By Claire McRee
As a kid, I was fascinated by the material remains of the past. I spent hours playing in my grandmother’s attic, searching through boxes of antique toys, clothes, and bric-a-brac. These objects were old, a word with a somewhat magical connotation for me—I felt reverence for both their rarity and the stories they held. In my work today as a curator at a mid-sized art museum, I have the privilege of being able to access old things on a daily basis—as well as the responsibility of developing exhibitions that facilitate a similar sense of wonder and curiosity.
As a method for conveying history, exhibitions’ unique strengths (and challenges) lie in their ability to offer a tangible encounter with the past. This real-life encounter offers a unique emotional and visceral experience—an alternative means of understanding the past often overlooked in history, a discipline that typically privileges textual sources. I hope that the objects in our museum’s galleries spark interest, intrigue, or even personal connection for visitors. Perhaps visitors might be drawn to an object’s appearance, seek to understand an object’s meaning in a different time and cultural context, or share an object with a family member who might enjoy it. And I hope that this experience serves as a catalyst for learning, whether in a traditional, academic sense or a more informal way. On museum visits, I like to read all of the labels, but my brother prefers to pursue opportunities for social interaction, participate in hands-on activities, and “collect” works by photographing them. Both of these models for museum-going are valid. As museums uphold high standards of scholarship, they are also increasingly aware of the need to create spaces that can accommodate a variety of experiences. A key part of my work as curator is negotiating an appropriate balance between these considerations, grounding exhibitions in strong scholarship while also ensuring that they are accessible, relevant, and invite exploration.
In this article, I explore these issues through the example of an exhibition I curated, Collecting Across Cultures: Japanese Textiles in the West. This exhibition features a series of rotations—groups of objects that change out of the gallery every few months—of three to four Japanese textiles each, all of which were either collected by Americans around the turn of the twentieth century or are typical of the textiles collected in this context. While a relatively unassuming exhibition, with its small checklist and traditional configuration of objects and labels, Collecting Across Cultures nonetheless offers a good departure point for investigating the display of objects as a means of accessing the past.
As with most museum exhibitions, Collecting Across Cultures is based in visual storytelling supported by clear, concise text. Compelling objects—in this case, delicate embroideries and brocades blazing with metallic thread—hook visitors with their aesthetic allure. In this exhibition, their beauty offers an attractive entry point for considering weighty topics such as imperialism and the complications of cultural exchange. Regardless of the complexity of this subject (and the many exciting textile facts I yearn to share), the exhibition text is short for visitors’ ease and enjoyment: just a few paragraphs to introduce the topic and a few sentences per object mean that I need a tight focus on the most important and relevant story for this exhibition. I also keep in mind that the text should accommodate non-linear exploration of the gallery: a visitor might read a just single label, so each one must stand alone. In this emphasis on the visual and by privileging access to bite-size chunks of information, museum exhibitions stand apart from other methods of conveying history, which tend to be word-driven, linear, and demand the audience’s ongoing attention. Museum visitors have the opportunity to choose their own path through the galleries, allowing them to pursue personal areas of interest and achieve rich and varied understandings of the past.
While I love exhibitions as a medium for open-ended storytelling, their dependence on objects also comes with serious challenges. One of the most basic constraints that museums face is the pool of objects available, which often are not representative of the stories of marginalized populations or non-Western cultures. As an exhibition predicated on the collecting taste of elite Americans, Collecting Across Cultures is especially at risk of relaying a biased historical narrative. Yet in the context of our museum’s galleries, focusing on collectors makes sense because the exhibition is adjacent to a room designed by celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright (American, 1867–1959), who also collected Japanese textiles. This story of collecting builds a larger narrative across galleries and creates a broader context for Wright’s work. To address the potential pitfalls of this narrative, Collecting Across Cultures encourages transparency about the collecting process unusual in a conventional exhibition: where available, I’ve added to the identifying information on each object label the name of the collector who brought the work from Japan and when the collector acquired it. I’ve also been mindful to balance stories about collecting with information about these textiles’ original cultural context, which feels like a small act of subversion. For instance, the label for a textile from a Japanese temple describes its use and inscription, while also noting that the Meiji government’s persecution of Buddhism in the late nineteenth century likely enabled American collector Charles Sumner Graham to buy this important textile during his Asian travels.
Another object-based constraint faced by museum professionals is the need to balance public access with objects’ long-term well-being. Over time, exposure to light damages textile fibers, so most museums limit the time they can be on view and counter it with a lengthy rest period in storage. On some days, this makes me gnash my teeth—while I love working with textiles, as a member of a small staff that manages many galleries, textiles’ need for short-term display is a demand of time and material resources. A modest textile exhibition like Collecting Across Cultures, however, keeps our workload and cost manageable in spite of the need for rotations, as we are able to reuse casework and introductory text. Moreover, the space looks substantially changed every few months—a plus for visitors.
An unexpected perk of the necessity of rotations in Collecting Across Cultures has been the opportunity for experimentation. The exhibition’s continuing reiterations offer a chance to dive into varying subthemes—for instance, the textiles’ Japanese cultural context, the symbolism of motifs, and so on. I’ve also enjoyed the opportunity to learn from each rotation in planning for future rotations. For instance, on school tours our education department used a kimono that had motifs with literary allusions to discuss how clothing tells stories. Since this kimono was due to rotate out partway through the semester, I created a diagram of the next rotation’s kimono, labeling its motifs and associated meanings so that it could be used in a similar way on tours. When I started to draft the new kimono’s exhibition label, I thought, why would I simply list motifs here? Instead, I designed a label that included thumbnails of each motif, in order to create a sort of legend for the kimono. By moving beyond a conventional label format even in a small way, this exhibition offers a different entry point for the work on view that supports different learning styles, various reading levels, and the desire for at-a-glance information that’s accessible during a museum visit centered around socializing with friends or family.
Museums today are working in so many inventive ways to connect people to the past, and I’ve only been able to scratch the surface here regarding their advantages and challenges as a medium for conveying history. I hope that the next time you’re in a museum, you might have some new questions—like how did these objects get here, and what other stories could they tell? Such aspects are often taken for granted in the interpretation of an exhibition, but can be the most valuable to interrogate.
Collecting Across Cultures: Japanese Textiles in the West is on view at the Allentown Art Museum through June 2021, with four upcoming rotations.
Claire McRee is the Assistant Curator at the Allentown Art Museum, and holds an MA in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.
She would like to thank Sofia Bakis, Steve Gamler, Elaine Mehalakes, and Tyler Troup for their assistance in the development of Collecting Across Cultures.
Featured Image: Detail: Japanese, Kabuki costume, early 1900s, silk and cotton satin weave with silk applique, silk and metal wrapped thread embroidery, metal sequins. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. A. E. Robert Friedman, 1973. (1973.8). Photograph courtesy of the Allentown Art Museum.