Collect, Preserve, Interpret

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 fo r 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 ae sthetic/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. But what makes the Lipski something more than hype?

THE harp case is a wonderful piece, enigmatic, startling, beautiful, and completely involving. It offers surprise, enchantment, a complex and obscure metaphor, a hook to hang a hundred imaginings on. A video conversation between the curator and the artist offers suggestions as to why this is a work as worthy as the Degas - but I don't care for their pronouncement. I prefer my own.

But this is great. I don't have to buy what the art stars say. I am not in a classroom; I am in a museum, and questioning what goes on there is a large part of the new museum experience. There are important issues. What is a work of art? What is its function? What kind of experience should you look for in a work of art?

Critical judgment is always problematic. Who is to say that a curator's taste is any better than mine or yours? The truth is, connoisseurship is not an exact science. But there is something to learning and looking.

How can a museum ignite the desire to look more closely? Sharp's answer was to line up five castings of a Remington sculpture. The first is, according to Sharp, "perhaps the finest single casting ever done of a Remington bronze, cast No. 3 of `The Cheyenne.' We want people to stop and look at this - the coloration, the texturing, the contrast of surfaces and primarily the detail."

Cast No. 4 is also very fine. But already the detail in the tail of the horse and the contrast of textures is beginning to deteriorate. I can look down the row of Remingtons and see detail softening and even changing, until by the last (posthumous) casting, detail has radically degenerated and certain details are all wrong - the artist had no hand in its making.

"Like any other skill, you develop [connoisseurship] and refine it and spend the rest of your life looking," says Sharp.

Looking. Yes. Looking and looking and looking again. And then remembering what you have seen. Next to scholarship, the art of looking is the collector's most important skill.

Museums make choices about how they build their collections based on such things as the expertise of their staff, the taste of trustees and donors, financial constraints, and also the availability of certain works. Thus, the Denver Art Museum has developed outstanding collections of native American and pre- and post-Columbian arts from North and South America. And as of 1990, a growing department of Design and Architecture.

Art objects must live a long time without deteriorating. Another function of a museum is to preserve works of art for posterity. The art and science of preservation becomes fascinating at once, when we have to consider all the curious instruments used to test for dust and insects, to monitor humidity and temperature. The very light that illumines the work cannot be allowed to damage or fade it. And works have to be protected from the curious touch of visitors.

Very often, the museum's job is to rescue works already in sad shape and in need of conservation. DAM has illustrated the difficulties involved with a fascinating work in the midst of conservation. A Chinese mural, "Attendant Musician" (Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644), lies in wretched disrepair under Plexiglas. The paint had to be reaffixed to its ground with fresh adhesive. Before the piece is finished, its color will have been restored and all the cracks repaired. But before that can happen, a great deal of research will go into what materials to use in repair, how and what solvents to use in cleaning, including many tests. Conservation is an advanced but not an exact science, and there are still problems which cannot be solved today.

And then museums also interpret the work in their keeping. First, the work must be correctly identified. A Yoruba door panel in the Denver collection, for example, was reunited with its other half by a series of coincidences, but the fact that the two make a whole door is indisputable. The label offers a map that shows how the nail holes line up and how the "ghost" (discoloration on the panel) of hinges extend along the back. This is part of any museum's detective work.

Then, the object - especially those taken from their original cultures - must be given cultural context. A magnificent Kwakiutl mask is a beautiful thing. But it was not intended to lie in static state. DAM's answer is to show a video of similar masks being "danced" in the appropriate ceremony. The viewer has a better idea of its religious significance.

What about the meeting of cultures? How does one cultural heritage infuse another with different ideas? In the past, museums have often treated objects as if they existed in a vacuum. But clearly cultures influence each other. To fully illustrate the merging of two cultures in South America, DAM has placed a Huari drinking vessel (Peru, AD 540-900) beside a Spanish Colonial painting by Diego Quispe Tito picturing the virgin Mary (ca. 1675). On the other side is a reproduction of a parallel Spanish painti ng by Bartolome Esteban Murillo. The faces of the central figures are very similar. But something has changed in the translation of the iconography to the colonies.

"Where do you see a head with faces surrounding it?" asks education director Melora McDermott-Lewis. She shows me an image from the cup of a Huari god surrounded by heads. The Spanish Colonial piece features a winged Francis of Assisi - a figure who is never winged in European art. The robes of a European madonna are traditionally white and blue or red and blue. But in the Spanish Colonial piece, it has been ornamented in gold leaf and the design is clearly Huari. There is more Huari religion here than a t first meets the eye. Seeing the Spanish Colonial art as a melding of two cultural traditions increases our understanding and enjoyment of the work of art.

What we have learned here we will be able to use upstairs in the pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial exhibits that hang in close proximity, and also in the Asian collection, which has just reopened with the same purpose - educating the viewer to the flow of ideas and influences from one culture to the next. In fact, what we have learned in "Collecting, Preserving, Interpreting" we can use all over the museum - in the native American exhibition, in the contemporary collection, and the American collection -

all arranged to bring out the flow of change and exchange of ideas and influences. This is the new museum - user friendly, teacherly, and beautiful in its own right.

"We can make the museum stay within its mission," says Sharp. "We collect objects of artistic merit, we care for them, we interpret them. We don't have to distort or lose our way. Yet we can make that experience so much richer for the viewer."

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