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.