Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"What Kind of Museum are We?" Peabody Essex Museum Tries to Mix Diverse Cultural Items

A magnifying glass to look at small details of a painting can also
be a fun element for a child at a museum. 
Yesterday I attended the exhibit "Golden: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks" at the Peabody Essex Museum with my young daughter. Let me begin by saying that we both had a great time. PEM always tries to play to diverse audiences. It was recognized a few years ago as one of the ten best art museums in the country for children. Beyond its special Art and Nature Center for kids, it lives up to its reputation for this age group by providing diverse ways to interact with exhibits. My seven year old was particularly thrilled with the idea of using a magnifying glass to see the details of the Dutch paintings and though I tweeted about my nervousness related to the use of magnifying glasses so close to paintings, I was impressed with the idea myself. I can continue to sing praises about the museum and this special exhibit, but that has been done all over the Internet. "Golden" has been praised by the New York Times. It certainly doesn't need my voice added to that. Instead, I want to focus on an anomaly in the exhibit that I think is indicative of the museum, archives, and library world(s) today.

Tucked in the corner of one of the last rooms of the exhibit we visited was a Dutch book from the 17th century. It called to me, but it seemed to attract few other people. And now, I wish that I had taken notes about it. I can not find any information on the Internet about its inclusion in the exhibit. I'm not even sure exactly what it was. My daughter was running toward paintings with flowers in them and I had to scurry on my way. But I keep thinking about this item. I wonder why it was there. The label copy in "Golden" was fabulous overall in that it provided much information about Dutch life, artists, and ideas. The interactive computer modules were also inspired. I learned so much about the time period, but the emphasis was clearly on placing paintings and furniture in context. Why was the book included here? What was it trying to tell me? How did it relate to the paintings? How did it help place them in context? What did it tell us about Dutch life during this period?

Short thought-provoking labels are inspiring. Sometimes less
detail is more.
My daughter and I take turns choosing what exhibits to see at a museum. After we visited "Golden" she chose "Eye Spy Playing with Perception." This exhibit is located in the same area of the museum as the kids center. It emphasized a teaching approach, asking questions about what we saw and encouraging a dialog with the exhibit. The exhibit showed art. Books were placed about to help us learn more about what we were seeing. Videos explained more. All these elements were woven to help us better understand what we viewed and to make the exhibit fun. To me, this exhibit encouraged more communication with the pieces it included than the Dutch exhibit. It was thought provoking in a way that the Dutch exhibit didn't always quite reach. It explained the interplay between arts and sciences. It explained the artists' influences. It used multiple media seamlessly. Nothing was stuck in a corner as a sort of afterthought because it was part of a "collection." Everything related to everything else. Short bursts of words invited us to think about these relationships, to maybe even discover something that the curator didn't point out to us directly. To be fair, the diversity of included objects encouraged that, but that is my point. The items we include in an exhibit should be diverse enough to create that kind of learning opportunity. The time of the idea of "high art" is over. There is no reason a fine art exhibit cannot be more all inclusive.
The camera captures this Campbell's soup can
made of spools of thread. The human eye does
not view these details unless we look into the
glass ball included by the artist.
As we left the museum, we were invited to take a survey. One question jumped out at me. It said something similar to, "What kind of museum do you think the Peabody Essex is?" This seemed key to how I viewed the work they were  doing and also key to the future of all museums. PEM is clearly an art museum. It is also a history museum with a special room devoted to New England Maritime Art and History. They also incorporate natural history in their kids' section....PEM is a pleasant mixture of diverse culture. Does their audience really care what kind of museum they are? Shouldn't museums of the future focus on inspiring and educating us through diverse cultural means? Why does a museum need to be one thing or another?

And I return to the strangeness of the book in the corner of the Dutch exhibit.... Museums, libraries and archives need to become more comfortable crossing into each other's spheres. Books, archives, art, and artifacts all relate and should do so seamlessly. Items made by people who are influenced by the world around them reflect society no matter what their format, but sometimes institutions falter when they try to make this point. We need to be clearer in our own minds about these relationships. Whether we are curators, archivists, or librarians we need to recognize that all of the actions and products of our lives and our environments can inform our knowledge about our past. Making these connections should be a central part of what a cultural heritage institution does.

Last year I wrote about the exhibit at the Museum of Our National Heritage called Jim Henson's Fantastical World. This exhibit creatively used archives and artifacts to illuminate its subject. I refer you back to my posting about it because more museums should be working this way in my opinion. Peabody Essex is on its way. I hope that they make it over the hump. I hope that is where their survey leads them.


  1. A friend just told me that the book in the exhibit is featured in one of the paintings. That is very interesting and appropriately placed, but the Van Otterloos apparently have 10,000 Dutch art history books ( would have been great to see some more in the exhibit, I think. The absence of archival documents also jumped out at me. Surely there is correspondence from the 17th century related to these works or even correspondence about the Van Otterloos acquisition efforts? Their work to put together this collection is an extremely interesting aspect of this story..
    I did like the exhibit very much. It was interesting and memorable, but I would like to see museums would push the envelope a bit more and think beyond just adding some technology to the mix (albeit another interesting aspect of this exhibit.)

  2. Femke Dierck's lively essay in the exhibition catalog includes a greatly expanded history of the development of the Van Otterloos' collection and correspondence between the Van Otterloos and their advisors.

  3. The book is located right next to the Koedijk painting of the Barber-Surgeon. If you look at the painting itself, you can see an image of a book on the back wall of the room. The book in the case is a copy of the same edition of that very book, found and purchased by the Van Otterloos to complement the painting. More information about the book is available in the interactive component located next to the painting and book, and also online here: Click on the book hotspot for more info!

  4. I'm so happy to hear that there is more information in the catalog and I love the connection to the painting. I look forward to the day when more archival materials and books are included in art exhibits. Mixing media is a great way to increase the value of an exhibit and to make it more interesting to broader audiences, IMHO.