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museums and exhibitions

Museum “Shrines” and Performative Rituals

"Nike of Samothrace" on the stairs of the Louvre Museum

The quarter is progressing along, and now I am covering a new book with my students: New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction. It’s been really fun to delve into some of the museum theory that I studied several years ago as a graduate student and graduate fellow at a small art museum.

The introduction of this text explores several of the metaphors that are commonly used to describe museums. One of the most interesting metaphors for me is the “museum as shrine.” Museums have a quasi-religious environment, and I like how Janet Marstine explains this idea:

“The museum as shrine is a ritual site influenced by church, palace, and ancient temple architecture. Processional pathways, which may include monumental staircases, dramatic lighting, picturesque views, and ornamental niches, create a performative experience. Art historian Carol Duncan explains, ‘I see the totality of the museum as a stage setting that prompts visitors to enact a performance of some kind, whether or not actual visitors would describe it as such.’ Preziosi adds, ‘all museums stage their collected and preserved relics . . . Museums . . . use theatrical effects to enhance belief in the historicity of the objects they collect.”1

This description immediately made me think of the architecture in several museums which encourage performative, theatrical, and even ritualistic actions from the visitor. The first space that came to mind was the Grand Staircase at the Louvre, above which the “Nike of Samothrace” presides (see photo above). Here are some other spaces which I considered:

Seattle Art Museum stairs

The Seattle Art Museum has a “processional way” staircase in the older part of their museum. Although these stairs are no longer used on a regular basis, there are escalators in the main museum area which carry the visitor to higher physical (and suggestively “spiritual”) levels. Even with an escalator (which doesn’t require much physical movement on part of the viewer), I think that this motion still contains an element of performance on the part of the viewer. Also, shrine-like picturesque views are found at the Seattle Art Museum Sculpture Garden; the structure of this building is created largely out of glass walls.

Centre Pompidou exterior with escalator "tubes"

The Centre Pompidou probably has the most famous set of museum escalators. The way that the “tubes” slowly climb with alternating sections of flat and angled lines remind me of the terraces of ziggurats from the ancient Near East.

Interior of the Guggenheim Museum, New York

The ramp in the interior of the Guggenheim is probably one of the best examples of ritualistic art, I think because the viewer is continually aware of his or her ascent in relation to the rest of the museum space. The winding ramp reminds me of spires for religious buildings, even contemporary structures like the Independence Temple for the Community of Christ in Missouri.

Schinkel, View of the staircase (and view overlooking the Pleasure Garden) in the Altes Museum, Berlin (19th century). Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Rotunda of the Altes Museum, Berlin

I think that the Rotunda of the Altes Museum evokes this shrine-like setting (and performative nature) not only by evoking classical imagery (this is a small version of the Pantheon), but also creating a stage-like setting for the sculptures, separating them either with niches or columns. The sculptures on the bottom level are also elevated onto stage-like plinths.

Last week, my students and I discussed whether today’s museums should try to bring more self-awareness to their designs and displays, in order to perhaps expose or at least recognize the “shrine-ness” of the institution. We wondered what visitors might think if a museum was blatantly decorated like a shrine (with candles around works of art, offerings scattered in front of displays, etc.). Would viewers feel uncomfortable if they knew they were taking part in a ritual at a museum? What do you think?

What are some of the other shrine-like aspects of museums? Can you think of any museums which encourage some type of “performative” or ritualistic-like activity on part of the viewer? In a general sense, I think that the quiet whispers that are expected in many museums can fit with this idea.

1 Janet Marstine, “Introduction” in New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introdution by Janet Marstine, ed. (Blackwell Publishing, 2006. See also C. Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 1-2. See also D. Preziosi and C. Farago, Grasping the World: The Idea of the Museum (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), p. 13-21.

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Manet Portraying Life: Exhibition on Screen

Edouard Manet, "The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil," 1874

This is my new favorite work of art by Manet: The Monet Family in their Garden at Argenteuil (1874). On one hand, it reminds me a bit of my own little family and home: my currently-bearded husband, my little boy, my flower garden, my yard. Plus, when learning more about this painting on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, I grew to like Manet even more than I already do. In 1924, Monet wrote about his experience of sitting in his garden for this very portrait:

“Manet, enthralled by the color and the light, undertook an outdoor painting of figures under trees. During the sitting, Renoir arrived. . . . He asked me for palette, brush and canvas, and there he was, painting away alongside Manet. The latter was watching him out of the corner of his eye. . . . Then he made a face, passed discreetly near me, and whispered in my ear about Renoir: ‘He has no talent, that boy! Since you are his friend, tell him to give up painting!'”

I don’t really care for Renoir’s art, and it turns out that Manet felt the same way. I have a feeling that Manet and I would have gotten along!

Yesterday I was introduced to Manet’s portrait of the Monet family through a film screening of the exhibition, Manet Portraying Life. This show is currently on display at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. This film screening was informative and entertaining. I especially liked the analysis of the paintings given by various individuals who were invited onto the set, including curators, artists and even an actress, Fiona Shaw. The host Tim Marlow and Shaw had a really interesting conversation; they discussed how Manet’s The Railway (shown below) seems to include an interesting pattern – almost a barrier – created by the iron bars. These bars seem to separate these delicate females (and the viewer) from the industrial world of the railway. Even the smoke coming from the railway area seems to add an element of mystery (or perhaps inaccessibility) to modern life.

Manet, "The Railway," 1873

There were several little snippets of information that I learned during this film screening. Here were a few other short points that stood out to me:

  • Matisse used to show people Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe (1863) in order to prove that black could be used without making it seem like a “hole” in the canvas. (This negative attitude toward black, especially during Matisse’s career, must have its origins in the late 19th century after the rise of Impressionism.)
  • One of the interviewees mentioned that Salon paintings in the 19th century were hung in rooms according to the name of the artist. From what I understand, artists with last names that began with the same letter would have been grouped together. This practical method of hanging is very interesting to me, especially since earlier museums chose to hang their paintings in either a chronological and/or a thematic fashion. (See more information about the Salon hanging method in the comments below.)
  • Manet felt that Velasquez was the greater painter of all time.
  • Carte-de-visite photographs may have influenced Manet’s work; these comparatively cheap photographs were left as little tokens or remembrances when an individual visited friends or family in the 19th century. Manet may have looked to some carte-de-visites when working on specific portraits.  This information made me wonder if the monochromatic tan background or sepia-like tones of photographs might have directly or indirectly influenced the backgrounds Manet used for several of his portraits (for example, as seen in his Portrait of Berthe Morisot from 1872).

Manet, "Music in the Tuileries Gardens," 1862

I also enjoyed that the film included some of the background information about Manet’s life and/or the history behind the paintings themselves. I appreciated a discussion of Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life” idea in conjunction with Music in the Tuileries Gardens. The film host emphasized that Manet is shown as a flâneur in this painting: he is depicted in the left corner, an observer of modern life who is separated from the crowd. Another commentator in the film also jokingly noted that Manet has decided to depict different prominent critics and writers in the painting: those who might have written and commented on Manet’s art found themselves within the crowd!

I also learned that this painting alternates between spending six years in the National Gallery in London, and then six years in The Hugh Lane gallery in Dublin. This arrangement is due to a bequest that was contested: when Hugh Lane suddenly died in 1915, his official will stipulated that the painting would go to the National Gallery, but an unofficial addendum to the will (found in his desk) said that the paintings should be in Dublin. The six-year arrangement is a balance between following the legal will and honoring the wishes of the deceased donor.

I was hoping that the film camera would move through the different galleries so one could get a feel for the hanging and the layout of the exhibition space, but that didn’t really happen too much. Instead, the film mostly examined isolated works of art. Only some of the paintings in the show were discussed or even shown, which has led me to look for additional information and interviews about the show elsewhere online. That being said, I still really enjoyed the film; I hope to attend the future screenings this year (on exhibitions about Munch and Vermeer).

Did anyone else go to this film screening or see this exhibition (either at the Royal Academy of Arts or at the Toledo Museum of Art)? What were your thoughts?

— 16 Comments

Politics, the Capitoline Museum, and the She-Wolf

This quarter I am working with just a few of the senior art history majors on a special “Directed Study” course. We are exploring museum history and curatorial theory, using two new books: The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of an Institution in 18th- and 19th-Century Europe (2012) and New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction (2011). I really like that The First Modern Museums of Art is written in a very approachable, yet scholarly, way. Each chapter serves a case study for a different museum that was established; the book proceeds in a chronological fashion, based on founding dates for the institutions.

This week, my students and I read about the Capitoline Museum (established 1733). Carole Paul writes about how the objects within the museum serve as strong signifiers of political and cultural heritage. The museum, which contains a lot of Roman art, emphasizes Roman authority and jurisdiction. The artistic “progression” and superiority of Roman culture (and those Westerners who are heirs to the Roman tradition) are implied in many ways, including the display of art. For example, the visitor encounters Egyptian figures before the Greco-Roman antiquities, which suggests both artistic and political succession.

Capitoline She Wolf, 5th century BC or medieval

The political associations and signifiers of power also extend into the collection. I think it’s particularly interesting that the bronze sculpture of the she-wolf forms part of the collection, given the history of the piece. Before Sixtus IV donated this sculpture to the Compidoglio (Capitoline Hill), the she-wolf was displayed in the Lateran Palace, the pope’s official residence.1 This she-wolf was seen as a symbol of the city, since the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf. As part of the papal collection, this statue then served as a symbol of papal jurisdiction and the papal succession of authority after pagan rule.

Given these associations with Roman history, I can see why the Capitoline Museum seemed a bit hesitant to acknowledge the recent analyses which determined that the “She-Wolf” statue was cast during the medieval period! This was big change in the traditional attribution, which placed this statue in the fifth century BC (as an example of Etruscan art). When I covered this story in 2010, over two years after the new study results were made available, I was surprised that the Capitoline Museum did not have the updated medieval date on its website! Now that I understand the political and authoritative statements behind the formation of this museum, though, I can see why the museum seems to have been hesitant to acknowledge this new information. The museum would want to endorse this as a work of art as an authentic piece from the Etruscan/pre-Roman period, in order to emphasize the institutional message of Roman authority. If the “She-Wolf” is a medieval work of art, there isn’t as direct of a connection to Roman history.

However, today I went back and checked the Capitoline Museum website again. Now the site has been updated to acknowledge the alternate date and also mentions the Carbon 14 analysis (albeit that the information is slightly hidden under a “Reveal text” button).

What have been your experiences at the Capitoline Museum? Did you feel like the message of Roman authority and power came through during your visit?

1 Carole Paul notes that this wolf (lupa) was in fact returned to its rightful home through Sixtus IV’s donation. Paul writes that the wolf “had originally stood on the Campidoglio and in 65 BC had been struck by a bolt of lightning that apparently broke her feet and destroyed the suckling twins, who were replaced only in the fifteenth century.” See Carole Paul, “Capitoline Museum, Rome: Civic Identity and Personal Cultivation” in The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of An Institution in 18th- and 19th-Century Rome, Carole Paul, ed., (Los Angeles: Getty, 2012), 22. Given that the she-wolf is now thought to have been produced in the medieval period, I personally think that Paul might be referring to a different depiction of a wolf (perhaps lost) or that this story might have been a myth. Paul cites a 1980 publication by Richard Krautheimer in relation to this story about the lightening bolt. Therefore, she does not seem take into account the more recent Carbon 14 analysis and medieval date.

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King Tut: Nesting Shrines, a Sarcophagus, and Coffins

 

King Tut Funerary Mask, c. 1327 BC

Last weekend I had the opportunity to visit an amazing exhibit on King Tutankhamun (see some images from the show here). I’ve always been interested in King Tut (I’ve blogged about him before), and I’ve been anticipating the opening of this exhibition for a long time. Upon entering the exhibit space, I was really pleased to see that the show wasn’t limited to objects found in King Tut’s tomb, but included sculptures and artifacts from the Old Kingdom and New Kingdom. In fact, one of the colossal statues of Ankhenaten also was there, which was neat to see.

One of the things that I found particularly interesting was a short video clip by National Geographic. The clip recreated how all the different nesting shrines, sarcophagus, and coffins covered King Tut’s body.

I already knew that several coffins covered King Tut’s body, but I wasn’t aware of how many shrines were used to cover the sarcophagus. All together, the shrines, sarcophagus and coffins totaled the number nine: the Egyptian number which symbolized infinity. I’ve recreated a list of the different shrines, sarcophagus and coffins below, going in order from the outermost shrine. (On a side note: You would be surprised to know how many conflicting stories exist online about King Tut’s shrines, sarcophagus and coffins! It has taken me forever to sort out the correct information.)

Cross-section diagram of shrines, sarcophagus, and nesting coffins for King Tutankhamun's mummy. Courtesy Hotepibre via Wikipedia.

  • Outermost Golden Shrine: This shrine, which housed all of the remaining shrines, sarcophagus, coffins and mummy, almost filled the entire room of King Tut’s tomb. It is about nine feet high and sixteen feet long. The shrine is decorated with the double-tiered knot of Isis and the djed (the backbone of Osiris, representing stability). There also are hieroglyphs of Osiris on the case. This shrine is on display in the Cairo Museum. A virtual tour of this shrine (and the second and third shrines) is found HERE.
  • The Pall Frame: This is a nine-piece gabled framework. It is made out of wood and gold. On top of the framework was a fabric that was decorated with large marguerites (daisy-like flowers) of gilded bronze. One commenter described the fabric as “like a night sky spangled with stars.” Unfortunately, the fabric was ruined when it was left out in the open, during a period when Carter’s American team was prevented from working in the tomb and laboratory.
  • The Second Shrine (also see drawing here): This second shrine is made out of gold and is decorated with funerary texts from the book of the dead. This particular shrine has a sloping roof and is thought to be in the shape of the Per-Wer, the ancient shrine of Upper Egypt that once housed a cult image of the tutelary goddess Nekhbet. This shrine was constructed by sixteen separate pieces, which allowed the shrine to be assembled on-site in the burial chamber (a process likely confirmed by the assembling directions written in black ink on several individual pieces). Domestic, magical, and ornate objects were placed in the available space between this shrine, the third shrine, and the fourth shrine.
  • The Third Shrine: This shrine is very similar to the second shrine, only with smaller dimensions. This shrine is also made out of gold and has a sloping roof. Likewise, the third shrine also is decorated with funerary texts from the Book of the Dead.
  • The Fourth (Innermost) Shrine: The sides of the shrine depict a procession of various gods, including Anubis and Horus. The sky goddess Nut was depicted on the top of the ceiling, embracing the sarcophagus with her wings. The interior walls depict Spell 17 from the Book of the Dead.
  • Sarcophagus: This  sarcophagus was made out of quartzite (for the body of the sarcophagus) and was supported by a block of alabaster. The lid was made out of red granite. The lid doesn’t quite match the sarcophagus (and furthermore, was cracked and then repaired with gypsum!), which might suggest that the intended lid was not created in time for the hurried burial. The whole sarcophagus itself weighed over a ton.
  • Outermost Coffin (see detail image HERE): Like the other two coffins, this coffin was wrapped in linen. This anthropoid coffin depicted an image of the king. The coffin was made out of gilded wood and cut stones. Four silver handles were created to lower the coffin into the sarcophagus. When containing the other nested coffins, this outermost coffin weighed 1.36 metric tons (3,000 pounds).
  • Second (Middle) Coffin (see detail image HERE): This anthropoid coffin is made out of gilded wood. Small pieces of colored glass were affixed to practically the whole body of the coffin. It was protected by a red linen shroud when it was discovered by Howard Carter. Additionally, the red linen shroud was covered with floral garlands. The flowers, although far dead and dry, suggest that the king was buried during the spring time when the flowers would have been available. No handles exist on this middle coffin, which made the excavation difficult.
  • Innermost Coffin (see detail image HERE): This anthropoid coffin was made of pure gold, inlaid with glass and semi-precious stones. When it was discovered, this coffin originally was covered in a sticky black residue, made from a perfume. The coffin is just over six feet tall and weighs nearly 243 pounds. Gold handles are located on this innermost coffin.
  • The mummy of King Tut, with the head protected by a funerary mask of gold, lapis lazuli, glass, and semi-precious stones (see reconstruction HERE). The mask weighs 24 pounds (11 kg). Gold sandals were placed on the mummy’s feet, along with various other decorative objects on the body. The king’s fingers were lined with hollow gold finger tips.

Inner Coffin of Tutankhamun's Sarcophagus, c. 1332-1322 BCE

On a side note, apart from these nested shrines, sarcophagus, and coffins, there also was another separate shrine located in King Tut’s tomb: the canopic shrine. You can watch a video about King Tut’s canopic shrine HERE. Inside the shrine there was a canopic chest and small canopic “coffinettes” which contained some of King Tut’s vital organs. (THIS ONE contained King Tut’s liver.)

Although ancient thieves entered King Tut’s tomb relatively soon after the pharaoh’s burial, afterward the tomb remained undisturbed for several centuries. And since thieves never touched King Tut’s actual sarcophagus (the seal on the second and third shrines were intact upon discovery), we have been able to better understand the burial process and some of the funerary objects for Egyptian pharaohs. However, it blows my mind to think about what luxurious coffins and objects were placed inside the tombs of more prestigious kings. As a relatively insignificant pharaoh who died at a young age, King Tut apparently received a more modest burial than other Egyptian rulers. One can only imagine what riches were taken by the ancient thieves that disturbed some of the other tombs!

— 4 Comments

Thoughts on the Rothko Chapel

A few days ago I was invited to speak to some students about my experience last month, when I visited the Rothko Chapel. Before visiting the Caravaggio show in Fort Worth, my family and I flew to Houston expressly to visit the Rothko Chapel.

My husband and I feel like Rothko would have approved of our pilgrimage to Houston. Before he had even received the commission to make the chapel paintings, Rothko had considered the idea of wayside chapels or one-man museums spread across the country. He liked the idea of having a person travel to a specific place (and even better, a place that was difficult to access) to see a work of art.1 That way, it seemed likely that the viewer would be more invested in seeing the specific art that was on display – as opposed to say, if the viewer happened to see some art within a gigantic museum or on the wall of a restaurant (cough – The Four Seasons in the Seagram Building – cough).

My little boy outside the Rothko Chapel (dedicated February 1971)

One of the main things that struck me about the exterior of the Rothko Chapel was the heavy masonry of the structure. I was immediately reminded of Byzantine churches and mausoleums in Ravenna like San Vitale and Galla Placidia. Only after visiting this chapel did I learn that Rothko wanted to have the structure of the chapel be a merge between architecture of the East and West. In fact, Rothko was particularly impressed with the Byzantine church S. Maria Assunta (near Venice). San Vital and S. Maria Assunta both have octagonal floor plans, too, similar to the Rothko Chapel.

Interior of Rothko Chapel. Paintings created between 1964-1967

Upon entering the Rothko Chapel, I was confronted with an environment that was a little bit unique and unexpected. I was planning to be in a place that looked serene (like the image above) or perhaps even see someone meditating in front of Rothko’s purple and black canvases. That evening, though, the chapel was preparing to host a Christmas concert. There were a lot of instruments and chairs covering the chapel floor – and there was a piano tuner. For the whole time that my family and I were in the chapel (about fifteen minutes), the tuner played the same high-pitched note over and over and over. It was very distracting and frustrating, although there was something horribly ironic in hearing the repeated note and looking at fourteen large-scale canvases that have little variation (at least upon first glance).

I felt like the environment was both peaceful and oppressive – something that definitely was influenced by my friend the piano tuner, but I think that the paintings also contributed to this environment. Likewise, I also felt like the chapel both embraced and rejected history/context. The austere white walls and clean lines of the chapel fit well within the modern aesthetic, but other aspects of the chapel were very reminiscent of historical traditions. Even some of the panels were hung in a triptych form, which gave the suggestion of history and context. (In fact, this commission originally was intended for a chapel on a Catholic university campus.)

It was a rather interesting and yet somewhat conflicting experience in the chapel for me. But I suppose that is what Rothko would have liked me to experience. He was interested in the conflict created by the human condition, wasn’t he?

Have you ever been to the Rothko Chapel? What was your experience?

1 James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 464.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.