On the opening night of A Story of Photography: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, I came across an installation convention I’d never before encountered. Four of the photographs in the exhibition were covered with gray velvet curtains. A sign beside them read, “These photographs are extremely sensitive to light. Please lift the curtain to view the work.” So, as someone raised the first veil, I peered under the fabric. Behind each were examples of particularly old, beautifully fragile photographs, already dimmed by the passage of time.
But the curtains did more than shelter these delicate works; they also encouraged an added level of engagement. It’s impossible to simply cast a quick glance. To look, one must stop. Pause. Lift curtain. Think a little bit more. Not to mention proximity to the objects—I can’t remember the last time I was invited to get that close to a photograph in a museum. And finally, the act of holding the curtain up for others, making eye contact to ensure the gathered crowd had finished looking, layered on a communal feeling that I’ve rarely experienced in a museum’s hallowed galleries. This intimate, personal encounter was only amplified when I asked Charlotte Cotton, head of the Photography Department, where one finds protective curtains for photographs. Her response? She actually purchased the fabric, carefully choosing a shade of gray that complements photography’s grayscale, and sewed the curtains herself.
The great thing about Cotton’s gesture is that it inverts the common museum practice with fragile art. Rather than pushing the viewer further away, it invites her closer, creating a physical and intimate relationship with the work. I’ve always enjoyed those moments when I encountered a work of art (often a book) that was displayed with a pair of cotton gloves.
There is a gallery with rare and ancient photography in New Orleans (at one time on Royale St. next to the Monteleon Hotel… but since moved elsewhere) who used the same cloth-over-image system for the rarer and more delicate old photo images on display. It was almost magical to be allowed to reveal the image to oneself by lifting the covering cloth. Kudos to the museum for using the technique.
As to Mr. Buitron’s comment: On the matter of keeping the images far away from the museum visitor, I am reminded of a major show of textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago where the lighting at the show was so low that I returned to it a second time with a flashlight so I could actually see the work on display (this was years ago… very pre-9/11) and a guard and docent escorted me, under vigorous protest, from the premises. I went back a third time with an incident light meter and measured 4 lumens at the surface of one piece. I later learned that the curator of the section was widely referred to as the “Queen of Darkness.”
When I die I want my tombstone to reflect my one claim to fame: “Thrown out of the Art Institute of Chicago on orders of the Queen of Darkness.”
This practice of covering works of art with a curtain is something that artist Fred Wilson did in his installation “so much trouble in the world Believe it or Not!” (http://hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu/exhibitions/fredwilson/fredwilsonpressr.html)at the Hood Museum of Art when I worked there. In his case, the cloth acted as more of a shroud for some Goya prints from the series “The Disasters of War”–the whole effect was very striking and moving, especially considering the context of the work and exhibit!
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