Visiting the Met and thinking about museums

Recently I had some precious time between interning and work to go and rekindle my love for the Met. I’m a big fan of most museums, but there’s something about the Met, something so perfect and serene, that nothing can hinder my enjoyment there, not even blubbering High School field trips or Midwestern tourist groups. Somehow their gossiping, failures to watch where they’re walking, and insistence on taking illegal photos seems to fade off into the distance when there is such astounding beauty around every corner.

I was perfectly content with lingering in my favorite spots (the Arms and Armory collection, Astor Court, the Temple of Dendur) when I decided that I would instead rather just organically let the exhibits lead me around. After all, it HAD been a while since I was there last, and I’m all about discovering new treasures.

I’m horrible at keeping up with the new exhibit news, so it’s always excellent to wander into a room with such lovely natural light and see this:

This is the entrance to the New American Wing’s Period Room exhibit, which features Amercian-made room vignettes from our Colonial history as well as period artwork, sculpture and architecture.  According to the plaque inside, the facade was uprooted from a Bank of the City of New York, (Wall Street) which was occupied from 1836 until  1854. How  elegant and epic, and what an amazing use of natural light from above to highlight the marble!

The exhibit is separated into a home-like interior space, with familiar staircases, rooms, and decor. The home-like structure also leads seamlessly into what is now my FAVORITE part, the American Wing’s Henry R. Luce Study Center for the Study of American Art Visual Storage room. This system of glass-enclosed presentations provides patrons with a glimpse into the breadth of the museum’s holding while also facilitates a way for the museum to ‘show off’ what normally hides behind closed doors.

Visual storage is nothing new, but utilizing space and lighting, along with catering to the patron (not just the warehouse clerk) really brings these items to life. In 2002, John D. Hilberry mentions a few primary goals in Museum News for initiating and sustaining a visual storage model:

  • The small picture concept aims to display a large number of individual objects and to provide detailed information about each one. The goal is to make these objects available for close scrutiny by students, scholars, and hobbyists, as well as members of the general public.
  • The big picture concept aims to make the entire collection visible, exciting, and comprehensible. In this way, visitors can grasp its scope and understand its important role in the museum’s mission, as well as where the objects have come from, why they have been preserved, and how they are cared for, conserved, and used for research, education, and other museum purposes.

I’ve visited The Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture visual storage collection at the New-York Historical Society a few times now, and I have to say, their modifications on the Met’s presentation is breathtaking. In the Visual Storage room at the Met, every time is behind glass with a similar type artifact. The NYHS goes one step further to present over-sized items such as stage coaches and banners in the open air, which succeeds in connecting on a visceral level with patrons. The smells, textures, and reality of the items truly brings you back to when they were still in use.

It’s an odd idea, putting everything out there on general display. The New York Times wrote about the Luce Centers (both at the Met and the NYHS) in 2001, as the NYHS incarnation was receiving quite a lot of publicity.

The Met’s Luce Center remains a study center in its rawest form: paintings are labeled, but the tankards and flatware are listed by number only. ”It is rarely the general visitor’s destination,” said Carrie Barratt, the center’s manager. ”But people do stumble in and enjoy it.”

Even at their starkest, glass cases stuffed with objects can be intriguing, inviting people to think about museums and how they go about making their choices. ”What visible storage does is put things out there and lets the visitor shake it out,” Ms. Barratt said. ”Now suddenly you aren’t quite so sure why this is on a pedestal and this isn’t. It may be baffling, but it causes people to think.”

What came to my mind while walking through the seemingly endless aisles were the aisles themselves. In its modern cultural form, it’s very close to being a historical department store where, unfortunately to some,  you can never touch or buy. Aisle after aisle, large enough for a cart or carriage, filled with the lives of others who at one time purchased these items an entirely different way.

Ms. Barratt was right about the destination appeal- there were few patrons mulling about the room as I wandered wide-eyed. Whenever I see period room exhibitions, or any curated collection, I always wonder why it was chosen and what happened to the leftovers. When an exhibition changes completely, where do the museum-owned pieces go? Here.

Now that the room is more visible, I can see different age groups flocking to the aisles. With a similar digital display finder as at the NYHS, I imagine younger audiences digging the interactivity of discovering new objects and sending their friends on ‘scavenger hunts.’

Go. Go here and explore. Imagine yourself back in Colonial America owning a lavish set of silverware or inheriting your grandmother’s embroidery frame. Imagine what museums will put on display 100 years from now. Will it be nothing but state of the art technology and IKEA furniture? Will the future think that we prized the most lavish AND the worst craftsmanship? Imagine.

Oh, and I DID manage to get around to visiting the Armory. Here are some horse’s arses for good measure.

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