DC Trip – museums

After making my lab visits on Friday, the rest of my weekend was devoted to spending time with family, but I did squeeze in a couple more museums before heading back to Philly.

First stop, National Museum of the American Indian. I remember when the museum opened, in 2004, because I was taking a Native American Art course at CSUS and one of my classmates flew out for the opening day festivities. I was so excited to see what was inside, especially after getting a glimpse of the building, but I think my expectations were a little too high. The hand-crafted kayaks on the ground floor were very impressive, but it made me wonder if the other galleries would be filled with fine art or artifacts. In the first gallery, I did catch a glimpse of a Fritz Scholder painting, but I was overwhelmed by all of the interactive features and overload of information. The displays were very informative, but what I would expect from a museum of history, not of fine art.

The next gallery was the complete opposite–contemporary art. I thought, yes, this is exactly what I expected: white walls, square labels next to each object and conceptual artwork spread spaciously throughout the room. Not that every museum has to be exactly like this, but I felt comfortable and in a good place to experience the art. The exhibition was by Canadian/Native American artist Brian Jungen, and called Strange Comfort. It consisted of traditionally “Indian” objects, like totem poles, masks and blankets, made out of unconventional materials such as athletic equipment and plastic chairs. I thought the artist captured well the commoditized culture that is contemporary Native American life, and in a formally appealing way.

The other galleries on the top floor were similar to the first one I had experienced, and made me come to the realization that the mission of the museum is to portray a culture, not specifically fine art or historic artifacts. Had I gone in with a different set of expectations, I probably would’ve enjoyed the institution much more. My only question is: what do the artists think of the museum that houses their work?

On Sunday, Matthew and I stopped into the National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American Art. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll just talk about the building as if it were one museum. This was my first visit there, probably because it’s located a little north of the mall, and I usually don’t make it that far. I was pleasantly surprised by what the museum has to offer: something for all types of visitors. On the ground floor alone, there was an exhibition of folk art, contemporary portraits, 19th-century portraits, and a beautiful outdoor courtyard. From there, one could see American Art through time and portraits of the presents, modern and contemporary art, and even the historic architecture of the building. Of course, my favorite gallery was the contemporary art, but I still appreciated the range that the museum has to offer, and will definitely make this my first stop next time I’m in DC.

The special exhibition on the third floor was Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the ‘Running Fence’. I’ve seen photographs of the piece installed in California in the 70s, and I’ve always wished I could’ve been there to see it in person. I’m a big fan of Christo and Jeanne-Claude and believe in the power of installation art to reach new audiences outside the gallery/museum. Even for those inside the museum, the drawings and models were great to see. What a process the artists went through to reach the final product!

Last but not least, I have to mention the amazing educational opportunities at the museum: the Luce Center allows the visitor access to hundreds of artworks that would normally be in secured storage. There is also space for students/scholars to set up their computers and conduct research right next to the art. And if that wasn’t enough, the Lunder Conservation Center is just upstairs and available to anyone who is interested to check it out.

Unfortunately staff members were not on duty, but I still really enjoyed walking through the Lunder, taking a look at the labs, and watching the informational videos. This brought me back to the essay question at the Winterthur interview this year (paraphrased): Name two benefits and one drawback to allowing the public to view conservators at work. The question was great, because it really made me think about the educational mission of museums and how conservation is such a collaborative field. Standing in front of the glass doors at the Lunder, I thought about what it would be like to work in one of those labs; sure, the transparency is very honorable, but what happens when someone makes a mistake? We are all human. And doesn’t that create another layer of work, just keeping things organized and visually appealing. I will say that some labs were much less cluttered than others, but that’s a whole other blog topic!

Next time I travel to DC, I’ll be sure to schedule a visit with the conservators at the Lunder, to get an idea of how they feel about the public’s access to their workspace. It would also be interesting to visit the Walter’s Art Museum in Baltimore and see their conservation window, where “performances” by staff members are scheduled each day. Could this be a trend for museums in the future?

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