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A New Take on Museum Show and Tell

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Museum for African Art in New York dedicates an exhibit to exhibit-making

By Kirsten A. Conover / February 2, 1995



Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Museum for African Art peels back layers of museum practices to reveal what goes on behind the scenes in its latest effort, ``Exhibition-ism: Museums and African Art.'' Its curators have taken an entertaining look at how conventional exhibitions influence - and may even limit - the viewer's museum experience.

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The show poses questions such as: What shapes our experience of art: the work itself or its setting and display? How do museums provide - or deny - access to artworks through their presentation?

This terrain of thought is particularly poignant to those involved with African art. ``Exhibition-ism'' reflects on issues close to the heart: the problematic conventions of museum exhibitions that restrict the understanding of non-Western art.

Despite the potentially unexciting subject matter, the Museum for African Art succeeds in providing a witty, theatrical forum to think about the possibilities, restrictions, influences, and responsibilities in presenting art.

A viewer can get through the exhibit quickly and come away with a broadened sense of the challenges in mounting exhbitions.

Take, for example, a ceremonial mask - which by definition is authentic only when it is ``in use.'' Museums generally display such an object in a Plexiglas case to preserve it and keep people from handling it, which is not at all what the mask's creators intended.

Ancient masks were not meant to be seen and studied at eye level. And sometimes it is taboo to divulge the mask's history. Often African objects have a defined purpose and their use is expected to change over time.

African art has been exhibited as art in the United States for 80 years. But up until the late 1960s, it suffered from being labeled as artifact, trophy, or souvenir. As anthropologists and art historians started doing field work and research in Africa - immersing themselves in its cultures - they began to realize that treating African art as inert and static was totally inappropriate.

Gallery one of ``Exhibition-ism'' employs video and sound to add context and disprove the myth that ``Museums Are Silent Places for Looking.'' Here one gains a multisensory experience of a ceremony -

with all its movement, sound, and color.

Snippets of text also help: ``In Africa, an object's meaning is never absolute and its use may evolve with the needs of its owners... artworks are continually changed, renewed, adorned, and moved about. The museum preserves the object; in Africa, owners are often more concerned with preserving the object's powers.''

``Exhibition-ism'' helps museumgoers consider how museum practices affect learning and interpretation. (Theater and museum designer Chris Muller collaborated with curators Susan Vogel and Mary Nooter Roberts.) Their tack is to compare what museums usually do with what could be done.

``Exhibition-ism'' doesn't go into the political-correctness controversy over interpreting and displaying non-Western art. The approach here is tame and nonconfrontational; issues are raised, and there are a lot of ``what-ifs.''

The second gallery room is titled: ``Museums Provide Access to Art.'' The viewer is told one thing, but shown the opposite. A beautiful figure from Songye, Zaire, is blatantly roped off and a surveillance camera looms.

But around the corner is a more desirable setup. Four private viewing booths let museumgoers have an intimate view of art objects that have been placed on moveable pedestals behind the Plexiglass. One can see a Mozambique mask from 360 degrees or ``interact'' with a figure from Dogon, Mali.

Another room - titled ``Museums Present the Truth'' - highlights things most of us don't think about when looking at an installation: lighting, use of space, color, sound, labels, cases, and more.

With labels, for example, viewers can read what is usually printed (artist, date, materials, collector), but then discover more behind-the-scenes information, such as insurance reports and discrepancies about origin, and the details that can alter a piece's ``truth'' - from artist to owner to trader to lender to curator to conservator.

In still another approach, viewers can see what goes into the actual construction of cases, mounts, and supports, and how they influence displays.

Gallery four, ``Art in Museums Never Changes'' invites people to suggest their own floor plans and installation treatments that the museum may incorporate in the room's frequent revision.

Ms. Vogel, founding director of the museum, writes in the exhibit's catalog, ``It seems worthwhile to present our audience with the dilemmas and contradictions, the strategies and compromises, of contemporary museum practice - the ways in which they practice, and sometimes the institution itself, are profoundly at odds with traditional African presentations and definitions of art.''

As Ms. Roberts writes, ``Exhibition-ism' demonstrates that there is no single, authoritative way to create an exhibition.''

``Exhibition-ism'' makes exhibiting worthy of debate.

* ``Exhibition-ism'' continues through March 5.