Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"The Keeper of Curiosities" Royal Ontario Museum in the Wall Street Journal

A nice appreciation of the cabinet of curiosity approach to contemporary museum curation in today's Wall Street Journal:
At the [Royal Ontario Museum, aka ROM ], objects taken from its separate collections (fine and decorative arts, history, textiles, archaeology, geology, mineralogy, paleontology and zoology) are often mixed and matched in highly interdisciplinary displays to create a narrative not often seen in the more specialized museums that we are used to. For example, English dresses and slippers from the late 18th and early 19th centuries are displayed next to African and Asian clothing of the same era, alongside printing blocks and a wall-text description of berries used to produce dyes, because one of the points being made is how colors and patterns were dyed or printed onto these fabrics. Comparisons are being drawn about widely divergent cultures and industrial practices.

"In so many museums, curators are telling the story of the objects on display—why this is in the collection, why that is an important piece—while we're trying to use the objects in our collections to tell a story about how people go about their lives here and elsewhere around the world, and often about the intersection of the natural and cultural worlds," she said.
Here's another example: A display contains ceramic vases, silver, clocks, weathervanes and furniture from the 18th century, across from painted portraits of men, women and children who lived in Canada back then. None of the individual objects have their own labels, and only some wall text describes life in that time. Who were those people in the portraits? Who painted them? Where were those chairs and vases made? Did those people own that silver? Presumably, the curators know and aren't telling us. At the ROM, the point isn't so much the individual objects as creating a big-picture view of life at a certain time and place. "We encourage visitors to make connections in their own minds," Ms. Carding said...

The ROM is in some ways a throwback. Before people traveled so much or had such wide access to books and photographs (in short, an education), 18th- and 19th-century museums were cabinets of curiosities that provided a world of collected knowledge, a walk-in encyclopedia of objects both natural and man-made, practical and artistic. It is rare to find this type of institution anymore; museums now are more and more specialized...

Like the original cabinets of curiosities, there is a little something for everyone, but not so much as to bore people. Known as the "Stair of Wonders," the landings between floors have their own miniature displays—seashells or insects or battalions of metal toy soldiers—to perk up interest when it may be flagging. There's also a life-size, walk-through diorama of the St. Clair Cave in Jamaica, with its plaster-cast hanging bats, insects and stalagmites (based on ROM scientists' work at the site). "People here talk about their old favorites; so many people just love the bat cave," Ms. Carding said.
You can read the full article--from which the excerpt is drawn--by clicking here.

Image via Ddrees Art.

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