Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Collect, Preserve, Interpret

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Collect, Preserve, Interpret

Article excerpt

ART museums all over the country are beginning to change. They are beginning to realize that if they want to reach their public they will have to teach their public a little more and offer a greater variety of experiences. Just what is the function of an art museum? What does it do for the community that a natural history museum, for example, can't? Can the museum help the viewer experience works of art more fully?

The newest, perhaps the most significant trend among art museums today is toward greater viewer comprehension. What does the public most want from the museum experience? Museums are asking their patrons and taking their answers seriously. On a glass panel at the Denver Art Museum, for example, hand-written in white paint, quotes taken from visitor interviews speak for their counterparts everywhere:

"If they're going to throw something at me, then give me some explanation. Don't throw it at me and make me wonder what it's all about."

"Why are these things important to the art world? To history? To society? Why would you want somebody to look at that?"

"I would like to ask the artists, `What is that? What did you see? What did you feel when you painted it?' "

Art-museum efforts are now directed at capturing the viewer's interest, helping the viewer to understand the art, and teaching the lessons of art history and aesthetics as simply as possible - without imposing too much structure.

Take the Denver Art Museum (DAM): This is its centennial, and a great deal of thought and design has gone into the problem of making the institution more user friendly. Just like so many others, DAM has gone through some soul-searching, reevaluating just what is the function of an art museum. Museum director Louis Sharp has narrowed down these functions to three primary areas and has built a show around "Collecting, Preserving, Interpreting."

The museum has undergone some radical changes. Over the past few years, like other museums, whole floors have been redesigned at DAM. But DAM's solutions look to the future - and borrow heavily from library concepts. Every last one of the 5,000-plus objects of the pre-Columbian collection has been put out on display. This may be the only museum in the country to provide the ordinary viewer with such exhaustive resources. Nothing has remained in storage except textiles which must be rotated (on exhibit for a few months, then returned to darkness) for their preservation. The floor has been set up for the casual viewer with a large "Selected Works" gallery featuring fine, eye-catching examples of almost all the cultures of Mezzo, Central, and South America. But for those who wish to study further, all the rest of the excellent, encyclopedic collection is enclosed in glass cases in the back galleries. The arts of neighboring peoples are neighbors on the shelves. The viewer can see the easy flow of ideas and aesthetic/religious influence among them.

And that's the point: What can the viewer see? How does the museum help the viewer see more? Borrowing again from the library principle, a large variety of books and videos have been placed in small study areas around all the major exhibits. Labeling has been completely revamped and objects hung with much greater sensitivity. All over the museum, volunteers offer hands-on demonstrations of things like jade, a samurai sword, and Asian puppetry, which make the visual experience so much richer.

"Collecting, Preserving, Interpreting" is particularly helpful in setting up the beginning of a visual education. The viewer emerges ready to learn what the museum is eager to teach.

One of the rooms features a pastel on paper by Edgar Degas ("Examen de danse," 1880) juxtaposed with a large sculpture by Donald Lipski - a harp case dated 1893 filled up with fat candles, all pointed outward. It is the classic dichotomy: Any viewer can see that the Degas is a work of art worthy of museum status. …

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