Why Context Matters in Museum Displays

Since Glenstone opened in 2006, its billionaire founders Mitchell and Emily Rales have promised their visitors a contemplative experience of their collection of modern and contemporary art with minimal disruption. This means, among other things, a low density of crowds. While many museums have adopted scheduled reservation policies as a necessity during the pandemic, Glenstone, which offers free admission, has been doing the same for years. At the time of this writing, reservations are being booked through February. It seems that it was not necessary to court foot traffic to fill the visiting slots.

The Potomac Museum in Maryland features two galleries nestled in 230 acres of rolling hills and pathways interspersed with several outdoor sculptures and installations. Also on the grounds are two dining rooms and the elegant Rales Residence overlooking the campus. Visitors must pass through an arrival hall and cut through a meadow before viewing the collection, as if to cleanse themselves from the world beyond the museum. There isn’t a single square inch of Glenstone property that doesn’t seem meticulously considered, right down to the elegant wall compartments of fire extinguishers. Indoor photography is prohibited.

Waterway at the pavilions (photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy Glenstone Museum)

Equally essential to the carefully crafted visitor experience of Glenstone as a retreat from the outside world is the absence of mural text in its galleries, except for the essentials (artist, title, date, medium). A Glenstone brochure advertises that the galleries “display minimal didactic wall texts and encourage you to generate your own interpretations of the works you come across.” Gray clad guides are available to answer questions, but priority is given to the viewer’s ostensibly unmediated engagement with the artwork over explicit contextualization. the Washington post described Glenstone in 2018 as “an escape from it all” – not only the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but time and history as well.

While Glenstone’s commitment to aesthetics above all else is rather strong, it is not radical. The idea of ​​the museum as a retreat from life where art is frozen in time is part of a Western museum tradition, as Carol Duncan explained in her book Civilizing rituals. The rise of public art museums in Europe in the 18th century coincided with a revolution in aesthetic theory, and by the turn of the 20th century, the United States in particular saw a growth in museums with an aesthetic vocation. In 1918, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts published Benjamin Ives Gilman’s Ideal Museum Purpose and Method, who insisted that art should be appreciated above all for its beauty. When the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC opened in 1941, it embraced “aesthetic hook,” minimizing visual noise between widely spaced items in the collection. Although the NGA has relaxed this policy over the years, the wall text is still used sparingly.

Far from revolutionary, Glenstone simply dresses ingrained semi-religious attitudes towards art with hyper-modern flair. And regardless of a museum’s claim to facilitate unfettered interpretations, no work of art is ever truly decontextualized – only recontextualized as part of an institutional program. There is always a narrative master. The installation that filled the new galleries after Glenstone’s massive expansion in 2018 demonstrated the breadth of the collection, which included a few surprises such as a strong depiction of Gutai art, but mostly reflected Western history. post-war approved by the art market, affirmed by textbooks: Duchamp, Pollock, Warhol, etc. The familiar story was there; it just wasn’t specified. Especially in cases like this, the curator’s text is important not only to express the institution’s point of view, but also to recognize, albeit indirectly, that such a perspective irrevocably exists.

The sense of urgency that accompanies the many crises human beings face today makes the prospect of retreating from reality seem desirable to some and irresponsible to others. But fewer people have the illusion that museums can ever be neutral, which makes Glenstone’s attempt at minimal intervention seem artificial. In my community of artists and art historians, I have encountered warnings about Glenstone’s reluctance to clearly contextualize his collectibles. I shared my own critiques of the institution’s insistence on ‘slow search’ in light of its spectacular display of richness and scale, a sight that actually hampered my ability to focus on the art during my previous visits.

Recent rotations of Glenstone exhibitions suggest small steps towards a more direct and transparent approach to active public engagement. Several photographs from the recently edited Jeff Wall retrospective are accompanied by QR codes which, when scanned by a smartphone, explain the historical art inspirations for Wall’s compositions. An Arthur Jafa exhibition of sculptures and photographs lit by the glow of his film akingdoncome (2018) is introduced with a modest mural text providing information on the artist’s practice of collecting and remixing images related to the pain and joy of black life. Compared to the top-notch laundry list from the previous exhibition, these installations present a more openly selective slice of contemporary art with valuable, albeit minimal, information to ground the visitor’s engagement with the work.

Arthur Jafa, “akingdoncome”(2018) video (color, sound) (© Arthur Jafa, courtesy the Artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels)

People need a source of restoration, and museums are well placed to fulfill this role. But restoration doesn’t have to mean escape, and art can only ever provide a marginal withdrawal from the real world anyway. Art is always linked to life, and no matter how much each museum exhibit tells a story. Glenstone’s ambition to allow visitors to take ownership of their museum experience is admirable, but time will tell if this still young institution more fully embraces the importance of education and transparency to achieve this.

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