Where did we leave off? Turned out the lights. Walked down along the empty dark hallways one last time – cooling systems set at the correct temperature, objects intact, the wall labels placed correctly, the guide pamphlets stacked in order, and worktables cleared. Looking one last time at the pieces of time and history inside the glass cases, the silica crystals appear to start losing color already, the world unaware that it will be more than just a few days.
As we reopen museums, as a visitor, one could be very new to this world. Never experienced art. Or not so new but has lost track of where we left off. Was it an interruption in the continuum of our interaction with art, or is it a whole new possibility, like reimagining the space of art and its experience with a renewed sense of importance.
What prompts the visitors to enter a cultural space? What is a culture space? What is art? Who tells them how to look at an artwork or shape an experience? Before they even step inside a museum, art gallery, or cultural institution, their experience has already been mapped out for them. Who mapped it and how? Is it a mandatory school visit, an exhibition teaser IG post that everyone is sharing, or is it genuine curiosity to learn more about a particular community or time-period? The museum is a space that objects and artworks inhabit and the conversations they generate among themselves and among the people who embed themselves into that stage, where stories play out through visual and audio cues. It is not absurd; it is merely the power of our imagination, enabled by the clever presentation of objects of art that carry the stories in them.
Almost immediately upon entering the museum one is welcomed with summarized words on the first wall. The mind mapping begins. The neatly placed wall text is meant to give insights into what lies ahead, but not many stop to read it because the words might seem too heavy, or there is kind of people who want to figure it out themselves. Those texts are painfully researched, written, and edited to prompt an interpretation and opinion of the story one physically comes close to every time they lean in and get carried away while trying to read the etched markings and the minute details in the artworks, a gentle spell broken by the ‘don’t touch’ cautioning in the stern voice of the guard on duty.
Visitors marvel at the cases, the frames, the display stages, the lights – oblivious to how they have paid for it all. Taxpayers’ money fund this mighty art of storytelling in museums – programming, preserving, procuring, commissioning scholars, organizing, public lectures expansion, all of it. Museums thrive inside the patron community of a civilized society.
The team of storytellers at the museums bring their wares from the past, significant ones, bearing the seal of time, culture, past civilization, and clean them up, ensure their preservation, and display them for you to bring the story alive. Only the mode of storytelling is different. museum educators design the interactive activities for children entering the world of art by placing replicas of the originals for that tactile experience, lowering the height of labels to make art accessible to those who are yet to grow tall enough to fully reach the top shelves of human understanding of their history and art.
How they stage the play, the story, and how they position the actors (the objects)- are all part of the intricate designs of this ruse to build the visitors’ experience of art. Those pink bowls at the edge of a glass display that is silica, placed there by conservation folks who do not want these objects to be damaged with any moisture contact. If one has to bend down to see an artwork, chances are they are taller than the average person, and possibly the museum considered children while displaying things far lower than usual. The labels with the vitals of the objects, name, time-period, origin, material – it’s like being the doctors of time! When the visitors touch those 3D interactive screens, the museum experience comes full circle, a sublime moment of time-bending. The museum comes to know what the most exciting and popular moments and objects in history and time are.
That ornate temple sculpture stands out in the center of the room under the excellent gallery lighting. Encased in glass, the object beckons upon an audience. Conversations with the outside world are already generated through images shared on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, creating curiosity in others to walk through the doors.
Information, when tested or applied, becomes knowledge. An interactive quiz at the end of a visit does just that, turns the newly acquired information into knowledge. When they share their feedback, the museums keep building upon them – the whole of society, as living creators of our art and culture, collaborating to create better plays and stories of our times.
In the face of a global crisis, people are frozen in their present. Memories of all kinds are getting created daily. Museums worldwide have been trying to collect the pieces of the present time, for the first time collecting objects so close to their lives. Museums are salvaging objects of ruin from present lives and setting them aside for posterity.
Author: Vanessa Vaz;
(Museum Studies, Georgetown University, Art Gallery)
Author: TDLM Staff Writer
Illustration/Photography: TDLM Team