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Curator Takeover: Memorable Museum Experiences


Image credit: View of the Rembrandt galleries, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Executive Director and Chief Curator, Catherine Crowston tells us about a memorable museum experience she shared with participants in an AGA-organized trip to Russia:

View of the Rembrandt galleries, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.“I had one of my most memorable museum experiences in June 2014, when I was fortunate enough to host a group trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow, organized by the AGA. Thanks to the State Hermitage Museum Foundation of Canada, our group was treated to a private tour of the incredible State Hermitage Museum, on a day that it was closed to the public. It was such an incredible experience to walk through the grand galleries of the former Winter Palace, the second largest museum in the world, with no one else but our group of 23 and a curator guide. Here is an image of the Rembrandt galleries, empty of people. We were also treated to a special performance of the “Peacock Clock,” a large automaton manufactured by James Cox in the 2nd half of the 18th century, and acquired by Catherine the Great in 1781. You can see a video here. This was a once-in-a-lifetime, truly memorable museum experience.”

Image credit: View of the Rembrandt galleries, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Curator of Interpretation and Engagement, Leonore-Namkha Beschi shares a museum memory that took place outside the walls of the traditional museum:

Richard Serra, “East-West/West-East”, 2012-14, commissioned by Qatar Museums Authority.

“Far from what you would expect from your usual museum experience, I recall my encounter with American artist Richard Serra’s “East-West/West-East” as an epic experience, one that remains the most enigmatic, essential and transformative, all at the same time.

Commissioned to coincide with the artist’s solo-exhibition “Passage of Time” (2012-14) this in-situ installation is located near Zekreet in western Qatar, approximately 60 kilometres from the capital Doha. The sculpture spans over a kilometre and consists of four steel plates, each plate over 14 meters height. The long drive out of the city into the barrenness and heat of the desert, tracking a black point emerging on the horizon, slowly prepares you for this mystical encounter with a monument that reminds you of the ruins of an ancient city or the wreck of a spaceship. Richard Serra, “East-West/West-East”, 2012-14, commissioned by Qatar Museums Authority.

This is the kind of work that calls you back and in my many trips to see it (I used to live in Doha) I remember the effort and sweat it required to experience the piece in its wholeness. On the walk to each plate and back to the car, you feel the sand under your feet, the rising temperature and are constantly blinking at the wind and the sun in your face. This timeless sculpture, raised out in the open, invites you to contemplate and rethink your place in this world – and makes you work for it. And that’s what makes it my most memorable museum experience!”

Click here to the QMA website to learn more about this work.

Image credit: Richard Serra, “East-West/West-East”, 2012-14, commissioned by Qatar Museums Authority. (GPS: N25o 31.019’E050o51.948’). Photos courtesy Leonore-Namkha Beschi.

Amery Calvelli, Adjunct Curator, Poole Centre of Design shares the lesson that she carries with her from two profound museum experiences:

Seeing the hidden.

A name of a woman is called out. The performer painfully slides a rose across her mouth. Thorns fall off, and some she ingests. “Vigil”, from “The Named and the Unnamed”, is by Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore and is featured in her solo exhibition, “Facing the Monumental”. I sought out the exhibition twice, first at the AGO in Toronto and a year later in Montreal. It is estimated that there are over 4,000 girls, women and two-spirit who have gone missing in Canada. “Vigil” documents genocide, calling attention to what we choose to name and what remains unheard.

Rebecca Belmore, “Vigil” performed at Talking Stick Festival, Vancouver, 2002. Documentation by Paul Wong, 2010.

Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar unveils another hidden genocide. In April 1994, a plane carrying the Rwanda President was shot down. On a wall of the Berlinische Galerie in the summer of 2012, framed Newsweek covers document the banality of the media coverage: from “How to Survive in a Scary Market” to “To Walk on Mars”…until the August 1st cover, “Hell on Earth.”  In this period, an estimated one million lives had been lost. Accounting for the loss, a mountain of slides equal to the lives lost were scattered on a light table. Each slide was the same, a cropped image of the eyes of a survivor named Guete Emerita who Jaar had met on his visit to Rwanda. Finally, a video of the U.S. President is projected revealing his message, “We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know.”

I will carry with me: no more silence to lost humanity.

Alfredo Jaar, “The way it is. An Aesthetics of Resistance”, 2013.

Adjunct Curator of Indigenous Art, Franchesca Hebert-Spence shares how hearing about visitor experiences has impacted her own work as a curator:

“A quick disclaimer: I wasn’t there for this story, I was told about it later. It was during another Landscape show and the story solidified, for me, why labels are important and why writing needs to be done by voices with different lived experiences and backgrounds. A person going through the show was moved to tears seeing how their communities’ artwork had been displayed in a way that made them feel seen. Listening to stories like those are my favourite museum experiences. I want people to leave these spaces feeling empowered.

Amy Malbeuf, kayâs-ago, detail, 2013-2014. Art Gallery of Alberta Collection, purchased with funds from the Canada Council for the Arts New Chapter grant program.Sometimes doing work in institutions can feel a lot like you’re speaking into a void. As a curator, every time you produce something, be it writing, programming, posts like this, you have to consider the multitudes of people who will interact with your words. One of the toughest things to write with an audience in mind is labels. They’re a set number of words but must contextualize the work as an individual, span decades of art history, and also conceptually tie into the specific show. There had been a consistent question in my mind of “is this an effective way to communicate these ideas?” But not so much anymore!

Image credit: Amy Malbeuf, kayâs-ago, detail, 2013-2014. Art Gallery of Alberta Collection, purchased with funds from the Canada Council for the Arts New Chapter grant program.

Curator Lindsey Sharman shares a museum memory of the Prado:

One of my favourite museum memories was at the Prado in Spain. I was studying art history in England and I became fascinated with Goya’s black paintings, not just the work itself but the amount of work and conservation that went into transferring the works that had been painted directly on the walls of the artist’s house to canvas. I had gotten lost in the museum and turned a corner and came into this small room where I found myself face to face with Goya’s “Saturn Devouring his Son”. I was completely overwhelmed with the history that brought it from the walls of a farmhouse in the late 1820s to being in front of me almost 200 years later.

The Prado’s website has lots of great resources on the work in their collection.

May 15, 2020

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