New reflections on art

Museums trade white walls for vivid colors and create hands-on experiences for the entire family

If you've gone to an art museum lately, you may have noticed that the walls are not necessarily white anymore: Bright colors, warm dark colors, and special lighting help create the illusion of other worlds.

And you'll notice that the paintings or sculpture are not displayed in strict chronological order, or even by culture of origin, but by themes. Paintings from different eras rub shoulders and "talk" to each other, helping us understand how different artists handle similar subjects.

A splendid exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, "European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Paintings from the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia," does just these things.

"We've put up symphonic speed bumps," jokes Timothy Standring, the Denver museum's curator of European art. "We've taken away the white walls, put in themes, music, cul-de-sacs, and built in 'meanderings.'

"These 88 paintings represent every major school, every major stylistic tradition, every major iconographic tradition of European painting for 600 years....

"I challenged the staff to think outside the box," says curator Standring. "Suspend your idea of what an exhibition is and tell me what you think should be done."

Evoking an atmosphere

Painting the walls in vivid colors helps create an evocative environment for the European masterpieces. Sometimes those colors are keyed to shades in the paintings: The Impressionists' room is a dusky French blue; other rooms are sunflower gold, leaf green, or melon. The colors evoke the hushed atmosphere of an ancient church, or the high pomp of a grand salon.

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, curators sometimes reproduce period wallpaper to show off the art.

The Denver museum's exhilarating installation of European Masters includes period music - Vivaldi, Gregorian chants, and Debussy - that wafts across the appropriate rooms, reminding us of both the gaiety and seriousness of court life.

The first pair of images that greets visitors includes Picasso's "Weeping Woman" (1937). Green, black, and white dominate the harsh profile showing emotional distress. Facing her, also in profile, is a Florentine "Profile of a Lady" (circa 1541). Reading her expression is more difficult than reading Picasso's lady. But each speaks to us of how women have been portrayed through time.

Think-and-play rooms

Denver has built into its special exhibition wonderful tactile experiences to help children experience more of each painting.

In a roomful of medieval paintings, a short podium allows children to lean on their arms and study a reproduction of a painting on the wall, where each symbol is explained. She need only turn to see the original and think about it afresh.

In museums across the country, devotion to the arts education of children is growing. Many museums, like the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the J.B. Speed Museum in Louisville, Ky., have think-and-play rooms equipped with computers, puzzles, dress-up period clothes, and easels that provide children with extended art learning.

In another room at the Denver exhibition, a child (or adult) may place a hand in a covered cubbyhole and try to figure out which of the fabrics he is touching matches which of those worn by the figures in the paintings.

One large Denver exhibit offers an enlarged reproduction of a portrait. Period clothes and wigs hang nearby, allowing visitors to dress up and pose like the characters in the painting. They can look in a mirror to compare themselves to the painted figures. The real painting ("Portrait Group: The Singer Farinelli and Friends by Jacopo Amigoni" (1750-1752) hangs nearby.

Wandering with 'wands'

Like the Getty and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Denver Art Museum offers "random access" audio tours that allow the visitor to punch in the number of a painting to find out more, rather then follow a predetermined path through the exhibition.

Melora McDermott-Lewis, the director of family and school programs at the Denver Art Museum, notes that the museum's random-access tours are also headphone free. Visitors, she says, feel too cut off from their environment wearing headphones, so the museum found a company to produce "wands" with speakers to hold up to your ear - leaving visitors free to converse with others in their party.

Rather than give the usual information found in a catalog in the audio tours, Standring says that he works with educators to provide information that will elicit discussion.

"We don't dumb down at all, but what we're offering is an element of surprise ...," he says. "The fact that Cezanne was born in 1839 and died in 1906 is not important. What is important is looking at this painting and noticing all the details and nuances."

Samuel Sachs, director of the Frick Collection in New York, says, "I think one of the best methods to help the public understand the work is the [random-access] audio tour. If you watch a [visitor] read a long didactic label, they are not making adequate use of their eyes. The tour guides the eye through the painting. It's a real exercise in the difference between looking and seeing."

Whether the information is contained in the printed labels or the audio tour, Mr. Sachs includes intriguing little stories that he hopes add depth and enjoyment for the viewer.

To engage children, the family audio tour at the Denver museum features a little boy named Seymore, who talks to his dog about art. The dog then barks back as a sign of approval. A grown-up version of the tour is also available.

Museums as educators

Judy Murray, the Boston museum's manager of the Gallery Instructors Program, says another important trend is in the ways museums handle school groups.

"We ask, 'What can we reasonably expect to accomplish in an hour with the kids?' The dynamics of a school group have to be addressed," Ms. Murray says. "We have found that active, rather than passive, learning is where the deepest learning takes place."

The museum, for example, might supply teachers with bags of objects like alabaster, limestone, and gilt to correspond with an art exhibition.

The Denver museum offers backpack kits for children that include pictures, games, and information on the show. Museum educators from all over the world are emulating this approach.

Murray points out that museum educators are always exchanging ideas among themselves.

The National Art Education Association in Reston, Va., and the American Association of Museums in Washington, among other organizations, offer yearly meetings to help devise strategies, Murray says. If you can get a teacher to build his or her courses around works of art - history and literature courses, and so on - then "art is integrated into the curriculum," she says.

Mixed-media installations

Deanna Griffin, curatorial planning and project manager for the art of Europe at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, says that exhibitions are also enhanced by the use of furniture and other period objects.

"The trend toward mixed-media installations is growing," she says. "Interdisciplinary collaboration, I would say, is a major trend."

An exhibition of paintings of Mary Cassatt at the museum a couple of years ago used music from the period and provided an interactive computer center.

The point is to help visitors of all ages see more when they look at the paintings.

"When they go to a painting, they want to know what it is and what it is about. Bang," the Frick's Sachs says. "If they don't get it, they move on.

"What is so special about a museum is that it offers an opportunity [for visitors] to get out of the rat race."

'European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Paintings from the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia' is at the Denver Art Museum through Sept. 9. The exhibition will then travel to the Portland (Ore.) Art Museum, Oct. 6 to Jan. 6, 2002, and to the Birmingham (Ala.) Museum of Art, Feb. 10 to April 14, 2002.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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