Now and then, something mysterious happens in a museum. Objects move. I suppose to some it must look like they wandered on their own, leaving one gallery for another or disappearing from view altogether. It is reminiscent of the blockbuster film Night at the Museum. The images of the Buddha wander to the basement, while St. John the Evangelist sets down his writing pen and papers and walks over to talk with St. Lucy and St. Catherine. I imagine the call of Rose Piper’s Freight Train as it wends down the track only to reappear in another gallery or farther still, off to another museum for a season on loan. Sometimes I imagine the wonderful old woman in Mending Socks by Archibald Motley, setting down her work and heading into the catering kitchen for fresh glass of water. In these imaginings, the paintings move themselves, talk to one another, choose to be seen or not to be seen.
Of course, that is not how it happens.
The changes happen, for the most part, after months, even years of planning. Curators and scholars consider new ways of thinking about collections and schedule small and not-so-small reinstallations. The hard work of laying out new plans moves slowly, but when the time comes, it all happens quickly and stealthily. Preparators and curators work while the museum is closed to the public or behind black curatins or temporary walls. Up, down, here, there, the objects move.
But at the Ackland, it is happening all summer long – sometimes on closed days, sometimes behind curtains or stancions, and sometimes right in front of a watching visitor. Objects are moving. And for now, it looks like they are lining up for a historical roll call.
The new installations in the back half of the Museum cover the History of the Western Traditions as you can discover it in the Ackland Collection. Beginning with the ancient world and moving to the modern age, each work suggests another step in the progression of ideas and ideals. And for me, it is a delight! This new arrangement allows me to travel sequentially (something I rarely do inside an art museum) and watch history reveal itself, object by object.
But I speak as an insider at the Ackland…someone who knew that some galleries might be closed and certain objects would move. I had the chance to stop by my favorites before they went into storage. I speak as one who visits the galleries regularly – both as part of my day to day work and for pleasure. I have also been suprised. I have had the experience of walking into a museum that I haven’t visited for months or years only to find that one or more of my beloved objects – sometimes even the objects I hoped to see most of all – have been relocated to the storage vaults. It is not always a happy experience. For at least a moment or two, I feel slighted, confused, okay, a little angry. But then I practice “Beginner’s Mind.” I tell myself to look as though I have never seen any of this before – as though i were an alien visiting from Mars. I try to understand what each object might be, might have been made to do, where it might have come from. Just for the fun of it I try to imagine all the possibilities. I look for a long time and before I know it, I have found a new favorite, a painting or a photograph, a scultpure or a ceramic bowl that I might never have taken the time to notice had my old favorites been where I expected to find them.
It doesn’t always work, but it helps. Later this month, the Ackland will reopen yet another gallery with our Asian objects reinstalled. I can hardly wait. I will be very glad to see the Buddha again. In the meantime, I am exploring the back galleries – looking closely at the relationships among objects suggested by this new installation.
I hope I will see you there, and that you will find a new favorite and an old friend in these treasured pieces.
These are my thoughts on the reinstallation of objects – do you have a story to tell? I would be delighted to hear it.