Once upon a time, the Museum of Fine Arts used to be a dreary place. An authoritarian, elitist institution.
There was a time (Oh do tell us, grandad!), when you’d enter a fine arts museum, on a Wednesday afternoon, for example, or on a Sunday morning, and you’d suddenly be lonely and forlorn. It was the era when struggling artists were still angrily muttering that the museum should be burned down. The museum was a desolate with a silence broken only by the creaking of parquetry. Most exhibits remained in their allocated place for generations. You’d traverse endless galleries without encountering a living soul, except some odd museum guard, seated in a corner behind a door, staring into the middle distance. Text was scarce. No audio or human guides. How on earth should the visitor find out what the works of art were about? Nothing but naked paintings and sculptures. There was a museum shop, but it only sold postcard reproductions of the masterpieces, and a catalogue or two. When in luck, you’d be able to buy a cup of bland solution from the makeshift coffee shop. A childhood spent wandering through hushed museum galleries, with vast Baroque altarpieces looming overhead, has imprinted on my memory the indelible image of biblical muscle-bound feet in sandals. But the Museum Of Fine Arts has changed, beyond recognition.
Nowadays, when you feel the urge to visit a fine arts museum, big or small, your access depends on a measure of military-style strategic planning, and on your mastery of various digital media allowing you to select a time slot (ideally, the instant when the throng has diminished a shade – code orange). You then have to buy a ticket online and print it out yourself (that is: when you’re old school). Upon reaching the museum, you join one of the numerous queues, first, to pass the security gate, then, to reach the cloak room. At some point, you’ll have to fight off some public services assistant who will try hard to saddle you with audio gear. Finally, if your time slot hasn’t expired by then, a museum guard staples a tag into your ear, which is the last condition for access. You may then join the herd.
A quiet day at the Louvre, Paris
As a rule, you first have to negotiate a stationary mass of visitors who have congregated in order to leisurely read the extensive hall texts in four languages, at the very entrance of any temporary exhibition. This crowd never quite disperses, so be cautious so as not to disturb the readers as you try to pass.
If you’re something of a regular, bear in mind that you will not find your favourites where you saw them on your previous visit. An industrious curator will have rearranged the entire collection while you were absent. If you succeed in finding a favourite painting, expect a drove of onlookers to block your view, with smart phone cameras held aloft. On given days, wedding photo shoots are allowed in the museum, but these parties only linger for a few hours. Should you encounter a guided tour group that has taken position in front of a painting, you might as well move along, even if the guards will impede your attempts to return to it later. And do not try to listen in – you haven’t paid your due. The same goes for those visitors that have been fitted out with audio gear. Let them stand in front of the paintings for as long as they like – they are concentrating on the audio, whereas you are merely gawking.
Do not trip over the trolleys laden with folding chairs, sketchbooks, pencils and other didactic materials. For that matter, make sure not to disturb the school groups. You’ll recognize them as they are seated in a cosy circle in front of a chosen work of art, stay there a good while, and are somewhat more vociferous than other visitors. Bless them.
Let’s face it, the visual memory of the average museum visitor is imperfect at best – that is why an attentive curator has arranged the art works according to a theme. Thus, you’ll be incentivized to compare, e.g. a nude Rubens female, with one by Renoir or Jeff Koons (which one is sexier), for instance. Or the thematic instruction will show you how Matisse’s treatment of light compares to that of Damien Hirst. That’s to say: you’ll discover the very essence of art. Just imagine a visit to the old school museum, passing from one painting to the next, not knowing what to look at, what to look out for (especially exasperating in the case of abstract painting – what on earth are you expected to see, after all?). At each encounter being abandoned, left high and dry in the presence of an irremediably mute work of art.
A recently developed asset to museum practice, is based on the philosophy that the museum is so much more than a collection of paintings and sculptures. Thinking out of the box, the museum has come to realize that it is first and foremost a public tribune, a platform or stage for the downtrodden arts of theatre, pop music, mime, graffiti, interior design, minority/climate politics, comic book art and stand-up comedy. In comes the artist residency. Your visit will be all the more fortuitous when it coincides with the intervention by an ‘artist in residence’ or guest curator in the permanent collection. It makes the hours spent in the museum so much less dreary. I well remember the day when a fashion designer of renown shut out all natural light, to highlight some details in the paintings by means of a couple of spotlights. So engaging. Or that French museum where a local comic artist had decided to mount all landscape paintings side to side, contiguously but at varying heights, and then had a blue woollen yarn stretched over all the paintings, to indicate the shared horizon. Now who hasn’t been waiting for that?
Unfortunately, not all museums have entirely banned natural light. One moment it is bright inside, the next it is overcast. This is particularly irritating as most of historical painting was always intended to be mounted in austere white spaces. Luckily, latter-day curators or exhibition designers show their contemporary mettle, and mount paintings on walls painted lilac, emerald green, or canary yellow.
The very best of fine museam practice is to be enjoyed in a rather recent format: the ‘experience’, e.g. ‘The Van Gogh Experience’, ‘The Klimt Experience’, or ‘The Goya Experience’. Forget the trite, tiny shack allowing room for six visitors, and showing a wretched grainy video on the artist, his history or techniques. Museums that are ‘with it’ have at least one giant tent installed, preferably in the main atrium (do not trip over the power cables). A glimpse inside will answer your question where all the other visitors have gone. Vast blown-up details from the masterpieces are projected in a whirling animation – the very details you couldn’t make out in the real thing, because a museum guard told you to step away from the painting. All of it accompanied by emphatic incidental music. This experience, I insist, is far more valuable than the real works of art: it engages, it moves, it’s alive, and, as everyone who has ever seen an art documentary on tv, the essence of a painting is the sum of its significant details.
Queue up for the museum shop. Best to set aside sufficient time (and budget) for this, as the range boggles the mind. Toys for kids and adults, colouring books (for kids and adults), painting-inspired apparel, umbrellas, garden furniture, high-end branded jewellery and watches, even fine art-themed wines and nibbles are for sale. Considering the army of multilingual guides, the ubiquitous audio guides and hall brochures, the immeasurable surface area taken up by wall texts, you’d be forgiven for expecting a slight decline in the role of the catalogue. Think again: the tonnage is beyond description.
For good reason: if you’re somewhat ochlophobic, the catalogue is your last resort. In these the glory days of reproduction, a photographic or digital copy of a painting outperforms the real thing. More reliable. Portable. Accessible. Democratic. Uncomplicated. Never before in the history of art has reproduction been so close to rendering the real work of art obsolete.