Museum Talk: Between Acquisition and Deaccessioning, WHAT CAN BE DONE?

On the comment I made that two hundred pairs of shoes are way too many for one person, not to mention the headache of storage place, my friend, who is going to move to NYC answers: When the right shoes with the “right price” shows up, I can’t resist it.

Such response may apply to museums too. Not only does deaccessioning happen once a while, possibly against the will of the unaware donors, but also they stores a huge collection that may never be hung on a wall. Yet no matter how over-loaded the collection may appear, there is always something to buy.

Before the echoes of Marion True’s scandal of trafficking illicit antiques at Getty Museum ebb out completely, LA again is under the spotlight of looting artworks. Yesterday, federal agents raided four Southern California museums and a Los Angeles art gallery as part of a multi-year investigation into alleged illegal smuggling of Southeast Asian and Native American artifacts. (See the news here)

To counter the criticism related to artifacts with ambiguous or undocumented provenance, curators like Marion True or Carlos Picon at Met have argued that museums are the places “to humanize, to educate and refine a practical and laborious people” and by showing a piece in public a young child who walk into the institution can see the beauty “as much as somebody who knew why it was created six millennia ago”. Antique pieces recovered in their original countries, on the other hand, remained uncatalogued, unrestored and surrounded by “plastic and bad design and things that have no aesthetic quality at all”, thus justifying ownership should be favored toward those who can utilize artifacts to influence people more.

However, the rhetoric fails to make sense when museums look at their own storage rooms which are piled with collections that have little chance of being shown. In a recent trip to NYC, I happened to visit the Visual Storage Rooms in both Brooklyn Museum of Art and New York Historical Society. Paintings are hung on a sliding wall made of metal wires. Visitors only have to the luck to view those on the first wall and the rest are totally blocked. Among them, I have seen works by Gilbert Stuart, Rembrandt Peale, Edwin Frederick Church, Eastman Johnson and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

The Met, with its two-million-square-foot building, is probably one of the most spacious museums in the world. However, it has more than two million works of art. In other words, one piece of work can only be allocated with less than one square foot space for display. Thus what is on view is only a small part of it enormous collection.

The display at the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) is much smaller compared to the Met, but I even felt much more spacious when walking around in the gallery, partly because it is less crowded, partly because the way art works are presented. Since the emphasis of CMOA is more on the modern and contemporary eras, those gigantic artworks with idiosyncratic, defining or defiant (depending on your perspective) style do need their own space to breath. (Well, if a painting cannot draw one into it, at least it should be big enough to devour him.) But part of its 19th century collection which can be harmoniously put together is given equally respectful space. In each of the two display rooms, paintings on one wall are displayed in a salon style, while on the other only a few hang abreast.

It is certainly reasonable for CMOA to present one of the trophies Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Afternoon on a separate wall itself, but it would be much better if one of William Coventry Wall’s paintings can be united with the rest instead of showing its over-meticulosity, mannerism and dull colors through comparison with Alfred Sisley’s “Saint-Mammès on the Banks of the Loing on the left.

Increasing display area may “unearth” some fantastic works that deserve being appreciated in public, however, unless CMOA extends its building tremendously, the majority would still stay in the darkness. After all, the museum collection always expends. In 2001 alone, 80,000 negative films by Charles “Teenie” Harris were acquired by the museum. But unless one searches the database (which has digitized and categorized more than 500 of them), he can and will find nothing inside the museum.

In both Brooklyn Museum of Art and New York Historical Society, PCs with database search tools are available for visitors to explore artworks behind layers and layers of walls. CMOA can definitely benefit from at least showing part of its storage and providing on-site computerized information.

Furthermore, it is true that displaying such a storage room may require fundamental structural change in the museum; at least CMOA can provide insightful information for those who are interested into works or artists not on view in a more proactive and human-friendly way .

With the new technology in large LCD display and interactive multi-media computer program, the information processing and presentation can be conducted much better than by simply using a single out-dated computer. To engage visitors, walls-size touch-screen LCD can be used to attract visitors into CMOA’s broad treasure. The program should not be just a search engine based on item numbers, it should utilize artificial intelligence and multi-media to “learn” what the visitors are interested and bring both detailed information of a particular artwork (in pictures, words, audio or video) and works which are similar into visitor’s attention (like those similar products shown at the bottom of the webpage if you search one product in Amazon.com). The initial database does not have to contain everything in storage, but as it grows, regular members may be surprised by the depth of the collection and family may be grateful for bring the antiquity live in the format of the most state-of-art technology. The data collected from the interactive search engine can also be used to analyze what visitors are looking for and shed light into future exhibition topics. Above all, physical space is always limited, but information can be processed and displayed with no constraints.

Acquisition and deaccessioning are both activities involving artworks, but essentially unless displayed (either physically or electronically), artworks in neither activies reach the general public. After the scandal of FBI raiding four museums in LA area, one may ask: Is it really that the willful ignorance of the provenance of artworks ethnically more unrighteous than the neglectful blindness to the accessibility of art works to the public?

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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