Thursday, December 5, 2013

Worcester Art Museum/ [remastered]

Venus Disarming Cupid, Paolo Veronese, about 1555

Curator: Matthias Waschek, Executive Director, Worcester Art Museum

The PR Buzz: Paintings will be displayed in medallion-style hangings—reminiscent of the 17th-18th century—that encourage the viewer to make personal connections with and between the works. This project is one of many where the Museum is focused on reshaping the visitor experience.”

In-depth reviews of the installation can be found here and here.

Recommended For: a glorious immersive experience of Old Master splendor.

The Experience:
Good Lord does the Worcester Art Museum have a good collection! I shouldn't be so surprised by this by now, but I am. Every time.

I made the drive out to WAM in less than 45 minutes. (Worcester may seem like the far side of Pluto to the Hub mentality, but let's be honest, it takes longer than that to get across Cambridge usually!) 

I was greeted outside the gallery entrance by a nicely-worded, but visually dull, label by new museum director Matthias Waschek, who was the driving force behind [remastered].  The label serves as an invitation to "stay and enjoy longer." The lackluster impression of the intro label vanished immediately as I entered the suite of three galleries that make up [remastered].  Sumptuous moss-green and terracotta gallery walls set off the rich tones, colors and luxurious highlights of the Old Master paintings. In short, the works look fantastic in the new galleries. As the museum literature promises, the paintings are hung in clusters that share themes, subjects, compositions and emotions. The flanking galleries feature more secular imagery, while the center gallery is dominated by religious, moral and allegorical works. The visitor is invited to make extended study of the paintings and spin their own webs of connection and meaning between them.

What there is: each gallery has its own gallery guide, there are rolling shelves with selections from the art research library on a variety of topics relating to the paintings, the artists and their times, two iPads set up to support two of the paintings in the central gallery that have a number of essays from a range of museum staff and community figures and the ability to enter your own commentary on the works, and an imaginative schedule of public programming in the galleries that enhance the experience of being around the art.

What there isn't: traditional on-the-wall labels. 

Does it work? Yes and no.

WAM has clearly made the choice to make all of its supplementary material as unobtrusive as possible. The gallery guides are placed in holders that are low and out of the way, the iPads revert to dark click-to-begin screens, and the books are presented in plain brown wrappers. Unfortunately, based on my observation, this meant that visitors seeking more information either did not know this material was available or how to use it if they noticed it. One visitor I asked found the laminated gallery guides "cumbersome." The add-your-own-label feature on the interpretive iPads had largely been used by visitors to debate whether the lack of traditional labels is a good idea.

What [remastered] gets right is installing superb examples of Old Master painting and then getting out of the way and letting the works speak to visitors in their own voices. The paintings themselves are tremendous and the museum's new acquisition, Veronese's Venus Disarming Cupid, lives up to any amount of hype that could be thrown at it.  These works were created to be studied, explored, and contemplated in a way that is too often undermined by traditional museum labels.

I am not arguing in favor of restoring the supplementary information to its traditional prominence, but what does need to be much more assertive is the museum's desire for people to assign their own values, meanings and perspectives to the works. Old museum habits- like label reading- are hard to break and if WAM wants to change the rules in [remastered], this intention should not be communicated discreetly, but emphatically. Waschek's invitation to "stay and enjoy longer" needs to be louder and clearer. My hope is that WAM will continue to tinker with the interpretation of the installation and that [remastered] will function as an evolving laboratory for creative content delivery.

Personally, I found the label-free installation helped me make extended and close study of the paintings and their marvelous details bloomed under my eyes. The experience, like the paintings themselves, was rich and glorious. Here are some of my favorite discoveries, come to [remastered] and find them if you can!

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