The virtue and vice of being a museum critic

The last week I was in Chicago, I met up with a friend visiting from my old hometown of Tulsa and took her to the Loyola Museum of Art (LUMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) because both were free that Tuesday.  Sadly, most of the MCA’s upper galleries were closed for installations, but the LUMA had all of its exhibits open.  The LUMA’s special exhibit was a textiles showcase titled “Stories in Cloth: The Threads of Daily Life”.  The exhibit made me think a lot about how I approach museums, exhibit design and how my experience as a conservator gives me a different perspective than most.  I want to preface this post by saying that I found the objects in both the special and the permanent exhibits to be fascinating and beautiful, and the LUMA to be a place worth visiting.

The first thing I noticed about the textiles exhibit is that the objects were displayed in a mixed group – that is to say that there would be 20th century objects displayed next to 18th century objects, or Persian objects next to Japanese objects.  Perhaps I was rushed and didn’t read all of the exhibit signage, but I found it difficult to follow the “story” of this exhibit.  From what I could tell, there wasn’t any particular grouping of the objects, not by time period, intended use, history or geographic origin.  Some of the objects didn’t even have labels, in particular some Japanese kimonos, and so I had no idea of their significance or age.

I should note here that I was also recently in the Loyola library and Information Commons, on their north campus by the lake, and noticed a mislabeled wall hanging in one of the stairwells.  The hangings were beautiful painted cloth, but had been incorrectly labeled as “batik”.  As someone who has studied batik (I even wrote a paper on it in college) and done batik, I felt a strong urge to send an email to someone over there to let them know of their mistake.  I settled for just sending a tweet to the library’s twitter account instead. I didn’t mean to hurt their feelings (though they assured me that the Information Commons does not have feelings) but I kinda know what I’m talking about.
Sun Batik

Anyway, as I moved through the gallery rooms, I came to the last room, which had an African dance costume in the corner.  The costume was a full-body suit that had been arranged to sit in a chair from the same region.  On the wall next to the costume was another garment, also of African origin, made of leather.  I’m no textile conservator (and I can barely sew on a button) but the mounting of this object concerned me.  The garment was basically a leather shirt, with a sewn-on leather belt on the front (like a long loop from the right to the left of the front side) from which hung several iron (or similarly heavy metal) objects.  I could tell the objects were heavy because of how they stretched the leather loop down, and I wondered about the stress that was putting on the stitches attaching the loop to the rest of the garment.  I would have preferred to seen this object mounted flat, lying down in a case.

As I was examining the leather garment, two museum staff approached the seated African costume figure and began fiddling with it.  The first woman seemed to be an administrative type, while the man might have been one of the exhibit preparators.  The woman was concerned about the figure’s hand (an empty cloth glove), which was pushed up into the sleeve and the man set about trying to coax it out of the sleeve.  He asked her if there had been kids in the galleries recently, and she said no, but that it was usually the older people who mess with the exhibits.  They noticed me watching, and the man kind of grinned and somewhat jokingly said that what he was doing was really delicate work.  I said, “I know….I’m a conservator!” To which he replied, “Well, maybe you should be doing this!” I laughed and told him that I only knew how to work on books and paper, not textiles.  He told me the figure was supposed to look like it was kind of relaxing, which it really did, the way it was sort of slumped back in the chair.

I eventually wandered off, but also realized that I wasn’t sure how I felt about the mount for the seated costume either.  It had a wooden head attached, and I couldn’t see any kind of support beyond the chair it was sitting in.  There wasn’t much said on the label about it’s use, or meaning.  The posture reminded me of being the last person left in a waiting room, tired and defeated after hours of waiting and reading 3-year old copies of Reader’s Digest.

My experience also reminded me of a conundrum I often find myself in – that of the exhibit critic.  I get fidgety when I see poorly designed or written signage, or when objects are mounted inconsiderately.  I have to press my fingernails into my palm when I see objects that fell off their mounts so long ago as to have dust on them (that museum will go unnamed, but it’s fairly close to my house in Chicago).  I get flustered when a label mentions that an object was used for a particular ceremony, but says nothing of the ceremony itself!  I feel sad for objects with no labels, their meaning lost and looked over in favor of the labeled object next to them.  Sometimes I tell myself that these criticisms should be forgiven, because the museum is staffed only by volunteers (well meaning, but uneducated about preservation or proper mounting), or that their printer lost some of the labels.

Or they can’t afford the extra paper to print everything in a bigger font, or that they don’t realize that some fonts should only ever be used for children’s birthday cards and never for museum labels.

Or that maybe their framer recently got kicked in the head by a horse and so everything looks kind of slanted to him.

But always, I feel twisted with conflict when I see something that I think would be an easy fix or that is truly damaging to an object.  I worry that whoever I talk to may think I’m deranged, or that I’m some sort of snob who doesn’t understand how little money or personnel they might have to work on their exhibits.  And I do realize that many museums don’t have a conservator, or even someone trained in preservation, on their staff.  I don’t want to come off as snarky, because I truly want to help and I love museums almost as much as I love informative and grammatically correct signs.  But sometimes I just don’t know how to start that conversation, or even who to talk to!  Does anyone else have this problem?

Scared from memory


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