Stuff and Nonsense

The new fondness for clutter.

Sometimes art’s just not enough. There’s a new fashion in museum exhibitions: Accessorize. We’re seeing fewer shows like the Cezanne retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which merely assemble great pictures, unembellished by catchy themes, related objects, documentary materials, or voluminous explanatory texts. Today’s curators increasingly feel the itch to interpret, not only with words but with objects and illustrations that “explain” the art and give it “context.”

A few recent examples:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt,” displaying drawing materials and printmaking tools of the type used by Rembrandt, as well as photos and bios of Rembrandt scholars and radiographs showing the underpainting in real Rembrandts and Rembrandt wannabes.

The Met’s and Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ “John Singleton Copley in America” (at the Milwaukee Art Museum through Aug. 25) intersperses the art with colonial furniture, silver (including a Paul Revere teapot similar to the one in Copley’s famous portrait), and costumed mannequins “suggesting the coherence of Copley’s work in the cultural environment of pre-Revolutionary Boston and New York.”

The Florida International Museum’s “Splendors of Ancient Egypt” (through July 7), recreating a pharaoh’s burial chamber and providing “a taste of the actual Karnak experience–using mirrors and two dozen massive columns to completely surround the visitor with the magnificence of the temple.” To add an authentic desert touch, real sand was dumped on the floor along one wall.

People used to visit art museums to look at art. Great paintings on the walls, superb sculptures on their pedestals–what more could you ask? The thirst for detailed information on the art’s significance or the artist’s life and times was best slaked before or after. Outside intervention just interfered with the intimate communication between artwork and art lover.

Not any more. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Mississippi Arts Pavilion, there’s a growing sense that art can’t communicate on its own. A new buzzword–“interpretive design”–means that art exhibitions must be laden with text and context. Curators divert us from art with an array of related artifacts or documents from the period, as if too much aesthetic concentration might tax our attention span. The creative process itself is demystified through displays of artists’ working tools and illustrations of artistic technique, as in the National Gallery of Art’s Winslow Homer show. (The show has traveled to the Met, where it will stay until Sept. 22, without these supplementary materials.)

I s there a problem here? Not if you think an art museum should be like a history museum, treating art as a cultural artifact that illustrates the story of a particular person, period, and place. But for those of us who cherish art for art’s sake, gussying it up with photos, paint samples, and teapots merely trivializes and distracts.

The trend toward interpretive installation, aimed at broadening art’s appeal by expanding public understanding, paralleled the transformation of museum-going from serious cultural pursuit to highbrow entertainment. Efforts to make information about art (as well as art itself) more accessible were strongly encouraged by funding policies of the National Endowment for the Humanities. NEH-supported exhibitions were distinguished by their elaborate wall panels–educational maps, photomurals, stenciled treatises–which competed with the objects themselves for space and attention. One early critic of this trend, Sherman Lee, then director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, complained 20 years ago that NEH “tends to lose sight of the fundamental purpose of an art exhibition, which is not to illustrate history but to allow an art work to be understood and enjoyed as a work of art.”

N ext came the burble of taped audio guides, filling our heads with instructions on what to see and think, while inhibiting personal response. This also suppressed civilized conversation with our companions, who were similarly encased in electronic earmuffs. The latest audio guides have gone Hollywood and digital: “Art authorities” electronically beamed up by recent museum-goers include Leonard Nimoy, Steve Martin, Charlton Heston, and Morgan Freeman. The newest curators-in-your-pocket are lightweight CD-ROM based systems on which visitors can punch in the numbers on wall labels, accessing commentary on whatever interests them.

People enjoy these cybertoys: Some exhibitions where visitors tote around the latest electronic gadgetry are beginning to resemble cellular-phone-users’ conventions. People also enjoy shows that make them feel they are not just gazing at the products of a distant culture but, for a brief time, are actually a part of that milieu, roaming about an Egyptian pyramid, a Chinese tomb, or a Russian palace. Such cultural tourism has become the specialty of a new breed of insta-museum, built solely to imbue foreign masterpieces with glitz and mystique. In addition to the Florida International Museum, other such blockbuster mills include the Wonders exhibition series in Memphis and the Mississippi Arts Pavilion in Jackson. Before the opening of the “Palaces of St. Petersburg” exhibition (through Aug. 31), Russian and American artisans painstakingly transformed the Mississippi Arts Pavilion into lavishly appointed rooms adapted from the homes of the czars, fitted out with authentic paintings and furnishings.

Virtual-reality exhibitions go one step further: They attempt to create the you-are-there sensation without the objects. The Getty Conservation Institute in California recently sponsored a virtual-reality recreation of Queen Nefertari’s tomb in Egypt, which purports to let cyberexplorers “look at the 3200-year-old wall paintings … without fear of damaging the fragile artwork.” This cartoonish cultural video game can now be navigated at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo, and, perhaps more fittingly, at Epcot Center in Disney World. “Virtual Pompeii” recently had a glitch-ridden run at the M.H. de Young Museum, San Francisco; and a new company, Atlantic Networks, plans to work with major museums to produce a “Great Civilizations” series, which will display “the finest archaeological works of art, together with reconstructions and virtual reality visits to ancient sites.”

All of this surely will draw the curious hoards, a benefit that few museums can ignore given the unreliability of outside funding sources. Museums must rely increasingly on self-generated income–the kind that comes from admissions, memberships, restaurants, and shops. But as the seductive trappings gain prominence, something else is obscured. It’s the art.