considering things in glass boxes

Last Autumn, the University of Alaska Museum of the North was chosen to be the Alaska recipient of the Vogel 50x50 exhibition, a project which doled out 50 works from Dorothy and Herb Vogel's extensive collection of small contemporary American artworks to one public museum in each of the 50 states. I'd first heard about the Vogels early in my artistic education, due to Herb's passing in my second year of undergrad. The Vogel Collection is legendary- after his death, Dorothy donated most of their collection to the Smithsonian, with the stipulation that the 50x50 project take place before the entire donation was added to the Institution's permanent collection.

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The story of the Vogels aside, my fascination with the show at the Museum of the North extended past the works themselves, and eventually settled on the experience of viewing works of art, mostly smaller 2D works on paper, in a space typically occupied by cultural artifacts and natural history. The Museum of the North hosts both of these genres of items in the vast majority of its space. Interspersed among the taxidermied polar bears and the carefully preserved Athabascan beadwork might be found historic paintings, sketches from journals, illustrations by expedition crews or local Natives, but the large majority of the Museum's collection of fine art and handicrafts reside in one gallery on the upper level. Paintings, photographs and other 2D works in the Rose Berry Gallery are framed and hung like they might be at any other institution, historic and contemporary works side-by-side. In the Special Exhibitions gallery, where the Vogel show was hung, wall-sized glass cases built for 3D specimens and artifact display dominate the space. Both the physical and visual space created between work and viewer created by these glass cases surprised me- if we're being honest, I spent more time considering the space than I did the work housed within them. Having matriculated at a museum school for my undergraduate degree, I feel justified in saying that I have spent more time considering, dissecting, docent-ing and generally hanging out in museum galleries than the average Joe. In processing the Vogel show, I was prevented from interacting with the work in the way that I was used to, and in a way that made sense to me. Space constraints seemingly caused the exhibition to forego more traditional styles of presentation. I couldn't find an anchor piece with which to start- I bounced from one case to another, trying to settle on a work to lead me in to the rest of the collection. The glass between the work and I interrupted my gaze, my considerations, and my ultimate experience. Lately, as I begin to makes choices about the finishing and sequencing of my thesis exhibition next Spring, I keep returning to my experience digesting the Vogel show, and the museum/gallery experience as a whole. 

I left the book in my car overnight, and got too excited flipping to Clifford's essay the next day. I completely broke the spine of the book and now have to tape the book up to keep all the pages intact. Oops.

I left the book in my car overnight, and got too excited flipping to Clifford's essay the next day. I completely broke the spine of the book and now have to tape the book up to keep all the pages intact. Oops.

On my birthday this past December, my best friend and I spent some time perusing a secondhand bookstore in the city near our parents' homes. It was in this book store that I stumbled across Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine.  Especially when organizing a show of photographic work, size, placement, sequence, and finishing are vital topics to consider, and as I begin to plan these things in reference to my own final show, I thought the book would make for some topical light reading. I've only read one essay in the collection so far, but it was one of the best introductions to considerations of cultural museum display that I've encountered in my time as an art student. In "Four Northwest Coast Museums: Travel Reflections", James Clifford, noted anthropologist, compares and contrasts the handling of Northwest Coast historic and contemporary cultural objects and artworks, as handled by four separate cultural institutions in British Columbia. Although it wasn't specifically what I was looking for when I began to read, the points and issues Clifford addresses are vitally important for any student of museum studies, cultural preservation or indigenous issues.

In 42 pages, Clifford (who acknowledges his place as a white student of anthropology dissection the presentation of indigenous North American cultures in the first two pages, points for him) breaks down the minute differences between the handling of various Northwest Coast permanent collections by four British Columbia institutions: the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, the Royal British Columbia Museum, the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center, and the U'mista Cultural Centre. He spends much of the essay describing, in detail, the environments that these museums inhabit, why they were founded/what greater purpose they serve, how their collections are organized, arranged, catalogued and displayed, and what moving through the gallery spaces is like. Some dissection of these topics occurs in the first half of the essay, though most of the more critical and detailed investigation can be found in the latter half. One of the sections that I was most interested in involved thoughts on presentation and intention:

pg. 240

pg. 240

On page 240, Clifford is discussing the collections of the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center, and the U'mista Cultural Centre. The creation of these two institutions occurred when, in the latter half of the 20th century, the Canadian government returned a huge cache of cultural artifacts, confiscated in the 1920's during a raid on an "illegal" potlatch hosted by Dan Cranmer on Village Island. By the time the collection was returned to the community, the descendants claiming ownership of the items were split between two Kwagiulth communities- one in Cape Mudge Village (location of the  Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center)  and the other in Alert Bay (location of the U'mista Cultural Centre). The U'mista Cultural Centre has foregone a more Western styles of presentation in favor of a more organic system- viewers enter the big-house style gallery and are presented with the objects in the order in which they would have appear at the potlatch ceremony. There is no glass, and the lighting is low. Rather than title cards naming materials and dimensions, elders and community members were invited to provide cultural and historic context for the pieces, their comments recorded on large white cards place in proximity to, but not attached to, the items they reference. The Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center takes a more recognizable approach to the display and categorization of the items in its collection- arranged thematically, the spotlit glass cases could seem at home in any Smithsonian institution. Title cards include, under the description of the item, the name of the family or descendent who claims ownership. Arguably, the Kwagiulth Museum seems to serve a more Western sensibility, laid out and labeled in a way that is familiar and recognizable to the passing cultural tourist. The U'mista Centre, on the other hand, would appear more centered around the community. Does the U'mista Centre, due to it's display and organizational choices, then become a museum of the potlatch, rather than the overall cultural heritage of the area? Does the Kwagiulth Museum exist for the community, or because of it? Do the answers to any of these questions effect the importance, significance or truth of these spaces? Does it matter?

Really, it always matters. I had a really productive critique in my graduate seminar a few weeks ago, centered around my most recent public presentation of a few images from my work. Mostly, the consensus was that the choices I had made were not doing the images any favors- which was fair, and true. We spent time troubleshooting some of the particulars associated with the story that I'm trying to tell, and weighed a lot of options. It felt good. Intention, sequence, space, organization- in the grand scheme of Looking, these are the choices that have to matter as much as the actual making of the work matters.