Saturday, July 6, 2013

Exhibition Installation Views

Art history today is more than just about connoisseurship. It involves social history, criticism and theory, gender studies, and so on. Museum studies in particular has grown rapidly as a discipline, and the blending of that area with visual art comes together beautifully in the history of temporary exhibitions. Recording these visually allows scholars to see how art objects were literally viewed and arranged in the past. Although this can be especially interesting in attempting to recreate exhibitions from the 19th century and earlier, "history" can be as recent as last year too. ARTstor recently released more than 8000 digital images from The Metropolitan Museum of Art showcasing views from special exhibitions dating from 1970 through 2008. This is a fantastic addition to ARTstor's collection (it complements in part a previous collection of digitized installation views by the Museum of Modern Art). Not everyone realizes this, but installations do matter when you visit a special exhibition. Next time you visit a museum to see a show, you should of course look at the works of art on display. But also pay attention to how the works in the room "speak" to one another, and how the themes of the rooms and their overall appearance (from wall color to how visitors engage with the objects) evolve room to room. In many cases, installation is an active part of the story of the exhibition. On one level it's the packaging, much the same way a shop window entices you to buy the merchandise in the store. But on another level installation design is about the scholarly dialogue, how art works relate to one another based on the curator's intent for the exhibition itself. Sometimes these installations are tremendous successes; other times they do nothing for the art and can in fact impact the show by making it a failure. Pairing specific art works near one another in exhibitions also gives the viewer the opportunity to see works that normally cannot be seen together, typically because they are owned by different museums or private collectors. Seeing them beside one another provides a fresh context about the works that in turn generate ideas and discussions about how artists or their audiences may have seen these objects in their own time. All this said, I admit I have a vested interest in the sharing of the announcement about this collaborative project between ARTstor and the Met. When I was working in the then-Image Library (now Digital Media Dept.) at the Met, this was one of the big digitization projects I worked on with my colleagues, so I'm rather proud to see this project's successful release. Of all the possibilities in the collection to share, I chose the installation view above because it triggers a fond memory for me. Back in 1998, I was thrilled to visit the Met to see the Edward Burne-Jones centenary-of-his-death exhibition of his late Pre-Raphaelite paintings, installed in the Tisch Galleries. If you look in the image above, you can see his large painting The Sirens, 1891-98 (Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota), paired beside a portrait of Lady Windsor, 1893-95 (Collection of Viscount Windsor), among a few other works. I can't remember all the specifics as to why these works were paired together, but they both are examples of his late Symbolist-style work. In addition to these special exhibition installation views, there also are hundreds of historical views of permanent galleries at the Met in this ARTstor collection, which we also worked on, so if you have an institutional subscription through your local library, be sure to check them out.

UPDATE 7/22/13: ARTstor has published its own blog post about art installation views, highlighting different collections from museums now available and providing their own take on why viewing art in context is important. You can read their blog post by clicking here.

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