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A visit with old friends

November 2, 2014

Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Isabella Brant, c. 1620-5, oil on canvas, 20 13/16 x 18 1/16 inches, Cleveland Museum of Art.

I was recently in Cleveland at a symposium in honor of my advisor Ellen Landau’s retirement and contributions as a scholar and teacher. It was an honor to be among her former students invited to speak at the event, and it gave me a chance to reconnect with people from my past and hear about their current projects.

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It was also the first opportunity I’d had to visit the Cleveland Museum of Art in over a decade. This homecoming of sorts prompted me to reflect on my time at the CMA and its formative influence on my training as an art historian.

As a graduate student in Case Western Reserve University’s joint program with the CMA, I had extensive access to the museum.  Classes were taught on site.  I had my own study carrel in their impressive research library. I worked in the education and curatorial departments in the 1990s, first as a student intern and later in my first real job at a museum.  It was an immersive experience that allowed me to teach and learn art history—a subject that relies heavily on reproductions in a classroom or textbook—through the study of objects in the collection.

I was speaking at the symposium on the role of the material art object in technology-enhanced classes, so I’d been thinking a lot about how academic art historians incorporate museum visits and object-based assignments into our teaching. While the primary goal of these requirements has been (and still is) to distinguish real works from the mediated formats shown in class, they also highlight limitations of the discipline to rely on formal characteristic of canonical examples to create a history of period and artistic styles.  A visit to most any museum can quickly blow apart tidy categories like “Neoclassicism” and “Surrealism.”  The range of objects found in the galleries reveal the stylistic diversity, overlap, and subtle transitions that make up art’s actual history.

Walking through the CMA’s galleries, which have changed significantly as part of an expansion project completed in 2013, I was reminded of the theory that says as we become accustomed to looking at works of art, we return to those we’ve seen before and find something new, as well as the familiar.  It was as though I’d been reunited with old friends, a sensation made even more enjoyable by the reinstallation.  Guided by muscle memory, I rediscovered old passages among the new in my search for favorite objects, and I stumbled onto other works, long forgotten, but which had once served as my go-to examples of certain movements, concepts, and techniques.

Lately, there’s been a wave of discussion about how people should view art in museums.  I side with those who say there is no singular way.  Visitors should aim for a variety of experiences.  Go alone for private moments like I had in Cleveland.  It was an opportunity to let my mind wander and to reflect on the art and its importance in my own life.  Go with friends to talk, hear their responses, and realize just how differently we see things from others.  Their background and knowledge may complement your own, or provide insight that gives you a whole new understanding of something you’d seen many times before.

Let children guide your tour and be amazed by the things they notice that you’d never seen.  (A young patron once showed me a circus decal on the underside of an abstract sculpture, entirely visible from his height of 3 feet, but which I’d never seen from above.)  Attend a lecture or other event to learn something new or to think about a broader context for the work of art.  Interact with art through technologies that offer innovative ways to see, experience, or share your perspective with others.

Our motivations and conditions around visiting museums vary, and every experience can be of value.  Take advantage of what museums do offer–objects collected and displayed for us to see, enjoy, discuss, and think about–different from the way we might view them on-line.  Not better or worse, but like other things in our increasingly digital culture, encounters with material objects encourage us to reflect on distinctions between the virtual and the real, and consider how each might contribute to our understanding and enjoyment of art.

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