their own drive to interpret their collections, they were private collections sometimes amassed as Wunderkammer, or curiosity cabinets. These were freely arranged, expressive of the owner’s predilections, without distinguishing between natural wonders (geologic, flora / fauna) and artificial ones (fine art).

Within the confines of the Wunderkammer, a whole universe could be displayed – and controlled. Collecting, and sometimes putting words to collections (exceptions like Mrs. Gardner notwithstanding), was often about controlling an explanation of the world.

Then, as art became more institutionalized, the museum we know today (or at least its 20th century, if not its 21st, variant) evolved: ordered, fixed in chronology, conferring status on the objects in the collection. However, since at least the 1960s, contemporary artists have questioned the museum’s role. They have critiqued its power to create and uphold a status quo, have sought its power, and gone beyond the institutionalization of art by institutionalizing discourse about art. If it’s displayed in a museum, it’s art, whether Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’Artista (1961), literally canned feces, or Maria Hassabi’s Plastic (2015), a performance piece where performers lay on the museum’s interior staircase. The museum is a required player in these interventions.

This history is complex and multi-faceted, but essentially the narrative critique is the same: that museums are stultifying to contemporary culture, and that artists must subvert the museum’s power to “normalize” the status quo and thereby wrest from museums their custodial powers (which included views of history deemed retardataire – that is, reactionary as per the critique.

If avant-garde artists carried this agenda forward throughout the 20th century, it’s now the obligatory avant-garde curators who must do the same. Mrs. Gardner would find this weird.

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Yule Heibel March 25, 2022 at 10:47 pm

Had some glitches adding images. See the Gardner website for the full exhibition (linked in my post).

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