Widening the Frame

Chika Ota / Staff Illustrator
Chika Ota / Staff Illustrator Photo by Madeline Buxton.

‘Why did she put him in the corner?” asks a leggy blonde as our group stops in front of the East wall of the Raphael Room.

“Why did she put him in the corner?” our tour guide, Francine, counters. The blonde shrugs and looks slightly annoyed.

“Is he taking a break? Looking outside?” prompts Francine. Our group steps in for a closer look, and a few timid voices chime in with suggestions.

The “he” in question is Count Tommaso Inghirami, the subject of a portrait Raphael painted circa 1516. The “she” in question is Isabella Stewart Gardner, the wealthy patroness who placed Count Tommaso’s portrait beside a second-floor window in the Boston art gallery that bears her name. In his corner setting, the red-robed figure sits facing the window with one hand poised, pen in hand, over a sheaf of paper. His left pupil stares upwards; his misaligned right pupil looks into the distance. In front of the portrait stands an ornate chair and desk with a vase of dried thistles and Raphael’s tiny Pietà.

Does the Raphael exhibit represent a woman’s vanity table? A confessional? We don’t know. Gardner’s galleries, which opened to the Boston public on New Year’s Day 1903, have not changed since her death in 1924, as stipulated by her will. The eclectic art collector modeled the space after a 15th century Venetian palazzo. Three floors of personally-installed galleries look onto a central courtyard interspersed with Classical statuary and clusters of blue and white hydrangeas. No pieces are added to the museum’s collection. No objects removed. No arrangements shifted. But amid all this permanence, there is one museum convention that is visibly absent: descriptive labels.

__

Before this summer, my trips to art museums could be summed up in one anecdote. It didn’t matter if I crossed the Atlantic to see Renaissance sculptures at the Victoria and Albert, took a four-hour train ride to see the Marc Jacobs exhibit at the Met, or walked five minutes to the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG). I went because I wanted to learn about art. Of course, I always arrived with the intention of looking at the artwork. But more often than not, I gave in to self-inflicted pressure to read the standard 140 words that accompany artifacts, paintings, and fashion displays. I skimmed the short identifiers — artist, provenance, time period — then pored over the curator’s interpretation of the piece and its significance in the art history canon.

If asked to describe a single piece in detail, I doubt I could do it. Nevertheless, I left each museum feeling content. A textbook-trained student, I had learned all I needed to know from the cold, hard facts printed neatly on little white labels.

It wasn’t until I came to the Gardner that I was forced to take a different approach. Like some other smaller, privately founded art museums, including Winterthur, a decorative arts museum in Delaware, and The Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, the Gardner provides a more interactive learning experience by omitting curated labels from their standard places alongside artworks. “Not having labels gives you permission to have your own ideas,” says Peggy Burchenal, the Esther Stiles Eastman Curator of Education at the Gardner. “It’s not a museum expert telling you, ‘Here’s what you should think about this.’”

If I encountered Raphael’s Count Tommaso in a large, public art museum, his accompanying blurb would probably have told me that the Count was a canon of Saint Peter’s, hence the red robe; his slightly rotated upper torso is intended to direct my gaze to his face and his intellectual disposition; his misaligned eyes are not an artistic liberty — the Count suffered from strabismus, a condition in which the eyes can’t simultaneously look in the same direction.

In retrospect, this information, found in The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A Companion Guide and History, adds to the painting’s intrigue. Yet had it been adjacent to the painting, I wonder how much my reliance on the text would have detracted from my seeing the portrait for the first time. Yes, I would have learned more about the Count and Raphael. But I wouldn’t have attempted to decode the painting’s message on my own or to think about the narrative Mrs. Gardner’s arrangement creates. It’s unlikely that I would have even spent enough time in front of the painting to form an opinion. According to Jennifer Deprizio, the Gardner’s Director of Visitor Learning, studies show that museum visitors spend an average of 17 seconds on each work of art. Only three to five seconds are spent actually looking at the painting. The rest? Reading the label.

On a trip through the Gardner’s galleries without a tour group, I stop in the Dutch room to look at a portrait of Mary I, Queen of England ­— I know it’s her because the artist wrote her name in the upper left-hand corner. There’s another woman in front of the piece, and just as I’m about to walk away, she turns to me, a smile stretched across her face.

“She looks like a man!” the woman laughs. “Don’t you think so?”

I can’t help but agree. Queen Mary does look like a man in her incredibly unflattering portrait. We spend a good five minutes talking about the shape of Mary’s jaw, her severely upright posture, and the sharp focus of her narrow-set eyes before we go our separate ways. The conversation adds a new dimension to the museum experience that I never enjoyed when my eyes were glued to descriptors. Our talk doesn’t tell me all I want to know about the painting’s history, but it makes me realize that viewing and learning about art don’t need to be static experiences.

It’s undeniable that many museum-goers still rely on labels as a primary learning tool — the Gardner’s lack of text remains the most common visitor complaint. When Francine began our tour, she addressed the issue and asked if we liked their absence. A strong “No!” immediately came from an elderly woman to my right.

There wasn’t always such a firm dependence on text. According to Laurence Kanter, the Lionel Goldfrank III Curator of Early European Art at the YUAG, labels weren’t present in the earliest museums. There’s some evidence that they were still regarded as novelties at the beginning of the 19th century. The practice only became widespread once curators started to arrange paintings geographically and chronologically — in earlier museums, objects and paintings were ordered according to shape or size.

Nowadays, says the Gardner’s Burchenal, “People are so trained to want to know what something is.” When she first came to the museum, Burchenal played with the idea of placing small wooden blocks with information next to objects. A trial run showed that the text interrupted the viewer conversation that Gardner strove to create. “As Isabella Stewart Gardner originally saw it, this was a place designed to fire the imagination,” Burchenal says. “It’s all about people having a direct response to works of art — having their own response.”

The museum eventually placed laminated room-guides in each gallery. Apart from a few curator comments, the sheets offer just enough information to identify a gallery’s pieces. The Barnes Foundation has adopted a similar practice. “[Albert Barnes] didn’t stop us from providing information, but it’s clear we’re not supposed to have information on the walls next to the paintings,” says Andrew Stewart, the Director of Public Relations at the museum. “The notion we have is that the labels would distract people from looking at the paintings.”

The YUAG has also recently evaluated the effectiveness of its labels. Each object currently on display is accompanied by a tombstone label, which has basic information such as the artist, title, and date. Only select “highlight” pieces in the museum’s collection receive longer descriptions. Certain installations have what the YUAG calls “checklists” that are similar to the Gardner’s room-guides and list tombstone information on one comprehensive page.

In preparation for the YUAG’s post-renovation reopening in December 2012, an Interpretation Committee meets regularly to assess the museum’s explanatory tools and discuss the kinds of informational materials that should be provided. Though, “I don’t think we would ever consider not providing, at minimum, the information that resides on a tombstone label … ” explains Tiffany Sprague, the Committee’s Chair and Director of Publications and Editorial Services at the museum. “This mission [to educate the public] is especially integral to the Gallery given the fact that we are on a university campus.”

__

On a Saturday afternoon, the Museum of Fine Arts, a large publicly-owned Boston museum, is crowded with tourists and local culture-seekers. As I go through the rooms, I see people cluster to the left or right of the artworks in the bent-over, squinted-eye position I once knew so well. The space directly in front of the art is generally empty.

I head toward the first level of the museum’s new “Art of the Americas” wing to look at John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark,” a piece covered in my History of Western Art survey course. Among static portraits of aristocrats on adjacent walls, the painting sticks out with its dramatic portrayal; a naked man violently struggles to flee a shark as his comrades extend their arms in desperation from the boat. The creature’s jaw is open and his tiny white teeth, noticeable against the dark cavern of his throat, advance towards the pale, white flesh. Though I heard the piece’s story in a lecture, I can’t remember who the man is, nor where and when the scene is supposed to take place. I can tell only that it’s a racially charged picture — there is just one African American figure, standing in the center of the painting on the boat. He clutches a rope tossed out to his besieged comrade.

There is a label next to the painting, and I know it could clarify the scene. But I don’t trust the label with the same conviction I did in the past — I doubt that the words would to convey the imminent threat that pops off the canvas. As I take in the action, a curly-haired mother and her young daughter brush past me. The girl stands in front of the painting and stares. Her mother instantly goes to the right and bends down to read the descriptor, learning the details I’ve forgetten. When she realizes that her daughter isn’t with her, the mother steers her in front of the label and chides, “Are you reading? Make sure you’re reading.”

The girl obeys. After they’ve finished skimming the words, they step back, take a quick glance at the shark, and move to the next available label.

Comments