Making Artwork More Accessible at Smith
by John Paul Stapleton
Northampton, Mass. – From the new Whitney Museum of American Art building in New York City to our semi-local Peabody Essex Museum expansion project, renovations seemed to be the hot decision for 2015. The Smith College Museum of Art joined this league with their four-year renovation project that was of officially completed this past fall.
Margi Caplan, the museum’s membership and marketing director, showed me around the museum to point out what has changed in their two-phase project. In addition to updated lighting and the removal of the main exhibition gallery’s staircase, the whole observer experience has changed.
“We thought about museum methodology and pedagogy,” Caplan said. “The museum’s collection works well, but wasn’t up to date. As a teaching museum, what we wanted to do was make the work accessible.”
Caplan described the method as “chronothematic.” Each oor is organized into time periods, but then works are grouped thematically to give the visiter background and provoke critical thinking.
For example, upon walking into the gallery on the top oor, the words “Traditions and Transformations” are the initial guide. This is the museum’s collection of art made after 1800 from Africa, America and Europe. Beyond comparing recent and familiar styles, this gallery explores the words “tradition” and “transformation” themselves.
One of their new mobile display cabinets showcases wartime prints by Percy John Delf-Smith. This traditional idea of depicting battles gets a macabre spin that effectively communicates the apocalyptic sentiments held during World War I. In terms of transformation, a Seurat study from “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” shows how his original depiction of the woman with the monkey in the forefront developed into the full piece.
Downstairs, you’ll nd the pre-1800 art gallery with work from America, Europe and the ancient world. Religious iconography from all periods is in conversation here with a “Sacred and Secular” theme. An addition from the renovation that I greatly appreciated here was the “Encounters: Art in Conversation” space at the far end of the oor. The top oor offers this as well, but a Greco-Roman mosaic oor segment titled “Personi cation of the River Pyramos” dominates this space. Although it weighs tons, it has been hoisted up above eye level to catch all the light from the windows around it.
The first floor holds the main exhibition gallery. This is the least permanent space, and during my visit it was showing “Woman’s Work: Feminist Art from the Collection.” Second- wave feminist art seems to be abundant, as shown by the cohesive exhibit curated without loans. Themes such as “The Body” and “Gender and Performativity” are exempli ed by a dynamic array of work.
“Red Flag” by Judy Chicago is a great surprise for viewers who are drawn in by the beautiful composition of the image,