Skip to content

How Do You Show Art?

by Aaron Betsky


Aaron Betsky , director's office , exhibitions , exhibition design , in the galleries , collection

Our model was the last shot in the 1981 Steven Spielberg film Raiders of the Lost Ark: Harrison Ford has finally found the Ark of the Covenant, and then they put it in a box and ship it off to Washington, where it disappears into a warehouse whose vastness the camera reveals as it pans away from the crate to reveal all the things the United States government stores away. We felt that our collection was a little like that and, though we don’t actually have the Ark of the Covenant (someone is still looking for that one in real life, I think), we do have many works of art of beauty and importance. So we wanted to unlock the storerooms, open the crates, and show off as many of those works of art as we could.

The result is The Collections: 6,000 Years of Art, the first half of which opened the beginning of this month. We have taken several thousand of our works of art and put them on display in a manner that evokes the ways we pack, inventory, and study them. This is, of course, only a small fraction of our collections of over 60,000 works of art, but we will be rotating pieces into the galleries (especially light-sensitive ones such as works on paper and textiles), and in the spring will open the other half of this exhibition across the hallway. Together these exhibitions will let you see a lot more of a collection we hold in trust for this community at one time than was ever possible in the past.

a large collection of ceramics in storage

The display of The Collections does raise the question of how you actually show art. After a great deal of internal discussion, we decided we needed to bring variety into our presentations. We want to do this not just for variety’ssake, but because we all use the experience of art in different ways at different times, and according to the different kinds of art at which we look. There should be an opportunity for intense contemplation or focused discussion, as there is now in the Schmidlapp Gallery. There should be a time and place to see a great deal of material in series, such as the many teapots on display in The Collections, or in juxtaposition, as there is in the painting area of this new display. You should also be able to see works of art in a measured rhythm, arranged according to some logic –whether chronology or style, or who made it, or medium—as you can in many of our other galleries. We also think that sometimes it makes sense to develop a theme that becomes evident in the assembly of different works of art, and you will be seeing some of those themes activated in the Art Museum in the future.

Looking at art in all these different ways means having a different attitude in your looking, though we have been careful to design these displays so that you can still focus on most of the works of art in good light, at eye-height, and well-framed –the generic and default way you should be able to look at art in an art museum. The relationship to the space around you, to the other works of art, and to information are what now change in these different displays. Those alternations free you to think about art as part of a culture, a way of making, a continuum of forms, or just as a singular thing of beauty.

These installations are experiments, and we hope to learn from them as we go along. We have already figured out one thing: that we need a lot more information. We will be producing more signs for the Schmidlapp Gallery, as well as the interactives that show you where you can find pieces related to the eighteen icons on view are on their way. For The Collections, we are producing a book with information on all the works of art that will be available in the gallery, adding more wall texts, and improving the iPad app (which will soon also be available online).

The one issue that will not be address through these additions is whether these new displays treat the works of art with appropriate respect. The Schmidlapp Gallery turns each work into an icon, and in so doing removes it from the historical context in which most art museums (including this one) usually show such artifacts. In The Collections, the opposite happens: you have to look at what we think is an important work of art without many of the usual framing devices. For us, the questions both of these approaches, as well as some of the others we will be unveiling over the next year or two, raise get to the point of what an art museum does: at least in part, it makes the artifact into what we think of as a work of art through the way it displays that object or image. By varying how we do that, we want you to be aware of that process, and maybe even to be part of it.


Aaron Betsky, Director