You're Doing it Right (Four Suggestions for Museums)

Tina Rivers Ryan
Nov 5, 2013 5:56AM

I just got back from a trip to Minneapolis, for an event in conjunction with their local PBS station. I was really excited for this trip, as I've been waiting a decade for a chance to visit the Walker Art Center. Even though they only had a fraction of their exhibition space open, it was still a treat to be there. When I realized I had a little extra free time in the city, I headed to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and I can't recommend it enough. The collection was great, but what really blew me away was its presentation. There were some things going on in that museum that I wish more museums would do, or do better. Here's a list:

1) Use the visual dialogue between objects in space to get people thinking. At one point, I looked out over an atrium and was struck by an incredible sight: on the upper level, right across from me, I saw the back of an 18th century statue of an African saint; directly below it, on the lower level, I saw the back of a white marble nude from antiquity. Presenting these works in this way results in an incredible coup de foudre. The combined image is greater (more inspiring, more illuminating) than the sum of its parts, as it really helps visitors understand the cross-cultural connections--and differences--that comprise the "universal" history of art (a history for which transhistorical and cross-cultural museums like this inherently argue).

2) When the work of an artist makes an obvious (to some) art historical reference--one that is integral to the meaning of the work--license the image of the cited work to display next to the wall text. For Santos Dumont - The Father of Aviation II by Kehinde Wiley, the MIA reproduced his visual sources, from a Renaissance example of extreme foreshortening of a corpse, to a plate from Goya's Disasters of War. I only wish they had done the same with Yinka Shonibare MBE's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Australia) right next to it.

3) Present viewers with another avenue into the works by contextualizing them with current events. Apparently, the MIA's entire staff contributes short news items they find that relate to specific works of art; these are printed out and stuck next to the works with tape, which draws attention to the timeliness of the posting. It's an eye-catching trick to get visitors to see the permanent collection as very much alive, in the sense that the works are relevant to ongoing debates in contemporary culture. And I love the egalitarianism of it--it proves that everyone has the right, and ability, to look at and learn from art.

4) Give the individual viewer of large-scale video art control over their viewing experience. MoMA's media space lets viewers choose which videos to watch, but the viewer has to watch on their own small TV set, in a private cubby--and  some works just need to be seen on a big screen, and with a collective audience. The MIA managed a solution by having a large screening room set up as a video jukebox. I know, I know--one reason this worked so well in Minneapolis is because I was the only person in the room. But if jukeboxes can work in diners, why can't they work in museums? If you want to watch something, you just have to wait in line to punch your choice in, and then hang around. And isn't there something fun--and even noble, or democratic--about exposing your taste to others, and being exposed to theirs in turn?

Tina Rivers Ryan